Through several years of reading the Clothes in Books blog of my friend, Moira Redmond, I have become aware of descriptions of clothes in books. Janice MacDonald in her series featuring Miranda “Randy” Craig, a session lecturer in English at universities in Edmonton, is very conscious of what Randy and others are wearing.
Randy, having a modest budget for clothing, admires fine clothing but must normally purchase in moderately priced stores. Most often she is focused on the sales racks.
In MacDonald’s book Hang Down Your Head, published in 2011, one of the major characters, Barbara Finster, owns three high end women’s clothing stores, boutiques seems more appropriate considering the pricing, in Edmonton and Calgary. They are modestly called the Barbara Shoppes.
As set out in my review of the book Barbara and her brother, David, have abundant attitude as they protest a huge bequest from their mother’s estate to the University of Alberta for its Folkways collection.
Insatiably curious Randy easily draws her best friend, Denise into visiting two of the stores to see what Barbara and her Shoppes are all about.
We all have our vulnerabilities. On the drive Randy frets about whether she is dressed to enter a Barbara Shoppe. Denise does little to quell the unease:
Denise raked a clinical eye over my ensemble, which consisted of red jeans, red Birkenstock rubber clogs, and a white and red striped T-shirt …. She nodded, and said that I looked as if I’d been hauled away from my prize-winning perennial garden and had a sort of Katherine Hepburn disregard for fashion.
After Denise’s mixed blessing Randy hesitates to cross the shop threshold. Denise provides tactical advice:
“Ready, Randy? Just remember, these women can smell fear. Just try to look bored and we’ll be just fine.”
As a guy I have few, if any, qualms about whether I am properly dressed for shopping and how I will be perceived in a men’s wear store but I have been married long enough to appreciate those matters are real issues for women.
Once in the store Denise recommends trying on some clothes. They will have some “entertainment shopping”. Randy doubts she is petite enough for the Barbara Shoppe. Denise advises her not to worry for “a place like this has to have sizes for the dowagers who are rich enough to not have to worry about tennis lessons”.
She soon learns another lesson on sizing for the well-to-do woman. Normally she wears a size 12 or 14 but at the Barbara Shoppe she is a size 9.
Denise, at home in any women’s clothing store, tries on an outfit that leaves the sales representative, Pia, purring:
Denise’s suit was wheat coloured, with black and gold piping around the edges of a boxy jacket and the pocket flaps. Black and gold military buttons marched down the front. Pia pulled a black suede headband from behind her back and offered it to Denise. She was right. It was perfect, pulling back Denise’s blond hair and declaring it part of the ensemble.
Pia has a recommendation for Randy:
Pia reappeared at that moment and flourished a sailor top in front of her. It was made of a thick, cream-coloured polished cotton, and navy piping was worked into two lines around the squared-off sailor collar. My mouth must have hung open because Pia beamed with a look of self-congratulation. She had my number good.
(I have done my best to find a suitable image of the fictional middy. The above photo was the best I could see online. I welcome any reader with a better image to send me the link.)
Trying it on Randy dreams:
It was perfect. It hung just to the right length to make my hips seem controllable, and felt like silk against my skin. The long sleeves ended in cuffs that looked tailored, but somehow hid an elastic making them easy to slide into. With my hair drawn back into a braid, I looked like a young Victorian girl ready to recite “The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck” for my mother’s tea party, or to be Anne Shirley’s bosom friend, Diana. I loved it. I turned to the door, and opened it. Denise and Pia were standing there, waiting, and both of them clapped spontaneously at the sight of me.
But shopping love must be priced. While reduced from $150 to $93 it remains too expensive for Randy. She leaves the store depressed. I found myself wishing her boyfriend, Steve, had been there. He would never have let her exit the store without the middy.
Denise, following a shopping principle often pressed upon me personally by Sharon, suggests they go to the other Barbara Shoppe in Edmonton to see if the middy is there at a “deeper discount”.
In the second Shoppe despair turns to joy. The middy is there in her size and marked down further because a replacement brass button has rendered it less than perfect – “[T]he rope on the anchor leads off to the left instead of the right, and it’s not top drawer brass” - though no one but an obsessive shopper would discern the flaw. For $49 Randy buys the middy.
Fewer mysteries than I would expect make clothing stores and the experience of women shopping for clothes a part of the plot.The social implications for women of budget versus luxe shopping have a dynamic of tension. Most likely I am reading the wrong mysteries for shopping scenes.
I thought MacDonald beautifully explored the pleasures and frustrations of women shopping for clothes while showing how Randy, a highly educated and confident woman, is beset with insecurities in a Barbara Shoppe.
I rarely make a specific recommendation but this is a book for you, Moira.