Thursday, February 6, 2014

What Do Cool Fundamentalists Wear?

I began mowing grass in seventh grade for two reasons – (1) Because my dad showed up one day with a push mower from Sears, showed me how to use it, and then matter-of-factly said to me, “You owe me ninety bucks.” And, (2) Because I desperately wanted to be able to afford clothes that hadn’t been previously owned.

My parents had fairly strict rules concerning clothes, add the fact that we didn’t have much money to spend on clothes to begin with, and, well, my wardrobe was lacking, even in the eyes of a fourth grade boy. Much of my discontent was rooted in the fact that the coolness of my classmates and friends clothes had a correlation with the strictness of their parents. I did find some consolation that there were always kids around who had even stricter parents than I did, and those kids dressed like extras from The Waltons.

We moved to Florida in time for my first fourth grade year. It was also when I was just beginning to realize the depth of my wardrobe’s lameness, and by extension, my lameness. Prior to that, it was my Sunday clothes that provided me with my distress about my wardrobe. My parents made me dress up for church. Well, dress up for Sunday morning services, kinda dress up for Sunday evening services, and not really dress up for Wednesday evening prayer service. I hated wearing a tie, tucking my shirt in, and wearing Sunday shoes. I didn’t mind going to church on Wednesday evenings.

Wearing dress clothes to church was bad enough, but wearing a suit for family photos was where my clothing angst kicked into high gear. Besides the clothes, we would usually get our family photos taken at Sears or J.C. Penney’s. That meant walking through the mall behind my obviously Christian parents while wearing obviously Christian clothes. And Christian clothes that came from a thrift store or a hand-me-down bag delivered by some kind yet meddling soul from our church. I just knew that the cool people doing cool people things in the off-limits Spencer’s Gifts were laughing at me as I walked by with my head hung in shame attempting to scuff up my dress shoes as a form of passive-aggressive statement.

My new Christian school, although small compared to all public schools not surrounded by farms, was quite a bit larger than my previous schools. It was also smack dap in military country. This meant a wide variety of classmates. Classmates with parents who allowed them to watch Nightmare on Elm Street, for example[1]. And classmates whose parents were rich.

The rich kids, in relation to my clothing angst, were worse than the kids who were allowed to watch movies that I wasn’t even aware existed, although, the two classifications weren’t mutually exclusive. Catchit t-shirts, Cavaricci jeans, and Swatch watches were items worn by my classmates that I knew were out of my reach. There was a short period of time when clothes with the Coca-Cola brand adorning them were popular, but all I could afford was a pair of Coca-Cola sunglasses that didn’t really fit over my plastic-rimmed coke-bottle glasses.

Thankfully, my oldest sister’s boyfriend, who went to our church, came to my rescue with his hand-me-downs. Actually, his mom came to my rescue. Looking back on my interaction with him, I’m convinced that what I believed to be a tight friendship between a “cool” high school kid and an elementary student was actually a douchy attempt to impress the preacher’s pretty daughter by patronizing her younger brother. Regardless of whose idea it was, a big garbage bag full of clothes showed up at our house. In it were slacks. Pleated slacks.

Honestly, at this point, I can’t remember what the big deal was about pleats on pants. I don’t remember if they were all the rage at the time, or if I had seen someone who I thought was cool wearing them. I don’t even remember why I didn’t have any pleated pants up to that point. There are some “camps” within cultural fundamentalism that views pleats on pants as too worldly[2]. My parent’s brand of fundamentalism did not, however. Chances are, at some point in my short life, I had owned a pair of pleated pants, but I had been too young to care. By the time I did care, I didn’t own any. The boring truth was probably that my mom had simply never found any pleated pants at the thrift store that fit me.

I proudly tight-rolled my newish, pleated pants that were too large for me, and thought about how cool I looked. Scott, my sister’s boyfriend, told me, “If anyone asks, don’t tell them you got them from me. Tell them that you got them at the mall.” I was proud to be the recipient of such wise advice. In hindsight, I’m not so sure that my pride was deserved[3].

