Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Woman in Clothes







“I guess, and correct me if I’m wrong, clothes are important to you because of your work?”

The question came up when I was chatting with a friend the other evening. I’d surfaced for a little while from some rather frantic late-night typing and note making, and the talk had turned to what we valued.

“No, not really. Work comes into it, but it’s more about the clothes themselves. About dressing up, knowing I look damn good and deriving confidence from that. About playing around with the image I project, or assembling a persona from what I’ve got on. About looking at the narrative of a garment. Obviously it helps with the blogging and everything, but my work came from the clothes - not the other way round.”

Well, I replied with something along those lines. Possibly not quite as articulate (my brain was feeling a little frazzled after a full day in front of a screen). There were so many other things I could have said beyond that though: acknowledging pure pleasure in wearing a good dress; enjoyment in intelligent analysis of style; the cultural, social and historical role of clothes; that miraculous ability to shape how others perceive you on a daily basis; the room for craftsmanship and verve and serious flights of imagination. A hundred and one different reasons to adore or be intrigued by the contents of a wardrobe.

“I hadn’t really though of it like that. I just have clothes I wear because I need clothes, and nice clothes reserved for occasions.”

His response made total sense. It also made me realize that I have very little distinction between the two, and that the way I think about clothes doesn't always chime with how others view them. For starters, I rarely divide off functional from ‘dressed up’, unless I’m wearing wellies – and even then it’ll usually be with, say, a leather mini-skirt and impractical cardigan. I may wear flats all the time (my height + a bike + general dislike of things that impede striding), and I may plump for vaguely comfortable items (belts and me do not get on), but beyond that, every day is a day for nice clothes – regardless of occasion. Even if I’m not leaving the house. Even if I’m feeling shit – in fact, especially when I’m feeling shit. The powers of a killer outfit on days when it’s all too much are vastly underrated.

I used to say that I’d rather over-dress than under-dress, but I don’t think I necessarily measure my outfits in terms of 'dressiness' now. Much as I do love the occasional bout of incongruity, it’s more what feels right, what works, what aligns with my mood that day. Could be as simple as a shift dress or as fussy as matching my socks to my shirt collar and bag. As low-key as jeans, or high maintenance as this Chloe dress – with a suggestion of liquid gold in every movement.

That snippet of conversation above took up no more than around four minutes before we skipped on to other subjects, the brief mention of clothes strung in among talk of literary theory and summer plans. But I thought about it again the next morning while reading Women in Clothes (I’ve got into the daily routine of reading a portion over breakfast and coffee, savouring each page in turn.) It’s essentially an ethnographic study of women’s relationship to clothing, in all its many permutations. There are survey answers, interviews, written pieces, lists, snippets of conversation, diary entries, photo-series, old snapshots and illustrations. Together they build up an illuminating whole, a kind of shape tailored with innumerable tiny darts and stitches (sorry, was that image inevitable?) 

Along the way it covers every conceivable angle you could apply to clothes: sexuality, gender, confidence, aesthetics, body image, shopping, identity, uniforms, joy in a good outfit, factory production, hand-crafting, family stories, disguises, transformations, the balance of envy and admiration, attraction, intimacy, mistakes, and marvelous encounters. Lots beyond that too.

I think what I value most about this book though, above the delight in some serious sartorial stimulation each day, is the validity it gives to so many experiences – to story after story detailing different relationships with clothes. There is room for every approach, every way of dressing. It also quite amply proves the significant role that clothes have in shaping the way we see ourselves and how others see us.

It still feels like a slight revelation whenever I open its pages. It talks about clothes in a language I understand – one that isn’t couched in fash-mag hyperbole or 'hot new thing' speak. Instead it brings everything down, quite literally, to the fabric of everyday life. Just as it should be. Just as I love it most.

