I don’t remember how much the Chanel suit was. Five thousand? Eight thousand? The prices were so unreal that they didn’t matter to me. But I remember holding the arm of a little Chanel suit, feeling the soft thick fabric, in the hushed confines of the Chanel enclosure on an upper floor of Saks, the original one, on Fifth Avenue. My sister-in-law was gaping at the prices with me, and my thirteen-year-old daughter was looking around, probably wondering how anyone could find these matronly suits attractive. Off to the side I saw two women looking at the clothes, and they were not gawking, they were shopping. Jokingly I said to my sister-in-law, “This is really not my style,” as if that were the only reason I wouldn’t be making a purchase. Turning, I saw a dress, a shift really, in shades of gray and white, with beads and sequins and feathers all over it. “Now that’s something I would wear,” I said, walking over to it. I lifted it up gently, admiring the workmanship, the pattern, the whimsical design. Saying “I wonder how much it is,” I reached inside the neckline and glanced at the price tag. “Thirty-five hundred dollars,” I said, showing it to my sister-in-law and rolling my eyes. Then I looked again. What I thought had said “3485”actually read “34865”. Thirty-five thousand dollars. For a dress.
I acknowledge that I’m no fashion plate. I don’t buy fashion magazines, I don’t follow the trends, I have no interest in it. I understand that some people are fascinated with fashion, in the same way that some people are fascinated with bacteria or genetics research. To each her own. But when I saw the price tag, I wondered what kind of a culture we live in where it’s acceptable to charge thirty-five thousand dollars for a dress, and acceptable to pay that much for one. In the end, it’s just clothing. This dress was beautiful; in fact, I would say it was a work of art. But I think it belongs in a museum, not a clothing store. And the person who’s trying to figure out how to get bacteria to digest plastic, or how to cure an inherited disease, should be getting paid as much as the designer of a dress. Otherwise what do we value in this society?