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Mary Rea | Secrets of the dressing room

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During my brief foray into bathing suit shopping, I noticed how much better I looked in some store dressing rooms than others. Can retailers be playing tricks on us to increase the possibility we’ll make a purchase?

Turns out some do.

Through the clever use of mirrors which tilt slightly forward at the bottom and gradually away at the top, customers appear longer and leaner. This ruse makes you look smaller by optically moving the largest part of your body (your torso) away from the smallest part of your body (your feet).

Think of it as sort of a retailer’s funhouse mirror, with the aim to make you buy instead of laugh.

Have you noticed how the mirrors in some dressing rooms are small and narrow and the only way you can really know how you look is to move into the aisle where the three-way mirrors are? The strategy is to get you out into the open to publically check yourself over. Retail psychologists say this plays into the “group shopping” tendency in women. Whether it comes from other customers, friends or sales associates, there is encouragement to buy. Or so they hope.

The first thing you notice when walking into certain fitting rooms is the grey bags under your eyes and how frumpy you look. That’s because of overhead lighting, which creates shadows in all the wrong places. According to the folks who study these things, frontal lighting (lights along the sides of mirrors instead of overhead), causes shoppers to stay longer and try on more clothes. They advise soft, amber lighting (aka “Oprah light”) which makes customers look better by creating a more even skin tone.

The new fitting rooms in Ann Taylor stores, for example, have six sources of lighting and three types of bulbs. The mix of ceramic metal halide, compact fluorescent and low voltage bulbs makes even the most aesthetically challenged shopper look great.

All this may explain why clothes that seemed so nice in the fitting room have me wondering what I was thinking when I put them on at home.

I don’t often shop at Ann Taylor, but I may start. I’ll grab a few clothes off the rack and head for the fitting room. It will sure be nice, for once in my life, to look long and lean, with perfect skin.

Mary Rea of Mazama is the author of the novel “Ladies Night Out.” Her blog is at She can be reached at

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