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Haul Videos: Postcards From the End of the World?

Suitcase Postcard From the End of the World
Katie Haegele on haul videos, thrift shop scores, and the pleasure of honoring personal style. 
 

So, haul videos are a thing. If you’re interested in secondhand clothing and/or you spend much time on YouTube, you may already know this. I didn’t know about haul videos for a long time, though, despite the fact that I qualify in both categories. I first saw one last year when I had a research job that required me to transcribe an incredible number of media posted to the internet. We were allowed to work with user-uploaded videos on any topic, so since clothing is kind of my thing I looked for videos about that. My searches turned up many thousands of Outfit ofthe Day videos (save yourself some trouble and just type OOTD), which was another neat discovery. So many young women—and the occasional older woman, and the occasional man—standing in their bedrooms, modeling, maybe, the new jeans they matched with a tunic top and describing how they planned to wear the outfit to school, or work, or on a picnic that is also a first date. I’ve also seen a surprising number of instructional videos in which a woman shows the different ways to fold a scarf: into turbans that collect loose hair on the top of the head, hijab to cover the hair and sometimes face, shawls for the shoulders, or that jaunty, fluffy sort of cravate that I’ve never been able to pull off without looking like my own grandmom.

I can’t truthfully say that there was a single one of these videos that I didn’t enjoy looking at. Besides the fact that I find other people’s outfit choices to be a good source of ideas for my own ever-shifting “look,” there’s something really beautiful about the existence of these videos. Actually I find all of YouTube touching that way. Something about the simple, I don’t know, faith that goes into believing that the nice little things you do are not only worth doing, but are also worth talking about or even helping other people learn to do. It’s amazing the things we can come together over: skateboarding down railings, blowing up bottles of soda with Mentos, performing that rude Cee Lo Green song in American Sign Language. There’s just so much to do.

But there is this other category of videos about clothing, and it’s called “hauls.” In a haul video, a person sits in front of her camera and holds up every piece of clothing she bought that day and describes where she got each item and how much she paid. Some of the hauls are collected on a day of shopping at regular stores—places where the stuff is new—and I tend to find those less interesting and actually a little distressing, considering how much new clothing can cost. It’s the hauls from a day of thrift store shopping (nope, still not using the word thrift as a verb) that get me excited.

Maria Bamford, a comedian I admire and whose low-fi web series “The Maria Bamford Show” causes me to bark out inelegant laugh-noises, made a sort of unkind spoof of these videos. She uses books instead of clothes to highlight, I suppose, how stupid she thinks haul videos are. Sorry Maria, but I do not find them stupid. I enjoy watching them, in part because I get a vicarious thrill out of someone else’s big score, but also for the oddball sort of community pride it gives me. We’re in this thing together, like. You found an early-'90s romper thingie with suspenders on it at the Goodwill, on sale for $3.99? Good eye. I would’ve bought that too.

 

I’ll grant you, it is a weird, late-capitalist phenomenon. We don’t get to see the purchased thing being used, even, we just learn about the purchasing itself. If shopping—spending—has become a hobby, then haul videos are ... what? Digital fanzines? Skill-sharing workshops? Postcards from the end of the world? Nah, I don’t know. I think it’s just human. Telling someone what you did today is important, and if you don’t have enough people in your life then tumblr and Twitter and YouTube are there for you, and while it might be easy to denigrate that kind of internet behavior as socially stunted I think it’s pretty lucky that we have those ways of reaching out. My high school best friend was an eccentric girl named Sara, and she’s the one who taught me how to dress cool for cheap. One day after a few hours at the nearby Salvation Army stores (and Hole in her tape deck, and some awkward attempts at smoking cigarettes in her car) we went back to my house. I sort of blasted through the front door like the jerk that I was but coming in behind me, Sara said quietly, “Do you want to show your mom the stuff we got?” Sara’s mom died young, when she and I were still teenagers. I wasn’t in the habit of showing my mother the clothing I’d found—she doesn’t care about that stuff, not the way Sara’s mom did—and I remember not especially wanting to, at first, but after a moment thinking it was a really good idea. 

