So here’s the thing. I love clothes.
I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned that simple fact on here before; I’ve certainly never written about it more than in passing. But that’s the thing: I really love clothes. I love fabrics – the swoon of velvet’s soft touch, the crumple of linen, the itchy martyrdom of wool. I love the airy levity of cotton and the embracing hug of cashmere. I love the histories clothes harbour and the stories they tell, like the patterned skirt I wore on our first proper date, its pleats fanning around me as we twirled (uncharacteristically, I might add) around the basement of Ronnie Scott’s. There are the denim culottes my mother bought for me in the delicious respite of an air-conditioned mall, its doors opening onto Singapore’s grand, blazing harbour, so well-fitting we rushed back for a second pair. There’s the sterling silver locket I used to wear daily, given to me after my grandmother’s funeral when I was a teenager, but now save for special occasions for fear of losing it.
I don’t love fashion or shopping (though give me a Sue Ryder any day of the week) and I don’t follow trends except by osmosis. For me, clothing is about confidence and empowerment. It’s about telling a story. I know when an outfit isn’t quite right: I spend all day squirming in my desk chair, tugging a hemline this way or that, feeling out of sorts with myself as though as I am one step behind my silhouette. On the days when it’s just so, I feel like the heroine of my own story.
It should go without saying that I am (as any sane person should be) appalled by the fast fashion industry and try, mostly successfully, to counter it in my own life by buying secondhand or ethically. A story for another day.* All to say: it is the objects I love and the way they make me feel – the smooth brush of a summer skirt around my ankles, perhaps, or the way that when I wear certain dresses they make me want to dance.
As a shy, bookish teenager, clothes were my means of expression, my way of presenting myself – and what I cared about – to the world. I cherished, and proudly wore, my Obama 2008 “Change We Can Believe In” badge. I steadfastly refused to wear trainers or jeans, instead parading myself in vintage Laura Ashley frocks and calf-length floral skirts I’d found, mildewed, often moth-eaten, on the rails of our suburban high street’s charity shops.
Over time – and goodness, it’s well over a decade since I first began to realise the emboldening nature of dressing oneself – my style has evolved, like my personality and my ability to converse in social situations. There are still remnants, layered like the perfect, lined petticoat of a 1940s ballgown, of my former whims: airmail-blue vintage pumps, scuffed at the toes, that I wear as happily now as I did at seventeen. I still own, and wear, party dresses I wore to 18th birthday shindigs. Florals, still, make me weak at the knees, though I am happier wearing plainer clothes than I was in the noughties. Perhaps, having grown into myself, I have less to prove.
I treasure items of clothing as I do books, plants, and some family members. There are long-loved vintage cotton dresses that emerge from the wardrobe, Lucy Pevensie-like, each summer. Woollen jumpers I live in constant fear of accidentally shrinking in the wash. I love anything with large wooden buttons, anything that trails around my ankles, anything that reminds me of the 1950s, the 1960s, or increasingly the 1970s.
Whole eras of my past are tethered in my memory by the clothes I wore. The year I lived in Germany is the slate-grey jeans bought in haste in Vienna, always a little too tight around the waistline. It’s a polka-dotted dress with a lace trim adorning the neckline that sounds horrifying in writing but was lovely in person and which will always remind me of a particular winter night in Berlin. There were knee-high boots for trudging through snow in and the sort of down jacket I swore I’d never wear – until I moved to a country where wintertime temperatures routinely skirted -20. The years I worked in offices were marked by black cotton roll necks and sixties-era minis, ballet flats prematurely weathered by the multitude of lunch breaks I spent pounding the footpaths of Regent’s Park. I’m still feeling my way into this new era, where I mostly work alone and see only the postman during an average working day, but so far – in summer, anyway – it’s looking like tapered linen trousers, the battered-buttery leather of saltwater sandals and white cotton blouses I can throw on without thinking. Most of them already in my wardrobe, simply repurposed. And I think that’s what I love about clothing: how one item paired with another can conjure up an image entirely different than when coupled with something different.
As I’ve grown older, I care less about what I wear in terms of how it makes me look, and far more about how an outfit, or even just a singular garment, makes me feel. As a teenager, still wrestling with social norms and a meek adolescent’s readiness to follow pre-ordained guidelines such as never to pair black with brown or navy blue, I enjoyed fitted fifties dresses for the way they accentuated my waist and concealed the thighs I thought too heavy as much for their dainty prints and throwback to a cherished era. Now I happily wear the kind of shapeless shifts and wide-legged culottes that might not be traditionally attractive (we all know who makes those rules), but are comfortable, and allow me to cycle miles in, and can be easily slipped on and off in a swimming pool changing room. They don’t each require a different type of undergarment (lest the straps peek out, my god, the horror!) and make me feel like me. There’s real power in rejecting wearing what others (read: men) might think you look good in and wearing what makes you feel good, whether that’s figure-hugging lycra or shape-shifting nylon. Fashion, seen this way, is undoubtedly feminist, and I rather like that.
Further reading, for the interested…
- I love, love, love the playful and thoughtful commentary surrounding clothing on the podcast Layers.
- One of the hosts also writes this excellent newsletter.
- The essays of Rosalind Jana, who writes luminously on garments and dressing up.
- Clothing and memory.
Got any recommendations for me?
*And I do plan to write on it. Writing about clothes, about appearances, is new to me. Perhaps I previously feared being thought frivolous. But now I’m twenty-seven, with a newfound side of couldn’t-care-less. 😉