June 28, 2007

Three women and a mall

"Do you go shopping together?" One of my conference friends asked me once, when she heard that I live in the same town as my mother.

Shopping together? I looked at her in horror. My mother and I go canoeing together, and snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. We go on walks together, or to the movies. We eat together. We talk on the phone. But shopping? It's hardly what either of us would choose as a fun activity.

Yet, somehow, this week, I found myself heading to a clothing store with my mother. Only an extreme situation could have forced us to such torture. My brother is getting married next month, and neither of us had anything to wear to the wedding.

We didn't go alone, of course. That would have been disastrous. For one thing, we are both so bad at directions that once we were in the mall, we would have been lost immediately. We'd have ended the day by wandering pathetically about the parking lot saying to each other, "What car did we bring? The red one, right?" Last time we went shopping together, which was sometime in the late 80s, we brought Kindergarten Friend, who obviously had a less traumatic childhood than I did because she somehow does not have any deep fear of department stores. This time we brought Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter, who has the useful ability to find her way around the mall and who used to claim that she actually liked to shop for clothes, although I think she's changed her mind after this trip with us.

Most of the stores we went to – and I swear, we went to every store that might possibly carry dresses – had very few summer dresses in stock. "We are clearing things out and getting ready for the fall merchandise," a clerk explained to me. That kind of thing always takes me by surprise. Summer just began – the solstice was last week. I forget that malls function on a seasonal calendar that does not correspond to anything in reality like, for instance, the actual seasons.

The few dresses left on the racks were on sale, prices wildly slashed, which would have been a good thing if they'd been in any kind of normal sizes. The choices seemed pretty dismal. Too often dressy clothes are designed for flat-chested women who are eight feet tall and three inches wide. I have breasts and hips, which seem to me normal features for a grown woman, but it's obvious that whoever designed these dresses did not take that kind of thing into account. My mother and my daughter amused themselves by repeatedly holding up dresses they knew I would hate.

"Look, here's one for you!" my daughter would yell out gleefully, holding up some kind of narrow garment in a pink floral print. Pointing out ugly dresses is so much easier than trying to find one that you might actually wear in public.

I decided to take our mission seriously. I found a dress that I thought might be acceptable and held it up to my daughter.

"You should try that on."
"Really? You think it'll look good on me?"
"No, but it'll be funny."

I explained to my daughter my theory about why trying on dress clothes – designed for style rather than function – is so frustrating. "My body looks great naked. So putting on clothes always makes it look worse, not better. It's always a losing proposition." She rolled her eyes. And going naked to my brother's wedding is not an option, as she nicely pointed out, so we continued our quest.

When my mother bravely decided to try on a dress, any dress, really, just to get us started, my daughter and I sat on a bench inside one of the dressing rooms and chatted. I was telling her how I used to come shopping here in high school with Outdoor Girl. We'd try on really expensive dresses just for the heck of it. My reminiscing was cut short when we heard hysterical laughter coming from my mother's dressing room. My daughter looked at me: "That can't be a good sign."

Then we both started shouting, "Come out! You have to show us!"

My mother did eventually find a dress that looked lovely on her, and after trying on all kinds of ridiculous dresses clearly designed for someone two feet taller than me, I did find a dress that fit me perfectly. I couldn't avoid a print, because sadly, prints seem to be in style, but I found one that was at least sort of cool looking. And it had a skirt that twirled, a most important feature for a wedding reception, where I will spend most of my time dancing. I tested the dress out by dancing around crazily, while my mother and daughter pretended they didn't know me.

"Your arms and legs are nicely tanned," my mother pointed out helpfully.

