The Trafford Centre is an undeniably impressive place. I could see its large glass dome from the motorway. The areas allotted for car parking are vast. I went in along with my other half via an signpost marked “The Orient”: this was followed by a set of tall columns and a stone statue bearing gilded lightning bolts which overlooked the huddled masses of automobiles. Inside, it was just as palatial: a gargantuan set of marble steps led up to the first floor. As we proceeded further inward, we saw a “cruise ship” motif take hold, complete with lifeboats and a painted starry sky above. The Centre’s “neighbourhoods” such as “China Town” and “New Orelans” were just as passable as anything I’d seen at Epcot Centre. It is truly a temple to modern consumerism.
I wasn’t there because I wanted to be, however. My girlfriend approaches shopping with a gusto that is only matched by my loathing of it. One of the reasons why I’m an internet devotee is because I cherish the idea of never having to go into a shopping mall again. I like the idea of not having to be asked if we can go to such and so place, a query which barring fatal disease can never be answered “No”. I despise having to break up the pleasures of a quiet weekend to turn the key in the ignition, hear the engine coughing to life, watch the automatic windscreen wipers coming on to deflect the rain, then the backing out, the slow procession of traffic, the maze of yellow signs and speed cameras which must be navigated, the struggle to find a parking space and finally going into a store which holds absolutely no appeal to me and the interminable quest for something which is invariably a compromise.
Like everyone else, I have my specialist areas of knowledge: fashion is not one of them. Thus, I’m frequently being put into the following impossible position: my other half wants my opinion on what she wishes to buy although I have no idea whether it’s good or not. My understanding of haute couture is so poor that I cannot recall which kind of stripes, horizontal or vertical, are supposed to be slimming (I believe that there are a number of opinions on the subject). If Fashion TV was hacked into and replaced with endless repeats of “Top Gear”, I’d laugh. Yet, I often find myself sitting in a quiet corner in places like Monsoon, checking my mobile phone and hoping that I’ll have a few moves to complete in Online Scrabble. Failing this, I’ll peruse Twitter. Meanwhile, my other half will be ransacking the store, looking for a dress, a scarf, a blouse, or shoes.
For me, clothes are a completely practical matter: they prevent nudity, a forestallment which in my case is more than welcome, and provide cover from the Yorkshire chill and rain. My sole fashion statement is usually a political one: I have an enviable collection of t-shirts devoted to lost causes including my purple “Yes to the Alternative Vote” shirt. My shoes are comfortable, my coat is aged, I have a lot of hand-me-downs, I only buy new when the old wear out.
But as I sit in the usual nook devoted to shopping’s malcontents, I’m painfully aware this isn’t my other half’s view. Somehow, the idea has gotten into her head and as well as that of the others with furrowed brows as they examine gossamer blouses and flimsy shoes that the wrapping is as important than the present. This runs in contra to reality: for example, I didn’t decide to be with my girlfriend because she was well dressed. The first time I met her, it wasn’t her jacket or shoes or dress which impressed me: it was a brilliant smile and a modest little shrug on a warm spring day that caught my eye, as these were indications that she was happy to be right where she was. I also saw modesty, a sense of humour and an endless joie de vivre in her demeanour. It didn’t require being fashionable: fashion changes, being wonderful never goes out of style.
Nevertheless, her devotion to shopping is a quirk which I accept just as readily as she accomodates my foibles. Offering an opinion is still a minefield: there are few things more difficult than to present a view when one has a blind spot. How does one avoid being offensive while noncommittal?
The question comes: “Do you like this?” I am looking at my other half wearing a black and white striped dress. I think of zebras. I recall seeing them in Africa and charging across an open plain away from a Land Rover. Are zebras fashionable? Or was that in the 1970’s?
Safe option. “It’s OK,” I reply, “Do you like it?”
Of course, one could be cynical and say that my views don’t matter and what is being sought is a confirmation of her opinion: I believe that’s incorrect. If I actually hated it, I presume she wouldn’t buy it. But for me, there is no passion associated with this. My other half picks up something with a floral print. “Do you like it?” she asks. “It’s OK,” I reply. “It looks like wallpaper,” she retorts. “William Morris, perhaps,” I say. She carries it with her.
I look around and see similar conversations between other partners taking place. There are plenty of people who appear just as fatigued as I am. I cast my gaze to outside of the store and I spy a Starbucks across the way. Normally I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near there as their coffee has the unmistakable petrochemical hint of having been roasted by a flamethrower, but at this moment it looks like a refuge from the multicoloured silken hell in which I presently reside.
“Do you like it?” “It’s OK.” As I say the response, I mentally tick over an odometer. There are only so many times that one can use the term “OK” before it becomes irritating. I mull over alternatives: acceptable, suitable, agreeable, not bad, fine. All of them, I think, sound much worse than “OK” which is the perfect adjective for the indecisive who don’t want to appear so. I would like to echo a Monty Python sketch and say “Splunge” but as she’s not a devotee of Michael Palin and Co., she wouldn’t get it.
After several cycles of trying things on and subsequently rejecting them, she makes a few choices. We go to the payment counter. I breathe a sigh of relief and am glad that there isn’t a branch of this store in Bradford. I take her bag for her and we walk out. Wandering among the rows of shops without actually going in is much less stressful, indeed pleasant on a changeable day. A bit of afternoon sunshine is intermittently cascading down through a skylight. Her hand clasps mine, the next store looms ahead.
I know that eventually the shops will close for the day. A young man in a bright red Trafford Centre jacket will press a button and a steel shutter will slowly slide down, preventing further ingress. There will be a lot of disappointed people who didn’t find the shoes or shirt or jacket they wanted. I know that lurking in the background there are forces which are also frustrated by this failure: the Chancellor wants us to splash out in Monsoon because he collects the VAT on the goods and the corporation tax on the profits. The company wants people to believe that they need more than what is necessary; the CEO may have his eye on an Aston Martin or Bentley, the brochure with models and colours circled in Mont Blanc blue pen discreetly tucked away in his polished walnut desk. Society somehow expects people to wear certain shades, to be painted a particular way, to be, in essence, more perfect than they are. This is modern consumerism’s motif: it’s rare that any wholesale questioning of its value takes place except on the political fringe. The closest society came to crying “halt” was during the worst of the financial crisis: something was truly, deeply wrong and there was a lot of soul searching as to why. Eventually, we found it easier just to blame the bankers for their greed: this was certainly a major cause of the collapse. But perhaps the worst thing that the financiers did was prevent us from blaming ourselves: we extended our credit limits to the point of bursting, not just for clothes, but for electronics, homes, cars, all the accoutrements of a lifestyle that we had borrowed, not earned. This hasn’t stopped, it’s just been slowed. We are still filing into the Trafford Centre, which was sold in January 2011 for £1.6 billion, an indication of how valuable it remains. We are still throwing credit cards after dreams of fulfillment which are better served by a captivating smile and a modest shrug on a beautiful day in May. In other words, the fall has happened and we are being set up to fall again. But why break the habit of a lifetime? Do we like it? As it resides in our collective blind spot, our reply seems to be, “It’s OK”.