Yesterday I was trawling the ‘fashion’ section of a charity bookshop, snatching a half hour’s gasp of time away from the library - where, obviously, there just weren’t enough books... There were all the usual suspects on the shelves: ghastly/ brilliant 80s beauty manuals, the odd exhibition catalogue, loads of outdated sewing guides full of oversaturated images, one absolute gem from Taschen on the history of lingerie (which I promptly snapped up), and several publications that I’m going to lump together under the genre: ‘clothes-shaming-masquerading-as-self-help.’ You might know the sort. Mostly from the late 90s and early 2000s, they’re something of a peculiar institution – their patron saints in Britain being Trinny and Susannah.
For anyone unaware of this duo, they were mainly known for their TV show called ‘What Not to Wear.’ That says it all, really, doesn’t it? The entire premise was rooted in the idea that women were getting it wrong, and needed guidance to improve: requiring rules about how to hide their upper arm fat or compensate for small boobs. I used to watch it with my mum, and remembered it being relatively innocuous. Having spent some time on Youtube today revisiting their offerings, I was shocked. Not that I should be, really. They were only saying what so many others did (and still do) about female appearance - that it’s something to tame and transform into a state of relative acceptability, and that women are inadequate and thus must make up for it (in their case, usually with a tasteful wrap dress).
As a kid, I just liked the makeover aspect. Woman in a baggy cardigan transformed into slightly prettier woman in a brightly coloured dress with a belt emphasizing her waist! With a make-up artist on hand to complete the metamorphosis! As a society we love a good old ugly duckling to princess narrative. It’s a narrative that has fuelled myriads of TV shows, magazine articles, films, and books. It can be a very compelling one too, no denying it. Sometimes transformations can be truly magical. I think that every time I put on an item of clothing that suddenly makes me feel different: whether it’s a grey, silk dress that makes me want to slink around like a 50s screen siren, or a pair of boots that add extra flair to my step. Age 14, making myself over into someone who wore fancy vintage dresses and silk shirts was super-significant. It helped to shape who I am now.
What bothers me though is the number of those narratives that are built on a foundation of shame. That’s all I could think about when revisiting ‘What Not to Wear’. Maybe it gave some women positive new ways to approach their wardrobe. If so? Brilliant. But, to me, it reeked of the expectation that we should feel shame about the skin we live in, shame about the ways we present ourselves to the world, shame at being too large, too ugly, too hairy (ugh!), too unwomanly (double ugh!!), too much of this and not enough of that. In one segment, they asked a variety of women “Is there anything you don’t like about your body?” When one answered “no” and walked off, they joked, “she’s lying.” Because, of course, women do not possess the capacity to fully love who they are and how they look…
This isn’t even really about a slightly trashy TV show that had its moment and has now, thankfully, faded into little more than a footnote. It’s about questioning this generally bizarre idea that clothing could ever be something one could get ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, according to an external set of values. Moreover, a set of values partly built on the idea that there should be a fraught relationship between flesh and fabric. The clothes-shaming publishing trend may have dwindled, but there are still plenty of outlets hollering about how we should dress around our bodies, rather than for them (and feel bad about any lumpy bits in the process…)
I should point out here that of course we have processes of trial and error. Of course we all have - I think? - managed to wear hideous things, and may do so again. Of course we can acknowledge that outside help might be useful in pointing us towards dressing in a way that, ultimately, makes us feel fabulous. Of course we can learn to choose clothes that might flatter our particular body shape, and celebrate others who do so. But all of these judgments should ultimately come from a place of viewing clothes as something exciting and full of potential. NOT from a place of deficiency or disgrace at letting your bingo wings roam free (a phrase which still makes my mind boggle).
Too much of the fashion industry - and, ya know, capitalism in general - is built on making us feel like we’re not enough. As someone who now revels in striding around in gale force winds wearing ankle-length leather coats, the only response I can offer is blunt: fuck that. Avoid those who think that dressing should be an apology, a way of making up for something you lack. Dressing shouldn’t be an apology, but an act of joy. Joy that is yours, and yours alone, to own, in whatever way you see fit.
This post felt like an appropriate illustration because the one thing you can't see in the pictures is the number of people out for a walk throwing bemused stares in my direction as I balanced on top of a pile of rocks, up a hill, in wind strong enough to nearly knock me over (the things we do for pictures, eh?) Once upon a time that would have fazed me. But now I just find it amusing. I assume I'm providing some kind of entertainment. And I'm certainly dressing entirely, utterly, and only for myself. Everything here is vintage or second hand (apart from the wellies - not shown - which were temporarily removed and kicked to one side).