‘Heaven shall forgive you Bridge at Dawn/The clothes you wear – or do not wear’. These words are from Ballade d’une grande dame by G. K. Chesterton, written sometime in the early twentieth century, epitomising the challenging conundrum about couture.
Clothes have been a constant obsession in my life, at times wanting nothing more than a wardrobe full of beautiful and alluring fashion finery and at other times, avoiding the superficial and sophisticated assumptions implicit in it all. First embarking on my mixed-up mission when I was a mere child, I created clothes for a doll with my mother’s off-cuts, an enjoyable and exciting experience as I dressed my doll in different designs. I also loved shopping with my mother, selecting materials for outfits she sometimes made for me as well as buying clothes off the rack.
At 13, I entertained a fantasy of being a model so I could pout, prance and parade on a catwalk dressed in the ‘best’. However, a problematic issue for me was ‘the best’ wouldn’t belong to me but borrowed for beauty in the short term, not bought for myself in the long term. Understanding this as the bottom line of catwalk couture, my fantasy was soon supplanted by a more realistic recognition that modelling was a mere masquerade for manipulative designers to direct malleable females to a new fashion destiny. Aware that my skinny body may have slunk sexily in the garb, I also realised I wasn’t conventionally good-looking as traditional norms of beauty dictated.
My penchant for clothes lived on, understanding as I matured that wearing what made me feel good and look good too was very important for me. Always careful spending money on clothes, I didn’t have enough to buy what I really loved unable to indulge in sheer extravagance. In my teens, I bought fabrics for a dressmaker, designing some pieces myself and asking her to make them, never learning to sew well enough myself.
When I started work in the media at 18 nearly fifty years ago, I bought some new clothes because as a reporter, I had to dress inconspicuously and even conservatively, though tastefully, or as our cadet counsellor imparted to the new cub brigade: ‘You must dress so you can interview a doctor or a dustman’. His distinction was interesting in itself, reflecting a social snobbery and class-consciousness on the one hand about the two jobs while on the other hand, acknowledging our clothes needed to be ‘egalitarian’.
For me, these “work” clothes I purchased were mostly ‘boring’ and ‘ordinary’, moderately priced as my budget proscribed. Occasionally, I opted out of this apparel wearing a black, leather jacket my mother purchased for me when I was sixteen over dresses and skirts, but even ‘slacks’ had to be tailored and denim was verboten. Feeling repressed in my self-expression with clothes, I was often envious of the few other female colleagues who had far more expensive clothes than I could afford. They also appeared classier and more elegant as I had put on excess poundage in my late teens and my less costly clothes paled into insignificance.
Flourishing with the written word, my clothes soon became incidental as what I wrote took precedence over what I looked like with much of that psychology and philosophy staying with me throughout my life. In different jobs as times changed and ‘fashion’ too, abandoning its rigid customs of style and dress, I became aware that most of the females I worked with or who worked in the same companies were akin to ‘fashion plates’, especially in the world of British TV I was employed in during my twenties. I hated it.
Unconsciously, I withdrew from the competitive couture challenge but was consciously depressed by it too, justifying my contempt for fashion as a subversive oppression of females that irked my sense of feminism, waging my own ‘class’ war, albeit not Marxist. My conviction was focused on females apparently ‘using’ their clothes and appearance to establish a pecking order I condemned as completely meaningless and marginal to what was really important. Marketing their sex appeal as of major significance in obtaining more powerful positions only angered and upset me especially as the male hierarchy was so easily hooked by their disguise.
After a few years of this unconscious denial of my passion for clothes though dwelling on the issue ad nauseum, I was still unable to clarify what import my clothes and appearance really accounted for, later realising that my unconscious had channelled me into a dark abyss of drab and dowdy dreariness that I hated about myself.
My confused introspection about this issue soon clarified into a bright corner of my psyche to consciously acknowledge that I’d indeed been in denial of not just wanting to look good, but feel good as a female and even sexy, too. Investing in a whole new vista of clothes at 27, I was also slimmer and fitter with money then becoming the more pertinent issue. I was earning a pittance. Somehow, I needed to find avenues to buy clothes I could afford and return to the feel good, look good, philosophy.
