My daughter got home from camp "desperate" for new clothes. And in fact, it was true: The camp decided, at the last minute, to ship her trunk back, which resulted in her having only two t-shirts and one pair of shorts until the cargo arrives. So today we made a date to go shopping at Forever 21, a store whose doors I had not previously darkened. I am not their demo: I don't like their music, I don't fit into their sizes, and I don't need a pair of black sequined track shorts. This season, anyway.
But I hadn't seen my daughter for weeks, so I couldn't think of a more happy-making way to spend a couple of hours at lunchtime today helping her find clothes and than telling her she looked adorable (she did!) and waiting in long dressing-room lines so she didn't have to.
Not a lot of people know that I was a shop-girl in another life, at the Laura Ashley that once existed on Bow Street in Covent Garden in London. I measured fabric, calculated yardage for curtaining (must take into account the drop!), hung smocklike dresses on hangers, and monitored the communal changing room.
That last was the job nobody wanted. The communal changing room, on the lower floor of the shop, was low-ceilinged, hot, and often smelly. We had to watch and abet as the women -- some sliding, some struggling-- wrangled the buttons and belts of Laura Ashley's signature Victorian-style wear. And today, sure enough, there was a beleagured (Dutch?) 20-year-old trying to keep some order in the Forever 21 dressing room, which was awash in discarded clothing.
But there is something very wonderful about a women's dressing room, especially in a place as chaotic as Forever 21 at lunch-hour, or Laura Ashley during the January sales. Women are extraordinarily generous to each other. They comment freely, and frankly, on each other's choices: Wow, what a great color on you! Or, Honestly, I think it pulls a little across the back. They zip one another's zippers. They pass garments from one person to the next. Friends make trips out onto the floor to find different sizes. And people come out of the rooms to look at themselves in the mirror in the most risky dishabille. Sometimes it's a little giddy. Brastraps are pushed down, pants are hiked up, jeans don't button, shirts are baggy or too tight. It's not sexual, it's not show-offy; it's the only way to get the job done.
Occasionally, a man braves his way in, either to try on things for himself (Forever 21 is multi-gender) or to advise on his girlfriend's efforts (brave, brave man!). And curiously, the climate in the dressing room does not change one iota when a man is around. If you're down in the trenches, Comrade, the women seem to say, you're going to fight the war with us.
And this is why the dressing room at Forever 21 today was like the 2009 Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference in LA last week. In attendance were eight-hundred women and one hundred-forty men. People blogged, partied, gossiped, analyzed. The women were extraordinarily supportive, telling one another, in the kindest possible way, that a certain book idea was like a skirt that made you look hippy; or brimming with praise when another was like an LBD that turned you into a siren. And the men were bemused, indulgent, engaged, and surely getting something out of the conference that the women could only guess at.
Sherman Alexie made the observation that while adult-book authors circle one another at such events with the aggression of a cannibal, teeth bared for the kill, children's book writers greet one another with only the tiniest bit of self-preserving competition, nibbling away, at worst, a little toe.
So it is at Forever 21 and the SCBWI. I left each place with toes intact, happier for the communal experience, knowing that out of the racks of tangled hangers and crumpled sketches and piled dresses and sequined query letters, almost everybody unearthed a treasure.