I’m not a black-cape-with-a-fur-collar kind of person, but when I saw it on the rack at Nordstrom, I suddenly, desperately wanted to be one. I palpated the fur, filled with longing.
“You have to get that,” said the woman who materialized behind me. “It would be perfect on you.”
She wasn’t a salesperson. She was another shopper, milling through the discount racks like I was.
“Well,” I said. “I don’t know. I don’t really like fur for ethical reasons. And it’s so hot here now, it’s hard to think about ever wearing something this heavy again.”
She agreed with me about the weather. Then she told me about the fur shawl she sometimes wears to parties, and how she ends up avoiding people when she wears it because she’s afraid they will spill food or wine on it. I laughed and we talked for a few minutes longer: I told her that I lived in the city and that it is a well-kept secret that Barneys deeply discounts some of its antique jewelry; she told me about a vintage Prada bag she got at the now-defunct Loehmann’s, somehow fitting in where her children were headed off to college.
I left Nordstrom that day without the cape, but that conversation has been on my mind ever since. Those types of random interactions with other shoppers — friendly, flattering, oddly satisfying — seem to be happening less and less these days. Granted, I’m an absurdly committed shopper, but when I’m there, it’s usually a ghost town.
Shopping in stores is becoming as old fashioned as pay phones, and without the nostalgia. I have a friend who has a pay phone in her home office and she is convinced they will become valued antiques. I am not sure stores will be as treasured. PBS recently reported on the phenomena of the “dead mall” and the Wall Street Journal described last year that Americans are massively fleeing brick-and-mortar stores.
It’s not just shopping habits that are changing; it’s also the way shopping allows us to relate to each other. In her book “Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times,” Elizabeth Wayland Barber argues that clothes have long been an important facilitator of social engagement among women. Prehistoric art depicts one or two women weaving while another entertains them with an instrument. Cloth and clothing conveyed social messages and served as a second language. Producing garments was also a vehicle for women to go into business for themselves and become powerful contributors to the economy.
Perhaps it’s this primal history that makes shopping with other women feel so transcendent. You shop, you talk, and suddenly you pause mid-sentence to touch something. It’s a generous activity — you take turns holding things up and telling the woman you are with how good it would look on her. Then, seamlessly, you return to your conversation, the mothers who are driving you crazy, the boyfriends or girlfriends who demand too much, or just how stressful it can be to figure out life and what it all means. Take away the shopping, and often the entire interaction disappears.
Of course, clothes have also been a source of division between women as well. Clothes used to define clans or groups and still send powerful messages about class status. As in ancient times, the kinds of fabrics we display on our bodies say a lot about how successful we are.
That’s a concept that resonates with me deeply. I grew up poor, and my mother hated shopping — I suppose it reminded her of what we did not have. For years I begged to get the Nike Oceania running shoes in the ’80s — the ones with the blue or red stripe — because everyone was wearing them. But my mother couldn’t, or wouldn’t, buy them. By the time I finally had saved up enough babysitting money to make them my own, they were out of style.
Friday afternoons in college meant a precious trip to a thrift store in east St. Paul, Minn. I spent hours there looking for bargains. My triumph was a brand-new, pure wool, taupe and cream Liz Claiborne sweater for $30, marked down from $150. I wore that sweater until it disintegrated into threads.
Graduate school was where I met my friend Joanne. She was older than I was, and had more money, but she was also beautiful and smart. She was the one who taught me about fabrics and what kind of pieces were timeless, as well as how to select clothes that would look good on me. She never followed me to the thrift store — she was too wealthy — but she always knew when a good Neiman Marcus sale was happening and toted me along.
These days, most of my friends shop online, and occasionally I do, too. It’s a solitary activity, but it has its advantages. The bargain hunter in me loves being able to research a jacket until I find the lowest possible price. I get an alert in my inbox when that pair of black harem Yohji Yamamoto pants goes on sale. And then there’s the sizing. I’ve never been petite — at my thinnest I’m a size 12 and often feel intimidated when I have to ask the size 0 salesperson for a larger size. Now I click a button, and the bigger size arrives in the mail a few days later, a present waiting to be unwrapped.
But I miss shopping with my friends. I also miss the friends I haven’t met yet, eager to converse about a cape, a dress, a phenomenal pair of boots.
Shopping with other women in the traditional way is only a little about finding the perfect sweater for a date and a lot more about finding connection. And I worry that things will never be the same.
Originally Published in San Francisco Chronicle — February 16, 2016