Just recently, I bore witness to the preppiest outfit I’ve ever seen. I was at a fundraiser at Tiffany’s and suddenly, there he was, a character out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel: a slim man with his foppish brown hair combed expertly to one side, wearing the incomprehensible combination of blue striped shirt, a motley tweed blazer (Brooks Brothers?) and a pair of Nantucket Reds. He even had the gall to add a gold monogrammed pinkie ring. If nothing else, this crisp stranger embodied what fashion is often all about — creating a character (or, in this case, caricature) for yourself. What is clothing if not the latest iteration of a mood or character mask, a shield to deflect attention away from any flaw or eccentricity we might hold in education or breeding. For all I knew, my preppy friend might be a Longhorn conservative from Dallas, masking his nouveau-riche heritage with the blue-blood couture of New England, much as I have a tendency to dress above or below my pay grade, depending on the occasion. This is what makes Madison Avenue and thrift store cultures thrive with synchronized power in New York: both cultivate an immense forum for make-believe. On Fifth Avenue, near the horde of Las Vegas-sized couturiers, sits the most heralded testament to the legacy of stitches and cloth: The Met’s Costume Institute. A giant rotating collection of princesses’ ball gowns, generals’ uniforms, first ladies’ suits and socialites’ red-carpet offerings is on display to create envy in the beholder not for the glamour of the fabric but for the glamour of the role such clothing symbolizes. Think of it: how many times has a bride on her wedding day said that her dress made her “feel like a princess”? How many times has a college student wearing a suit said he felt “like a banker”? Or worse, his father? More often than not, clothes are bought for the way they transport us out of ourselves, into a world where we feel prettier or richer or preppier, rather than for the interesting stitching along the sleeve. The City Opera also cashes in on the fantasies of others with a giant thrift store whose proceeds help produce the ornate, fantastical productions at the Opera. It was there that I found the most phenomenal wedding dress — detailed, lacy, cream-colored, larger-than-life. In the rush of wanting to play the part of a French socialite marching her independence and virginity down the aisle toward the arms of her future husband, I seriously considered forking over $300. Worst comes to worst, I thought, I could just vacuum in it, pretending to clean my Rue de Rivoli apartments. But then, that’s the real question: do we buy clothes to hide ourselves or do we reveal ourselves completely in buying into our own make-believe?