Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Friday, 27 February 2009

To the shops

The Guardian today has an extract from the imminently about to be published The Thoughtful Dresser - book:

My mother, who died at the age of 81 from a condition called vascular dementia, could not remember the beginning of a short sentence by the time she was approaching its conclusion, which more or less eliminated from her diminishing world the pleasures of conversation. In the last weeks of her life, the part of her brain that controlled language began to malfunction and she started to speak in weird phrases which, if you listened to them carefully enough, were made up of words and syllables from both English and Yiddish, her first language, which during the long years of her illness she appeared to have completely forgotten.

Her last full, coherent, grammatically intact message to the world was uttered to my sister: "I like your earrings." Her last words to me as mother to daughter, the person she knew to be her daughter and not merely someone she knew she knew, had been stated a few months earlier: "I don't like your hair."

But before she became immobilised by incontinence and other terrible afflictions, the one activity in which my mother was still capable of participating, heart and soul, with a fully functioning mind, was shopping for clothes. She would wander along the street crying and moaning, with me gripping her arm for fear she would fall into the traffic. Her own fate was terrible to her, and she knew it. Then we would get to the small clothing section of the Upper Street [Islington] branch of Marks & Spencer and her identity re-formed; she was a human being once again, capable of assessing the quality of knits and whether this season's hemlines were flattering on her small frame. The shopper's soul-shout, "I want!", raced through her bloodstream. Once, I pointed out that M&S had introduced a delivery service for certain postcodes. "Oh, yeah?" she said. "And you'll pay through the nose for it." But a second or two later she was grasping my arm and asking had I seen the sign that announced that M&S now delivered to certain postcodes.

I took her to buy an outfit for my sister's wedding. As soon as she had ascended the escalator she seized on a Ralph Lauren skirt and Jaeger blouse. She scurried around the store holding fabrics together, "because I've got to match the navy". She cried and stamped her foot when the blouse was too big in the collar, revealing her ruined neck. I understood for the first time that she always wore a little scarf not because her old bones were cold, but because she understood the feminine arts of concealment, how to cover and flatter. She had no intention of being mutton dressed as lamb.

The outfit, which I paid for, cost a bomb. In the taxi back to the home where my sister and I had incarcerated her against her will when she was considered no longer able to function alone, she held her shopping bags with a radiant face, looked at me, eyes milky with innocence and bewilderment. "How are we related?" she asked.

My mother shopped because shopping was what she did and what she was good at. She had an unerring capacity to enter any store and pick out the most expensive item in it; she had a fantastic eye. Even though she almost never had the money to buy the best thing in the shop, she knew what the best thing was, and following on from that, the calculations you needed to make in order to get as close to it as possible: such as when the sales started, or where you could get really good copies, or which secondhand shops had the kind of stock she was looking for.

She had, in other words, taste. And she learned her taste from a variety of sources, such as reading magazines and listening to friends' recommendations, but above all, she spent a great deal of time actually in the shops, looking at things and learning how to discern the good, the bad and the very best. Friends queued up to go shopping with her, for they knew she would take them to the right places and make them try on the things that she knew would suit them.

Poor her, running headlong into the 1960s and a daughter who deliberately frayed the hems of her jeans and wore a handbag made out of a bit of old carpet, instead of Young Jaeger. But, of course, all daughters eventually turn into their mothers, and she had encoded herself inside me already.

Most hostile responses to shopping see it as an act of acquisition, of avarice and greed for things that we do not need but advertising and marketing have made us think we want, a condition that Marx called "false consciousness". We are dupes, and only the strong individualist can hold out against mass consumption. And there are others, of course, who truthfully say that they have no political objection to shopping but they just can't stand it as an activity and regard it as a waste of time.

Against whom I would set those of us who regard it as a pleasure. What does this pleasure consist of, and why do others not experience it; why do they feel, instead, a sense of panic, overwhelmed by what they describe as "too much choice"? Why do I like looking at other people's gardens, while content to allow my own to degenerate into a badly designed, overgrown jungle of strangled plants and rapacious weeds? Because I can't be bothered going out there to do the work of making it bloom. I watch the flowers wither and die from lack of water, and mourn them. But if I wake up and know, at the moment of the mind streaming back from dark into light and consciousness, that what a new navy linen jacket needs is a scarf with a bit of red in it, then I will have ants in my pants until I can get to the shops to find that scarf.

