Shopping Becomes Her

May 22, 2014

S Somewhere in the collective unconscious of those who are fortunate enough to have been reared in Dallas - somewhere all important - lurks the tenet "I shop, therefore I am."

More life philosophy than bumper sticker credo, shopping here is not simply about going to a store to buy something you need. It is a part of the Dallas gestalt, right up there with Cowboys games, Dr Pepper, and Big Tex. Growing up here, we ate, we slept, we breathed, we shopped. What did Descartes know, anyway? Clearly, the man had never been to NorthPark.

Philosophy notwithstanding, it has occurred to me more than once that shopping, like anything else, can take on significance that transcends its more insipid, materialistic associations. Sometimes a Louis Vuitton lunch box is just a Louis Vuitton lunch box. And sometimes it's not.

One of my earliest, most cherished memories is watching my mom get dressed to go shopping at the Neiman Marcus downtown store: buttoning a Geoffrey Beene suit, attaching a bejeweled pin to the lapel, methodically applying Estee Lauder "Firecracker" to her lips, and putting on kid wrist gloves. Whether it was to be seen or as a show of respect to the venerable fashion institution, dressing up to go downtown was like writing a thank-you note, it had to be done. Only when I moved to other cities, where sweats were wholly acceptable attire for a shopping trip, did it occur to me that this was a Dallas anomaly. And only when I returned, years later, to find that dressing up to shop was still de rigueur, did I come to fully appreciate its meaning. Just as we would never show up at t party in a housecoat, neither would we consider sweats appropriate for an afternoon at Stanley Korshak. We can spot situation-suitable clothing at 50 paces. When you're from Dallas, shopping is an event, and should be treated as such.

While times and dress codes have changes - though wearing gloves is making a comeback - the event, like all things Texan, is bigger than ever. On a recent trip to Texas, I joined my sister at the Dallas Galleria to update her wardrobe. On the way there, she called ahead by cell phone to let a salesperson - we'll call her Kathy - know she was coming. When we arrived, a uniformed valet parked our car and said he would keep it nearby for easy access. In the dressing room, Kathy had displayed the perfect mix of conservative-by-day, turn-head-by-night options. Kathy offered us beverages. Kathy had Marc Jacobs flats brought up from the shoe department to match a dress. Kathy told us gossip. At the end, because my sister was in a hurry, Kathy offered to bring the bagged purchases down to our car. Service like this, I learned, was typical not only of Nordstrom but of many department stores and boutiques in Dallas. If you plan on purchasing, or at least look able and interested, they will treat you like a celebrity.

It's hard not to covet this kind of attention, which is what attracts people from all over the world to Dallas stores - and what spoils them for returning to the strip malls back home. When I got back to Los Angeles, where I live and shop, the Galleria nirvana wore off quickly. In a place where celebrity stylists are the only ones who get noticed in boutiques, having someone carry my bags out to the car - let alone bring me a Diet Coke in a dressing room - was simply not I the cards. And yet I still ventured out with my lipstick on (I am my mother's daughter) in hopes of re-creating the Dallas experience.

But no matter where I've traveled, Dallas will not be bested. Take Highland Park Village, the oldest shopping center in the country and a national landmark, where high fashion mingles with utility and necessity. When a trip to Deno's Shoe Repair begets a stop at Chanel begets an afternoon matinee, you realize that "running errands" must have created somewhere else (Oklahoma?), but shopping as a pastime was conceived right here. It's where we do our best gossiping, people-watching, and showing off, which is more than we can say for a baseball game.

As much as the retailers hope we will also spend money - and believe me, Dallasites do - stores set the stage for so much more than consumption. I have some shopping moments filed right up there with First Flirtation (Ben with long eyelashes) and Biggest Embarrassment (failed piano recital), and it's not because of the number of shopping bags they produced. Instead of taking place around the dinner table in some General-Foods-International moment, my family makes memories in boutique dressing rooms and at malls. To wit: I got the birds-and-bees speech while trying on a training bra at Fran's Intimate Apparel; I celebrated my East Coast college acceptance with a ceremonial trip to the coat department at Lester Melnick's; I saw my mother cry for the first time in the Bridal Salon at - of course - Neiman Marcus.

While much has changed on Dallas' shopping-scape, I have a feeling that similar dramas are being played out against different backdrops elsewhere. As a child, I had my first taste of freedom when I was allowed to cross Northwest Highway on my bicycle to shop at Sanger-Harris. Today, my 10-year old niece gets her independence with a $20 bill and free reign at NorthPark. You see, shopping can also be a rite of passage.

My mother says that the most important conversations she and my grandmother ever shared were on their way to shop. Being enclosed in a car on a mission together offered a kind of privacy and camaraderie that no other experience did. It was the perfect venue, for example, for my grandmother to report that she didn't like the boy my mom was dating or to give a periodic Mother-Knows-Best speech. And not surprisingly, a shopping excursion sets up the very same connection for my mother and me. We don a little lipstick (Estee Lauder, $18.50), plot our course (valet, $5), and take off on one of life's sprees. If I'm lucky, I get a Mother-Knows-Best speech (priceless).


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