Why can’t a smart woman love fashion? This is a question Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie posed a while back. I quoted the question (and part of her very articulate answer) last May, when writing this piece on style and intelligence. Pretty much exactly a year later, it’s been on my mind again. Why can’t a smart woman love fashion – and, moreover, why can’t a woman love viewing fashion as something highly smart?
Of course, these are hypothetical questions. A smart woman can love fashion. Of course she can. A woman can also love viewing fashion as something smart. What we’re really asking is this: why is it that some interests are swiftly judged as lacking substance? Or maybe, why does an interest in personal style suggest that this person must be less academic, less thoughtful, less worth taking seriously?
I think these questions ricocheted again recently because my interest in style is becoming ever more rigorous. Alongside the sheer joy in a good jumpsuit and lots of red lipstick (my outfit for today), I adore analysis and discussion. If a literary critic takes a scalpel to a text, maybe the appropriate instrument for the study of fashion would be a pair of sewing scissors. No wishy-washy statements about ‘personal expression’ here. More everything from cultural contexts to the impact of voracious consumer demand to the interests, anxieties and moments of a particular age cut and stitched into material.
Maybe those questions are also partly the natural result of moving between a lot of different worlds: blogging, writing, fashion, books, academia, small village, large cities. Each has its own rules, and, significantly, its own value system. In fashion blogging I’m perhaps slightly unusual in my desire to treat clothing as something to be examined - rather than merely put on, with two lines of text beneath noting where my dress was from. In more academic circles, I regularly feel like I know nothing, like I have so much left to read and consume and get my head around. In other contexts I’m somewhere on a scale between the two. One day I feel I have to water down how I articulate things, the next that I’m lacking so much, grasping at concepts and conversations still beyond me. Another consequence in particular circles is the (very) occasional need to justify myself – as though ‘fashion’ requires extra validation as an intellectual interest in a way that, say, art history doesn’t.
I’ve been doing my homework though. Over the last six months I’ve read Amber Jane Butchart’s book Nautical Chic and realized how much I adore fashion history – all that mapping of the relationship between style and a world always in flux. I also discovered Vestoj via my wonderful friend Olivia Aylmer, and spent an evening entranced by the dazzling mix of precision and celebration. I bought Women in Clothes as a present to myself and was reminded how significant stories of style are. I’ve eyed up both Worn Stories and Worn journal (same name, separate entities, both fabulous).
I’ve spent too much time procrastinating on StyleLikeU, where body, self-image, clothing and perception are continually interrogated. There’ve been late night rambles through the BBC iPlayer Art of Fashion archives, covering everything from a 1997 doc on Alexander McQueen to a brief juxtaposition between different generations of models (clue: the 70s looked like a hell of a lot more fun than the 50s. Also more fun than today.)
I researched the history of kilts, nationalism, punk and feminism for an upcoming project. I worked on an essay on the use of costume in 16th century city comedy, and began thinking about possible dissertation topics - mulling over some kind of intersection between literature and clothing. I rediscovered Elizabeth Wilson’s work, added Roland Barthes’ The Language of Fashion to my five page ‘to read’ list, went to exhibitions, wrote lots, and realized just how much I know about all things 20th century style.
I’ve also thought, written and talked about a hell of a lot of things that have nothing to do with anything sartorial. Of course. Any kind of cerebral life requires plenty of slipping, sliding and skipping between various areas. It would get deathly dull otherwise. But regardless, I’m all the more determined to combat any kind of rhetoric that says, “clothes are frivolous and inane. Why not focus on something brow-furrowingly, spectacle-wearingly serious, rather than bits of fabric strung together?”
That particular tone of derision ignores any possibility of charting clothing as symbolic, as aspirational, as conformist, as subversive, as an embodiment of power, as a refusal of standards, as a hundred and one different things to potentially unpick. There are so many threads to pursue (Sorry. One day I’ll stop using fabric imagery this consistently – well, perhaps, perhaps not).
For the record, I also think fashion can be stupid, offensive, unthinking, rapacious, boring, and status-ridden. But it can likewise be wonderful, playful, witty, confidence-enhancing, fun, elegant, and, above all, smart. It’s all in that ‘can’. Depends on how you engage with it, and whether we’re talking fashion as an industry, an art, a mode of self-presentation, a destructive capitalist force, or something else entirely. And besides, those stupid, offensive, unthinking (etc) elements are often just as worthy of scrutiny. Treating fashion intelligently means criticizing it as much as you revel in it.
To return to the inimitable Chimamanda though, sometimes it's just about “taking pleasure in clothes” too. Pleasure has a different formula for everyone – whether it includes food, sex, socialising, solo walks, music, a good coffee, binge-watching Netflix, travelling, staying in bed, reading, conversation, going to the cinema, lying in the sunshine with just the birdsong for company, or thousands of other possibilities. To me, what I wear each day is among those pleasures, as is giving clothing a lot of thought.
I don’t know where all this will lead. Hopefully somewhere exciting. There’s a lot left to learn along the way; so much to read and watch and look at and consider and respond to and, of course, plenty to lust over, buy and wear. Plenty to blog about too. I'm not sure where to head to next - the library, the wardrobe, or a word document. What a thrilling choice to have.
As with a yellow-themed outfit and books last year, now onto orange. Maybe eventually I'll manage all the colours in the rainbow! Wearing all vintage with ASOS shoes. My dad shot these over the Christmas holidays, back when the days were cold and polo necks were oh-so-necessary.
Thank you also for the amazing, overwhelming response to my post on the General Election. I genuinely hope we can fight hard over the next five years, as and when necessary, and also work on those personal acts of kindness/ empathy/ practical help/ creative response/ whatever else...