shopping: the opposite of irony?

Yesterday I had a strangely disconcerting experience in a French Connection store.

I was contemplating a t-shirt, feeling the fabric, when I looked up and found myself gazing directly at a poster. The poster showed a model wearing the very same t-shirt, with the line The woman touches the clothes.

I stood there touching the cotton, staring at the poster of the woman wearing the t-shirt, reading that line, and the circularity of the moment was enough to make me feel suddenly strange, and leave.

Sure, I probably wouldn’t have bought the top anyway. But the experience did get me wondering: is it possible to shop ironically?

French Connection’s current campaign seems to suggest that it is, with print, poster and online ads that turn the fashion archetypes of ‘The Man’ and ‘The Woman’ right on their artfully mussed-up heads.

Watching the videos online, I definitely smiled. I was a little unsettled – most high street fashion brands don’t bother with irony, so it’s unfamiliar – but from the distance of my desk, I liked it.

But in the store, that poster just tied me in a knot. Its cleverness made it impossible to maintain that optimistic suspension of disbelief that’s necessary when trying on overpriced outfits that you don’t really need. The charade fell apart – in the language of drama, it sort of broke down the fourth wall.

Because shopping, at least for women’s clothes, is a charade. Have you ever been in a clothes store and noticed how it happens? Watch it. Watch the rhythm of the shoppers as they move between racks, petting each sweater like a bunny rabbit. It’s exquisite. The light balance on the balls of the feet. The choreographed, delicate sway. There’s something in the trancelike smoothness of it that makes me think of Sufi dancers or Kabuki theatre, something highly ritualistic and tortured and gorgeous.

Yup, there’s no place for irony in ritual or religion.

Which makes it pretty hard to find a place for it at the mall.

(That’s why it always feels obscene, I think, to see a sales assistant changing the outfit on the mannequins, stripping the clothes from the smooth naked plastic and unscrewing the limbs. It’s like seeing actors with the make-up scrubbed off, having a ciggy out the back of a theatre. The jolt is jarring. It sort of makes me want to apologise.)

Even the French Connection website struggles with this.

At the top of the page, there’s the familiar voice once more: This is the woman. She turns lines into curves. You can nod knowingly, at this point, comfortably distanced by the elegantly French syntax. But then you scroll down to the sell, and suddenly you’re being addressed as you; you’re plunged back into the full-frontal all-singing and all-dancing world of retail cliché (the perfect maxi dress, taking you from day to night and the best beach look, ready for summer days); and either you buy in totally, or you don’t buy anything at all.

Yup, irony is an interesting retail strategy.

But it’s a little too itchy to actually wear.

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