I only began to understand the power of clothing in getting along in society when in my twenties. I never followed up on it but occasionally because power, with clothing as well, is money.
I was looking for a suit to have for important occasions. Walking by a fine men’s clothing store at Yonge and St. Clair, I thought to go in to research cost of a suit. I walked about the store on this quiet afternoon, salespeople at ease, looked and left. I noticed how the salespeople did approach other customers asking if they needed help. So I did an experiment. I had been wearing my ordinary clothes which were by necessity the cheapest I could buy. What if I was wearing nice clothes, I thought. Would I be treated differently? I didn’t have much of a suit but in a tie and jacket I looked my best. I made the point of next week going back to the same store in my best suit. As soon as I walked in the door, a salesperson, smiling approached me, was eager to please me. I left the store.
When at 14 my father told me he would no longer be paying for me, I had to find clothing to wear that I could afford. I actually made it to 16 without having to buy anything and at 16 found a place near my job, not really a store but an industrial building, that had tables piled high with clothing, none of it folded, I presume some kind outlet for ends of lines. I didn’t need a lot. When I was 21, I was wearing shirts I had when 12. Quite tight, yes, but I still had them, summer shirts, not worn a lot each year, special shirts, in ’65 a bold style: collarless with a three button opening! I was taken by their cutting edge uniqueness. In ’74, they looked quite tatty and odd, unfortunately a style of shirt never to return to fashion.
Until my early 20s, I never spent more than $4 for a pair of pants, shirts around $2. Once, and I remember it so well because I went significantly over budget, I was attracted to buy something I would normally dismiss for its cost, but I had this desire to look good. I knew as a teenager in high school, there was credit, that is judgement on one’s importance based on how one was dressed. I felt with this sweater I picked up that it would look impressive on me. So I spent $7 on a black turtleneck sweater. Nearly double what I’d ever spent on an article of clothing before. I hesitated to buy it, the frugal spirit in me extremely strong and well-honed with years of paying my way as I went to high school on part-time work.
I did get clothing as gifts. When I was 15 and 16, two years in a row, my main Christmas gift from my parents -I remember the anticipation of opening this big box on Christmas day and feeling shock that this was my present – was underwear. Underwear was not something I bought myself. I had to be careful with my money and since nobody saw my underwear, I allowed I could get away without buying it. I could live with gray and thin underwear. When I opened the Christmas gift the second year to find the same new underwear, rather than my feeling grateful, the gift was a kind of weight on me, that this was my lot in life and it won’t going to get better. I didn’t deserve better I was learning through my teenage years relayed by religion and family which was basically the same voice being the son of a rectory.
I did get a nice shirt for my birthdays for a string of birthdays when a late teen. With a birthday less than two weeks after Christmas, my mother one year bought me a beautiful viyella shirt for half price in the January sales. I was so excited by it, she knew she had a hit so it became an tradition each birthday that I would be receiving another lovely viyella shirt.
For my 21st birthday my parents gave me a nice suit to replace the new one I was given at 14 when we moved to Toronto. They wanted the minister’s son to look nice for the congregation at my father’s new church when I was 14. He bought me I got a blue blazer and gray slacks. I was raised to believe one had to have one good suit. It was the farmer’s way. One had one good suit saved for church, funerals and weddings. The rest of the time was work clothes. I didn’t need to look well-dressed for school, work or social life, though farmers may have worn their nice suits to social occasions.
The suit when I was 21 was the last thing my father ever bought me with his own money. H bought me two items with my own money that I didn’t choose. He would get me to drive him wherever he wanted. He’d had a stroke and while he could drive, it was a challenge, so I did the driving. As a teenager I was quite glad to be able to drive the car. However, my Dad didn’t want me to use the car for myself. Occasionally I asked for it for special needs and it was always a strain with him resisting. To eliminate me asking for the car, he took me to a motorcycle shop nearby, went in and bought a used motorbike with every penny I had in the bank. I just went along with it. I had no fight in me; just be a good quiet accepting person. The second time was a suit for my ordination. He took me to a clothing store in the mall. He was ‘friends’ with the proprietor, and I think my father saw this as an opportunity to endear himself to the man, the he made me buy a three-piece brown suit for my ordination and start of my career. I spent $175 on the suit which I knew I could get that exact same one downtown at Simpson’s for $145. And I’m not sure how much I actually liked the suit. But then, did I care? Not enough, about anything.
When I was in my early thirties the brown suit was already done, a poor purchase, but I had the blazer still. The gray slacks were at an end. I had patched the crotch area many times. The patches were mostly hidden when standing and I was careful to cross my legs when sitting unless sitting under a table. By ’84 they were done, irreparable. I was back in school in Ottawa with no spare money for something like clothes. I was walking through the mall on a Friday that I discovered was a special “sidewalk weekend.” I walked by a men’s clothing store and stopped at a table of gray slacks. A salesperson behind the table out in the mall started chatting. Before I knew it, literally all happened without me thinking much, I had tried a pair on and the salesperson had marked the hem line. I was quite taken that it was of concern to get the pants just the right length. A moment later I was walking away having just bought a pair of pants for $40, and while on a deep discount, were far more than I had ever spent on clothing. It was excessive, but the deal was done. I couldn’t walk back and back out of the deal. And I think I had to really want those pants, too. They were a much darker gray than I had had. They would be ready the next week.
That purchase began a change in my life. Every single time I put on the pants, I was filled with pleasure, felt so good. They had double lined legs. Felt so good even after years wearing them, every single time. And if I spilled something on them, it came off. They kept looking good. They were the first pair of pants I’d purchased that didn’t permanently lose their shape after the first time worn.
