The Open Mesh

Alice Butler, our Writer in Residence, lists the shopgirls of art, film and literature and unravels their kleptomaniac desire.

Alice Butler will be running a writing workshop on Kleptomania, Art and Feminism at the Freud Museum this summer. Details >>

She is also giving a reading of her work on Saturday 3 August. Details >>

1. I make lists when I write, scrawling single words, and lengthy quotations, in blue– or black-inked ribbons that twist down the page. I don’t always follow these lists in an orderly fashion. The desire for structure is there at the beginning, but this can unravel and transform, with the rhythm and time of my writing body.

2. I began this project by compiling a reading list on kleptomania. It shivered with anxiety at the prospect of diminishing time. Rather than crossing books off, I simply added more: the addictive nature of reading and writing.

3. Writing lists is akin to collecting, an obsessive gathering of stuff. Hoarding writing. Words that stand in for things: in restless consumption.

Au Bonheur des dames ms

Émile Zola, Au Bonheur des Dames, manuscript, undated (c.1880s).

4. Lists can run vertically (as most shopping lists do) or horizontally, the style favoured by Zola in The Ladies’ Paradise, with his fetishistic, forensic collecting of consumer goods. Fabrics pour in erotic gushings of language: First, pale satins and soft silks were gushing out: duchess satins, renaissance satins, in the pearly shades of spring water—light silks as transparent as crystal, Nile green, turquoise, blossom pink, Danube blue. Next came the thicker materials, the marvellous satins, royal satins, in warm shades flowing in rising waves. And at the foot, as if the basin of a fountain, the heavy materials, the damasks, the brocades, the silks encrusted with pearls and gold, were sleeping on a deep bed of velvets—velvets of all kinds, black, white, coloured, embossed on a background of silk or of satin, their shimmering flecks forming a motionless lake in which glints of the sky and of the countryside seemed to dance.

5. The list is excessive and bodily: unfinished.

6. It resists closure, making it a form that is appealing to the feminist writer who is attentive to the messy blurred lines of gender, sexuality, and genre. In the words of Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick, writing in 1993, this is close to the definition of ‘queer’: she describes it as the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, or anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically. Perhaps Sedgwick had no choice but to phrase this definition in a list, given the ways queerness embraces multiplicity. Like the hopeful desire of what Sedgwick terms reparative reading, the list has the potential to imagine histories differently, supplementing it with lost bodies and voices, never sealing it closed. It is the gaps within the fragments of the list that make this form so vital.

7. As I feel my way through fragments, I do so with hope and love, to repair the figure of the kleptomaniac, to uncover her creative agency and perverse desire. As Sedgwick writes: Hope, often a fracturing, even a traumatic thing to experience is among the energies by which the reparatively positioned reader tries to organize the fragments and part-objects she encounters or creates.

8. In her own book of fragments, The Argonauts (2015), Maggie Nelson writes with Sedgwick, and also Roland Barthes, Anne Carson, Judith Butler and Eileen Myles. These are just some of the writers she gets close to, their names listed casually in the margins—spatially and emotionally close. This mode of citation is clearly taken from Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse; while another of his fragmentary books, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, inspired the title. Nelson reworks this style of writing, which nonchalantly flaunts its reading list, by meshing swatches of quotation with raw personal experience.

9. As Nelson once said in an interview, revealing her restless fragments to be a kind of kleptomaniac writing: While writing a book, I’m influenced by things the same way I would imagine most writers are: I look for what I want to steal, then I steal it, and make my own weird stew of the goods.

10. The fragment: as fetish, as catastrophe, as leftover, as sample or citation, as memory, and so on. To cite another one of Nelson’s lists.

11. Confession: I write lists when I write, but not when I shop. I pick up plums I don’t need every Tuesday; then buy a brand-new lipstick to match. I buy unnecessary white denim jumpsuits, but aside from a mascara pilfered from Sainsbury’s aged sixteen, I’ve not succumbed to kleptomaniac acts. I’ve simply shopped myself poor. I am a thirty-year-old writer, paying rent and gasping for air, while my clothing rail lists from side to side (like the small boat I used to live on).

