Saturday, July 12, 2014

Agnes, or a Work Wardrobe from the '80's

Back in the early 1980's, I was in graduate school, and I was the manager of one of the departments in a large department store.  (I'm still catching up on my sleep!)  One of the more interesting and educational responsibilities I had was to "ring up" all purchases made by staff in my department.  I'm telling you this story, because I want to tell you about someone named Agnes.  I'm not sure what we can learn from her example, but I still remember her so vividly after 30 years, and I still think sometimes that she was nobody's dummy...

Agnes was probably in her mid 50's, employed 40 hours a week (remember the days when retail could be a career?), qualified for 3 weeks of vacation, health insurance, life insurance and all the other normal work benefits.  I am pretty sure she lived alone...

But what was striking about her from our perspective was the way in which she made her wardrobe purchases!  Our department was "Better Sportswear", which in those days meant blazers with matching skirts and trousers, and coordinating blouses, tee shirts, other tops, cardigans, and sweater vests.  This was office attire, and we were expected to wear what we sold.

So twice a year, the week after the big delivery of new season merchandise, Agnes would stay in the store after her shift ended, and shop.  She asked for the use of a small rolling rack, and she collected 15 garments.  She then walked over to the shoe department and came back with 2 pair of shoes.  Then she headed to the first floor and came back up with a scarf, and four or five pieces of jewelry.  Always a brooch!

And then she didn't shop again, at all, for 6 months:  

  • She didn't care what went on sale.  
  • She didn't care that she wore variations on the same clothing for half the year.
  • She didn't care if she wore only two or three colors for months on end.
Beginning as soon as the jackets, skirts and trousers were altered, Agnes would start wearing her new clothes.  She mixed in older jewelry and scarves, but her clothing was absolutely current with what we were carrying in the store.

For leisure?  I saw her on the street once, walking back from the grocery store, and she was wearing clothes from last year's 15-piece extravaganza. I strongly suspect that she never in her life owned a pair of jeans.

How things have changed!

If Agnes were still about, this is what I envision her wearing right now:

Navy blazer - Viyellapearl earrings – Mikimotonatural cardigan – Jaeger,  navy button cardigan – Jaeger, navy open cardigan - Jaegerearrings – Maya Magalwhite blazer – Jaeger,  checked sweater - Viyella, flower brooch – Indulgence, navy top  - Viyella, bracelet – Links of London,  floral blouse - Viyella, floral short-sleeved tee - Viyella, floral long-sleeved tee - Viyella, necklace – Jacques Vertwhite trousers – Jaeger, navy pencil skirt– Viyella, natural skirt – Eastex, scarf - Hermes, navy flaired skirt - Viyella, navy trousers - Viyella, navy wedges – French Soles, loafers- Trotters



A few options:

You do appreciate that fifteen pieces of clothing chosen like this gives you 125 combinations.  125 really repetitious combinations...  But she was, without question, the best-dressed woman in the entire store, executives and buyers included.


The Cambridge Satchel Co.

44 comments:

  1. We would do well to follow her example.
    Karen

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  2. Fascinating! It's interesting that you picked 5 tops, 5 bottoms and 5 jackets for 5 days of the week. Most people would choose more tops than bottoms, but you do get lots of combinations this way and never have to wear the same item twice in the course of a work week.

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  3. That's is awesome! I don't have a lot of time to shop during the year so this appeals to me. Make a plan then buy what you need. Great idea!

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  4. Great story Janice. I appreciate the lady Agnes' practicality but we all know that it would need a tweek or two to suit today's lifestyle. However, if truth be told I think most of us wardrobe ourselves this way in the clothes we wear regularly rather than all those items hanging in our closet that rarely see the light of day. There are so many elements of that time and that style of life that I see emerging again in some of the posts by younger bloggers. Good for them. Thanks so much for this post. I need to reboot my wardrobe to suit a retired lifestyle and this entire series has been great motivation.

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    1. I dunno, I've followed a similar pattern for years (more softer jackets than structured one, more cardigans than jackets). I own one pair of jeans. I relegate my older black pants to weekend/casual wear. I own one pair of workout pants and one top that I wear exclusively to the gym, so I don't own "leisure wear." I work strictly from a plan although I don't buy everything at once, I do purchase bigger ticket items at the same time to ensure dye lot match and so forth.

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  5. Love Agnes! This would make life very simple but I'd miss my jeans :)

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  6. I've never used a personal shopper, but I've often wondered if this is what they do for their customers. If not, this is what they should do.

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  7. I am going to bet she also sold a lot of clothes.