Skinny in my teens, courtesy of a benevolent genetic inheritance, I had pounded on the kilos in my twenties and was now intent on losing weight not as some badge of approval for my body image, but because being slim was the way I once was and felt good about myself. Recognising body image was of increasing angst for so many young people, females particularly and more increasingly young males too, my inspiration was to feel healthy, fit and energised without excess kilos killing my sense of fashion and well-being. Slim may have been a mantra for many young women and men as sexual allure, but for me it was not about appearing curvaceous on a catwalk or parading for others’ assent but a personal quest for a positive psychology about self. Even with my extra weight, I wasn’t missing out on sexual invitations or partners; indeed, when I oft complained about needing to lose weight because I was fat, some men were surprised at my self-hate telling me I was simply ‘big’ and looked better without clothes. Being in bed naked was a non-issue for them and me too as my weight never interfered with my sexual pleasure. Becoming slim again was about health, fitness and energy, not sex or even love.
Understanding all my negatives about eating and drinking as I pursued the ‘good life’ in fancy restaurants, I appreciated that while I enjoyed and delighted in delicious food and alcohol with friends, I also indulged on my own in over-eating for comfort and as solace for loneliness, taking several years of self-analysis, book reading and thinking to elucidate why I felt unhappy with my own body. Jettisoning fad diets and many a temporary fix, I instituted a whole new regimen of eating and drinking with moderation underpinning my lifestyle. There was no gym either but regular exercise in dance classes I loved, rediscovering my two feet to walk with stimulated endorphins endowing me with a healthy high. The weight started to fall off me slowly but consistently as I felt renewed and refreshed, with no men in my life or women to comment either, my own satisfaction sufficed. Eighteen months later, I was slim once more and have never gained that weight again.
Body image is sadly still too pervasive as a destructive deterrent for many people to invest in clothes of comfort and reasonable cost, bemoaning their bulging buttocks and bloated bellies as inimical to beauty. To some extent, one’s own genetics are intrinsic to how we are shaped and most of us are not cast for the catwalk, but more significantly, accepting individual body shape should be engendered by how one feels on the inside, entwined and enmeshed with how you look on the outside, translating into a “feel good and look good” mindset. Body image can be your own worst enemy if you ascribe it with unrealistic fantasies and since losing those 20 kilos I still choose what I eat and drink carefully and in moderation to enhance not just my physical health but my mental well-being, too. Certainly, I didn’t, and don’t, appear beautiful any more than I had when I was a skinny adolescent, but my sense of inner beauty far surpasses such superficial norms.
Still living in London with a different modus operandi for my life, I discovered markets and op-shops as well as cheaper department stores but more importantly, I had to really ‘learn’ what suited me as well as being stylish, sexy and classy. On one level, I went back to clothes I’d always loved in my teens but had since abandoned as my body bloomed and bulged; tight jeans with loose, flowing jumpers or tops with knee-length boots or high heels, an experimental exploration of self with a new agenda at its basis.
Travelling and living in Europe for nearly seven years, I appreciated money couldn’t buy ‘class’. So many of the young women and men I saw on the streets of Madrid, Paris, Munich, etc didn’t reek money, but manifested style in a class of their own which was simplicity personified; often jeans, a T-shirt, a well-cut shirt, jacket, dress or slacks, clothes that certainly didn’t seem out of the windows of Chanel or Dior, labels irrelevant as I didn’t know the designers to identify their clothes anyway. It wasn’t just the apparel per se, but a whole body repertoire, engaged in feeling good and looking good, or that’s how they appeared to me. They were elegant without extravagance, reflecting on how many women I’d previously encountered who spent lots of money on clothes but looked garishly ostentatious and cheap and not at all classy.
These young women and men in Europe became my role-models, trying to emulate their style with my own unique sense of self. I always remembered I’d had a few garments in my teens that were tasteful, stylish and elegant yet there were so many others that were ‘not so much cheap and nasty’, but certainly did not enhance the innate elegance I felt about myself. Europe reignited something inside me I always had but lost for a few years in my strident feminism, unconscious rebellion against sexual objectification and all the assumptions about appearance. Somehow, I had to withstand appearance assumptions without burying myself again in flab and false flattery. The young women and men in Europe were mostly slim, but even older and more rounded women and men still possessed panache and perspective about clothes, as if fashion per se was subsumed as insignificant with style and elegance sacrosanct. Slimness was not part of their portrait and money did not seem paramount.
