As the youngest in a lineage of fashionable females, I have been the recipient of many a fine hand-me-down. Great Grandma Bella, whom I never met, and Grandma Rose, who passed away when I was 4, left behind piles of costume jewelry. I don’t accessorize much, but when I do, it’s with baubles of crystalline plastic and lacquered beads.
Growing up in an affluent New Jersey suburb, I had a heightened awareness of luxury. Fortunately, my cousins, Hillary and Margot, outfitted me in Lacoste polos, Juicy Couture zip-ups and Betsey Johnson dresses during my middle school years, when labels mattered most.
Even my mom, who would hardly consider herself stylish, has shared her wardrobe with me. A sleeveless button-down top that I wear often to work once belonged to her. It is oversized and wrinkles too easily, but its limitations are also benefits. Its size makes me unselfconscious about my own, and I never have to iron it. The same goes for my favorite purse, a tiny ivory leather Coach bag that is discolored from use and holds only the bare necessities for a day in the city. And although I only adopted it a year ago, my mom’s boxy and tattered denim jacket has become synonymous with my style.
Not every hand-me-down I’ve received has offered such utility. Take the fish skirt, for example. I gawked at the Dolce & Gabbana label when I first lifted it from a trash bag of goods that my cousins had outgrown, thinking, “This must be a mistake.” Its coated cotton/polyester blend resembled plastic, and its magenta snapper print was as un-“me” as anything could get. I couldn’t imagine either of my cousins buying, wearing or even fitting into the skirt, as it barely hit mid-thigh on my 5-foot-3 frame, and they both have at least four inches on me, height-wise. Still, I had to keep it.
Packing for my first year of college in the summer of 2010, I wasn’t sure what I’d want or need. I’d always been one to over-pack, but I would be sharing a room with three other girls. I didn’t want to be the roommate with the most stuff. So, I carefully assessed every garment in my closet. Whereas jeans, sweaters and boots were easy to justify as I braced myself for fall and winter in upstate New York, the fish skirt wasn’t such an obvious choice. I knew I’d have some opportunities for outlandish dressing – theme parties were a thing, right? – but the skirt was truly a wild card.
It sat in my dorm closet for months, as it had at home for years, untouched. That is, until I was invited to a “golf pros and tennis hoes” party. Always a creative problem solver, I interpreted the theme to mean “preppy,” and my fish skirt seemed like the most Vineyard Vines item I owned. I added Grandma Rose’s Jackie O. pearls, handed down to me by my mom when I was in high school, and a cable-knit cardigan. I felt Hamptons-chic. Of course, I undid any pretense of prep propriety that night, getting drunk enough off a Hawaiian Punch-based drink to ride a tiny rocking horse at a fraternity party – an act I probably only remember because it was photographed.
The fish skirt is too short to wear in public, and now that I’ve graduated, I attend theme parties irregularly. But I’ll never give it away, in case of another unexpected occasion for which it proves perfect.