As we enter the clothes shop, my husband huddles against me like a nervous toddler. In practically any other context he’s confident bordering on arrogant. But shopping is his Achilles’ heel. We’re just minutes into our once-a-year expedition to find him a new blue blazer. I’m in my element, but he already looks panicked.
Admittedly, it’s a busy Sunday during France’s bi-annual sales. (Say what you will about Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, for me he’ll always be the author of the “Loi Macron”, which authorised shops to open on Sundays.)
“Is it the pounding music and the people?” I ask.
“And the not understanding the rules, which shops to go to, where in the shop,” he says, “and then there are all these people running around, and the judgmental shop clerks.”
The idea that I’m in charge of clothes (and household goods) took hold early on in our relationship, and seemed to spring from our differing backgrounds. My husband’s parents both had doctorates: they’d debate structuralism over dinner. He still likes saying, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”
My family discussed materialism over meals: what had transpired at my mother’s clothing store that day. Shopping was literally our family business. By the standards of our household I was bookish and borderline spiritual. Though on the rare occasion that I was the smartest person in the room, I quite liked that room.
So 15 years ago, when my future husband and I drew up the gift list for our wedding, I quickly staked my claim to the material realm. He didn’t see why we needed new teaspoons or serving bowls. I prevailed. In the end, the only presents really for him were a cheese slicer and a flask.
It seemed natural that I’d set about reforming his wardrobe too. I gradually purged his ill-fitting suits and flammable sweaters, introducing him to understated cashmere and James Perse. When our kids came along, I dressed them too. Soon the whole family hummed with my entirely standard bourgeois-bohemian taste. No one could quite remember what our world looked like before I filled it with Swedish armchairs and black, $50 t-shirts.
Why did I bother acting as family brand manager? It had something to do with our decision to live in Paris, where façades are so important women don’t even reapply lipstick in public (I’m still not sure where they do this). As a foreigner, I feel even more beholden to the social codes. But I was also falling into a gendered trap. Why is Mum to blame if the child’s sweatshirt is stained or dishes are rotting in the sink? And surely by now I could trust my family to select non-hideous items on their own?
After 15 years, my husband was done having a personal stylist too. That Sunday at the boutique, I went to ask a salesman about a blazer, and when I turned back my husband was gone. Eventually I found him outside on the pavement, looking like he’d just escaped from prison.
He didn’t want to shop anymore, not even a little bit, he told me. And I was tired of trying to dress him. “What if I just take my old jacket to the tailor, to sew it up?” he pleaded.
“That’s fine,” I said. Just then, I felt a long-standing, unspoken strain between us dissolve. I hadn’t realised that it was there, until it was gone.
And then, hand in hand, we walked home.•