Pinching Penney's: My two cents

The New York Times' Cintra Wilson, a freelancer who shared the Critical Shopper column with Mike Albo, wrote a scathing review of the newly-opened J.C. Penney store in Manhattan ("Playing to the Middle" in the August 13, 2009 edition) that drew the wrath of both Penney execs and many Times readers.

Wilson's screed was not only against the retailer, but against customers. Careful to include the information that she is size 2, she wrote:
"AND herein lies the genius of J. C. Penney: It has made a point of providing clothing for people of all sizes (a strategy, company officials have said, to snatch business from nearby Macy’s).

To this end, it has the most obese mannequins I have ever seen. They probably need special insulin-based epoxy injections just to make their limbs stay on. It’s like a headless wax museum devoted entirely to the cast of 'Roseanne'."

Flooded with mail, including plenty of hate letters, Wilson published an apology (in a three-version sequence) on her blog.The most recent:
"Because of my personal beliefs as a Buddhist, I very much regret that my J.C. Penney article in the Times caused any wounded feelings whatsoever, particularly to people who already feel they take more than their share of abuse from our very shallow and ridiculous society. I was not sensitive enough to this, and the extent to which my article exacerbated these feelings is a very real failure on my end for which I sincerely apologize. - Cintra"

Three letters to the Times' Public Editor about Wilson's review were published in the Sunday Times on Sunday, August 30.

One was particularly affecting, from Agnes H. Allis
on of El Cerrrito CA:
"... Ms Wilson obviously belongs to the younger, hip Manhattan group of working men and women... who cannot imagine ever getting older, being post-menopausal and retired.

Maybe after retirement she will be one of those social types who flit from luncheon to cocktail party, at age 60-plus, cramming her aching feet into stiletto heels, getting botox injections and trying- without a lot of success- to remain forever 40. Most of the rest of us have accepted the inevitable.

Maybe, just maybe, this discussion will call attention to the fact that middle-aged women are on their own when it comes to clothes. We are ignored and disdained, hardly worth a designer's time or effort..."

Diana Witt, from Manhattan, recalled an earlier era:

"...Cintra Wilson's piece is generational. She assumes that nothing like J.C. Penney ever existed in Manhattan, when in fact for many years, 14th Street was a mecca for places offering similar merchandise...

If Ms Wilson truly thinks that somehow Penney's is more out of place in Manhattan than those obscenely overpriced shops currently occupyin
g Spring Street or the Upper East Side, then she knows nothing about the history of retail clothing in Manhattan, particularly before she was born.

I don't care that she is snarky. That's fashion reporting. I do mind that she didn't do her homework."

The Penney
's debacle evoked memories. Penney's was my first employer, at sixteen. Every Friday evening and Saturday, I sold ladies' lingerie, mostly to women.

ut the customer I'll never forget was a Native American man who shyly asked me to help him choose a nylon housecoat for his wife, who was recovering from surgery. We settled on a long floral coat, size 20. He bore that box away as reverently as a La Perla negligee.

It was my first moment o
f working pride, both for my role and the product. He bought a nice, washable garment, made in his country by International Ladies Garment Workers union labour, for cash (or for no additional charge, layaway), and backed by a guarantee.

The last time I was in Penney's was maybe five years ago, in Florida, with my 95 year old mother, who depended on them to stock her cotton bras and white percale sheets.

Why castigate a retailer for offering a range of sizes, on mannequins that show garments as they would look on so many women?


crunchycon said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
mette said…
I´m totally unfamiliar with the stores referred to, but feel that everything came out loud and clear in your post. I do, however, feel a bit uneasy about having `special stores´for big girls and big boys. Why can´t everyone share the same roof? And is it totally necessary to design ( this word here is out of place ) totally different clothes for those, who don´t fit in the small sizes?
~Tessa~Scoffs said…
I am lucky enough to have a Penney's in my local mall. I get my hair cut and colored in the salon; I get my bra fittings there; they now can boast an in-store Sephora shop; and, best of all, I can find shoes, clothes (for the whole family!) and household items for a very decent price. I am often complimented on my shoes, bags and outfits (denim trousers, anyone?). Almost everyone is SHOCKED to hear Penneys. Don't get me wrong, I love my local Target, but for that quality, long lasting classic style of clothing: Penney's is the best. So neat to hear that you used to work in one!
Susan B said…
If the mannequins you've pictured are the ones she's described as "obese," I think there may be some body dysmorphia on her part. Those mannequins look "normal" sized to me.