Shopping. A gerund that did not exist before the middle of the 18th century because it did not exist in the way we understand it now. It involved the single revolutionary and emancipatory act of middle-class women with disposable income being able to leave the house. Before this, the goods, or the people who made them, came to the house, either the tailors and seamstresses or the pedlars who sold door-to-door to the poor.

read on


debra said...

Such a treat - thank you. Can't wait to read the book.
I too have been struck by the return of false consciousness - a concept I thought had gone with the fall of the Berlin wall - as a way of dismissing, particularly women's, pleasures. What's missing from most hostile accounts of consumerism is any account of the pleasures of shopping itself - your piece captures this beautifully.

Anonymous said...

Hi Linda, it's like you walked around inside my mind. I look forward to reading your book.

Toby Wollin said...

Best shopping expedition I ever took was with my father when I was quite young, to the Lower East Side, to a dizzying emporium of fabrics called Beckensteins(which has since moved elsewhere in NYC). I have this visceral memory of the smells of the place, the beautiful tall wooden shelves with the library ladder on a track all around the top, with the ancient salesmen scurrying up and down that ladder to fish out bolts of cloth and lay them down on elderly tables and counters for my father to examine. All the while, his explaining to me about different types of woolen cloth - how flannel was nice and plush but did not wear well, so you wouldn't want it for pants, but that twills were better - 'harder' as he put it. The only problem was that if you did not steam press them correctly, they'd 'get shiny' - and make you look poor. I still have that wonderful sense of the hunt when I go into fabric stores now.

Deja Pseu said...

Love it. I ordered your book months ago and am counting the days until it's released.

Duchesse said...

Evocative, coherent, beautiful writing. Thank you so much for this generous preview.

metscan said...

What about the women-me included,who actually have no intention, have no need to buy anything special and end up buying something they just can´t resist? Btw, I loved reading your text.

Nadine said...

Lovely. Can't wait for the rest.

greying pixie said...

I was taught how to shop by my father when he took me to Paris for a long weekend when I was 17. I was in such awe of the beautiful shops but felt unworthy to enter. He gave me a long lecture about having the confidence to do exactly as I wished. Trying things out in shops, asking questions, informing oneself before buying was such an important part of spending money and I should never part with my money unless I had done so. How I looked when walking into the shop was unimportant if I had confidence in myself.

This little lesson has stuck with me all my life. I was reminded of it when reading Linda's The Clothes on their Backs. There is a similar episode in the story.

Robo said...

What a lovely excerpt! I can't wait until the book comes out in the US, although perhaps I'll have visited the UK by then. You described beautifully what I try to tell people about a-shopping. Textures, colours, shapes, patterns, all that are meant to be appreciated yet also worn and displayed.

dana said...

I love that Britishism, "to the shops." In the US, we only say, "shopping."

There's something magical about a boutique or higher price point department store, perfectly laid out to entice. But even a thrift store can have it, if you've got the willingness and time to hunt. Maybe it's the thrill of the seeking.

I come from a long line of people who had to know how to sew in order to have nice stuff at all. I think there's where some of the fear of walking into a store comes from, that maybe you shouldn't be here at all. But I love the idea of educating yourself.

corseted said...

What a touching account. I honestly feel I'm never more conscious then when I'm shopping. It's decision-making that requires so many levels of thinking and feeling, I don't see how it can be 'false'. I'm a big fan of what you call 'educating the eye', you seldom know how something will work until you put it on.

Jacq said...

Your book 'The Thoughtful dresser' arrived in the post on Friday. I took it to read on the train when I went into London on Saturday to shop (seemd apt). It made me think of my mother and her stories of refurbishing and remodelling her dresses to wear for Saturday night dances during the war (luckily she was a good seamstress)and I had a quiet weep over my tea and lemon drizzle cake in John Lewis. The shopping expedition was a success - I now have the basis of my spring wardrobe and I know Mum would have loved my new bright green jacket. I couldn't put the book down all weekend - wonderful.

Deborah from Australia said...

I am half way through THE THOUGHTFUL DRESSER and can only put it down long enough to access this site. Linda Grant is a woman born in the fifties, as I was.... but on the other side of the planet. I am not Jewish but I think that I and my two daughters are of the same female tribe. We love books and we love clothes with passion. Thank you for this book.

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