Dilettante 32: Buy Nothing Day

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The weirdo portion of America’s Gen-Xers grew up shopping in thrift stores and we love that The Kids are doing the same. We loathed the national urge to voraciously acquire “new” things. We could hear the rumble — the oncoming avalanche of consumer waste.

We didn’t see hand-me-downs as status-lowering indicators of financial ruin and sloth. While our parents ridiculed us and our peers shopped at the mall, we stayed happy on an extended treasure hunt for records and cheap clothes. (New socks and underwear though.)

These were the glorious pre-Internet-shopping days: Old people died all the time in small Midwestern towns, and their children donated items not holding sentimental value to charitable secondhand shops, without even stopping to think about how a 1930s Bakelite choker fashioned to look like autumn leaves might actually be valuable to another oddball treasure hunter.

The sameness of suburban American architecture came to a taupe crescendo in the 1980s and 1990s: No style, no flair, no standouts. The people mostly matched that look.

Then maybe sometime before the turn of the last century you moved to your college town, where the Riot Grrrls eschewed all standard notions of beauty, dyed their hair to unnatural colors, obstructed their heavily-rimmed eyes with thick black Buddy Holly specs or cat-eye glasses, stomped around in ‘50s floral-print housewife dresses and W.A.C. shoes, and dared people to think them pretty in spite of it all.

Freedom and revelation. A new kind of femininity. So liberating.

The boys similarly raised their net worth — giving manhood the finger with striped T-shirts, carefully messy hair, unathletic tennis shoes, noisy corduroys, and button-down sweaters which made them look more like little boys on their first day of school than grown men rocking out onstage. Bonus points for dirty uncombed hair.

Take that, order.

Nothing yet in the mainstream culture represented us in the ‘90s, and our defiance and inscrutability in person made us attractive to each other.

When I came of age, the tastemakers before us in our small quirky college towns had already succeeded in creating a new, democratic aesthetic — one that toppled our culture’s notions of wealth, femininity, masculinity, professionalism, art, and community.

Ooo wee oo we looked just like Buddy Holly and Mary Tyler Moore because, just like the Beats and hippies and hobos and bikers but different, we were visibly participating in a rebellion against capitalism and waste, by wantonly parading around clean and orderly taupe spaces in somebody else’s grandmother’s clothing.

Controlled carelessness was the fashion. Everyone wore ugly outfits on purpose, played their instruments sloppily, and sang like they couldn’t. Apathy became the new punk rock — which by comparison seemed far too energetic in its caring-ness.

Unlike the hippies or punks before them, this slouching horde’s dispassionate rebellion was based not on direct confrontation with the powers that be, but on the … [notices ur eyes glazing over]

Oh well, whatever. Nevermind.

After denial and anger comes acceptance, right?

Not really. We just learned not to trumpet our achievements. Or go on too long about anything. At all. To a fault.

Anyways, Adbusters started in 1989, and its Buy Nothing Day has been this writer’s favorite holiday since 1993 when I first heard about it after picking up a copy of Carrie McLaren’s legendary Stay Free! zine at a coffee shop.

McLaren later co-wrote a book called Ad Nauseam and ironically I’d ask you to consider buying it not used but new, so she can make a little more change. But not on Buy Nothing Day of course.

You might’ve also heard the name Adbusters in 2011 when they created an event called Occupy Wall Street, if not then nbd it just started off a worldwide wave of people re-taking the commons in support of their own sovereignty and that of the body republic.

They say it takes 20 years for a revolution to turn into a movement. Let’s hope Buy Nothing Day eventually becomes a more well-known phrase, holiday, idea, and/or mindset than Black Friday.

But for god’s sakes, millennials, leave the neon flight suits and ’80s box-flower dresses in the thrift stores; polite society doesn’t need to see that mess again.


Click through to read “Buy Nothing Day: Descent into the Maelstrom,” originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on November 28, 1998.

This is the 32nd entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).

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