Monsters In The Closet

Because Felix showed hers:

From when I was very young (probably the age of seven), the fashion pages would be the first part of the Sunday papers I went for, and I would spend the rest of week swanking it up in whatever approximation of the latest look I could muster from my pre-pubescent wardrobe. (The memorable “fluorescents” week involved a baggy t-shirt the colour of a yellow hi-lighter and hot pink ribbed leggings. I don’t think my parents were able to lose me that week, although I suppose they might have wanted to.) I heard Vivienne Westwood on Desert Island Discs one week, describing how she would wear wedges and a hobble skirt for school, and felt an instant pang of aspiration. When I was a teenager, I read Just 17 avidly, clipping key pieces from their fashion spreads and coveting them long after they would have left the rails.

I was never the best-dressed girl at school, mostly because my clothes came almost exclusively from the factory outlets and charity shops of a tiny market town, supplemented by my mum’s old wardrobe. I spent a good stretch of my time at sixth form college rocking an Alexon skirt suit in plum-coloured tweed. I sometimes wore it with navy Buffalo boots, the kind that look like bumper cars. But my relationship with fashion is mostly a happy one. I consider myself good at clothes. They are props and toys. Patterns, cuts, and fabrics please me. My husband says I treat myself “like a doll” when I have lengthy dressing-up sessions, and I do wonder what harm I do to myself by dwelling so much on my appearance. I never diet and I make it a rule never to be derogatory about my own looks (I almost always keep to it, as well); but I’m very aware that I fall both short and round compared to model standards. My daughter is two and going through a passion for pink things and accessories. I am sad knowing that I’ve helped to teach her that. I’m conscious of the harm that fashion does on the supply side, too: the waste of resources in pursuit of a perfect hemline, the exploitation of people to produce disposable high-street fashion.

I try to placate my guilt about clothes in a few ways. I still shop second hand as much as possible, or do my buying in the sales or at TK Maxx. Obviously, I’m still a part of the great big consumption machine, but at least I’m creaming off the excess rather than driving it directly, as well as participating at less expense to myself (an important consideration when you’ve spent most of your adult life a student). I buy fairtrade ocassionally – a couple of bits from People Tree, vests and pants from M&S. I make my own knitwear now (it seems possible that I’ll never buy another readymade sweater). And, more defensibly, I wear my clothes for a long time. I’ve always been an “eat everything on your plate” sort of a girl, and that attitude extends to using a piece until it becomes unwearable (and maybe it’s also why I’ve been the same dress size since I hit adulthood).

This halter-top is from a trip to Singapore in 2000 to stay with a family friend, and of the things I’m currently wearing, it’s the piece I’ve owned the longest. I love it because my little sister bought it and passed it to me. The patchwork pattern is bright but cute, and it fitted in perfectly with the summer of 2000’s go-round with gypsy-style clothes. I wore it in summer 2005, when Boho was a stupid buzzword, and I wore it this summer when Grazia and Netaporter.com started pushing what they (but nobody else) called Bobo, which meant gypsy-ish and very expensive.

Fashion, despite what its industry wants you to believe, is neither all that fast nor all that fatal. Designs take time and money to develop. Patterns (even ones headed for sweatshops) are a minor investment to cut, and get reused. Ideas take time to percolate: speedy fashion pirates notwithstanding, it can take a good few years before an idea gets everywhere and grows tired. And above all, there are very few people who will spot how many times you’ve worn any one thing. The only garment with a short shelf-life is a badly-made garment.

My early years tagging around after my parents in charity shops (mum hunting down clothes, dad digging out records) paid off and I am now an expert at finding things. I remember the labels I like and I look for natural fibres, because nothing ages quicker and smellier than synthetics. This Lulu & Red dress, with a full tie-back bustle, was a Cancer UK find. I wore it to a wedding with a pair of black 80s Bally patent high-heels that I bought from a street market for £4 (“stern yet sexy”, was my friend Tim’s shoe review).

Because I love patterns and prints, I keep a steady stock of plain basics to balance out the gaudiness, and a lot of these can be bought second hand. People get bored or change size, have a clear-out, and donate perfectly good clothes. More and more, I’ve been having to flick through racks of budget fashion to find my gems. Clothes from Primark, Select, and Peacocks clog the rails: cheap to begin with, they are hardly worth looking at after someone else is done with them. But still, I live in Bath, so there’s a lot of good stuff to pick over. I wear a lot of black too, and even though my sewing skills don’t allow for much customising, it’s pretty easy to refresh slightly shabby things with some Dylon.

When I can buy something expensive, I hope to get the following things for my money: high quality fabric, well-formed cut, a notable style, a lot of wear, and the knowledge that nobody was exploited or injured in getting that garment to me (although the vagaries of the garment supply chain make that one feel like a bit of a crap shoot at any price-point). Even my wedding dress was picked out with the intention of using it more than once, and accessorised with things I owned already. Single use clothing is strictly for maternity pants.

The fashion industry is a monster of consumerism – and no-one ever buys more because they feel happy, so it’s also a monster of self-esteem crushing and insecurity nurturing. But fashion itself – the communal language of clothes – is delightful. And I still have to get dressed, and whatever I dress in becomes a part of what I am, so I might as well like it.