Doris Drinkwater shifted in the chair, molding the soft cushion under her considerable heft and squaring her shoulders against its hard back. She lifted her chin, held the paper high in her hands, and began to read quietly out loud.
“I appreciate the opportunity to express my position, and I will not take more of your time than necessary.”
Shifting once more in the chair, Doris blinked slowly, exhaled, and continued reading in a steady voice.
“I was born to sell clothing. It is my purpose. Selling clothing is as natural to me as if it were an extension of my thoughts, facial expressions, arms, and hands.
“It reminds me of the light-hearted—but dead-serious—reply my father used to give anyone who might inquire as to why he was a barrister: ‘I was born to do it. And fortunate enough to find it. Some people live all their lives not knowing, not finding, what they were born to do. I’m one of the lucky ones.’ He’d wag his finger and smile knowingly, perhaps admonishing other life choices that tried and failed to take ahold of him. There weren’t many like him.
“I have sold clothing for the best part of my life. I learned fashion from my mother. She’d dress up for an evening out in her best frock—her only frock—a velvet off-the-shoulder, with a full skirt. ‘A Dior silhouette,’ she’d explain, though not original. And a petite black fascinator perched on her updo like a small raven. I knew when she was going out before she told me for she’d use different oils in her bath, and the second floor would smell like a summer garden in high flourish.
“When I knew she was at her table, I’d creep into her bedroom and politely sit on her bed, legs crossed and hands in my lap. I’d softly lean on the bedpost, craning my neck to see what she was doing without being obtrusive. I loved how she swept up her hair and fastened it with invisible pins. I loved the way her clavicle extended when she lifted her arms to fasten a necklace clasp. She looked like a princess.
“‘It is not about the clothing.’ She’d catch my eye in the mirror. ‘It is about the fit. The form. And the person.’ Then she’d turn around, her dress rustling in movement, and while she put her hands up to one ear, then the next, she’d say, ‘Always consider your form. You have square shoulders, like your father.’ I’d sit up, paying particular attention to my shoulders. ‘Your square shoulders need a nipped waist.’
“‘But, Mother,’ I would ask, ‘you’re wearing a nipped-waist dress and you have fine delicate shoulders, much unlike Dad.’
“‘This is quite true, but you see, I have square hips and a fine nipped waist can also be flattering for square hips.’ Her clavicles danced as she spoke, and her hands smoothed the fabric at her waist to indicate the outline of her hips. I noticed, nodded, and knew this would be useful in my life. She’d slip on small, delicate shoes, stand, and in waves of musical taffeta she’d approach the bed, kiss me, bathe me in scent, and remind me to notice form, always form.
“I was born to sell clothing. Immediately after school, I got my first job in the ladies’ department, here. I began as a junior sales assistant, and I couldn’t have been happier. I didn’t have to work—my mother and father wanted me to marry—but I wanted to. I knew it was what I was supposed to do. As my father said, I was one of the lucky ones.
“I worked so very hard, I thought my feet would surely drop off at the end of the shift. But I loved every minute. My job was to manage the stock once it was chosen and purchased by my superior, a formidable but kind woman named Mrs. O’Reilly, you wouldn’t have known her. She was really a Miss, but back then, senior sales associates were always called ‘Mrs.,’ much like housekeepers.
“I was responsible for making sure garments hung well and beautifully on the racks. The store had just installed a rack concept, the first of its kind. I made sure buttons were fastened, zippers zipped, jackets closed, and pleats pressed. I had a small hand iron, which wasn’t easy to use, but I walked it around the floor each night after closing, plugging and unplugging. I preferred to move the iron rather than the stock. The materials were decadent, the leather supple, velvet like the softest fleece. I had never felt anything like these clothes. Mother’s clothing was more conservative, she didn’t give in to the bright patterns that were on most of the blouses. But to her form, she dressed as best she could. There weren’t many like her.
“My favorite part working as a sales assistant was that, occasionally, I was able to sell clothing. I shouldn’t have been, not directly that is. I should have deferred to Mrs. O’Reilly in the women’s department, bring her the sizes and fits as she commanded while she tended to the customer. But occasionally, such as when the floor was quite busy, frequently before the holidays, I assisted the customers myself.
