Do Something New: Shop At Abercrombie & Fitch

I know that a lot of people just don’t bother to shop at a lot of different stores. My mom, for instance, has probably never shopped at Hot Topic. My fiancé has (probably) never shopped at Victoria’s Secret. These are issues of demographics, though; my mom was 39 when she birthed me and my fiancé is a straight guy who doesn’t buy me underwear for gifts or happen to find women’s underwear comfortable (I assume).

I, on the other hand, fall roughly into the demographic of Abercrombie & Fitch shoppers, meaning that I’m white, middle-class, and female. And it’s not just that I never got around to shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch. I swore I’d never step foot in one of their stores in high school, and up until last month, I never had.

To explain: My high school was a schmancy prep school, the University of Chicago Lab Schools. I started attending Lab in sixth grade because I was very depressed and bullied relentlessly in the public grade school I attended, and was, besides, finishing my homework before school even let out every day. I toured a few different kinds of schools and liked Lab the best because the kids were really nice there, getting me to smile and talk despite my deep-set social anxieties. I felt accepted at the get-go, and that continued to be the case through to graduation.

Attending Lab meant that I was classmates with children who had attended the school their entire lives, children whose parents had to move to Chicago because they were the CEOs of companies that were moving here, and, like my family, children who tested in and got merit and need scholarships because their parents were programmers, paralegals, chemists, teachers, small business owners, and not, you know, Nobel prize winners or something. Throughout, I never felt like my wealthier classmates ever thought that someone’s family income said anything important about them. I didn’t feel antagonized.

But the difference in our lives was clearer to me than it was to them, I think. The totem of the difference between the things I had to deal with at home, and the way I was starting to learn about money, versus the same for my wealthy classmates, became the Abercrombie & Fitch-branded T-shirt.

I was in high school from 2001-2005. I don’t know if it’s still as ubiquitous today as it was then, but A&F tees were the thing at the time, the most obvious way for a young person to assert that they cared about fashion and shopped at fashionable stores. But they were also, what, $20 or $30 each? To me and my fellow not-so-well-off classmates, it felt like we were drowning in a sea of wasted money. Why couldn’t their parents just buy them a Hanes shirt and be done with it?

But this went from just head-shaking and shrugging on my part to resentment – not of the kids, but of the lifestyle they were participating in – once my parents’ small business started to dissolve, my mom went back to school, my dad tried to drive cabs on the side and then eventually found a job that took him to Wisconsin during the week, and things became really tight in my household. Abercrombie & Fitch-branded T-shirts, to my mind, should have been the picture in the dictionary next to the word “spendthrift.”

To hold on to that for 10 years, is, I think, petty. I know already that there are going to be readers thinking, “There are people dying in [city or country] and you’re agonizing over Abercrombie T-shirts?! YEESH GET A LIFE.” Yeah, I see you. But I want to admit that, yes, this is one of those grudges I’ve held too long. The fact that for over a decade I’ve walked past A&F stores and sneered, not because of their horrible hiring practices (although that, too) but because of my very old class insecurity means that I’ve dedicated emotional energy to the topic and very existence of Abercrombie & Fitch that I really shouldn’t, at 28 years old. It carries more meaning than it needs to, and I’m ready to let that go.

So I went to Water Tower on Chicago’s mag mile, and I took the elevator up to the 6th floor, and I promptly walked into the kids’ section of Abercrombie & Fitch. Then I realized it was the kids’ section, couldn’t find my way to the main store, walked back out, rounded the corner, and walked into Abercrombie & Fitch proper. It was dark, and the music was terrible, and most of the clothes were lit by dimmed spotlights, and it smelled heavily of perfume. It was confusing to navigate, and it felt like it was built by Timelords – there were halls leading to other halls leading to large rooms, leading to more halls, leading to dead ends, resulting in 1) confusion over how exactly the store was organized, and 2) the deep impression that the store was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside.

And while there were branded products abound – mainly T-shirts – it occurred to me that I had never once wondered what their other clothes looked like or how much they cost. And then, rummaging around the racks, I came to the part-amusing, part-horrifying realization that their clothes are really cute. God help me, I took a solid four pairs of shorts and a romper back to the dressing room. My challenge to myself was to purchase one item from the store, just to be able to say that I had done it, and then never have to go back again. I wound up not being able to decide between the romper and one of the pairs of shorts, and I bought both, because shocker: They’re not even that expensive.

My thought, walking away from the experience, is that it’s reasonable to believe that teenagers can just have Hanes T-shirts and still live full and well-rounded lives. It makes no sense to buy expensive T-shirts for people who are not fully grown, and then, once you are fully grown, it makes no sense to buy expensive T-shirts that are branded with someone’s logo rather than just buying really nice, really comfortable expensive T-shirts without a logo that’ll last you ten years.

But, too, while it makes sense that as a teenager, you’d have irrational reactions and associations to things that stand in contrast with the troubles you’re having, personally, it makes no sense to carry those associations into adulthood. At some point you have to move on. Even if the clothes at Abercrombie had been disgustingly preppy and completely not my style, the point, in the end, is that it wasn’t the den of prideful sin I had been making it out to be in my head. It’s just another mall store that sells clothes. I’m as happy that I got a cute pair of shorts out of it as I am that my mental book on Abercrombie is closed, now.

Send me a line at rebecca@thefrisky.com and follow me on Facebook. Check out the Do Something New series, every weekday in the month of June 2015.