Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Land of Reinvention

The dress was scrunched up in the bottom of a bargain basket - the kind where everything is 50p, and the vast majority of items are very creased, very ugly, or very suspiciously stained. And yet, there it was. An intriguing ball of pink shimmer: somewhere between Barbie and Betty Draper (not a massive leap, given), with extra-added tawdry glitz. 

I pulled it out, sized up the slightly uneven straps and lining peeping out from the hem, and decided to take a chance. How could I not when the colour and cut immediately made me think of sixties parties, strained conversation, one too many glasses of wine, and the thrill of flitting down streets in bare legs and a thick coat? It was cheaply glamorous, and probably entirely, completely uncomfortable to wear…

It’s funny, isn't it – trying to articulate those half-flickering images we conjure up while shopping? But it’s what we so often do with clothes, especially before they're on our body. We look at them, and project onto that shape, that design, that particular silhouette, the person we might just be if we only put that garment on…

Maybe this person is you, but more practical in a robust-looking pair of Levi’s, or slightly sexier in a dress with a keyhole over the cleavage, or ready to stare down the scariest of meetings in killer ankle boots. Perhaps it’s another person altogether, embodied in a gown that suggests a palatial house, rich spouse and two ugly, tiny, yapping dogs, or a boxy black velvet jacket with military frogging and all the trappings of a goth princess who wanted to appear unapproachable but actually ended up looking like she got stuck in Camden in 2009. (Actually, neither of those sound especially appealing. Oops.)

I do this all the time when browsing. It’s registered almost without me being aware of it: this fluttering sense of abundance, of all the possible versions of myself – for better and worse - on the rail (or spread out on a sheet on the ground, or found in a 50p basket). If I choose the tailored pencil skirt and pair it with a white shirt with a stiff, ruffled collar, I’ll be a slightly different individual to the one who goes for the sweeping seventies dress with sleeves large enough to smuggle a sleeping kitten in.

See, although the ultimate aim with shopping, usually, is the locate the items that work – the ones brilliant enough to be carried home – half the pleasure can be found in this question of what-if and just-imagine. In this kingdom of the hypothetical, anything could happen. You’re fragmented into a thousand and one potential reflections. Hall of mirrors. Land of reinvention. You could be a flower child, seductress, king, airily cool minimalist, or the kind of art gallery owner you’ve never met but know must exist because you’ve seen them featured in ‘real women’ shoots in glossy magazines.

I like to think of it as the inverse Bluebeard’s closet: a space bursting with life, with all the shapes of all the women yet to be, the women who could wear them, live in them, move in them.

Of course, that’s also how we get suckered into buying so much. The whole shopping experience is geared towards tugging not only at our imagination, but our aspiration – and sense that happiness/ confidence/ beauty/ status/ power might just lie in the acquisition of an especially expensive handbag or new dress. A well-curated mannequin suggests an enhanced self, an ideal self, a projected self, a possible self that could be brought (or bought) into existence if you only had the right clothes.

But I’m still invested in the idler, more inventive side of all that imaginative potential; the chance to briefly think of clothes as costume, each offering its own accompanying character or mood. Without that chattering internal monologue, I probably wouldn’t have bought this shiny confection and ended up running around the rhododendrons last summer: briefly echoing each overwhelmingly brilliant explosion of pink. Of course, there I felt less like Betty Draper than some weird, well-attired wood nymph bemoaning the tightness of her skirt when it came to clambering up trees. Somehow though, that was even more perfect.

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