| Arts & Culture
In Public An Ode to Poorly Lit Dressing Rooms
Dressing rooms were only special because of how we used them to quietly become human.
When I was seven years old, my aunt Mary took my older sister and me shopping. At that age, I already had a love-hate relationship with clothes. I knew the bitterness of not being able to afford or fit into the best styles. But I also knew the joy of finding the place where body, style, and price converged, and the exhaustion of searching for it.
That day, Mary was determined to help me find some jeans. The outing followed an arc I came to know well: the buzzing excitement that descended into frustration as one garment after another didn’t work, then perking up after an ice cream cone; and then either magic or defeat. I was on the verge of melting down in our town’s little art deco department store when Mary said triumphantly, “I found them.”
She handed me a perfect pair of jeans with orange flowers embroidered on the pockets that I ended up wearing to dust. But what I remember more than the jeans is the space that Mary, my sister, and I carved out together in the dressing room: the way my sister and aunt happily set aside their own interests to support me. The way they really looked —not just at my outward appearance. They asked questions about fit, searched for subtle clues about how I felt.
Things happen in dressing rooms that deserve attention. I don’t mean the weird, disgusting behavior retail workers regularly witness. I’m thinking about bonding with my aunt and sister over jeans. Or shopping with friends and either squeezing into a stall together, or calling to each other through thin partitions and slipping into the hall to show off our selections. Dressing rooms are usually bland, poorly lit, and designed for one person at a time. Precisely because of all that, they’re an unexpected example of how to have shared experiences in spaces that were designed for isolation.
Retailers have been trying for more than a century to balance security, cost, and customer experience in the troublesome trying-on area. Unfortunately, trying on clothes is by nature intimate, unpredictable, and at odds with a clothing industry that requires predictable economic efficiency. As the ongoing pandemic weakens an already ailing retail industry , and as stores figure out how to reopen, dressing rooms—small, enclosed, hard to monitor—are among their most fraught spaces .
In the absence of unified guidance, retailers are having to invent their own solutions. When I spoke on the phone with Jackie Govea, a sales advisor at H&M in Rockford, Illinois, she told me that traffic has been steady since her store re-opened in June. For now, fitting rooms are closed, and the return policy is relaxed so customers can try things on at home.
At Union Rose , a small boutique in Portland, Oregon, owner Rita Hudson-Evalt downsized to one dressing room. She makes that space as clean and welcoming as possible. “It takes trust,” she said in an email, so she emphasizes communication. “I actually like the little additions in ours”, she told me. Things like hand sanitizer, tissues, and a little shelf for your purse “signal to people that they can take their time.”
On the other hand, Mar Ayres of Wyld Stallyns Vintage is moving away from selling clothes. Frustrated with uneven customer compliance, she now focuses on “sourcing dead stock like ’80s barrettes and earrings and enamel pins online instead of going thrifting for tank tops and hats in the real world.”
While there are some hopeful things here, there’s also cause for concern. I have mixed feelings about H&M, but they are accessible—and they’re closing 170 locations . Meanwhile, Union Rose is one of my favorite stores in Portland. It’s welcoming, focused on local designers, and size inclusive. It’s also on the expensive side; that the prices are justified doesn’t change the fact that many people can’t afford them.
What’s worrying is that the dressing room experience could return to what it was in the nineteenth century: a space reserved for the wealthy. That’s a shame because, for all their faults, in those staticky cubbies, I learned how to be a good friend, and how women work together to navigate the contradictions that come with inhabiting a feminine body.
For all their faults, in those staticky cubbies, I learned how to be a good friend, and how women work together to navigate the contradictions that come with inhabiting a feminine body.
It’s no accident that shopping for clothes is considered a feminine activity. Early department stores played a major role in creating our consumer culture partly by mobilizing middle-class women. For these women, shopping was part of the work of maintaining a household, not something one did just for kicks. Retailers predicted that if middle-class matriarchs could be enticed to pleasure-shop, the rest of society would follow.
One tactic for appealing to them was to design spaces that resembled wealthy homes. You can still see remnants of this in the bathrooms of older department stores, with their powder rooms and fainting couches (in case all the wonders for sale overwhelmed a delicate shopper’s nerves). Dressing rooms tried to convey the aspirational allures of posh boudoirs and dressmakers’ ateliers, while still appearing “respectable.”
