‘Farrah’ collarless wool coat by Acne
There’s something I’ve noticed online recently. Perhaps it is one of those things you only begin to notice when it is directly brought to your attention, like yesterday when I walked through Oxford, with a cold, pushing my boyfriend’s niece along in her pram, it suddenly seemed as though there were prams and babies and colds everywhere, or when you discover a word you’d never heard before and all of a sudden you begin to hear it repeatedly, or there it is whenever you lift your eyes. And what I’ve noticed is there’s a lot of meanness online. I’m sure it was there before, I’m sure it has always been there but I never really noticed it was there before.
So, recently someone sent me a comment about my blog. And it was quite a derisive comment, which at first I ignored and then subsequently deleted but which still succeeded, despite my best intentions, to make me cross for most of Saturday morning. We were eating smoked salmon and scrambled eggs in the Georgian café on Goldsmith’s Row in London, and I was pencil scribbling in the margins of the book I cite below and growing evermore irritated. Of course, I realize that if you put something, anything of yourself out there in the public domain, and particularly online, you are going to receive criticism of some kind or other, sooner or later. But it appears to me, that the someone who leaves spiteful comments on other people’s blogs, and in particular the blogs of people interested in clothes for being ‘materialistic and shallow’, and later returns, even more impudently, to ask ‘how do you afford this stuff?’ well, that person deserves an answer.
To address the first accusation, I quote below a healthy dose of Orange Prize-winner and Man Booker shortlisted author Linda Grant. This extract is taken from her book ‘The Thoughtful Dresser’ published in 2009:
“For a long time I have been trying to get to the bottom of this relationship we have with our clothes and why we love or hate them and what they mean to us and how we are linked to them in all their intimacy with our own bodies… I think about clothes and fashion in two ways. With the attention of the average person who simply wants to know what next to wear (no! not high-waisted pegged trousers!) but also with the interest of a writer who is curious about all our human dimensions, our comedy and our tragedy, our modest weaknesses and our occasional, unexpected heroisms.
I consider it to be absolutely normal to care deeply about we wear, and detest the puritan moralists who affect to despise fashion and those who love it. Who shrilly proclaim that only vain, foolish Barbie dolls, their brains addled by consumerism, would wear anything but sensible clothes made to last. As if appearances don’t matter, when, most of the time, they are all we have to go on. Or sometimes all that is left in the ruins of a life. So I no longer take seriously those derisory accusations levelled against those who are interested in clothes. You might as well accuse Proust, Virginia Woolf, George Elliot – all of whom wrote about clothes and thought about clothes.
There are no known societies who do not adorn the human body, whether with clothing or tattoos. It’s a given, about the human race. You can even read the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, as an exercise in decoding the styles prevalent amongst Bronze Age men and women, the use of gold ornamentation and the frequent futile demands by the prophets to women to spend less time thinking about what they wore. The great experiments in Puritan dress, in seventeenth-century England, and its export to the new American colony, or China’s utilitarian Mao suit, collapsed within years of their introduction. Doomed to failure. People like variety in their clothes. They want the latest fashions. This is to do with the twin desires for pleasure and for change.
Writing and thinking about clothes is generally relegated to the fashion pages of newspapers and magazines or to the scholarly works of the costume historians. You only have to say the words ‘fashion pages’ and you can see the mouth form a contemptuous expression. Fashion is lightweight, trivial, and obsession with appearance the sign of a second-rate mind. So you might think that clothes were optional – marginal and irrelevant to the lives of most of us, something we can easily live without, as I can pass through my entire existence untroubled by the desire to go rock-climbing, pot-holing, watching films starring the late Bruce Lee… Or reading a book by Terry Pratchett…
There are only a few moments in the day when we are naked. We are naked in the shower, and, (but not even necessarily) when we have sex. The rest of the time we are always wearing something or other. I could spend all morning, looking out of this very window, onto a main road and bus route, and examine what people have on, and speculate on why they have chosen those specific garments. Because they are on their way to work? Because they are delivering my post? Because they are walking their children to school? Because they have a job interview or a hot date? Because they have absolutely no dress sense whatsoever?