"Too bad it's a farmer's tan," my daughter snickered. She was right, of course. The deep neckline of the dress showed white skin that contrasted with my brown arms. Of course, my daughter is hardly one to sneer at uneven tans. I might have a farmer's tan, but she's got a concert tan, the kind of tan you get when you trust your younger brother to put sunscreen on you while you are standing in a dusty field in a southern state, waiting for eleven hours in the hot sun for some famous band, just to beat 80,000 unwashed, half-dressed, stoned teenagers to the front row seats that could hardly be called front row seats because no chairs are provided. At least I don't have handprints on my shoulders. Anyhow, the whole family will be up at camp all next week, living in bathing suits most of the time, so our tans will be all evened out by the time we wear our new dresses.

On the way home, in the car that had been sitting in a hot parking lot for hours and bore more than a passing resemblance to a pizza oven, we decided to cheer ourselves up by calling my youngest sister, Urban Sophisticate, who lives in the Big City Like No Other. My daughter was driving so I grabbed her cell phone.

"Hey," I said, "We're cruising through Traintrack Village and we thought we'd give you a call."

"Hey," said Urban Sophisticate, "I'm in Famous West Coast City that Cool People Refer to By Initials Only."

I am old enough to remember when telephones were attached to walls, and it is still a shock to call someone, thinking I know at least which coast she's on, only to find she's on the other side of the country.

"Mom and I were buying dresses for the wedding."

"You and Mom went shopping together? For clothes?" Her voice sounded shocked, and then worried. "You didn't buy anything, did you?"

"Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter is with us," I said.

"Oh, thank goodness."

Yeah, it's nice that my little sister has such confidence in us. As I snapped shut the cell phone, my daughter pulled into the driveway of Blonde Sister's home. "So long as we're here, let's show Blonde Cousin the dresses."

Blond Brother-in-law had installed an air conditioning unit in one of the windows, and their living room was pleasantly cool and dark compared to the steamy hot car. Blonde Niece modeled for us the dress she is wearing to the wedding, a dress she conveniently found in a drawer in her room. (That's the kind of thing that happens when you have two older sisters.) She looked beautiful, of course, because she looks beautiful in anything she wears. She told us that Drama Niece, who is going to be the "best man" for her father, was planning to play the role to the hilt by wearing a suit.

In the cool house, I stripped off my sweaty t-shirt and shorts, and tried my dress on for Blonde Niece. "What do you think of the crazy print?" I asked.

"I like it," she said. "It's kind of psychedelic."

"Yeah," said my daughter, "when she first came out of the dressing room, I felt like I was stoned."

Yep, that's the look I'm going for.


zhoen said...

Can I come join your family? Difficulty with dressy dresses 'n all.

Gannet Girl said...

I can't begin to tell you how much I enjoyed this piece, especially after reading today's style section in the paper, wherein the style editor is oh so serious about all matters related to dresses, summer wardrobes, etc.

Now I suppose I myself could get serious about it if someone would design clothing for me, a person who looks much better with her body covered! Liz Claibourne, we still need you.

S. said...

Well, not looking great naked doesn't seem to help in the clothes shopping arena, either.


Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I am totally nominating you for the TV show What Not to Wear.

Nels said...

I'm surprised you don't just buy things from LL Bean or something, seems like it would be easier and more your style.

liz said...

I am right there with you. Except I don't get lost in the mall. But I am TERRIFIC at picking out clothes for other people.

Hel said...

Your writing inspires me to keep on trying with mine.

And I am sure your dress is a good and not a bad trip.

jo(e) said...

Jennifer: I've never seen the show (we don't have cable), but my friends are always joking and saying they are going to nominate me for it. I don't think it's a compliment ....

Nels: You are right. Most of my clothes come from L.L.Bean or local thrift shops. But L.L.Bean doesn't carry anything dressy enough for a wedding.

Hel and Gannet Girl: Thanks.

Zhoen: Sure. We always have room for another extra in my family.

BeachMama said...

Jo(e) I wish you could enjoy the shopping I get to do with my Mom, we have such a great time together and buying clothes is always so much fun.

In case your tans don't even out, the best product I have found so far is Dove Glow moisturizer. Within two days of use it seems to fill in the gaps and let you glow nicely. Just in case you need it :).

BerryBird said...

