Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Learning Curve

Thanks to the Guardian, which I love anyway due to its focus on literature, I have a new addiction: The Sartorialist. This blogger goes out onto the streets everyday and takes photographs of ordinary people who catch his stylish eye. It probably helps that he lives in New York; if I tried to do something similar I would have to seriously re-think the meaning of sartorial style. As it is the nuances of getting dressed have been antagonising me of late. I've begun to notice that as I get deeper into my studies I bother less about clothes. And clothes can be a bother, especially as you get older and fashion seems no longer to apply. It doesn't help, either, living in the country where trends seem to go unnoticed and people dress for reasons known only to themselves. I just don't live in a world in which catwalk looks are interpreted for everyday life, or style seems to matter any more, so I've stopped looking, closed that particular door. But now the Sartorialist has reopened it by showing lots and lots of images of very different people of very different sizes, ages and budgets so I can once again see the possibilities. I know I suffer from extreme ambivalence when it comes to dress, finding certain sorts of socks with certain sorts of shoes almost painful on other people whilst feeling free run around in ill fitting clothes myself for example, and now the Sartorialist has got me reflecting on why.

I haven't often mentioned my father, he died when I was thirteen so my memory of him is fragmentary, but one thing that stands out amongst those fragments is his style. He was extremely pernickety about his clothes. Actually, about all our clothes and appearance in general. He must be one of the few men who ever brought home hair removal devices for his ten year old daughter's legs. He had all his clothes made and I remember spending hours in tailors perusing shirting, suiting and lining fabrics. Sleeves had to be measured to exacting standards so just the right amount of shirt cuff peeked from his jacket, trousers had to break on his shoes just so, his socks had to be two shades darker than his pants etc., etc.

I remember a school trip to the Tower of London. We were eating our packed lunches in a pigeon populated square, giggling and chatting as kids do, when I looked up and saw my dad, flanked by two colleagues, coming towards me. He was wearing a dark suit and sunglasses. I jumped up, laughing, and ran to him, throwing myself into his arms. Later my friends expressed amazement: 'Who was that?' they asked. 'My dad' I told them. 'I thought he was a president or something.' said one 'I thought he was a film star.' said another.'Who were those men? Were they his body guards?' 'No, they were his friends.' I answered finding it all hilarious.

He was a man who stood out, not because he was particularly handsome, or tall, or muscular but because he paid attention to the detail of his appearance. He took his suits to a particular dry cleaner in the city of London, washed and ironed his shirts himself, had his hair cut almost weekly and sometimes spent as long in the bathroom as a teenage girl. This apparently obsessive preparation meant getting dressed in the mornings, early because he had to get to London by train, in the dark so as not to disturb the household, was easy. He had to look smart for work, so he made it impossible for him to look anything else.

I guess I picked some of that up and for quite a large part of my life I was really into fashion and Vogue was my bible. However, my mother was the complete opposite: she only bothered to look smart for church. She argued that people should accept the person, look beyond the clothes, that she didn't have time for all that fussing, that clothes shouldn't matter, that trying too hard showed a lack of moral fibre and indicated someone who has too much time on their hands. So I guess I picked that up too.

These days I do often feel I just don't have time, and anyway what's the big deal? Here I am, take me or leave me, I have more important things to think about than how I look. And, actually, most of the time that's OK because I rarely go anywhere where there are people who do bother. I mostly mix with the 'there are more important things' brigade. But, when I have to go up to Glasgow or Edinburgh, or to some place where everyone else might have made an effort I panic. And the older I get the more these situations bother me.

There was a time when I was young and pretty enough to get away with jeans in a room full of ball gowns, but not now. Wearing jeans when everyone else is not often just looks bad mannered when you are not so young. And I fear looking bad mannered almost as much as I fear looking as if I've tried too hard. We are a bit odd in this country, I've noticed, in this regard: scruffy is frowned upon but so is effort. It's as if we believe everyone should look smart, or elegant or whatever, naturally. And if you don't there is something lacking, you're not the right sort. Negotiating this balance, as someone who doesn't cut it naturally, can be quite alarming.

Last week it was my husband's office Christmas 'do' and I was called upon to attend. It was in the Witchery, one of Edinburgh's most expensive – though, I discovered not best – restaurants. His colleagues are all young with access to all the fabulous shops of the city and few responsibilities, so they can spend their earnings in them should they choose. And of course, they are there everyday so they know what people wear, they live that life. All the other people in the restaurant, too, I began to think would also be stylish city folk with money, and access to the ways of style. I must have bought every fashion magazine available in the weeks leading up to the event but they were full of the sort of clothes I either couldn't possibly afford, could only be bought in London, or worse: flesh baring. Young, airbrushed models looking like sculptures in frocks of feathers or sequins or barely anything at all adorned every page and only increased my anxiety: I needed to know what real people wear to go out and about, not what fantasies wear to stand dead still in front of fantasists. In the end I dragged poor Bob around the shops of Glasgow shrinking at the seasonal sparkle, do people really dare to wear head to toe silver sequins and skirts so short one wrong move and your knickers would be on display? It took us five hours of searching with two stops for coffee and cake before I finally bought the plainest black dress I could find - not easy – and a dark gold belt to wrap around it. On the night I added a pair of ancient gold Gucci sandals from my fashion days and it was fine. No one pointed at me and laughed as I had feared.

