I maintain a long held fascination with why women wear what they wear. A topic which I have, many times before, mused about here. About those who are described as having ‘style’; the women who dress well, and adopt godlike status, especially in the world of social media. Read the testimony of Iris Apfel, fashion guru aged 96, who maintains that simply knowing what she likes is what has led her to a lifetime of enviable wardrobe curation. Icons are created; girls metamorphosise into women, a rare few attaining the elusive combination of interest, elegance, attractiveness and comfort. This alchemy is what, for those of us who care, we strive for. And to those who say they don’t care, my riposte would be that every human gets dressed every day; we all make the choice.
I went to the horse races, where the ‘Great British Public’ feature, in their splendour. Much has been made of the way women dress at the races, and of the establishment refining dress codes so that skirt lengths are restricted, cleavages are less exposed, and hats cover the crown of the head. My overriding observation was that young British women do not wear nearly enough clothes. This seems ironic, given our stubbornly temperate climate, where any summer’s evening has a distinct chill to the air, and by nightfall, being outside is invariably uncomfortable. I noted young women – girls really – in the skimpiest of dresses, tottering in heels, calf muscles taut with exertion, their bottoms pushed outwards, their backs arching to accommodate the height of their heels, as they sink into the grass. Hair bleached, eyelashes glued on, lipstick forming a marionette stare, lips gluey and red. Clutch bags, clawed at with taloned nails. What style is this?! And wait, isn’t this what ‘Love Island‘ is all about?
This may be a uniquely British phenomenon. In a recent trip to Copenhagen, I noted how Danish girls and women bear a naturalness that is all but lost in this country. Hair is tousled, not set. There’s an unspoken confidence to the way of dress. Bodies are not contorted by the clothes. Similarly there is universal acceptance of the style of the French; a compliment between women is to quip: ‘you look very French in that dress!’ Not once would one remark ‘you look very British!’ We have a limited exhibition of national elegance, although clearly it exists in the echelons of the fashion world. But for the masses, there are mass-produced, one-size-fits-all, wobbly hemmed, polyester mini dresses with peek-a-boo midriffs. I lament. I see my teenage daughter and her friends adhering, within reason and propriety, to these standards of undress.
There has been a pendulum swing in dressing, for sure. Young women can now express their strength in dressing any way they wish. The notion of ‘nice girls’ has been eradicated in a generation, for whom now, no f*cks are given. Women dressing for themselves, for other women, for fashion, for individuality, because it makes them feel good, and the men can’t stop them, anymore. But I observe, with a reluctant side-note to my own feminist sensibilities, that dressing freely can sometimes make women look worse, not better. The style confines of the patriarchal past dictated hemlines, and decorum, existing because the currency of feminine style was based on allure, and on attracting and keeping a mate. Womanliness, amongst the woman at the races, was largely absent, and the older women there commented on the younger women’s clothes (or lack thereof) with alarm, in a collisional expression of shock. Conversely, the young women wore their body-con dresses with aplomb, with exposed bodies triumphantly thrust forward.
As for the young men, they were also formulaic. Obscurely – again – for the chillsome British climate, they sported bare ankles with lounge lizard loafers. But their decorum was intact; their parts were not exposed, unlike the women. They did not have goose bumps because they had come out without a jacket. So all in all, whilst freedom in dress has been adopted as a mantle of feminism, it has also provoked the exposure of more of the female body (and spirit) than ever before. Even in the heady days of the 60’s miniskirt, the thigh-hugging 70’s bellbottoms, there were still some elements left to the imagination; the same in the the shoulder-padded 80’s and the ‘Generation X’ slip dresses of the 90’s. But nowadays, my observation is that it’s all on show, all made up, all a startling show of skin and artifice.
Of course, there are style icons, there are those whose instagram feeds send me scuttling off to ‘add to cart’ in the hope I will resemble their look. There are women (and men) whose eye for clothes, for fabric, for design, for style, defy all logic. And even in any sea of women, I note a rare few who surprise, whose clothes look startling but in a good and positive way, like an unusual painting, or a riot of blousy roses, or a stark and assertive tonal contrast. These women memorable and pleasing; a tangerine hat, a striped, french-ticking sundress, or a calf-skimming, mustard-coloured, cashmere coat.
I’d prefer to be seen as the latter, given the choice…
*Quote taken from ‘Musings of a Geriatric Starlet: Iris Apfel Accidental Icon‘