Undressing Myself (but not in the way you’re thinking): A Personal Essay

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I own over 100 dresses.

That is—objectively, I think—too many dresses. Even though I wear a dress almost every day. Even though they constitute my work wardrobe. Even though I buy a lot of them used. Even though I routinely donate or consign the dresses I no longer wear.

Still. It’s a problem. And I’m trying to stop.

In July, I wrote a post in defence of things, of having things, collecting things, and buying things. Mostly, I stand by that. I love my things. They mean a lot to me. I chose each item with care, they make my house feel home-y and warm, and I’m not about to part with my knickknacks and collectibles any time soon. However, clothes are a different story.

Let’s go back.

In 2014, I moved from Calgary, Alberta, where I had been living for four years (after relocating from Windsor, Ontario), to Red Deer, Alberta. During the four years that I lived in Calgary, I had grown to love the city. It felt like home. I have many friends there, my partner was living there,  and I had developed a real sense of community. Then I left.

Red Deer is only an hour and a half drive away from Calgary, which meant that I would return to Calgary almost every weekend. I moved to Red Deer for work—to teach English at the college—and I loved my job, but the city itself, well… let’s just say two drunk girls in a bar bathroom we were not.

Because my partner and I were keeping our place in Calgary (and splitting the rent), I needed to find a relatively cheap place to live in Red Deer. Getting my own apartment seemed out of the question, so I searched Kijiji for a roommate. I thought I’d find someone close in age, who was also starting their career, and had friends in Red Deer who would eventually become my friends in Red Deer—and preferably would not kill me in my sleep.

And then I found her, the perfect roommate. She was a year older than me, worked shift-work at the hospital, and was looking to share a new and spacious condo with two bathrooms (re: my own ensuite!) near the college. Jackpot. And she really did turn out to be the perfect roommate: quiet, respectful, clean.

Except she also did not have any friends in Red Deer. She had also recently moved from Calgary. She also drove back whenever she had time off work.

You would think this story ends with my new roommate and I becoming best friends, each other’s one and only Red Deer BFF. But it didn’t work out that way.

We got along really well, would make small talk in the kitchen before work, respected each other’s space, but we stayed roommates, didn’t become friends. I blame our work schedules. She often worked afternoons, leaving for work when I was coming home from work. Sometimes, she would have a few days off during the middle of the week and would leave for Calgary. And then I’d be gone on the weekend. We also didn’t seem to have that much in common (case in point: there were no decorations in her condo, not one piece of art on the walls). But as far as the roommate relationship goes, it was perfect. She never once drank my almond milk, I never once used her dish soap. She never once left dirty dishes in the sink, I never once forgot to take my laundry out the dryer. I truly believe it was the least awkward and least stressful occurrence of two complete strangers living together in the history of the universe.

But despite the harmonious living arrangement, I was lonely. The evening void from 3pm onward could only be filled by so much marking and lesson planning, so much making dinner, and so much calling my mom. I wanted to get out, to see other human beings. But what to do by myself?

Answer: shop.

I love shopping alone. I would much rather go to the mall myself than with a shopping buddy. I like to be on my own schedule, not feel rushed, but also not take any extra time in a place I don’t want to be. So that’s what I did. Shopping. All the time. It got so that I had a schedule.

Monday: go grocery shopping, which in practice meant perusing the Joe Fresh section of Superstore—in case you aren’t familiar with this concept, let me say it plainly: our number one chain of grocery stores in Canada sells clothing. Relatively fashionable clothing (I mean, as far as grocery stores go). Also, relatively cheap clothing. Buy a new dress for teaching on Tuesday.

Tuesday: wander around Chapters (the Canadian version of a Barns & Noble). Buy a new novel, cute notebooks, cards to send friends, home goods.

Wednesday: take a trip to Winner’s and Homesense (the Canadian version of a TJMaxx and a Homegoods, respectively). Buy a new dress for teaching on Thursday. Maybe a cute candle or a throw pillow, who knows?

Thursday: take a stroll through the mall. Visit the local Gap and H&M (and Target when we still had Targets in Canada—RIP, Target). Buy a new dress for teaching on Friday.

Friday: drive back home to Calgary. Stop on the way at the giant outlet mall along the highway. Buy a new dress for teaching on Monday.

