Who Needs Pants?

ABC reporter mistakenly appears on GMA with no pants.”

USA Today, 4/28/20

Sometimes I think about the things my children take for granted that didn’t exist when I was a kid: cell phones, Uber, the Kardashians. Lately, I’ve been wondering whether this generation of young people will remember a time when we changed out of our pajamas and into actual clothes to attend in-person meetings. In the days of COVID-19, I remain in my sleepwear all day and night, with the possible exception of a top-half wardrobe substitution for a Zoom funeral. Sometimes not even then–I mean, the dearly departed won’t notice, right?

Not only is there no need to dress up, there’s no ability to shop. I suspect this sudden and total disappearance of retail therapy is adding to the misery of our current situation for many people.

For me, it’s a fantasy come true.

I remember a morning in long-ago February, before we were all sentenced to shelter at home, when I woke up in a cold sweat because I realized that I, like the ABC reporter, had no pants. To be more precise, I didn’t have that one pair of pants that’s the staple of every woman’s wardrobe: black wool/poly blend slacks that you can wear to jury duty in the morning and on a first date in the evening. I panicked, not because I had either jury duty or a first date scheduled, but because I would need to shop for said pair of pants.

I have an aversion to shopping. This isn’t a statement lightly made from a girl who grew up in Great Neck, retail mecca of Long Island, where your first solo outing clutching your mother’s credit card to purchase new shoes at Jildor or the latest $300 pair of leggings at the boutique du jour is a sacred rite of passage far surpassing any religious milestone. An inability to hit the stores–just the thought of which gives me a rash–is a serious social affliction.

My shopping anxiety, like all good disorders, has its roots in my childhood and can be genetically traced to my parents, depression era babies who knew the value of a dollar. Although we lived in an affluent suburb, my mother never once entered any of the dozens of high-end clothing stores that lined the main thoroughfare of our town. Other people flocked from all over the country to this shopping district, sometimes in combination with a trip to the nearby Miracle Mile[1], but not my mother. Instead, when I needed a sweater for school or a dress for a party, I was shlepped to Queens.

And not just anywhere in Queens: only to Loehmanns. There, under the purposefully dimmed lights and surrounded by our fellow bargain shoppers and the musty smell of the clothes, my mother would patiently search the racks, waiting for that eureka moment when she would uncover a name brand amidst the shmatas, inexplicably marked down to $4.99. That it was not last year’s style but a style from the last century, and not even close to my size, did not dampen my mother’s treasure-hunting enthusiasm.

Trying on clothes at Loehmanns was its own brand of torture. I’d like to meet the man who came up with the idea of the communal fitting room. I say “man” because it is unfathomable that any woman would think it was a good idea for non-Kardashians, that is regular girls and women ranging from 13 years-old to 93, weighing 85 pounds to 285 pounds, standing four feet six to six foot four, unblemished or covered in eczema, and every level of fitness from superwoman to couch potato, to strip down to their underwear in front of each other. As a short, somewhat chubby teen, I found the experience invariably humiliating. Added to the general distress of parading around half-naked, everyone else’s mother and aunt and grandmother had an opinion on whatever you were trying on. “That hemline is too short for a shiva,” one bubbe clucking her tongue would say; “how will you catch a man at the wedding in that? Show a little leg,” another with varicose veins like a subway map would comment.

For really special occasions, my mother felt she couldn’t trust her own judgement and I would be dragged into the corner of the fitting room where Lena held court. “Lena knows fit,” my mother would say. “Lena has excellent taste.” Lena was an elderly woman with no known surname from the Old Country, with a strong Eastern European accent that I couldn’t begin to understand and who fit into her own clothes much like the stuffed cabbage she’d had for lunch. My mother would make me parade in front of Lena for approval, which of course, always came–she wasn’t sitting in the dressing room for kicks, she worked for the store. Nonetheless, when she pronounced the dress appropriate and a good fit, there was no more discussion.

My inability to shop like a normal person is not only attributable to my mother’s allegiance to Loehmanns. My father played his part as well. The shopping destination that my father approved of was the Lower East Side. By the 1970’s, what once had indeed been a haven of good value for Jews with a feel for a deal and a yen for a pickle, was largely a shadow of its former self. Some things were set in stone. One never bought luggage except on the Lower East Side, and certainly not bras, underwear, socks or sunglasses. Once, as a teenager, I begged for the designer jeans which were all the rage among my Junior High School peers. On any given Saturday afternoon when I would venture into “town” for a slice of pizza, the girls in my grade would sashay down Middle Neck Road in their super-snug Jordache and Gloria Vanderbilt and Sassoons, ducking in and out of “Camp & Campus” to buy yet another pair of at full price. My parents, on the other hand, dragged me to the Lower East Side where they triumphantly bought me one heavily discounted pair and a striped Izod velour top with the little alligator “to make an outfit.” I was so scarred by the experience, those remain the only pair of designer jeans I have ever owned.

Two things have saved me from having a wardrobe so spare that I might be forced to stay in COVID-19 isolation for the rest of my life. The first is the advent of Stitch Fix. I can, now, with complete plausibility if not guaranteed results, allow an algorithm in Asia with a trendy name like Caitlin or Meghan, who has never seen me and knows nothing about my body or the way that I dress, pick out six items a month and send them to me, free shipping, to try on in the comfort of my own home. Although my success rate is hovering near 2%, (where did Caitlin think I was going in that pink boa and black mini skirt?) and I have to fork out a $20 styling fee each time I allow Meghan to send whatever excess stock my way, I still consider this a big advance.

But my real savior is my husband. As poor a shopper as I am, he loves to visit stores, chat with the salespeople, and pull out his credit card. Not for himself, but for me. Since the early years of our marriage, he has revelled in the challenge of shopping for me, especially at sample sales of expensive designer clothing where you can’t return what doesn’t fit. My husband’s efforts have largely prevailed in keeping me suitably clothed. Lately, though, when he shops the sample sales, he seems to have in his mind’s eye the figure I possessed as a new bride, rather than the one that now more closely resembles Lena. Three or four times, he’s come home with beautiful designer blouses in silk and lace that I couldn’t possibly button over my middle-age tummy. I was forced to forbid further expenditures on clothes I could neither wear nor return.

My husband did not give up. The last time I hit pay dirt. No longer able to shop for me on the boulevards of Paris and Milan since his business trips were grounded by COVID-19, he gave me the free pajamas they give out in business class. They are the single greatest wardrobe item I have ever owned. They are long sleeved and long pants, super soft cotton, in a prison gray. They are free, and I didn’t need to shop for them. And they are perfect for all occasions during the Corona crisis. I may never take them off.

[1] An upscale Long Island mall memorialized by Billy Joel in his song “It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me,” where the only vendor selling anything marginally affordable was the Swenson’s ice cream store.

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