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    1. She was amazing. When you were her customer, you made an appointment, and you arrived to find a fully-stocked dressing room with all of the good stuff that you'd never find on your own. When new merchandise arrived (only about every six weeks, back in those days), she knew exactly who to call. Some of our most beautiful items never made it to the sales floor because Agnes sold every one of them, in every size, to her clients. If she had been on commission she would have made a lot of money! As it was, she propped up our entire department's business.

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    2. In the late '80s and '90s I had that kind of a salesperson help me at one of the Parisian department stores. It was so very convenient and I was probably a line item in the revenue accounts at that store. I still remember when my father died, I asked her to help my mother find a black suit. She -- and the whole staff there -- treated my mother and me with such tenderness that afternoon that the memory still brings tears to my eyes.

      I moved away, the world and retailing changed, and I haven't found that kind of shopping ally since.

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    3. (I don't mean a department store in Paris, but one of the American department stores named Parisian.)

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    4. I still own a lot of clothes I bought at Parisian -- a great store swallowed up in some merger. I've been hard pressed to find clothes of similar quality in today's retail market. Too bad... it limits my purchases accordingly.

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  8. Impressive focus but I could never live that that... I wonder if she was actually interested in clothes or fashion or if she was like one of those people who eat super-healthily 'cos they just view food and fuel?

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  9. What an inspiration !

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  10. I've often shopped this way, although I usually couldn't afford a full 15 items at a time. But when I wore professional clothing in the 1980's-90's, I would really shop twice a year, in spring and fall. I winnowed out my closet, pored over fashion magazines, made a list of things I needed and thought I wanted, and then "window shopped" like crazy. I loved the department store "Parisian," and I would browse and browse and try stuff on. After about a week of this, I'd go in during a quiet time and buy up everything I'd decided on for the season,including shoes and accessories. Then I stopped. I was really happy with my wardrobe. Did I mention I kept Janet Wallach's book as my fashion bible way back then? :)

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  11. What a fascinating story. I admire that kind of discipline but I don't think that would ever work for me. What a beautiful well put together wardrobe though.

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  12. Silly as it sounds, this has always been my dream. My sisters think it dates back to our twice-yearly shopping spree with mom when we were kids. Of course, back then, everything had to be replaced twice a year since we were still growing.

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    1. I think it's still possible - I'm going to try to work toward this goal myself! All it requires is discipline and planning - no problem, right? (ahem....)

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    2. One challenge is that new seasonal clothing doesn't arrive in stores or online all at once. Things arrive at intervals throughout the season. I would guess the marketers know we shop more if new things are arriving all the time.

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  13. I would love to find 15 items I would want to buy at one time and in one store! I'm becoming more disciplined in my shopping but still find that as much as a I try to plan, I have difficulty finding items, especially since I'm not a fan of black. I am really enjoying this entire series and find it both inspirational and aspirational.

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  14. For someone who claims to embrace the French wardrobe esthetic to call this repetitious is very telling of a lack of understanding of the concept.

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    1. I think that refers to the Janice of the 80s ... I think Janice and I are about the same age, and as a young woman myself at that time, I wouldn't have "gotten" Agnes' approach. Now, however, I sure do, and it's abundantly evident that Janice does, too.

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  15. A great story and example for what I shall now think of as the Agnes-Vivienne Files!

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  16. I am English and age 40 so wonder if it's my nationality & age that explains why I've never heard of 'better sportswear ' as a department. I would think of sports as athletic shoes and yoga trousers . How fascinating how informal we have become in such a short space of time. Blazers etc would (I think?) now be deemed quite formal wear!
    I am really enjoying your building g a wardrobe series, many thanks.
    Lucy

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    1. Hi Anonymous. "Sportswear" in America is a very American phrase. I have no idea why they call it sportswear because it has nothing to do with sports. Perhaps at some point it did-- I'm thinking of old-time tennis and golf wear. Nowadays, it's what you might wear on a daily basis if you don't have to wear suits to work. American designers sort of specialize in it. I think of Michael Kors as the epitome of American sportswear design.

      Actually a lot of department stores these days no longer use that term to describe departments. But I remember seeing it as far back as my own childhood in the 1960s.

      As for clothing for actual sports and working out, stores usually call it athletic wear.

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    2. I should have said "Hi Lucy." I just noticed you did include your name in your comment. :)

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    3. American retailers introduced "sportswear" in about the 1930s and this category has long included tailored trousers, sweaters, blouses and other tops, jackets, and so forth. This category was originally designed to differentiate from day dresses and evening dresses. There is "better" sportswear" that includes clothes by most American designers and "moderate" sportswear, which is an affordable niche. Better sportswear also includes some dresses but many stores have a separate dress or special occasion dept. I haven't found a similar set-up in British stores. I remember decades ago going to a famous store in London where all the clothes were in closets and had to be brought to the shopper (very intimidating).

