- The Guardian, Friday 27 February 2009
My mother, who died at the age of 81 from a condition called vascular dementia, could not remember the beginning of a short sentence by the time she was approaching its conclusion, which more or less eliminated from her diminishing world the pleasures of conversation. In the last weeks of her life, the part of her brain that controlled language began to malfunction and she started to speak in weird phrases which, if you listened to them carefully enough, were made up of words and syllables from both English and Yiddish, her first language, which during the long years of her illness she appeared to have completely forgotten.
Her last full, coherent, grammatically intact message to the world was uttered to my sister: "I like your earrings." Her last words to me as mother to daughter, the person she knew to be her daughter and not merely someone she knew she knew, had been stated a few months earlier: "I don't like your hair."
But before she became immobilised by incontinence and other terrible afflictions, the one activity in which my mother was still capable of participating, heart and soul, with a fully functioning mind, was shopping for clothes. She would wander along the street crying and moaning, with me gripping her arm for fear she would fall into the traffic. Her own fate was terrible to her, and she knew it. Then we would get to the small clothing section of the Upper Street [Islington] branch of Marks & Spencer and her identity re-formed; she was a human being once again, capable of assessing the quality of knits and whether this season's hemlines were flattering on her small frame. The shopper's soul-shout, "I want!", raced through her bloodstream. Once, I pointed out that M&S had introduced a delivery service for certain postcodes. "Oh, yeah?" she said. "And you'll pay through the nose for it." But a second or two later she was grasping my arm and asking had I seen the sign that announced that M&S now delivered to certain postcodes.
I took her to buy an outfit for my sister's wedding. As soon as she had ascended the escalator she seized on a Ralph Lauren skirt and Jaeger blouse. She scurried around the store holding fabrics together, "because I've got to match the navy". She cried and stamped her foot when the blouse was too big in the collar, revealing her ruined neck. I understood for the first time that she always wore a little scarf not because her old bones were cold, but because she understood the feminine arts of concealment, how to cover and flatter. She had no intention of being mutton dressed as lamb.
The outfit, which I paid for, cost a bomb. In the taxi back to the home where my sister and I had incarcerated her against her will when she was considered no longer able to function alone, she held her shopping bags with a radiant face, looked at me, eyes milky with innocence and bewilderment. "How are we related?" she asked.
My mother shopped because shopping was what she did and what she was good at. She had an unerring capacity to enter any store and pick out the most expensive item in it; she had a fantastic eye. Even though she almost never had the money to buy the best thing in the shop, she knew what the best thing was, and following on from that, the calculations you needed to make in order to get as close to it as possible: such as when the sales started, or where you could get really good copies, or which secondhand shops had the kind of stock she was looking for.
She had, in other words, taste. And she learned her taste from a variety of sources, such as reading magazines and listening to friends' recommendations, but above all, she spent a great deal of time actually in the shops, looking at things and learning how to discern the good, the bad and the very best. Friends queued up to go shopping with her, for they knew she would take them to the right places and make them try on the things that she knew would suit them.
Poor her, running headlong into the 1960s and a daughter who deliberately frayed the hems of her jeans and wore a handbag made out of a bit of old carpet, instead of Young Jaeger. But, of course, all daughters eventually turn into their mothers, and she had encoded herself inside me already.
Most hostile responses to shopping see it as an act of acquisition, of avarice and greed for things that we do not need but advertising and marketing have made us think we want, a condition that Marx called "false consciousness". We are dupes, and only the strong individualist can hold out against mass consumption. And there are others, of course, who truthfully say that they have no political objection to shopping but they just can't stand it as an activity and regard it as a waste of time.
