Ted Bishop on the runway

How a U of A English professor wrapped himself in a Wookie and made an important discovery about fashion shows

EDMONTON – I step through the side door marked “models and designers” being careful not to trip on the black lighting cables, and see a slender woman standing by the rack of clothes.

She crosses her arms, grabs her shift at the hips and pulls it over her head. She isn’t wearing a bra. I don’t know where to look. Her breasts? Her long legs? The thong? This is my first fashion show.

I had read about the new trend to include real people on the runway – ugly people, old people, prostitutes, genuine gypsies. Now, most daring of all, real live professors. Designer Stanley Carroll wanted some “mature” models, so his wife, Marcie, has press-ganged me and three others into striding down the catwalk. Shuffle more like. We all have academic slumps and you can see the corduroy behind our eyes. We’re dubious about this.

Bert says, “I have no interest in fashion. Every spring I go to the Mall and buy two pairs of stay-press pants.”

Don says, “I can’t believe what these things cost. I can’t see paying $120 for a shirt.”

Dale, the youngster at 36, says, “I’m going to do ‘Blue Steel.'” He turns his head and mugs. “It’s from Zoolander,” he explains.

The tempo picks up – makeup, hair, wigs, shoes, pins. Bodies swirl past us like a stream round a rock. More girls are changing now: fast, all business. The undressing is oddlyunerotic. The young men walk through us as if we are not there.

The list above the clothes rack give the number, the piece, and a first name: 29 The Coat Ted

I also have brown cotton pants and a pale green shirt, which fit exactly. “Did Marcie just eyeball me as I walked through the department office?” I ask.

“Pretty much,” says Stanley. Marcie has been involved in over 600 fashion shows and she can size you with a sidelong glance. The clothes feel good as I put them on. Nothing special, I think, yet there’s a tingle. They’re at once unfamiliar and completely mine.

Then the coat, a three-quarter-length fake-fur beast. “We call it the Wookie Coat,” says Marcie, “because you look like a Wookie from Star Wars.” Not something I would ever buy, yet it falls round my shoulders like I’ve lived in it. Beside me a girl with a smooth sculpted spine is bending over, but what I notice is the Coat, the way it drapes and cleaves. I’m beginning to figure this out – it’s not the bodies, it’s the clothes that are sexy.

“You need a hat,” says Stanley, and he jams a tweed cap on my head, setting it at an angle.

“Looks good,” says somebody.

“You need a scarf,” says Stanley, and he knots a burgundy and gold brocade scarf loosely round my neck.

I feel myself receding behind the clothes, becoming the role that is the clothes. The girls getting their wigs done look at me. “Wow! Great coat.”

Bert sometimes looks like a southern sheriff – he went to high school with Janis Joplin in Texas – but now sports a black wool hoodie with brown accents on the dropped shoulders (I was starting to notice details) and a black scarf with a thin red stripe down the middle. A pork-pie hat to complete the ensemble. Very cool.

Don, whose white curly hair gives him the air of an aging cherub, gets a tougher look, a bomber jacket in black linen with flap pockets. Stanley has turned the cuffs up, and given him a scarf too, but Don’s is all black. Serious.

Dale gets a pink print shirt under a dark sports jacket. He is six feet tall and fit, but his slump is the most advanced. “Look at these kids. I’m twice their age and twice their size.”

He huddles with us, glancing at the young women undressing, still close enough to his youth to wonder where it has gone. “Grad school,” I want to tell him, but hold my peace.

We cannot see the catwalk and we are forbidden to look out or go round front. “Breaks the magic,” says Bert, who’s been instructed by Marcie.

I’d been nervous, but now I don’t care. It is not Ted going out on the catwalk, it is the Coat. Dale says, “I’ve never been in a play, but this must be what it’s like.” I agree and tell him my theory of the Coat taking over.

We stand on the steel steps leading up to the ramp. I stand behind a trio in identical black-bobbed wigs and jersey dresses. After the trio there is Don, then Bert, then me. We can hear whoops from the audience over the loud music. Some of the girls dance a little in place.

