Project Run(A)way, Or: There’s A Reason Advice Is Free

I may never be allowed to set foot inside a Max Studio store again after today’s experience. I’d gone in innocently enough, intending to scout out the possibilities for using a most generous gift card sent to me by a very dear friend (and while it was completely unnecessary, I was shamefully delighted to receive it) several months ago.

There was only one other customer in the store, and I first saw her from the rear, deep in conversation with one of the saleswomen. The saleswoman was telling her how fabulous she looked in the dress she was trying on. And even having just walked in the door, I could detect the false notes in that enthusiastic flattery. From the rear, the customer was one of those tiny, painfully slender women for whom Size 0 is made. The dress she was modeling was a soft brown silk chiffon, with puffed cap sleeves and a drop-waist that was tied with a long, wide sash. So from the rear, she looked like a turn-of-the-last-century tween about to set her toy sailboat on the glassy surface of the nearest pond.

Then she turned around.

Perched on top of that teeny, tiny, too-thin body (because, in truth, she looked more like a fifteen-year-old in the advanced stages of an eating disorder) was – a face like mine. A mature face, with smile lines. Lots of smile lines. Upon closer inspection, it was clear she spent a hefty amount on her hair – the highlights were carefully and professionally applied, and the cut was Just So. As a woman in her fifties, she did look fabulous. But not in that dress. Thirty years ago, she could have worn the hell out of that dress, but not today. There was nothing wrong with her, and nothing wrong with the dress, but they clearly didn’t belong together.

The dress was, in a word, infantilizing. Especially given her figure. I myself gave up on puffy sleeves at least a decade ago, and the drop-waist? Sheesh. Not flattering.

So, naturally, I felt compelled to interfere, stick my nosy nose in where it so obviously didn’t belong, save this poor woman from making a dreadful, and expensive, mistake. I carried my clothing options to the fitting rooms and took the one next to hers. When I popped out to check on my own outfit in the 3-way mirror, she’d beat me to it. Only this time, thank the High Priestess of Fashion, she was trying on a different dress – black and white, sleeveless to show off her toned arms, with a gorgeous swishy skirt that would be perfect for dancing – that was lovely on her AND age-appropriate.

She made eye contact first, I swear.

“That one looks beautiful on you!” I piped up on cue. “So elegant, and, um… (Quick, what’s the opposite of ‘infantilizing’?) sophisticated.”

“Did you happen to see the other one?” she asked. “The brown one?”

“Uh… yeah.” I paused, searching for just the right tone. “Listen, you and I are about the same age, and personally, I stopped wearing puffy sleeves years ago… but it did fit you perfectly, so…” So go ahead and buy an infantilizing puffy-sleeved dress if you must.

She mentioned, with an endearingly sheepish grin, hoping to “meet somebody” at the wedding for which she needed to buy the new dress.

“Oh, in that case, you’ve got to go for the black and white. It makes much more of a statement, it’ll be great to dance in, and it’s so flattering on you.” As opposed to Puffy Sleeves, which decidedly was not.

What I didn’t realize is that the mendacious saleswoman had snuck up behind me and had been listening to most of our exchange. Her withering glance in my direction said it all – What the hell do you know about clothes anyway, wearing your wrinkled shorts in here and carrying that no-name designer-knock-off purse? – and furthermore suggested I should perish immediately in a personal shopping hell littered with ugly clothes. She fulminated some more to “her” customer about how Puffy Sleeves was gorgeous on her.

Naturally, I couldn’t let her get away with this. I mean, she was outright lying to this sweet, lonely, indecisive little woman who had a wedding to go to where she just might meet somebody and goddammit she should have a dress that suited her. And besides, the black and white dress was more expensive than Puffy Sleeves, so what was this saleswoman making such a fuss about?
I looked her up and down. She was tall – at least 5’8″, with a very European style about her. She bore more than a passing resemblance to Diane Von Furstenburg, though it pains me to admit that. The bottom line, however, is that this saleswoman could wear the proverbial brown paper bag and on her it would look like couture.

“Listen,” I drew myself up to my full 5 feet and glared at the saleswoman. “You’re tall. You can wear all the puffy sleeves you want. We, however,” and I leaned closer to my new friend, gesturing to her that we were united in this and that only I was being honest, “we are petite. And,” pointing at New Friend, “she, especially, is very… slender. We have to be careful about what we wear. We don’t want to look like we robbed our teenage daughters’ closets.” Did my new friend have a daughter? Who knows? But I do, and there’s not much in her closet I’d borrow.

And then, I swear, my new friend spoke up for herself. Finally. With surprising firmness. “I think this one,” she gestured to the black and white, “is more age-appropriate, more classic. Good for dancing. And the neckline looks better on me.” Hell yeah. Little chicken-chested thing that she was, she NEEDED that graceful draping over the bustline. She gave me a complicitous smile, and retreated to the dressing room.

I think I succeeded in my efforts not to smirk at Diane Von Furstenburg. But after my New Friend had paid for her dress and left the store, it was my turn to step up to the counter. I hesitated for just a second. But then, realizing I had nothing to lose, I met DVF’s frosty glare and in a reasonable voice I said, “OK, so I’m sorry I butted in. Will you ever let me shop here again?”
DVF was totally disarmed. She couldn’t very well say, “No, retail sucks but you should still take your money elsewhere, and never again talk one of my customers into buying a more expensive dress than the one I intended to sell her.” I could tell it hurt her to squeeze out a smile, but she did it anyway. And I appreciated the gesture.

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  1. Hopefully your new friend will meet someone 🙂 And you can shop again.

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