I am not a spiritual person. I back away when people start to talk about star signs, and am allergic to phrases such as “self-actualisation” and “personal growth”. But, as someone who works in fashion, I believe in the power of clothes, and that what you wear has a direct connection to how you feel.
Think about that crackle of energy when you zip up a favourite party dress, the release that comes with changing into an old sweatshirt after a long day, the sense of purpose in tying up the laces on running shoes. Or, on the flip side, that Groundhog Day defeated feeling when you pull on track pants for what feels like day 45,939 of lockdown, or the impostor syndrome piqued by stepping into unfamiliar high heels.
I thought about this connection while writing my book, The Ten, a biography of 10 fashion classics, from jeans to stilettos. It made me re-evaluate what I have learned about fashion: how a T-shirt I bought from a charity shop for 20p could speak for me as a shy teenager; the way a salmon pink miniskirt let me play at being a grownup; why wearing ballet flats in the 00s expressed my desire to fit in.
Here are some of the moments – the hits, and also the misses – that taught me vital lessons, about fashion and myself.
Stripes, stripes and more stripes
As the photo above attests, I have worn stripes since almost the year dot. Infant me expertly teamed them with dungarees and a rubber Mickey Mouse accessory. Ever since, stripes have been my comfort dressing, and an early lesson in how fashion can reassure. They are my sartorial equivalent of a warm bath – everyone has one: it’s that thing you buy again and again – and I am not alone. Anna Wintour and the Duchess of Cambridge have also gone for the Breton in the Zoom era; low-level anxiety can be somewhat tempered by its reliable cheer.
The shared miniskirt
In my early teens, the only reason I’d be up late would be to obliterate another Nancy Mitford novel. But at about 16, I went straight from bookworm to club kid, when my sister, my friends and I discovered nightclubs. This miniskirt was the kind people used to call a “belt” (very Girls Aloud album cover), and it was my fast track to growing up. We all wanted it so much that we clubbed together to buy it, and then squabbled about who got to wear it. When it was my turn, I combined it with black tights so shiny my legs looked like PVC. The male attention was new, but really this skirt showed me how fashion could be something you hid behind. It let me give the impression of being a grown woman, even if I was anything but.
The 20p T-shirt
When I was younger, I was tongue-tied shy. Clothes became a way to project confidence. The first outfit where I thought I looked the business was this T-shirt, a long black skirt, a cardigan for six-year-olds from John Lewis’s school department (Prada had just shown a school uniform collection) and period-appropriate drawn-on eyebrows.
I found the T-shirt for 20p in a charity shop. The slightly futuristic “class of 2004” banner (it was 1997) nodded to the geek chic of peak Britpop and was an early experiment with the if-you-know-you-know signalling of a graphic T-shirt. I still can’t resist the T-shirt as sandwich board, and would highly recommend it as a trick to signal to the like-minded without saying a word. My most recent addition is a “La” T-shirt by Philip Normal. IYKYK.
The clone ballet flat
In the 00s, Kate Moss went from a party girl who accessorised see-through dresses with a cigarette to a working twentysomething, and her wardrobe changed accordingly. Enter skinny Baxter jeans from Topshop, silk scarves and ballet flats. By this point, I was getting it together as a responsible adult, too: I had a job, a flat, a boyfriend and an addiction to GHD hair straighteners. I thought that meant that, like Moss, I should have a capsule wardrobe. I wore ballet flats all the time – to work, to gigs (ouch, toes), to the pub. But as more and more young women wore them, they made me feel like a clone, one in an army of young professionals, paler and paler facsimiles of Moss. Copying celebrities was all very well; now I realised that finding my personal style was the real holy grail.
The ‘everything is OK’ LBD
Everyone knows the power of a little black dress. They’re sold as the ultimate in classy sex appeal, but I’ve always thought they are more a kind of sartorial security blanket, on a par with my Breton top. I didn’t have high hopes when I bought this dress from Monki, but 10 years later, we have negotiated big days at work, dates, intimidating parties, funerals. It’s like a good friend – both bolstering and kind. Chic is one thing, but that “everything is OK” feeling is, for me, far more powerful.
The Carrie Bradshaw moment
There was a time, around the mid-00s, where I thought I would only succeed if I did it in six-inch spikes. Heels were a sign that I was “having it all”. I tried. First with secondhand heels and then with designer ones, as seen on the feet of Carrie and friends. I bought a pair of Miu Miu shoes for three figures in 2008, wore them precisely once, and scuffed them on an escalator. This was a gigantic miss, and a big lesson: wearing shoes you can’t walk in is the opposite of empowering. I thank my lucky stars every day that trainers became fashionable.
The failsafe hoodie
I used to think that, as someone who worked in fashion, I needed to have a “look” at all times. As I have grown older, I have discovered that clothes don’t have to make statements to be ones you treasure; we also need clothes whose pull is purely functional. See a nondescript £18 Asos hoodie, which I wear when I choose fun. It’s to keep me warm on a night out dancing and stuffed behind a speaker; for the hangover the day after; to get on an early flight, heading for sunnier climes where I’ll zip it up over a bikini on the beach at the end of the day. Make no mistake, though – I would still not be thrilled to bump into a fashion person while wearing it.
The surprising trench
When my stepmum gave me her Burberry a few years ago, I was pleased – but, as a self-identified scruff (those GHDs are a distant memory), I filed it away, thinking I could wear it one day when I suddenly woke up more slick and put-together. That hasn’t happened, but I realised that a miss can evolve into a hit, and that the trench coat is a uniformly good idea. It’s about finding your own way to wear it. Enter the trend for the scruffy trench, in about 2017, worn oversized, with trainers. I wore my old Burberry this way in the most judgey of environments, the front row, and others did the same. If ballet flats gave me the feeling of dressing as a clone, this was the opposite. Sometimes, a fashion classic can make you feel part of something.
The lockdown jeans
I have tried to tell myself that wearing the same pair of jeans for six days a week is me finally discovering the merits of a capsule wardrobe. But, if I’m being honest, I think it’s more a symptom of slightly giving up on life, an admission that even clothes – my crutch over two-and-a-bit decades of adult life – couldn’t help us in 2020. Instead, I retreated to a so-norm-they’re-not-even-normcore pair of Levi’s with various jumpers in rotation, depending on cleanliness. Because what was the point? The pandemic taught me that, even though I am a shy person, I need an audience for my fashion. And that audience is in sight. From 21 June, I predict these jeans might find themselves less worn on repeat, and more in the recycling pile.