I put my hands in my pocket as I’ve been told (“Jacket pocket or pants pocket?” “Pants,” said Stanley) and snug the Wookie coat against me. It feels cosy, protective. Also edgy, cool. Does anyone say cool anymore? Doesn’t matter. The Coat is with me.

Dale is gone.

A Journal reporter had asked me if I had practised my walk, and I said I was going to act like a biker entering a small-town café: shoulders back, head up, a hint of pelvic thrust.

Don is gone.

Marcie is talking in Bert’s ear. I can’t hear anything over the music. Bert had said, “It’s like in the army. They’ll say ‘Go! Go! Go!'” A line of paratroopers ready to jump. Out into the void.

Light flashes through the flap and Bert is gone.

Don is coming back in. Marcie is talking in my ear. “Just go down the right side, pause at the end for a count of three, you’ll be fine … . OK, off you go.”

Bright lights and the ramp stretching ahead, head up, ignore the audience. Bert coming back, looking good. Don’t look. My eyes on the end of the runway, all eyes on the Coat. Flashes from the darkness beyond. I’m at the end. Cameramen in the dark on a scaffold.

I pause, Ted the Coat, cock a hip – ‘foomp!’ ‘foomp!’ ‘foomp!’ – barrage of flashes. Enough, the Coat decides. Relaxed, in control of the moment. We turn, walk back, noticing the audience a little now, me suppressing a smile, loosening my hips. Loving this.

Then it’s through the curtain, out of the light and into the darkness. I step carefully down the stairs to the other side, back to the dressing area. Don and Bert are already there. We shake hands. “That was great!” “Yeah!” “I wish I could go again,” Bert says, beaming. “This time I’d do it with more panache.”

Girls are changing fast for their second run, one in a strapless bra and panties stands in the middle of the change area, hands above her head like a diver as Marcie and Stanley try to pull the tight sheath over her. Our concern now is all for the clothes – will they burst a seam? The young men who ignored us come over to shake hands. “That was great!” We’re visible, we’re in.

We assemble for the group walk out and I feel good in the Coat. Hey, I am the Coat. I strut it, though it doesn’t much matter now, and on the return walk I hear over the music, “Stanley Carroll!” “Stanley Carroll!” His name is being flashed on the screen and he’s walking with a bob-wig girl on each arm down the catwalk, a big grin on his face and a bob wig on his head.

Too soon we’re changing back into our own clothes. I say to the young woman beside me, “Are you the one I talked to before?”

“Oh. Yeah. How ya doin’? Yes, same old me, same old clothes.”

“That was great! So, um, how was it carrying that big suitcase?”

She looks at me like I’m demented. “Fine.”

“Really. Because I think it would be hard to turn and all … ”

“No. It was fine. Bridget!” she turns to air. “Come smoke with me!”

I step away in the other direction. I feel like I’ve accosted a stranger on a train. The Coat is on the rack behind me. No, it’s already gone, packed somewhere, along with her wig and shift. The Shift could talk to the Coat. Once you’re a civilian again, you don’t talk.

I find Dale, Bert and Don, recover some of the glow. We’re still pumped. “See you on Monday,” I say, “back in our ordinary lives.”

“I can’t go back!” says Bert.

“No,” says Dale.

“It will never be the same,” says Don.

We who scorned fashion.

“It’s true. We have to go back, but we’ve been transformed. Transfigured,” I say.

“Yes,” they say, “Transfigured. Transformed.”

But how? We don’t really understand.

Later I try to explain the thrill, and a friend says, “Didn’t Bert just publish a new book? That must have been something.” This is nothing like a book launch. I try to think of an analogy – a drag strip, where you prepare for months for a nine-second thrill? Skydiving? I don’t know. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges says, “Time cannot be measured like pesos and centavos. Every peso is the same. But every hour, every minute, is different.” I do know the catwalk stays with you long after the moment is over.

Ted Bishop is an author, motorcycleenthusiast and English professor at the University of Alberta.
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