Bryan Ferry was so right: “Love is the drug.” But love is not always available in the form you want when you want it, whereas shopping is generally pretty much something you can do whenever you want, fulfilling wishes and fantasies and passing the time (whether or not you can pay for your purchases).
I haven’t really given my shopping habits much thought, but I was just reading an essay Dave Hickey wrote for Art in America in which he discusses the conscious vs. the unconscious mind. This was inspired by Timothy Wilson’s book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, which updates Freud’s gothic notions of the more submerged consciousness for the age of software.
I’ll leave the explication to Hickey, but in the essay he elegantly compares his conscious mind to Waldo Lydecker, the acid-penned critic played by Clifton Webb in Otto Preminger’s film Laura (1944), and his unconscious or adaptive unconscious mind to Joe Cocker. I can relate to this model, although I would cast Nick Nolte as my unconscious mind and George Clooney (as Michael Clayton or Danny Ocean, not Harry Pfarrer of Burn After Reading or Everett of Oh Brother) as my conscious mind.It was a slow moment in a tedious work week, and after reading Hickey’s essay I decided to stretch my legs and go shopping. And somehow I began reflecting on the nature of my shopping—how much of it is the product of rational thought and how much of it is driven by demons from the erotic mire or monsters from the id.
My unconscious mind
My conscious mind
Thinking about it I realized that I have bought several expensive cars and, if I remember correctly, several expensive art works and some pricey antique jewelry for my wife when hungover. Now, I have had pretty good results. I especially liked the 1995 BMW 735 that I bought after too much fun and kept for five years. My wife still misses that car.
Actually buying expensive items is one of the only activities that I have ever found was helped by a hangover. I don’t know if that deliberately self-inflicted malaise helps a sales resistance born of years of being a starving artist, but maybe that’s it. Guilt over those few-too-many may serve to assuage the guilt of spending. And I’m sure I wouldn’t have bought the Michael Goldberg abstract expressionist painting if I hadn’t had quite a few drinks at that benefit for Bomb magazine. And the same might be said of the Joseph Kosuth sofa. I actually regret not having a hangover the day I didn’t buy that 1973 Citroën DS station wagon on eBay. Will I ever find another?
I also believe that shopping releases endorphins. Or is there another, more exclusive neurotransmitter involved? It was a common saw in my childhood that women’s depression could be eased by buying a new hat. Of course women don’t wear as many hats today, and the hats they do wear lack that fantastic element that characterized those of the fifties and sixties; and now there is an entire category of drugs designed to do what hats by Halston or Lilly Daché or Schiaparelli once did. But do those drugs do as well? Somehow I doubt it. In fact I suspect that shopping is perhaps the most effective of all anti-depressants. It generally only has one side effect: debt. But a good shopper knows his needs and his rhythms and can turn this often mundane activity into something of an art (just as we do with cooking).
Yesterday I needed a boost and a relief from the tedium of office work (I wasn’t hungover but was suffering from allergies), so I skipped out and bought: a black cotton tie with white flowers; a black bucket rainhat and a lightweight cotton scarf from Agnès B.; and a silk tie (navy blue with golden birds on it) and a pair of pajamas at Paul Smith. It’s not like I went wild. I actually resisted buying a shirt and a sweater at A.P.C. I felt like I was very successful. I didn’t do a lot of economic damage, but I bought key accessories that would dress up existing clothes—except for the pajamas, which I thought might liven up my dreamlife. (They did. Those multicolored stripes seemed to have conjured up a certain erotic ecstasy, at least once.) The black bucket rain hat replaces a favorite one that I bought in the Burren, my favorite corner of Ireland, and then lost. And the scarf is part of my new Paris-inspired policy of wearing a scarf into weather where coolness is only a possibility. You see, all of these purchases, except possibly the tie with the birds on it, can be seen as rational decisions, even if they were initiated from some deeper urge. And as for the bird tie, well, I am considering that emblematic of my interest in augury, or the auspicious movement of birds which I have been studying lately.
The artistic shopper is precise, exacting, and wide-ranging. To be a good shopper you have to cover a lot of ground because you’ll never find all the things you seek in the same place. Or even in the same time. I periodically return to all my favorite vendors because even for those style-conscious who are relatively immune to the vagaries of fashion, change can surpise. For example, things come back into style. For years I was looking for tab collar shirts, like the ones I wore as a teenager and the ones Bob Dylan wore so creatively, buttoned and tabbed but without a tie, and this year, here they were again. The same for the club collar with a pinhole built in. I was unable to find these even used, but then this season there they were at Brooks Brothers in the fall preview.
About ten years ago I could not find a three-piece suit off the rack and had to have them made at Anderson & Sheppard. A few short years later the racks were following my lead. And I’m not going to even get into the saddle shoes and bucks story. (If someone can tell me where I can get a white powder bag made to brighten up white bucks, there is a reward in it for you.) Anyway, style might be permanent but retail fashion is cyclical, so those of us who are elaborately set in our ways must be vigilant or else elaborate in our commissioning of the bespoke.
For years I waited for ties to return to a reasonable and proper width, and had to content myself with wearing mainly Hermès ties and vintage, but today I have no problem finding ties in the 3-inch width range. If something is good and right it will come back. So I am always looking out for pants with a belt adjustment in the back, thin white hose, the perfect black raincoat, natural-shoulder sportcoats that button up around the neck against a chill, a good herringbone sport jacket, and the perfect polo coat. And it seems that just when you’ve despaired someone comes along and gets it right. Today I’m wearing one of my Black Fleece oxford cloth button-down shirts by Thom Browne. For years it was impossible to find the right cloth (not too thin), the right body (not too full), and the right collar roll. Mission accomplished, Mr. Browne.
But that’s why shopping is a drug. You get what you want, but you never get it all. It’s a lifelong quest. Last year I saw the perfect roll-up panama hat at the prototype for J.Crew’s “Liquor Store,” dreamed up by Mickey Drexler and Andy Spade, but by the time I got there it was gone. I probably need a 7 1/2. And a Citroën wagon.
Shopping is a drug unlike any other. I believe I have described how it can act as a sedative and anodyne. But shopping is also a trip, pun intended. Going into a store is a way of testing your own personal sensibility against that of another, often a sort of tribal personality that defines an affinity group. All stores have personalities and some of these are virtually archetypal. Think of mid-century Brooks Brothers; it was an institution that defined a way of life. Virtually all luxury brands with longevity have this quality—think of Cartier, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Hermès. But you’ll find unspoken ideologies throughout retail, even at Wal-Mart.
Visit Wal-Mart and Old Navy and you can tell by your own reactions how you stack up against America. Visit Hermès in Paris and you might have certain illuminations regarding luxury and value.
Shopping can be a dangerous drug, of course, for those who can’t handle non-substances, but I find it consistently rewarding. If you want to understand America and the world you must shop. At least window shop. It’s an easy portal into the world of dreams we all share, that collective unconscious of aspiration and desire. You may find yourself hypnotized, but this is a test. This is our dream time, our sweat lodge. Should you find yourself entranced you can wake yourself up. Just memorize this little mantra: “attention shoppers…attention shoppers.”
I mostly like this because of those sweet Citroëns, but I also like Mr. O'Brien's writing.