There is an unfortunate truth that it pains me to acknowledge about the clothes in my wardrobe. [deep breath] I am better off without most of them. Most of it doesn’t actually suit me, and like almost everyone, I have come to realise that I look better in black.
My boyfriend, who would be happiest of all living in that room from Mission Impossible that Tom Cruise sweatily abseils into, vigorously reinforces this idea wherever possible. If I turn up to meet him at a bar, a bit dour in shades of grey, I am met with rapturous applause, over-egged standing approval, his face is the heart-eyes emoji. If I am in a fantastic mood and arrive wearing my favourite super jangly, neon-beaded top from Thailand, I’ll have to give him a couple of solpadeines, buy my own drink (something with an umbrella!) and probably sit in heavy shadow, or simply, somewhere else.
I have spent years amassing a comprehensive dressing up box. My wardrobe (ok, repurposed spare room) is stuffed and overflowing with exciting and hysterical things. Heavily sequinned, feathered, and embroidered things, some of which make a good amount of noise when I wear them. I’m an enthusiastic magpie and there is no end to the list of characters I’d like to dress myself up as.
I’ve visited and patronized every charity shop in South East London. I have accepted clothes as payment for work. I have said yes to hand-me-downs from all sizes and genders. I’m greedy, and I do not discriminate. I have worn my dad’s shirts, my brother’s childhood sportswear, someone else’s Granny’s shoes, a curtain, a homemade Elizabethan ruff, and two thirds of an un-ironic principal boy costume, though to be fair to myself, not all at once.
I set great store by the idea of looking interesting and colourful, exotic, like Isabella Blow, or a deathly poisonous frog. I’m always attracted by something vivid or exuberantly patterned. That mad bird of paradise that David Attenborough filmed doing a seductive dance with all its feathers puffed into an elaborate shape could totally get me.
How did this happen? I do a lot of shopping, I do it professionally! Am I going into stores with a mental list, methodically searching for the investment pieces and the classic garments with great wearability that I know I can pair again and again for instant chic? HA. I am either inserting myself into a chorus line from Hello Dolly! and buying accordingly or simply closing my eyes, whizzing around and seeing what sticks to me by the time I’ve got to the till.
It takes great skill to balance all these wild elements successfully and retain a sense of dignity rather than straightforwardly looking like a children’s entertainer. Giovanna Engelbert and her sister Sara Battaglia are amazing at this, wearing the most bananas ensembles but consistently looking glamourous rather than cartoonish. And, as much as I enjoy attempting to get there, (getting ready to go out is easily the best part of the night) it saddens me to have to admit, aged 31, that I seldom, if ever, achieve this. It’s partly a question of money. High-quality expensive clothes always look better no matter how far you push your combinations. However, mostly it’s as simple as: I look better if I look more normal. There I said it. Stick me in head to toe navy or charcoal, I’ll be depressed at my core, but on the outside – I’m a treat. There are rules for achieving elegance for a reason. It’s so obvious! Cleaner lines are less fussy and distracting, pleasing to the eye. Plain blocks of muted colours are more flattering. Navy, charcoal, black, white, grey marl. [I wish I was wearing my gold brocade opera coat right now] Sometimes earthy tones; a deep red, a mossy, khaki green or a rich kind of conkery brown, are permissible, but most of the time you just stick to the foolproof basics.
I really resent my self-imposed veil of normalcy, but the bottom line is, I’m vain enough to care about what I look like, and these days I want to look polished as opposed to shiny. Capable, smart, chic and confident. Not a runaway Oktoberfest waitress.
I always felt irrationally cross at my mother whenever she announced that she would no longer be wearing something in her wardrobe, due its being “too young”. I couldn’t believe anyone would restrict themselves so much, they’re only clothes! Just wear what you like, there should be no rules! Unfortunately, I am now starting to see what she means. I’m too old to wear ripped jeans and cut off denim hotpants. I just don’t believe myself in the mirror when I do. And I’m too old not to care about the way I present myself. I can’t be so ripped and stained and literally held together with safety pins as I used to be. It just feels undignified.
Is this ageing? In many ways I’m not happy about it, as I just watched the Lego Movie 2 and can feel this entire essay turning into “the representation of the loss of imagination in the [wardrobe] of an adolescent”, but I must learn to be. It’s a vote of confidence in myself. In the past I might have been guilty of supplementing my nervous and not fully formed personality with sequins, creating a great big distracting forcefield, behind which to hide the vulnerable truth. Now, in casting those loud layers aside, I must be more like… doing a roast chicken on Masterchef – so simple that everything about it needs to be really bloody good to convince John Torode (Greg meanwhile would be convinced by his own reflection in a ladle). In a more mellow, more grown-up wardrobe, diluted of any faux razzle-dazzle, I can give myself the space to breathe, look nice, be smart, feel attractive, be comfortable (this really is ageing) and that could be empowering, not depressing.