Okay. I’m exaggerating. It wasn’t this bad. Some evenings I did nothing but marathon Netflix. Sometimes I had too much marking to do to leave the house. And I didn’t really buy four new dresses a week. But still.

Obviously, I was shopping out of boredom and sadness. Not good reasons to be shopping. And I’ll let you guess how much money I saved after that first year.

Plus, I wasn’t buying things I really loved. Most of the things I was buying came from big-box stores (sadly there aren’t a lot of independently-owned clothing boutiques in Red Deer). The clothing was fast-fashion: cheap and un-ethically produced. I was just buying it because it was there and I tended to get tired of it quickly (that year I probably donated or consigned as much as I was buying).

So I am trying to do better and have set some goals for myself:

  1. Do things in Red Deer that aren’t shopping. Lately I’ve been enjoying walking my dog, riding my bike, visiting the local brewery (though, just to be clear, I’m not advising you to swap out shopping with drinking). In the winter, I’m excited to skate outdoors on the frozen pond and visit the local ski hill.
  2. If I must shop, I’m trying to do it at Value Village or the Salvation Army where I can buy used clothing.
  3. Try to build more of a community in Red Deer (I am still working on this one, but I now have a friend here, and we’re having tea next week, so that’s a start).
  4. When I do buy new clothes (because, let’s face it, this is going to happen), focus on quality over quantity. Try to buy ethically-made items. Invest in timeless pieces I’ll have for years. Avoid the siren-song of fast-fashion (the siren-song that sounds a lot like $29.99).

It’s been two months since the semester started and I’ve only purchased one dress so far. Was it ethically made? No, it was from the Gap. But I do love it and have already gotten a lot of use out of it. Baby steps, right?

Hollie Goes Lightly: My Holly Golightly Halloween Costume

My Halloween costume this year is an easy one (I’ve had – and still have – way too much marking of College English papers to do to have the time to put together anything elaborate this year).

To be honest, I don’t know that I *love* the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s (maybe I can’t get over the incredibly racist yellow-face portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi by Mickey Rooney), but I do kind of love Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly. She’s interesting, charming, and, dare I say, the very first manic pixie dream girl.

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Plus, I just love Audrey Hepburn.

One year, probably about a decade ago now, I dressed as Holly Golightly in the iconic black dress, sunglasses, elbow-length gloves, and pearls ensemble. Not one to repeat a costume, I decided to go a different route and do Holly Golightly in her sleeping mask and men’s shirt.

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I pulled a white shirt dress from my closet, ordered a replica of the sleep mask from etsy (this shop to be exact), bought a stuffed orange cat from Toys “R” US, grabbed a martini glass from the cabinet, and called it a day.

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I sent my mom a picture of my costume and she said, “Oh, I get it! You’re a martini-drinking sleep-walker!”

Sure, Mom.

On Running a Vintage Store on etsy

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I bought my first vintage dress in 2008. I was in love. The fabric! The pattern! The buttons! And it comes to my knees! (After years of shopping at H&M and Forever21, this was quite the surprise).

The love affair ended some time in 2010. It was mutual, no hard feelings. The passion had simply fizzled, and I’d left it to hang unworn, ignored, abandoned. I had many other vintage dresses now, dresses whose fabric, patterns, and buttons I liked even more. (I was very unfaithful, always on the lookout for the next best thing.)

What do you do with a vintage dress when you’ve decided it’s time to part ways? The consignment store that accepts all my impulse purchases from H&M and the Gap doesn’t take vintage. My friends are either not my size or they happily rock their own dress-free style. I could donate it and hope another vintage lover finds it at Value Village and cherishes it like I did. But oh my god, what if they put it out during the Halloween season and someone buys it as a costume?

And so I kept the dress, paralyzed by indecision. And then over the years, there were others, previously loved, now neglected, having a pity party in the dark part of my closet. I remember looking back there one day and thinking, “I have enough vintage for a teeny tiny store.”

Lightbulb! Etsy is a place for teeny tiny stores—for vintage lovers rather than Halloween dabblers.

And so in 2015, a little over a year ago, I launched my etsy store, Hooray Holiday. And this morning, I just made my 29th sale. Is that a lot of sales? No, it’s not. And I’m okay with that. My etsy store is a fun hobby, not my full-time job (I already have one of those). My philosophy: if it sells, great; if it doesn’t, great—I get to keep it a bit longer.

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Here are some things worth knowing if you’re interested in opening up your own teeny tiny vintage shop (or etsy store of another kind).

