Retail Therapy

Shopping with a friend has always meant so much more than just buying clothes. Kathleen Alcott considers what we’ve lost—and gained—in the ease of online browsing.

Sometimes it occurs to me—in the middle of a 2 A.M. search for a vintage Dior maillot, or a passive afternoon hunt for the boots that might get me through another New York winter—that I shouldn’t be doing this alone. Don’t I need the friend in the next stall, the body and li

fe to which I’ll compare mine? Shopping online was common by the time I turned 20 and ubiquitous a few years later, but there was a time I could map the emotional milestones in my life by what I bought, and where, and who saw me half-naked as I tried on a thousand versions of myself.

Clothing was the first way I defined myself in my small Northern California town, hoping to signal to the rest of my life that I was ready to walk into it. I spent high school afternoons smoking cigarettes with my friend Phoebe, who was beautiful and six feet tall, loud as a bullhorn, and somehow equipped with both perfect breasts and a private garden apartment behind her parents’ Victorian home. One day she braided my hair and we ditched last period, and in a fluorescent-lit thrift store I tried on the piece that came to define how I would dress for the next decade—a high-waisted ’60s pencil skirt, linen, modernist red. I almost didn’t buy it. It was Phoebe who convinced me, bursting through the curtains and gasping, pointing out the feminine curves it had conjured from nowhere. I’ll kill you if you don’t buy it, she said. I wore it the next morning with a cream-colored secretary blouse and ballet flats I had stapled ribbons into to twine up my ankles. As I crossed the frosted grass of the quad, coatless and freezing so as not to obscure my purchase, feeling half like a fool and half like someone of exquisite power and beauty, I heard Phoebe yelling, Who is that? Who is she?

When I think of dressing rooms, it’s not always the bawdy encouragement that comes to mind, but rather the bleak or frank things that the strange, forced intimacy of the space made it possible to say. The summer my father died, the year I turned 15, my half sister took me to the mall to get a dress for his memorial. I remember sliding down the wall of the fitting room in that godforsaken Macy’s, finally sobbing. She heard my squeaks and joined me on the grimy carpet, where I told her I did not want to buy a dress, did not want to buy anything; that there was nothing to be bought that would make me the girl I wanted to be, someone who knew nothing about addiction or hospitals or slow, visible dying. She crouched there for a long time, until I was able to stand, and then, zipping me into that boxy polyester, she began to help me imagine the person who could find the dignity in black, someone who could see that dignity in others.

Had my adulthood in the sartorial cyclone of New York City unfolded 20 years ago, it might have been a montage of secrets about kinky sex or careerist jealousies confessed in understated lingerie from behind a curtain. Now, at 29 and single, I do most of my shopping alone or online. Though I sometimes miss the image of a hand floating over the flimsy divider, I’m not convinced that as women we have forgotten how to use the things we buy and wear as a bridge to each other. Sometime last fall, feeling hopeless about the relationship that I had failed to get over and the dim basement apartment I’d moved into when it ended, I texted my girlfriend Connie, who works in fashion and lives on my street, a screenshot of some embroidered boots I was considering buying. They were too much money, white with a baroque black overlay, and I could not decide if they were stunning or looked like an accent carpet. Uh-oh, I wrote. It’s after 11 o’clock and I’m about to pull the trigger on these. One of those very powerful women whose strength lies in diplomacy, Connie always turns a thought over before she says it, and she is someone I can always trust to be gentle with my impulses. Her ellipsis appeared immediately, then withdrew. I don’t know what’s going on with me, I typed. Do these say ‘single mom driving you to the concert with the windows down’?!

Will you be up a while? she wrote. I’m on the train but could be there in 10.

Article from April issue of Elle Magazine by Kathleen Alcott, the author of Infinite Home and The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets.



Sugar Spice and Everything Nice

As I sit here writing in my journal reflecting on a situation where I felt less than powerful, I wonder at the reason for this powerlessness, and soon the word NICE comes forth. You see the previous day, to keep the peace, I allowed myself to appease another, allow their peace to become bigger than the importance of my very own.  And because of this choice, I tossed and turned in uneasiness all night. 

Thinking on this, the childhood song we use to sing, “What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and everything nice. That’s what little girls are made of”, came to mind.  I asked, “Just what is ‘nice’ and how has this childhood taught quality served me as Queen of my Life, because my days of ‘little girl’ are long gone?”

 Nice is an adjective meaning…

pleasant; agreeable; satisfactory

synonyms:  enjoyable, pleasant, agreeable, good, satisfying, gratifying, delightful, marvelous


Most of you know I love to understand the root of things, because this defines the fruit we see outwardly, and this is still true for words we use to align ourselves with. 


Now let’s look at the root word of ‘nice’ origination…


Middle English (in the sense ‘stupid’): from Old French, from Latin nescius ‘ignorant,’ from nescire ‘not know.’ Other early senses included ‘coy, reserved,’ giving rise to ‘fastidious, scrupulous’: this led both to the sense ‘fine, subtle’ (regarded by some as the “correct” sense), and to the main current senses.

 Well, does that make anyone want to be ‘nice’ ever again?!  Hopefully no, and we’ll delve into the why.

No one can give what they are not to themselves or already within (at least authentically anyway).  To reign as Queen, we have to BE kind, not nice.  And ‘yes’ there is a HUGGGGE difference between the two states of being. We will attempt to reveal how choosing nice over kind lowers our position from wisdom just as the root above alludes.

Kindness is a genuine quality that comes from the soul (internally), based on your own values, beliefs and ethics.  Niceness is founded on how others perceive you (externally).  Niceness bows us to the emotional state of others, and can toss us into storms that were never meant for our venture.   Now hold on to your crown Queens, because kindness is not always perceived as…well…nice. And we have to be at complete peace that perception to others is no longer our realm of occupation. 

For example, to be kind to my body’s health, I have to treat it with kindness; which pushes me out of the warm bed to exercise, over being nice and meeting friends for waffles and chicken.  Kindness will also not enable in my relationships.  For example. If I know Betty has money management issues, and consistently borrows due to her overspending, I will not continue being nice giving money.  I can empathize with her current state, yet not participate.  This my Queens is kindness at its best.

Kindness keeps us whole and complete.  Its a personal journey with the path paved with bricks of acceptance and empathy.  Our yes is yes and our no is no, and the resolve comes from our strength, and not people pleasing weakness.  If there’s fear of losing others by standing in loving kindness, believe me, that relationship is not what you dream it to be already (it’s unhealthy).

Its true kindness may not look nice on the outside, but it feels oh so good on the inside. You’re no longer that little girl who was told to be nice to others, to not connect with her own feelings, validating them, and to put others desires above her own as a living sacrifice.  You are Queen of your Life now, and that is authentically sweet.