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    4. Thank you very much, I find this sort of social history as viewed through the lens of clothing really fascinating.
      Lucy

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    5. actually thinking about my own family in the inter-war years, 1920-1939, I can see how 'sports wear' in those days, for yachting, golf, skiing, was indeed bizarrely smart by modern day standards - three piece tweed suits, brogues, silk cravats. Albeit casual in comparison to the mandatory dressing for dinner back then - a dinner jacket and black tie for men, evening dress for ladies with gloves, night in night out, even if it was just the adult couple at home alone (the children in bed after a nursery tea)
      My mother, born in 1945, was thought terribly 'fast' and 'racy' because she wore trousers to visit London from the country in the late 50s, one only wore a skirt/dress and hat & gloves to town, never trousers! Wow, what a revolution the 60s was on so many levels. My mother still sniffs at balls in the country when a non-married woman rocks up in a tiara - a tiara is only ever worn by a married woman, apparently. I just goggle at all these social niceties that one lived and breathed all the time back then.
      Lucy

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    6. I am old enough to have attended school at a time when the girls wore skirts and twin sets or blouses and also to have seen the introduction of the mini dress and the paper dress as well as colored lingerie and pantyhose (that was me) in my school. (Ph, yes, hats and gloves for cities and church.) By the time I was in college jeans and long skirts were in vogue, although I also wore a lot of my pre-college skirts and sweaters. My mother in the '30s and '40s was very involved in outdoor sports (skiing, etc.) and wore shorts, pants, and other sportswear at a time when the day dress and court shoes were all the rage. Ralph Lauren must be channeling the Inter-War Years in his clothing lines. Ironically, I have, over the years, moved from a skirt-based wardrobe to a pants-based wardrobe. Thank you, Coco Channel, for introducing pants for "nice" women.

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  17. Janice, this story describes a life-long dream of mine! I have always wanted to be one of those people who could save up and shop twice a year.

    My problem is that I have expensive taste and so, realistically, I would have to settle for much less than 15 pieces plus shoes and accessories. Currently, I'm able to afford great quality clothing by shopping end-of-season sales. But the downside to that is that pieces are picked over by then, and it's hard to put together a cohesive wardrobe. I do feel like I might make fewer shopping mistakes if I bought things in one fell swoop at the beginning of the season. Then I could be sure that everything would coordinate and I'd be more motivated to return and replace anything that didn't work.

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    1. This is the problem of shopping at end of season sales. Too often the store still in the store is still there for a reason -- funny fit, awful color, cheesy fabric, and so on. I found that limiting my purchase for more expensive items (jacket and skirt, coat, etc.) to just a few a year (or even every 2 years) I can afford to buy at full price and when there is plenty of selection.

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    2. I see the problem, bettina. Could it work to go on a "shopping diet" for a year (as Janice herself has done) to save up a kitty so you can shop this way? I am willing to bet you likely have enough in your closet to do that.

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    3. Hi Duchesse, yes, that is what I need to do-- save for about a year. I actually don't have a large amount of clothing so I'd probably need to replace some things along the way, as they wear out. But I could certainly change the way I shop now, which is to spend my whole shopping budget every month.

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  18. I thinl if there is just one take away from Agnes' story it is that she had her clothes altered to the perfect fit. Love this story. Maryann

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    1. Maryann

      I think that is the most important lesson in building a wardrobe and creating one's style.

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    2. Yes!!! This is critical to a well-groomed look. What a smart lady, was Agnes.

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  19. Cool. I read a similar account of a librarian who did that at a high end store. She bought clothes every three years, twice in that year for the seasons, and a similarly edited number of pieces. Not one thing in between (except, I imagine, perishables like stockings.) I've never forgotten that; she and Agnes are of similar inclination and one I admire deeply.

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    1. Three years-- now THAT would take some discipline! Then again, if they were happy with their wardrobes, I'm thinking that may well have made it easier to wait.

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  20. I also knew someone (from the 70's) who shopped like this. She would buy a new wardrobe twice a year and not shop outside those twice yearly times. I admire the discipline but I couldn't do it because I love to shop the sales!

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  21. Janice, this is a great, great post--so thought-provoking. Thanks!

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  22. I believe this is how many men shop, or would prefer to shop.

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    1. I work in retail and have observed the way men shop. First of all men's clothes come in many more size variations than women's clothes plus many garments are DESIGNED to be altered -- such as pants with unfinished hems and generous fabric allowances at the waist and cuffs of jackets, etc. Often, alterations are included in the price of the garment (or below cost) and are offered at once on the store's premises.The men I see shop buy quality clothing but have a limited wardrobe for work -- a few suits, a bunch of shirts and ties. No one grumbles if he wears the gray suit on Mon., Wed., and Fri.

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