Saturday, November 03, 2007

a delicate matter

First let me say that I don’t shop for clothes very often.

That’ll explain why I’m trucking down Castro Street in 7 year-old boxy ugly slip-on shoes (shoes I almost didn’t buy because they looked hideous even when they were brand new), 4 year-old ripped jeans, a black tee shirt of completely unknown provenance and stain types, and socks with a threat of matching holes in both big toes. The socks were once black, but now they’re somewhere in between gray and black and brown and toe-colored. I’m not exactly a fashion plate, right? And I’m heading downtown on Muni to the belly of the beast—to the Nordstrom’s in San Francisco Centre.

I’m intimidated already.

And it’s not out of delicacy that I didn’t mention how old my bra is. It’s just too embarrassing. I think it’s at least 8 years old. Any elastic it once had is completely shot. I’m wearing it simply because it’s indecorous not to wear a bra this many years after bra burning left America’s cultural stage. Let it suffice to say that I’m not wearing this garment for support; I’m wearing it to show that I’m trying.

But I’m obviously not trying very hard.

And this is why I’m heading to Nordstrom’s.

My embarrassment at the state of my wardrobe is beginning to overwhelm my dislike for shopping. It’s been difficult to reach this state of acquiescence, but I’m there. Nordstrom’s is not alternative, not cheap, not hip: just an old-fashioned department store where a girl like me can go buy a couple of bras without too much trauma.

Ha! I lied. I’ve known from the outset it’s going to be traumatic. That’s why it’s almost 4pm before we set off for downtown and why Mark is coming with me: he’s supposed to keep me from fleeing into a bookstore or hiding in a bar once I get within range of Nordie’s.

Luckily my neighbor Evert and his crew aren’t lurking on the front porch when we set off. I’m sure he’d have something to say about this mission, something to say about my general unfashionability, something to say about the suburban impulse to frequent a chain department store, perhaps even something to say about how long elastic lasts even under the best of circumstances.

Muni’s crowded. Crowded with normal people, people who might be going shopping too. Is it that I’m agoraphobic? No. Probably not. I just don’t like shopping. I don’t like looking at my own sallow skin under fluorescent lights in an environment that has too many mirrors, too many spooky mannequins, and too much choice. Should I buy this or that? What difference does it make, I’m prone to think (perhaps audibly); at this point I usually bolt without buying anything.

Nordstrom’s is predictably jammed on a nice Saturday in October, but Mark is here to bully me into staying the course.

After some false navigational starts—three laps around the central bank of escalators, alternating clockwise and counterclockwise, to find the list of different departments—we make our way to the third level and to the hushed environment of ladies’ lingerie (as opposed to men’s lingerie—this is San Francisco, after all). And Mark drops me off. He doesn’t seem to want to hang out here any more than I do.

I wander between the racks for awhile, disoriented. Styles have changed since the last time I did this. In fact, I haven’t done this for a really long time, since I reordered what I got last time from an online catalog without setting foot in a bricks-and-mortar store. That’s right: the reason I’m here at all is because the darned manufacturer discontinued the style I used to wear. Gone. No responsibility to those who had become dependent on its consistency. I think the darned manufacturer might’ve gone out of business just to spite me.

So let’s say it’s been more like a decade since I last did this.

Pathetic, huh?

I’m sure that’s what Sylvia thought. Sylvia was my salesperson. A Latina with lots and lots of blue-green eyeshadow. My new BFF. She asked me my name and I knew it was all over: Once they know your name, you have a relationship with your salesperson and it’s going to disappoint them personally if you leave the store empty handed. Sylvia. I’m not leaving Ladies’ Lingerie without one of those sturdy brown Nordstrom bags filled with tissue paper and product hooked over my arm.

“This one’s so cute!” Sylvia says to me while we’re collecting the alternatives.


After awhile, I decode cute to mean that it has some kind of trim—a bow, or lace, or some other non-functional adornment. Or that it’s aqua or the deepest shade of violet, not a businesslike white, black, or nude (their designation, not mine). Or that it has polka-dots, which are by definition cute.

She Wore an Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. See what I mean? Cute.

“This one’s a push-up.” Sylvia holds out a very structural looking model—one that looks like it already has Madonna’s breasts in it.

To me, a push up is something you do in the Marines. “Drop and give me 50,” the drill sergeant barks. Push ups.

“Here! Try this convertible.”

Sylvia is so enthusiastic. I feel like a buzz kill. I haven’t a clue what this bra converts into. A yurt for mice, perhaps.

I’m dizzy. I begin to judge myself inadequate to perform this task. How can I even try some of these on? I’m not sure where all of the pieces go.

I remember my advisor’s wife, who was a lecturer in Linguistics, telling a joke in class that had something to do with bras. The punch line was booby hatch. She had a Polish accent and a minor neurological glitch which made her bob her head up and down as if she were in constant agreement with herself, which made the joke even stranger. I liked Bozena, so I laughed, but the utter incongruity of the joke has hung with me to this day.

Booby hatch.

