Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

An Educational Shopping Trip

September 8, 2010 · 2 Comments

On Sunday I journeyed with Sarah and Emily down to Oxford Street to replace my sorely missed Swatch.  I remembered passing the Swatch store on the Number 10 bus to Royal Albert Hall.  (Incidentally, Royal Albert Hall was where my watch went missing.)  With part of the Central Line closed for maintenance, we decided to take the same bus again.  It dropped us off right outside the Swatch store and I quickly found a new watch I really liked.  I was planning to post a picture of me wearing it with this blog, but one of the links broke today when I took it off to go through the metal detector at the Hindu Temple and I currently cannot wear it.  The city of London apparently does not want me to ever know what time it is.  Fortunately, Swatches come with a two year warranty, and I will get it fixed as soon as I get the chance.

We decided to explore some more of the shops on Oxford Street that afternoon.  There were some stores that I had not heard of in the U.S. and some that I had.  First, we went into Top Shop, a new store for me.  They do operate in the U.S., although it is a British chain, I had just never seen one.  The clothes were similar to what we would see at H&M or Forever 21, but significantly pricier.  Next, we went into H&M, a store I am familiar with in the U.S., although they are based in Sweden.  Although I am familiar with the store, the selection of clothing here was very different from what I am used to seeing in the U.S.  The most striking difference was the lack of color.  Where in the U.S. you can buy sweaters in a range of colors from bright red to royal purple, everything here seemed to come in the practical, muted colors of white, black, grey, beige, occasionally salmon or olive.  It seems that this must be reflecting the English preference for modesty, privacy, and stoicism mentioned by Fox.  Perhaps the English feel that wearing bright colors would draw attention to themselves in public, compromising their method of denying that they or the people surrounding them exist outside the privacy of their homes.  Wearing bright colors may also indicate earnestness, trying too hard, or taking oneself too seriously.  The Importance of Not Being Earnest is a cardinal rule, according to Fox.  I reviewed Fox’s chapter on dress codes, but I did not find it very helpful for understanding this; she mostly talks about street sub-cultures and determining class from dress.  She does say that the English have little style sense plus a lot of anxiety about dressing appropriately.  Perhaps they just sell muted colors to make it easier on themselves.

Another store we ventured into was Primark.  This store was not mentioned in Fox, but it seemed to us like it was the English equivalent of a Wal-Mart, with tables of plain t-shirts and sweaters for 3 or 5 pounds apiece and five pairs of fake pearl earrings for a pound.  The scene in there though, did not allow us much space or time to think about class.  People were dragging around huge mesh Primark bags and just piling clothes and towels into them, taking handfuls of jewelry and socks.  It was unlike any scene I have ever seen in Wal-Marts in the U.S.  It was insane.  There were 10-12 cash registers in each department, with the queues winding their way through the whole departments.  Let’s just say that if I ever go back to Oxford Street, it will not be on a Sunday, but a weekday at, say, 10 am.  Reflecting though, it seems that Primark might be the type of store that English lower classes shop out of necessity, upper classes shop in so they can show off their “great deals” and that the middle classes wouldn’t be caught dead in.

We felt just a little bit guilty at first going shopping on Oxford Street instead of visiting a museum or a park, but it turned out to be quite a London learning experience, and definitely something to blog about.

Categories: 2010 Kaitlin
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2 responses so far ↓

  •   brownrac // Sep 8th 2010 at 18:27

    As an admitted shopaholic, Topshop, Primark, and Harrod’s were on my list of things to do/see in London right up there with Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace. I had a very similar take on the Oxford St. shops, in particular Topshop. The prices relative to the quality of the clothing is exorbitant. I’ve been wondering why the price of clothing here is so much more, it can’t be because it’s imported, because we import most of our textile goods too. Right? Anyway, your Primark experience was identical to mine, except for the duration. I lasted maybe five minutes in there, probably less. The hordes of aggressive shoppers were just too much for me, I could barely walk in the store let alone browse. So far, all of the “bargains” I’ve seen here are for very low-quality goods. I didn’t spot a single “sale” section in Harrod’s, unless you count the “seasonal discounts” in the premier designers’ mini boutiques, which rarely sell any items under four/five hundred pounds in the first place. I’m curious to see if this pattern carries into Norwich, or if we will be able to find high and medium-quality goods marked down, such as you’d find at say, a Nordstrom Rack or Loehman’s.

  •   tylerweick // Sep 8th 2010 at 19:49

    interesting comment on the shades represented in clothing here. kind of reminds me of what kate fox said about british gardens, which if you are above working class contain flowers with muted and neutral color, very understated to avoid attention.

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