This is my sixth year working the holiday season in retail, and though each year doesn’t get much harder than that first one, it doesn’t get any easier, either. The coupons, the difficult customers, the long hours, and the ravenous crowds. The longer you’re exposed to it, the more jaded you become, the more hardened you are to the shouting, the impatience, the complicated transactions, and unending gift receipts. To bemoan or fear Black Friday becomes an afterthought to simply enduring it. The maligned day will come, and it will soon be over – then the holidays will ensue, and soon they will see their end, as well. But their finality comes with the price of knowing that they will come back. As long as I work in retail, I am a slave to the whims of customers and of corporations. And once I finally escape, the only thing that will change is that I no longer have to deal with the customers.
Peter Strickland’s In Fabric sews itself as a film about the horrors of beauty standards and materialism, but blossoms into near-farce about the ludicrousness of the holiday season under capitalism. A department store is a cover for witchcraft; television commercials for sales are hypnotic spells; an enchanted dress brings pain and suffering to all who wear it; no one in the entire town can stop talking about the one fucking sale going on from one, single store. What starts off as horrifying and baffling becomes almost comical, as the absurdity of our shopping habits and of retail work during the most wonderful time of the year are put on the bloodthirsty spotlight that they deserve.
Sheila Woodchapel (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is a divorced mom and bank teller, with adult son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh), who spends his time at home pursuing his interest in erotic art, and painting his promiscuous girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie, equal parts intimidating and charming) like one of his French girls. Desperate to find love again, Sheila searches for the perfect dress to wear to an upcoming date, at a department store called Dentley & Soper’s. The store is managed by a ghoulish elderly man and an array of pale-faced, European women with thick accents and voluptuous, lacy black dresses like something out of the Victorian era. Articulate, suggestive, and penetrating in a way that most salespeople are decidedly not, one of the strange clerks, Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed), persuades Sheila into buying a particular red dress, with a plunging neckline and adorned at the hip with a fabric peacock feather. Though initially quite hesitant, Sheila slips into the dress like it was made for her, shocked to discover that it’s only a size 36. She ends up bringing the dress home, but not before Miss Luckmoore appears to place Sheila under a brief trance during her transaction.
After Sheila’s first and last date with a bumbling, braindead man named Adonis, she notices that the dress leaves an unsightly rash across her chest and upper breast. She throws it into the wash, but the washing machine goes mysteriously berserk, dismantling itself from the wall and causing one of the tiles to slice Sheila’s hand, as she and Vince try to contain the chaos. Attempting to exchange the dress for a different size, Sheila not only discovers that hers is the only version of the dress ever made, but that the catalogue model for the dress was killed in a car accident. The dress also happens to fully evade any damage done to it, emerging from the mad washing machine fully intact and not incurring a single rip from a later dog attack. Meanwhile, the clerks of the store engage in bewildering rituals with their vagina-laden mannequins and descend, wigless (they are naturally, eerily bald), into the depths of their department store for reasons yet unknown.
The citizens of the unidentifiable town of In Fabric – in an unidentifiable, 1960s-adjacent universe, let alone time period – are obsessed with money. The men Sheila dates offer her coupons for their dinners; Sheila’s bosses scrutinize the alleged time she wastes on the clock going to the bathroom; the sales of Dentley & Soper’s are the only things on everyone’s minds, as they pile in front of the doors waiting to be let in, by salespeople performing a bizarre ritual that they barely notice. At one point, the ghastly store manager, Mr. Lundy (Richard Bremmer), attempts to dissuade Sheila from returning her now-maligned dress, explaining that the holidays are a time to “expunge.” By that, he means spend money. Spending money, but not too much money – being careful, using coupons, shopping in sales, but draining your bank account little by little nonetheless. And it makes us all crazy.
And we know it makes us all crazy, and at a certain point, you realize that the subtext of In Fabric isn’t all that subtle. The evils of materialism begotten by our capitalistic overlords find themselves interwoven into a bewitched dress, our overlords being corporations, clothing stores and clerks the henchmen, laden with spells and persuasions meant for us to empty our pockets. But there’s empathy that can be spared for both sides of the holiday season – the shoppers enslaved to gift-giving and the salespeople imprisoned to a company that doesn’t care about them. The witches are only entrancing people because they have to, because they are as beholden to the whims of volatile customers as the customers are beholden to the holiday season. And the film itself is just as beguiling as its store clerks, luring you in like Miss Luckmoore and her associates charming shoppers to explore their sales, before utterly breaking the spell. It’s surprising and alluring; an unsettling concoction of sexual perversion adjacent to the perversions of money, as if to comment on the fact that the two are somehow one and the same.
At one point, a fight breaks out between two women in Dentley & Soper’s, and Miss Luckmoore is powerless to stop it from tearing the store apart, just as Sheila is ultimately powerless to the whims of the beautiful red dress. The people bound to corporations under capitalism are just as much victims as the people who shop there, and the only true solution is to burn it all down. The insanity and evil of working and shopping during the holidays is put on gloriously absurdist display in In Fabric, a film about how our spending habits are killing us. It’s a movie that feels like its core audience was meant to be retail workers, and as a retail worker myself, I appreciate the opportunity to see my suffering represented on screen.