Extras: Who I'd Go Op-Shopping With
If you were able to go op-shopping with any literary figure (author or character, past or present) who would it be, and what outfit would you pick for them? What do you imagine that day would be like? We asked Bronwyn Polaschek, writer and self-declared op-shopper, to speculate on these questions.
See Issue 17 for Bronwyn’s essay ‘A New Velvet Jumpsuit’, which explores the uneasy joys of shopping for new clothes.
These are difficult questions, especially the first one, because although op-shopping isn’t exactly a sacred experience for me (I don’t believe in God), it is a joy – to be shared carefully.
Of course, you can pop into an op shop with just about anyone, but if they spend two minutes doing a quick walk-around, it can be awkward to meticulously examine each rack of women’s clothing as well as investigating the books, crockery and other homewares. A second lap to double-check for missed beauties is unthinkable with boredom hovering nearby.
Here are my principles for choosing a person to op-shop with – literary or not.
Pick someone with a similar appetite and disposition for it.
There needs to be agreement, either explicit or mutually understood, about the number of op shops and how long to spend. Is this an hour-long / one-shop situation? Or a full day of multiple second-hand shops with commuting in between? Also, does Save Mart count?
Go with a person you can chat with, but you’re comfortable walking away from.
Interesting conversation is a given; however, experienced op-shoppers know it is entirely acceptable to split up once inside to cover the areas you are most interested in and, quite frankly, to concentrate. Op-shopping is a hunter’s game. The thrill is in the pursuit. That amazing 1950s tweed jacket might be wedged between a tatty, polyester blend and some ill-shaped denim.
The perfect op-shopping companion shares your aesthetic. They can spot treasures you have overlooked and advise whether the asymmetrical dress with fringe is hand-me-down gold or just odd. Ideally, they have a different body shape so the Cinderella rule can apply: the person who fits it, keeps it.
Dorothea or Zadie or Anna?
These criteria are rather specific and it’s impossible to know if Dorothea from Middlemarch – my favourite character in literature ('I hate my wealth!') – would fulfil them. I could take the risk and choose her, or perhaps my preferred Austen heroine Anne Elliot from Persuasion but Dorothea is almost certainly not interested in clothes, and how would Anne feel if she couldn’t find anything in muslin or silk with an empire waistline?
Based on the principle ‘Think style’ I would absolutely op-shop with Greta Gerwig’s cinematic version of Jo from Little Women (the waistcoats; the neck ties!) or the BBC’s Marianne from Normal People (while some covet her square-pocketed denim overalls, I consider her crowning outfit to be the ‘fuck-you’ leather jacket with sleeveless yellow shirt she wears to their final school exam). However, these looks were chosen by costume designers Jacqueline Durran and Lorna Mugan, so really, I should ask one of them.
This raises the whole dilemma of what is a ‘literary figure’? Would Patti Smith count? I bet she’s a very determined magpie. Or Florence Welch? Surely an amazing op-shopper though not an early riser, which would be a problem of disposition as I’d want to get going first thing.
Rather than a character, I should probably choose a writer so that I can talk with them about writing in between carefully separating wire hangers. A historical figure is tempting. I could ask Elizabeth Gaskell how she manages to fit in writing novels with five children, and what Charlotte Bronte is really like. Or just meet Charlotte herself to find out. I imagine if the writing chat dried up, Virginia Woolf and I could talk politics. We’d also likely agree aesthetically on longline coats and particular 1920s-inspired florals.
Is this an opportunity to ‘network’ though? Maybe I should go with a living author. Zadie Smith is an obvious possibility. I love her work and admire her equal parts vintage-contemporary style. She doesn’t carry a phone (they make her feel 'unhinged'), so I’d need to keep her in my sights and not wander off too far. But I’m not very strategic. And why Smith over Madeline Miller? Or Hilary Mantel? Or Ashleigh Young? Or someone else from my shelves? One of the joys of reading is creating a personal community of writers-who-live-in-my-head. Each one is beloved.
I could narrow down the field to specialists in personal essay writing – since that’s the type of work I’m trying to do. Roxane Gay perhaps (I suspect she hates op shopping) or Jia Tolentino (way too intimidating). Closer to home Rose Lu or Megan Dunn both have a retro je ne sais quoi to their wardrobes – at least based on the author photos I’ve seen (search ‘Megan Dunn Govett Brewster’ to see a pair of truly outstanding overalls; I like them much more than Marianne’s).
But there is that saying, 'Never meet your heroes'. I would hate to hang out with any writer whose work I love deeply only for it to be weird between us – as it likely would be. What if they tried to dissuade me from that corduroy vintage suit? I remember being bitterly disappointed when I saw Naomi Klein after No Logo. It seems a little unfair now, but I struggled to reconcile her radicalism with her Rachel Greene shag.
Part of me wants to avoid all this angst – and the queasy question of what these literary figures would think of me – by erring on my cautious, shy side and choosing the inimitable poet Anna Livesey. She fits all three of my criteria and a rare fourth: Anna has that skill of parallel foraging for herself and others simultaneously. I owe several key pieces in my wardrobe to her eagle eye. But she would consider it ridiculous to name her in this thought-experiment given that we have been friends since high school and already op-shop together when we can find time around geography, family and work.
How to answer your questions then?
Some things to know about me: I’m a high school teacher. My parents worked as nurses and taught me that you should do what you can for others. I like to consider things carefully. I am equal parts political and sentimental. A magical chance like this is one I’d want to use well. As in: fairly. As in: who-to-op-shop-with-principles be damned.
Thinking about it like this, there is a character. If I could, I’d rescue her from the snow.
I would take her somewhere to eat first. Maybe even McDonalds. Here, I’d be breaking one of the somewhat arbitrary rules I’ve had with my own children but no matter, this is a hypothetical exercise, and she is not my child. Then, once she was full of burgers and fries and sundaes, I’d take her to an op-shop and buy her all the warmest clothes I could, as well as any of the toys she wanted, and (if she was that kind of young girl) something pretty and fun.
She’s the only literary figure in this piece I can imagine choosing clothes for (apart from introducing Woolf to contemporary fashion – what would she think of 80s-style mom jeans?). Everyone else I’ve mentioned is too profoundly themselves for me to dress. But she is an exhausted, terrified child. I’d find a whole wardrobe of warm, warm, clothes to wrap her up in. If the second-hand places we visited didn’t have enough in her size, we’d go elsewhere to get them new.
The little match girl surely has a name, although we never learn it in Hans Christian Andersen’s story. She’s who I would choose. Our day together would be as joyful as I could make it.