Friday, September 12, 2014

What We Wear

Much of this morning has been spent sitting in the sunny room at the top of my parent's house. This was my bedroom for most of the time that I lived here. It sits at the front of the house so that you can watch the street throughout the day. This was one of my favourite things about the room when I was 12 and strange and used to stand at the window with the curtains closed and monitor the street in the evenings through a little gap. Just keeping an eye on everything like some bizarre, unelected member of a neighbourhood watch committee. Evidently this viewpoint still acts in the room's favour, although the relationship between a desk and a view is always a tricky one; is a front-facing window crucial for feeling connected to what is going on outside as you work or just a distraction from what must be done? I always like the view but drift off easily watching home-deliveries arrive from the supermarket and children shoot along the pavement on micro scooters.

Either way, the light pours in and the desk sits right in the middle of the room like a declaration of intent. No pushing to the wall here, it's right in the centre so that when you walk in it you feel you've been called into somebody's office. My Mum has three piles of CDs stacked up on the surface; an assortment of classical concertos and irresistible pop; Crash Test Dummies and Scissor Sisters and the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack alongside Mozart, The Beach Boys and Catatonia. There's a baby pink ashtray which suggests that this office might be the home of an alcoholic publisher, though clearly a drinks bar in the corner would be the olive in the martini.

I've spent much of this week at home surveying the bookshelves, which is one of the great things that comes with returning. Poking things saying "this is new" and admiring the more grown-up furniture that has been acquired since leaving. My Mum always watches my trips home as an owner might their dog after taking it off its lead, scurrying about the park sniffing the trunks of trees. I gradually work my way around the house collecting the reference books I'd forgotten, or left behind, or never found reason to read in the first place. On my bedside table a pile too impossibly large to work my way through always outstays each visit.

'Cheap Chic', a wonderful personal-style reference guide is top of this pile, and has added fuel to my current re-enthusiasm for clothes and style. The sort of apathy-free enthusiasm I had when I started this blog 8 years ago. Written by Caterine Milinaire and Carol Troy, and published in 1975, Cheap Chic preludes my other go-to style book The Cheap Date Guide to Style and is arguably superior. It blends personal style features on college students, photojournalists, actors and painters with long chapters dedicated to sportwear, jersey, and how to shop for clothes in markets around the world. The preoccupation with personal style shuns any element of exclusivity, which is always my major beef when it comes to mainstream glossy publications and fashion magazines. I find the presence of class, status and money on the pages of Vogue overwhelmingly off-putting, but with a book like Cheap Chic I can enjoy an image of Cher alongside a student wearing an ugly pair of boots with aplomb and feel entirely comfortable. It's all about choice; there's no whiff of frantic selling to the reader. Here it's self-expression, experimentation, frugality and investment; and the sort of investment that's actually attainable.

Some of my favourite extracts:

"In London, the painter Duggie Fields and about twenty of thirty friends put on their own "jumble sales" by hiring a church hall and bringing things to sell. "The rental goes to the church charities, and what we make we keep for ourselves. We advertise the sale in the local papers, list it in Time Out magazine, and design posters to put in neighbourhood shops. Hundreds of people come. It's fun, and it's a good way to get rid of your old stuff and get new from your friends. It's good recycling, and at the same time you can make $100 in an afternoon just for cleaning out your closet. The clothes are all piled up- our first jumble sale was chaos- and as soon as the doors open, people run in, grabbing. It's like being in a chicken coop. But it's a nice afternoon, and it's fun to see who turns up. I even see people stealing. They know I know they haven't paid, but I'm not going to say a thing... things gotta go! I only buy clothes in stores if I need something I can't find here. They're not necessarily fashionable stores. My favourite is called 'Sex' in the World's End...  bits of furs, porno embroidered T-shirts, and humorous clothes. My idea of wearing clothes is to make myself smile. I like this in others to. I don't think clothes should be serious.""

"I go to exercise class twice a week. I spend my money there and on having my hair streaked. And I've done the Royal Canadian Air Force exercises ten minutes every morning since 1962. I save money on cabs by doing everything on my bike or on foot; and year round I play tennis and ski. I'd love to be one of those great beauties, but, to make the best of myself, I have to radiate what I can get from inside: health. I think your mental attitude is based on your physical well-being." Helen Gaillet, New York photojournalist.

"My clothes are fun. They're just a collection that's evolved over the last six years, one thing here and one thing there. And it pleases me. That's what clothes are for, aside from protecting you from the rain and giant armadillos, you know... I don't shop. If the moment is right, I know it. If the thing, the money and I are all together, that's my cue... There's no one thing in my closet that I love- everything is my favourite. I never get up and think, 'I don't have a thing to wear!' It's just a matter of what I feel like mixing. The basic secret of having a style us confidence- you exude it, and people assume that what you wear if not only fashionable, but way-the-hell-ahead-of-them chic. It's a savvy you have about your clothes, and with savvy you can get away with anything." Nancy Crow, lives in New York, works in a publishing house.