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am), 1987, Photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 28.5 x 287 cm (framed), 112 x 113 inches (framed), Courtesy Sprüth Magers.

12. I shop therefore I am: in the photo-collaged words of the artist, Barbara Kruger.

13. Susie Orbach recognizes the gender politics that produce this consumption: Excluded as a gender from other public arenas, the market is par excellence the civic and secular temple of contemporary feminine creativity. […] Being able to consume well, tastefully, economically, efficiently is an acceptable and approved of female attribute. Sometimes, I should add, to consume against the grain—to buy too much; or to not buy at all—can bring about its own creative potential, loosening the open mesh of femininity to include modes of addiction and perversion.

Oil painting of a young woman standing inside a shop selling ribbons and dresses.

James Tissot, The Shop Girl, 1883-1885.

14. A familiar figure in this scene is the background shopgirl, a close relation of the kleptomaniac. One of the first fragments I found (it was near the top of my list of texts and objects) was James Tissot’s 1883-1885 painting, The Shop Girl—with its slippery satin ribbons spilling from the table to the floor, in unpredictable directions. Clutching a pink box as she lingers by the door in expectant desire of the urban world that lies outside the interior of the shop, I read her in ‘klepto-terms’. I celebrated her unruliness, her loose body: her perverse desire to touch. But as she holds the door open for an invisible patron, the girl, who is likely older than adolescent—dressed in a black-and-white uniform that matches her colleague beside her—maintains her submissive duties, nourishing the infantilizing association of her ‘shop-girl’ moniker.

15. In this open mesh: perhaps she is both a kleptomaniac and a shopgirl.

16. As the industrial hum of modernity brought steel palaces known as department stores into our everyday lives, the ways women approached time shifted: shopping became recreational leisure—a social activity—which took place in the public sphere, far from the rigid confines of her house and the angelic masquerade. For working– to middle-class women also, the department store opened up new opportunities to earn a wage independently, within a sumptuous space that held a certain cachet of sophistication.

17. If the late nineteenth century produced a new modern gender identity in the shopgirl, she also embodied, as the scholar Lise Shapiro Sanders has found, the very moment at which fantasy entered the process of consumer exchange: her vocation required that she mediate the desires of consumers on the other side of the counter, be they women who longed to purchase the goods in display or men who might desire the shopgirl herself as another type of merchandise. As a social and cultural commodity, the figure of the shopgirl was objected by the environment in which she gave her body, her labour, in this feminine masquerade. Moulded, modelled, ornamented and adorned, the shopgirl body became symptomatic of artifice and display.

18. Forever gazed upon, her body was turned into capital, by rich men in top hats leaning dangerously forward, and in Tissot’s painting—somewhat unnervingly—the viewer herself. As Tamar Garb notes in Bodies of Modernity (1998): Here the bustling boulevard and the intimate feminine interior of the dressmaker’s shop come dangerously close together.

19. The shopgirl of Tissot’s canvas is liminal, edgewise, torn between inside and out. She is framed by windows and doors (and the scaffold of the painting), but she also resists these forces, fondles the door handle, in a way that could also be read as a desire for public space, ownership, and freedom. She is a woman worker on the threshold, desiring the open mesh of gendered multiplicities, as so many shopgirls in art, literature, and film have done. Zola may have disparaged the shopgirls for their airs and gracesa vague class floating between the working and middle classes, but this also brought mobility and movement—the many desires of the shopgirl.