Against whom I would set those of us who regard it as a pleasure. What does this pleasure consist of, and why do others not experience it; why do they feel, instead, a sense of panic, overwhelmed by what they describe as "too much choice"? Why do I like looking at other people's gardens, while content to allow my own to degenerate into a badly designed, overgrown jungle of strangled plants and rapacious weeds? Because I can't be bothered going out there to do the work of making it bloom. I watch the flowers wither and die from lack of water, and mourn them. But if I wake up and know, at the moment of the mind streaming back from dark into light and consciousness, that what a new navy linen jacket needs is a scarf with a bit of red in it, then I will have ants in my pants until I can get to the shops to find that scarf.
Shopping. A gerund that did not exist before the middle of the 18th century because it did not exist in the way we understand it now. It involved the single revolutionary and emancipatory act of middle-class women with disposable income being able to leave the house. Before this, the goods, or the people who made them, came to the house, either the tailors and seamstresses or the pedlars who sold door-to-door to the poor.
The first known use of the word shopping is recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary: "Ladies are said to go a Shoping, when, in the Forenoon, sick of themselves, they order the Coach, and driving from Shop to Shop." In Fanny Burney's novel, Evelina, published in 1778, the eponymous heroine, newly arrived in London, writes a letter home: "We have been a-shopping, as Mrs Mirvan calls it", which indicates that the term is new to Evelina, a girl from the provinces. The earliest example of "shopping" without the preceding "a-" is recorded in Burney's journals, from 1782: "They spent at one shopping £20 in Gauzes two or three years ago!"
The shopping that Burney's female characters did was at small drapers' shops, in London, Bath or market towns. The history of shopping as a modern activity begins in the 19th century, with the industrial revolution, mass manufacture, and the development of the department store or grand magasin. Shopping was attacked not because of consumerist materialism, but because it emancipated both the shopper and the sales girls, releasing them from the physical drudgery of domestic service and placing them into close proximity with nice things: perfumes and scarves instead of coal scuttles and chamber pots. Inside the store was a world that husbands and fathers found themselves powerless to control or organise; a place with the first Japanese tea-room (Macy's in 1878), then a restaurant that took over a whole floor (Selfridges in 1902).
Men's public spaces were bars, restaurants, billiard rooms and brothels. Women's public spaces were shops and beauty salons. Placing the restaurant and beauty salon inside the shop gave women a public arena of their own, one that men did not come into and weren't interested in coming into. And although there were no brothels inside the department stores, women found in them a new sensual seduction.
Shops, like cinemas, are dream factories. They sell glamour and illusions and unfulfillable desires. We see the goods, but most of them we can't have, yet it is usually enough to be among them, for a few hours. When I enter Selfridges on Oxford Street, I am hit in the face like a hammer with a throb of music. To walk along its vast ground floor, through cosmetics, jewellery and handbags, is to take part in a great street party, one in which strangers offer to remake your face. If I jump into a cab and make my way to Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge, I walk into a more quiet and discreet zone where an edited selection of fashion is available to examine, closely.
The point, for me, is to be in proximity to clothes. To see the things that are in the magazines. To gain some understanding of fabric, texture and colour. To hold a navy coat up against my chest to see if the shade of blue drains me, or brings some warmth to the skin. To try on a Donna Karan jersey dress I have no intention of buying because I want to understand why people rave about the cut of her clothes and how she does draping.
To shop with no intention of buying anything is to immerse yourself, for a few hours, in fashion. We civilians don't go to the shows, we have no access to the ateliers. We will never own a Hermès Birkin, but we can look, feel, experience. This is an actual Balenciaga dress. You come close to the source, the origin of what fashion is, the mutable mysteries of time and pleasure, the whole crazy changing world of style with all its moods and excesses and sudden surprises. For shopping is not necessarily the point of going to the shops. It's a meditation, a frame of mind, a therapy, a balm for the troubled soul.
I think of shopping methodology as the difference between hunting and gathering. To be in the shops is nothing to do with shopping, it's just going to take a look, and this is the true pleasure of what appears on the surface to be shopping, but is more akin to spending an hour or so in the National Gallery, wandering from room to room and educating one's eye. And it is different for men and women.
