My Journey Into the Dark Heart of Retail

On cultural appropriation and boxy tank tops at The Limited

At 16, I believed I had a remarkable gift for retail. Hope, my manager at The Limited, thought otherwise.

“Why didn’t that customer buy the shell?” Hope asked one day, after she saw me returning the stiff, boxy tank top to the rack. “I thought she loved it?”

I pursed my lips. “She… didn’t like the color.” It was a blatant lie. My actual conversation with the customer had gone something like this:

Customer: “What do you think about this top with these pants?”

Me: “Ermmmmmmm…”

Customer: “You don’t like it?”

Me: “If looking like a maraca is what you’re going for, then by all means.” I shook an invisible set of maracas to illustrate my point.

The customer looked at herself in the mirror, her slim, long legs clad in a pair of capris the color of old wood, topped by a boxy red textured shell that made her look exactly like… “Damn, I do look like a maraca. Thank you.” She peeled off the top as she went back in her dressing room.

“No prob!” I called, continuing to neatly fold T-shirts even as I did God’s work.

I’d impale myself on a wire hanger before anyone bought a mock turtleneck on my watch. ”Those things are mocking us,” I’d intone, wise beyond my years.

Needless to say, The Limited and I had very different ideas about what being a “good salesperson” was all about. I believed it was my job to send every person I helped out that door with outfits that made them look fierce. Or at least as fierce as was possible from a store that sold pastel skorts.

Which is why, if a gal tried something on that made her look like an egg enmeshed in the doodlings of a serial killer, I’d let her know. I’d ruthlessly diagnose any and all camel toe. And I’d impale myself on a wire hanger before anyone bought a mock turtleneck on my watch. “Those things are mocking us,” I’d intone, wise beyond my years.

I had customers come from other stores to try on their purchases for me so I could say, “Yes, but try it with a belt. Cute, yes! Jesus Christ, no, that looks like a gilded turd…”

The Limited’s philosophy, however, was that we should sell people anything and everything. Even things that looked bad on them, and especially things that would look bad on everyone, and would need to be off-loaded before they could go on sale.

I once watched size-four Hope tell a woman who had a beautiful, curvaceous figure that she should buy something called a “tent dress” in every color, because it was “so concealing.” This poor woman did as she’d been told, strategically shamed into dressing like a Handmaid because we couldn’t move those damned tents to save our lives.

I, on the other hand, refused to sell them to anyone, as life is too short for tent dresses.

Despite my obvious failings as a salesperson, Hope, true to her namesake, kept trying to bring me around. She would regale me with stories about her own Limited journey: how she’d started as a sales assistant — “just like you!” — and made it up the ladder all the way to manager. While she spoke, I’d pretend to listen, my lips curling in a smile as I substituted Louie Anderson’s lines from the movie Coming to America. “You know, I started on cleanup just like you guys…”

As I was 16 and an asshole, part of what I felt was definitely unmerited teenage snobbery. But it was also 1995, and I was too Gen X to believe all of this consumerism was okay, even if I didn’t have the vocabulary to express why it made me so deeply uncomfortable. Years later I would read Don DeLillo’s White Noise and feel a sense of deep recognition when the family goes shopping at a mall, attempting to fill the gaping holes of their fears and fantasies with goods and services, trying to stave off the knowledge that none of it matters and death is inevitable. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t work, and I’d know myself as a onetime peddler of such pointless panaceas.

Hope’s attempts at luring me into The Limited Inc.’s managerial track became almost Napoleonic in their intensity after she attended the national conference for the company’s top employees. Held in Las Vegas, the whole shebang was filmed and, a few weeks after she returned, the edited video arrived in the mail.

“Nikki! Brandi!” Hope called from the door to our stockroom, her delicate hands clutching a VHS recording like Moses with his tablets.

Brandi, a young co-worker whose attitude toward retail managed to be even more laissez-faire than my own, loudly cracked the gum she wasn’t allowed to chew. I put down the floral sheath dress I’d only just convinced someone not to buy, and we made our way to the back.

“Girls,” said Hope, as she arranged three folding chairs in front of the small TV/VHS combo we used for training videos. “I want you to watch this and see what you could be a part of. I can’t tell you…”

Here Hope’s breath caught, and her hand flew to her chest, a clear indication she was Having A Moment. She took a breath, and blinked her welling eyes rapidly.

“I can’t tell you what this experience meant to me. It was truly life-changing. And that’s what being a part of the Limited family is all about. So please, watch this and think about where The Limited could take you.”