1. Having an etsy store doesn’t cost that much. I just paid my etsy bill for the month. It was $5.60 USD. But I made two sales this month. Usually it’s about $0.60, because I don’t sell a lot. I imagine top sellers have top bills, but then they can afford to pay those bills because they’re a top seller. The details: it costs $0.20 to post a listing and when you make a sale you are charged 3.5% of the list price. So this morning I sold a pair of vintage boots for $60: it was $0.20 to list them and $2.10 to sell them, so $2.30 USD in total (plus the cost of the actual boots, of course). But it’s obviously approximately a gazillion times cheaper than an actual brick-and-mortar store and approximately a million times cheaper than renting a booth at a market (don’t quote me on the math).

2. It’s easy. I’m adding in this point because every single time I type “etsy” into my word document, it autocorrects it to “easy.” Stop it, Microsoft Word. But it’s right though. Etsy is easy.

3. But it takes a lot of time. My usual process: find something I think is a great piece of vintage. Buy it. Research the crap out of it to make sure it’s actual vintage (etsy will not allow you to sell something that is less than 20 years old). Clean it. Take measurements of it. Take photos of it. Upload photos of it to site and write a detailed description. Price it. List it. If it sells, package it. Take it to the Post Office. I would estimate that all this takes me about 1-2 hours per piece. Sometimes, for a profit of only $10 (but I’m not in it for the money, obviously.)

4. Shipping is the worst part. I always underestimate how much it will cost to ship something because shipping in Canada is more expensive than health care in the United States (not actually true). But on your etsy store, you have to list a shipping price before you actually ship something, and I always worry that if I list the shipping price too high, an item won’t sell. So I lowball it (I like to set the shipping around $10, even though I know it’s going to be more like $15). And then I end up losing some of the profits. My $10 profit becomes $5 (this is why I teach English, not business).

5. You do need some things to run a vintage shop.

a) You need actual vintage, which means you have to know where to look and know how to date things. Luckily there are great online resources for dating vintage. Check out The Vintage Label Resource and Chronologie Vintage’s post.

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b) You need a dress form/mannequin unless you’re willing to model ever single item (I’m too lazy to do my hair/makeup and I don’t have a 24” waist so I do need my dress form; her name is Vivienne if you’re wondering).

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c) You need a blank white or neutral coloured wall against which to take photos, which means if you’ve covered every blank surface of your home in photos/art/shelves to hold knick-knacks like I have, things are going to be difficult and annoying for you.

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d) You need a camera. A phone camera will do, but a better camera is obviously . . . better.

e) You need shipping supplies. Shipping supplies can get expensive. I like to buy bubble mailer envelopes in bulk from office supply stores. I can fit dresses, blouses, and even sweaters in the larger sized envelopes, and an envelope is much cheaper to ship than a box. Shoes/boots are a bit trickier. I save every shoebox I can get my hands on and just use these. Sure, the buyer might get their new vintage oxfords in a New Balance box for size 10 running shoes (I have big feet, okay?!), but hey, I’m recycling. Let’s call it eco-friendly shipping.

Am I an etsy expert? No. Am I even turning a profit? Only the teeniest and tiniest of one. But hey, 42 minutes ago etsy user Ashley “liked” a skirt in my shop. So that’s something.

Oh No, That’s Just for Show: A Personal Essay in Defence of All My Useless Crap

I like things.

I’ve often thought I should become less materialistic. Part with some of my possessions. Lighten the load. Choose experiences over objects. Save rather than spend. Less is more, blah blah blah.

Minimalism seems to be all the rage these days. I blame this book. Also the Swedes. So fresh and so clean, clean.

My house is the opposite. So old and so dusty, dusty. That’s my motto. There are things everywhere. There are things on top of things on top of other things like a giant unwinnable game of retro knick-knack Jenga. I like to think of my house as a giant cabinet of curiosities, an island of misfit midcentury office supplies. When friends come over for the first time, they usually spend ten minutes or so wandering around, perusing my collections, turning tchotchkes over in their hands, asking where this came from or what’s the story behind that. One of the best compliments I’ve ever received: “Your house makes me feel like I’m at a rummage sale,” to which I of course replied, “NOTHING IS FOR SALE, PLEASE LEAVE NOW.”

