Fashion Statements: how to spot a serious shopper | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Fashion Statements: how to spot a serious shopper 

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We caught a glimpse of this shopper on a flyby from out of town, flitting past an Oak Street bank with impressive speed, despite her luggage. The yellow blur of her passing outfit, with its simple lines and oversized accessories, chirped "Girls' day in the big city." Savvy shoppers detect markings of a member of the species: each piece--from the tired slip-ons to the gold clip-ons--glides on and off sans zippers, buttons, buckles, or other encumbrances. This is dressing-room chic.

Our Fashion Ornithologists twisted their binocs into sharp focus, looking closer for the plumage of a highly select subspecies.

The outfit is etched into what amounts to a fashion tabula rasa--a canary two-piece ensemble with heritage in the lowly sweatsuit and pajama families. Occasionally members of the two frumpy clans get spruced up and reintroduced as "casualwear" for entertaining (or feeling casual) at home. Most of the time, they don't bother.

The only showy details on the sleep/sweat ensemble are the shoulders--dropped low, padded high, and heavily beaded, all ways of commanding attention. Muscle men, military officers, and the business-suit set rely on the same "shoulders = power" equation, usually without rhinestones.

Our shopper preens with a few carefully chosen accessories. The purse may have offered the earliest and crudest form of conspicuous consumption, back when the size of a man's money bag was supposed to reflect the amount of cash inside. Though modest in size, this zip-top shoulder bag, with its stitched-on brand-conscious crest, coyly suggests a healthy nest of credit cards inside.

Same for the newly gathered shopping bags, which brag even bigger-city (Saks Fifth Avenue and Barney's New York) pedigrees. Shopping bags, a 16th-century innovation, came in handy once shoppers moved close enough to the market to run out for just a few fresh chickens. According to Stephen Wagner and Michael Closen, in their book on shopping bags, merchants first wrapped up small purchases in leaves of unsold manuscripts (an idea that could bear revival) and eventually progressed to paper bags. But the image of country folk stocking up for the winter at the urban market lives on in this suburbanite's spree to the Magnificent Mile.

Just as the drab peacock's iridescent tail feathers flash an avian "come hither," the glint of the power shoulders, the promise of the status purse, and the achievements of the plump shopping bags have evolved to lure sales associates eager for commissions. Those showy details will guarantee an audience at Armani, despite the dowdy duds' flagrant violation of the Oak Street dress code. The Fashion Statement? "Power to the purchaser."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.

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