We buy to ‘try on’ new identities

Author Joel Sanders

It was sometime between the fifth and sixth grades when I realized that the brand of jeans I wore said something about who I was as a person.

Around that time, all of the cool kids started wearing  jeans with a brown label on the waist and a red tag on the butt. I, on the other hand, wore whatever could be found at Woolco, the local discount department store where our family did most of its shopping.

It must have been August, 1982 (or maybe ’83) when mom took me and my big sister Carrie clothes shopping for the new school year. 18 months older and “in the know,” Carrie insisted that mom buy her Levi’s® 501, button-fly, shrink-to-fit jeans. And since Carrie wanted Levi’s, I wanted Levi’s, too.

Trying on ‘cool’

In the 80s you could find these raw denim jeans neatly folded and piled high in select, slightly-more-pricey shopping mall stores like JC Penny’s and Macy’s. They were just expensive enough to give mom pause, but not so out of reach to make her refuse outright.

Trying on shrink-to-fits was a ritual in and of itself. Unfolding these jeans is like unfolding a cardboard box: the hard, raw denim feels rough against the skin, doesn’t bend easily, and has a distinct, musky smell of canvas and ink.

And since they shrink when you wash them, how do you know which size to choose? Merchandising signs strategically placed near the piles of jeans offered handy advice: select a pair 1 to 2 inches larger than your measured waist size and 2 to 4 inches longer than your inseam.

In a ceremonial procession, kids would stream in and out of the dressing rooms wearing their oversized, raw denim jeans and stand in front of their moms, who would crease the waist, roll up the pant legs, and tug at the baggy rears, judging to see if they fell within the guidance provided on the merchandising signs.

I can only guess that as I tried on those jeans, my 12-year-old self imagined wearing them to the rollerskating rink, to class, and out and about town where the cute and popular girls might finally notice me.

In other words, I was trying on cool. I was trying on a new identity.

And it probably worked, at least at some level. Although I never quite made it into the “cool” cliques and remained somewhat shy with girls, I almost certainly felt a lift in self-confidence and thought of myself differently wearing my new Levi’s.

That’s the magic of marketing. It lets us purchase a new identity.

Trying on identities

Once I made Levi’s a regular part of my life, I “tried on” more nuanced and complex identities throughout my teenage years.

Metal head: After hearing a cute girl cooing over the Mötley Crüe artists and how sexy they were, I ran out and bought their album Shout at the Devil never having listened to any of their music. I complemented my new identity with a jean jacket that I covered with various metal band pins: Van Halen, Mötley Crüe, Ratt, Quiet Riot, and AC/DC. But mom and dad would never let me grow my hair very long and the cute girl moved away to Arizona, so my metal phase didn’t last long.

Preppie: I really wanted to try out this identify, but the wardrobe of Izod “alligator” shirts (collars up!) Polos, long-sleeve Ocean Pacific T-shirts and baggie cotton pants were mostly out of my family’s price range. Mom might buy me $25 Levi’s, but she put her foot down at $40+ knit shirts.

Mod: Perhaps because preppie was out of reach financially, my wardrobe shifted to T-shirts, ripped jeans, my dad’s combat boots from Vietnam, and other less expensive but (to my mind) creative combinations of clothes.

The movie Pretty in Pink was likely my inspiration, and specifically the character “Duckie” (played by Jon Cryer). Duckie was the sidekick for the main character “Andie” (Molly Ringwald), for whom he had a huge crush. As less well-to-do kids, Andie and Duckie were were nonetheless fashionable, making-do with smart combinations of clothes from second hand stores, hand-me-downs, and garage sales.

I didn’t even realize that “mod” was a category until one day when a girl with a blue mohawk rattled off these profane lyrics to me from the punk rock band The Exploited. She then asked, “Are you a mod dude?” I had no idea what that meant, so I said, “no,” and continued walking.

A few steps later I heard over my shoulder, “What are you then?”

What are you then?

You, me, we all “tried on” identities as teenagers.  And we continue trying them on throughout our adult lives.

The punk girl’s question, asked decades ago, is a question we are all always asking and answering. In a nutshell, we experiment with who we are, and who we are becoming, all the time.

As we grow older, “What are you?” shifts to, “What do you do?” And yet, notice that we answer “What do you do?” with “I’m a [lawyer, scientist, cook, writer, etc.].” We may be asked what we do for our vocations, but we still answer with what we are. Americans place a particular emphasis on vocation as a way of conveying identity—and status: we are what we do.

But we get bored with ourselves, and so we experiment and play with the idea of who we are, even if what we do doesn’t change much.

The process of trying out an identify requires performing it, as well as narrating it, to ourselves and to others. It’s mostly a social experiment in becoming.

When we buy, we confirm our identities by “putting our money where our mouth is.” In other words, we make monetary investments in our identities as a way of conveying to ourselves and to others who we say we are.

Brands assist us in finding the words and symbols to narrate those identities. We show proof to ourselves and to others through purchasing and ownership.

Someone who drives a Ford 150 pickup truck and wears a John Deere hat has a very different identity from someone in a BMW with a Louis Vuitton purse. A Whole Foods shopper invests in an identity wrapped in a healthful lifestyle and values of sustainability. A Walmart shopper values practical, no-fuss convenience.

Walking to work with a Starbucks cup in my hand shows me and the world that I’m ready for focused, creative work today.

And to this day, I still wear Levi’s jeans. But I also now live in Puerto Rico, and jeans are suffocating, especially in the summer. Thus, I’ve been experimenting with breathable linen pants and long-sleeve button downs from Banana Republic.

Ugh… am I finally turning into a preppie?


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