Changing rooms are a place of crisis. I dare you to disagree. When was the last time you felt elated standing alone in the confines of a changing room? A dress-finding mission can, too quickly, become a fault-finding mission, a mission in self-denigration. To start with, there is the trauma of the bare self standing flush to the mirror – or mirrors, there might be more than one. It’s not normal to get undressed so close to a mirror. At home, we undress and flop into bed. In the morning, we dress and run, perhaps with a cursory glance from across the room or hall to a mirror. One is too close to oneself in a changing room. In life it is advisable to look at a crisis, a problem, and certainly oneself, from a distance. Everything looks better from a distance. Walking down the street on a sunny day and catching sight of one’s elongated reflection in a shop window across the road can be a kind and impressionistic moment – shape, colour and movement, something you might see hanging in the Musée d’Orsay. The close-up, static, scared self of the changing room, seeing oneself at odd angles under cold artificial light is not a good self-esteem trip. Nobody wants to see what Francis Bacon would do to them in paint, but there have been times, all of them in a changing room, when I saw the Francis Bacon version of me. Horror.
The physical constraint of the changing cubicle affects one’s mind; thoughts become boxed-in, tight, oppressive, the changing room becomes a torture chamber. Those of us who wait outside while the person inside grapples with hooks and zips and twisted lining, see only those brave enough to emerge with a sheepish, ‘I’m not sure’, ‘I don’t think so’, ‘What do you think?’ Rare is she who emerges with a Wonder Woman twirl ready for her and her new outfit to take on the world. Commonplace is she who never comes out at all, or she who shuffles out grim faced as she pulls at the side seam, tugs on the hem, Houdini’s her arm behind her head and between her shoulder blades to fasten the top of the zip. ‘Is it tight at the back?’ ‘Does it strain at the bust?’ ‘See this gape under the arm.’ It is an intimate and personal time and yet, on Saturdays in town, venture into any chain store changing room and you’re nothing short of livestock being paraded around the ring at the Royal Highland Show.
If there is peace to be made with how one looks, it is unlikely that peace will be arrived up in a changing room cubicle. The older I get, the more it reminds me of that little corner of a doctor’s surgery where the curtain is pulled and you’re asked to slip out of this or that, then invited to jump up on the couch to be poked and prodded. It’s not a good association.
On the safe side of the door whist waiting for my companion, I brim with advice, some solicited, some not. ‘I agree,’ (no one had asked me), ‘the sleeve on the first one is dramatic, makes a statement. This one’s nice, but you could wear it anywhere… which could be a good thing.’ I’m backpedalling. ‘Statement versus anywhere: depends what you’re after.’ There were three of them, from Fife, the trier-on bound for a wedding. I was allowed in.
A lady shopping for Pedal pushers was alone. She asked my opinion. ‘From the back. How do they look from the back? They feel too tight. Are they too tight?’ ‘The thing about jeans,’ I said, becoming an instant expert, ‘is that the perfect fit in the changing room never translates to the perfect fit at home. You want them to be a shaving too tight. Just a shaving. Wear them for two hours and they loosen. That’s the thing about jeans.’
Orange wrap dress lady was a story of two halves. ‘If you go for the bigger size,’ I had lost the run of myself altogether, ‘it’s not going to fit on your shoulders and back. Yes, you’ll gain some room around the hips and bum, but it will bag around your bust. Nobody wants a baggy bust.’
At this point, I heard a little snort from the changing room containing my charge. I had forgotten about her. She, in a brave act of aversion therapy, distracted by listening in on my meddling, had tried on eight pairs of jeans and settled on one. Bravo! Let’s not do that again for a while.