For someone who is no longer buying clothes, I’m aware I talk about them a lot. Fashion is often dismissed as frivolous and fey. The preserve of trophy wives and drug addled “it” girls. Vapid, inane women of little consequence whose value is determined by the cut of their skirt or the proliferation of labels in their wardrobe. It’s an outdated opinion for sure, but I hear it echoed often and from the unlikeliest of places. Accomplished, well dressed women shift in their seats when the subject turns to clothes. I have friends in both business and academia who appear visibly uncomfortable at the suggestion they are in anyway knowledgeable on current trends, like it diminishes their success in other fields.
I am unapologetic in my own materialism, but I would argue that personal style is far more nuanced and complex than window dressing for your vagina. There was a point in history when the make-up and ruffles where the preserve of our menfolk. Toxic masculinity trussed up like flamboyant toilet roll dollies, each more elaborate than the last. Extravagant fashion choices announced to the world the wealth, status, wit and intellectual prowess of the smug peacocks that made them.
With the ascension of Queen Victoria came a shift in the business of fashion, flamboyance in men was deemed vulgar. From developing industry and increased national wealth came a burgeoning middle class who dressed their wives and daughters opulently to reflect their new money and status.
As women we were regarded for many years the property of husbands or fathers, even those of us born to money remained a sort of second class human without personal wealth or property. For Victorian women fashion provided a sort of escapism, a mask to face society. The corset and the bustle allowed us to change our shape and detachable frills and collars meant these looks were customisable to our own taste. Milliners strove to outdo each other in the creation of evermore outlandish hats and the fine line between garishness and respectability became well trodden. Social movements where identifiable by their dress. Feminist Amelia bloomer lent her name to the bloomer outfit, which admittedly never quite caught on, and the aesthetic movement offered a simple flowing antithesis to the structure and ruffles of the day.
The feminists of my youth sneered at the banality of commercial fashion and dismissed the elitism of couture. Punk fell into grunge and dressing like you didn’t care became an art form in itself. My teenage years were filled with low slung, baggy jeans worn with fishnet tights above the waistband. Platform trainers and the sort of obscure band hoodies they sold at Camden market were my uniform in those days. Having long since abandoned my desire to conform to the shiny sportswear and stripper heels of my classmates, the sort of girls who would tear strips off you if they ever discovered you had never let a boy touch your boobs or worse still, you read books for fun. As a teenager fashion is tribal, clothes and music have a sort of hypnotic pull. You gravitate towards those who look like you, and then you spend your weekends together perusing shops and markets for identical hoodies and records to add to your collection and enforce your bond.
With great power comes great responsibility. For many women with exceptional personal style fashion can mask a myriad of problems. I recently reached out to a heartbroken girl who on the surface has never looked better. Friends and strangers alike comment on her phenomenal fashion sense whilst on the inside the sorrow is eating her up, she feels like she is falling apart beneath a colourfully curated facade. I would be lying if I said I couldn’t identify. There are days when I struggle to extricate myself from my unmade bed. I force myself to shower and dress and purposefully pick the most outlandish item in my wardrobe. I do it to detract and distract from the pervading darkness at the back of my mind. I’m not sure if I feel things more deeply than others, but I certainly possess an uncanny ability to wallow in my private misery. I worry I will never fall in love, that life is passing me by, I have been known to cry if I’m passed over for a job, or a client doesn’t pay. On those days I can be found in a colourful jumper, garishly printed trousers or a flowing skirt, eye wateringly expensive boots and possibly a jauntily angled hat.
I won’t apologise for my love of clothes. I am confident in my own skin, and could probably live without them in a warm enough climate, but it would be a life without joy. Clothes unite us, how many conversations has an unusual dress sparked in a nightclub toilet? Clothes have the power to imbue you with confidence. I haven’t even touched on the increased availability of plus sized garments, but the ability to present outwardly as the person you see within is unparalleled. As children we long to grow up and pick our own outfits, there is no doubt in my mind that the half princess, half Spider-Man with stripy socks and an orange hat look is both empowering and freeing. It’s a feeling that we as adults with bills to pay and an overwhelming number of decisions to make daily don’t get nearly enough. Maybe dressing by numbers is fine for some people, and that’s fine, we are all individuals. If someone handed me a navy suit and told me I must wear it every day I would be investing in some scissors and a lot of earrings.