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.
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.
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.
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.
Stuck in mall stores that offered endless racks of stuff that didn't excite me, I never spent $20 if I could find something ill-fitting for $10. And I never, ever browsed the front of the store to consider what I really wanted.
I was a bargain shopper, and I looked it.
The coat that replaced my Navy one was a case in point: By the time I hit the mall in mid-January, the only wraps left were three sizes too big. But their 70-percent-off tags were too tempting to resist; plus it was cold. (Remember, this was Cleveland.)
So I bought one, and there I was, looking like a young Mama Cass in camel-colored wool.
Deep down, I knew this was worse than the peacoat.
But I didn't know where I'd gone wrong.
Then one day last fall, a year after moving to Phoenix and no longer having any need whatsoever for a stylish winter coat, I fell madly in love with that gorgeous tweed in the window at Alexander McQueen. And then, finally, I understood.
Wrapping yourself in the mantle of the cheap shopper forever is a great way to avoid taking risks. As the perennial bargain hunter, you don't purchase something because you've surveyed all that the world has to offer and then picked out what you adore; you buy it because it's cheap. That way, if you look stupid, or boring, it's not your fault.
It's kind of like sitting in the back of the classroom and lobbing spitballs at the student body president.
It's a cop-out.
And while it's a good strategy when you're 19 and broke, it's kind of pathetic once you hit 28. At some point, you've got to stop mocking other people's opinions and start developing a few of your own.
And that's the scary, but wonderful, thing about starting to dress like an adult.
Unless you've got the time and the money to slavishly ape every trend the magazines are pushing, it's not about following any pied piper.
Instead, it's about saying to the world, This is what I like.
It's saying, I could have chosen a bright fleece, or a goth trench, or a Navy-issue peacoat, but I didn't. I have chosen to be Tippi -- or, at least, her B-movie equivalent, in an A-list coat.
It feels truly empowering, if blowing your annual clothing budget on a single item ill-suited to your climate can ever be empowering.
The reason? For once in my life I'm not waiting, hoping, that someone will tell me I look great.
I already know.
Let's admit it: Some of us get overwhelmed by all the stuff that packs most stores. And that means we may be better off at a smaller, boutique-type store that's already narrowed the selection for you. Forget about digging through piles of sales stuff, Last Chance-style. These stores are for leisurely browsing and serious investing.
The perfect outfit
Skinny girls swear by the Adriano Goldschmied jeans at Healy Bea. And if you're looking for a special camisole or dress for a big night out, this boutique might just have it.
4410 East Camelback Road, Phoenix
Looking for Dolce & Gabbana? You're not screwed just because you're not in L.A. Check out Paris Paris, which (despite the European-flavored name) happens to be in your neighborhood, even if you live in Chandler.
There are a half-dozen Valley locations, including 7131 West Ray Road, Chandler, 480-753-0010; and 2566 East Camelback Road, Phoenix, 602-955-9663.
The perfect tee
Retail Laboratory, downtown Phoenix's new (really, it's true) hipster shop, has a great collection of high-end tee shirts for both boys and girls. Bonus: You can pick up a Jonathan Adler vase while you're there.
610 East Roosevelt Street, Phoenix
The perfect shoe
The Valley has long claimed ASU graduate Kate Spade as its own, despite her Midwest roots and Manhattan address. But such local name-dropping finally seemed justified when at last Spade opened a kate spade boutique in Scottsdale Fashion Square last spring. Clearly, she really, really likes us -- and we can't help drooling over her kicky sling backs and sexy mules in return.
7014 East Camelback Road, Scottsdale
The final touch
Now moved to bigger digs fronting Central Avenue, Passage continues to offer the best work of local designers, from tops to handbags. What we like best: chunky stones fashioned into eye-popping necklaces -- the sort of pieces that strangers stop us to admire.
4412 North Central Avenue, Phoenix