More than 10 years ago, I bought a pair of pants during a visit to my hometown in Texas that I still cherish and wear to this very day, though nothing about them is particularly striking. Like 92 percent of the clothing I own, they’re black. Today, they would be marketed as paperbag pants—they have a tie around the waist that I’m meant to shape into a bow, but never do, and a loose shape that tapers down to hit just above the ankles. At one point, a too-hot iron left a strange shiny patch on the front of one leg, but I’m so fond of these nondescript pants that I refuse to get rid of them. These pants, by a brand I had never heard of before and have yet to see again in the wild, survive every purge of my closet. They’re the perfect union of form, function, and comfort, a pair of pants I would wear every day of my life if I could and to almost every kind of occasion. What adds to my satisfaction is that I bought them not at a boutique or a department store, but at a Ross Dress for Less.
I never stepped foot into a Ross when I was a kid, but I loved the idea of it. Growing up, my family occupied a hazy rung of the middle classes, but we didn’t always look the part. Our suburban lawn was rarely manicured, and was instead dotted with junk, to the dismay of our neighbors. Our house was shabby and teemed with whole colonies of cockroaches. To this day, I remember the shame I felt when the mother of a friend of mine, dropping me off at home after a day spent at an amusement park, exclaimed, “You live here?” My dad, a dentist who hated being a dentist, poured all of his psychic energy and cash into pyramid schemes and con men who saw him as the easy mark that he was. He wore a version of the same denim button-down every day, always with an ink stain darkening the pocket. By extension, I and my four siblings often lacked the signifiers that would proclaim our class status to the world, not to mention invisible but more practical markers, like health insurance.
A running joke in my family is that my oldest sister only had one shirt as a child, based on photos in which she’s always wearing the same striped shirt. Most of our clothing came from thrift stores or were hand-me-downs from family friends. But every so often, a box would arrive in the mail from our aunt who lived in the suburbs of San Diego, filled with name-brand clothing still tagged “Ross Dress for Less.” These care packages included extremely cool shit, like a neon green and black polka-dotted skirt attached to a pair of bicycle shorts, a skort I still remember because I was so excited after it arrived that I ran into the bedroom I shared with my brother, hit my elbow on the door, and promptly fractured a bone in my arm. (Given our lack of health insurance, this was not exactly ideal.)
My aunt understood one of the most obvious things about this country that my parents either didn’t get, chose to ignore, or were too overwhelmed to do anything about: unless you were very rich and white, projecting your status as a member of the middle classes through conspicuous consumption was a necessary precondition of actually being, or at the very least feeling, middle class. Being “middle class” is a performance as much as it’s about numbers in a bank account—the neat, lush lawn; the clothes that are just-so; the car that’s upgraded regularly; the presentation of solid comfort. And if you could project that status on the cheap, all the better.
If Bernie Sanders was celebrated for his thrift when he and his wife Jane were photographed walking into a Ross Dress for Less last year (“Bernie needed a hat,” Jane explained), it was also a recognition of the reality of the people he champions, clinging tenuously to the dream of economic stability. Shopping at a place like Ross is not just the norm, but a way to keep a toehold on the life that most Americans want, one that now feels less like a dream and more like a mirage.
Ross’s founder, the retailer Stuart Moldaw, understood the appeal of a supposedly good deal. Moldaw, who founded Ross Dress for Less in 1982, saw the success of Marshalls and T.J. Maxx on the East coast and wanted to bring the same model of selling discounted name-brand apparel to the West. Moldaw promptly bought up an existing small chain of California-based stores named Ross Department Stores, and rebranded them into Ross Dress for Less.
The rise of these “off-price” retailers in the 1980s was part of what the historian Vicki Howard called the creation of “discount world” in her book From Main Street to Mall, which documents the rise and fall of the American department store. If Filene’s Basement had, as it claimed, “invented the bargain” for city dwellers, it was discount stores like Korvette’s, which popped up all throughout post-war suburban American, and then later on Kmart, Target, and Wal-Mart, that had, Howard wrote, “taught consumers not only to expect cut prices but also to be able to shop whenever they wanted.” But those low prices and carts full of consumer goods came at a broader social cost. As Howard noted, “The discount industry catered to the era’s growing consumerism, enabling larger proportions of the population to partake of the ‘good life,’ even as the promise of low prices came at the expense of high wages and a producer ethic.”
The suburbanization of America, with its cars and its denizens’ expectations of a bounty of affordable consumer goods, not to mention its cheaper commercial rents, had entrenched the discount shopping model. Federal policy was fueling the suburban way of life not only through (discriminatory) lending policies but by helping to make low prices and mass consumption the norm. In the 1970s, concerns over inflation led to the passage of the 1975 Consumer Goods Pricing Act, which repealed existing fair trade laws that allowed manufacturers to set prices for their goods and opened the floodgates for discounters. The economic recession of the early ’80s only made the anxious, destabilized middle classes, keen to maintain and project a certain lifestyle, even more price-conscious.
Cue stores like Ross Dress for Less, which not only capitalized on economic precarity but were able to transform these anxieties into a positive character trait. Early television ads trumpeted the discerning Ross shopper who refused to “pay department store prices” and instead went to Ross. “This season, don’t let department stores pull the wool over your eyes,” one ad entreated. As the company’s then-marketing director David Goldman put it, “We have better-educated, more discriminating consumers.” A 1985 article in Harvard Business Review on the growth of “off-price” retailers made a similar assertion: “It’s a mark of status to be able to say ‘I got it on sale,’ thereby demonstrating that the shopper is discriminating and has avoided paying the usual retail price.”
Just two years after its founding, Ross had expanded so aggressively and was so successful that some were already calling it the “retailer of the decade.” For all that the ’80s championed wealth and ostentation, the real story, when it came to clothes shopping at least, was of a squeezed middle class attempting to maintain its status for less. This has remained true through recession after recession and as the middle class has been hollowed out by debt, and as wealth inequality has skyrocketed. Ross, along with T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, and similar retailers have thrived during the past several decades when other companies have faltered. In the early months of 2008, as the Great Recession loomed, Ross prospered. As one top Ross executive put it that year, the discount store attracts people who “want a bargain” and shoppers who “need a bargain,” a distinction that has been erased over time.
Even as other retailers have continued to struggle in recent years, companies like Ross and T.J. Maxx (which now owns Marshalls) have thrived and expanded. One 2016 study by the NPD Group found that 75 percent of all apparel purchases are made at off-price retailers like Ross, Marshalls, and T.J. Maxx. As the Wall Street Journal noted this past March, “the long-term picture for off-price retailers undoubtedly looks good” given their “track record of performing well during and after economic downturns.”
But the discount dream comes with a cost. In 2016, the Obama-era Labor Department investigated dozens of garment factories in southern California and found that of all of the major chains those factories supplied, contractors for Ross Dress for Less had the most labor violations, with some workers paid as little as $4 an hour. As one factory worker who made clothing that ended up at Ross stores put it, “The stores don’t want to pay more for the clothes.” After paying for basic necessities like rent and food every month, he estimated he had $200 leftover in the bank. “If you want to go out to eat, or go to the movies, or send money to your family,” he said, “you’re left with nothing.”
Not even enough, it seems, to shop at Ross.