***

Last week I saw the poet / hip-hop artist / all-around dreamboat Saul Williams do an unusual performance in Philadelphia. Instead of standing on the stage he jumped down and stood on the floor between the aisles, and instead of performing poem after poem he talked to us. He did some poetry too, and even sang a song without musical accompaniment, which was cool. But mostly what he did, in what he decided to call a “fake show,” was tell us stories, letting us get to know him in a way that was both more mundane and more obviously and easily intimate than his poems and songs tend to be. He also asked us questions about ourselves, and people shouted questions up to him.

“What was your first show?” someone called out, and at first he thought she meant his first performance, which got him thinking about singing in the church choir until she explained that she meant the first show he ever went to.

“Oh!” he said. Well. That was hard to answer. In a story so good it sounded made-up he told us that his mother had to be rushed out of a James Brown concert to give birth to him, making that, technically, his first show. But the first concert he went to when he was 12 or 13? Like one he decided to go to on his own, with his friends? It was at a skating rink in Newburgh, NY—The Fat Boys, Doug E. Fresh, and Slick Rick, who no one had heard of yet and at that show, anyway, was referred to mainly as Doug E. Fresh’s cousin.

“This is how I remember things,” Saul Williams said. “This is what I had on.” And he proceeded to describe every detail of the outfit he wore to that show, which I venture to say was memorable to him both because he cared so much about it and because, at least in part, he made it. He wore blue sneakers, “fake BKs” he’d found at Value City. (Remember BKs?) His jeans were light blue too and he’d begged his mom to sew creases into their fronts. “I wanted them to really pop so I asked her to do like half an inch,” he said.

He couldn’t afford a Benetton sweater but he could afford an $8 Benetton patch, which he sewed by hand onto the breast of an inexpensive light blue sweater, also from Value City. “I went into school that day like, ‘You haven’t see the new blue Benetton sweater?’” he said, doing a little strut to imitate his little teenage self, and by this time I had tears in my eyes from laughing so hard. “I love it!” a woman said from a few rows behind me. I love it too. Scouring the stores for the clothing you want isn’t the same as making it with your own hands, but it’s not altogether different either, especially when the clothing is something you have to reconfigure in some way to get it right. You’ve got to have the imagination to see the potential of the thing. It’s like making something with your eyes.

What is the moral of this story? Why have I repeated it to you here? I was thinking of saying that the point of all this is that you can’t buy style. That you don’t need much money to look good. Those ideas are true, and they have meant a great deal to me over the years, but I think more than anything I found it moving and a bit surprising that this smart, unusual artist, this bright burning star of a human being, this man, cares as much about his clothing as I care about mine. To his show I wore electric blue pumps with a low heel and a pair of lightweight, white pants that are covered in a fab, tiny geometric print of opposing triangles. I paid $2 for the pants on 50-Percent Off Day, but I had to get out my sewing machine to make them slimmer through the legs so they didn’t make me look like my own grandmom (or someone else’s, I guess, since my grandmother never wore slacks). They fit me great now, with that slightly fuller, pleated look through the hips that girls are doing these days. My top was an open-knit, cream-colored batwing thing that was all drapey and see-through and nice, and I had a dark camisole on underneath but I think next time I’ll wear something really bright under it instead. I looked good, you know? I went to the show alone. I felt shy about walking in there by myself, to a darkened club where people stood together murmuring around a bar, but I did it and my reward was looking good in close proximity to Saul Williams’ good-lookingness. He is so full of life, and sitting there I felt my own life force warm up and start to crackle in response. I know there are folks out there who think that fashion is silly, that the people who care about it are “hipsters,” and that the level of attention to one’s own appearance that must be part of the mentality that goes into making a haul video is vain and materialistic. I know this because people feel free to say things like that to me all the time. But I don’t care about them. Feeling good matters, and looking like the best possible version of yourself feels fantastic. And since I find myself living in a world that would like to make me feel 200 different kinds of bad every day, I’m gonna keep wearing my crazy stylish pants and enjoy myself doing it. I’ve never made a haul video but you can think of this as one, if you like. This week’s life haul. Here’s what I found. I really want you to see it.


 

Image by Freaktography, licensed under Creative Commons.