To grow up in Akron meant that you didn’t go around thinking you were any better than anyone else. We were realists, clear-eyed observers of the truth. We were insecure that we weren’t from Cleveland. Wearing fashionable clothes was seen as a suspicious activity because it was a way to set yourself apart from other people. I was beginning to develop another view. Was it possible that being dressed well was actually a way of showing respect for others? And isn’t that what adults did? They treated other people with respect and dignity?
When I was 15, I finally found it. There it was, the pièce de résistance, hanging in a place of honor on a front rack in the Topaz Room: a pinstripe Ralph Lauren Collection pantsuit, navy blue, and lined in silk. Wide cuffed legs. I tried it on. Simple, elegant, eternal. It was perfect then, it would be perfect now, it will be perfect forever. This, however, was not the sort of thing I could get away with at school. Acid-washed jeans were huge then. Big hair, scrunchies, Coca-Cola branded sweat-clothes. In the warmer weather, kids at school (boys and girls both) would wear Jams (remember Jams?), tropical-patterned shorts that hit right above the knee. I did not approve of any of this. I was just an everyday sort of girl, with braces and a bad complexion, but it seemed so very important to respect yourself and to respect others enough to dress with adult-level dignity.
The main problem with the Ralph Lauren suit: I couldn’t afford it. Of course I couldn’t. I was 15. But I did have a job, sort of. I babysat the two kids who lived next door. Word of my babysitting services soon got out in the neighborhood, and another set of parents asked if I’d babysit for them, and then another. Pretty soon, I had a sweet little business going. That babysitting money added up. I saved every dime. I happened to have been born a middle-class person at just the right time, and in just the right place—in the glory days of a somewhat faded but still-magnificent city—and I needed the babysitting cash for one thing only: the suit. Every Sunday after church I’d ask my parents to take me back to the Topaz Room to confirm that the suit was still there. It always was. Sometimes I’d try the suit on again. Eventually, it was moved to a sales rack in the back of the room. The Sundays passed, and I watched as the price on the tag was cut, and cut some more. (The Topaz Room always had such tremendous sales—a warning sign I didn’t know enough about the world of commerce to heed.)
With my cobbled-together babysitting money, accumulated over the course of many months, I was finally able to buy the suit. Naturally, I wore it to my main babysitting job. I loved those kids and treasured them enough to be ludicrously overdressed as I made them boxed macaroni and cheese, and as we watched Ladyhawke for the 10,000th time. When I wore the suit to school, the formidable French teacher, on study-hall duty in the cafeteria, approached me at the long table. She leaned down to speak. (But why? I didn’t even take French.) “You look very adult,” she said. This remains one of the most exciting moments of my life.
In my 10th-grade class picture, I’m wearing my glorious pinstripe suit. My braces had just come off, and I’m smiling as I’d never smiled before. I looked like a child playacting the part of an adult, but what did it matter? I was so happy. The Topaz Room taught me that clothes are dignity. They are joy.
Adrienne Miller is the author of the memoir In the Land of Men and the novel The Coast of Akron.