‘What size do you like better?
Pulling up the mental image of the size 27 high-rise straight-leg jeans for comparison, I make meaningful eye contact with the customer. I pause, carefully selecting my HR-approved words. Channeling a supportive friend-of-a-friend, I lightly say, ‘I mean, I think the size 28 is just a different look’ (meaning: they’re way too big). She stares at herself in the oversized mirror with dissatisfaction. I internally cringe at the frequency with which I offer these preordained phrases.
When she glances towards her thighs, I look away, imagining that I’m giving her some privacy. Eyes cast down; I register the scent of body odour billowing between the dressing rooms. Do the customers smell that too? And the dust bunny tucked beneath the table leg. I make a mental note to grab the broom. Remembering my purpose, I assure her, ‘They both look great on you – you should do what feels right to you.’ I nod vigorously to emphasise my sincerity.
Turning away from the mirror, she suddenly smiles. Her eyes sparkle with gratitude. She thanks me and laughs, ‘This feels like going to therapy.’
After finishing my master’s degree, I worked in retail for six months while searching for a position in my academic field. It was the inaugural physical store of a digital-first brand: a store designed to reflect the online experience – as well as the millennial one. Constructed in glass, mesh, and resplendent with iPads, the brick-and-mortar was a self-referential, minimalist haven. It was supposed to be a space for customers to better understand fit, colour, material, but, as a bonus, the shop served as a place of emotional support, delivered through human contact. The digital experience had had everything – stock, efficiency, strong customer service, modern sensibility – except external validation.
It was in this muddle of flattery and validation that I found adequate justification for the exhausting, endless labour. Each day, I witnessed people study, scrutinise, and compare their bodies before the wall-sized mirror. No matter how favourable their assessment, the fitting rooms were fraught with the relics of a lifetime of insidious, internalised notions of what a body – and, especially, a woman’s body – should look like. On my best days, I saw my time in the fitting rooms (‘Fits’ in retail lingo) as front-line body positivity – or, at least, as an inoffensive mood-booster.
With wild abandon I threw compliments, eased egos, and reassuringly declared, ‘Oh yeah, the dark dyes make the jeans run so small.’ When a customer told me she looked like a potato, I insisted otherwise: ‘Just try these jeans instead.’
Although I complimented freely, I streamlined my vocabulary to reflect my own principles, hoping that they might catch on. There was a fine line between being ‘supportive’ and actually upholding patriarchal standards. I constantly pivoted as to whether or not I could use the word ‘flattering’ – until I eventually blacklisted the term.
Otherwise, making the customers happy was a simple procedure. I quickly realised that the concept of ‘Retail Therapy’ was more than nonchalantly blowing a month’s income post-breakup; it was something far more potent. It was the power, the privilege, the perceived purity of a compliment by a seemingly objective third-party. When a customer steps out of a fitting room, before an enormous mirror, she is asking to be seen, noticed, soothed. Shopping, for all its self-expression, is ultimately a self-reinforcing act of collaboration.
And it is the most unsure customers that I remember best: Sarah, who was looking for her perfect denim jacket, the Dutch girl who couldn’t decide between the red heels, or the pink. All of the women who were terrified of trying on clothes that might be too small. For them, in spite of the commodification of human contact, clothes weren’t commodities, they were essential subjects in their lives. They were staking their presentation, their memories on that just-right shade of silk.
Virginia Woolf considers something of this concept in ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure.’ The essay has been oft quoted for its perambulating passages about London, or how a city transforms a personality. In it, Woolf abandons the soul-drenched comfort of her home and leaps into the streets, headfirst into the ‘champagne brightness’ of winter. She paints what she sees; she peers into the polished surfaces, lingering, imagining, until she asks, ‘What, then, is it like to be a dwarf?’
Woolf asks, and Woolf answers. She walks into a shop – taking you with her – and watches a dwarf enter, accompanied by two ‘normal’ sized women. Woolf, much like the shopkeepers, is stunned and fascinated to discover that the dwarf is in possession of ‘the shapely, perfectly proportioned foot of a well-grown woman.’ With pride in her ‘arched’ and ‘aristocratic’ feet, the customer ‘sent for shoe after shoe; she tried on pair after pair.’ At one point:
She got up and pirouetted before a glass which reflected the foot only in yellow shoes, in fawn shoes, in shoes of lizard skin. She raised her little skirts and displayed her little legs. She was thinking that, after all, feet are the most important part of the whole person; women, she said to herself, have been loved for their feet alone. Seeing nothing but her feet, she imagined perhaps that the rest of her body was of a piece with those beautiful feet. She was shabbily dressed, but she was ready to lavish any money upon her shoes.
The scene reads unsettlingly, for its seemingly callous placement in the essay, as well as its suggestion. In Woolf’s telling, the dwarf feels – literally – whole when in the beautiful, man-made products that celebrate the single way in which she conforms. In contrast, the dwarf’s skirts and legs are ‘little,’ which, in this anaphoric description, reads as condescending.
The customer’s decision-making process is lengthy, as she extends her fantasy of head-to-toe beauty as long as she possibly can. The shopgirl is ‘good-humoured;’ she indulges her customer, knowing it ‘was the only occasion upon which she was not afraid of being looked at but positively craved attention.’ The shopgirl says something complimentary, and the customer’s face lights ‘up in ecstasy.’
The customer knows exactly what she seeks in Woolf’s story. Before she even enters the shop, she seems to have envisioned – even experienced – the flattery. Her anticipation of flattery compounds its effect. It doesn’t matter what she buys (Woolf never tells us), because the encounter, more than the pattern or style, imbues the shoes with meaning.
When the dwarf finally leaves with her benevolent companions, ‘the ecstasy faded, knowledge returned, the old peevishness, the old apology came back, and by the time she had reached the street again she had become a dwarf only.’
As soon as the dwarf vanishes into the streets, her shape returns. Reality’s rubber band snaps back. The shopping experience, Woolf implies, is a well-crafted fantasy. The conversation, much like the actual process, is transactional. Customer needs moral support; shopkeeper needs commission. Why wouldn’t you sell kindness?
When I’m about to repeat my earnest nod, my customer’s friend reappears and lands on the cushioned bench, still staring at her phone: ‘I love the fit on those.’ I go back to refolding my Sisyphean pile of cashmere, though I can hear the customer talk about me (‘She says that you can wear them either way’).
Her friend, distracted, abandons her in favour of the shoe department, and I inquire as to the purpose of the jeans. Does she already have a solid pair of black jeans? What is her office like – could she potentially wear them to work? I practice the deep listening I once learned about in a career prep session. She divulges the contents of her wardrobe, her office style, her typical weekend activities. I become irrationally emotionally invested. I imagine the future of these jeans, all of the scenarios in which they could potentially appear in her life.
I knit my brows, ‘It sounds like you’re leaning toward the 27?’ She admits yes – interrupting herself to acknowledge how much of my time (fourteen minutes) she has claimed. I pooh-pooh the outrageous suggestion, ‘I know how important these decisions can be.’ I share a well-worn tale of my own favourite straight-legs, and then she ventures into her dressing room.
Minutes later, she emerges to purchase the size 27, and I move on to my next client.
Sarah Bochicchio is an American writer and a graduate of Brown and Oxford, whose recent work has, in her own words, focused on how the clothing choices of women in power act as cultural barometers, and how we can rewrite narratives of gender history through the objects closest to the body.