It’s an article of faith in my family that the only way to cope with stressful occasions is to shop for them. So, as I prepared to turn 50, I went in search of an outfit to wear for my birthday dinner with friends.
I usually dither in shops, but this time I spotted it immediately: a silky, sleeveless, knee-length black dress with a belted waist and fluttering épaules à volants – a series of airborne ruffles along the shoulders. It was everything I wanted to be at 50: purposeful but whimsical; feminine but fierce. The daring bodice said experimental playwright, the prim skirt said astronaut’s wife. It was a helicopter of a dress that would lift me up and deliver me elegantly into my next decade.
There was just one problem with the dress: it was tiny. When I tried it on in my usual size, it fitted perfectly around the shoulders but I could barely zip up the side.
I had wanted a dress that said there’s more of me than is dreamt of in your philosophy. Yet in the changing room I saw that there was, literally, more of me: the belt closed with a cruel snap that sent my belly-fat bulging in several directions. I was five pounds from being able to breathe comfortably or sit down. Yet the bigger size was huge.
A wiser person would have looked for a different dress. But in my anxious state, the fact that this one was rejecting me made me want it even more. I’d squandered some terrible fraction of my 40s checking email; I hadn’t written a musical, won a fellowship or learned German. With one month left, I might at least fit into the dress. I made sure that there were several in stock.
My turning-50 diet allowed baguette for breakfast, fried eggs for lunch and a large salad with tuna for dinner. The first few pounds fell off easily, and I shaved off a bit more most days after that. I imagined myself twirling around the dinner, saying devastatingly witty things to each guest.
With a week to go, I went to try on the dress again. By this point, coronavirus was closing in on Paris. Hand sanitiser had run out, but wearing a face mask still felt silly. People hadn’t yet begun appending “during a global pandemic” to sentences, the way that with a fortune cookie, you’re supposed to add on “in bed”.
I wondered whether I could get covid-19 from trying on clothes. I was the only customer in the shop. The dress zipped more easily, but it was still snug and the belt still hurt. Instead of elegantly framing my face, the ruffles now overwhelmed me. Even the eager young salesman conceded that the dress was “perhaps a bit strong”. It wasn’t just that. I think we both understood that, between the empty shop and accumulating bad news, it wasn’t the moment to buy a dress at all. I left empty-handed.
A few days later I cancelled the dinner too. On the day of my birthday, the French prime minister announced that bars and restaurants must close. The world of dress shops and dinner parties was retreating. A new one – of quarantine and contagion – was emerging. That night I ate dinner at home with my family, probably wearing jeans. I didn’t fret about being 50. Instead, I thought – reassuringly – about my cupboards newly stocked with tomato sauce, tuna, long-life milk and jam. It turns out that shopping is still the best way to cope with stressful situations. You just need to know what to buy.•