“I shall never forget my first sale. It wasn’t about the commission, though I was saving to rent a place of my own in town. It was the act of selling. Doing what I was born to do. I was attending to one of my daily chores, cleaning out unwanted items from the fitting rooms, touching up and pressing the garments and returning them to the racks in pristine condition. A customer noticed me and begged my assistance. I considered introducing her to my senior colleague, but something in her young eyes told me she wanted me to dress her. I knew I could, too.
“The lady was young—not quite twenty-five, I was certain. She was going to a dinner thrown by her husband’s firm, a Christmas party. She required a cocktail dress, something sensible, fashionable.
“I looked at her and sized her up immediately. She was a diminutive little thing. Her face was unaltered by structure, all the easier to notice her beautiful complexion and natural rose hue. Her thick brown hair began high on her forehead, and her poise had a natural aristocracy in the slant of her brow. Her shoulders were softly rounded. She had no breasts to speak of, which could be difficult to dress properly should the dress lack structure. Her legs were short but her torso long, her waist perhaps a few inches too low. Her calves were nicely proportioned and her ankles divine, delicate, with the perfect amount of curve and extension. I imagined her wrists the same, though I could not see. She wore a warm, blue check two-piece, sensible for the weather of late, with thick heels and discretely scuffed leather on the toe. She was not a woman who wanted to be noticed and yet, I allowed myself to think, perhaps that was because she never had been.
“There was something gentle, young, about her. Perhaps it was a new marriage. She wanted to exert herself, her intelligence, her opinions, her form, but there was something allusive, too, that should remain so.
“I knew just what she needed. I led her to the small private area next to the fitting room and asked her to wait while I gathered the garments. ‘We will show your ankles, we will show your wrists, we will address your bosom with a bit of a drop neck,’ I assured her confidently. Then, quick on my feet, I wasted no time selecting the dress.
“Selling clothing is not about clothing. It is not even about women. It is about noticing. That is my purpose, I notice people, I notice their form. I notice their desires. I notice who they want to be and who they are. Clothing must address all of those things collectively if it is to be a success. And in the hands of the right sales associate, it will.
“This woman needed to be seen, respected, her best parts elevated. I pulled a beautiful wine-purple dress, a bold choice but possible because of the season. It had a low, round neck with beautiful velvet trim, a nipped waist a bit higher than her natural waist, and a mid-calf skirt that would bounce off her legs as she walked and call attention to her splendid ankles. The sleeves were capped to make the most of her small shoulders and to extend the long line of her arm down to her wrists. She looked better than I imagined she would—and perhaps better than she ever had. There were a few alterations around the waist and length, and then I escorted her to jewelry to pick out a complementary brooch.
“My supervisor, whom I mentioned previously, Mrs. O’Reilly, far from being jealous and petty, congratulated me on the sale and from then on sought my advice on fittings. She also added all of the window and mannequin dressing to my duties, a display of confidence if there ever was one. She was a lovely woman, a generous embonpoint, which she dressed perfectly in form-fitting vests and blouses bedecked with small frills as fitted our uniform requirements.
“It was she who taught me about pants. That they, too, can be elevated to more formal attire, and that the boldest of designers are playing in materials and cuts that allow women, more than ever, to express themselves sartorially. Although I must say, I never wore pants myself for they were not suited to my proportions, I sold many pairs to excited, confident women, when appropriate.
“Appropriateness is a critical aspect of selling clothing. One time, a woman with generous curves and warm, lush skin wanted to slip into an unstructured mod dress, so fashionable with youth. Fortunately, I was there to remind her of her beautiful proportions and how unfair it would be to hide them under such a cut. She demurred but was persuaded in the end.
“Another woman, straight as a board, slipped into a two-piece black tuxedo. Her bony knees and shoulders carried the piece so beautifully, she looked dressed by the Muses.
“The key is noticing. All people want to be seen. Noticed. That is what I did for them. And I did it extremely well.
