Wack Job


Our Daily Correspondent


József Rippl-Rónai, Woman Dressed in Polka Dot Dress (detail), 1889.

Nothing can make you feel older than thrift shopping. As you walk the aisles, thumbing through the racks, young you keeps up a running monologue: That 1940s square-dancing outfit is cool! Look at those Polynesian-print slacks and the matching vest! You’d look like an awesome fifties-pulp lesbian cover model if you wore this shirt and tie! Sure, that leather dress is totally unflattering—but it’s neat! And five dollars! Have you ever worn your other five fake-fur chubbies? No, but maybe now’s the time! 

And time was, you’d have bought all these things. Each would have symbolized a you you might have been, or could have been for a day—an identity you could don or pretend you’d don. At the very least, the cheap thrill of the moment would have overridden any other concern. Who cared if your closet looked like it belonged to a hoarder pied piper? Anything was good enough for class, or for the existence of a creatively inclined, sensitive young person in the urban wild.

But as you age, you walk a fine line, and that line is called wackiness. What might once have qualified as whimsy quickly morphs into eccentricity—or, worse, effort. Wackiness implies a willful lifestyle choice; in your mind, maybe you’re the movie character who’s not bound by convention and changes the lives of uptight people. But the reality is more often Anne Taintor magnets and novelty socks. 

Certain seemingly innocuous items carry a high risk of wackiness: 1950s clip-on earrings, eccentric shoes, and anything that appeals more on a theoretical than aesthetic level. This is distinct from style; this is distinct from taste, good or bad.

In the adult world, the fact is, life is considerably less exciting. You know you will not wake up a cowgirl or at a luau. You may have fun with clothes—I hope you do!—but costuming lacks the naive abandon of youth. There are practical considerations and investment pieces and space. There is ever before us the ideal of the mythical French woman, with her tiny, perfect wardrobe. There is the understanding that spareness now denotes achievement, even if we don’t accept it. And that wackiness is as definite a choice as any other. 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.