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Woman hanging up coat in a closet Photo: Altrendo/Getty Images

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I Grew Up Poor, But Wanted to Dress Like I Wasn’t

The unspoken codes of social class aren’t taught to everyone.

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The pants were two sizes too big and hung low around my hips. I didn’t own a belt, so I folded the extra fabric and used safety pins to keep it in place. My boss said she’d get me a new pair soon, but in the year I worked at McDonald’s, I mostly wore uniforms that were too big. Shirts, bright white and just asking to be stained, were easier to come by in the back office. Those hung off of me, too, but I didn’t mind it. I was 16 and embarrassed of my breasts, worried that people could see the outline of my bra through the thin fabric. “Better to leave it big and baggy and hope no one notices me,” I thought.

During that summer, I worked almost every day. I’d just moved to the Boston suburb where I’d finish high school, south of the city and nestled against the beaches, and was overwhelmed by the wealth. My mother and I rented a small townhouse subsidized by the state, inside of which we had almost no furniture. Outside of our home, I saw big, understated houses and glimmers of private beaches. I also saw a lot of the McDonald’s dining room.

During the school year, I came in on the evenings and weekends. I was convinced I reeked of grease (I did). Sometimes people describe menial jobs as blurs: just getting through the day, just going through the motions. For me, my brain lit up. Stimulation was everywhere: people in line, tapping their feet. People in front of me, looking at their phones instead of my face. People snapping their fingers to get my attention, pointing to a burger on their plate, the bun cast to the side. “Um, I said no pickles. Didn’t you hear me, lady? No friggin’ pickles.”

“Lady,” I remember thinking. How strange it felt, when I wasn’t yet old enough to drive. I wore a name tag, but customers never used it.

When I worked at McDonald’s, I was nervous about everything. I needed the job and worried constantly about getting fired. Working was a necessity, not a project I could quit when it became too time-consuming or tiring. My mother and I had needs: food, co-pays, winter coats. We had some wants, too: the Internet, a laptop that we shared, a landline. I applied to jobs everywhere I could walk, but McDonald’s was the only place that offered me enough hours. I made $6.75 an hour and worked eight-hour shifts. I felt lucky.

I simultaneously loved and hated walking to and from work. Most days it was the only time I got to spend outside, sucking some fresh air into my lungs. The walking helped calm me down, gave me a chance to burn off some of my jitters. It also exposed me in a way I dreaded. Even with a heavy coat over my shirt and a hat in place of my visor, I felt self-conscious. Cars driving by were just labels to me: Jaguar, Mercedes, BMW. Sometimes they held my classmates, sometimes strangers. I felt a judgment that was all in my head, a manifestation of the notions of poor people I’d already internalized: “Working at McDonald’s, that must suck. Why would you ever work a job like this? Dumb. Lazy. Won’t amount to anything. I bet she smells like frozen beef.”

When I got home after work, I stripped and put on a baggy T-shirt and faded flannel shorts. I opened magazines and catalogues and circled all of the clothes I dreamed I would someday own. All of the furniture I would buy. All of the homes I would fall asleep in. I thought leaving poverty would be that easy: Making the right decisions, buying the right things, covering myself in the right ways. Now I understand that clothes don’t change an identity — and more importantly, they shouldn’t have to.

I was in high school in the mid-2000s. Much of the fashion was unrealistic on a McDonald’s paycheck: Louis Vuitton purses, Lacoste polos, Ralph Lauren cardigans. I studied my peers like I did fashion catalogues. What did they wear? How did they style it? What brands? How had the cut and color shifted between seasons? Wearing my own clothes felt like owning an identity. Creating a new version of myself seemed attainable, if not easy.

Once, a friend who knew how much I worked asked me what the hell I spent all of my money on. “I mean, you don’t have anything to show for it,” he said. “Do you just like, hide it?”

“Hide it,” I remember thinking. “What a way to describe money when you’ve never had to save it.”

If I wanted to forge an identity through appearance in high school, the desire deepened in college, and more so in the workforce. I wanted to fit in with my friends, but I also had practical needs. I needed to get jobs, for one, and I needed to dress well enough to keep them. The pressure for women to dress a certain way in professional settings is hard regardless of income. I know, too, that I have privileges: I am white, cisgender, and able-bodied. I am gay, but straight-passing. I have no doubt that these realities help me unfairly.

Getting ready for interviews put me into a panic. Interviews are exhausting no matter what, but low-income people have extra barriers. How will we get there on time? When and where can I print my resume? How much does it cost? And, for me, the ever-present question: What should I wear? Or more accurately, what do I have that I can wear?

I interviewed for an internship at a competitive publishing house in New York when I was 22. It was an editorial assistant gig where I’d mostly double-check copy and scan paperwork. I prepared for hours, reading about the company’s mission, the books they sold, their market. The wage was too low in a city so expensive, but I wanted to make it work.

The office was grand. It was old and luxurious and enormous. The employees were stylish in the subtle way that continues to mystify me: neutral colors, statement jewelry, handbags that cost more than my rent. This muted display of wealth will always excite and sadden me. At the time, I couldn’t have felt smaller.

I didn’t get the job. Maybe a more qualified applicant got it. Maybe it was a recent graduate from one of the big city schools, Columbia or NYU. Maybe it went to a person who wasn’t wearing a skirt they borrowed from a girlfriend, a blouse with a small tear in the corner by the wrist. The editor who interviewed me shook my hand and I focused on doing the right things: Firm grip, steady eye contact, engaged smile. But I couldn’t shake the thought: “Did he notice the tear? That my purse didn’t have a designer label?” I’d walked for nearly an hour to get there so that I didn’t have to pay for the subway. “Was I sweating? Could he tell?”

Now I work full-time in media. My job is remote, so clothes don’t present the same anxiety they once did. What I wear doesn’t matter — it’s all about the work I produce. The less pressure I feel to dress the part, the better I am at playing it.

Class signifiers often operate as unspoken rules. Of course you’ll understand what “business casual” means. Of course you’ll know whether or not to wear pantyhose. Of course you’ll own an umbrella and rain boots and avoid showing up to work a sopping mess. Of course you own clothes you would buy and wear just to work, have the funds to create this other self just for the sake of fitting in and wearing the part. When you’re used to uniforms, none of this is innate.

Talking about poverty feels like undressing. Growing up, I loved rags-to-riches stories. I devoured tales of people who had come from nothing and worked their way up to success. I wanted to be just like them, except for one thing: I didn’t want to talk about poverty. I didn’t want anyone to know I sold fast food unless they happened to walk into the store and saw me, scooping french fries and lowering my visor to hide.

I saw the poor part of myself as temporary. That is to say, I wanted to separate my life into the parts where I didn’t have money and then I did. Of course, nothing is that simple.

I no longer qualify for the public assistance that kept me alive during my youth. Shame tells me that I morphed from one person to the next, that I’ve shed one skin and earned a better one. Slowly, I’m learning to embrace that poverty was never something to conceal. I’m learning, too, that my experiences stay with me, no matter what I’m wearing — uniform or not.


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