In 2001 in the far darkest corner of St. Nicholas market, an indoor and partially outdoor Victorian market of record stalls, tobacconist accessories and trinkets of oxidised jewellery, stood a small nondescript shop, Changes. I’d never noticed it before. It was just somewhere easily missed with most people just walking by. People from most walks of life, even including a few white collars, would frequent the market. The smell of something sticky sweet being cooked on one of the stalls oozing its way through the stall defined corridors. Dull looking silver Celtic rings and necklaces on display threatening to fill my fingers with their low cost. And tie die hanging from gothic rock t-shirt racks as well as stalls where the clothes looked aged enough that it was hard to tell if they were second hand or just difficult to sell.
Sarah, my friend from the early days of my first nights out in Bristol, had called to ask if I wanted to meet up at lunch time, “I’ll take you to the cross dressing shop in the market.” She said. At this point in my life the idea behind needing or wanting to go to a cross dressing shop wasn’t really needed. I had always shopped in every day shops and saw little advantage of going anywhere special. “They’ll let you try things on as well, it’ll be cool.” This was something I hadn’t got used to in my early days. Trying something on wasn’t even a thought and buying clothes was a dress size lottery.
I walked into town with Sarah down Victoria street heading to the market. Sarah was mad on her motorbikes. She had an ageing but solid BMW motorbike and I think her idea of being a biker-chick was something she enjoyed. “I’ll have to take you out on the back of the bike some time.” She said.
“Really! Think I’d be too scared.” I said as the thought terrified me but the idea felt like an exciting risk but one I just wasn’t going to take. Sarah was still married to her first wife in those days and the possibility of her being seen riding around the city with another girl on the back probably gave her some thrill. Sarah was about risk, excitement and opportunity to show off.
The little shop stood in the fringes on the market. In it’s own building rather than a stall made it private. The old Market Chambers building with it’s ornate stone entrance and multiple arches filled with wrought iron railings laying along a cobbled and flagstone lane. What appeared to be the main door was just a ruse and a further side door with a sign over the entrance which read “Changes”. We entered into the shop which was not the typical ‘cross dressing shop’ like Transformations. It had no specialist make ups or rip-off silicon filled body accessories. It was simply a shop of second hand clothes. Rails of mixed up clothing and sizing. Like a dusty version of TK Maxx, just a jumble sale. Finding something you might like was a lottery.
The lady that ran the shop was a nice an accepting woman who had seen a need in the market for men who were too scared to enter an everyday shop. At the time this was a huge gap but it wasn’t more than a few years before all that would change and most people would just go to a regular shop or order on-line. “Go on, have a look around.” Sarah said to me like a mother talking to a timid daughter. Sarah knew the owner really well. She’d been going there for a while though with the lack of choice on the rail I couldn’t see why.
I flicked through the rack and found a waist coat I quite liked. I kept it to hand, at least I could buy something and help the store survive. “Look at these Sarah!” I said with curiosity, “Wedding dresses.”
“Go try one on.” Said the owner. Sarah came over and took a look.
“Go for it. That’s what this place is for.”
“I couldn’t.” I said to Sarah, “it’s daft, I don’t need a wedding dress.”
“Go do it, we’ll wait here.”
I couldn’t believe it. I pulled from the rail the only size twelve I could find though in those days I had more weight than now and I was much more like a fourteen. Back then size twelves, given how old these would have been as well, were real twelves unlike the forgiving clothes today. I took it into the changing cubical. It was all white, lace and satin. A bridesmaid dress. It might not have been perfect but it was far from obscene.
I picked up the dress and with the back zip undone I slipped it over my head. The lace and materials rustled in the small cubical. “Everything going okay in there?” I heard coming from outside. I pulled the dress down and looked in the mirror. As daft as it is going to try on a dress for an occasion I didn’t need one I felt something. I looked in the mirror with my hair down. It kind of just felt right. Sure it was used, a touch dated and it wasn’t something I’d probably pick but it was more about what I should be doing with my life. I was probably about twenty six years old at the time and it just spoke words at me in the mirror. It’s almost indescribable but it’s just a message of ‘this is me.’
I had to snap myself out of it though. It wasn’t real and I didn’t need it but it was fun trying it on. I grabbed the zip at the back and pulled up but it got half way and stopped. It wasn’t going to fit. “Have you got it on yet?”
“Yes. It’s okay.”
“Come out and show us.”
“No. No point it doesn’t fit.”
“Come on. Show us.”
I changed back into my clothes and came back out of the cubical with the dress over my arm. “Oh you should have come out.”
“Honestly, I couldn’t zip it up. It was nice though.” I thought I would be polite but it was the experience that I described.
Sarah didn’t buy anything and I took my waist coat out in a small white nameless plastic carrier bag. We walked back through town talking about the place. I told Sarah that I wondered if I should have bought some kind of wedding dress. “It’s not like you can wear it anywhere is it?” Typical Sarah.
Several years later Sarah got married to her second wife who was totally accepting of Sarah. Some months after they got married they decided they were going to have a second wedding, this time for Sarah, as Sarah. They had a country house in mind to hire out and Sarah asked me if I would be a bridesmaid at their second wedding. It felt like my only chance I might ever had. We talked about dresses and the colours they had in mind. They told me about the people they were inviting and having wedding photos done. The ceremony. How could I refuse.
At that time in my life I had a lot of stresses. Money wasn’t far from being short and buying wedding clothes wasn’t going to be cheap. I was also considering moving away at the time, possibly emigrating and I couldn’t commit to her. While it’s not the biggest loss, going to a wedding, the one chance of being a bridesmaid is something I wish I had done and although it’s not a huge regret, a little part of me wishes I had done it. Sadly their plans never came off and neither had they done it.
Until next time.