How To Control Your Life

Part 84

Miranda Priestly: ‘This stuff’? Oh. OK. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select - I don’t know - that lumpy blue sweater for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006) film, David Frankel (director), Wendy Finerman (producer)

I used to work alongside someone, at the BBC, who dressed only in designer clothes. She was model-thin.

The two things went together: she was model-thin because she hardly ate any food - she couldn’t afford to eat food as well as dress in designer clothes.

Although we were only colleagues, Anna and I (let’s call her Anna), we did go out for the occasional drink together. I was also cash-strapped, but not because I wore designer clothes; my clothes were strictly charity shop, jumble sale and borrowed. Borrowing was a Big Thing then: friends’ wardrobes were your wardrobes - and we even kept notes in our diaries about what we’d worn to which function and with whom. This led to conversations (usually frantic and shouted from room to room) such as:

“Can I borrow your red dress with the buttons, Gail?”

“No - not if you’re going out with Jeremy. I wore that when I went to The Marquee with him!”

“Oh hell! Sarah, can I borrow that green top?”

“OK, but if you’re going to Blakes I have to warn you it’s been there twice already!”

It was all highly complicated, but we were all on strict dress allowances and clothes were expensive.

Anna used to say, if challenged about the huge amount of money she spent on clothes, that Zandra Rhodes had invented a concept called ‘Cost Per Wear’, which meant that ‘good’ clothes were actually cheaper than cheap ones. Whether or not it was Zandra Rhodes is now lost in the mists of time, but the idea is still current. It means that when evaluating the real cost of a garment you divide the price you paid for it (or are considering paying for it) by the number of times you are going to be able to wear it. This works with ‘classic’ clothes which are made to last, but even then it didn’t work with designer clothes because they go out of fashion. (Currently they go out of fashion in weeks rather than years or even months.)

Christine liked the grey flannel suit because it gave her a good waist. She had been liking it for a long time, because she had accepted her aunt’s advice that it was better to buy an expensive suit that would last than to keep buying trumpery-smart cheap suits that looked very dashing for the first few weeks, until they began to wrinkle at the elbows and sag at the seat. The good grey flannel had been what the tailor called a Classic, which meant that nobody would even turn round in the street to look at it.
No More Meadows by Monica Dickens

Now, for many, Saturday is clothes shopping day and hordes of people go shopping for clothes they will wear once (possibly that very evening) and then throw away. The clothes are cheap, in all senses, and they’re not made to last because they don’t need to last. On a Cost Per Wear basis, they’re probably about right, in fact.

‘Classic’ designers are wringing their hands because their target customers now mix-and-match classic pieces of clothing with the cheap stuff - or even, horror of horrors, wear just the cheap stuff, despite their age and ‘background’ (that is to say they were brought up to wear the Classic stuff which would ‘wear well’ and be objectionable to no one).

And today, when I go into a charity shop, I’m jostling and being jostled by plenty of other people of all sorts also looking through the rails and racks.

But the Annas are still out there, starving themselves to buy (and fit into) the designer clothes - and how. Some of the clothes, shoes or accessories cost a modest mortgage.

So anyone can wear anything and it all makes for freedom of choice. Doesn’t it?

If it did, you wouldn’t be able to look at a group of people and guess their age bracket, their income bracket and their social status. But you can, can’t you?

Miranda Priestly was right (sort of): you can’t just opt out of the fashion thing. It’s not so much that you’re choosing what has been chosen for you (although try buying a classic bikini in the height of Summer and when tankinis or one-pieces are in fashion - and good luck with that…), it’s that being ‘different’ is always tough. If your ‘set’, the people around you, all wear flat shoes then wearing platforms or stilettos is going to make you stick out (or up) a mile. If everyone else favours Barbours and tweedy things, you’re going to get some looks if you choose Prada. And there are still a fair few places with dress codes (highly odd though some of those codes are…).

Can you really just throw on jeans and a T-shirt to get out of making a fashion choice? Obviously that choice is a statement in itself (and what jeans? Levi’s, Boden or Primark?’ what T-shirt? ‘My sister went to London and all I got was this lousy T-shirt’, ‘Hugo Boss’ or ‘Save the Whales’?).

In England we don’t have a national costume (morris dancers apart - and even some morris sides are getting pretty stylish these days). We had sumptuary laws for a while (about three reigns, actually) which, along with relatively restricted access to dyes, materials and so on, meant a similarity of dress in each era. But probably not hugely different from what we have now. Sit in a café and people-watch for a while…

So you have to make choices about the ‘stuff’ you wear. It’s part of your statement to the world, so make sure you are in control of it.

I heard a woman in a bar not long ago complaining that the men she dated didn’t take her seriously and didn’t see her as ‘wife material’. She was wearing an eye-poppingly tight animal print top, a skirt so short she had to think more about every move she made than any debutante getting out of a car, a mask of bright, bright makeup and lots of piercings. Fine of course, and that was her chosen style - but she was sending a message which wasn’t the one she was intending.

When a friend of mine asked students why they had chosen to come to her assertiveness training classes, she frequently received the answer that they had a problem with being overlooked all the time. In bars and restaurants they couldn’t attract the attention of the waiting staff; in classes and at work they were rarely asked to speak - and so on. Body language apart, the way these students dressed invariably said “I don’t want to be noticed”.

On the other hand there are people who complain that they are always picked on when they’re out in public, and yet choose to wear the uniform of an aggressive sub-culture (angry tattoos, shaven heads, slashed jeans or leathers, heavy curb chains, etc.).

You’re sending messages with every piece of clothing, every accessory - and people are making assumptions about you in the first seven seconds. As you walk towards someone, they’re assessing you. It’s natural, it’s a protective thing (“Is this an aggressor?”, “Is this friend or foe?”, “Can I be friendly or do I need to run - or attack?”). So you need to choose with care - and you do need to make a choice. Lots of choices.

Even the noise your shoes make says something about you…

Twitter: Maryon Jeane

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