9th March, 2067. Your 18th birthday. The queue before you slowly shortens as, one by one, newly inducted women shuffle past you, chins up to see over the bundle propped upon their outstretched forearms. You quickly sweep your eyes sidewards for a glance, looking for clues of something, anything new. But you know it’s nothing more than wishful thinking.
Your gaze comes to rest upon the figure in front of you and you drink in every detail. The tails of a polka dot shirt spill from beneath a boxy jumper; yellow with a flash of pink tearing from shoulder to hip. Checked trousers fall to just above the ankle, exposing a flash of white sock before giving way to beaten up powder blue boots.
You make a note to remember. You study the unravelling thread on the jumper’s sleeve; the glint of an earring as a stray lock is tucked behind the left ear; how the polka dots warp where the shirt hem catches on the hip; how the checks stretch ever so slightly across backs of the thighs; the upward curve of the back of the heel, worn away over thousands of steps while there was still the chance. You will yourself to commit it to memory before it all disappears into the next room.
A few moments pass and then you’re up. You creep forward through the imposing doors and your hands form a prayer to part the thick black curtains beyond. A sharp breath with closed eyes before you look up. There it is. Bigger than you imagined but not as terrifying as you’d heard. No symmetry to craft into a face in your mind’s eye. Just a machine. Silver, twice your height and backed against the wall, behind which all the sorting and prep happens. The front isn’t much to behold. A small slot to the left, an open hatch at the bottom and ‘CWM’ stamped across the top. Surprised and somewhat let down, you climb the five stairs in front of it, piqued by the urge to raise your left foot one more time to make three pairs.
You reach up and fumble for the chain tucked beneath your t-shirt. A quick pull and it snaps across the back of your neck, allowing you to pull the circular token that’s been strung upon it for all these years free. You rub your thumb across the inscription, hesitating for just a second, then reach forward to push it into the slot.
You hear it roll and thunk into the receptacle. The machine whirrs into action behind the scenes. You imagine the metal arms reaching into each fully stocked shelf, selecting your size and pulling it onto the moving platform. With each buzz and click, you tick off the list in your head. One of that, one of this and another of that. Surely that’s everything now? You’re right. The platform descends and tips everything into the hatch in a neat pile. Next a paper bag clonks down beside it. Finally, a single slip of paper inches out of a concealed printer and floats down to land gently atop the offering.
You retrieve it all from the hatch and your fingers begin to trace down the edge of each fold to check that everything’s there before you hear the distinctive hum of a camera zoom over head and think better of it. You turn on your heel and head back down the stairs, taking a skip to ensure you set off down them on the opposite foot this time. Across the concrete floor, back through the curtains then the door but, instead of making a beeline for the exit, you’re ushered into a room to the left. You can see feet dancing from left to right trying to avoid any prolonged contact with the cold floor. A rough hand shoves you into the changing cubicle to the right and yanks the curtain closed.
Now is your chance to take stock of your bundle. You place it and the bag to the right of the bench at the opposite end of the cubicle and, one by one, lay each item out in front of you:
One white shirt. One long sleeved breton top. One grey cashmere jumper, branded M&S on the tag at the back of the neck ‘to instill familiarity’ despite the brand long since being absorbed by the CWM. One pair of indigo, straight leg jeans. One pair of trousers. Black. Tapered. One navy blue shirt dress. One fitted black dress. Knee length. One black blazer. One black leather jacket. One camel trench coat. One pair of black ankle boots. One pair of white trainers. One pair of strappy high heeled sandals. Nude. And the slip of paper. It reads:
One leopard print jacket (knee length) will be presented to you upon receipt of this token
24 hours only. You may use this token no more than three times
You’ve seen this jacket before. Your neighbour had redeemed her token for the first time on her 50th birthday. And your sister, unwisely, had racked up all three stamps on her slip within the first year. A later addition, a CWM vote decreed that leopard print be considered a neutral, therefore quashing a decades-old block. Hope for further additions were short lived, however, as the ensuing frenzy precipitated a hastily-called referendum and wear was restricted to a maximum of three 24 hour periods. A mass recall followed and tokens were swiftly issued. A voice from beyond the curtain prompts you to hurry up. You’ve taken too long. You slip on the breton top and the jeans, shrug on the leather jacket and quickly step into the ankle boots as you throw as much as you can into the bag and tuck the rest of it under your arm.
The coach is waiting outside, seats almost full. You scan each side of the aisle, assessing everyone else’s choices. White shirt under black blazer. Cashmere jumper under leather jacket. Cashmere jumper under trench coat. Navy shirt dress. You catch your reflection in the window and look yourself over for the first time. There are no mirrors in the changing cubicles. As you look away, you catch someone else inspecting you too. She’s using you to assess her own outfit. She’s a carbon copy of you from head to toe. Your gaze meets hers for a split second before you remember where you are and take the seat to your right.
Back home, you tug at the note taped to your wardrobe door:
Happy birthday. We trust you are pleased with your Wardrobe Staples, as issued by the Committee of Women’s Media. Please hang each item upon the coat hangers supplied and place your footwear upon the standard issue rack. You may not deviate from the garments supplied. Any attempts to swap, remove or add garments will be noted.
Your Wardrobe Staples have been carefully selected to reduce choice anxiety. The dressing process should take no longer than five minutes. Unorthodox layering will not be tolerated. No more than four items (including shoes) may be worn during spring/summer. The limit extends to five items (including shoes) during autumn/winter. Mirrors are not necessary. Every item matches every other corresponding item.
Hereafter, you find yourself in receipt of a significant gift: time. Please use it wisely.
The Committee of Women’s Media
Note: Any requests for a change in garment size must be made in writing and may take up to 40 days to process.
You fold the note, wincing when the corners don’t quite meet, and toss it onto the end of your bed. You pull on the handles of your wardrobe doors, the left then the right, delaying seeing what you already know you’re about to be presented with. Stripped of its outlandish former tenants, it looks positively cavernous. No clashing knits, no XXL shirts, no scuffed boots. Just a rail, a rack and ten coat hangers.
You allow yourself the luxury of a single sigh before you set about arranging your new garments. Your Wardrobe Staples. Maybe they’re right, you think. Maybe this really is the best way to do things. Maybe you’ll have time to learn a new language or write a book. But it doesn’t matter what you think, truly, and you know that. The Committee of Women’s Media think for you and this is their will.
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