You Asked For It

I hate to harp on the importance of appearance yet again, but this little temper tantrum has caused me to have an even bigger one:

She is a bestselling author with a healthy bank balance, but Chocolat writer Joanne Harris found herself shunned by sales staff at Harvey Nichols in London – because she wasn’t smartly dressed.
The writer, 52, whose novel was turned into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche, took to Twitter this afternoon to blast the retailer, saying she’d encountered ‘intense snoot’ from staff ‘unused to contact with people in hoodies’.

But it gets better.

She added that her ‘elegant Parisian aunt’ had taught her that an establishment with true class never judges its customers on appearance.

Listen, you classless idiot: did you ever stop to wonder why your Parisian aunt is “elegant”?

It’s because appearances matter, you fucking slob. Let me take this woman’s attitude apart, piece by piece.

I’ve been to Harvey Nics many, many times — it was always Connie’s first stop in London because of their amazing cosmetics department — and we never, ever encountered any “snoot” from the polite, helpful and attentive staff. Know why? Because we were always well-dressed and (in the case of The Mrs., anyway) looked as though we were the type of people Harvey Nichols wanted as customers. One older sales assistant even remembered Connie from an earlier trip. “You’re the lady from Beverley Hills with the delightful children, aren’t you? Welcome back to London.” (I guess they just don’t get that many six-foot-tall redheaded American women from Beverley Hills shopping there.)

Here’s a clue for Joanne Harris. The staff at Harvey Nichols are very, very accustomed to customers wearing hoodies in their store; generally, that’s because said hoodie-wearers are career shoplifters. If you go into a store looking like the average criminal then how, exactly, do you expect the staff to react to you? “It shouldn’t matter how you look!” Well, welcome to the real world, sweetheart, and guess what? How you look does matter.

In fact, judging other people by how they look is not “trained behavior” created by Harvey Nichols management; it’s trained behavior as a result of many thousands of years’ genetic conditioning, where judging appearances is not a matter of “snoot”, but quite often is a matter of life and death. The oldest human instinct is probably a subconscious warning of “Predator!” so the instinct, in other words, is already ingrained. Then add experience (hoodie = possible shoplifter) which fills in the rest.

It’s time for my Parisian restaurant story (and to those who’ve heard it before, sorry but it’s relevant). The scene: Paris between Christmas and New Year, i.e. full to the brim with people. It’s also pouring down with rain, and tit-freezing cold. Dramatis personae:  la famille du Toit, having just quit standing in a seemingly-endless line at an art museum because bullshit. We are well-dressed because when we travel, we are always well-dressed: no jeans, sneakers, tee shirts nor (duh) hoodies; rather, it’s dress slacks, decent shirts / blouses, shiny dress shoes and silk scarves under cashmere coats.

We walked into a nearby but packed restaurant, and I fought my way to the maître d’hotel‘s stand. I apologized (in French) for not having a reservation, explained our predicament, and asked if it would be at all possible for the restaurant to seat a party of six (we had an “adopted” child with us), and no, we wouldn’t mind waiting. The headwaiter looked at the rest of us and clearly saw how we were dressed. He sat us at the bar counter, moving people down to give us room, gave us complimentary bottles of sparkling water, and told us please to be patient, and he would seat us shortly. About five minutes passed; then he came back, and apologized profusely that he hadn’t been able to get our table ready, and would Monsieur please excuse him? In vain did I protest, and repeated that we were the ones imposing on him. No matter: he raced off, and in another five minutes showed us to our table, apologizing again, showed us the glasses of complimentary vin blanc on the table, and six waiters pushed our chairs in as we sat down. It is generally regarded by our family as one of the best meals we’d ever eaten, both for the quality of the food and the service.

Now here’s the kicker. While we were waiting for our table, two couples came into the place separately, looking like members of the International Backpack Set — and the headwaiter shooed them out, telling them the place was full, even though there were a few empty tables-for-two right there in the bar area. He did not want their business. Why? Because backpackers are a waste of seats: they order the cheapest stuff on the menu, stay far too long (in a city where dawdling over a cup of coffee is not frowned upon), they generally tip badly, and because they’re scruffy, they bring down the whole tone of the place — and remember this last part, because we’ll be getting back to it. I agree, it’s not fair. But once again, that just happens to be the reality we live in. (By the way, the meal was expensive — as I recall, about $100 per person, excluding the service charge — but we did drink about five bottles of wine and a few liqueurs and cocktails, as well as ordering dishes like patê de foie gras and terrine rustique de Provence. Not, in other words, the kind of fare ordered by yer typical hoodie-wearing backpackers, so the maître d’hotel‘s instinct was correct.)

