OAK PARK, Illinois. Martha Reznik is the mother of a teenaged son, Todd, whose summer growth spurt means a trip to the mall for new clothes as the school year looms ahead. “He shot up like a weed,” she says as she picks through sale items on a display table inside Lochner’s, an off-price retailer here. “We tried spraying him with Round-Up,” the popular weed and grass killer, she notes, ”but it apparently doesn’t work on similes.”
Todd’s dad is between jobs following a round of layoffs at Modern Moosehead Indemnity Company, the insurance company where he worked for ten years, so the family needs to cut back in an area that is sacred to Todd; “distressed”-look clothing that has been pre-washed, torn or otherwise made to appear as if it has already been worn or damaged.
“Mom, you don’t understand,” Todd says as his mother throws a non-distressed t-shirt priced at $4.99 into her cart, rejecting a Chicago Bears throwback distressed shirt that retails for $24.99. “If my clothes look new, the other kids will think I’m poor.”
“Honey, we need to cut back,” Martha says consolingly to her anxious son, for whom matters of social status among his peers are far more important than the mere legal tender it would take to keep him in fashion.
He grudgingly concedes on the t-shirt, hoping to maintain some shred of dignity when it comes to the most important item in any teenaged boy’s wardrobe–his blue jeans. “My jeans are a reflection of who I am,” he says to this reporter, who pretends to care. “If they don’t look like I worked in them for three years in some blue-collar job while listening to Bruce Springsteen, the kids who drive BMW’s to school will look down their noses at me.”
But his mother is insistent, and passes up a pair of Seven7 Distressed Jeans marked down to $49 for a pair of Dickies, the style worn by working men with actual jobs, for $16.
“Mom, you can’t!” Todd groans, but his mother ignores him as she heads towards the winter coats, passing up a $159 scuffed bomber jacket for a similar but less stylish model for $72. “Ashley”–Todd’s girlfriend–”is going to dump me if she sees me wearing new-looking clothes. Don’t make me!”
It’s a “teaching moment” for the mother, who puts her hand on her son’s shoulder and tries to look into his downcast eyes. “Todd, sweetie,” she says. “Ashley’s a very nice girl, but you’ll learn in life that the fundamental values are the most important.”
“Like what?” Todd says, his face flush with emotion that he tries to conceal from other teens in the store.
“If a woman is only attracted to you because you look poor, she probably won’t stick by you when you can’t afford to anymore.”