Yet for years, I’ve held on to this mental rolodex of costumes to one day try on, and they are so personally iconic to me, I could never truly abandon the desire to dress up as, say, a matador. Who am I kidding! I brought a spangly matador jacket home last week! My boyfriend rolled his eyes so hard his contact lens fell out. That’s not to say I will wear it at all, or even look good in it, just that I recognise its value to me as a kind of portal to a sparklingly vivacious fantasy world and nostalgia for going to a party in a tailcoat, satin corset and a moustache and claiming to be dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel. PLUS I am stockpiling for old age at which point all this goes out the window completely and I become the living incarnation of Jenny Joseph’s old woman in purple in her poem “Warning”.
So in spite of my loathing for the sartorial term “normcore”, that middle ground is now where I reside. In between Steve Jobs and Camila Batmanghelidjh. I’m not restricting myself to Steve’s singular polo neck ( I’m not a complete psychopath) rather, I’m giving myself a break from the complication of what goes with what and resting in the relative ease of a simplistic colour scheme and a smoother silhouette. If you wear only navy you can shave tens of minutes off your day, and look all the better for doing so, even appearing well-rested, and holding yourself up better and straighter without the fear that everything could disintegrate at any minute! Whilst in a way I’m slightly killing my soul, I know I can rely on simplicity and (eurgh!) a less-is-more approach if I want to look nice. With occasional spikes of rhinestoned Cortisol. And a hat.
Looks I just can’t let go of:
-Matador costume – I am obviously on a level with Father Dougal MacGuire. Preferably in blue and gold with pink socks. And the chainmail lined red silk cape that stands up on its own. Don’t need to be maimed and gored by a bull. Or vice versa. Don’t actually need the bull full stop. A lot of it is because of the socks. In fact there’s a thing of men wearing red stockings in the 1600s that I am big fan of emulating. The whole ensemble as worn by James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, in the portrait by Daniel Mytens the elder, is a look that I am very much here for. Not on him – just for me.
-Carmen Miranda – a long-held dream. I did actually once assemble a fruit hat, for Christmas, you know how it is, but unfortunately was laughed out of my own kitchen. Next stop: puffy gold lace upper arm cuffs! See also: the extravagant floral headdresses of the Drokpa tribe.
-Topaz in I Capture the Castle – No picture can do justice to what I imagined myself into when reading ICTC. I longed to be wafting around in dirty printed floating robes and an“orange velvet tea gown” without having any idea what they actually were. This fantasy indirectly caused me to start a full-blown Kimono business, which eventually turned out to have been a 3-year lapse in judgement, but I do now have a lot of kimonos, so, swings and roundabouts.
-Edie Sedgwick-esque Amanda Peet in Igby Goes Down. Stripey top. Thick black tights. Heels. Smoothed back hair. Tons of eyeliner. Wearing thick black tights gives you a sensational feeling of freedom and elastic-limbed potential. And thick black eyeliner is the quickest shortcut to assuming a different character. Would recommend.
-Emma Stone’s denim servant dress in The Favourite. Teeny tiny waist, huge-hipped full skirt at a surprisingly flattering ankle-revealing length. Ingeniusly reimagined by Sandy Powell in old denim. No nonsense workwear cuffs, frilly neck, little cap and an apron. I love an apron! All in all, the dream outfit. See also: Man Ray’s portrait of Ava Gardner, in which she wears the most brilliant version of “something wrapped around your head”
-Cyd Charisse’s red spangly tasseled number in Bandwagon – in which she does (as always) one of the greatest dance routines ever, is all precision and laser-focus and frenzied legs and looks like an absurdly seductive praying mantis.
-Keith Richards circa 1968. I think ‘low rent Keith Richards tribute act’ may have accidentally formed 75% of my look for the last 12 years.
– Peggy Guggenheim – if I inherited $36 million dollars, I would look exactly like this. Venice, fur, dogs, specs, expression that pinballs between vast disapproval and sunny self-satisfaction.
-Circe in the painting by Claudio Bravo. As any witness to me during a working day could attest, I’m keen to wrap anything I can get my hands on around my head, so this version in Pepto pink with a luxurious train feels like the zenith of this particular fixation. Especially powerful here for being accompanied by swathes of billowing white and surrounded by small pets.