As the twentieth century progressed, dressing rooms followed larger commercial architectural trends by becoming increasingly utilitarian . Retail analysts have noted that most dressing rooms haven’t actually changed much since the 1940s . Unless you were very rich, you were trying on clothes in a space that tried to say as little as possible, leaving shoppers to do more imaginary work themselves, with just a mirror and fashion to lift them up.
Many scholars have discussed the ways department stores empowered women . White women could spend time there unchaperoned. They created jobs for working-class “ white ethnic ” (especially Jewish, Italian, and Irish) women. But the power conferred was limited—it required money and a bourgeois feminine performance. It also reinforced some of the worst stereotypes about femininity: vanity, materialism, lack of self-control, just as it required these qualities.
The modern shopping experience was never unequivocally pleasurable, even for the most privileged women. For those with less privilege, it could be downright dangerous. Department stores were a key, but often overlooked site in the civil rights struggle . Black women had to fight to work, shop, and yes, try on clothes in the same space as white women. The whole business model was built on cultivating the myth of a “good” shopper, who was—sometimes explicitly, sometimes coded as—white and middle-class.
As an early teen, I learned that if you weren’t protected by middle-class wealth or performance, shopping was only fun if you had a friend who was the same kind of misfit. In middle school, that friend was Courtney. Courtney was fearless and loved Marilyn Monroe and skaters. I was more cautious. Like most girls in the 1980s, we both loved the mall. We usually had barely enough money for a slushie, but we still tried on clothes.
Saleswomen frowned and knocked repeatedly on the doors of our dressing rooms. We ignored them, creating an enclosed world where we could decide together who we were. I learned that it was no good to just give compliments—even if Courtney was perfect, with a golden tan and Sun-In blonde hair. It was important to really look, to view your best friend simultaneously through a stranger’s eyes and through her own. Then you’d start to see: Actually, the red is just OK, but Courtney looks amazing in orange.
In my later teens and early twenties, my best friend Amy was my shopping companion. Together we perfected the kind of middle-class feminine performance that put sales associates at ease. We moved slowly and modulated our voices. We treated clothes gently. Obviously, we experimented and played with different looks, but we were also seeking out rules to help us navigate this process of appearing in a world where we were suddenly hyper-visible, but had limited autonomy.
In dressing rooms, we labored over every decision. We were sometimes hard on each other, but it meant we weren’t alone. Amy was blond, pale, and green-eyed. I was darker. Could either of us wear yellow? How could we tell the difference between classic and trendy? Where was the “safety zone” of looking good without coming off slutty or conservative or self-obsessed or indifferent? The dressing room was a neutral zone. It mattered that it wasn’t our bedroom. It wasn’t school. It wasn’t the abandoned dam by the river where we smoked joints with our friends. It was just me, Amy, and a blank slate to draw on.
It was important to really look, to view your best friend simultaneously through a stranger’s eyes and through her own.
A few years later, I found myself briefly in the position of Ideal American Shopper. I was a size six thanks to obsessive dieting, working my first “grown-up” job doing non-profit development, and living in the relatively affordable city of Minneapolis. But hunger makes it hard to see anything besides yourself. So even though dressing rooms were more welcoming to the person I was at the time, they all sort of blended together.
Except one time.
I was at the Mall of America with two of my co-workers/friends, preparing for our organization’s gala fundraiser. The day was supposed to look like an ’80s montage; lots of twirling around in sparkly formals, giving each other a thumbs up or down. But one of our trio split off when we went to Nordstrom—because of the dressing rooms. Nordstrom had gendered sections separated by floor with security cameras in the rooms. At the time, that friend identified as a queer, masculine woman, and didn’t want to deal with the stress of shopping in one department, hauling clothes to another, then explaining why they needed to be in the women’s dressing rooms. But Nordstrom had the best sales, so my remaining friend and I reluctantly marched onward.
We had fun. We giggled at especially hideous offerings. (It was 2001. There was a lot of ugly.) We cooed over pretty things that were out of our price range. We gathered a few selections to try on.
As soon as the saleswoman left us in the dressing room corridor, my friend’s smile was replaced with fury. “I fucking hate this store,” she hissed.
I had no idea what she was talking about. On top of dealing with her experience, she took time to illuminate me. Employees had been following us the whole time. She’d seen them whispering and gesturing at her, clearly discussing how to handle the tall Black woman looking at expensive gowns. I replayed the last hour through this lens and was horrified—as much at my own selfishness as the store’s profiling.