Which brings me back to my point. It’s not fair — actually, I think it’s perfectly fair, but let’s just grant the point for the sake of argument — that in a classy establishment, someone dressed like Grace Kelly will get better treatment than your average hoodie-chick:


Imagine that. (And lest I be accused of bias, that’s a model in the second picture and not yer typical street skank.)

I also know that in oh-so-egalitarian America, we don’t put up with class and airs, so it really shouldn’t matter. Uh huh. You’re quite welcome to think that, but in return you have to tell me the color of the sun on your imaginary planet.

And in any event, the woefully-dressed Joanne Harris was “snooted” at Harvey Nichols, which is one of the classiest stores in the world, let alone London, and they make no bones about the fact that they cater to people of wealth and class — how the sales staff are dressed should give anyone a clue. Just for being so dense and clueless, Harris should have been tossed out of the store on her ass, let alone snooted.

At the heart of her snit, by the way, is a kind of arrogance: “I’m smart! I’m classy! I’m a writer! I’m famous! I have a healthy bank balance! And you should know all this and should defer to me, even though you have no idea who I am, and despite the fact that I look like a street slapper!”

Bullshit.

And for the staff at Harvey Nichols: you may have lost this classless harpy as a customer, but I for one promise to visit you the next time I’m in London, and buy something from you because — guess what? — I like the idea that the staff discourages hooligans from frequenting their wonderful store. It makes for a better shopping experience, for me. And I too am a customer, and one moreover who won’t look like he just got off the bus from some council block in the East End.

Patsy (from Absolutely Fabulous) would quite possibly stop shopping there too, but because “Harvey Nics lets just anyone shop there these days, sweetie-darling. Even those dreadful hoodie-types.”

At Harvey Nichols, Patsy’s type is in the majority, not Joanne Harris’s, and the store runs their business accordingly. Good for them, say I.

12 comments

  1. There was a commercial some years back that had two women, one white and one black, on an elevator and a young black man got on, he had his pants down around his hips, hat backward, etc. The white woman pulled her purse closer to her, and the black woman told her that SHE didn’t feel nervous around a young black man (and of course the white woman was racist for being nervous around a young guy who’s dressed like a thug). Made my blood boil. Had the kid been dressed in suit-and-tie, or even just slacks and a polo shirt, he wouldn’t have gotten that reaction, but when you dress like a thug you’ve got no cause to complain when people treat you like a potential thug.

    The funny thing is the people who rail against judging by appearances have no problem judging people they don’t like that way. Show up at a Liberal protest sometime wearing an NRA shirt, but THAT’S ok.

    1. Some black and white students at Columbia (I think, but I cannot find the article online this 5 minutes) tried to show how racist the taxi drivers were by hailing cabs to show that they would pick up the white students but not the black ones. Problem was that the cabs picked all of them up with no issue. So they had the bright idea to dress the black students like thugs, and then the cabs would not pick them up – which they then printed up in the school paper.

      Well some white students then dressed up like thugs and tried to hail cabs and got the same treatment – proving that cab drivers around the school are sorting based on dress/demeanor and not race.

      That is not to say that there is not actual racism happening. My wife (who is black and always dressed up scale) has been followed in stores by the staff like she was some low life. I have seen that happen myself as they make no effort to conceal what they are doing from me (no one ever assumes that we are together). It does seem to be a middlebrow sort of thing, I do not recall it happening at more upscale places.

