Our Daily Correspondent

From a late nineteenth-century French advertisement.

The French are known for how they wear scarves. That’s such a cliché that it hardly merits repeating. But like so many clichés, it’s rooted in truth. And today I was reminded of that.

I was at a clothing store in Paris. While I sat on a low bench and waited for a friend to emerge from the dressing room, I watched women of all ages try on scarves and wraps in front of a nearby mirror. Each woman tried on her scarf differently; some draped, some wrapped, some poufed the lengths of fabric into tall, proud collars. Several tried more than one effect, seeing how the cloth behaved. But one thing they all had in common.

Each tried on not just a scarf but a range of attitudes. Haughty, casual, elegant. Her posture would change along with her expression; her look would not be merely appraising but far seeing. Here she would be at this party, in that weather. With a range of shirts and jackets, armor for the different battles of life.

For the first time I realized what people mean when they say they “hate to shop.” It’s not just a question of harsh lighting or unflattering mirrors or money or consumerism; rather, it’s the work of imagination that’s required. Who am I? You have to ask yourself. Who would I like to be? And how do the two vary? That, of course, is the hardest part. It’s where notions are put to the test; the only question is how honest you’ll be with yourself.

The converse is true, too, of course. In those moments at the mirror, all things are possible—at least, the moments before you put it on, or take it off, or look at the price tag. Cashmere feels just as soft to the hand that can’t afford it. 

One of the women—who’d had, moments before, the air of someone walking into a lavish party—saw me staring at her in the corner of the mirror. I expected a sharp reproach, but her look was merely disapproving. These things, after all, are highly personal.

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