Sunday, June 20, 2010

Overspent and Not Grown Up

I wanted to believe I could afford everything I bought.  In fact, I wanted to believe I could afford anything I wanted.  In my imagination, there was no gap between what I was earning and the image I was trying to present--the fantasies I tried to maintain about what I wished my situation to be and what it actually was.

--Avis Cardella, Spent

Like Avis Cardella, I fell in love with Vogue when I was fifteen.  Like Cardella, I grew up a long way from Manhattan, though hers was a psychological chasm, since she lived in Brooklyn.  Yet in many ways she was no closer than I was on the frozen tundra.  Back when we fell under the magazine's spell, there weren't celebrity gossip websites or W Magazine.  There was the cluttered cover of Cosmo, but Vogue was something else entirely--a world where dresses costing thousands of dollars were within reach for anyone who would spring for the five bucks the September issue cost.  It was art, and I spent hours poring over Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton shots and reading, awestruck, the prices of Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein gowns I could only dream of. 

I remember buying my first pair of designer jeans and a red Ralph Lauren skirt I bought during my first trip to the last call sale at Holt Renfrew on Bloor Street in Toronto.  In high school I worked, like Cardella, lots of jobs and spent the vast amount of what I made on clothes.

What I didn't do was make it to Studio 54 when I was eighteen, because, ever practical and having no notion of my power over the opposite sex, I was working to go off to university. So unlike Cardella, I didn't manage to find myself some very rich men to take care of me during my twenties and thirties. As a result, I didn't get to buy Jil Sander suits and shop for Sub-Zero fridges for my perfect house in the Hamptons (along with a spacious Manhattan apartment) or fly off to Paris when I was going through a rough patch.  I was camping in a 1971 VW bus and wearing my husband's cargo shorts. 

Cardella's book Spent is ostensibly about compulsive shopping, but it's really about a woman who takes the path of least resistance.  Until she can't.  She (wisely) breaks off her engagement to a rich German businessman and ends up with a nearly penniless artist who lives in a cramped and filthy loft.  Still, she is terrified--at forty--to be independent.  But until she figures out how to be a sister who's doing it for herself, she doesn't face up to much of anything.  She may say she hid in her shopping habit, but it's clear the men were the enablers. 

Finally, she realizes there is no refuge in a relationship unless she owns her stuff. She's been to therapy before, but as she says, she wanted to kick her emotional issues out of the way rather than get into the uncomfortable business of actually looking at them.  By the time she is really ready for therapy, she can't afford it, but she forges ahead in any case. At long last she opens all of her credit card bills and looks at them seriously.  Then she finally works on putting her career in high gear and not, for a change, trying to find a man to distract her and bail her out. 

It's a good story, but Cardella leaves the reader wondering.  She's now married to a Paris businessman, but doesn't tell us (presumably for the purposes of privacy) how she found a healthy relationship after all the co-dependents she went through.  Neither does she put fear into anyone who might be headed toward a problem with spending; her rapturous details about the clothes she coveted and bought, the perfect skin she achieved after a lifetime of acne, her hair's perfection with her regular Bergdorf cut and color--all make it sound almost worth the credit counseling and thirty-six months of payments. In her epilogue, Cardella tries to make the case that compulsive shopping should be taken seriously.  The rest of her book, as readable as it is, contradicts her argument.  For us girls who love our clothes, it just sounds like way too much fun.

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