20. The eponymous shopgirl protagonist of Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Tiredness of Rosabel” is starving and soaking at the end of a long day working in a millinery establishment. She arrives home to her room on Westbourne Grove; escapes her cold and dank reality by fantasizing about a gentleman customer called Harry whose face fascinated her; she could clearly see his fine, straight eyebrows, and his hair grew back from his forehead with just the slightest suspicion of crisp curl, his laughing disdainful mouth. Mansfield moves between the real and fantasy lives of two Rosabels: hints at a possible world in which a shopgirl can gaze and desire on her own terms.

21. While reading for a degree in English Literature and Art History, I flicked the pages of Mansfield and Woolf during the week; then stood behind the counter at weekends. I was a shopgirl, too, sweating out hangovers on Sundays, smiling through gritted teeth: that suit fits you so well.

22. Therese Belivet—the blue-eyed, brown-bobbed protagonist of Todd Haynes’s 2015 film set in 1950s Manhattan, Carol—also works in a department store. Played by Rooney Mara, Therese is boyishly pretty, with a penchant for black polo necks, and delectable tartan knitwear. In a flashback near the beginning of the film, we learn how she meets the woman she will fall in love with, that is Carol, the siren-blonde swathed in fur, played by Cate Blanchett. It’s Christmas, and Carol has entered Therese’s place of work, a busy toy department in Frankenberg’s. She moves with desire, from the train set counter to the doll counter, and places her expensive brown leather gloves upon the glass. It is these gloves—an item so often favoured by the shoplifter; an item so symbolic of touching desire—which Carol leaves behind, giving Therese the chance to call Carol at home, using the shipment details Carol wrote down for Therese in elegant script.

23. But in this meeting between Therese and Carol, they both admit to their discomfort with the feminine masquerade. Therese tells Carol that she didn’t much play with dolls as a child; she favoured a train set instead.

24. This invokes what Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick has written about the queerness of childhood: I think that for many of us in childhood the ability to attach intently to a few cultural objects, objects of high or popular culture or both, objects whose meaning seemed excessive, or oblique in relation to the codes most readily available to us, became a prime resource of survival. We needed for there to be sites where the meanings didn’t line up tidily with each other, and we learned to invest those sites with fascination and love.

25. Carol is a film where meanings and identities don’t line up tidily. Even Carol, who appears so soft and silky, so ‘finished’, flirts with Therese by saying that shopping makes me nervous, to which Therese replies with, working here makes me nervous. She tells Carol: I’m confined to this desk. She flirts without even meaning to. But as the film progresses, Therese admits to her desire; she escapes the shopgirl desk. Unconfined.

ACT UP Silence = death

A pink triangle against a black backdrop with the words ‘Silence=Death’ representing an advertisement for The Silence = Death Project. Used by permission of ACT-UP, The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. Colour lithograph, 1987.

26. Department stores are spaces with surprisingly queer angles. For example, Sedgwick’s essay, “Divinity,” which takes the form of a conversation between her and Michael Moon, begins in the department store, as Sedgwick describes a dream she once had: I was shopping for clothes for myself at a store that was nominally Bloomingdale’s. I was dubious about whether they would have any clothes that would be big enough for me, but a saleswoman said they did, adding that rather than being marked by size numbers, each size-group of clothes was gathered under a graphic symbol: over here, she said, were the clothes that would fit me. “Over here” referred to a cluster of luscious looking clothes, hung on a rack between two curtained dressing-rooms. The graphic symbol that surmounted them was a pink triangle.

            I woke up extremely cheerful.

27. The shopgirl’s call of “over here” could’ve easily been patronizing, sending Eve to the edges of the marketplace: the fringe of the store where the bigger clothes were stored. But for Sedgwick, the coincidence of the pink triangle is empowering and explosive, opening up the identification that she co-explores in “Divinity,” whick links the overweight diva and the gay man. Published two years after the death of Divine, the drag star of John Waters’s films whose trash style mixed the pillbox hats of Hollywood with the polyester grime of the thrift store, this essay appreciates the unsanitized drag of Divine for its capacity to disgust[s] and infuriate[s] many people. Defiance and abjection collide in this state they call “Divinity” that is inhabited by overweight women and gay men.

