I didn't grow up with a normal attitude about shopping. My mother had grown up with a very glamorous mother herself, for whom shopping for a coat entailed the following: First, looking through all the magazines to see what "they" were wearing. Then, white gloves and hats would be donned for a trip into the city (San Francisco), and at each and every department store of note, several coats my grandmother chose would be tried on by my mother in turn, modeled, mulled over, examined in minute detail, and from one to three might be put on hold with an elegant saleslady. Then, it would be time for lunch, or tea, while figure faults were sighed over, and the pros and cons of each coat were weighed. After lunch, or tea, the coats on hold at each store were revisited and considered. The end of the day might, or might not, produce a coat, but according to my mother what it did produce was headaches, nausea, dizziness, spots before the eyes, dry mouth, palpitations, sweating, as well as monumental feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy.
All this would be related to me by my mother as we set out once a year to buy me whatever clothes that Mom had been finally made to concede were going to have to be bought for me. Since Mom would probably have preferred to spend a day getting her eyelids tattooed by naked Aborigines she'd have put the shopping trip off for some time, so chances are my very appearance was a reproach to her mothering skills. I brushed my hair, much as my mother herself did, as an afterthought, and sometimes not at all, so that it was usually a giant tangle in the back that took half an hour and a lot of tears and cream rinse for me to unsnarl at bathtime. I had shapely little legs but somehow my itchy woolly tights always bagged out at the ankles, making me look like one of those little old ladies with piano legs, and my clothes were wrinkled, shabby, and usually either hopelessly too large or too small. So Mom, looking my way with a critical eye through her cigarette smoke as she drank the morning's first cup of black coffee, was doubly challenged by the demands of the day; not only did the clothes have to be purchased, but since the point of shopping was that, ideally, I would be a bit less of a visual reproach to her mothering skills when I was decently dressed, then the clothes purchased might perhaps actually require some thought. In theory. But it was early yet.
Mother would be wearing her hair in it's perpetual French Twist, a bouclé suit, square-toed pumps, a little ineffectual handbag over one shoulder. In the handbag were a coral lipstick, a rather battered red leather wallet containing several charge plates to Fifth Avenue stores she loathed and rarely frequented. More importantly, inside the bag under her handkerchief, were her old fashioned filterless Philip Morris Commanders, and her little gold lighter, for moral support. Whatever I was wearing, when I appeared downstairs, would be wrong. A quick up-and-down appraisal confirmed the reproach of everything about me. Then a shrug , another cup of coffee for Mom while I squirmed out of my skin with anticipation, and then off we went.
The problem was, that by the time we got to Best & Co., or Martins', or Saks, or whichever store Mom had decided would be the least fraught with tension, Mom had been running through endless scenarios in her head and had already had several ugly scenes with imaginary saleshelp and rude shoppers, so that the slightest interaction with anyone brought out her worst demons. An angry letter in a file years later alluded to some reason she'd never liked Macy's, but she'd always told me that the reason was that the store---well it was just tacky.
Mom would storm into the store, shoulders forward, heads down, arms swinging, black-browed and determined, me practically running to keep up and herding my baby sister along, she oblivious of Mom's mood and prattling gaily, running towards whatever pretty thing catches her eye until I manage to steer her giggling back towards our rapidly vanishing mother, I catch a glimpse of the salt-and-pepper suit through the crowd and catch up with her just as she steps into the elevator, she gives my sister a dirty look as the baby prattle of observations fill the elevator and people turn and smile us all indulgently.
We step off into Heaven. While living in my hand-me-downs from Helen and Anita up the street, I have been dreaming of some sparkly fairy godmother tapping me with her wand, dressing me in bellbottoms, miniskirts, the kinds of fashionable things my friends in school wear. Now, my eyes are dazzled by fringe, suede, chains, peace signs, paisley, purple, Peter Max, Pop Art, far-out movie posters, go-go boots, yes!!! This is it, the motherlode of fashion at Best & Co., I've never seen so many things at once, outside of a candy store, that made my mouth water. But the look on my mother's face is reminding me of real life, that we aren't going to come home with armloads of exciting clothes that make me look like Twiggy.We're going to come home with some baggy tights and a jumper, most likely, if I'm lucky mom will get tired and give on on something really crazy. Things are looking good for the latter plan, because Mom has that migraine-attack face-freeze thing happening and I can see her eyes glazing over already.
The fact that I ended up with the grooviest clothes I have ever owned doesn't make my memories of that trip to Best & Co. any less loaded with guilt for having needed clothes and thereby sacrificed my poor mother on the altar of motherhood and caused her to have a migraine. I was also, alas, unable to reign in my sister's exuberance, which was needling Mom's fragile equilibrium. Finally, my sister had a meltdown. A rolling-on-the-floor, screaming-at-the-top-of-her-lungs meltdown. I'm sure my child's pragmatic and mercenary nature was very calculatedly attuned to the situation, because I can enumerate for you the fruits of that journey:
1. a pair of white faux-leather pants with hippie fringe up the sides. I later pitch a fit myself for being sent home with the mumps from a class ice=skating excursion, I was wearing these for the first time and had visions of the impression of Bohemian chic I would create.
2. a faux-fur jumper with a gold-tone link chain belt around its dropped waist, two contrast-stitched front kangaroo pockets, very Mary Quant.
3. a suede fringed vest, the fringe being around 3' long.
4 purple tights with peace signs going up the outer side of my legs, I loved those tights to distraction.
5. A leather belt whose clasp consisted of two brass hands, suggestively gripped just below my belly button on a pair of jeans.
These items were the apex of my style chart in Elementary school, I had nothing more until some years later when I was given clothing allowance. Still, that allowance wasn't large enough to underwrite shopping excursions for glamorous items and I always remembered my trip to Best and Co. with wistful happiness.