As well as enjoying a good nose through Cheap Chic this week I've taken enormous pleasure from Women in Clothes. This is the collaborative project and book edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton made up of essays and insights about how women dress and feel about style and clothes and the many other personal implications that stem from those things. The book is the result of personal style surveys from over 639 women and is utterly fascinating. Women in Clothes isn't yet available to buy in the UK but I've been scrolling through the accompanying Twitter feed and returned surveys. It's cathartic to read some of these thoughts, especially when they tap into the conflicts many of us encounter when it comes to clothes, consumerism and often, feminism. For example, wanting to look brilliant, and wanting to buy clothes that will help to articulate an image I have in my head, and wanting to buy the right things but also trying to avoid overconsumption for environmental and economic reasons. I also find the question of sexiness when it comes to personal style endlessly fascinating, because I always see sexiness and confidence as going hand in hand. But at the same time there are so many complicated feelings that come with dressing sexily; many of them being linked to unwanted attention and all of those horrible feelings that remind me of being shouted at by men from white vans at the age of 12 and having my own sexuality flagged up by other people in public rather than by myself, in private. But I like the variety of the responses that come with questions about attractiveness and what they means to different people. I sometimes feel most attractive when I've just got home from somewhere; maybe the cinema or drinks with friends and my hair has that end-of-day goodness and my skin has a nice flush to it after enthusiastic conversation over a glass of wine and I'm wearing a skirt that swishes well. Sometimes on those nights I'll look in the mirror as I'm washing my face and feel good and happy and sexy and think I wish it was the start of the night now and I could go out feeling like this. But the fact that it's a glow from a well-spent evening is what makes it good.

I used to put so much value on fashion, and I think that's why I found it necessary to change this blog as I got older and my feelings about fashion changed. I used to feel obliged to obsess over cuts and fabrics and draping, fashion houses, matching a detail to a designer and being able to recall a season according to a motif. But at the heart of that fascination was always people. For me, it always comes back to people, which is why, now, I find the idea of style so much more appealing than fashion. The two are linked, of course, but now I find there's something quite boring about Fashion Week. I like occasionally checking in to see what the collections look like, but the carnival that surrounds it, of stylists and industry-people being photographed wearing ubiquitous, shiny head-to-toe looks doesn't do it for me. These aren't the people that interest me because it just all feels a bit too easy. Where's the conflict? It's like they just picked something immediately from a rack but there wasn't anything thoughtful about the process. I'm far more interested in reading about how people navigate dressing for work, people who don't themselves work in the fashion industry. This following little exchange via the Women in Clothes Twitter feed was bang on the money (and incidentally, I really want to find some of these socks. How brilliant would it be, to wear a middle finger around your ankle and have nobody know?)

And this has to be one of my favourite tidbits from the book, and seems a good place to leave these meanderings:

How important is all this? "I hate it when people say they don't care about clothes, because it's a lie. It's like when writers say they don't care about plot. Lie. We are always asking for something when we get dressed. Asking to be loved, to be fucked, to be admired, to be left alone, to make people laugh, to scare people, to look wealthy, to say I'm poor, I love myself. It's the quiet poem in the waiting room, on the subway, in the movie of our lives. It's a big fucking deal." Leopoldine Core.


Dreaming in Brighton said...

Women in clothes sounds like a really interesting project. Glad to see those questions of attractiveness and feminism coming into play. It's not something that's discussed enough especially considering the more frequent slut shaming that appears in day to day life. There seems to be such a conflict surrounding women dressing for attractiveness, that consideration that it has the potential to send off the wrong signals. That last quote from Leopoldine Core really resonates though. I find myself stuck between dressing to be left alone and to be admired. I now, however, plan to dress with the intent of protecting myself from giant armadillos.

Amy said...

I was about to check out fashion week but decided to check whether you had a new post instead and I'm glad I did.
You've articulated exactly how I feel about fashion as I've gotten older also.
Always enjoy reading your blog.

Ally said...

This is a brilliant post Stevie! I've been reading through my old copy of Cheap Chic recently too. I was obsessed with it a few years ago but had forgotten it when I was in London and all swept up in the frenzy of the 'fashion world'. It is such a brilliant reference, so many good tips. I love the thriftiness and practicality of it all.

Women in Clothes sounds really great as well. I really dislike 'fashion' these days too but - and you put it perfectly - what is fascinating is style, and what is style? As you said, it's people, stories, life.

So much to think about, thanks again for your thought-provoking posts!

Rebecca said...

Such a wonderful post! I resonate with the thoughts on 'style' over 'fashion'. There is so much to explore with psychology of fashion and what we choose to put on every day. Clothes say so much about a person without us even realising. I look forward to reading 'women in clothes'. X

Faye Jones said...

I love this post. Those books look amazing, especially the first one. I've saved the quote about style from Nancy Crow because I think it's so true. I clicked on that survey straight away and I'm looking forward to reading the answers. Totally agree with that last quote too- I HATE it when people claim they're not interested in fashion yet are head to toe in Chanel couture. Oh you're so cool and nonchalant aren't you!?! haha

Faye x
i wish i could wink