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College taught me so much, like how to overextend myself and how to count exact change for a Taco Bell quesadilla and how to shop the best aisles at the local Goodwill.
Ours was in a Sarasota strip mall, the sunshine so bright through the floor-to-ceiling windows that browsing the front of the store could be unbearable. I avoided the heavy jackets — in Florida? Why? — the office wear, and the formal dresses, but spent tons of time searching for the right pair of seersucker pants from the retirement crowd or cruising through the rows and rows of color-sorted T-shirts.
My favorite section was the kids’ shirts. Most were too small, but the plethora of Little League cast-offs provided me with most of my college wardrobe. I was constantly being asked if I rooted for the Marlins, or was from Baltimore, or liked the Phillies based on my misleading T-shirt collection alone. But the best bonus? Kids’ shirts were cheaper than adult sizes by at least a dollar, sometimes more.
My views on price were skewed, considering that my other source of clothing was my college’s “free table” — the place where I would put boxes of old romance novels when I was done reading them, and the place where I once found the perfect pair of plaid pants. My range was anywhere from free to maybe four bucks for a shirt, if I really loved it, ten bucks for pants if I was feeling wild. I worked many part-time jobs during college as a teaching assistant or research assistant or substitute teacher, and I was conscious that even a modest thrift store trip could represent two hours’ worth of wages. I was only working 15 hours a week. The math made my head spin.
Then I came across the Luke Perry nightshirt. It was black and long — easily knee-length — and featured 90210 emblazoned on it in a geometric pattern. Luke Perry’s head was larger than life, “enlarged to show texture,” his profile looking vintage love-triangle-brooding, before rehab and the mafia drama.
Beverly Hills, 90210 had been the first show I could remember specifically staying up late to watch as a kid, and I’d always had a soft spot for Luke Perry’s character Dylan McKay. He never operated on anything less than full-octane emotion. He smashes a flowerpot at Brenda’s feet, and she falls more in love with him! But then he cheats on Brenda and chooses Kelly! His dad explodes in a car bomb in front of his eyes, and Dylan screams and sinks to his knees! Then he finds out the death was faked!
Just seeing the nightshirt brought me back, the intensity of Luke Perry’s forehead furrows reminding me of all we’d been through together over the years.
I immediately wanted it.
I checked the price tag: $6.99. Higher than my personal standard for a shirt, but technically it was its own outfit unto itself. It featured more fabric, which justified the price. There had to be a dollar upcharge for the size of Luke Perry’s head alone.
But $6.99 for a shirt I would never wear out of the house? For something I would use only to sleep and lounge in? I had tons of old shirts for that purpose — stretched-out, faded ones from concerts, walk-a-thons, blood drives, etc. Pajamas, historically, weren’t bought. They were simply comfy clothes deemed too old and ratty to wear in any other capacity.
I don’t remember what I bought that day at Goodwill. A handful of Little League T-shirts, probably, that seemed a better value for my money. But a decade later, I’ve never forgotten that Luke Perry nightshirt, and my desire for it has never diminished. I’ve looked online, on eBay and Etsy, but I’ve never found that exact one, and true “vintage” ‘90s shirts can be expensive. If I wouldn’t drop seven, why would I drop seventy?
I still make clothing choices based on the same factors I considered in college — comfort, cost, and convenience. But back then, I rarely thought about the way an outfit made me feel. The idea of clothing even having that power seemed nonsensical at best, frivolous at worst. Buying three shirts that I felt generally pleased with always seemed like the more sensible choice than buying one nightshirt I absolutely loved.
If I had been able to take a broader view, that Luke Perry nightshirt was a great value. I would’ve worn it several nights a week until it literally fell apart. Unlike my Little League shirts, which I grew out of both maturity-wise and size-wise, Luke Perry’s gigantic head would’ve always fit. At this point, a decade later, the nightshirt might’ve been a little worse for the wear, and I’d be holding it over a garbage bag, trying to decide if it still sparked joy enough for me to keep. But at least we would have had those years together.
College taught me so much. But it didn’t teach me how to weigh the true value of something, or even the value of occasionally treating yourself, telling yourself that not only is the nightshirt worth it, but so are you. The most special item of clothing you own might not be fancy or part of a coordinated outfit or even something to wear outside of the house, but it might be the one that makes you happy.
Luke Perry, I let you get away once. But if I ever have the chance again, I’m going to buy a silkscreened version of your brooding profile and never look back.