A man walks purposefully into a shop and wants to find, as quickly as possible, where they keep the shirts (preferably on the ground floor, as close as possible to the door so he doesn't get lost). He sees shirts. He sees a shirt in his size. Initially bewildered by the vexing choice on offer, dizzied and blinded by excess, he panics slightly, until, stabbing a finger, he says, "That one." The shirt is taken to the cash till; he hands over money. He expects the price of a shirt to be stable across ranges, across designers, across quality of fabric. A shirt is a shirt. How much can a shirt cost? The shirt is placed in a bag. The transaction has ceased. He leaves the shop hurriedly. Shopping is over. Possibly he will return home with the shirt, his wife will take one look and then return it the following day for a shirt that she will spend 40 minutes selecting.
Of course, this is a gross and sexist generalisation. Many men I know take as much pleasure in shopping as women do (and there are women who hate to shop), but it is women who have finely honed the gathering instinct which locks on at the moment of entering a shop.
There are two ways of shopping. One is a mission expedition, the search for the scarf with a bit of red in it to go with the linen jacket. Or a dress for a party. Or a new winter coat. Or that most exasperating of searches, shoes you can actually walk in. The second is, as I have outlined above, not actually shopping at all, but an exercise in pleasure and self-education, just to see what is in the shops.
The mission shop is a military exercise. Suppose one has, as an aim, the purchase of a winter coat, which, one has decided, will not be black but a colour. The expedition involves a survey of the winter coats and their styles this season, the length, the arrangement of the buttons (double- or single-breasted), vent at the sides or at the back. So that's one whole shopping trip, just to look at coats in general and get an idea of what's going on with coats, and what colours are around this year. Then having arrived at the colour you're looking for, say a deep, chocolate brown, you start to try on coats.
It is axiomatic that the coat that is the right chocolate brown and the right style and the right length and that fits like a glove will be by Armani and cost £1,500. Everything now descends in increasingly depressing order from that utopian perfection that you cannot afford. It has established itself as the platonic ideal of coats for which you will spend the rest of the week (or perhaps your life) searching.
Shopping to buy is hard on the feet and hard on the nerves. Whatever you want, they haven't got it in your size, or it's the wrong colour, or it makes your hips look like two ships' prows, nosing out from harbour. Sometimes one is doomed to disappointment. You don't find anything you like. You wind up with second best. You take it home, and think, "What have I just done?"
But why should shopping for clothes be any different from the rest of life, with all its sorrows and its occasional joys? This is life, not a scene from a Vogue fashion shoot, with all its airbrushed, photoshopped, sample-size perfections.
Ultimately, you will find a chocolate-brown coat. And in the years to come, photographed standing on a cold day in early February beneath the Eiffel Tower, or stepping on to the Venetian vaporetto, or just posed outside your new house, you will puzzle over the strangers in the background, the man raising his hand, the crying child, the unfamiliar colour of a front door you opened and closed for 15 years, and you will say: "I remember that coat. It took me a week to find it but it was perfect. I'll never have another as nice."
The other form of "shopping", just going to have a look at what's in the shops, which forms a major part of my recreational or work-avoiding instore activity, usually does not result in a purchase, unless it is of the order of general household maintenance: a replacement mascara, or two cosmetic products bought because if you do, you will receive, absolutely free for nothing, a makeup bag containing samples of other products, half of which you'll give to a friend's teenage daughter.
Looking, studying, thinking. Possibly trying on. Can I wear red? Possibly, but which shade of red? Picking up an armful of red tops, dresses, coats, jackets, and holding them up against you, or better still, taking them to the changing room, will give you a significant advantage when you next think that you're actually going to buy something. A new season brings new shapes, and you can't know if they'll suit you until you actually try them on.
And the shops are free. Inside them, those glittering cathedrals of beauty, as long as you're properly attired, you are welcome.
© Linda Grant 2009. Extracted from The Thoughtful Dresser by Linda Grant, published by Virago, 5 March (£11.99). To order a copy for £10.99 with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846