On a recent cloudy weekday afternoon, in the Urban Outfitters on Broadway at East Houston Street, a spindly brunette with ghost-white skin and a helmet of bangs tapped my elbow with delicate fingers. “If I ask you this, you have to be honest with me, O.K.?” her voice quivered. Her name was Jenae, and she was a 19-year-old coffee shop barista wearing electric-blue leggings. She stood outside her dressing stall in a black, trapeze-shaped frock, with a pleading look in her eye. “Does this make me look … bigger?” She wanted to say “fat” but knew she’d sound ridiculous. She was so skinny you could almost hear her bones rattling. “Oh, please, not at all!” I replied. “Definitely, not at all.”
She grabbed my arms with a surprising ferocity. “Thanks!” she squealed before scuttling back into her dressing room. The door slammed behind her.
It’s no wonder that even a string bean like Jenae, who asked only to be identified by her first name, needed a stranger to offer moral support while spring shopping. In so many of those cramped little stalls, our skin appears a sickly yellow or green under florescent lights. We find freckles, pimples, bruises and cellulite we swear we didn’t have last year. And don’t forget about the mirrors, angled in such a way as to make our hips look wider than our shoulders. We’re supposed to bikini-shop in these conditions? Please!
Then again, the perfect dressing room—with bedroomy lighting and a mirror set just so—matched with the perfect item of clothing can make all of our imperfections disappear. This top could get me a raise! This dress will make my ex go nuts!
“This goes back to playing dress-up,” said Paco Underhill, a kind of dressing-room guru and founder of Envirosell, a retail consultancy firm with clients including Cole Haan, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bulgari. “It’s just a girl thing, the idea of trying something on … helps sparkle their fantasy life.”
Mr. Underhill and his company study the interaction between customers and their environment. He’s part spy, part retail anthropologist, and he’s an expert on what makes the “final sell” in the dressing room. Lighting is key. (“Anyone who puts a fluorescent light in is shooting themselves,” he said.) So is cleanliness. Rooms must be spacious, with lots of hooks for bags, coats and clothes. (This is the city in which most people don’t have room for a full-length mirror in their closet-sized apartments, never mind a full dressing room.) There must be privacy, and the possibility of a big reveal for a shopper’s mother, friend or “two-legged dog,” as Mr. Underhill explained. He said department stores are the worst offenders in dressing-room ignorance, but he admires Ralph Lauren.
Mr. Underhill is constantly studying retail trends and shopper experiences, but a few years ago he went to an outlet mall in New Jersey and visited every dressing room. “Just the number of them that were so wrong in every way, and dirty with residual cheese doodle crumbs. [It was] unadulterated filth, it was just remarkable,” he said. “That’s no way to treat a customer. This is where stores make or break the sell.”
It’s also where we make or break our egos.
Dressing Room Disasters
There’s nothing like a heaping dose of fitting-room trauma to send a gal to the forgiving, anonymous arms of Internet shopping. Lizz Kuehl, 27, a photography student at Parsons School of Design, commiserated: “Please raise your hand if you have had the ‘Oh God, I am stuck in this item of clothing because I am too fat for it and now I have to live in this dressing room forever. Let me text-message somebody to take care of my cats.”