Get Out of the Bargain Basement Rut . . .

And start dressing like a grown-up

There is no good explanation for the coat that hangs in my closet.

Not that it's ugly. Far from it. Heathery brown tweed, with a nipped waist and shoulders that sit just so, it's cut beautifully enough to make even Janet Napolitano look lanky.

In fact, if I stood up straight, sucked in my cheeks, and quit eating for a week, you might mistake me, coated, for Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds, circa 1962.

Or not. . . . It's fair to say that, even in the coat, I am not a model of Swedish descent, nor have I recently been mistaken for one. Nor, alas, has a director ever offered to make me into a movie star based on my TV commercials, as Alfred Hitchcock famously did for Tippi.

But that isn't the fault of this coat. If Hitch had had a coat fetish and not just a blonde fetish, this is definitely the one he would have fallen for. This is a coat that could inspire anyone and anything -- including my 2006 New Year's resolution.

Yep, that's right: This coat has me vowing, once and for all, to stop being so cheap and start buying clothes I really like. And if that sounds simple to you, let's just say you obviously don't have my issues. (More on those in a minute.)

The problem is that, while gorgeous and inspiring, this coat was ridiculously expensive.

It cost approximately twice my monthly rent, or five times the car payment on my Toyota. In fact, it's about what I spend on gas in an entire year. And these are not cheap-gas years.

All this for a garment that, Phoenix being Phoenix, I'll get to wear maybe a dozen times this year, if I'm lucky.

This is not normal.

This is actually embarrassing.

The thing is, I've always been ridiculously cheap when it comes to clothing. Until recently, you'd have been hard-pressed to find anything in my closet that didn't come directly from the clearance rack. (See, I promised I'd return to my issues.)

I spent my childhood in Cleveland, Ohio, clad in hand-me-downs, which was normal enough. What wasn't normal, however, was what happened when my older sister turned 16 and topped out at a size, oh, minus two or thereabouts.

Ikept growing.

Any normal girl would have used this as an excuse to go on a shopping spree. I did not.

In fact, I so resented this annoying new budget category -- what, people paid money for clothing?? -- that I refused to take it seriously. I became a devotee of clearance racks and garage sales.

Throughout college, I sported a genuine Navy-issue peacoat that somehow survived various battleships to end up at a mid-Ohio Goodwill store.

On the clearance rack.

For $4.

Of course, the buttons were falling off, and the collar was frayed, and the lining was ripped from pocket to hem.

But it looked cool in an uncaring, collegiate way, and that, coupled with the price tag, meant that I loved it. I could afford an expensive new coat, it seemed to proclaim. I just prefer vintage.

Of course that wasn't true; I could barely afford Top Ramen. But copping an attitude is a great alternative to being pathetic, so I spent four years honing my image as the smarty-pants who stole bagels from the cafeteria and wrote arch newspaper columns and wore a fraying vintage coat.

The pose felt so good that I kept it after graduation, which meant keeping the peacoat and wearing it to my first real newspaper job. I only stopped wearing it after it fell apart.

Literally.

In November 2001, the seams binding sleeve to shoulder actually disintegrated.

At a city council meeting.

The mayor found this hysterically funny. I rather did, too -- especially when I managed to get another three months out of it, so as to wait for the post-holiday sales.

And if a one-armed coat sounds awful, consider that I was still living in Cleveland, home of the Very Cold Winter. Sure, the coat was a sartorial nightmare, but it was also a clear indication that all I wanted for Christmas was a good case of pneumonia.

No wonder my mother was beside herself.

By then, I was making the pivotal transition from Slacker Slob to Sophisticated Adult, but I was doing it terribly.

The problem is that I didn't understand adulthood. I knew that I wanted to be stylish, but I, child of hand-me-downs and cynical poses, didn't know how to do it.

I'd taken to reading Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, ticking off dozens of mental notes with each issue, but it was overwhelming. One month they were talking about Russian princesses and pushing hobble skirts. The next, it was thigh-high minis and white go-go boots.

Did that mean the hobble skirts were out? Did it matter that white boots make your feet look like marshmallows?

Did it matter if I didn't like either option?

Did it matter that neither was appropriate for my job at a newspaper?

I was lost.

And so I took the path of least resistance. I stayed put.

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