The changing ritual of back to school fashion


If you've been watching TV for any longer than 15 minutes during the last couple of weeks, you've no doubt been aware that you've been inundated with back-to-school commercials. Just open the daily newspaper to the comic pages and there are at least five strips all dealing with the upcoming school year.
For some reason -- it's that time of the year that all mothers look forward to.
Nowadays, though, before you can go back to school it seems you need a laptop computer, a complete home computer mainframe and printer as backup, stacks of software to run it, a cell phone and at least a closet full of designer clothing.
Back-to-school shopping for me during those years I was in school, meant little more than going down to the local Five-'n-Dime store and picking up a new box of Crayolas in its familiar green-and-yellow box.
"Gary," my mother used to proclaim, "it's already the third week of August -- I think we'd better start thinking about getting you ready to go back to school -- you need some new clothes."
"Awwwww, mom," I'd protest, "we've still got over three weeks of summer left. Johnny an' I are gonna build a fort down in the woods today -- can't we go tomorrow?"
"Young man, if you know what's good for you, you'll be in the car and ready to go in five minutes."
We'd pile into the Dodge and head downtown, ready again to do battle with the other hordes of back-to-school shoppers; my fort would just have to wait.
The first stop would usually be at the local J.C. Penney and I'd get dragged into the boy's clothing department to try on outfits to see what sizes I was wearing that year. Every year, it seemed as though my arms and legs had grown an inch and I had picked up a little around my waist.
I didn't see why I had to be along. I mean, couldn't mom just add one number to each of the measurements and buy the stuff without me?
Mom would then pick out four long-sleeved flannel shirts (usually two plaids, a print and a solid) and two pairs of corduroy pants (a blue pair and a brown pair) and I'd almost have my new wardrobe.
The next stop, traditionally, was at the shoe store for a pair of new tennis and a pair of lace-up black oxford "good shoes." The shoe salesman would measure my foot, get the selected shoes and they'd almost always fit. I'd never be satisfied, though, until I'd looked at them in the fluoroscope -- I'll probably come down with extreme toe cancer when I'm 75 as a result of my youthful X-ray abuse.
After the shoes, we would head to the Five-'n-Dime store for "school supplies." When I was in the first grade in Cincinnati, the school supplied pencils and paper. But the pencils were so big it was like trying to write with a telephone pole and the wide-lined newsprint had chunks of wood so big embedded in it that you had to dodge around them.
We moved to Chicago the next year and when I was ready for the second grade, and from then on, I had to supply my own paper, pencils, pens, etc. But I did talk my mom into moving up to a better grade of paper.
One item that I got my choice of, in my back to school preparations, was my lunch box. The Five-'n-Dime store usually had a whole table filled with them and it was always a challenge to decide between a round-top or a flat-sided style; then the decision was between Roy Rodgers or Captain Midnight models. I ended up grabbing a Hopalong Cassidy round-top.
About the time I had moved into the sixth grade, I wasn't really interested in new lunch boxes or flannel shirts and "whistle pants" from Penney's anymore. I wanted to look sharp. I had discovered girls. That year we went shopping at the Broadway (Southern California's Nordstrom) where I became a Dobie Gillis clone.
Button-down striped sports shirts filled my closet along with polished cotton chino pants. The stop at the shoe store resulted in my purchase of my first pair of penny-loafers along with a corresponding stop at the bank for new pennies. (You just can't have new penny loafers and not have new pennies.)
That year, when I headed off to school, I thought I was cool. I mean, I had all the right clothes, the right shoes, I had even gotten my haircut. But by the time that first week had ended, however, I knew I was out of it -- a failure -- my new chinos didn't have a belt in the back just above the rear pockets. I've never recovered.
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