    2. My Fathers comment was to always act like you belong there, even if you aren’t dressed like it.

  2. Meh! When I travel (I’m in my 50s) I usually look like a cross between a adventure-touring motorcyclist (dusty, sometimes wet, wearing a faded armored suit and boots) and a backpack-wearing “backpacker” … because I *travel* not just pontz about between museum and restaurant. 😉 Hence I fully expect not to be welcomed with open arms in hoity-toity restaurants and high-class department stores. But then again, I don’t care for those places and don’t seek them out. One of my most memorable dining experiences (on my first visit to post-Apartheid South Africa in 1999) was on the patio of a Gordon’s Bay Italian restaurant, enjoying a plate of pesto linguini washed down with a bottle of Cabernet, watching the sun set over the bay. I was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt and takkies, having just bicycled down from East London. No expectation of high-class. Just leave me alone and bring me a glass of wine every 20 minutes. 😉

    1. Hence I fully expect not to be welcomed with open arms in hoity-toity restaurants and high-class department stores.

      That’s the key, though. And yeah, I’ll walk out of an allegedly “quality” place if I walk in, and it’s full of people who don’t look like they should be able to afford expensive.

      So I walk in and see a guy who just stepped off a bike. I’m going to look closer — quality boots? Leather or denim? Is the leather brand new (suggesting douche) or quality and worn in?

      The guy in the full leathers with quality boots, all well worn, is your civilized playboy/gentleman adventurer type. The guy with busted boots (or even worse, sneakers) and canadian tuxedo on is bringing the place down.

  3. I absolutely hate the hoodie thing and wouldn’t complain if they were made illegal.

    My only trip to Europe (excluding living in Sweden) was my language study abroad in France. And yeah, college kids with Eurail passes are hardly well-dressed. But my mom bought me a Jones of New York suit for day trips to Paris, because PARIS. Ditto for air travel. Back in the day, you dressed to fly as if you were going to church.

  4. Not that long ago I was meeting a friend and his date for dinner at a rather good restaurant in Manhattan. Said friend is a pretty successful B-list actor– you’d know him if you saw him. His date was also semi-famous.

    I arrived in a suit and tie, pocket square, the usual for dining out with people in their 30s, at least in my book. My date was dressed.. well, like Grace up there. We arrived early, so, cocktails at the bar. My friend and his date showed up about 20 minutes later, dressed as one might be running form the cops on a skateboard– yet, as I mentioned, they are known to most. The Maitre ‘D wouldn’t seat them, or even let them in, even though this establishment had no requirement for attire.

    I don’t think I ever saw said friend wearing anything less than slacks and a golf shirt after that.

  5. My typical (though usually silent) response to that whole “don’t judge a book by its cover” nonsense is “books don’t choose their own covers”. You can’t pick your race, but you certainly can choose your clothing, haircut, posture, vocabulary, and general hygienic level.

      1. I judge whether I want to investigate a book, in part, by its cover. Usually that’s just a way to get the potential buyer’s attention, which is fine. A great cover may hide a crap story, and vice versa. I’ll also check authors names (Correia, William Brown, etc.) and what their buyers have also read. Plus reviews from sources which I trust.

        TBH, I can’t remember the last time I was in a physical bookstore.

  6. My two cents worth on folks looking like meth-head hippies.

    When I went off to college in the early 60’s, all men, we were required to eat a sit down served dinner four night a week wearing coat and tie. On weekends we wore coat and tie for dates and even attending football games with the caveat of white shirt after six pm. When I was in high school getting ready for college my older brother helped me out building a modest wardrobe of several suits, blazer, sport coat, nice lace up cordovan shoes and good loafers with nice ties and belts. Brother’s advice and he is 11 years older than me, was to buy a decent suit, the best shirts I could afford and really nice ties and then take care of what I have. With good shoes keep them polished and resole and re heel as they start to wear before they are worn, etc.

    Over 50 years later I still remember how to dress for the occasion and I have had the pleasure over my working years to travel both in Europe and all over the U.S. and dine in some wonderful restaurants and private clubs. It is a treat to have drinks at the Top of the Mark in San Francisco, the University Club overlooking Lake Michigan in Chicago and most any of the fine places in Manhattan and yes the staff notices and appreciates those who dress appropriately.

    Last thing is the real over the top goofy getups celebrities wear on the red carpet things looking like an expensive clown circus. Since our apparel creates and impression and makes a visual statement at once I think most of those folks miss the mark. Having said that I am dressed in a black t-shirt, baggy jeans, worn cowboy boots after working in my garden and I am on my way now to Home Depot so I guess I am dressed for the occasion.

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