One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and Oberlin’s campus is just ridden with little cardboard treasure troves. In dorms, co-ops, Wilder, book-ending halls, in the dark corners beneath stairwells, beside sinks, in basements, between floors, outside of bathrooms, spots marked in earnest with construction paper, loose-leaf, hasty blue-marker chicken-scrawl: “Free Bin!” “Wear me!” “Give-a-Way!”
A skilled treasure-hunter finds preciousness tucked in the bead-store dollar rack, gleaming in out-grown discards of friend’s closets, by scouring parents’ and relatives Vietnam Vet/GoodWill donation bags during breaks. The hand-me-down huntress anticipates spontaneous clothing swaps, compliments neglected regions of acquaintances’ closets, recognizes the true beauty of a bleach stain, a leather-scratch, a cotton/dryer mishap. The art of the hand-me-down, the found garment, the wearing of the previously worn, is in imbuing forsaken garments with new life.
Valuing a faded dye, a rougher cotton, a well-worn knee, a torn sleeve, without feeling worn-out or unvarnished oneself takes a certain amount of daring. On a fashion-savvy campus of under 3000, it truly takes guts.
I often find myself lingering wide-eyed near the free-bin. The lure of free new clothes, even free new old clothes, is difficult to resist. I look around, weary that someone will catch me in the act — those clothes are meant for the poor! I was reprimanded as a freshman while in a dorm I didn’t belong to. (It is often hard to discern between the “donation station” and the “free bin,” and because of this I often return to the scene of my potential charity-crime, too-skinny jeans and worn-out socks in hand, attempting to make amends.)
Assured I’m not being watched, I begin to dig. Too big, too dark, too smelly, I think and then I find it, the perfect item: brown ankle pants size four, shoulder-padded blazer detailed with nautical gold buttons and trim, a lightly abused but perfectly charming brown leather purse. I hurry back to my room, clutching my treasure eagerly. I try it on before my mirror. I show my friends. I congratulate myself on such a lucky find.
And then I hesitate. I can’t wear it out of my room. Why, I think, was this rarity discarded? Could it be that one of my peers is more sophisticated than I, more refined in taste? Did the student parting with my supposedly fashionable find know something I didn’t? And what happens, what happens when we cross paths, when I’m caught — exposed — not a huntress but a scavenger, not an aspiring “fashionista,” as at my worst self-indulgent moments I flatter myself to be, but a meager fashion mutt, begging for fabric scraps?
Those were my shoes, I was informed after class last year by another classy red-headed Emily. She was pointing at my recently bead-store purchased mustard yellow pumps, which I had bought last spring when, predictably to everyone but me, a warm spring day suddenly chilled over and my gold flip-flops proved inadequate. I smiled — “Weird!” I must have said, or something like that, but I couldn’t wear them again. Being not only the second girl to covet and possess them but the second Emily, it was too much. I passed them off to a friend in Cincinnati, who was majoring in fashion and could care less how many Emilys had owned them, so long as they were vintage.
But my melodramatic footwear folly was nothing compared to the incident of
the stolen sweater, in which a boy liked my friend’s garment so much he
kept it and wore it, shamelessly, for almost two years until it was pried off
his back and returned to its rightful owner. My squeamishness and the
sweater-thief’s audacity are extremes on the spectrum of used clothing
bravery — but on a campus this small, the question remains whether one can
ever be too cautious.