From that time on, my meagre earnings for many years dictated lots of T-shirts and jeans, now able to wear these at work, though I purchased a couple of dresses from markets in London and in Melbourne on my return to Australia. Back in Melburbia, I even flirted with becoming a fashion designer, ringing one of the universities to inquire but quickly dissuaded by the cost of the course as I simply couldn’t afford to study again at 34. I still didn’t read fashion mags but as I had more money in Melbourne, I started investing in even more clothes, mostly carefully chosen according to what I really felt good in. Yes, I made some blunders with my budget, but as I got older and learned from my retail mistakes, I started to collect a wardrobe of clothes I loved. The problem became I ran out of space for them all, giving away some, selling others at a market, and then, about 10 years ago in my late 50s, I started reading fashion mags to examine anew the whole concept of fashion and clothes.
With a different sense of fashion, one that was individual and my own, some women friends started commenting on my style and while I had never perused Vogue, I started buying it with a fresh perspective When I sold my apartment to take up a new home to live in that my sister had purchased with her husband as an investment for their young grandchildren down the track, I had ‘money’ to play with, introducing me to another new world of beautiful apparel and adornments.
Cruising expensive boutiques, department stores and jewellery shops (I’d already started wearing hats all the time as I loved them too) as well as markets, recycle and vintage shops and continuing to read Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar et al, I was flabbergasted at the prices, thousands of dollars for dresses, coats, jackets and jewellery I believed were often tasteless and vulgar with few garments or accessories ever appealing. They didn’t register as ‘fashion’, rather designer garb gimmicks for gullible, rich women without any sense of what suited them, looked good and felt comfortable, who seemed to indulge in expensive clothes as blind devotion to class and style as fashion norms enshrined. There was an occasional piece, by Armani particularly, that I would have bought if I’d had the money, but overwhelmingly, I considered most of the advertised apparel as ‘trash’. I still do.
Yes, I did indulge with my money in some expensive clothes, spending $600 and $700 on jumpers that are now years old and I still love and wear them as well as a couple of hundred dollars on other items still hanging in my bedroom. At the same time, I bought a $10 pair of black jeans from a market I love and wear, label unknown, as well as lots of other recycle and vintage purchases. The issue now is I live on a pension, but my penchant for clothes and jewellery lives on. So how do I fulfil my passion?
For the past five years, I’ve had little money but it’s enlivened my clothes’ shopping in a way I never imagined, no longer haunting expensive boutiques or department stores but instead visiting recycle and vintage shops on a regular basis as well as the odd market. My greatly reduced spending has inspired me with a clearer vision of what suits me and what feels and looks good as well as buying pieces that are far more stylish and classy than those I mostly see in fashion mags. Spending no more than $20 on an item, usually $5 or $10, I now have so many ‘cheap’ but ‘classy’ clothes bursting out of my wardrobe, realising there are often more ‘fashionable’ garments on sale in these shops for almost nix than the costly clothes in more trendy, upmarket boutiques.
Now in my mid-60s, I receive many compliments walking down the street or sitting in cafes about how elegant and stylish I look, laughing to myself humbly knowing how little my clothes have cost. Sitting here typing I’m now wearing a gorgeous, black jumper I bought for $10 at a Chinese shop some three or four years ago and a pair of black and white striped trousers I bought for $15, while my lingerie is a black, sexy, lacy bodysuit I bought for $20 at a vintage shop just three years ago. I feel a million dollars.
‘Donating’ clothes to recycle shops because I no longer wear them or as mistakes of purchase, I wonder about the women who do ‘donate’ such good items and am thankful that they do. Certainly, op shops aren’t as cheap as they used to be during the 60s or even 80s in Melbourne, but it’s great you can still buy some great clothes for a few dollars. While I fantasise sometimes about being rich enough to get off the pension, I won’t ever surrender the ‘creative chic’ I found anew at recycle and vintage shops. They are in a class of their own, but then, you do have to know what suits you and what feels and looks good but more importantly, you need good taste about what’s classy, not simply enslaved by a fashion fascism that tries to dictate what clothes to wear or not wear.
Moreover, it’s not just about women these days, but males too are increasingly confronted by a code of dress that can undermine ‘class’. The challenge should be individual creative chic, where money and so-called fashion are irrelevant with class and style their own unique inspiration!