On the Shopping Block
Amanda Fortini reflects on how she got over her shopaphobia.
Depending on the cast of your mind and the contents of your wallet, shopping can be a sport, a luxury, a form of therapy, or sheer unadulterated drudgery. For me and, I assume, for most people, it—and I don’t mean passive window-gazing, but an active investigation of a store’s wares, with the intent and ability to buy—has been, at various moments, all of these things.
As a teenager in the Midwest, I considered shopping to be serious business. Each new purchase held a talismanic power: With this shirt, that belt, I could invent, or, more frequently in those years, reinvent myself. When, at 15, I discovered the music of Bob Dylan, I purchased a brown suede fringed jacket in a misbegotten attempt to channel my inner hippie. The coat, from the catalog outlet Spiegel, tied smartly at the waist, making it less Janis Joplin than Laurie Partridge. And the summer before my freshman year at Harvard, I assembled what I thought would be the perfect East Coast wardrobe—a mix of corduroy and wool pieces, all in autumnal colors. I envisioned Ali MacGraw in Love Story; instead, I looked as if I’d burglarized a Talbots store.
It was at Harvard that shopping first began to provoke in me a feeling of dread. Like many problems, this one had pecuniary roots. A number of my classmates were almost indecently wealthy; nothing I could afford would ever allow me to compete with women whose clothing budgets exceeded the GDPs of some small African nations. To put my problem another way: I had never even had a cocktail, let alone a cocktail dress.
How to shop for this new context? I decided to emulate those possibly apocryphal French women who purchase only a few versatile items of superior quality. I took to combing the sales racks at Saks, to scouring Newbury Street. I found that even if I returned home empty-handed, as I usually did, window-shopping could be a meditative break from the pressures of my studies. I took pleasure in simply trying on clothes, in getting out of my head and back into my body. During those years, I also discovered vintage boutiques, thrift stores, and Filene’s Basement. Back in Wheaton, Illinois, “discount store” meant Wal-Mart. Here, if the stars were aligned, I might happen upon beautiful and unique items, but at a fraction of their original cost; it felt like cheating the system, like winning the lottery.
Then I graduated—and everything changed. I’d been hired at a fashion magazine in Manhattan, and my colleagues, unlike my Harvard friends, noticed. Shopping became a job requirement. Unfortunately, a wardrobe overhaul was an unlikely prospect on an entry-level salary. I had to weigh even the smallest purchases with a rudimentary equation: How much does this subtract from my rent? In time I learned there were tricks to dressing stylishly on the cheap. If you are willing to brave women stampeding like cattle to a trough, sample sales offer inexpensive designer pieces. At one wealthy woman’s “closet clearing” sale, I found, among the tangle of desperately pawed Chanel suits, an overlooked Missoni sweater for $50.
Eventually, like most working women, I realized I had to put this shopping beast in its place. I began to stockpile basics—underpants, T-shirts—as though preparing for a natural disaster. Most of all, I stopped berating myself for binge shopping—that is, hitting the stores before special occasions, like those people who go to church only on Christmas and Easter. I will never be a strategist who maps out her wardrobe with a general’s precision. But my way has its advantages: Buying intermittently means I can pay more when I do. And while my forays are rushed, I like to think the pressure makes my eye discerning. Some can work only under deadline; this is how I shop.
These days, for someone who often writes about fashion, I shop very little. I work from home, which means I hang around in T-shirts and sneakers; when an event arises, I dash out and buy a chic dress or the season’s “right” jeans. If I return to office life one day, my eleventh-hour approach will surely change. But for now, I’m letting the quieter rhythm of my days dictate a quieter cycle of shop-going. This, I have realized, is the only way to shop.