Since spending money is now considered the patriotic duty of those who are still employed, I hoofed it over to the Barneys Warehouse Sale the other day, confident in my ability to find, perhaps, a pair of Marc Jacobs flats that I could wear in the same way that politicians don flag lapel pins.
It didn’t quite work out that way; the shoe selection, though marked down an additional 40 percent, was still mostly out of my price range, and seemed heavily skewed in favor of really, truly impractical shoes, like 5-inch stilettos with ultra-thin metal heels—they looked like they would be good for self-defense (a person kicked in the balls with them would definitely have to be taken to the hospital) but not for actually, you know, walking in.
After I decided that I in fact didn’t need a pair of metallic pewter Manolo Blahnik high-heeled sandals that were 75 percent off and yet still half a size too big, I made my way over to the clothing section, which had way too many of the same Rag & Bone studded dresses and too few of the perfect black Phillip Lim cocktail dresses that I had invented in my mind. But even though the pickings were slim, I acquired a pile of stuff and headed to the makeshift dressing room—just a corner of the sales floor with a few full-length mirrors along the walls. I hung my clothes up on the rack and started attempting to pull a too-small Diane von Furstenberg satin dress over my head.
“Excuse me, do you mind if I ask you—do you like this?” The speaker, whom I’ll call Amy, was a short, skinny, dark-haired woman with tattoos on her arms, who was trying on a sleeveless party dress that appeared to have been Bedazzled with oversize rhinestones.
“It looks nice,” the other woman, whom I named Pauline in my head, said noncommittally.
“I just can’t decide,” said Amy. “I mean, it’s expensive. It’s really expensive. It’s more than I’ve ever spent on a dress in my entire life.”
Pauline nodded sympathetically.
Amy looked at herself in the mirror again. “Oh, I just don’t know what to do. See, it’s my 40th birthday party in a couple weeks, and I just want to be wearing the dress that when people see me, they just go, wow. You know? I want that dress.”
“Oh, I know what you mean,” said Pauline.
“It’s just so expensive. I mean, even with the discount, it’s still, like, $500! So it’s like … do I get the dress or do I pay my rent this month, you know?” Someone else chimed in that it might be better to get the dress. Anonymous shopping-enabling at work!
“I should get it, right?” Amy had an audience now. “I mean … I have a photo of this dress as my screensaver on my computer!”
“Oh, you have to get it then!” said someone else.
“Well,” said Amy, looking at herself in the mirror, “I’m never getting married. I’m never going to have a wedding. So this is sort of like my wedding dress, you know?” Sympathetic murmurs from the crowd. “I’m turning 40. I just want a dress where people are really like, wow,” she said again. “Is this that dress? Do you think this is that dress?”
It was sort of like that Sex and the City episode where Carrie registers for a pair of Manolos (then I was really glad I hadn’t bought them) because hers had been stolen at her friend’s baby shower and, she rationalizes, she should be allowed to have a wedding … to herself. True, Amy wasn’t asking her friends or anyone else to purchase this dress for her, but there was something about the idea of what you might call liberated materialism that scared me.
I told my wise friend Marisa this story and asked what she thought. Was I being judgy? Or—and this was harder to swallow—maybe I was projecting my own insecurities about getting married onto this woman? “Maybe there’s a little joy in being able to pick out your own dress at Barneys and not some frothy confection of a wedding dress, you know?” Marisa said.
When I was growing up, my mom had a friend, a successful TV writer named Meryl, who had never gotten married. (She was my mom’s only single friend, I think, and her existence was treated as a sort of cautionary tale: Crazy single New York ladies buy too-tight Chanel suits and also wear leggings and mules.) By the time I remember meeting her, she was probably in her late 30s, living alone on the Upper East Side. Meryl liked to call my mom crying and tell her how lucky she was that she was married and had kids. One day, in the mail, my mom got an invitation to Meryl’s 40th birthday party; on the invitation, Meryl had indicated a jeweler to which her invited guests could send money so Meryl could purchase her chosen necklace. “Well, why shouldn’t I?” she told my mom. (Oh, I don’t know, maybe because it’s tacky and you already have more gaudy jewelry than you know what to do with, and the only reason you’re doing this is to remind people that you, Meryl, were dealt a bad hand in life and everyone should feel sorry for you?)
Amy, the Barneys woman, seemed positively enlightened in contrast.
“I mean, it could be a liberating moment and not a pathetic one,” said Marisa, as we mulled the question of the dress some more. “But I also think it shouldn’t be that Sex and the City feminism equals choosing my choice … to buy my luxury goods. Choosing our choice is way more expensive than TV made it out to be.”
It occurred to me that we, the post–Sex and the City generation, are sort of stuck. How are we supposed to know if we are unmarried because we want to be? As an unmarried 30-something woman in New York, you can’t say you want to get married, because then you’re that unmarried 30-something woman in New York who’s obsessed with marriage. But if you go around saying you don’t want to get married, people think you’re lying, or that you’re so traumatized by your past dating experiences that you must hate men. (Perhaps related: Most of my friends were completely captivated by Ariel Levy’s story in The New Yorker last week about the Van Dykes, the roaming pack of separatist lesbians. But today I think we’re all afraid we’d end up like Ruth on Six Feet Under, when she thinks her friends are serious about starting a women-only compound in Topanga.)
Or maybe my generation is just too concerned with what other people think.