Reading List May 2005

Retail Therapy

Five fictional reasons not to pay full price

Dancing Girls and Other Stories, by Margaret Atwood (1977). In "Hair Jewelry" (originally published in a 1976 issue of Ms.) a doctoral student readies herself for a doomed tryst with trips to Filene's Basement for a winter coat and a red baby-doll nightgown. Brilliantly evocative of the psychology of discount shoppers ("No one went there who did not aspire to a shape-change, a transformation, a new life, but the things never did quite fit"), and offering perhaps the first literary reference to the off-price designer-goods emporium, Atwood's story is also, incidentally, quietly perceptive about the Gothic nature of first loves.

A Pair of Silk Stockings and Other Stories, by Kate Chopin (1996). The title story, from 1897, tells how self-denying Mrs. Sommers, "who knew the value of bargains," went shopping for a few sturdy basics for her children and found herself distracted and flushed by silk stockings, reduced from $2.50 to $1.98. The upgrade in her hosiery (from cotton to silk) leads to further purchases: new boots, new kid gloves, fancy magazines. Chopin's gentle little tale about the addictive nature of luxury goods seems particularly resonant today: who hasn't entered Barneys for a pair of tights, only to exit head-to-toe in Prada?

Diary of a Provincial Lady, by E. M. Delafield (1930). Delafield's novelistic dispatches from Devon are written with a Braudelian attention to the material culture of daily life—in this instance the everyday trappings of a modern-minded, village-bound land agent's wife. Braudel found the first representation of a fork in art; Delafield offers the first of a gift certificate. While Christmas shopping, the Provincial Lady reads in a weekly that a "Giver with Restricted Means" should "let originality of thought … add character to trifling offering" by purchasing sets of beauty treatments (six for five guineas) at Madame Dolly Varden's Beauty Parlour, in Piccadilly. "Cannot visualise myself making this offer to Our Vicar's Wife," she writes, "and decide to confine myself to one-and-sixpenny calendar with picture of sunset on Scaw Fell, as usual." Bless her.

Ulysses, by James Joyce (1922). Who could fault Gerty MacDowell, the limping young woman who inspires Bloom to masturbate before her, for gaining a certain confidence from her purchase of egg-blue chenille at the Clery's summer sale? Joyce offers a sympathetic glimpse into the empowering nature of fashion wisely bought.

I'll Take It, by Paul Rudnick (1989). This early comic novel by the playwright and screenwriter tells the story of Joe Reckler, a gay Jewish son, and—who else?—his mother and her sisters on a trip to the L. L. Bean outlet store in Maine. They are a family of shoppers, who "career tchotchke-hunt," pay regular visits to favorite merchandise ("at any moment an item might shudder, gulp, and go on sale"), and see it as their duty to convert New England WASPs to the pleasures of discount, from first reduction to five-finger. Rudnick's novel is affectionate and shticky, and wickedly perceptive about consumer/status culture in eighties Manhattan, when everything was literally up for grabs.

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Sally Singer is the fashion news and features director at Vogue.

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