Growing up in rural Tennessee, most of my terrycloth clothes came from Wal-Mart, garage sales, or my older sister Amy. In fact, I’d never even heard of Chanel, Armani, or Gaultier. “Designers” were for inhabitants of New York or Hollywood. We had “brands,” some of which were better than others. My husband wore “Toughskins” to school in rural Kentucky. Once, a cheerleader rolled her eyes and remarked, “Toughskins? You need to wear Jordache.” Notwithstanding this isolated incident, style was not at the forefront of our minds. Actually, to distill it even further than “brands,” we had “stores.” No one asked, “who are you wearing?” but rather, “where’d you get that?”
Liz Claiborne, who died Wednesday at the age of 78, marked the embodiment of all three: a designer, a brand, and a nearby outlet store. This meant, that beginning in the 1980’s, the upper-crust kids in Paris, Tennessee, sometimes showed up at school with the little triangle on their clothing. (The “upper crust,” in my mind, were friends whose dads didn’t wear steel-toed boots to work.) In early high school, the ultimate status symbol was the beige, Liz Claiborne handbag — if you also had the matching coin purse, you were runway-ready.
Apparently, the key to Liz Claiborne’s success was moderately priced sportswear, but the clothes represented something more to me: some combination of style, affluence, and accessibility that had been otherwise absent from my childhood school experience. When starting her fashion line, Mrs. Claiborne said she wanted to “bring good taste to a mass level,” which — judging from the ubiquity of those beige purses — she did. The company was in its heyday then — $2 billion in sales in over 10,000 stores, the largest women’s clothing manufacturer on the planet.
However, my parents didn’t want to spend more money on a purse than my shoes, so I only aspired to be one of the “masses.” I wanted a Cutlass Calais instead of our Mercury Marquis, a sparkling Michael Jackson jacket instead of my denim coat, and an Atari instead of Pong. But most of all, I wanted one of those purses. Instead of affordable, mass-produced style, Liz Claiborne gave me my first case of class envy. My large unwieldy purse made me feel clumsy, and I began to resent the fact that I was the only one not hiding feminine products and cigarettes in such a stylish tote.
However, one day my class envy changed to moral indignation. Someone spread a rumor that Liz Claiborne appeared on a talk show to announce she gave 10 percent of the proceeds of her clothing line to the Church of Satan. I had never even heard of “the Church of Satan,” but was surprised to hear that it also required tithing. Of course, none of us had computers, so we didn’t know to go to an urban-legend reference page to rebut such a ridiculous claim.
Consequently, we believed it just as fervently as we believed little Mikey on the Life cereal commercials died by mixing pop rocks and Coca-cola. At least two of my friends claimed they’d seen the show where Mrs. Claiborne declared her faith in Beelzebub, which was good enough for me. We even prayed about it in Sunday School class.
Instead of worrying me, the accusation added a moral element to my lack of fashionable clothes. Suddenly, I was wearing Wal-Mart clothes not because of blue-collar status, but because I didn’t want chickens sacrificed on the front steps of the courthouse. It gave me enough self-righteousness to propel me through the adolescent years.
Ten years after graduating from high school, however, I was married to someone who didn’t wear steel-toed boots. One day I was shopping with friends in Dry Ridge, Kentucky when I saw a sign with the familiarly taunting triangle: Liz Claiborne Outlet Store. Of course, by then, the brand had faded in prominence — by my 1993 high-school graduation, Saks Fifth Avenue had dropped the Claiborne sportswear line altogether. Luckily, the rural South is like one giant time capsule — hairstyles and fashions from decades past can be casually observed on just about all of us. Taking advantage of this reality, I walked right into that outlet store and plopped down $50 for a fully lined, mint green Easter dress.
The first time I wore it to church, however, I passed the Lord’s Supper to the person beside me and spilled communion wine all down the front of it. In the back of my mind, I wondered if God was punishing me for giving in to childish notions of materialism or if there was truth to that Satanic tithing rumor. Of course, it may’ve been God’s way of lamenting that apparel has progressed so far from the utilitarian fig leaf into something way too important.
Or, I could’ve actually just been clumsy after all.
– Nancy French is author of A Red State of Mind: How a Catfish Queen Reject Became a Liberty Belle.