The Shivering Shoppers of August

THIS year, somewhere around the first day of summer - just when New Englanders were beginning to wear their light-colored cottons and talk about their vacation plans - the tyrants of fashion played a cruel trick: They declared that summer was over. On June 7, Neiman-Marcus began its Summer Sale. Other merchants quickly followed suit, holding clearance sales of sandals, shorts, and swimsuits even before Father's Day.

One retailer ran a large ad for fur coats. Other stores advertised fall clothes under headlines such as ``Superbly suited for Fall'' and ``Falling into paisley.''

By the Fourth of July, store windows, once cheery with whites and pastels, began filling with somber hues - browns and blacks, taupes and sage greens - all surrounded by the obligatory bronze mums and fake autumn leaves that have become the stock in trade of summertime window decorators.

Then, just in case consumers still weren't getting the message, The New York Times ran an article on July 23 about the ``serious shoppers'' who would gladly forsake a day at the beach to plow through racks of woolens and cashmeres, velvets and suedes. One store, Barneys New York, reported that it sold 14 fringed suede jackets in one 90-degree week alone. And Macy's noted that certain Anne Klein fall styles were already sold out.

The ``fashion customer,'' the article warned, shops early.

To those of us who are intent on savoring every last sunlit moment of summer - who cannot bear the thought of entering an over-air-conditioned store in July or August to try on wool suits, suede shoes, and heavy coats - this premature enthusiasm for winter is hardly amusing. It will be even less funny in September, when we finally force ourselves to become ``serious shoppers'' and are then told by unsympathetic clerks, ``I'm sorry, dear, but we're already out of your size in that style.''

This perverse merchandising game of rushing the season is nothing new. Yet every year the retail calendar seems to grow more and more out of sync with reality. In the process, merchants sometimes alienate customers and produce the kind of confusion and dislocation suggested in the old movie title, ``If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.'' A 1989 spinoff could read: If it's August, this must be winter.

Fashion, of course, is hardly the only industry to defy calendars and thermometers.

Football, baseball, and basketball have become practically three-season sports, while sun-kissed tennis goes on all year round.

TV producers spend August taping Christmas specials.

And within a few weeks retailers - who once had the good taste to wait until the day after Thanksgiving to put up Christmas displays - will open their Christmas shops. Already Gump's mid-summer catalog features two pages of Christmas ornaments, cards, and candles, all under the headline ``Gump's helps with early holiday plans.''

The blurring of seasons that has become a fact of modern life may have its advantages. Thanks to the wonders of air freight and international commerce, for example, it is possible to enjoy strawberries and raspberries in December and tulips and lilacs in January.

But this seasonal jet lag also has its disadvantages. Modern consumers run the risk of never fully enjoying the moment - or the light-as-a-summer-breeze blue silk dress - because they are too busy anticipating the next season, too busy making out the next shopping list for a wintry plum-colored wool cardigan jacket.

Every summer when I was growing up in the Midwest, a local jeweler held a ``Christmas in July'' sale, complete with a placard-bearing Santa pacing back and forth in front of the store. Never mind that he looked utterly miserable, sweating profusely in his furry red suit and snowy beard. He attracted attention because everyone found it so incongruous to think about Christmas on a 95-degree day.

Little did I realize that I was looking at the future. In the retailers' surrealistic version of August, what else have we dog-day shoppers become but Santa's little helpers?

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