But if I had already discovered the Sartorialist I'd have known more about what normal people wear in cities; what they look good in. And I wouldn't have spent more money than my dress eventually cost me on magazines. Perhaps I wouldn't have worried so much either, and I may even have already had a suitable frock in my wardrobe because this site somehow makes it OK to bother, not in an angsty way but in a way that suggests it's perfectly normal. We all have to wear clothes so they might as well be nice. It is possible to be comfy and stylish but it does take a little effort or, at least, thought. My father was right, I think, get the details right and dressing becomes easy. It's a bit like cleaning your house regularly so you don't have to hide behind the sofa when a knock comes at the door unexpectedly.

One of my new year's resolutions is definitely going to involve tidying up my wardrobe to make sure everything fits me properly and is the right length. Get rid of all the stuff with holes and other signs of wear and tear, and keep an eye on the Sartorialist to see how other women my age interpret fashion to their advantage so that some it might rub off on me. Hopefully that way I'll actually spend less time, not more, on my appearance.

Obviously at the moment I am far to busy to start all that but by this time next year...


Carole said...

On occasion I dress nicely. Mostly to church and such, but I love comfortable clothes. I am too lazy to take the time to shop. And the older I get the less importance I put on sharp dressing. I guess I will have to go check out Sartorialist. See if it gets me off the couch and into proper attire.

By the way, I think you are still beautiful and can still get away with wearing jeans.

Eryl Shields said...

Thanks Carole, you are kind.

These days I hate shopping for clothes, it's almost always disappointing. But I'd love to be one of those 'naturally' elegant people. I once saw a woman who must have been in her seventies, she was really elegant in nothing more elaborate than a knee length skirt and high necked sweater with the sleeves pushed up to her elbows; that's how I'd like to be. It always makes my day when I see someone like that, don't know why.

I've just had my hair cut really short and I now look like a boy.

The Sartorialist, if I'm honest, is really best for men, older ones who look supremely dapper.

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

It's a very personal thing. I look at Pat's and my granny's era and long for the elegance and dash. I don't think we need to be going around making ourselves uncomfortable. My peeve with high fashion is that people appear to be donning the personalities of the clothes as frequently as they change them - one day a pigtailed schoolgirl type feel, the next a severe school-marm look, the next a floaty, flowery hippy style. It seems more like costuming than dressing. I reckon too there are times in life when it seems to matter more and then less.

For myself, I would never wear a pair of shoes I wasn't comfortable in, but I love, love to dress up to go out. I find myself wishing all the time that people would make at least a soupcon of an effort when they go out to eat for example. Especially here in America where the cult of casual has gone way beyond its original brief and now just looks sloppy.

And I wish men wore more hats.

Kim Ayres said...

I'd just like to say, as it seems to have been missed by your other commenters...

I seriously feel for Bob.

Eryl Shields said...

Sam ~ I do too love to dress up to go out. I sometimes long for those days when all my girlfriends and I would get together to get dressed up and play loud music and drink wine and experiment with make-up. But it is all over now and I rarely go out, let alone get dressed up any more.

I quite like the imitating aspect of fashion, it's a bit like writing: you get to try on another life for a while. I don't think I could do 'school-girl' anymore though, it would translate as sad old hag!

Yeah... hats.

Kim ~ Ha! You made me laugh out loud. But Bob is a born chummer, and I did thank him very much and he will get a special Christmas present for his kindness. I didn't really make him come, I probably couldn't if he didn't want to.

Do you not like to chum Maggie when she is frock hunting?

Mary Witzl said...

How amazing that your father and mother had such different ideas about clothes! I used to care a great deal more about how I looked, having had a mother who bought all her clothes second-hand from Value Village. Now I might as well be her for all the pains I take...

I haven't frock hunted in ages! In fact, I'm not sure I've ever done it, to tell you the truth. That doesn't mean I don't obsess about what I wear on the rare occasions I go out. Just recently, I drove my family wild trying on blouse after blouse. They finally said one looked good when I'm pretty sure it didn't.

And you can still get away with wearing jeans, you silly thing! You look great in jeans. Leave all that sort of angst to us Real Hags.

Eryl Shields said...

Mary ~ My mother was a real rebel. She came from extreme wealth where dressing for dinner was the norm but she was very sporty and would turn up in shorts much to her own mother's dismay. We were very poor and I think she became rather confused about how to 'be', so she reasoned that none of it mattered. My father came from a fairly humble background and so tried much harder to fit in.