When I was a kid, we shopped at Penney's for our summer play clothing, but I remember my mother complaining that they fell apart too quickly. I've not lived in an area with a Penney's until currently, so haven't shopped there in decades. I'll definitely check them out.
Frugal Scholar said…
I had intended to write about the article too. Now I don't have to! Thanks. What I'd like to add is that the author's scorn is misplaced. I don't shop in "real stores" too much, but I went into Penney's once with my daughter and--bored--tried on some ANA jeans, which fit me very well. I can laugh at the recent WSJ article about getting a "designer" fit with $60.00 jeans. I--and other people I know--get a "designer fit" for far less than $60!

The fabric quality of most of their items is not very good--but the jeans are more than fine for me. When my towels wear out, I will probably repalce my beloved Fieldcrest Royal Velvet (which seem to be no more) with towels from JCP.
Mardel said…
When I was a child I dreamed of someday being able to afford to shop at Penneys. We shopped at Montgomery Ward with an occasional "special treat" from Sears, although more often from our stuff came from both Ward's and Sears' bargain basement where they sold old or discontinued items.

Well I can afford more than Penney's now, but I do shop there. Their merchandise may have been poorly made once, but I have no experience with that. Now, I think their clothes are basic seem to have the most consistent fit and quality I have seen in their price range. Like Tessa-Scoffs people have occasionally been shocked that certain things are from Penney's. I recently took two old JC Penny turtlenecks tht were too short and had some stains and converted them into a tunic. The tops were too well made to toss them, and I love my new tunic.

The letter you posted is right on target. My husband's family worked in the garment district and his experience is completely different from the current extremes of fashion.
materfamilias said…
I'm still struggling with the oddness of the writer's citation of her faith as part of her apology -- her integration of Buddhism was apparently not enough to make her think in the first place about an issue that, frankly, seems quite obvious. Then she trots it out as evidence that she's a good person and should be forgiven or something. Ideally, one's faith/religion is something one lives, not uses. I'm so tired of these after-the-fact apologies that are so empty of anything except "Whoops, you caught me!"
Northmoon said…
This woman calls herself a Buddhist? Not much compassion in that article! Does she think she's going to be a beautiful, unwrinkled, size 2 forever?

I agree with Materfamilias that her "apology" sounds more like an attempt to get the critics off her back.
Belle de Ville said…
I found the mannequin comment particulary interesting.
About 15 years ago when I was a really thin size 2-4(which I am no longer) I noticed that the mannequins in the local stores, Nordstroms, Macy's, Saks, etc. were MUCH SMALLER than I was. I always wondered why retailers found it necessary to show clothes on mannequins that were less than a size zero. Exactly what kind of sick message was that?
And, on the topic of discount stores, I was out runnning an errand in a suburban area aways away from where I live and I saw a Kmart and decided to stop in and get some flipflops for my daughter.
Let's just say that I was pleasantly surprised by the selection and price of some of a the inventory and ended up walking out with flipflops, t-shirts, underwear and jeans. I even bought two simple black dresses for my daughter, which she wears to my office on Rodeo Drive and looks great in.
I'm glad to see Penny's taking on Macy's in Manhattan, and I hope that Kmart jumps on this trend too.
Discount is the new Black.
La Loca said…
Ugh. I am so glad I missed Wilson's article. Thanks for publishing the eloquent responses from readers. Wilson would do well to start shopping at Penney's--she could use the savings for the therapy she'll need when her body starts to age.
Anonymous said…
Great post. I agree the religious affiliation in the apology was odd .

