I was sorting through old photos the other day and came upon four-year-old me with my cat in my arms. Muff was my first pet. She had the softest of soft furs, pussy willow grey, trimmed with a white face and four white paws. She had a serious demeanour at times, the root of which was most likely because she had to live outside and wasn’t allowed indoors to snuggle with me. Life isn’t always easy for those who live outdoors, so any grudges she felt toward my mother for enforcing a no cats allowed in the house rule was warranted.
It was a happy reunion to find this photo and to gaze at Muff and remember her cool nose against my cheek, her whiskers tickling my face and making me laugh. But another thing that caught my eye was the jacket I was wearing. The jacket had a wide collar with red and white stripes, with a heavy gold-coloured zipper that I was quite certain was real gold. The jacket had big pockets in which I could carry stones embedded with precious gems that I found in the driveway, empty snail homes, dandelions, wild plums, and the occasional frog. Just about anything fit. The elbows and fronts were stained, and the original striped cuffs had been replaced by my Aunt Helen with a plain black knit that were once again frayed. The zipper had torn free of the bottom hem of the jacket, but only slightly, and the zipper’s pull had been replaced with a bit of wire. You may be wincing at the jacket’s bleak description, but I loved that jacket more than any other piece of clothing I wore and for one reason only — it had been my cousin Dale’s jacket, passed down to me like a precious family heirloom. I was the lucky beneficiary, and I wore that jacket wherever I went and not for one minute did I think it was anything but perfect.
I had the great fortune of growing up in a time when clothes were handed down from one family to another, willingly and freely. By the time I was done with my clothes, I don’t think there were many of them worthy of bequeathing to anyone else. Irene McKelvie brought a box of clothes to my sister and me every now and then, and it was like Christmas morning when that box arrived. We dug into the clothes and shrieked with delight at what we found. Because of our size difference, there were never too many arguments between the two of us. Long after I had grown out of Dale’s jacket, I was lucky enough to find another gem of a jacket in the box from Mrs. McKelvie. The jacket was fuzzy like a teddy bear, and it had colour blocked squares in faded purple and stained white. The edge of the hood was worn, and the cuffs had lost their clean crisp edge, but it was a fine jacket in my eyes, and I wore that jacket with pride for several years. I didn’t do a lot of growing back in those days, or so it seemed. As a result, I didn’t often have to part with my favourite clothes. I was vertically challenged, and that condition continues, though I made peace with the affliction long ago.
I realize it was a time in history when money wasn’t readily available, and families helped one another. There was no shame in wearing clothes that others had worn. There was no pining for brand names, nor did we have any idea what “in fashion” even meant. I shouldn’t speak for everyone and perhaps I lived in a different bubble than my peers. Perhaps it was farm kids who didn’t worry about such things. I considered myself lucky and in retrospect, even luckier.
Billions of dollars are spent each year in advertising campaigns, targeting children and adults alike, ads that tell us which colours we should wear, which styles, which height of heel, which collar, and we seem to conform like puppets. I’ve never been much of a conformist, not for any honourable reason. I prefer function to style and my plantar fasciitis of twenty plus years allocates my feet to running shoes or hiking boots, complete with orthotics. Style doesn’t play into that equation and I’m just fine with that.
I’m not sure wearing clothes that others have worn offers the same delight today as it did in my childhood. If it does for some then I’m happy for that. It was an innocent pleasure for me and one that still pleases me all these years later.