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An advertisement in Moving Picture World, March 1919.

There are folks out there who enjoy shopping for hiking shoes. These people love researching the flexibility of EVA midsoles, fingering crampon fittings, debating the merits of lug patterns and heel brakes with knowledgeable salespeople. When they walk on in-store inclines, they imagine future expeditions; when they discuss the durability of nubuck versus split grain, it is because they are investing in the future.

For the rest of us, it’s a minor ordeal. Unlike with other sorts of clothes, athletic gear doesn’t inspire visions of who we could be; it shows us clearly who we are not. Every aspect of the process illuminates new facets of ignorance.

When I set out to get some hiking shoes, I vaguely knew I wanted to find something that was lightweight, affordable, and not hideous; I vaguely suspected this would be impossible. Having had a bad experience with a slippery trail, a nettle, and some tennis shoes, I’d added the boots to a mental list of unpleasant tasks, along with having some ratty heels repaired (I was anticipating the cobbler’s scorn) and buying a new bucket.

Duly chastened by the cobbler, toting the bucket, I went to one of those serious outdoors stores full of tents and Gore-Tex. A very competent young man helped me try on a bunch of exorbitant boots in a Tropical Skittles palette. I was intimidated. The high-tech footwear looked silly with my skirt. I trudged miserably on the treadmill and wondered about the feasibility of hiking mountain trails in three-year-old Keds and putting the money toward my savings, or maybe some really good vinegar.

After telling the helpful salesman I’d think seriously about my options and buying a packet of astronaut ice cream, I made my escape. I was nearly home free when I passed two people in conversation: a customer and a young woman whose badge and athletic gear identified her as an employee.

“So, uh, would you … like, could you wear a bra with it?” the guy was asking awkwardly. “Would you?”

“Um, I wear a bra, yes,” the woman said coldly, her body language hostile.

I looked at them. The guy was blushing scarlet.

“I didn’t mean, I mean, I wasn’t asking … ” he said miserably. He turned to me in what seemed to be desperation. “Would you wear this?” he said, indicating a jersey sundress.

I made a split-second determination. This was clearly a dork situation, not a creep situation. I understood that his backpack and Tevas might have confused the saleswoman, who had clearly spent less time with both species.

“Well, in what context?” I asked with a friendly smile. “Just for casual wear? What’s it for?”

His shoulders sagged with relief. Another employee came up to ask the woman a question about inventory. I gave her an I-got-this look, and she slipped away.

“For my wife,” he blurted. “She’s pregnant. I want to get her something, and these looked like they would, you know, stretch, but I’m just not sure … ” He waved an ineffectual hand at the rack of casual wear. I didn’t say that maybe he shouldn’t be shopping at a sporting-goods store; we were here.

“Weeellll,” I considered, “I think this striped one is kind of jaunty for summer. Would she wear that?”

“She always says horizontal stripes make you look wide. On me, I mean,” he said. Maybe he had noticed I was wearing a striped shirt.

“She’s not wrong, as a rule,” I agreed. “Although paradoxically, I think pregnancy gives you a little more leeway. But okay, let’s concentrate on solids. Are you thinking a color, or maybe a neutral, just to play it safe?”

“I don’t feel comfortable going rogue,” he said. “Maybe a neutral? How about this?” He touched a gray dress with a drawstring waist.

“That’s nice,” I said, “but I think the drawstring might hit the bump at an awkward point. And as it gets bigger, the skirt will actually end up being kind of short—maybe shorter than she’d be comfortable with. See? It’s already over the knee, and you have to factor in a few more inches.”

He looked very impressed. “So which one do you think?” he said.

“I like these, because they’re so simple,” I said.

“Gray or black, do you think?” he asked.

“When in doubt, black,” I said decisively. “I know it’s not as summery, but it’s really versatile. She could even dress this up a little bit and wear it out to dinner.”

“Like with a necklace!” he said. “Okay. That’s what I’ll do. Thank you. This really isn’t my area.”

“I think you did great!” I said. “She’ll love it.”


Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.