Apparently the old guard in the fashion industry don't like the changes going on. Have read in WWD where some of the "big names" are whining because Michelle Obama isn't wearing their clothing and supporting them?

Support elitism? No thanks.

nycrun said…
interesting take
Duchesse said…
materfamilias, Northmoon and Darla: Yes. Her earlier "apology" was much less concilialtory. One's religion is a guide, but does not guarantee behaviour. Her second try read:
" You know I didn't mean it that way, so please remove the knot from your panties and when you're ready, join me for a cigarette and several Pucker martinis at the insouciant end of the pool, and I'll tell you all about the time I inadvertently alienated my best friend for a year when I wrote an article about her wedding."

Darla, I applaud Michelle Obabma for buying the range and generally avoiding the priciest big names.

metscan: I noticed Talbot's, another venerable retailer, has recently increased its Misses range to size 20; they also carry Women's (12W-22W in the same store.) As people get bigger, expect this trend to continue. Eventually fabric width limits how big you can make some styles.

Tessa and Frugal: Sounds like they do some basics well. Wilson savaged JCP for the amount of poly merch.

Is it me or is Land's End becoming dowdier by the season?

Belle: Mannequins are not remotely shaped like 99.5% of women! K-mart, Target and stores like Penney's can yield finds, love the idea of her working on Rodeo Drive in that dress.

Jane W.: She got some very nasty comments about that eventuality. She now will not post further comments about "the controversey" on her blog.
She got a well-deserved "dressing down" from the NYTimes Public Editor:

I don't think she looks beautiful; she looks very pinched indeed.

It is probably bad karma to wish anything worse than normal ageing on this nasty woman, but I'd assign her to some stories that might help her develop her compassion and empathy: how about covering clients of "Dress for Success" able to get career-quality garments as part of their job search help. And yep, the client would have to be at least a size 14.

Her Buddhism seems about as sincere as Madonna's Kabalism.
it's not even a question of women (and men)getting "bigger." it's a matter of the ferociously squeezed working-to-middle class consumer in NYC being able to afford new clothing for themselves other than badly knocked off copies of designer clothing "enlarged" into a badly fitting large size(and when the hell did 8, 10 and 12 become "large" sizes)or something that looks like a sack -- although i've seen very expensive "sacks" in the spring street boutiques. JC Penny's serves the same type of customer that the old Alexanders used to (although i admit that Alexanders was -- in general -- better quality). Penny's also is a much easier store to navigate than any Macy's i've been in, where you have to go from floor to floor and "designer" to designer to try and find the items that are in your size.

i think the type of fashion "writing" of the Time article (if such a vicious little screed can be called writing) is well on the wane. the economy and the aging X-ers who were the target audience are bringing a sea change. michele obama is a good model for good, flattering, affordable clothes, designed by people who don't think the female body is made to be a clothes hanger. and younger hipsters, like my nieces and nephews pay absolutely no attention to things that are written in the new york times.
NancyDaQ said…
I thought Ms. Wilson's article was hateful and snotty. Not everyone can afford to shop at Barney's, you know. And not everyone wants to look like a toothpick. She was out of touch and way out of line, and shame on the NYT from publishing this piece of drivel.
NancyDaQ said…
...for publishing this piece of drivel.

Sorry about that!
Duchesse said…
lagatta: Yeah, but I am cynical enough to think they rather enjoy creating a tempest in a retail teapot. More readers for a paper going through hard times.

bonnie-ann: I've found the Times Style section bizarrely out of touch with the average shopper for ages. But then- why didn't Forth & Towne make it?

nanflan: Do you have any idea how many women wish they could sew like you can? Sometimes it seems the only way to get quality clothes that fit.
Wow - I don't know JC Penney, but that a store has mannequins that aren't super thin is great so women can see what the clothes will look like on a more 'average' body is great.

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