I ONCE OWNED A COCO CHANEL SUIT. This expensive piece of designer clothing came into my possession serendipitously via a hospital thrift store in Long Island, New York.
I’ve frequented secondhand shops my entire life, first out of necessity and later out of habit. Even today, if my husband and I drive past one while traveling, I’ll ask him to stop. For a while I would justify this behavior with the claim that the stores are a great way to get a sense of the local culture. Finally he told me that he was tired of hearing that excuse, and he’d just stop whenever we saw one. I said fine, but I stood by my contention.
My mother, an expert in the art of battling poverty, trained me to scour thrift shops when I was a girl. After my high-school graduation in 1962 I got a job in the business world and purchased office wear at Goodwill and the like, although my concept of “office wear” differed from that of the other secretaries, hardened older women who wore neatly ironed blouses and suits. I came to work in skirts made from old jeans and sparkly tops from India, items that had beckoned to me through dusty storefront windows. My co-workers indicated it was all right for me to dress that way because I was only eighteen, and my bosses, two men in their fifties who wore tailored gray suits, regarded me with good humor and affection, although the senior partner once told me that I’d have to grow up if I ever wanted to get somewhere. Back then I believed I lacked the financial and intellectual resources to “get somewhere,” and I’d accepted that I’d be stranded in a dead-end job forever.
I was engaged to my first husband at the time, and one of the secretaries asked me if I planned to get a secondhand wedding dress, too. I did — a cocktail-length white brocade gown from Second Avenue, the mecca of thrift stores, where I also bought a ragtag collection of clothes for my honeymoon.
My husband and I had two children and moved to Long Island, where I filled our home with worn furniture from the hospital thrift shop. I also bought toys and snowsuits and boots there for our sons. The shop was supplied mostly by doctors’ wives, who seemed to quickly grow tired of their clothing and other possessions. Much of the inventory was almost new, and a focused excavation of the piles of junk would sometimes reveal hidden treasures.
That marriage ended in divorce, and afterward my boys and I had very little money, and I had few opportunities to earn more. In desperation, despite my shyness and insecurity, I enrolled in community college, believing a degree in elementary special education would lift me out of poverty and enable me to save money for my sons’ own college educations. Between classes I worked as a personal-care attendant, baked for college cafeterias, and tried as best I could to parent and provide.
It was during a search for jeans for my sons that I saw the gray suit hanging by itself like a fine work of art. A prominent sign identified it: COCO CHANEL SUIT. Even in the midst of the store’s usual castoff opulence, a Chanel suit was an unexpected find. I sidled over, somewhat embarrassed to be looking at something so incongruent with my appearance. The price tag said twenty-five dollars. I blocked the suit from the view of other shoppers, possessively clutching the hanger. Though aware that it was not my style — which consisted of peasant blouses, black turtlenecks, and sandals or sneakers — I was silently calculating how I could afford it.
The suit was splendidly tailored, single-breasted with quality lining, and made of fine wool. The skirt fell from the waist with a casual, elegant ease. The label had been cut out, but the shop’s volunteers were skilled assessors. It was a bargain, to be sure, but still I questioned when I would ever wear a Chanel suit as a schoolteacher.
A volunteer who’d been watching me came over and looked at the suit, which by now was nearly fused to my hand. “It’s a size two,” she said. “That’s the only reason it’s still here.” I am five feet tall and was, at that time, bone thin. “Go try it on.”
I shrugged and headed for the fitting room — a closet with a curtain, a mirror, and a faded watercolor of a flower garden. I pulled off my sneakers, my sparkly top, and my jeans (taking care to avoid catching a toe in the ripped hem), then eased on the skirt, luxuriating in the cool touch of the satin lining against my bare legs. I buttoned the jacket over my bra and stared in astonishment at the reflection of a self-confident, professional businesswoman. The suit even transformed my mop of tight curls into a smart hairdo. The jacket didn’t cling, yet the simple cut showed off my thin body in a way that seemed slightly seductive. How could seams and wool and buttons accomplish such a startling metamorphosis?
I felt somewhat disquieted by how easy it was to appear to be somebody else. I also feared I had donned a disguise that I couldn’t carry off. But even as I wondered who this woman in the mirror was, I realized that I was incapable of putting the suit back on its hanger. I pulled on my socks and sneakers, crumpled my clothes — which now looked like rags — into a ball, and flung open the curtain.
The volunteer’s astonished expression confirmed the suit’s effect.
“I know,” I told her, turning in a slow circle. “I can’t imagine where I’ll wear it, but I’m wearing it home.”
She laughed and held out her hand, into which I deposited twenty-five singles, depleting my funds until Friday’s small paycheck from my work-study program, four days away. But my gas tank was full, there was food for breakfast and dinner at the house, and the kids got free lunch at school. I walked out into an early-spring morning as if emerging from a cocoon. I owned a designer suit.