28. I remember Maggie Nelson’s divine description of Eve, her friend and mentor, in The Argonauts: she exuded a sexuality and charisma that was much more powerful, particular, and compelling than the poles of masculinity and femininity could ever allow—one that had to do with being fat, freckled, prone to blushing, bedecked in textiles, generous, uncannily sweet, almost sadistically intelligent, and, by the time I met her, terminally ill.

29. In the end, it was Sedgwick’s disease (she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991) as well as her size that constituted her complex and powerful queerness. In the part essay, part obituary, “White Glasses,” Sedgwick explores the identification she feels for her friend, Michael Lynch (whose health had taken an unexpected revival during the course of the essay’s development after his initial AIDS diagnosis), through his eye-catching white glasses, through this fashion accessory that enables her to see him and him to see her: that links his illness with her own. She eventually hunts some down: It took me a year and a half of peering in the window of every optician in New York, northern California, and Massachusetts to find glasses that I thought looked like Michael’s. When I got them I felt fashion-perfect—I felt like Michael—even though, in the intervening time, the predicted fashion crazy of white glasses had entirely failed to materialize. Feeling like Michael, Sedgwick’s text anticipates death, from the perspective of author and subject. It builds paragraph by paragraph in numbered sections—a bit like a list—moving closer towards mortality.

30. “White Glasses” ends with a final note explaining that Lynch died of AIDS on 9 July 1991.

Author’s copies of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015) and Dodie Bellamy’s Pink Steam (2004).

31. From the pink triangle of the AIDS activist group ACT UP, to the pink text on the American edition of The Argonauts, to the Pink Steam of Dodie Bellamy’s essay-collection that contains her short story on shoplifting. The blurb on the back of the neon-pink and yellow jacket gives its own definition of the term: Pink steam rises from the vats of melting goo in the Vincent Price 3-D horror classic, House of Wax. Railroad buffs know ‘pink steam’ as the first blast from a newly christened steam engine, which appears pink as it spews out rust. Gooing and spewing: the abject materiality of these images opens up the grotesque and filthy aspects of pink: re-colouring the norms of femininity. “Complicity” tells the story of Lizzie, a raging kleptomaniac, whose hand once went between Dodie’s thighs but she was sleeping. The multiple shades of perversion.

32. My personal weakness is sales, writes Bellamy in “Complicity”: That’s why I love Macy’s—you can live your life through sales. All it takes is patience and the Sunday paper.

33. Messier than the girls working at Macy’s, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas once became playful, provocative shopgirls in their own right. They opened ‘The Shop’ on London’s Brick Lane in January 1992, in a tricksy, feminist reimagining of art and commerce. It was a space to talk, fuck around, drink and smoke, where the project and the party became intertwined in anarchy, as Saturday night became Sunday afternoon. The stock was eclectic. They sold handmade paper badges (memorialized in the wall hanging, The Last Night of the Shop 3.7.93, now owned by the Tate), slogan t-shirts emblazoned with confessions such as ‘I’m so fucky’, a David Hockney altarpiece made out of chicken wire, and an ashtray printed with Damien Hirst’s face in its crevice. They also exhibited their works. Across a heady six months that ended with an all-night thirtieth birthday party, Emin and Lucas destroyed the submissive qualities previously given to the role of the shopgirl. The costing may have been wayward and unpredictable, but through remembering ‘The Shop’ it’s possible to see how the shopgirl can go from object to subject, an artist as well as a businesswoman, mapping out her own future and space in the world, with love, friendship and irony.