Those gray, pleated pants meant something to me, though. I was “in style,” and could walk by Spencer’s Gifts with my head held high. I was sure that everyone was looking at me and thinking, “That cool kid buys his clothes at the mall. He’s way different than his family.”

A few short years later, I was mowing grass, and buying my clothes new from Wal-Mart. Granted, by that time, pretty much every article of clothing I bought revolved around FSU or Michael Jordan. Also, by that time, my school had switched to uniforms. I quickly learned that my school’s uniform was basically the same uniform as that of Pensacola Catholic High. If, while I was wearing my school uniform, anyone ever asked where I went to school, I told them Catholic High. This mainly happened during fundraisers when my mom made me sell candy bars door-to-door in neighborhoods all over Pensacola. For some reason, I believed that it was much cooler to attend Catholic High than Santa Rosa Christian Academy.

School uniforms helped equalize, to a point, the wardrobes at my school. “To a point” needs to be stressed. The uniform for guys consisted of blue pants, white button-down shirt, black or brown dress shoes, and a red tie. There are many, many ways that shallow, image-conscious teenagers can find within even that strict of parameters to establish lines of cool. Buttons on the shirt collar, or no buttons on the shirt collar. Pleated pants, or no pleats. Even the type of material became a line of demarcation for coolness. And shoes. The shoes were a big one. Until spring of my senior year when I began wearing black snow boots, my shoes sucked, being of the whatever-is-on-sale-at-Payless variety. But, ultimately, what really mattered was what we wore outside of school, and I was always way behind the curve, no matter how hard I tried.

Upon entering ninth grade, I was forced against my will to be in the church choir, which meant that I had to wear a suit on Sunday evenings, too. Aside from my required Sunday attire and my school uniform, the only rules that I felt made me look like a Christian were the rules about the length/style of my hair and having to keep my shirt tucked in – even t-shirts. Well, those rules and the rule about no jewelry. Like most of my friends, I “secretly” wore a necklace. Being a parent has caused me to realize that I wasn’t hiding my necklace from my parents; they were choosing to ignore it. They were probably just picking their battles wisely, and, besides, if I wanted to look like a douchbag, why should they stop me?   

By my senior year, the grunge cultural was increasingly on my radar, and my resources were used to buy clothes that looked like what I saw on Alternative Nation. Ironically, the very things that limited my ability to look cool, well, one thing[4] – being poor – probably caused me to succeed somewhat at looking grunge even though I believed that I was failing miserably. I became an expert at distressing clothes; a skill that had evaded me in late elementary and junior high when acid and stone washed jeans were all the rage. My mom probably got tired of buying bleach in the late 80’s and very early 90’s.

My most expensive clothing purchase the summer before college was a long, black coat that I believed looked appropriately grunge. I was mistaken. It ended up being pretty much the type of coat the kids wore who apparently wanted to be cowboys after they graduated from college. I think I wore that coat twice before switching to the brown, non-descript coat worn by my mechanic grandfather when it was cold in his garage. If I had been a little less naïve, I would’ve realized that brown coat was exactly what I had been looking for.    

I left for my freshman year at Bob Jones University wearing my black boots, with a suitcase full of semi-mismatched, properly distressed clothes, and a contraband Soundgarden cassette. Actually that’s only half true. I also had a contraband Bon Jovi cassette, and half of my suitcase contained preppy clothes from J.Riggins. I did, however, wear my preppy clothes with my black boots. Half of my suitcase reflected my co-worker Jason’s influence. The other half reflected my rich best friend’s influence. To me, the most important thing about my clothes was that they distanced me from the fundamentalism of my parents.

I showed up to Bob Jones University with a confused wardrobe.           

[1] His name was “Snapper.” Of course a fourth grader named “Snapper” is going to be allowed to watch slasher flicks.
[2] And argyle socks. And Calvinism.
[3] I actually just now realized this. For decades now, I’ve thought fondly about that conversation. I now realize that I may have misjudged Scott’s motives. To be fair, it was only about five years ago that I realized that my dog hadn’t run away, but that my parents had taken it to the pound. I’m a trusting person. My mom told me that’s an endearing trait.
[4] The other thing was my parent’s rules, and those did not help me in my quest to dress like Chris Cornell.

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