“I have served at this store for almost thirty-five years. It has been my pride and privilege to serve as the senior sales associate of the Women’s Department ever since Mrs. O’Reilly retired. From this vantage point, I have seen many changes. Short hems, long hems. Flats, heels. Sparkle to minimalism and back.
“One of the most difficult aspects of this position is that while trends reverse upon each other just about every decade, women stay the same. Their form, their fashion needs, their appetite might bend a tad, but it does not break. For example, now our clothing is quite the reverse of what came before: relaxed fits, relaxed materials, and a rejection of the power and femininity of the last decade. ‘What are those feminine women of power to wear, now?,’ one might ask, even despair. That is my job as a sales associate. To notice those women and make them feel as perfectly expressed through clothing as they might have a decade ago.
“Maybe I am too conservative. Perhaps. But there needs to be a compromise between change and continuity, and I find that compromise often lies on the conservative side of fashion. A perfect nipped waist suits everyone. That will never change.
“I dismay a bit lately, however, because it seems women care less about the inclinations of fashion and, indeed, its power. They seem to have preconceived notions of what to buy and wear before they enter the store. They detail what they want, they expect me to find it, they shun consultation. It minimizes my job, and moreover, it minimizes my skills. That has been difficult, surely. I feel more like a merchandise manager than a sales associate. But I shall continue to give it my full attention and care. To notice women and dress them accordingly. I was born to sell clothing. Without that, I don’t know what I will do. I simply don’t know what I will do.
“When I received from your office, from you personally, the notice for mandatory early retirement, I was expectedly frustrated with a decision in which I had no part and which I do not accept. And of which, I admit, I do not see the purpose. I requested a meeting to discuss your proposed early retirement. It might be an unavoidable eventuality for others, but surely not for someone such as me who can still do the job more than adequately.
“In the letter which you sent me—and perhaps dozens of my similar-aged colleagues—you politely mention I should like to travel and spend time with family. These lines, though written in optimistic kindness, gave me pause. I could but put my thoughts into words for fear of imperfect expression.
“Of all my time serving this wonderful store, I have never gone on strike, though our shop stewards were formidable. I have never called in sick. I have never taken vacation other than when my father was gravely ill and I needed to nurse him through his eventual death.
“Moreover, in all of my exemplary years of service, I seek in vain to find any indication that I would have given to you that I would like to travel. Or that I have a family.”
Doris sighed and wiped her face. She took a slow breath and continued reading, quietly.
“Therefore, I would like to express that I do not accept this early retirement. I should like to continue working here. I propose—“
A door to the inner recesses of the store’s corporate offices opened, and a young girl stepped into the empty waiting room where Doris was seated. She was an ill-suited young girl in a clingy, unstructured polyester two-piece. She stepped out hesitantly and glanced around quickly until her eyes fell on Doris.
“It’s Miss. Yes, I am.”
“Mr. Kildeer will see you now. Would you like to come through?”
“Yes. Thank you.” Doris pushed herself up from the chair, her knees snapped a bit but her face held firm as she stood. The pounding in her chest sounded with each step. As she walked in measured steps towards the young girl, Doris couldn’t help but size her up.
“My dear, I hope this isn’t out of turn, but you would do quite well in a more structured crepe dress. I see a high neck, nipped at the waist, straight down. Dark navy, maybe even charcoal. You have the height to pull it off. You, my dear, want to be seen.”
The girl’s face registered shock at this unexpected liberty. Or perhaps, rather, she felt surprise much like how an invisible person might feel were they to suddenly become not just visible but seen.
It was a look Doris knew well and knew how to reassure. She smiled warmly and put her hand on the young girl’s thin arm, squeezing it softly but firmly. Then she winked at the young face and nodded.
With that, Doris walked confidently through the open door, past what she assumed was the young girl’s desk, past a large rubber plant and a window with a view, towards the office in front of her where sat a gentleman who had not yet noticed her but soon would.
Her strides were long, her red lips pressed in a firm line, her letter in hand. Doris Drinkwater had dignity and purpose and she would be heard and seen.
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