The day I graduated from college, I knew exactly how many weeks I could survive without a job while keeping up with my student loan payments. The clock was ticking, and every rejection was another reminder that if I couldn’t find steady money by July, I would have to move back home to Buffalo, where job prospects were even worse. I’d started out applying to entry level jobs at the universities, cultural centers, and non-profits, checking online job boards daily. As July grew closer, I decided to try out a tactic I hadn’t used since I was a teenager. I walked store to store down one of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s most fashionable streets. I allowed myself to stop into one of my favorite “dream budget” stores, a family owned place that definitely wouldn’t be hiring, but would have beautiful clothes to transport me into a fantasy where I was the kind of woman who had money to buy more than just groceries.
In my dream store, I eyed sparkling dresses I’d have no occasion to wear, draping sweaters that would hug my hourglass figure, and the most beautiful Alice+Olivia black blazer I’d ever seen. The sleeves gathered at the end, giving it a powerful and ultra-feminine feel. The bottom flared out with a removable extra layer of fabric, so I could go for a cropped look or let it fall around my hips. The best part was the back– a pleated shield-shaped cut out accented with see-through black silk. It was Phantom of the Opera piano player meets gothic power woman. A sales woman asked if I wanted to try it on but when I flipped the tag over I almost choked. $500? I shook my head ‘no’ and made a quick exit.
Further down the street, I got my first glimmer of hope in my six months of looking for jobs. United Colors of Bennington couldn’t hire me as a full-time sales person, but they could hire me for their three-day sample sale the following month. By the time I’d passed my drug test for the three days of work at minimum wage, my luck had changed drastically. Through contacts I’d made as an undergraduate and multiple interviews, I would be starting my first salaried job as an Assistant Director of Admissions at my alma mater. This entry-level salary job would give me financial security and health insurance, seemingly everything a twenty-one year old could hope for. As I sat in my Craigslist-rented room calculating budgets for myself, the $500 blazer I’d looked at kept returning to my mind.
I would technically be able to afford this splurge with the paychecks from my new job– it would be about a quarter of my monthly salary. Every cell in my body that remembered rationing pasta, using wrong-edition library books for class, and even pawning remnants of my former upper-middle-class life told me this $500 blazer was a stupid idea. Beneath that lurked a much bigger issue though: I was afraid of repeating my parents’ financial philosophies. The same philosophies that left our family drowning in a mortgage more than double what they could really pay and that sucked up my college fund before I’d even finished high school.
"For four years I’d gotten by through squirrelling away secret money, thinking at least two months ahead financially and basically assuming the worst."
For four years I’d gotten by through squirrelling away secret money, thinking at least two months ahead financially and basically assuming the worst. I calculated exactly how much I could spend in advance of my paychecks’ arrival and when my next credit card statement was due, and made myself a compromise. I decided I could buy the $500 blazer once I’d received the checks from my United Colors of Bennington job. After three grueling days of reorganizing, rehanging, and wading through my insufficient knowledge of Italian sizes at the temp job I had a few hundred more dollars to my name. When I finally tried on the black blazer, I felt like I was looking into a time machine. This was the ‘me’ of my twenties I’d imagined. This was someone who spoke up in meetings, who gave speeches without blushing, someone who could draw on their power as a woman without feeling like they had to act more masculine to receive respect. It was the opposite of what I’d been told this fashion style represented.
Throughout high school, I had found myself drawn more and more to a combination of punk, gothic, and grunge fashion sense. This clashed with my school and family’s beliefs that such styles represented deviant behavior, and “promoted death.” While I did my best to laugh off the barrage of comments, on the inside I was angry. How could a culture that valued individualism so much not have room for who I wanted to be? Post-college and about to enter the professional workforce, I didn’t want to lose what progress I’d made. I wanted to be free to indulge in self-exploration again and, for me, that included my outward appearance. When I walked to the front counter with the blazer draped over my arms, I felt like I was making an investment into the adult I wanted to become. Dropping this much money on one item meant no turning back and no shying away from taking risks and creating my own path. These same sentiments would eventually lead me away from this salaried job and onto a path of embracing my identity as an artist and entrepreneur in the face of financial uncertainty, all while paying off my student loan debt.
That summer between my graduation and the start of my first salaried job marked a transition: it permanently sealed the distance I wanted to drive between my family’s financial habits and my own, and in no small way, my family’s concept of conservative clothing being a representation of work ethic.
Sometimes the decision-making process of buying your first expensive wardrobe piece can be just as empowering as the clothing itself. I am still proud of the lengthy process I put myself through before purchasing the blazer. Rather than viewing my punk or gothic style as something immature, to discard once I reached a certain age, my twenty-one year old self saw value in seeking out an outward appearance that made me feel strong, and provided me with visual goals for improving my inner confidence. To date, the blazer is still the biggest fashion purchase of a single item I have ever bought for myself. Thankfully it still fits. Whenever I pull the blazer out of my closet, the memories of that summer come rushing back to me. I carry the pride of that journey with me every time I put it on.
Bio: Jackie received her MFA from Boise State University in 2016, and promptly moved to Laramie, Wyoming to live among railroads and tumbleweeds. Her work has previously appeared in Paper Darts, Print Oriented Bastards, Literary Orphans, and is forthcoming in the Eastern Iowa Review and The Evansville Review. Jackie is a short story writer, poet, essayist, and is currently working on her first novel. Her website is jackie-sizemore.com.