The Last Taboo

To understand culture one must live among its things — acquire them, discard them, and acquire them again.

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To praise shopping is to breach the last taboo of academic culture. It’s fine to admit to a taste for absinthe, a minor drug habit, or a proclivity for S&M. Such things can qualify as chic in rarified intellectual circles. But a willingness to spend an afternoon at the mall? Forget about it.

The snobbism that scorns shopping is, like all snobbism, hypocritical and selective. It makes exceptions for high-end kitchenware, first editions, sushi-grade tuna, and Rosewood pottery. Trips to Tuscany for leather goods and Paris for Louboutin shoes are permissible. But trolling for a tank top in The Limited or rifling through the racks of Ross Dress for Less are as verboten as reading a Jackie Collins novel or eating iceberg lettuce.

My intention is to blow the cover on this sort of thinking. Shopping is shopping. There are cut-rate treasures to be found in the strip malls of New Jersey, and charming bric-a-brac mixed with conventional housewares in the aisles of Pier One. If you want local color, you’ll see as much in the communal dressing rooms of Loehmann’s as on the beaches of St. Tropez.

To go shopping is not necessarily to spend money, though a willingness to spend must be present in some small degree. Window shopping is a contradiction in terms, a euphemism for “I hope I don’t buy anything.” The basic difference between going shopping and going to a museum is that, in a shop, one doesn’t have to just look. By the same token, there is a difference between shopping for something and “going shopping.” To shop for a pair of lime green shoes to match your lime green dress is to do an errand. To “go shopping” is to be open to serendipity — to be an acquisitive flaneur, a boulevardier with a credit card.

Shopping has long been associated with middle-class women. The 19th century saw the development of the arcade, the first shopping mall, a covered street of shops where women could peruse merchandise in a safe and pleasant setting. Soon the sociologist Thorstein Veblen had coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” which gave shopping a bad name, associating it with bourgeois women with too much time on their hands.

But through the lens of an evolved consciousness, things can appear differently. It may be that women have been scorned for shopping in order to divert attention from their economic power — and from their creative power as well. For the distinction between shopping and art may not be as great as we have been led to believe. Both activities require leisure and discrimination. The good shopper must survey and compare, then integrate her purchases into a lifestyle — a domestic collage. We see the blurring of shopping and art in the recent Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition of socialite Nan Kempner’s wardrobe. The towering piles of sweaters and rows upon rows of jackets that Kempner accumulated during her lifetime are lovingly documented by the curator as “pieces in her collection.” Once denigrated as a “clothes horse,” she is posthumously applauded as an “artiste.” It helps, of course, that along with her wardrobe she gave millions to the Met. I’m still waiting to see the exhibit of Imelda Marcos’ shoes, and hear that my supermarket cashier, with her astonishing collection of leather miniskirts, has had her first gallery show. But progress takes time.

This column will try to hasten that progress and level the playing field. My premise is that to be a creative shopper you need not frequent the bazaars of Istanbul, the designer showrooms of Milan, or the boutiques of Paris (though it’s nice to go there too). Wherever you are in the global economy, no matter how downscale or familiar (Kmart, Kohl’s, Costco), there are interesting items and experiences to be found.

Although I hope to touch on many kinds of shopping in this column, clothes shopping seems to me to be the purest example of the genre. Most people, by the time they reach their mid-twenties, have all the clothes they need, barring wear and tear and gross weight gain. Yet individuals on relatively modest incomes spend thousands of dollars on clothes each year. This is because the things with which we adorn our bodies are the most concrete forms of personal expression we have. To shop for clothes is to engage in a material search for the self — for its expression and potential revision in cultural space. A character in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady states this well: “What shall we call our ‘self’? Where does it begin? Where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us and flows back again. I know a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear.”

Clothes shopping appeals more to women than to men (though men do it more than they care to admit). This may be because for women it has a legacy, passed down through generations and shared through sisterhood. I learned to shop from my mother, who learned from her mother, a Russian immigrant, who began going to wholesale outlets on the lower East Side of Manhattan almost as soon as she settled in America. What did I learn from these women? How to find the nicest blouse on the rack in less than two minutes. How to look at a pair of shoes and know whether they’ll hurt as soon as I walk a block. How to imagine the way a dress will look once I cut off the appliquéd flowers. In department store dressing rooms, other women feel free to help me decide whether the skirt I’m trying on is too tight (“No one will notice it, but you’ll feel fat.”). Insofar we learn these things through the female line, shopping qualifies as a folk art.

In terms of Freudian theory, clothes shopping might be seen as a quest by women for a penis. Of course, if this were true, it would mitigate the need to have babies, which Freud said serves that function—though perhaps babies merely indulge a desire to shop for baby clothes.

In terms of postmodern psychoanalytic theory (which updates Freud into a more generalized, if obscure form), shopping may be a drive to grasp a sense of self that always eludes us. According to the theory, the mother’s gaze serves as a mirror for the infant, but a distorting mirror: the baby sees the mother reflected back. As a result of this misprision, the self is never fully accessible, always out of sync. Language is the abstract means of trying to fill the lack of existential wholeness. Shopping, I would argue, is a more concrete means. We take clothes from the racks, put them on our bodies, gaze at them in the mirror, trying to grasp and hold an always elusive self.

Shopping critics complain that we are at the mercy of changing fads and trends, which are thrust upon us by cunning marketers. They miss the point that change is the only constant (read Spenser’s Mutability Cantos), and that we contribute, even as we are shaped, by market forces. Why is the hot pink cashmere cowl-neck sweater drastically reduced if not because the public refused this particular fashion trend? And since I happen to like hot pink and cowl necks, I am the beneficiary of their refusal. I can snap it up at Marshall’s for $19.99.

To understand culture one must live among its things — acquire them, discard them, and acquire them again in an endless cycle of both adopting and rejecting conventional norms and tastes. “We’re in society, and that’s our horizon,” another Henry James character put it. Only death stops the cycle: What we wear in our coffin marks the last place we shopped.

Shopping is a quest. It is never over until we’re over. The knights didn’t slay the dragon once and be done with it; they went out to find another dragon. And I can always use another pair of shoes. • 6 August 2007

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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