Along the South coast of England, if Portsmouth is the spotty little brother, Brighton is the cool older one. We went there, my daughter and I, in an attempt to buy Christmas presents, but were met with such a mass of people that we didn’t achieve the aim. We returned more or less empty-handed, too overwhelmed by the real, live shopping experience. It made me think I have become conditioned to buy online, ordering up and waiting for the delivery man. The process of touching and choosing; paying and carrying a bag, having the item at that moment, is now rare. I instead conduct a strange, logic-based inner dialogue when deliveries arrive: should I keep it? If I were in a shop, would I choose it? Do I love it? Is there that buzz of desire?
I observed a man on the train on the way to Brighton. Aged and wizened, with whiskers, smelling faintly of sour and clothes that hadn’t been washed. An unsavoury smell. The cuffs and collar of his tweed jacket were worn-through, his skinny wrists jutting out, his hands jittery. People averted their eyes, but really there was nothing untoward about him. He just looked unkempt. I wondered about that tweed jacket. Had he worn it every day for fifty years? Where was is bought? Does he like it? Was it his fathers before him? Or his brothers? My mind reels. In a fresh bourgeois preoccupation, I now worry about the mountain of cheap synthetic clothes that are discarded after one wear – unlike the man’s thread-worn tweed – and will fester now in refuse tips. It’s the on-land equivalent to plastic bottles which amalgamate together in our oceans, a shameful swathe, an eerie layer over the water.
I normally drive everywhere, and rarely spend time sat faced with the Great British Public on a train. I have become unaccustomed to them, close up. I counsel myself – who am I to judge? But it’s not so much that, it’s the noticing. It’s got worse since I threw myself into this writing profession. I was always observant, have a memory of an elephant, especially when it comes to people, and their clothes. I recall with absolute clarity the touch of my mother’s fur collars and angora jumpers from my childhood. But now, I notice everything. Very little I see doesn’t have some relevance, some possibility, when it comes to furnishing my writing with detail. Although, when planning my novel I made a deliberate decision not to write about what people wore. I didn’t want that element to date to narrative; I didn’t want the present day-ness of it to overwhelm everything else. But I realised this left gaps. So many of our impressions of others are based on what they are wearing.
Those adverse to the frippery of fashion will dispute this, and say that clothes are not important. I disagree. Look at ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘. The outfit Margaret Atwood designed in her mind is the visual equivalent of oppression. In the book ‘Women in Clothes‘ – one of my all time favourites – a contributor describes in aching detail how she coveted the dress of another, then bought it in a frenzy of lust afterwards, then horror-of-horrors, bumped into the women whose dress she’d copied! The shame of how much we long to be like the people we see. How childlike and fundamentally human it is to want what others have. This is why I assign so much success to internet shopping; it’s the photography! The perfectly curated ‘lookbooks’. This is why Pinterest is a booming festival for the covetous.
Everybody gets dressed so everyone must choose what to wear. Getting dressed every day is a moment of expression. Some lessen its importance, whilst others embrace it with a jaunty coat or a tangerine hat or red shoes. I thought to myself, when disappointed with the sartorial offerings of Brighton, maybe it’s the weather? Being British, everything reverts to a weather-based analysis. A stylist named Pernille Teisbæk wrote a book called ‘Dress Scandinavian‘ in which she explains how the Danes (my countrymen) layer up, man up and look fabulous even when the weather is bitterly cold. There’s no such thing as bad weather; just bad clothes. And of course there is Iris Apfel who puts everyone to shame with the sheer awesomeness of what she wears and most importantly, what it says about her. As she remarks in the documentary ‘Iris‘: why be dull?
In subscribing to her view I scout around for inspiration. I find fashion bloggers with bare ankles and cotton jackets, photographed against pretty London Mews cobbles or Kensington white facades. There is no Sussex mud in their world, as there is in mine! Celebrities on red carpets with umbrellas being held over their heads by film-studio runners. Money helps, and a dose of fantasy; what they present is not real. Maybe the train or the high street is the ‘real’ I should find beauty in? It seems to me though, that so many people don’t care. Don’t try. We should value the sartorial more. Years ago I wrote about this and a commenter, who went on to become a good friend of mine, said that maybe people don’t care how they dress because they’ve lost their way; maybe they don’t even know where to start. This always stuck with me, an insightful truth.
The train pulled in and the man in tweed got off and went about his day.