If You Love Something, Set It Free: on Not Getting it All in Montana

In the travel section of this month’s Elle, New York-based DJ/musician/Egyptology grad Harley Viera-Newton shares her favorite aspects of Cascade, Montana, where she takes annual fly-fishing trips with her dad, Columbia Records president Ashley Newton. This is such classic fashion magazine stuff that it’s practically a parody of itself. Young, beautiful woman whose rich parents have enabled her to have a pretend creative career? Check. (Egyptology!*) Travel to “primitive” area where she focuses on “discovering” and acquiring things? Check.

“The Great Falls Antique Mall is insane!” she says. “I spent four hours there last time. I have a hard time not getting it all.”

The stuff-collage next to her shows a secondhand Pendleton purse she found on one of her trips. “Months later she spotted an updated version at Opening Ceremony,” Elle tells us triumphantly.

Just like Montana circa 1885, or my parents’ family room circa 1992.

So when my girlfriend and I went to Montana for the first time (unless you count a childhood trip, my primary memory of which is a really bad ear infection) last week, I had the West—and the themes of discovery and acquisition that so often accompany it—on my mind.

Don’t get me wrong: I love a good thrift store find. My mom was a bargain hunter, and as a result, I never quite appreciate an item of clothing I didn’t have to riffle through a bin for. Some of this is the cultural critic in me—it’s thrilling to bring something under-appreciated into the spotlight (see Anton Ego’s beautiful soliloquy about the title dish in Ratatouille). Some of this is the cheapo (see student loan from MFA in creative writing). But some of it, I think, is a sort of creepy manifest destiny.

You always hear that small-town thrift stores have the best stuff because they haven’t been decimated by vintage retailers with visions of markups dancing through their heads. It’s unconquered territory! Full of quote-unquote savages who don’t know what they have! I can get something for almost nothing!

At a Missoula thrift store, against a soundtrack of Christian rock, I bought the shirt below. It has cowboy snaps and embroidery that make me think of Temple Grandin, and it was one of the few items that wasn’t originally from the Gap or Target or Express (because despite the small-town thrift store lore, fashion is pretty damn nationalized, if not globalized). It was also a couple of sizes too big and worn at the cuffs and collar, but I was determined to have a Souvenir From The West.**

Even cowgirls get blue shirts.

I tried to remind myself that fashion is not just about shopping, contrary to what Lucky might say, and to take photos of local style. There was a lot of plaid. There was a Native American firefighter at the airport (whom I didn’t get a picture of because I always feel like I’m going to get harshly interrogated if I take photos at the airport) wearing this shirt:

And wearing fabulous boots while they do it.

It’s a university town, and I was happily reminded of the crazy shit college students can get away with.

When you’re 19, even black socks and sandals are a Do.

I think Missoula is also a summer stop on the punk circuit. I liked that these buskers (who might have had an apartment around the corner for all I know) eschewed safety pins for a stately retro style.

They put the “great” in Great Recession.

A species I call the REI Hipster also had a strong presence in town. Take our river raft guides, who spent a good ten minutes discussing different types of outdoor attire. One of them told a story about getting a $600 Patagonia jacket for $140. But they were wary of anyone in “mountain bling”—rookies without the skill to back up their gear.

Oh captain, our captain. (That’s my girlfriend on the right; I suspect she secretly covets his non-regulation-orange lifejacket.)

At Glacier National Park, everyone was pretty much dressed for function, so my observational opportunities got even slimmer. We learned that the park was purchased by the government from the local Blackfeet tribe and converted to a park only when mining proved unprofitable. The good news is that at least they paid the natives for the land. But the neighboring remainder of the reservation, which is all flat brown plains, lacks the aesthetic punch of the park’s glacier-capped mountains and turquoise lakes.

A park promoter hired Blackfeet tribe members to greet visitors at the train station in full native regalia. It was part of a long history of indigenous people performing their native culture to meet the needs of white people obsessed with the exotic. World’s Fairs of the time were full of stolen totem poles, peaceful tribes pretending to be cannibals, Filipinos pretending to be Eskimos and other madness. It’s an amazing, theatrical, totally offensive, undeniably fascinating fashion show.

Is this like park rangers wearing tuxes and evening gowns?

If we’ve learned anything here at IBC and in postcolonial studies circles, it’s that authenticity is a moving target. This bag, sold at a “trading post” on the Blackfeet reservation, is made by a different kind of Indian.

My brain has imploded from the sheer postmodernism of this moment.

A beaded cell phone holder doesn’t exactly scream “traditional folk arts,” but do you really think that, if Columbus hadn’t sailed the ocean blue, North America would have remained in a state of unchanged noble savagery for five hundred years?

There’s an app for that. Probably.

The glaciers in Glacier National Park are melting. By one scientist’s estimate, they’ll all be gone by 2020. Just one more example of how America fails to follow that “if you love something, set it free” mantra it produces en masse on decorative plaques. Digital cameras are a great invention, because they enable tourists to follow another decorative plaque saying: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.”

Our efforts at preservation and non-ownership may be too little, too late, but they’re something. Hiking up to Grinell Glacier, where we spotted black bears and big-horned sheep, prompted lots of picture-taking. And reminded me that nature is the most exploited, most inspiring designer of all.

This season’s larvae are all over the color blocking thing.

*I have an MFA in creative writing, so it’s not like I should talk, but at least I went into lifelong debt for it.

**It’s a little weird to be in a place whose identity is so tied to its Western-ness but which is actually a full time zone east of where I live.

About Cheryl Klein

According to the ads that show up on my Facebook page, I love little vintage dresses and shoes with funky heels (and I should also consider a social work degree and self-publishing). Facebook knows too much, you guys. Other things I like: clearance racks, fingerless gloves, the phrase "a smoky eye," and clothing that reminds me of my early fashion icons--Pippi Longstocking, Punky Brewster and Laura Ingalls.

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