When Kay suggested that we take a fashion field trip to the mall I felt my stomach turn and my skin begin to crawl. Memories of my father barking out military-like instructions and the panic I felt knowing that I only had 15 – 20 minutes to buy school clothes for the entire year that would somehow allow me to fit in with my peers. HA! Talk about a monumental task. There was absolutely no way to assuage the pressure of accomplishing the impossible; being a white-skinned Mexican girl who was too tall for the children’s department and too skinny for the teen’s department made clothing options beyond awkward. On top of that, my budget was meager as was my confidence. As a rule, I go clothes shopping twice a year, mostly to avoid the process as much as possible, and for simplicity’s sake. Despite my reservations, I agreed to go. Maybe we’d find some inspiration tucked between racks of baubles or folded neatly into piles. I braced myself for the fluorescent lights, glaring ads, meandering mallrats, maddening Christmas music, and miserable clerks. I never would have guessed that we’d find inspiration in a bedazzled trip down memory lane.
Speaking of memory lane, it was during the times that we 90’s kids refer to as “back in the day” in which my family favored the accessible and affordable discount stores and GoodWill. While these places offered a wide array of wardrobe possibilities, I found myself enraptured at the mysterious palaces of discarded treasure: flea markets and yard sales. Once, while on a road trip with my family up the West Coast, I plucked twelve pairs of 1970’s bell-bottom jeans from England and an assortment of mod kicks from a fabulous crone who owned horses, lived in an amazing trailer, and chain-smoked. I remember that we were the exact same size and talked old movies and music. The epic Santa Cruz Drive-In flea market is where I scored a fox fur coat that would have been perfect for an Arctic adventure. I, however, lived in the womb of California’s Bay Area, which provided few – if any – opportunities to wear it. Even so, I rocked that coat as often as possible, even if it meant sweating profusely as soon as the temperature dipped below 55 degrees. My collection of costume jewelry and hats was bolstered from estate sales and more yard sales. I certainly had plenty of bland and boring tee shirts and jeans too. They were affordable and I honestly felt bad asking for fancy things. Remarkably, I was most often teased for my flair. In hindsight I was probably the only one walking around with real vintage duds.
Flash forward to 2014: two weeks before Christmas, America’s favorite consumer holiday. Kay and I enter the mall, at one of the food courts. It is shockingly empty. The canned Christmas music seems to sleepily echo down the open, clinically white walkway which constitutes the “main drag.” We drift past the glassy-eyed clerks posted at various kiosks who barely notice us. No one makes eye contact with us, it’s so dead. It seems that we aren’t worth the effort of being coaxed over to buy a bouquet of soap or flat-iron. The whole place has the feeling of a zombie Christmas apocalypse. Observing the lethargic mall-folk, I can’t help but think, Well, at least we picked the right mall. Signs adorn the large glass windows with blank faced mannequins that boast up to 60% OFF! Must be something to do with online shopping… Suddenly, amidst our mall-meandering daze Kay gasps and dreamily sighs, “Claaaiiirrrrrrrre’s!”
“Ooh, yyeeaaah,” I say. For the record, we were operating explicitly in slow-mo up until this moment. Like moths to the flame, we found ourselves locked into the shimmery tractor beam and were instantaneously transported inside a significantly upgraded version of the Claire’s we knew as young girls. It was the feeling that I longed for when I scribbled “anything from Claire’s Accessories” on my Christmas list – FUN EXPRESSION. Rosa, a strong and petite woman with a massive smile informs us that everything in the store is classified BOGO. Let me be clear, I had no intention of buying anything. There was nothing that I truly needed from Claire’s, yet I took a little collapsible bag and began weaving around displays of earrings, face gems, Hello Kitty jumbo pens, elastic chokers, torso adornments, pre-fab glue-on nails, nail art kits, bamboo makeup brushes, oversize hoop earrings and bangles, Frida Khalo hair crowns, angel wing suspenders, rainbow leg-warmers, eye-lash applique faux glasses, and SO. MUCH. MORE…
We call out to one another across the store and Rosa assists us with hard to reach hair pieces that scream Grace Kelly and Lady Gaga all at once. It is pure MAGICK! One moment my collapsible basket is empty. The next, my coat, hat, scarf, and leather-fringed backpack are lumped in a heap on the floor in one corner of the store while I am in another, asking Kay which she preferred: the jeweled cat-ear headband or the giant emblemed “ROAR” hat? Everytime I dash across the store to see what Kay has found (or to show her what treasure I have just come across), the little collapsible basket is more full. Soon it’s overflowing. I resolve that I can make my own tutu, that the angel suspenders might not fit, and that the face jewels can wait. Then I see something that I absolutely cannot leave behind: a neon pink fuzzy monster hat. Yes. Rosa confirms with a nod. Yes, it is positively fabulous.
I become acutely aware of the fact that when I was 16, I knew I couldn’t buy everything I wanted and it was hard to justify want over need. Back in the day, I would shyly waft from display to display, trying to pick out what single item would make the most sense. My time-sensitive anxiety made me self-conscious of the fact that I was wasting time and not money and therefore need not dilly dally. Now, thirteen years later, here we are giggling, gushing, oohing and aahing. We are having fun. Actually, we are having a total BLAST! It is not just because we are letting ourselves have fun, it is genuinely inspiring and freeing to be there. There is a distinctive increase in empowering messages for girls, spashed across reusable tote bags, makeup kits, reusable drinking cups with a self-care pack inside. Upon entering I had joked, “Hey Kay, wanna get married?” I expected to find the old CZ’s and much to my dismay found nothing that even remotely resembled a wedding/engagement ring. Many items displayed messages of female empowerment around friendship, self-love and care, positive identity, and ownership of power.
Two hours later we leave with a new friend (Rosa – who totally rules), one pink fuzzy monster hat, black mesh fingerless gloves circa 1980’s Madonna, and pleather biker gloves adorned with roses and studs, and a bow head wrap. What we needed desperately and happily found was some good old fashioned girl time (read: FUN), and play without fear, pressure, or expectation. I found renewed hope in the knowledge that a store aimed at Girls is sending positive and powerful messages like “Happy is Beautiful” and “Today is for me.” I was literally in awe of the array of funky patterns, doo dads, and accessories that can translate bright and free expression into a world that greatly needs it now more than ever. Never have I seen more grown men smile and giggle than the following morning as I walked to work through the streets of Boston, donning my Monster Cap. Thank you Claire’s for making the world a brighter, and I pray better place.