Clothes matter. We care about what we wear, and not caring is usually a sign of depression, madness or the resignation to our imminent death. I don’t believe people who tell me that they are not interested in clothes, or what they wear. I think they mean that they are not interested in fashion, and believe that following the trends is a waste of time. They look for comfort and a reasonable fit in the clothes that they buy, and that will do. But such an attitude lies on the surface. There is something shallow about asserting you don’t care what you look like. Because in your heart of hearts you know it isn’t true. People want to look the best they can. They may not know how to find the clothes that fulfil this, they may regard the effort of doing so as too daunting, they may be frightened of the necessary expense, they might argue that they have no occasion to wear such garments, or that they don’t go with their personalities. But it is simply untrue to say that if you take the average woman of average height and weight and income and wave a magic wand, fairy-godmother-style, and put her in a dress that makes her look beautiful, or a pair of jeans that fits perfectly, she will react with indifference. Only if she’s clinically depressed. The average woman looks in the mirror and sees herself transformed. Sometimes it’s hard to look up to this person: the divide between the inside of your head, with its private spaces, and how you are seen by others can be intimidating. But not because you don’t care. You care. We care about what we wear.
Clothes are also adornment, they are pleasure, they signal our place in the world and send out highly important messages about ourselves. On the street, they are part of the aesthetic landscape. Trees, flowers, architecture, clothes. ”
To the second question with regards to finances: no, I do not buy on credit. I never have. The only debts I am currently considering taking on are a mortgage and buying a car on tick, out of the mundane needs to be housed and to transport myself in the world. Neither particularly extravagant. I have a job. I work hard. And I know, as a ‘consumer’, that mostly, quality costs. Except for fun, of-the-moment items [leopard-print Whistles shorts, say,] most of the time I would rather not buy low-end high street clothes not out of label-snobbery but because they are cheaply manufactured from cheap fabrics. I would rather pay four times the price of a high-street sweater made of acrylic, for a robust wool or a fine cashmere that will last, and feel glorious against the skin. So sue me.
As Diana Vreeland once, presumably, barked ‘Who said that only colours exist? There are also tones.’ I happen to be someone who cares not only that the sweater is navy, but exactly what kind of navy, because when you look there are so many, and I say that without a trace of irony. Seriously. Colours and materials are crucial, which is why, when I can, I buy Brora cashmere, because the colours are so superior. They don’t just sell a blue cardigan, they sell it in ‘storm’, and it really is the colour of storm, or periwinkle, or tobacco. They are specific, and if you are careful with the textures you wear and the tones you wear, it can’t not translate in your appearance. If I am wearing something artificial – a polyester blouse, rather than silk, I lose all respect for that garment, because it just feels wrong, fake, disposable. It’s not about what it cost – you can buy beautiful vintage silks and leathers quite reasonably if you know where to look.
If I think back over 2011, it is the investment purchases I made that stand out, not because of their worth – you forget about that the moment you walk out of the store, but because of the quality. A £700 handbag, if cared for, will last forever – I will probably give the ‘Pimlico’ tote designed by Anya Hindmarch I bought early last year to my daughter, if one day I have a daughter. Sometimes, and this has to be carefully judged, when you buy something expensive, it is worth every penny, because if you can just stretch to that little bit more, you get such a lot more for your money. The same goes for my Jil Sander riding boots, and the cropped Acne biker jacket I bought recently. There is no limit to the pleasure these garments will give me, and probably the people who have to look at me, year after year, because they won’t fall apart next week, or go out of fashion – they are classics and I couldn’t better them in terms of colour or craftsmanship. They are works of art. So, I invest, and I sell a lot of pieces I have worn and are not quite the right fit, or don’t quite work. And sometimes I buy to sell, too. I am an amateur enthusiast who knows a little about clothes and takes a great interest in learning about clothes. And that’s how I know that you can’t buy a Schiaparelli-pink dress in crepe de chine for £50 – it just isn’t going to happen. If you love Loro Piana cashmeres and the Rolls Royce of lambskins, you have to pay for them.
So, in the end, reassured by Linda Grant, I didn’t let the bitchy comment ruin my day. I finished my coffee, kissed my boyfriend, closed my book – secure in the knowledge that I had my next blog post covered, and skipped to Dover Street to gaze at, hold and smell the delectable new pistachio-coloured angora knits on the shelves of the second-floor of the Acne boutique. And I made a special point of relishing spending a ridiculous amount of money on a coat, dress and belt, in the colours of sugared-almonds. If our appearance does indeed send out the ‘messages’ Grant writes about, taking care over choosing what we wear is simply a step up from having clean hair and manicured nails.
So what do our clothes say about us? What do our accessories say? I am a working woman who takes care of herself and makes an effort to look professional and groomed? Or, I am a woman who likes to get up in the morning and put on a beautiful dress and a well-cut coat? I think I can live with that.