The last suit I’d owned was one my mother had made for me out of scrap fabric purchased from tailors on the Lower East Side. The daughter of a tailor, my mother was partial to suits. The symmetry of a matched skirt and jacket, perfect buttons, and slit pockets seemed to offset the chaos of her life as a single parent. Her sewing was something she could control. She especially loved the peplum jackets popular in the forties and fifties and considered their flare below the waist to be both feminine and flattering to the hips. I’d often wake up in the middle of the night to the smell of her cigarettes and the hum of her machine. She made me a number of suits through the years, and I grew tired of all of them, except for a blue-and-white-checkered one, with a peplum jacket and a thin belt, that she made when I was ten.
As I got out of the car at home, still clad in my new purchase, my elderly neighbor next door was bringing in her mail. She looked suspiciously at me, ready to challenge this stranger’s attempt to walk through my front door. Then she put her hand above her eyes to shade them and asked, “Michelle, is that you?”
I climbed the steps to her porch. “What do you think?” I asked.
She nodded and said, “You could get a lawyer to marry you in that get-up.”
I told her I’d settle for landing a job.
THE NEXT MORNING, once the children had left for school, I put on the Chanel suit and stood in front of the mirror, trying to decide whether I should wear it to class. Some business students wore suits to school, but most of us in special education dressed down to the point of appearing unkempt. Only Maggie, an older student like me, had an elegant wardrobe and carefully selected outfits. I often seemed to have thrown on something clean but wrinkled from the floor of my sons’ closet. (Sometimes I had.)
After studying my reflection, I thought, Why not? I hunted for my sandals. It was cold out, but they were my only somewhat-dressy shoes. There would be a wine-and-cheese gathering that afternoon for seniors to discuss their postgraduate plans, and the suit would suggest that my plans were serious. I pulled my unruly hair back, put on a pair of gold-hoop earrings that had belonged to my mother, brushed on some mascara, and headed out the door.
On the drive to school I felt ambivalent. I had to admit I loved the suit: its subtle flair, quiet chic, and flattering cut. But my first husband had often said about me, “You can take the girl out of the slums, but you can’t take the slums out of the girl.” He was a Cuban immigrant who’d had servants while growing up. He owned a tacky wardrobe, except for a single dark suit he wore for every special occasion. Once, as a joke, he was awarded a “sharp dresser” plaque by his co-workers for frequently wearing a striped shirt and checked pants in clashing colors. Nevertheless his affluent childhood had given him confidence, whereas I had always struggled to believe in myself. I had built a sort of pride upon my poverty, however, which sometimes gave me a sense of moral superiority. I tried to encourage that same pride in my sons, but they saw poverty as a temporary arrangement they could outgrow the way they would a pair of used jeans.
When I arrived at class, my fellow students mostly ignored my new look. One young man said the suit made me appear older, then assured me he’d meant more mature, then said he’d meant competent. Finally he blushed and walked away. I took no offense; I was the oldest student in the class and was granted a particular status for having been a part of the sixties counterculture. Maggie, who looked resplendent in a dark skirt, bright silk blouse, and long beads, stopped me in the hall and told me I had better get a decent pair of shoes if I was going to wear a suit of that quality. Then she turned sharply and walked away, heels clicking. I’d always regarded Maggie’s love of clothes with a certain disdain, thinking I was invested in more-serious concerns. But now I allowed her disdain for my haphazard way of dressing to cause me to reevaluate my appearance. I’d been so smitten by the Chanel suit, I hadn’t foreseen the responsibility to complement it with appropriate accessories. (Of course, confidence, the biggest necessity, couldn’t be purchased.) I feared, unreasonably, that the suit would financially deplete me. It was the first time I’d felt owned by a possession rather than the other way around.
Later I wandered into the wine-and-cheese gathering, where inspirational signs suggested to students that the world breathlessly awaited our emergence from this midlevel academic institution. My psychology professor spotted me as I came in the door. His eyes widened in appreciation as he looked me over and then stepped close and whistled — softly, to avoid any hint of impropriety, although his reputation on that account was spotty. He tapped his wineglass against mine and said, “Congratulations. You now look like a therapist.”
Though he’d meant to flatter me, I was irritated. He’d often encouraged me to change my major from special education to psychology, citing my success in his class, but I’d explained multiple times that I needed to support my children and didn’t have the money to attend graduate school and obtain a social-work degree. (What I hadn’t told him was how happy I was in his classes and how much I struggled in those required by my major.)
“Don’t look so defensive,” he said. “I only meant that you look great, and that you’d make a gifted therapist.” He was silent for a moment or two, then added that “externals” can create new internal patterns: we become what we and others believe we are. He put his arm around my shoulder, not quite platonically, and said, “You can go anywhere in that suit.”
I PUT ON THE SUIT again the following morning, even though I worried it would soon need to go to the cleaners if I wore it with such frequency — one more expense I hadn’t thought about when I’d purchased it. I looked ruefully at my sandals and black tights and decided I would go to Goodwill that weekend and try to find a pair of tasteful heels, and if I couldn’t, I would buy a new pair.
That day I was student teaching, which I didn’t particularly like but was necessary for me to earn a degree. Constantly being cheerful and energetic for the children exhausted me. I viewed it as a means to an end and hoped that I’d eventually grow to love it.