I learned that buying quality saves one money, that in the long run is more cost-effective than buying cheap. And the value for that duration of use is so much higher; i looked and felt so much better in those good gray slacks. The store in Ottawa was Harry Rosen. not a store I would ever have walked into, but the sidewalk sale grabbed me and showed me otherwise. I bought clothing over the years at the Toronto Harry Rosen. With careful purchase, and sales, I replicated that Ottawa experience, getting a fine and worthy piece of clothing for a bit more money up front but that returned the value many-fold. But its not a given. I was buying that one good white shirt one should have and bought at Boss shirt for a lot of money, getting lazy, thinking I could just go by price to get value. The shirt at $200 didn’t last at all even with light, formal use. Lesson painfully learned.
Interestingly, a couple of years ago, I was buying another white shirt for those special occasions and paid good money at Harry Rosen, returning after 15 years since my last purchase. And it was a very exquisitely beautiful shirt and durable. I wore it for the first time out West when i returned on my retirement to my diocese to psychologically close out the cycle begun when I had left 40 years before on my study leave. With four bishops over the course of my study leave, not one had taken any interest in my reports or my work, sending me no message even of encouragement. The bishop I was having lunch with I had more hope in valuing what my study leave had given me. He was innovative, seemed to appreciate a sense for church that I had come to but never found a reception for in church. And I was surprised when on my email requesting to meet that he offered lunch. It didn’t go well. No connection made. Clothing may have been part of it. In his view of things, he was a kind of socialist perhaps. I noted along with his clericals, his pants were a typical worker pant. At lunch I took off my coat. I saw him stare at my noticeably quality white shirt, and I saw him react, a disdain. He judged me one of those who frequent that little clothing store at Yonge and St. Clair, a privileged lot, who get the best of treatment because they can afford to purchase the finest of clothes. The white shirt the Bishop seemed to disdain was my way of showing respect. Deeper it was a representation of my work, that if the church didn’t do everything on the cheap, that is low standards, like those gray Ottawa slacks, there would be much more value from quality.
What I came to in my study leave. On a number of fronts, if only the church raised its expectations. I didn’t go back to the parish. For not showing any interest in my work that I took on to be a better priest, to answer as best i could the church’s question of how it was going to survive with aged and dwindling congregations, unable to attract young people. My findings were of no interest.
That’s the irony. My life growing up, life indivisible between family and churchland, meant living threadbare poverty though with fine Rectory housing. And here, finding a little dignity in the wearing of a good white shirt, becomes a symbolic rejection of all I had come to understand about the ministry of faith, let’s call it. That dismissal of my white shirt and my attempt to be a good priest was a closing of the circle for me. I was glad I didn’t try to make the parish work for me, because it was never going to. I was the sole priest fora year an a half in the wealthiest parish in the diocese doing all the pastoral work because the Rector in charge was on an extended leave for anxiety and stress with the work. I was being paid stipend and living allowance that was 50 cents an hour more than I made as a clerk at Canadian Tire working my way through school. At the first annual meeting of the church that I was to be doing the work on my own without the Rector, his work and mine, at the meeting where the budget is presented including my pay, the warden leaned over to me, just before I was to leave the room so they could discuss my income, and he said, ‘Reg, we don’t have anything for you this year, but we will next.’ And 12 months later when I had now been doing the work alone for more than a year, the same warden leaned over to me and said, ‘Reg, we don’t have anything for you this year, but we will next.’ A few weeks before the other warden had told me that a rent increase in my housing would have to be covered in my stipend. I knew by Canon law they were responsible to pay for my housing. My stipend was $9,900 a year in 1983. Nothing. I was also living in one of the least expensive apartments in Victoria. How cheap can church be, this one the wealthiest of the parishes. So while I had thought to stay on until the Rector was better enough to return or resigned his position, at that moment at the annual meeting, I said to myself, I’m going to prepare for my study leave and go.
You might think if you’ve weighed through all this that I am a soppy poor me in relaying all this. To not embarrass my parents, I have never mentioned how I had to pay my way from 14, including buying my own toothpaste, no longer allowed to use the family toothpaste. Recently I have seen it as a badge of courage for me, that wow, I did that. I feel it was something of an accomplishment to be proud of. I’m not alone in this, some young people even finding themselves on the street. My parents simply asked me to pay for room and board to stay with them.
I find it interesting when I now tell people I’ve been paying my way since 14, working 51 years to my retirement, well, they just glaze over. They can’t imagine it and don’t want to consider it. I guess others who suffer racial and other discrimination get the same reaction: blank and indifferent stares, unable to appreciate what it means to go through that.
I’m happy and grateful for my life, for what I have seen and learned, including the teaching that came through clothing. It’s all good. I got to see things about life, how it is, I am so grateful to have seen. The seeing is the joy. There is no loss, and I’m fortunate for the personality I have, there is no hurt. No dashed dreams. I love that I have been witness. I write this as witness, maybe so that you will know better my life -what I wished the Bishop who saw my shirt and closed down, what I wished he would have done, acknowledge my spiritual journey, my faithfulness to my vocation and the price he exacted, wished he would have looked for that rather than at the shirt, like the salespeople in the fine clothing store at Yonge and St. Clair, looked at the appearance and judged me unworthy. I write this to ask you to see me not as unworthy. I did this. I made it with little money. Did it on my personal resources, nothing spectacular, but I enough for what I had. That’s how I feel about it. Some didn’t help me out, parents included, but some inadvertently at least, did. I do thank that smooth salesperson at the Harry Rosen sidewalk sale for getting me into some out of this world pants, and set me on a course, away from feeling cheapened, to expecting, not show, but quality, and in that finding dignity. The power of clothing.