Doing the Back to School Dance

Me on my first day of Kindergarden in a brand new outfit, complete with matching socks and the necessary scrunchie.

Practically since preschool, the only reason I’ve found to look forward to another year of school has been those magic words my mother always uttered right around the beginning of August: “We’ll have to go get you some new clothes.” Each year, my mall-loathing parents dragged themselves to the overcrowded, sweaty shops and put forth their credit cards, presenting me with the chance to grab as many new items as possible and convince them ridiculous finds, like the Aritzia spandex track suits of Grade 7, were necessities.

For me, the strangest thing about back to school shopping was the odd set of rules that my mother strictly enforced for my sister and I. Her rules, combined with my efforts to get as many new things as possible on my parents’ tab, looked a little like this:

1a) We MUST get a new backpack, even if last year’s model is in perfectly good condition.
b) After Grade 8, backpacks were embarrassing and were promptly replaced with trendy, impractical shoulder bags.
c) Coordinate all other purchases around colour scheme on new backpack/bag.

2. Items are to be bought in outfits, from hats down to socks, not as single pieces. This creates a cohesive “school look.”

3. Keep in contact with close friends to ensure they’re not choosing the same pieces, and if they are, at least claim rights to your favorite colour.

4. Even if it’s still 20+ degrees outside, back to school clothing has to include tights, sweaters, jeans and jackets. Tank tops are to be avoided at all costs unless part of an outfit and accompanied by a cardigan.

5. Clothing bought during the back to school shop (or shops) are not to be worn, tried on, or removed of tags before the first day of school. My mother’s theory behind this was that the clothing would no longer be truly “new” if worn too soon. I think it was her secret way of making me excited for the first day of classes.

At the time, back to school shopping was simply a chance to buy new things, but in retrospect, it was also my chance each year to change and grow through my wardrobe, and, when I wasn’t fighting with my mother, to exercise my freedom to shape myself. I’d spend hours consulting friends, sketching warped versions of myself, and laying out my purchases on the bed to ensure I had a new look for each day of the first week back in advance. The clothing I chose depicted the person I wanted to be, and as I began to make my own money, I learned who I was and how I’d changed based on the items I chose to take home.

Although the money is no longer provided by my parents and my school wardrobe is mostly based around surviving the Toronto winter, the need to reinvent myself each fall has continued. I find myself altering the items I do own, thrifting, trading with friends, and splurging on the occasional extra-special item to create the wardrobe I will live in for my last year of university. I can’t help but wonder however, when fall returns next year and I’m no longer cleaning out my computer and buying note books, will I continue to clean out my closet and find a new me?

text by Alyssa Garrison

5 thoughts on “Doing the Back to School Dance

  1. This is super weird to me, over here I’ve never ever heard anyone talk about getting new back to school outfits, backpacks etc. etc. For me, I used to just get new note paper and a pen, that’s it. When I first got internet and consequently my first online international friend (Canadian!) and she asked me what my new ‘back to school outfits’ were, I was pretty shocked by her consequential explanation. It smells a whole lot like unnecessary consumerism and consequential exclusion of people who can’t afford new outfits and all other new snazzy things, and it makes me sad. However, I am totally up for tartan skirts and white knee high socks any day!

  2. This was so the case for me growing up as well. Though finished school now, I still feel the urge to run out and get a new wardrobe, or at least a few new pieces to lead the way to a style overhaul this fall. It seems like there’s a back to school ghost in my closet.

  3. While I can’t remember the last time I bought new clothes for back to school (well, that’s not true – I thrifted an Autumn Sweater™ a year ago last june and stared at it in my closet every day until the weather was cooler) I get giddy at the prospect of fresh starts. My favourite part of the year is buying a new agenda/academic calendar at the end of August and filling it out with colour coded pens (of course, it usually gets all cluttered and crappy by mid october).

    Eline, I understand where you’re coming from about events marked by consumerism, but I’ve always personally framed back to school outfits as representing change and beginnings. Like I said, it’s been years since I’ve actually bought anything new, but I still get excited come fall to pull out my favourite sweaters from the back of my closet, or get reunited with my iron in an attempt to look academic (she said 5 minutes before she has to leave for her first day of the new school year while still in front of her computer wearing her pjs). I’m actually really giddy because I just gave a lot of my favourite pieces of clothing that don’t fit any more to my roommate, and I’m just excited at the idea that they will be reinvented and worn by someone new.

    I also love doing stuff like this – ransacking my dad’s closet (when I lived at home) for oversized sweaters and scarves, tracking down my old girl guide badges and turning them into pins. The mere fact that I won’t be relegated to tank tops and shorts because of the weather just makes me want to play dress up with all the new opportunities.

  4. I’m with Eline – there was no real “back to school” shopping for me, either, with the exception of paper, binders and pens. Occasionally I might get a new pair of shoes or runners (the latter were for gym class only). But that didn’t mean back to school wasn’t a thing: I definitely reassessed my wardrobe and made decisions about what I would continue to wear and what I might be done with – and I assessed my parents’ and sisters’ wardrobes, too, to see what I might beg or borrow.

    I like the idea of reinvention, and I love getting back into sweaters and tights as much as I love shedding them in spring. I also get that, for kids, there’s a necessity to replace clothes they may have outgrown over the summer. Still, I can’t help feeling the whole “back to school” thing has become ALL about shopping. It sets a consumerist precedent that ties the notion of “reinvention” too closely to an aesthetic one might simply purchase (or be unable to purchase) and makes me vaguely uncomfortable.

    That said, though, this was a lovely post. And seriously, Alyssa, that second picture is cute as all get-out and I swear I’ve seen you make that face a hundred times!

  5. My grade 7 back to school look could’ve been described as “pubescent Ray Romano”.

    Great post, Alyssa. It made me think of all the backpacks I owned throughout school, which I will list as such…

    - Black canvas 3-pocket (you know, with the big pocket on the top and the two smaller ones below with the brown leather belt buckles)

    - Purple JanSport backpack made of a poor-man’s Gore-Tex. It’s was Prince would wear if he wasn’t Prince.

    - Black JanSport with the tire-bottom. The bottom was literally made of rubber-tire material and had tire-like treads. I saw a GROWN ADULT wear this backpack on the streetcar earlier this week.

    - Green MEC backpack. This was my jam throughout university. It’s carrying capacity was measured in litres. At the time I thought this was the pinnacle of backpack technology until…

    - Green Crumpler backpack which I got as a Christmas gift from my old boss 2 years ago. This is my current backpack and it makes my old MEC one feel like wearing garbage. It has an orange interior so it makes me feel like I’m wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>