Are You Being Served?

One problem with living in New York is that shopping is a much more complicated process. I’ve written about the troubles facing the humble grocery shopper, but on Saturday, I went with my girlfriend on an infinitely more daunting proposition: women’s clothes shopping. That is, I was helping her go women’s clothes shopping. Well, maybe not helping. I accompanied her while she went women’s clothes shopping.

I don’t wear women’s clothes.


Girlfriend and I both grew up in the suburban Midwest, which meant shopping malls, shopping centers, and box stores spread in irregular conglomerations throughout town. As you might expect, box stores aren’t as prevalent in New York, as real estate prices run just slightly higher here than in Dublin, Ohio. Sure, there are a ton of stores, but there’s no way to know what the inventory is like, besides an angry Yelp review or physically looking in the window. About the one thing you can count on is that it will cost more than you want to spend.

But there are some familiar stores here, usually in areas popular with tourists. And sometimes, no matter how much you don’t want to, you just have to go to those areas. You know, like the week before you and your girlfriend go to a wedding. So we hopped on the A train and headed down to Herald Square. The first stop was the Manhattan Mall, which occupies about half a block between 6th and 7th Avenue between 32nd and 33rd Street. The target destination?  JC Penney’s.

JC Penney’s. I wore a lot of clothes from Penney’s—in fact, I still do. They weren’t the most fashionable duds, but they were better than Wal-Mart, and they weren’t much more expensive. But the last time I went to a JC Penney’s was at least two years ago, and it seems a lot has changed. I know there’s a lot of business junk going on, what with the falling revenues and the sales-related missteps, but actually being in the store was kind of sad.

The Manhattan Mall is a very strange structure, to me. The mall itself is tall and narrow. The top two tiers of the mall are dotted with familiar—miniature—mall stores: Aeropostale, The Limited, GameStop. The lower two levels belong to JC Penney’s, and they’re pretty depressing. We spend about thirty minutes looking through the dresses, and the majority were very disappointing. As girlfriend put it, “It’s no wonder they’re going out of business. All their clothes are ugly.”

Our second stop was much more iconic—and much larger. Anyone who’s watched Maureen O’Hara on Christmas Day surely knows which store we visited, sitting between 6th and 7th Ave. and 34th St.  Yes, that 34th Street, the one with that miracle. Get it? No? Really? It’s a Christmas classic, people. Jesus, fine. It’s Macy’s. The store I’m talking about is Macy’s.

My experience with Macy’s before New York largely involved two things. One, there was a stand-alone store in Columbia, Missouri, built in the same commercial development where the Wal-Mart parking lot got swallowed by a sinkhole. And two, the Mall at Tuttle Crossing in Ohio had two.  In the same mall. The second had been a Lazarus, but became a Macy’s after the two companies merged. Why they kept both stores, I can’t say. Maybe they thought it was better to have a store at each end of the mall, so lazy people would still go. Your guess is as good as mine.

This Macy’s is unlike either of those two things. Or rather, it’s like both of those things, plus about ten more. I mean, the store is fucking huge. It’s nine stories tall, with a lower level and a half floor, and it takes up an entire city block. I mean that literally: this store is the entire block. The fact that there are restaurants is not a money grab; it’s a necessity, since you might literally walk more than a mile in the store. The layout is strange too, with areas and rooms set apart by brand. Of course, walk half a block and this system breaks down, becoming separated by garment type. Oh, and there are at least three floors of women’s clothes. My overall impression is that the store is entirely too big. Too many choices, too many people, too much division, and all of it overpriced.

This is not to suggest that we didn’t still look for a dress. Macy’s reminded me of all my favorite things about women’s fashion. Dress categories read to me like some arcane text that I can’t quite decode. What is the difference between Juniors and Petite? What qualifies as an evening dress? Is that different than a cocktail dress? And girlfriend told me a house dress isn’t even really a dress. What is that?  My favorite category was “Social Dresses.” Does this refer to the dress itself or to the person wearing it? Does it make the wearer more social? Is this a dress that likes to spend time with other dresses? And where is the Anti-social Dress section? Off to the side trying not to draw attention, I’d guess.

I also like the strange mannequin configurations peppered throughout the store. Some have heads, others don’t. Some have arms, while others are torsos with legs. Others are just torsos, and some of these are attached to hangers and hanging on the end of a rack. Just about the only constant among these mannequins are the disquietingly prominent nipples that I’m pretty sure would show through a poncho.

What I like best is the wild array of accents added to dresses, blouses, whatever. Fake pearls strung up in a zig-zag across the front of a sweater, which with the smallest movement would make you sound like a maraca. Glitter and rhinestones strewn with wild abandon anywhere there’s an open field of fabric. Or better, sequins stitched to express one’s inner self, like “Slut” or “Glitter Bitch.” My personal favorite are the extraneous zippers that show up in strange places, on shoulders and stomachs and breasts, zippers that aren’t functional because the paired sides have been separated. Zippers! Glorious zippers!

Of course we didn’t find a dress at Macy’s. Instead we took our Penney’s bag (girlfriend found a dress that I think looks really nice on her), and hopped on the train to head uptown for dinner. Ah, dinner. There was where we came out winners. But I’ll have to save that for later. Let’s just say fried pickles, beer, and a burger with mac and cheese on it will pretty much make any trip outside the house worth it.


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