Artangel & Miranda July present Norwood Jewish Charity Shop, London Buddhist Centre Charity Shop & Spitalfields Crypt Trust Charity Shop in solidarity with Islamic Relief Charity Shop at Selfridges (2017). An Artangel commission. Photograph: Hugo Glendinning © Artangel

34. ‘The Shop’ popped up in a fleeting moment of early 90s chaos. It took what it wanted from the hungry dealers. Miranda July’s pop-up interfaith charity shop, an artist commission with Artangel, which was hidden within the departments of Selfridge’s in 2017, was more altruistic in comparison, more austere in its daytime hours. And yet it was not without humour, as July mocked the ridiculousness of high fashion by placing discarded dresses, skirts and mini crystal glasses, worth less than five quid in close proximity to items costing thousands. In a similar way to a kleptomaniac’s tendencies (which is also the title of Sedgwick’s book of essays that contains her thoughts on the open mesh), the charity shopper is addicted to the thrill of cheap garments, the thrill of wearing a t-shirt or a dress that smells of another, that has slipped so closely to a stranger’s skin: recycling, remaking.

35. The charity shop is in this way a relational space, involving multiple bodies—of varying intersections—moving through time, space and memory, buying against the desire for department store capital, conversing and laughing as they go. More than one body: July’s shop also plays with singular and deliberate modes of masculine authorship. Nestled within London’s largest department store, July’s charity shop was covert, not unlike the secretive habits of the kleptomaniac.

Artangel & Miranda July present Norwood Jewish Charity Shop, London Buddhist Centre Charity Shop & Spitalfields Crypt Trust Charity Shop in solidarity with Islamic Relief Charity Shop at Selfridges (2017). An Artangel commission. Photograph: Matthew Andrews © Artangel

36. Only books authored by women were available to buy on the shelf. Paperbacks mostly. Rarely priced at more than a fiver.

37. The shopgirl and the kleptomaniac: perhaps they are closer than they seem. It feels counterintuitive to conclude a list, but for now I will pause with Miranda July’s confession that begins tentatively: I don’t remember the first time I did it, but I remember the first time I got caught. Not for a book in the end, but for some ointment—slipped into her schoolgirl-style, rolled-down ankle sock. She may have been at college, but in her klepto habits she was defiantly adolescent. (If I were to list the ages of all my friends that have once been shoplifters, the average age range would probably be between fifteen and twenty-two.)

38. Everyone I knew did these things, writes July: I say this not to excuse myself but just so you can visualize a legion of energetic, intelligent young lady criminals.

39. I’m forever listing that legion… the open mesh.


Alice Butler will be running a writing workshop on Kleptomania, Art and Feminism at the Freud Museum this summer. Details >>

She is also giving a reading of her work on Saturday 3 August. Details >>

Works noted:

Bellamy, Dodie. “Complicity.” In Pink Steam, 24-41. San Francisco, CA: Suspect Thoughts Press, 2004.

Garb, Tamar. Bodies of Modernity: Figure and Flesh in Fin-de-Siecle France. London: Thames & Hudson, 1998.

July, Miranda. “Free Everything.” The New Yorker, 10 October 2011.

Kosofksy Sedgwick, Eve. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You.” In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2003.

———. Tendencies. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1993.

Mansfield, Katherine. “The Tiredness of Rosabel” (1908). Accessed: Date accessed: 22 May 2019.

Moon, Michael and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. “Divinity: A Dossier A Performance Piece A Little-Understood Emotion.” Discourse 13:1 (Fall-Winter 1990-1991): 12-39.

Nelson, Maggie. The Argonauts. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2015.

Orbach, Susie. “Psychological Processes of Consuming.” British Journal of Psychotherapy 10 (1993): 196-201.

Sanders, Lise Shapiro. Consuming Fantasies: Labor, Leisure and the London Shopgirl, 1880-1920.

Segal, Ben. “The Fragment as a Unit of Prose Composition: An Introduction.” continent 1:3 (2011): 158-170.

Zola, Émile. The Ladies’ Paradise. Translated by Brian Nelson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2006.


  • Ivan Stelmak
    July 11, 2019 | Permalink | Reply to this comment

    I think it is important to know about that film Der Trafikant about Sigmund Freud is very far from real historical facts. This is hipotetical film.

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