Sunday Stories: “How to Be a Serial Wardrober”

How to Be a Serial Wardrober
by Caty Gordon

The invitation reads ‘black and white attire only’, but you exhausted last spring’s little black dress so shamelessly it could now pass for grey. Dejected, you stroll your broke ass down Broadway, cursing your futile women’s studies degree that’s left you bereft of a bank account worth bragging about. At the Zara window you spot a small black number and duck inside before a loan collection agent spies you squandering your meager temp work paycheck. Just this once, you think, pushing the dress across the checkout counter. You carefully fold the receipt and tuck it into a wallet compartment safe from the abyss of trash and gum wrappers that perpetually collects in the bottom of purses. You silently gloat over your ingenuity.

At the party you’re glamorous, you’re continuously complimented, you’re so certain you’ve discovered the secret to sartorial splendor whilst maintaining frugality that you forget the heavy cardboard tag hidden beneath your mane of hair. You ask the man you go home with to gently – I said gently – tug the dress overhead before neatly placing it on a hanger. In the morning, this is no walk of shame. This is the walk of success. You take the dress home, press it neatly with a hot iron and use a damp washcloth to remove deodorant residue. Back at Zara, you lie and say it was a gift for your sister that she didn’t appreciate. The $96 is put back into your bank account just as photos from the night before are uploaded on Facebook. “Great dress!” someone comments.

Wardrobing is that simple.

In the seasons that follow you will wear and return more outfits than can be counted. A BCBG dress one New Years Eve.  J. Crew chino pants and a matching knit sweater for some wealthy friend’s baby shower where one gifted stroller cost more than your rent. A striped caftan from Free People that, despite the beer stain and missing button, is returned for full price. You’re addicted. And like a junkie you need a better, quicker fix.  Your adrenaline-addled veins lead you to the mecca that is Anthropologie.

It starts small. Blouses here and there. A pleated skirt for a job interview. The Babergh dress from the fall 2010 catalog that brought you to near orgasm when you zipped it up in the dressing room. Good God, you look stunning. You scoff at the obscene price tag. You’re no amateur. You have a playbook full of schemes and carefully organized receipts. You rotate stores to avoid suspicion. You plan your purchases in advance. You pay with exact cash. You use different debit cards. You use aliases. And you blame each return on your sister’s incorrigible inability to value impeccable style.

You hunt for clothes with tags that can be easily hidden. You wear your hair down. You don light cardigans. You avoid hugging lest a wayward hand rove over your spine and feel the proof of your penchant for borrowed apparel.

And once, in a rush of hurried lust, when an unsuspecting partner rips your $139 cream silk blouse off too quickly and pops off the plastic tag, you spend the morning on hand and knees combing the carpet for it. Successful, because you’re that savvy (and desperate), you find the two plastic pieces, light a candle, and solder them back together with the cardboard tag intact. A full refund.

You’re emboldened. You’re badass. You’re sticking it the man. You buck up and buy a whole ensemble in a single swipe. A seersucker skirt, a white lace camisole, and double-breasted navy blue blazer with brass buttons.  You’re rocking $397 worth of borrowed goods at that Derby party in Brooklyn and you’re looking foxy.

The next week (you’re beyond the banal morning after routine), you iron your wares, fold them neatly, and return them to the store. But you can’t find the receipt. It’s not in the safe wallet compartment or in the pit of trash at the bottom of your bag. The sales clerk notifies you the entire purchase went on sale just yesterday. She offers you store credit. Store credit?! And only for $132?! You panic. You cry. You curse your younger sister and her fucking unbelievable ignorance of well-tailored attire .

Dejected, you walk your broke ass down Broadway and vow to kick the habit. You’re done. You’re spent. Your bank account, the woeful casualty, has suffered too formidable a blow.

You revive the black-now-gray dress for a dinner date and feel deflated when your lover can leave it lying limp on the floor, carefree of wrinkles or tag detachment. Such calm is crushing.

Caty Gordon lives in Brooklyn and is pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University. She wrote this essay while traveling on the New Jersey Turnpike.


  1. This is funny!  I had friends in College who did just that – shop to return.