Consuming Angels

“Poodle!” I said, proudly displaying the six skeins of kinky, freshly frogged yarn.

“What did you take apart?” DH asked.

“Remember that sweater I wore this morning?”

On 1 January 2009, my New Year resolution was to buy no new clothes for the year, with the corollary that I would also actively pare down the existing wardrobe.  I fell off the wagon with a solid thump in late March …  It was a frosty morning, and there was melting ice and snow on the sidewalks and streets from a spring storm that had blown through the day before.  I had a steaming mug of coffee in one hand, a volume of Henry James short stories in the other, and I was thinking that perhaps a dessert would be in order.  Then I saw IT — from across the street, a horizontally pleated black-and-white sheath in the beautifully curved window of a high-end boutique.  The store wasn’t open yet, so I thought it was safe to take a closer look — and besides (I told myself), it really was time that I, an architectural historian, had a good look at the restoration work  the owners had done on the Art Deco building.  Unfortunately, the saleswoman saw me …  and she opened the door and assured me that she was indeed open and wouldn’t I like to try on the dress because she was sure she could find one in my size.

I had not been inside the store since its restoration — in its previous incarnation it had been a schlocky costume shop well-known for its Halloween displays of mannequins with hatchets buried in various body parts.  The shop (mercifully) relocated, and the building, which had originally been a fine clothing store, returned to its roots.  Like all smart business owners, the new tenant understood her target clientele — women of a certain age who valued quality and longevity over ephemeral trends, who appreciated a low-key shopping experience, and who had the money to expend on the services offered.  It was a warm and inviting space, a hint of  luxury and  perhaps of the boudoir.  The sales staff were properly mature women — no teenagers or twenty-somethings telling me what would look “so cute!” on me.  They sized me up as someone who needed a gentle but firm hand; they knew their business.

Julian's Ladies Ready to Wear Store, c. 1950

My saleswoman didn’t in fact find the dress in my size, but she found an entirely different frock — a black-and-white polka-dotted number with a lovely draped back — in my size.  And despite the sports bra and the clogs I was wearing that day, the dress was so unexpectedly chic and sophisticated that I thought I was chic and sophisticated.  I bought the dress with the understanding that I would take it with me to London and wear it to some fancy restaurant.  Or something along that line.

Eight months later, I still haven’t worn the dress.  I just don’t have the right shoes, see.  My fashionista GF tells me I need to have some heel-y sling-backs.  Well …  what do I know?

On the other hand, except for that one fabulous dress, I have stuck to the resolution.  The interesting thing is that it has become increasingly easy not to buy, because it has become a habit.  There is something soothing about looking in the closet and seeing the essentials, and thinking that perhaps I have gotten to the point that I do indeed dress for myself and not for other women.  That is, until I catch a glimpse of the fashion industry.

I admit to liking Ralph Lauren.  I once owned a navy blue riding skirt, the kind with a full sweep that should be worn by someone tall and slender, preferably with impeccably groomed hair and shiny black boots.  I was of course not tall or slender or of Anglo-Saxon descent, but nevertheless I thought I could be part of his myth-making.  And that is what Ralph Lauren does: he is a master at  creating a mood and a story that reflects, manipulates, and directs the American psyche and its understanding — and interpretation — of itself.  I hate his current “Depression chic” with its ragged jeans and overalls, floral house dresses, newsboy hats — all worn with stiletto shoes, of course, and probably diamonds too.  It’s a perverse imagery of economic hardship, then and now, of what poverty looks like, feels like, tastes like.  Slumming is weird.

So I keep going into my sweater pile and consigning various projects to the frog pond, as though this would somehow make me less of a consumer.  It doesn’t, of course, because most of us are not producers and haven’t been for a century or so.  But like Ralph Lauren, I also construct stories, mainly for myself, but also for others.  It’s how I know where I am.

Opie and friends, heading NE

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