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The Ralph Lauren store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Or as I call it, the Mothership. So close, yet so far.
The Ralph Lauren store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Or as I call it, the Mothership. So close, yet so far.

Am I too middle class for high-end stores?

CHICAGO – In a college class several years ago, the professor asked us if we had ever pretended to be a different class than we actually were. 

A girl in the back of class raised her hand. She had a brightly-colored Louis Vuitton monogram clutch on her desk. 

"My dad’s a doctor," she said. "And my parents are, like, really well-off and stuff. And they pay for all my tuition and my dorm and everything, and most people I know have to pay for all their own stuff. So for a long time I was really embarrassed. Like, when I would go shopping I would stuff the designer bags in the back of my closet and pretend I got stuff at Goodwill." 

The way she said it, it was clear she expected sympathy or at least admiration. But instead there was a very long, awkward silence. We all looked at one another and imagined what it would feel like to rip out her blonde extensions and stomp on them until she cried. (At least that’s what I was imagining.) 

But she brought up a good point. 

We might not like to talk about it, but there are some very real (if invisible) divisions between American socioeconomic classes – with a heavy emphasis on the "economic." We like it say that in our society we don’t have a caste system, but it’s just not true. In England, you can tell how wealthy someone’s family is by their accent and the way they speak. Here, you can often tell by the way they dress – and especially by the way they shop. 

I am extremely fortunate to never have experienced real discrimination in my life. Things weren’t always rosy financially, but I have spent my whole life situated comfortably in the middle class. I paid for my own college, my parents never bought me a car and I worked through high school. While not judging people who have a different situation, I’m proud of all these things.

 Most of the time.

I’m a TJ Maxx, Target and Kohl’s kind of girl. They have wonderful, beautiful clothes and I love to shop at these places. Of course I would love to visit more upscale stores as well. But I stay away from them, fearing the sideways glances of clerks who know they're not going to make a sale.

I love Ralph Lauren, but on a recent trip to Chicago I didn’t dare go in the store. Same with Saks Fifth Avenue, Gucci, Coach and even J. Crew. I passed by their storefronts slowly to take in the beautiful fall looks on the mannequins, but I couldn’t help but feel that if I walked in it would be a "Pretty Woman" moment ("We don’t have anything for you here").

My love of fashion has to do with having a real appreciation for the beauty and artistry of individual pieces. Even if I can’t buy it, I like to look at it. It’s why I subscribe to "Vogue" – I can’t order that several-hundred-dollar pair of shoes in the ad of the September issue, but I wish I could, and what’s wrong with wishing? 

I couldn’t resist when I saw an LK Bennett store on Michigan Avenue. Kate Middleton has made the label’s nude pumps a global sensation, and they only have about a dozen stores in the U.S. As a devoted worshipper of all things Middleton, I couldn’t miss my one opportunity to get a little closer to her (and if that sounds stalker-y, it should). 

So my friend and I walked in, looking like complete tourists with our rain-drenched outfits, squeaky flip-flops and embarrassingly-enormous camera. I tried to play it cool. I went to the first rack and saw a gorgeous shift dress. It cost $285. I would have given anything to try it on, but I felt the salesgirl’s eyes on me. 

"I’m just browsing," I said, feeling certain that she knew my own dress was from Wal-Mart. 

"Okay," she said sweetly. "This whole section is 30%, just so you know." 

"Oh really! Thanks." I tried to pretend that I could afford even 70% of $285. 

I didn’t get thrown out of LK Bennett, "Pretty Woman"-style. Maybe it helped that I wasn’t dressed like a prostitute. And maybe it’s silly, my phobia of browsing at high-end stores where I have no intention of spending any money. 

Still, I can’t help but think that maybe the salesgirl took pity on me. She was young – younger than me – and she can’t be making very much working the floor at LK Bennett.  She was in high school, probably, or college. There was something careless and endearing about the way her hair was messily pulled back - as if she had rushed to get here, to her minimum-wage, commission-earning job. Maybe she knew that by holding that dress in my hands, I just wanted to know what it felt like to be Kate Middleton.

Talkbacks

jakkalope | Sept. 2, 2012 at 9:02 a.m. (report)

35403 I read the first paragraph and couldn't continue. My eyes hurt from the writing.

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Idle1 | Sept. 1, 2012 at 2:29 p.m. (report)

You made a factual error regarding the class system in England, which, unlike the US, actually has a class system based upon birth status. Specifically, if a person is descended from European royalty and can claim a title they're considered upper class regardless of their economic status. There are many impoverished royal descendants who cannot afford to maintain their ancestral homes and must either sell or rent them out to tourists, but they don't lose their class status in doing so. In the US one's class is determined by social, economic and "power" factors, i.e. an uneducated homeless guy who wins the lottery wouldn't automatically become upper class just by virtue of his money. On the opposite end Mitt Romney or any of the Kennedys are upper class by wealth but also by the powerful and influential families they come from.

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