Shopping for women’s clothes

Diary. Friday 4th January 2008

‘If it was me, I think I’d go for a skirt and a jumper,’ I hear myself saying.

I’m stood in the women’s clothing department of Marks and Spencer in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. A grey and drizzly morning. The Ridings Centre. The New Year’s sales are heavily underway with the Christmas trimmings just about clinging on to the dyspeptic memory of 2007. Shoppers like thirsty water buffalo gathering at the swollen river. And I can’t believe those words have just left my mouth.

The truth is that I have a long history of shopping for women’s clothes. And I’m not scared to admit it. I have spent afternoons in the dry atmosphere of River Island, Top Shop, Next… fingering racks of challottes, picked my way through double breasted winter coats, selected shoes to match handbags. I’ll even confess to having a secret penchant for handbags. The colours – I saw a glossy purple one in River Island earlier. With shiny designer tags. No big deal. Modern man. It’s the new shape for the Nineties…

But now my brain registers my mouth uttering aloud, in public, those appalling words: ‘If it was me, I think I’d go for a skirt and a jumper.’

Have I reached a crisis in my masculinity? Looked at in the context I’ve just put myself in with those few words, do they indicate that there is some deep seated, vestigial need for me to wear women’s clothing? If it was me, I think I’d go for a skirt and a jumper… Put simply: am I a cross-dresser?

Turning to a full length mirror I suddenly looked at myself… I was browsing women’s clothes, haphazardly carrying a handbag, now stood by the queue for the changing rooms with a black woollen turtle neck sweater in my hand. It’ll never fit, I could almost hear the woman behind me mutter. Sceptical looks of mild disgust. Not with those shoulders.

Shaking my head slowly at my own reflection, I turned, assessed the other shoppers heading into the privacy of the changing cubicles. The old woman, heavily made up, with the hairy mole on her top lip. The well-groomed, forty-something yummy Mummy. The linking school girls with slabs of foundation cream masking their true expressions like actors in a Kabuki theatre. And surreptitiously they were looking back at me. Assumptions were being made… Or so it seemed. Or maybe I was becoming paranoid? I looked around, sweating. My clothes damp, but at the same time my skin dry and prickly. The piped seasonal music of Shakin’ Stevens and the cloying atmosphere of the air conditioning. The maze of racks. If I was becoming paranoid it was understandable. I was in a foreign country. Parachuted into occupied France, 1941. All around were hostiles speaking a foreign language with phrases like ‘cup size’, ‘drop’, and ‘gusset’ that held only a shadowy meaning to me. We’re not in training now, soldier.

For a man, shopping (either with a woman or more dangerously for a woman) for women’s clothes is akin to the Native American skull ritual. It is Richard Harris suspended by eagle claws in A man called horse screaming at the sun and wishing it all over and done with. A trial. A test of strength. A rite of passage. Like River Phoenix losing his virginity in Stand by me. But Luke Skywalker, raising rocks with Yoda on the planet Dagobah by the sheer exertion of will alone, has nothing on the man who stands in the ladies underwear section of BHS helping to pick out plain, flesh-coloured bras that won’t show nipples through thin t-shirts on holiday. This is, quite simply, an ordeal by fire.

A man in these trying circumstances is like a travel weakened Gazelle, separated from the herd, limping across the burning sands of the Serengeti under the shaded, watchful eyes of a Lion pride. You’re trespassing and you know it. A New York gang member staggering into a rival neighbourhood. The Warriors mooching nervously through the neon midnight of the Five Boroughs, desperate for the Coney Island safety of the TV & media section at House of Fraser. Mmm… quadraphonic… The discomfort crawls over your skin. Shivers in your bones. You’re not happy. You’re vulnerable. But the thing is, you daren’t switch off. Can’t afford to think of other things. Daydream your way through the experience imagining yourself on the back nine at Sandhill golf course with Tiger Woods and Diana Dors or speculating on Barnsley FC’s chances (slim to zero) in the cup. Because if you do the next thing that happens is that you slip into a Zen state of trance and find yourself staring blindly at a sexy knicker and suspenders set draped on a well-breasted mannequin. Thirty seconds later you’re suddenly aware of disapproving looks from matronly shop assistants. Pervert! they holler telepathically. Deviant!

It’s not easy. And, let’s face it: it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Because there are the moments when you’re asked for opinions. What do you think of this…? Would that suit me…? Too low…? Too high…? Minor but far-reaching predicaments. Moments to be handled delicately if they’re not to be thrown back in your face unexpectedly three weeks later. They need a deft but steady touch. But don’t just offer a bland opinion. Don’t simply nod. It’s not enough to be a yes man. You’re not looking! These are dangerous waters to be swimming in.

But the worst time comes when you’re abandoned by the changing rooms while the principle shopper goes behind the magic curtain to try on an armful of stuff. Leaving her handbag and the items she’s already selected for purchase with you for safe keeping. This is where I am now. Acutely conscious of my own presence and the turtle neck sweater in my hand, the handbag looped over my forearm. At these times I have the ploy of always picking the worst item of clothing in the store to stand next to while I wait, thinking that no one will come near. They’ll leave me alone. A quiet space amidst the madness and determined chaos as they grub about for bargains. I mean, who in all that’s right would want a halter neck top in vituperant pink with what looks like a rat drawn on it in sequins? But they do. Always. Each and every bloody time. Without sodding fail. Old women truffling through gaudy racks of velour and bry nylon for diamante spangled cocktail dresses, heads down, shoulders set to ‘stun’. Office girls draped in black, eating crisps and ‘Fruit corners’ as they cruise for velveteen cat suits. Housewives with toddlers scouring the sale bins for cheap platform sandals. And so I shuffle from place to place, afraid to wander too far from the changing rooms in case she reappears, demanding an opinion. So I’m shunted by colour-blind bargain hunters until I fall out with them all. Because there’s no peace. No zone of demarcation. No neutral country.

And so we come back to those awful, shivering words of crisis: ‘If it was me, I think I’d go for a skirt and a jumper.’ I’m stood there, my own words accusing me. The experience bearing down heavily. I hesitate. Look around. The shop assistant with the blue rinse and the land sliding chest is looking at me speculatively, walking over. Papiere, bitte! Sod it, I decide, Steve McQueen firing up the motor bike, leaping over the rows of silk scarves and panty girdles. It’s time to check out the 96 inch flat screens.


One comment

  1. Retail Therapy? My ArseIt’s always useful to establish some fundamental ground rules at the beginning of the relationship. Having said that I tried to and failed abysmally.

    In my single days any shopping trips were planned with the precision of a Second World War command…


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