The change-room is an improvised affair: three sarongs pinned together, patterned with images of Krishna smiling airily out of a psychedelic spiral. My senses are on hyper-alert. I smell the heady melange of incense, patchouli oil, body odour and dust. The plaintive bleats of whalesong accompany my booming heart and my hands won’t stop shaking.
"We should go, Leash, I have to babysit Jeremy," says Mel, my best friend. It’s code for "get the stuff and go." I scoop up the white cotton pants from the floor, rip off the tag, stuff them in my bag and cover them with books.
"Sure, coming," I say in a small voice, the kind of voice you hear in dreams when you try to talk but can’t. I sling the bag over my shoulder, part the Krishna sarongs and walk with steady, precise footsteps out of the store. The owner waves me goodbye, lethargically, her cheesecloth shirt sliding down her arm to reveal an inky gallery of totemic animal tattoos. ‘I’ll see you soon’, I say. Once outside my friend and I burst into euphoric giggles and run whooping and gasping back to her house.
I did see the owner soon, the next day in fact. I was 13 years old and my mother discovered my penchant for white Stussy pants that same evening. She found an entire garbage bag filled with clothes emblazoned with Africa symbols. I’m not sure what I was planning on doing with them. Being too young to work, I couldn’t have worn them without raising suspicion. But I remember how *everyone* had them and how I thought that to dance more like MC Hammer and less like a white girl all I would need was some baggy harem pants. Then my gangly legs would liquefy into silken ribbons. I also remember the thrill: the giggly and giddy delights of the furtive, and the deviant.
Some years on I’m often shocked by how many of my colleagues and friends have had similar experiences: lawyers who now confess to smuggling stolen luxury sheets into their boarding schools; a school principal whose teenage years were spent pocketing mascara and foundation and a police officer who spent her entire adolescence stockpiling purloined bras. And we’re not alone. There’s a coterie of celebrities from Winona, to Britney, to Lindsay to Jen Jen Capriarti who have clapped their pretty fingers on everything from lighters to thousand dollar jewellery to Marc Jacobs pants.
This rather eclectic group and I all share certain common traits. Firstly, none of us stole out of need. I’m sure if I’d asked my mother, she probably would have bought me a pair of Stussy pants and I think Winona could afford whatever the hell she wants. Secondly, we’re female. Anecdotally, sticky fingers are an anatomical peculiarity of teenage girls. Celebrity shoplifters of recent years also tend to be ladez. In fact, I couldn’t find one man.
So what is it about middle-class teenage girls and super-rich celebrity women that make us such inveterate thieves? Statistics suggest that crime is usually dominated by men, but with shoplifting the gender gap is minimal. So why are women so prone to bouts of kleptomania?
In the 19th Century doctors simply thought that it was because of women’s inferior biology. Although we have this image of Victorian middle class ladies casting each other knowing glances over cross-stitch or reading letters with tremulous hands, in fact many were dreadful kleptos. Jane Austen’s aunt was caught swanning out of a department store with white lace stuffed down her bussle and newspapers in the 1870s reported constantly on wealthy ladies pocketing jewels and silk. If you were a poor woman caught stealing then the judge would call it larceny and send you to prison for 10 years. But what about if you’re wealthy? Prison is no place for a laaady.
The defence of ‘kleptomania’ was invented to help rich women. To prove that you suffered from kleptomania you had to show that you didn’t need the items you were stealing and that you suffered from disordered nerves or a wandering womb. Why did you steal that snuff box? My wealthy womb made me do it. If you could prove kleptomania you walked free.
Obviously this argument doesn’t wash these days, but it gives us a hint as to why shoplifting is so popular with women. Ladies were in the department stores in the first place because they were responsible for making sure that the family was clothed and fed. With industrial development, the western world became flooded with commodities – thneeds as Dr Seuss would put it – and shopping moved from something functional to the pleasure-filled, feminine activity that it continues to be today.
This explains why we see women at the scene of the crime and also, according to sociologist Jack Katz, why they commit the crime. Department stores encourage theft. They’re a world of desire and temptation, of such teeming abundance that it seems like a fantasy space. It’s a refuge from reality where you can caress luxury items like you already own them. In this illusory atmosphere it’s easy to see how shoplifting can seem to be more of a pleasurable game than a very real crime.
But what is it about teenagers and celebrities in particular? If it was just the department store then surely we’d all steal. There are the obvious answers like the excitement, the risk and the escape from boredom. For teenagers there’s also peer pressure. But what these two unlikely groups – celebs and teens – have in common is that every aspect of their life is transparent. Their every move is watched and governed by parents, school or the media. This is why little girls love diaries with locks and boxes of secrets and why celebrities often choose to live like recluses. Shoplifting, as sociologists have claimed, is one way in which people can delight in slipping under the radar. In a world where everything that you do is closely monitored, getting away with stealing is an enormous triumph. You have managed to master anonymity, to blend in and slip by. If teenagers and celebrities have little control over how much of themselves they reveal, then escaping the gaze of others is a victory.
And the Stussy pants? I was humiliated, returned the clothes, apologised to the hippy and never stole again. And by the time I was earning my own money Stussy was no longer cool. They’d been replaced by oversized velvet hats and overalls with one strap undone. Radical.