Buy, buy bag lady

Faking it, flaunting it and, finally, getting real.

By Carina Chocano

Published February 26, 2001 8:22PM (EST)

When I was in high school, in the mid-'80s, everyone wanted a Gucci or Louis Vuitton bag. By the time I graduated from college in the early '90s, a mugger wouldn't take your Gucci or Louis Vuitton bag.

It was so much cooler to look poor.

But in high school, looking rich was cool. If you were rich, you flaunted it. If you weren't, you faked it. My best friend cried when her dad capped her back-to-school clothing allowance at $700. I didn't have a clothing allowance at all, but at 16, I knew that $700 was "nothing."

Another friend became inexplicably furious one day when I backed my mom's car into a plastic garbage container in the AM/PM parking lot.

"If you would take off your Vuarnets," he yelled, "maybe you could see where you were going!"

They were $10 knockoffs, but I didn't say anything. It would have seemed insensitive somehow, since there was no way I could convince him that I wasn't rich. Every surface in his house, which was really far away, and which I saw only once, was slipcovered in plastic. He didn't let us in past the mat. People said he supplemented his scholarship money by selling cocaine. At our school, he would have had a lot of buyers.

Looking rich was cool. If Irwin Shaw had spent his final days writing Vogue captions, he would have called the look "Rich Bitch, Rich Bitch." The world was mad about Christian Lacroix, sweetie, and huge, gem-encrusted crucifixes.

The school had East Coast pretensions but a Midwestern address, so we belonged to no league worth mentioning. In sports, we'd play any school that wasn't public -- institutes for the deaf, reformatories. And then our articulate but breakable football team would deal with the humiliation of being defeated by hard-of-hearing juvenile delinquents by taping dollar bills to their helmets and growling their SAT scores.

"That's all right, that's OK, you're gonna work for us someday!" went one chant.

We laughed, just like we'd laugh later when Dr. Evil held the world ransom for $1 million; when "multimillionaire" groom Rick Rockwell turned out to be worth "only" about three-quarters of a million; when Dame Edna, in her debut advice column for Vanity Fair this month, derided an advice seeker for calling $400,000 "a lot of money."

When the stock market booms, fashion magazines start talking about glamour, luxury and abundance. Cashmere becomes imbued with moral qualities. But after a while, you notice, the very rich and very chic start acting like thugs. They start wanting their Louis Vuitton bags with graffiti on them; their Miguel Adrover coats and Donna Karan dresses stained, waxed, frayed and ripped.

And then, after a period, even the poor will dress poor again.

Last week, after a closet pruning, I hauled a duffel bag full of old clothes to a secondhand store. When the buyer declined to relieve me of all but one of my garments, I went ahead and bought a few more. I got a pair of fatigue pants that don't fit yet; a khaki dress that needs to be altered, but is otherwise perfect for the kind of weather we pretty much never have here in San Francisco; and a droopy mauve cardigan -- all of it used, none of it vintage.

And I have to say, I'll be relieved. I'm looking forward to another period of poverty chic. It's always better to play on home turf.

Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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