Do you love or hate shopping?
At the best of times, going shopping is something we take for granted as part of our weekly routine – and can be something we grumble about especially if we can’t find that perfect garment we are looking for. But in the worst of times, after this last year of lockdown, shopping can revitalise our sense of who we are, says writer Yang-May Ooi, and help us feel fabulous – especially at the bright and airy mall that is the Westgate Shopping Centre.
Ode to the Westgate Centre ¦ Oxford Moments
Oxford is known for its dreaming spires and the intellectual heritage of the University, its beautiful architecture, great writers, thinkers and scientists, punting on the river, walks along the towpath, Port Meadow and pubs by the water. I could go on but you get the picture.
Oxford is definitely *not* known as a shopping destination.
Call me shallow but right now, I don’t care two hoots about all that history and beauty and great minds.
The best thing about Oxford for me at the moment is the Westgate Shopping Centre.
Desperate to Dress Up
During the last year and a half of lockdown, like most of the UK, all I could do was stay at home or go for my permitted daily exercise day in, day out. While I was at home, I mooched about in my slouchies – a hoodie and track suit bottoms, occasionally changing my top half to something more presentable for Zoom calls. When I went out to meet a friend for a walk, we would both be in our coats and warm jackets in the colder seasons and in walking or exercise clothing when the weather was warmer.
Life felt drab and claustrophobic.
So when things started to open up again, I was desperate to bring back some lightness and joie de vivre.
New Clothes for My New Life
I have a wardrobe full of clothes that I brought with me from London that all have what it takes to make me look – and feel – great again. (See my previous blog post Is My Wardrobe Enchanted?)
But somehow, I had an urge to go shopping for new clothes. I wanted outfits with a different energy to what I already had. It was the start of summer. I wanted pretty things, stylish things that felt a little glamorous, a little fabulous. Outfits that spoke of my new life in Oxford – or rather, the new life I would like to create in Oxford.
I had moved to Oxford during lockdown and that rather put the kibosh on most activities that would normally help in making a new life in a new city. I could not do any of the things I love – ballroom dancing, joining Meetup groups, social gatherings, writers groups, go out for coffee, invite friends to tea, go to parties, talks, events: essentially all the sorts of things I would otherwise do to meet people, make new friends, get involved in my local community and generally embed myself into a new life in a new city.
On top of that, like most of the UK, I had not been into a non-essential shop for months. And essential as they may be, there is only so much one can take of grocery stores and DIY centres.
Like Miss Havisham, I felt I was waiting endlessly for my new life to begin, mind and body decaying along with her bridal dress.
Westgate Centre, Mon Amour
All this pent-up energy burst out in my urgent, burning desire to go shopping.
The Westgate Centre is near Carfax, the iconic crossroads at the centre of Oxford. When I was a student here in the ’80s, the shopping mall was dark, dreary, dingy and depressing. I can’t remember what shops were in there, only this sense of a shabby, rundown and sad place.
Fast-forward forty years and it is an airy, shiny, stylish, sleek and modern shopping centre with two floors of all the big high street brands you could possibly want plus roof terrace cafes and restaurants with fab views over Oxford.
In my past life in London, heading to Oxford Street to go shopping would take me almost an hour and a half on the suburban train and changing tubes a couple of times. And I could then experience the hunt for just the right item that was the exact colour I wanted or that fitted me just so or that was in a style that suited me a long, painful, exhausting and miserable process.
So I would only go shopping for clothes sparingly, as and when I needed something, and in between all my other busy activities. It was part of my routine, not anything special in the experience itself but often solely focused on the result – the item of clothing I needed at that time.
But the Westgate Centre is an easy cycle ride from my house. Or a quick trip on the local bus. Or a beautiful 45 minute stroll along the river.
And – perhaps because lockdown had been a year of sensory deprivation – once I got to there, I found myself entranced with the colours and light, textures and smells of all the shops and boutiques shimmering all around in the bright, airy mall.
All the things we take for granted in a shopping centre seemed wonderful and new.
My eyes danced from colour to colour. The scent of perfume wafted around me. I enjoyed the beat of the background music and the hum of voices passing and milling about.
There were people everywhere. Not so crowded as to be overwhelming – or risky from a contagion point of view – but enough to infuse the whole pleasure dome of retail with vitality.
I ran my hands along racks of clothes – having not been allowed to touch very much over the long months of seclusion, this tactile gesture offered my hands an explosion of different textures. I picked out tops and skirts and held them against me. With no particular list of garments or a specific look I wanted, I tried on items I may never have previously considered. In the changing rooms, I slipped in and out of outfits, drew back the curtains and catwalked up and down the little corridor, checking out how things looked in the walls of mirrors.
I’m no fashion model. I don’t think of myself as pretty or even beautiful. But those stylish clothes made me feel great. I felt confident, full of fun and life, ready to go out dancing and laughing and socialising.
I was having so much fun in the act of shopping itself!
Cape Dress of Good Hope
Everything I bought was non-essential, non-sensible. They were not for exercise, not for walking in the outdoors. They were for Going Out – for stylish restaurants and cafes, delightful parties, for wining and dining. They were for seeing people, lots of them, and for being seen.
I felt fabulous in my new skirts and dress, my new jeans and chinos, toting my new tote bag, swishing about in my new heels.
I created different looks mixing and matching my fab new purchases with my equally fab but differently so old wardrobe, playing with the cowboy boots and biker boots, handbags and leather jackets I already had.
I wonder… How many of us have felt this urgent need to refresh our wardrobes after lockdown? I don’t believe I am the only one to have had this sense of re-emergence, re-blossoming – like a bud bursting into all its flowering glory and abundance after a harsh winter.
So far, kitted out in all my post-lockdown joie de vivre, I have been out to brunch at Cafe Coco, lunch at Gees, the Cecil Beaton exhibition at Blenheim. I’ve hosted my housewarming party at home, been to a dinner party at a friend’s house, invited friends over for tea. And there are a profusion of other social events in my calendar all the way into September.
Finally – my new beginning begins!
Thank you, Westgate Centre – I couldn’t have done it without you.
Photos: Yang-May Ooi
and as per Sources credited, with thanks
Oxford Moments is a personal blog by writer Yang-May Ooi, exploring the city of Oxford, its people and places. “Oxford inspired me as a student and I’m excited to be back here making a new home and rebuilding my life. This project is my multi-faceted discovery of the moments that can give us a sense of home, belonging and enrichment.” Follow Oxford Moments at bit.ly/OxfordMoments
Author: Yang-May Ooi
Yang-May Ooi is a writer & podcaster. Her creative work includes The Flame Tree and Mindgame (novels), Bound Feet Blues (theatre & family memoir), The Anxiety Advantage and Creative Conversations (podcasts). ¦ www.TigerSpirit.co.uk