I am like you in that I need serious help shopping. My sister bears the brunt of said responsibility, and lucky for her, we don't go too often. It can't possibly be fun to watch me try on a series of ill-fitting clothes. Nothing ever fits me correctly. I love that you had three generations going at it together.

Nadine said...

It seems BerryBird beat me to the punch with the theme of my intended comment. I can relate to how your daughter must feel taking you shopping.

And can I just say, how I wish I could utter those words you wrote about preferring how your body looks naked? I can't even imagine feeling that way. Maybe I need to take up bellydancing...

jo(e) said...

You know, one of the things that I dislike most about the dominant culture in our country is what it does to women's self-images and how they feel about their bodies. Women keep leaving comments or sending me emails saying that they could never say something like, "I look great naked."

I hate all the cultural influences that prevent women from realizing just how beautiful they are.

ppb said...

And your daughter? did she get a dress?

I think the 3 of you would make a good TV show.

jo(e) said...

My daughter has a more extensive wardrobe than I do. She already has a dress she could wear to a wedding.

The boys each have a dress shirt and a pair of dress pants, because they are used to dressing up for concerts and awards ceremonies at school, but we do have the problem that Boy in Black and Shaggy Hair share a pair of dress shoes. That means I have to take one of them out shopping ....

Rana said...

I actually enjoy shopping - which is good, because the results are almost always disappointing these days.

I am, as you know, slender and small of bust. I am, however, also a mature female, and, as such, have what one friend in college called "child-bearing hips."

I also love dresses, because they are so easy to put on, and when it's hot, they are comfortable.

However. Lately it seems impossible to find dresses that are not made for Barbie dolls (all boobs, no hips), apples (wide all the way down), teenage sticks (no boobs, no hips), and curvy hourglasses (boobs, hips, small waist).

Somehow, the idea that there might be women out there with small figures up top and wide hips down below has completely escaped designers. Either the top fits, but I can't get the dress down past my waist, or the hips are fine and there's enough room in the top for a second pair of breasts.

The What Not To Wear people are always nattering about finding dresses that hug your waist and "float away from the hips" - and this is one piece of their advice I actually agree with - but I have to ask: WHERE? Where exactly do these miracle dresses exist? Because I'm not seeing them ANYWHERE.

Currently, my only dresses that fit are stretchy knits, one that cost a mint and which is an ugly color (it was a gift), and a couple of old floaty hippy-style dresses that I bought in a yard sale about fifteen years ago.


Oh, and I think I look fine naked. Just not on a blog. ;)

Linda said...

Don't forget to have the boys try on their dress pants, shirts and shoes a few days before the wedding. ;-)

Rev Dr Mom said...

Well, I hope we get a picture of this psychedelic dress!

I hate malls, too. I solve that by doing all my shopping online. I highly recommend it.

purple_kangaroo said...

Oh, this post made me laugh out loud, at least 3 or 4 times. I loved it.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I'm sure your clothing is fine enough. I'd nominate you for the show only because it would be really funny to see you take them on. So far no woman has been able to make a case that clothes are not worth the effort, and I think watching you try to shop might convince them otherwise!

Also: I'm 36, and it's only recently that I think I look half as good clothed as unclothed.

Lilian said...

I'm totally with Rev Dr Mom -- I want to see yours and your mom's (if possible) dresses. I'd suggest cropping the heads out of the photo so we could see the front, not just the back ;)

As for clothes, I'm skinny and almos "bosomless" and I also don't have wide hips (only bums, thankfully) and nothing fits me either. I can buy pants and blouses in size 14 for girls, but girl dresses don't work for my 36 years old self, of course. :)

cloudscome said...

Yeah I kept thinking you were going to show us a picture of that psycedelic swirly skirt at the end of your post. Are you saving it for the wedding posts?

I always think I look better in my old clothes than in any new ones I am trying on. I often end up going home empty handed and grateful that I feel so comfy again.

Anonymous said...

The dusty field in a Southern state is just outside the towm that we went to when we went to town when I was growing up.