It’s the night of my office Christmas party and, not for the first time, I have left shopping for an outfit to the last minute. With barely half an hour to spare before I have to start mingling, I am in need of a festive top – and while I have tried to give up ‘fast fashion’, when needs must there’s only place that springs to mind: Zara.
The branch in High Street Kensington, West London, is just 150 yards from my office and after a decade of popping in during my lunch breaks, it feels like home.
I know the layout like the back of my hand: downstairs for menswear, upstairs for ‘kids and casual’ and ground floor for womenswear and the female changing rooms.
So it takes me no time at all to identify a sequined top and navigate straight to the changing room to try it on.
My luck’s in, there’s no queue and I am quickly allocated one of the six booths arranged in an oval-shape around a shared area and a communal mirror. But then things take a strange turn.
Once I am done with my cubicle, two very tall men are shown into the changing room by an assistant, as if this the most normal thing in the world.
Once I am done with my cubicle, two very tall men are shown into the changing room by an assistant, as if this the most normal thing in the world, writes Charlotte Griffiths
I am genuinely agog, not to say offended, to see two people clearly presenting as men completely at ease in what I had assumed was the women’s changing room.
This was the kind of thing I have sometimes read about happening in high street shops, but never really expected to experience for myself. Like the vast majority of women, I expect women’s changing rooms to be just that – for women.
Naturally, I am keen to see what these 6ft tall, masculine-looking men are buying. They each seem to have a mixed pile of garments to try on – and one of them was the very same sequined top I had just tried.
Flabbergasted, I emerge to ask an assistant at the tills whether men are allowed in Zara’s female changing rooms these days.
She tells me that the girl on the changing room door is new and had probably made a mistake. She promises to go and sort it out.
Reassured, I carry on with my quest to find a suitable party top.
After a while I make my way back to the changing rooms. Now I am really short of time and all the booths are full. So in haste I find a discreet spot in the communal area where I whip off my top. I think nothing of doing so, after all I am in a rush and I am in a safe space.
Or so I thought.
Again, I hear two male voices. I spin around to find the men from earlier still in the changing room, emerging from their respective booths and talking to one another other right over my head as if I am invisible. But I don’t feel invisible. I feel exposed in my bra.
I cover myself as best I can by crossing my arms over my chest, like I’ve been caught in a 1960s Carry On movie. I stare at the floor, and although I am not usually a shrinking violet, I hope it will swallow me up.
Again, I appeal to the assistant for help.
‘What can we do?’ she shrugs, looking apologetic. ‘If that’s how they classify themselves?’
She looks eager to help but totally unsure what to do, so I let the matter drop.
I am mostly just offended that a booth I needed has been taken up by men who had their own changing rooms.
I am mostly just offended that a booth I needed has been taken up by men who had their own changing rooms (file image)
But what if a more reserved woman had been there? Being shy is hard enough in a room full of semi-naked women, let alone men.
I later text a fashion editor friend to ask what she made of it, and she replies: ‘My teenage daughter would freak out!’
Instead of resorting to the communal area, I suppose I could have made my way to the men’s changing room to see if there was a free booth there.
But in that scenario I would feel really uncomfortable – what woman would feel safe surrounded by half a dozen men, protected only by a flimsy curtain?
Later I speak to a manager at the branch who indicates they don’t feel they have any clear instructions on the issue from head office. (And a Zara spokesman could not be reached for comment last night.)
‘In some stores we get complaints when we let men into the changing rooms on the women’s floor and in some stores we get complaints when we don’t,’ the manager says.
Instead of resorting to the communal area, I suppose I could have made my way to the men’s changing room to see if there was a free booth there (stock image)
‘We have to be very careful, it’s a very sensitive time and it’s very easy to offend people.
‘We just have to try not to upset anyone and play it on a case-by-case basis.
‘As a general rule, if people are carrying women’s clothes to try on then they can use the changing rooms on the women’s floor.’
I ask another staff member if she knew the policy and she says the same thing: ‘Our managers tell us to let people into the women’s changing rooms if they are carrying women’s clothes’, she said.
And how does that work if there are women in the changing room from more conservative cultures?
‘Yes, that is a problem in our Marble Arch branch,’ the manager concedes. That area is home to a large Arabic community.
‘Our decisions also have to depend on the ethnic profile of the other customers in the room at the time. Different branches have different problems, and it’s something that has been cropping up for two or three years now.’
While she seems to imply that I was late to the party, I don’t feel I am. This is something I’ve never experienced before – and I hope to never experience again.
And I was late to the party – my office party, too.
Source: Daily Mail UK