Half the stuff on display doesn’t work and I bought it that way: cameras that came with “as is” warnings; a century-old sewing machine missing all its important parts (is a foot pedal essential? I don’t know); ribbon-less, key-jammed typewriters; a Soviet-era rotary phone that hasn’t had a dial tone since the 1980s. What do they all have in common? Form over function. I love my mint green 1950s milkshake mixer even though I’m lactose intolerant, and I love my 1970s peacock wicker chair I scored for $20 at a thrift store even though it gives me butt splinters. I’ve been known to yell at my fiancé for using the oven mitt that’s “just for show” or matches from the pretty matchbook I’ve been saving for four years and plan to save for another eighty. I can’t acquire two of something without thinking, “I should start a collection.” An empty side table is a wasted opportunity, a blank wall is unfinished, a single teacup is a lonely thing.

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This way of living runs completely counter to my mother’s philosophy. If something no longer serves a purpose, out it goes. Finished reading that book? Donate it to charity. Haven’t worn that shirt in a year? Goodbye! We couldn’t get new toys until we parted with our old toys. You want a new Barbie? Which Barbie are you willing to give away? She wouldn’t let me have more than a few stuffed animals at any given time, and they had to fit at the head of the bed like tasteful throw pillows. Things whose only purpose was to sit on a shelf and look pretty she called dust collectors. Everything had to have their place, and I doubt she would consider “on top of some books” or “I’ll figure it out after I buy it” to be a legitimate place.

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Most of the time I like my way better. If a cluttered desk equals a cluttered mind, I must enjoy my mind cluttered. Being surrounded by a bunch of pretty things makes me happy. Each object reminds me of something, somewhere, or someone special. The old Singer sewing machine? I got it during my first week of living on my own in a new city. Thousands of kilometres from my hometown, alone and lonely, I spent the week exploring my new neighbourhood and happened upon a killer garage sale. The matryoshka dolls? I could tell you where I got each one (British Columbia, Michigan, Prague, the same killer garage sale) and from whom (my grandmother, an ex-boyfriend, a friend I no longer speak to). And because most of my things lived a different life before coming to live in my apartment, to me they’re mysterious treasures, a haberdashery of things I’ve saved from being pitched into non-existence. I imagine myself an old lady still in possession of the dress I bought when I was twenty, the bicycle that is now a vintage classic. You’ll have to pry this turquoise egg beater I’ve never used from my cold, dead hands. Someday the head curator of the Smithsonian will call and it will be my time to shine.

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They don’t make things like they used to. I’m aware it’s a tired cliche and that I sound hokey and nostalgic, but I’m not even trying to suggest that new things are of poorer quality. I’m only saying: look at the colours and the shapes and the attention to detail. It’s just hard to find a good bubblegum pink atomic alarm clock radio these days, so I’ll take the old one that doesn’t work and just play music from my iPhone, thanks.

I’m currently trying to part with an old bicycle. I got a new one (well, an old one from a pawn shop, but it’s new to me), which brings my current total of bicycles to three, and that seems excessive even to me. I’m very aware that it would make sense to sell one of my bikes—our apartment is not huge, we don’t have access to a garage or shed, and my fiancé has two bikes himself, which, if you’re keeping track, means there are five bikes inside our apartment. But every time I think of selling my old bike, I remember buying it: I had just graduated with my BA and was about to start grad school. I think about how my years of grad school were my favourite years. I think about how great it felt to be back on a bike after more than ten years of not biking. I remember loading the bike onto the back of my car, pulling out of my parents’ driveway, and embarking on a cross-country road trip to my new home where I knew not one person. Will I still have these memories if I part with the thing? Yes. But. . . . Will the bicycle mean this much to someone else? Will they promise to ride it regularly so it doesn’t feel neglected? Maybe I should keep it just to make sure it still feels loved. It probably doesn’t help that the bicycle is mint green.

The only time I don’t love my things is when it’s time to move. So mostly I avoid moving. I’m still in the apartment I started renting six years ago that I thought would be a temporary stopover on the way to bigger and better things. But in a couple months I’ll have no choice. I’ll have to move. And if you think I’m going to do a pre-moving purge or have a garage sale or some such nonsense, my heavier-than-God record player must have fallen on your head. It’s all coming to the new place even if I need to rent five moving trucks to get it there. I apologize now, dear friends who are close enough to me that I’ll feel no shame asking for your help. Because: if I don’t bring my things, how will I know when I’m home?

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