Hope pressed play on the TV. At this point, I expected her to return to the floor, but instead she sat down with us, which meant I could watch her watch the video.

Everyone was thin and tan and well-coiffed, their freshly cut Rachels bouncing shinily with every movement.

And what a production it was. Whoever filmed and edited it had done a bang-up job of making this conference look like a bachelorette party planned by Oprah. Hundreds of women — all of them high-ranking Limited employees, including store managers, district managers, and regional managers — were shown dressed in that season’s Limited fashions. We saw them leaving airports, entering hotels, and going up and down escalators, all waving with delight. They were shown being escorted by handsome maître d’s into dinners and parties while clutching gift bags, all courtesy of The Limited. Everyone was thin and tan and well-coiffed, their freshly cut Rachels bouncing shinily with every movement.

We watched excerpts of keynotes, and footage taken from meetings held for the higher-ups and workshops held for the peons on subjects like “color matching” and “upselling.” One thing I did appreciate was the sheer number of female bodies on that screen. Women, obviously, were The Limited’s sales force, and this conference was largely by and for them.

However, this video was no feminist anthem: These women were treated like girls on vacay, who just happened to sell things. I knew Hope supported herself through her job and that she worked her ass off, and yet these managers and higher-ups were presented as party-going, frivolous “ladies in retail.” As if these women, who actually worked long hours at a fairly grueling job, were just making pin money while someone else paid the bills.

Then things got weird.

It started with the women, all wearing Limited dresses, disembarking from massive tour buses in a desert setting. They were greeted by people wearing Native American dress, who escorted them to a massive bonfire.

“Oh,” said Hope from beside me. “This was soooooo beautiful.”

The footage cut to the women seated awkwardly on cushions on the sand. “Those are the regional managers,” Hope whispered, pointing to the inner circle sitting closest to the flames. They were clearly the special guests at the event; everyone else was the audience.

The soaring music blasting from the tiny television faded as the sound of drumming and chanting replaced it, and a Native American man in full ceremonial garb danced onto our screen.

“This is a powwow,” Hope informed us, as if imparting a term we’d obviously never heard before. Brandi rolled her eyes. I shifted in my seat.

The man was clad in the ornately beaded skins and brightly dyed feathers sacred to his people. The Limited’s contingent for which he danced all wore the synthetic fabrics and plastic jewelry we hawked in our store, built on what had once been the vast Illinois prairie and was now a seemingly never-ending series of shopping malls, strip malls, and parking lots.

“Now comes the naming ceremony,” said Hope, and I prayed that I’d misheard her.

I hadn’t. The video cut to a close-up of the man in tribal gear, now flanked by a similarly dressed woman holding necklaces. The man was saying something, but the cameras were far away and the wind obscured his exact words. All we could see was his broad, muscular back, as he spoke to a regional manager with tears streaming down her face, and then ceremoniously draped one of the necklaces around her neck.

“He gave her her Indian name,” Hope whispered.

“Was it ‘Folds Sweaters Neatly?’” I blurted, before I could stop myself.

Hope gave me a look so pained I almost felt badly. “How could you not take this seriously?” the look asked. For a second, I thought I was the jerk.

Then I turned back to the screen. Keep in mind that this was the mid-90s, long before terms like “cultural appropriation” were common parlance. I didn’t know why, exactly, what I was watching was awful, and I had no doubt that the Native Americans involved in this ceremony had been well compensated for their time. But I also knew that I was watching people blithely purchase access to something that didn’t belong to them — something with a story they didn’t understand, a history of blood and life, and the memories of an entire people whom we were still attempting to eradicate. That the higher-ups thought this was not only okay, but meaningful was, to me, the worst part.

We watched the rest of the video, which cut from the powwow back to lots of shiny ladies getting blingy presents from a company that sold not only shifts and shells, but the idea that we need to buy things to feel good about ourselves, and that those things should rotate seasonally. That instead of parsing out our lives as our ancestors had, in the phases of the moon or the coming of the migrating herds, we should know time has passed with the announcement of a new season’s black, or the replacement of our acid-washed jeans with bootcut.

“What do you think?” Hope asked, when the video had finished. “Do you see a future with The Limited?”

“Nope,” said Brandi, pushing her chair back so that it made a horrible screeching sound as she returned to the floor.

Hope looked at me. Hopeful.

“It’s certainly a lot to think about,” I told her. Then I went to refold a table of brightly colored tank tops, wondering what my own Indian name would have been.

Novelist and essayist. Director of the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. Find out more at http://nicolepeeler.com.

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