I had worked very hard to learn how to look and act middle-class, had starved my body into an acceptable shape. I thought that labor earned me an easy day out at Nordstrom. But my friend had done the same work and more, and she still didn’t pass the department store test. Dressing rooms also taught me that even growing up poor with a weird Jewish name in the middle of white Christian nowhere, I began life with advantages I didn’t earn. Dressing rooms are unfair and not what anyone asked for. Yet, sometimes, they became a space to pause and listen to each other’s anger or anxiety, where we could undo a tiny bit of the harm inflicted by the very institutions that created them. Or at least begin doing better.
There are obviously other ways to learn these lessons. Young people will surely carve out spaces I haven’t even imagined. The students I teach in my college classes are obsessed with thrifting, for many of the same reasons I was at their age, but for some better ones, too. They’re more inclusive; less concerned with policing gender, class, and racial boundaries. I’m sure some of the same work will happen in secondhand store dressing rooms. But the trying-on process isn’t quite the same; as with online shopping, there’s a built in freedom to wait until you get the clothes home, comfortably mingling with your own things, to decide if you really want it.
Still, I have hope for thrift stores. I’m more skeptical of things like high-tech mirrors , 3D fitting, data, and algorithms. As Rita Hudson-Evalt of Union Rose put it, “There’s something to be said about the processes of choice, touch, imagination, and interaction for our well-being that these applications of technology just bypass.”
I think this criticism also applies to social media. As I scroll through streams of try-on influencers and #fittingroomselfies , I’m struck by the lonely sameness of them all. Recent studies suggest that social media is making people in general— especially young women —feel more alienated and depressed. In a way, this is unsurprising. The constant work of processing and filtering visual information makes it almost impossible to take time to read each image in the way we look at a friend in a three-way mirror. We look for how selfies fit a genre, rather than trying to imagine how that person will move through the world outside the dressing room.
Try-on videos got closer, but instead of turning a semi-public space into a place for building intimate understanding, they turn spaces usually considered private (like girls’ bedrooms) into a public performance. The home in general and the bedroom in particular have long been spaces for building “girl culture,” in part because femininity was historically constructed as at odds with the public sphere. The idealized coupling of femininity and domesticity has been making a comeback for a while ( #cottagecore ), but the pandemic and shelter-in-place have raised it to new heights.
This is why the quasi-publicness of dressing rooms matters to me. Femininity is already supposed to happen at home. Dressing rooms were something else.
They became a space to pause and listen to each other’s anger or anxiety, where we could undo a tiny bit of the harm inflicted by the very institutions that created them.
These days, I live near a classic American mall. Occasionally, in the Before Times, I’d wander over there, usually alone. Shopping was something I wedged between jobs and errands. Who had time to organize a shopping day, let alone coordinate it with someone else’s schedule? On my last visit, while hunting for some practical pajamas, I decided on a whim to try on a dress with a skater cut and a band collar—a little “younger” than what I usually wear, but not outside the realm of possibility. What I saw in the dressing room mirror made me laugh out loud.
I suddenly remembered being at a Gap with my mom in the ’90s. She lingered over a pink mock turtleneck; not the kind of thing she usually wore, but not outside the realm of possibility. I urged her to try it, and we shared a dressing room. My mom looked at herself in the mock turtleneck and, with a mixture of amusement and disgust, poked the flesh under her chin.
“Jesus,” she muttered. “When did that happen?”
I always knew what to say when my friends did stuff like this—slapped their bellies, moaned at their hips. I thought I was an expert at seeing what they saw, pulling it back to reality, returning focus to the clothes. But my mom was seeing something I couldn’t. It made me sad. Because, to me, she looked beautiful.
Now, I’m the same age she’d been that day, and my mother was looking back at me from the dressing room mirror. The flesh under my chin was puckering out of that standing collar. I poked it.
“Jesus,” I said, smiling. “When did that happen?”
My hope is that the end result of self-isolation won’t just be that we’re better at connecting online. I hope we get creative about connecting in person and find ways to repurpose spaces designed for economic efficiency. Dressing rooms were made to teach us how to discipline ourselves and make sure our pleasures serve capitalism. They’re miniature shrines to bourgeois individualism.
But women are unruly consumers. Yes, sometimes we compare ourselves against each other or attempt to fill various existential voids with new dresses. But we’ve also used shopping as a training ground in empathy and solidarity. In other words, dressing rooms were only special because of how we used them to quietly become human.
Knowing this, we can have faith that other spaces will emerge to do the same work. They might even be hiding in plain sight, maybe behind a beige curtain that won’t pull all the way closed.