I entered one of those posh fitting rooms with perhaps 8 different bras. I say “different”, but they all looked identical to me—different from what I was wearing, but probably exactly representative of the current styles.

Now the trick is to orient myself in the fitting room so I can avoid looking at my nasty scar in the mirror and struggle into these 8 ridiculous looking armatures before Sylvia returns with more. And she will: she’s already gone off to look for them.

I make an executive decision: I’ll buy any that fit without regard to price, color, or cute-itude. Or the tricks that it can do, given the right informed lingerie consumer.

Do Mormons have to wear bras along with those garments that they buy from the special Mormon store? I could convert. As long as I could ignore the bits about caffeine and alcohol and missions and so on I'd be okay. But you’re way, way ahead if you’ve already got specified garments that steer you clear of Ladies’ Lingerie at Nordstrom’s.

Way, way ahead.

“Cathy! Cathy!” Sylvia sings out as she walks along the bank of identical fitting rooms with their door closed. She’s momentarily lost me and I consider being as quiet as a mouse until she goes away.

Aw, she’s just trying to help. I meekly answer, “I’m in here,” and stick my hand out into the hall.
It’s just as I feared: she’s got more for me. I open the door a crack further and admit 2 more examples of neo-retro-postmodern undergarments. Was it the Wonderbra that caused this gradual paradigm shift? It’s almost as remarkable as that shift away from the rocket-bras of the 50s, the ones that evoke memories of Sputnik and Khruschev.

Not that Khruschev wore a bra. I think that was just J. Edgar Hoover.

I don’t want to ponder the semiotics of lingerie though. I just want to stop trying on these fiendish things—buy a couple, bade Sylvia a nice evening, and ride Muni back to the Castro, where men aren’t men and women aren’t women and I don’t feel like I’ve tunneled through a worm hole to the Stanford Shopping Center.

The thing about bras is you can’t just return them to their hangers. They don’t look the same when you try. How were they even on there in the first place? I’ve now got 10 of these that I’ve tried on and have sloppily reunited with their original hangers. They’re hanging by their straps like commuters in the bus, ready to let go at the slightest jolt. I’ve made an enormous mess.

It’s a good thing that I’ve found a couple I’m willing to buy, because otherwise I’d feel too guilty about the amount of work I’ve made for Sylvia. It’s not like folding blue jeans, where it’s obvious how to restore them to rack condition. The clerks probably have to attend special classes or a summer training camp to learn how to put a bra on a hanger.

I’m in a daze by the time I’ve proffered my credit card and start scouting for Mark. My guess is that he’s by the elevators, slowly becoming surly, but I don’t know where they’ve hidden the elevators to prevent people like me from escaping.

He calls my cell phone and reels me in. By the time I find him, my spirits are almost restored.

“I dreamed I was way out in front in my Maidenform bra.” That’s what I say to Mark and I ask him if he—as a tit-man—remembers those ads.

“No.” He looks at me like I’ve made that one up.

“I didn’t make it up. Really. There used to be ads like that. The woman would be running a foot race in her underwear. And winning. Because she was way out in front.” I tell him this, but I don’t remember whether the woman was actually just wearing underwear or whether she was wearing some other kind of athletic apparel on the bottom. Shorts, perhaps. I do remember the gist of the ads though. Would an ad like that—so sly, yet so innocent and silly—even make it to the pages of People today? I somehow doubt it.

I ask Mark if he minds me calling him a tit-man.

After giving the matter some consideration, he tells me that he doesn’t mind. “Cleavage shouldn’t be passed up. It’s there for a reason,” he tells me.

Better a tit-man than a tit-mouse I guess.

We pass Evert and a member of his posse on the way up the stairs to the front door.

We will not escape the snarky comments; I can see that. Evert is ready to pounce once he spots the Nordstrom bag that Mark is now carrying. And indeed he assumes Mark is sprucing up his look; after all, he has gone out into the wider world wearing fake Teva sandals with socks (dark socks, yet).

“How come you’re carrying the Nordstrom bag and she’s carrying the food?” He’s referring to the Chinese take out bag I’ve got in tow.

I am tempted to try the Maidenform line on him, except that after my conversation with Mark, I’m left with the vague feeling that I saw the “way out in front” ad in Mad magazine, not in a real bra ad. And I’m still shell-shocked by the shopping experience.

So much easier to shop for small appliances. Or donuts.

I'm sure that if I finally get to sleep, I'll have nightmares.


Anonymous Kristina said... saved my life. Seriously, faceted navigation of bras is the most beautiful thing ever. And then to return any that don't fit, you just use the enclosed label, tape the box shut, and drop it at any post office. No mall involved. I love the Interwebs.

Also, this made me think of the Meryn Cadell Maidenform song.

And the Blowfish Bra from those spiky bra people is going to give me nightmares. :-)

7:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There were lots of Maidenform Bra ads with the "I dreamed I was..." campaign. The one you remembered, with the woman running and the slogan, "I dreamed I was way out in front, " was a Mad Magazine spoof.

8:57 AM  

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