As I Was Saying

Shop Girl Aesthetic: Working Retail as a Spiritual Discipline

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

“Completely in dress-code” is essentially the only thing the Regional Manager had to say about me, a flustered new stylist, the first time we met in the showroom of the bridal store where I had worked less than 12 hours.

I forgot she was coming. Foolishly, I looked down to see what I was wearing. I forgot that, too. (Sometimes all you can do is tread water in the sea of tulle, lace, and strong maternal opinion.)

I had made the rookie mistake of wearing heels my second day on the job. She must have confused the pained look on my face with irritation at the dresscode in general, rather than my particular execution of it. She continued, rather apologetically, “We wear all black so the customers can identify us in the store. That’s all.”

“No,” I hastily replied, “I mean, the shop girls in all black is a longstanding tradition that goes back to the first department stores and Victorian and Edwardian servants. I think it’s cool.”

Understandably, the Regional Manager gave me kind of a funny look and laughed awkwardly.

Perhaps if I had explained that the history and reasons we wear black meant something to me, caused something to click, philosophically and spiritually, in my mind—that the entire afternoon had been like paddling down a muddy creek to find it suddenly become a tributary—my fun fact wouldn’t have seemed so out of place.

The joy in working retail was a spiritual surprise—like the churches you find among the roots of skyscrapers, the clearings in ordinary woods so full of holy beauty they feel like God’s very footprints, and the achingly resonant confessions in imprecatory psalms.

Working retail is supposed to be a career detour. At least, it initially seemed like one to me. I thought it would be fun. I’d get to help women feel beautiful and celebrate love. But rattling along behind me was fear that I had become a cliche, another failed English major working part time while slowly giving up on some great literary endeavor.

But I feel such joy on the sales floor, giddiness even. It confused me. Maybe I had missed something in my calling? But I have realized that writing and bridal styling are really just avenues through which I study aesthetics.

We use the word “aesthetic,” popularly, to describe the unifying theme, tone, or quality of a person’s visual identity. It’s a pretty word. It’s less harshly business-like than “personal brand,” less shallow-sounding than “personal style.” 

Aesthetics are everywhere: “cool dad,” “sophisticated,” “preppy,” “retro,” telegraphed by details others consciously or unconsciously translate into impressions of who we are and how we relate to our world.

Black pants and white dresses are each pieces of aesthetics. And though those meanings change over time, the web of meanings remains connected. Some brides don’t know that Queen Victoria popularized white in 1840, but eight out of 10 brides mention a princess look within 15 minutes of their appointment.

The monochromatic black aesthetic is an old marker of the invisibles—servants, wait-staff, sales clerks. When a customer waves me over to fix a stuck zipper or consult on a sleeve, they don’t even realize they recognized me by tapping into a story, an aesthetic. But for the same reason Tiffany Blue means diamonds, while aqua and cerulean are ordinary, my clothes mean “helper.” 

I am a person dedicated to an action, identifiable by my purpose—measure, fetch, answer questions. A tight lens focuses on the freshly minted adult, and I, myself, place a high priority on changing the world, achieving goals, gaining admiration. The simplicity of being just a pair of helping hands appeals to me. It has a hint of the Platonic idea of Arete—excellence in achieving one’s purpose, identity expressed through action, I am what I do.

Is it pretentious to dress up sales in Platonic philosophy? Yes, probably.

But, though I understand the difference, I’ve never quite been able to separate visual aesthetics from Christian Aesthetic philosophy. Both are part-to-whole progressions of a sort. A human aesthetic uses an element of a story to evoke the whole. An Aesthetic scholar pursues beauty, an element of God’s character, to discover as much as she may about the whole of God. It’s a bit like being a collector, without needing storage space, because it is not constrained to the physical.

In fact, while no beauty on earth approaches the majesty of God, human standards of physical beauty and the ugly way in which we market them, rather than exhibiting God’s likeness, almost always directly defy it, nurturing obsession with self, manifesting loathing as often as pride. It confines the potential experience of beauty to the bleak, narrow quarters of the tangible and myopic.

But cultural standards of physical beauty perpetually harry my brides. The self-criticism, insecurity and pain of women as they hunch, hide, and whisper their critiques of their bodies is ever present.

It hurts to hear. They never tell me what they love. Only what they hate.

I cannot rewrite the global story of women. But I chose to work in bridal intentionally. Because beauty translates to value in our culture, expanding the definition and experience of beauty expands value. A nose, an arm, a scar—they become small things, pebbles against the vista that is the experience of loving and being loved.

