Like the new president whose inauguration sent me shopping last week, I was all about hope and change. I went into Loehmann’s hoping I hadn’t waited too long to find a gown for my first inaugural ball. A woeful economy and end-of-season sales meant that the legendary discounter’s dresses would be thoroughly picked over. Yet I was soon busy changing— in and out of six promising gowns. Nothing worked.
Making one last sweep of the store, I spied a gorgeous fuchsia number that I’d somehow missed. With its beautifully shaped neckline, the Calvin Klein gown seemed almost too perfect. Was it torn? Nope. A size 0? The tag said 8. Heart pounding, I slipped it on. Huge grin.
As the salesclerk subtracted extra discounts and a $25 coupon, I daydreamed about up-dos and strappy sandals. Then the clerk said the words that slapped me awake:
"That’ll be four ninety-six."
Blinking, I said, "Excuse me?"
"The dress is $4.96," she repeated, unfazed by my stupefaction. Handing her less money than I’d paid earlier for a sandwich, I slipped away before someone could discover the mistake. Didn’t Loehmann’s realize that if the gown had been any cheaper, the store would have owed me to take it off its hands?
As the nation’s economy free falls, it was inspiring to find an evening gown for less than my grandmother paid for one in the 1950s. And my dress is a welcome antidote to the consumer culture that astounds me each time I peruse a copy of InStyle and see an ironically named "hobo" handbag costing $900. (I once rhetorically asked my college-student son, "Who buys these?" He cited a co-ed who moonlights as a waitress and owns a $700 Dooney & Bourke bag.)
Then the doubt set in: Could a $5 dress really be all that? After my husband’s "Wow!" suggested it could, I told friends, relatives and complete strangers about my amazing deal. Yet I refrained from mentioning it to a colleague who had dropped a cool thousand on a spectacular dress for the official inaugural fete she’s hosting. Come party time, which of us will be happier? My friend, cosseted in the luxury of a sumptuous ball gown? Or me, zipped into the bliss of a great bargain?
We’ll both be thrilled. One reason women yearn to become brides is that weddings give them the unchallengeable opportunity to indulge in one face-flappingly stunning gown. Now my friend will have had that heady experience twice: one marriage, one inauguration.
But what budget-conscious recessionista— fashionistas are so last administration— wouldn’t love sporting a gown that cost less than she’d pay for a glass of pinot? In fact, the "new" austerity gives women like me more reason to indulge our old inner cheapskate. Spending next to nothing on drop-dead clothes gives us an indescribable rush.
Having scored my killer dress, I felt as if I were high on clearance crack.
Zooming toward the earrings, I snapped up a severely discounted pair of rhinestone chandeliers for $6.30. Next I drove to Bloomingdales, where I waved off the salesman who insisted that I "needed" an exquisite pair of $550 Stuart Weitzmans and laid claim to some adorable, reduced-to-$25 Caparros sandals. Once I’d snapped up a sparkly $10 shrug on clearance at H&M, the $19.99 evening clutch I was eyeing at Ann Taylor Loft seemed exorbitant. I found a cuter one at Syms for a barely reasonable $14.99.
Pausing to breathe, I realized that my entire inaugural ensemble cost less than 70 bucks. No wonder people describe this election as historic.
Honestly, out of a lifetime of outfits, how many will you always remember? My inaugural dress will be as enshrined in memory as the $6 "pleather" Mary Janes for which I saved my lunch money for weeks in seventh grade; no pair of Jimmy Choos could be more cherished. Then there’s the drop-waist velvet dress I tried on the next year that actually suggested I had a shape. I was crushed when Mom said she couldn’t afford to spend $18 on a kid’s party dress.
If she’d purchased it, I might have forgotten it decades ago.
Just as clothes are more than fabric swaths that shield us from the elements, what we pay for them isn’t just about what’s affordable. The dress-that-got-away, the gown that feels like a steal, the budget-busting boots whose price we fib about to our mate— these tell us something about who we are, what we value. Sometimes a price tag tattles about our neediness. Other times, it’s a declaration of independence.
Long before I found my gown and Michelle Obama caused a fashion stampede over a $148 sundress, retailers knew the "extravagance rules" jig was up. Isaac Mizrahi’s affordable line at Target paved the way for such high-end designers as Nicole Miller, Vera Wang and Norma Kamali to create fashions for JCPenney, Kohl’s and Wal-Mart. Stephon Marbury actually wears his $14.98 Starbury basketball shoes in NBA games. Even fashion mags are getting in on the act. The February Lucky promises "Super Affordable Glamour;" O, the Oprah Magazine touts "The Phenomenal $20 Dress."
They all know what we know: This economy is no joke. With families struggling to pay for food and gas, many women aren’t just buying for less— they’re not buying at all. Women who have had lovely clothes stuffed forgotten in drawers for years suddenly are ferreting them out. With a trillion-dollar deficit looming, the smart girl’s favorite boutique may soon be her own closet.
Our incoming president has warned: Swallow hard, folks; it’s bad, and it’ll get worse before it gets better. When Tuesday brings the dawn of a new day, I’ll face it with hope— and change from my $4.96 gown in my shrug pocket.
© 2009 The Washington Post Company