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The Right Clothes

Finding Your Self in the Fitting Room

By Mary Helen Stefaniak

I can’t get over the feeling that my life would be different—better, of course—if only I had the right clothes.  This feeling makes me buy things I don’t need at sidewalk sales. It makes me waste my time poring over catalogs, ordering things and sending them back, ostensibly because they don’t fit, but really because they don’t make me look like the model in the catalog. Among the reasons for return on the form, I almost always choose “Not as pictured.” 


Maybe that’s why I love resale shops—from designer consignment to plain Goodwill. Added to the thrill of a good bargain, in a resale shop you get the endorsement of the original owner, who paid full price, and when, against all odds, you find something that fits you, there’s a sense of destiny fulfilled.  


Some people have an unerring instinct for the right clothes. My friend Leslee is one of them. Once, when Leslee was in town for the Summer Writing Festival, we met downtown for dinner. The restaurant happened to be next door to a newly opened vintage clothing store called Fat Tulip. Leslee and I paused between the two doors—one leading to food, the other to clothes. We took note of Fat Tulip’s business hours. We glanced at our watches. “It’s still open,” we both said.


Twenty minutes later, we emerged, hungry as bears, Leslee the new owner of a gray canvas workman’s jacket with a grain elevator and the words, “Felco Farmer’s Coop, Conroy, Iowa” embroidered on the back. She looked like a rural rebel without a cause. 


I’ve had my share of success. In a consignment shop in Denver, I once found a navy-blue suit with a broad-shouldered, waist-cinching jacket and calf-length skirt that was nothing less than stunning, right down to the covered buttons on the kick-pleat. Writing up the receipt, the shop owner told me that she had worn this very suit to small claims court in a recent dispute with her landlord. 


“Did you win?” I asked her.

“Of course,” she said. 


I don’t know why I even asked. My “new” suit was not the sort of thing that a loser would wear. Whoever bought it years ago knew what she was doing. I keep hoping that a little of her savvy will rub off on me. 


That’s what the right clothes, new or vintage, are really all about. Whether hastily undressing in a curtained corner or piling up designer outfits in a plush fitting room, we’re not just trying on clothes. We’re trying on possibilities. We’re trying on different selves. We’re seeing who and what we might be. (Except, of course, when we try on swimsuits. Trying on swimsuits, we’re seeing who we cannot be. Not anymore. No sir.) 


Last month, in a resale shop in Milledgeville, Georgia, home of famous author Flannery O’Connor, I made my mother, my aunt, my sister, and my daughter wait for me while I tried on fifteen dresses, not one of which fit. I suppose I was hoping that a little O’Connor would rub off on me if I wore something once worn by someone walking down the same streets she once did.


My mother is also from Milledgeville. In fact, the resale shop was only half a block from the old USO where she and her sisters used to dance with lonely servicemen when they were teenagers during the Second World War. After I gave up on finding a dress, my mother gave us a tour. She showed us the corner drugstore where they used to buy sodas, and the building that used to be Peabody High—her alma mater and the famous author’s. 


Then my mother told us a story that just goes to show how clothes can shape your destiny. We already knew that she’d met my father when he was stationed in Georgia—a young man so keenly aware that his Army Air Corps uniform was the right clothes that he used to stand on the bus from the base into town to save the crease in his pants. We also knew that on the fateful night when she’d accidentally made dates to meet two different guys in the USO at the same time, Dad and his sharp creases had won out over the local flyboy who’d been pursuing her. What we didn’t know was that the local flyboy, now a handsome officer, had asked her to come down to Texas for his graduation. She would have gone—and perhaps erased our family history—but she couldn’t, she said. 


Why not? we asked her. 

She shrugged. “I didn’t have anything to wear.” 


Mary Helen Stefaniak is a writer of novels, essays, and short fiction. This essay appears in The Six-Minute Memoir, available wherever books are sold. Learn more at

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