The model of individual salesperson attention, the marketing rhetoric of self-expression, and the tone of the sacred nature of people and love that reverberates through wedding culture all allows me to insist on the beauty (physical, but more importantly everything beyond physical) and value of five or six women a day. That’s five or six encounters with the image of God.

As I have delved into traditions of liturgy, symbolism and ritual in an attempt to satisfy a hunger for the “smells and bells” not found in my protestant upbringing, I have frequently confused Aesthetics with  “Ascetics,” one who dedicates their life to self-discipline, simplicity, and religious piety. Aesthetics revel in the luxurious glory of God. Ascetics dwell in humility to practice holiness. But perhaps there is overlap in their ends. The first step toward full discovery of God is to turn away from one’s self.

Something about working bridal reverberated with my longing to encounter the beauty of God, to decipher the symbols of a tradition and participate in its mystery now revealed, and to find a spiritual discipline I could actually keep long enough to be a discipline, rather than a randomly performed task.

Donning special clothes that indicate my identity as a servant brings me into a posture of humility, their formality reminds me of the value of service, so easily forgotten in the dazzle of ambition or achievement.

The ritual of welcoming, serving, and celebrating a woman renews every 90 minutes at the top of the appointment cycle.

A girl sweeps her hair out of the way so I can zip up her strapless prom dress, and I can see thin scars across her arm. But they are old, and she is young. When I ask her if she feels beautiful in this dress, her face lights up because she had to work to know that, and now she does.

Five sisters come in, four bridesmaids and a bride. One of the sisters is self-conscious about her baby bump, convinced nothing will look good. She frowns at the mirror. In response, her sisters rally around her. One says, “The most important thing is that we all do this together.”

Yesterday, brides in neighboring dressing rooms, who had never met before, took selfies and exchanged phone numbers. They each gasped in awe as the other emerged from her dressing room. Their families cheered together. All of us dwelt in the way things are supposed to be. It reminded me of Acts, how joy perpetually overflows to envelope everyone around.

Lots of moms cry. And best friends cry. And grown women giggle in sheer delight spinning like little girls in a ballgowns.

What else would an Aesthetic want? As I fit dresses, I often touch waists, backs, arms, and feet, adjusting fit, bunching fabric where alterations will be made. I get to bless those criticized, hurt places, and clothe them in silk, lace, and crystal, as if they are altars and shrines. For in each of these women is the fingerprint of Ultimate Beauty. There is a reason that the most beautiful thing, the visual aesthetic referenced so often in Scripture to evoke loveliness beyond the ordinary or even the physical, is the bride arrayed. For what could be more glorious than someone beloved? Beauty is just the aesthetic of value, the symbol of cherishing, the description applied to something precious. And we pursue beauty as beauty pursues, or emulates, holiness.

All my prayers really boil down to three sentiments: God help me, God show me your glory, God let me make something beautiful. Some days, I want nothing more than to experience God’s presence. Some days, I feel paralyzed by the inadequacy and triteness of my words and cry out desperately for God to give me something worthwhile to say. I have longed to sculpt great philosophical theories, divert the course of history, redefine art.

But if I squeeze past my immature ambition, I begin to see that revelation, which I thought was a supernova, is really just a candle lit every day in a small room called spiritual discipline. And when I say, “You are lovely and you are loved,” to each woman, I speak the truth of God to her as she illustrates God’s beauty to me.

About the Author

Emily Joy Stroble is a graduate of Calvin College, art maker, mocha drinker, and reader of many books (but never as many as she wants to.) A regular contributor to The Banner, Emily lives in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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Comments

Thanks, Emily, for an insightful article, informing us readers as to where you see God in life and how you are able to reflect his character in your daily work and activities.  I may be pushing the envelope of your thoughts, but you sound more like a deist (as to philosophy) than that of a Christian.  The deist sees and understands God as he reveals himself in his original creation and the world, rather than in special revelations such as the Bible, the Koran, or the Vedas, which most would claim are manmade. Your lack of reference to Christianity would seem to reflect such a view, as well as your short bio (at then end of the article) that states you are a woods-walker and are on a quest for movies and books steeped in common grace.  I like your insight that seems to see God in even the small details of life.  Thanks for sharing.

What a great article! I've never worked retail, and I'm not into dresses or outward beauty so much, I cringe a little when I see my granddaughters pretending to princesses, and I lament the gender stereotypes that can keep people from their full potential. This article was good for me to read; it so clearly describes God's sacred calling in the day-to-day of our lives. So good of you to notice it and to write about it. What a good reminder that each one of us is called, uniquely graced and gifted, in our day-to-day and momement-by-moment.

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