I was thinking about dressing up, dressing down, and everything in between when I rediscovered this Chloe dress (a wonderful birthday present) - previously worn on the blog here and, for the first time, here (in the latter I'm wearing the same shoes as above. Now there's versatility for you!) This time it had the addition of an incredibly sumptuous vintage velvet coat that my mum bought. I had an awful lot of fun strutting around a windy hill-top in it... 

Also, talking of clothes and stories, the tale of my grandma's Doctor Who dress went up on Worn Stories recently. 

10 comments:

Sofie Marie said...

!!!!!!!!!! I love how this post is written and I will definitely consider buying 'Women in Clothes'. It sounds a treat! I remember when I first found the now defunct WORN journal and how much I loved its way of talking about clothes- in the way that you describe above. Clothes as a way to discuss so much more. (very similiar to English Literature degrees- texts used to discuss so much more!)

Sofie

ps you may enjoy these two clothes related books- 'Circus Bookazine' and 'The Worn Archive'

Accidental Icon said...

You are my new favorite blogger! Thoughtful and intelligent content and beautiful photos as well as lovely clothes. I love to interact with others who relish and enjoy the process of thinking about clothes. It is one of the reasons I started my own blog.I look forward to reading and seeing more.

Accidental Icon
http://www.accidentalicon.com

Closet Fashionista said...

That sounds like an awesome book, I'll have to check it out. I get "dressed up" for no reason too since I don't have to go into an office anymore I don't really have a reason to get dressed apart from visiting my parents, ha ha.
http://www.closet-fashionista.com/

Theresa said...

One of the parts I like best about your blog is showcasing the English and Welsh countryside. The juxtaposition of fashion + scenery makes each look even better.

daisychain said...

You've convinced me of a need for this book.

Vix said...

That sounds like a fascinating book, I'll keep it on my imaginary shopping list hoping it turns up second-hand before too long.
Serious sartorial stimulation is the way to go, every day should be an adventure when we throw open those wardrobe doors.
Love the dress and sumptuous velvet coat. xxx

Lola Byatt said...

I've also really been enjoying women in clothes and was inspired to do a collection posts just like the ones in the book! Although my post came with some text. I was a little disappointed there was no text with the collections! Up until recently , I've always been an overdresser, my friends would be horrified when I'd come in wearing lace dresses to work in the lab for the day (how can you wear such pretty dresses in the lab, they would cry). But a few years ago, a close friend of mine past away and since it had such an effect on me that I stopped dressing up. There will be the odd occasional day when I wear something pretty....just make an effort and I would look in the mirror and not recognise the person I am looking at. I would totally like this person but at the same time. I realise I become a whole other person when I dress up, my posture suddenly becomes a little straighter, my self esteem a little higher but once the day is up, I'm turned into a pumpkin and it takes me ages to gain the confidence to dress up again. Lately I've been trying to make more effort (i got my haircut over the weekend!) and I some times look to your posts for inspiration xx

Danielle Olavario said...

You are an amazing writer! <3 I must check that book out myself!

http://scienceofadornment.blogspot.ie

Pilgrim at Kerjacob said...

I can remember many years ago when I was teaching that another teacher ( female ) said to me " You can wear the clothes you do because you're an Art teacher" - I found this quite a bizarre thing to say and replied that I wore the clothes that I did because that they were ME and if I taught another subject I would still choose to wear the clothes I did. Strange how then ( a bit less now I hope ) people thought that your clothes moulded you not you moulded the clothes- I continue to dress how I feel and at just 70 I'm not going to conform to what is " expected " of an older woman - I'm still " ME" !!!

FASHION TALES said...

The velvet coat is a dream and surely one to keep. Forever.
I also tend to dress great when I have a shit day too. Usually a favourite lipstick and high-heels works, but definitely a vintage hat. :) Life is too short, and sometimes I find myself thinking like my nan, and just wear your best diamonds to the grocery store, so-to-speak. I have not read this book yet, so I am definitely putting it on my list to buy soon. The sky in these photos are absolutely marvellous, as is your golden Chloe dress.