The decor my teaching mentor used in her classroom was shocking in its sunny intensity, the glaring colors fighting each other in their eagerness to provoke the students’ curiosity and excitement about the world. The teacher herself was a fount of enthusiasm. She wore a smock, red jeans, and plastic barrettes at the ends of her braids, a childlike affectation at odds with her forty-year-old face. I wondered if she didn’t feel foolish, then scolded myself for being judgmental.
She seemed surprised at my appearance and asked if I was going to a job interview or somewhere special after school.
Suddenly embarrassed by the suit, I nodded and said I had a meeting that afternoon: a lie.
She reminded me that classroom activities could get messy and suggested that, if this situation came up again, I might want to keep the suit in the car to put on later. Then she smiled and said, “Wow, it’s really beautiful.”
“Yes,” I answered. I added, in a voice so low she almost didn’t hear me, “It’s by Chanel.”
She stared, her expression deliberately unreadable. Then she cautioned me to stay away from food, paste, and finger paints. I could handle circle time, story hour, and coloring that day.
The suit had changed another aspect of my life, allowing me to bypass everything I disliked most in the classroom, but I wasn’t certain this was for the best. I had accepted those obligations, and I worried my new freedom from them might spoil me.
At noon I brought my bowl of salad to the lunchroom. A few teachers looked up and, to my astonishment, moved apart on their bench, creating space for me to join them, disregarding the unspoken rule that student teachers, aides, and full-time teachers sat at separate tables. I wondered if they thought I was a substitute, but my theory was disproved when the teacher beside me greeted me by name and complimented me on the suit. Later, in the ladies’ room, I stared at myself in the mirror. Was it my imagination, or were my shoulders less slumped, my posture better?
OVER THE NEXT few weeks I wore the suit nearly every weekday. It was no longer just an item of clothing. It had become a place I went whenever I put it on — a place where I could magically assume a different identity. I could do or say anything in that suit, because I wasn’t me when I wore it. I acquired a pair of smart black heels on sale at the mall. As advised, I carried the suit with me to student teaching and changed into it after, but it was now taken for granted that I would sit with the teachers regardless of what I wore. One by one the other student teachers began shyly to sit with us, too. Observing the new status quo, the aides joined us as well, so that there were now integrated tables and more communication among everyone, regardless of job position.
During a walk with a close friend I joked that I had “changed the system from within,” a phrase frequently tossed about by activists.
“Why are you laughing?” she asked with great seriousness. She put a hand on my arm to stop our walk and turned to face me. “It happened, didn’t it?”
She was right; it had happened.
A week or so later, as I walked down a hall at college, my psychology teacher congratulated me.
“On what?” I asked.
“On conducting a successful psychology experiment,” he said.
I asked what he meant.
“In the school. Shifting the lunchroom hierarchy. One of your fellow student teachers told me about it.”
I hadn’t thought of it as an experiment, I said. It was just something that had happened.
“Things like that don’t just happen,” he answered, as though he couldn’t believe my naiveté. “You made it happen.”
I insisted it wasn’t me; it was the suit.
He told me if I were his client, we could make a full year of sessions out of my inability to take credit.
“If I were your client,” I told him, “I’d probably be wondering if everything you said was a come-on.” I had thought this many times, but I’d never had the confidence to say it.
He laughed wickedly. “You’ve really grown into that suit,” he said.
At the end of the school year my teaching mentor, still wearing the same smock and jeans and barrettes, looked at me solemnly before hugging me goodbye. She’d give me a decent review, she said, but she doubted I would be a good teacher, even though I obviously liked the kids.
After watching her work week after week, I didn’t find her clothes silly anymore, but rather was filled with admiration. They were the outfit of a professional, an educator who knew exactly what would engage her students. I shrugged, feeling too warm in the suit, which would have to be put away for the summer. I knew she was right about my poor classroom skills, but I told her I needed to give it a shot anyway.
She nodded. “I don’t feel I can give you a reference,” she said.
“I understand,” I said.
THE WEEK BEFORE I started teaching, I confronted the empty walls of my classroom, at a loss for how to decorate them. I rummaged through the supply closet and went to secondhand stores, seeking decor that might be inspiring, but I never achieved a cheery atmosphere. Within a few weeks my more-experienced aides were handling much of the teaching while I conferred with parents and settled disagreements. I knew then that I had to leave. At the end of that year the administration was grateful to accept my resignation and avoid having to fire me.
I had the suit cleaned, and I enrolled in a master’s program to become a clinical social worker. The decision would plunge me into debt, but my psychology teacher wrote me a glowing reference, and my teaching mentor did as well, describing the changes I’d inspired in the lunchroom rather than my abilities with her students. I couldn’t wait to get to my graduate classes each day. Here was an environment where the Chanel suit seemed appropriate. It said, You can trust me. I know what I’m doing.
At the end of my second semester in graduate school, one of the incoming students stopped me and offered a compliment on the suit. “It’s one of the most perfect knockoffs I’ve ever seen,” she said. “It’s just wonderful.” She then pointed out the signs of fakery. “But it’s beautiful,” she added. “It doesn’t matter that it’s not the real thing.”
I smiled and thanked her for the information. Its authenticity didn’t matter at that point; it never really had.