Dressing Fashionably v Dressing Well

22nd January 2010

Drag your eyes away from the catwalk and onto the mirror and you’ll find that financial sense and fashion sense go hand in hand, writes Clare Finney.

It’s the same every season. One moment I am skipping through the latest Vogue and dreaming of life à la Louboutin – the next I am rummaging hopelessly through my ever expanding wardrobe with the familiar feeling that, once again, I have nothing to wear.

Oh, I have clothes alright. I have shirts, and trousers, and skirts and shorts. I have waistcoats, pashminas, dungarees and more stripy leg warmers than really acceptable for a girl born so late in the 80s. But denim harem pants? Lingerie-inspired cocktail dresses? The bodysuit (80s revival style), forecast to be hot this Spring? These I do not have, nor, looking at last month’s forlorn bank statement, am I likely to get them any time soon.

Thankfully, I am not the only one having to make do and mend this season. For many, buying new clothes this year is simply out of the question; even those who have managed to escape the squeeze sometimes feel that they should avoid the shops for fear of seeming insensitive or imprudent. It may well be that the recession will call curtains on the sort of du jour design that has fuelled the clothing industry in recent years.
Which is no bad thing.

Whilst the range of colours, sizes and styles has never been greater, the opportunities for those ‘of a particular size’ or age to really indulge in so-called ‘high-fashion’ remains very limited; most such labels continue to design their clothes so that only the most attractive specimens can wear them. Fashionable dressing almost by definition excludes the old, the overweight, the underprivileged and anyone else who isn’t 6’2 and starving. Dressing well, on the other hand, does not. The former is an abstract decision deferred by the many to the power of the few; the latter a personal choice, made by you, for you. One involves looking in a magazine or at a television; the other demands you look in a mirror, and there’s no need to point out which is the harder to do.

Women’s glossies, personal shoppers, Trinny and Susannah have already capitalised upon some of the many hazards that the style arena presents to the uninitiated. Armed with shock statistics about badly fitting bras and so-called ‘apples’ dressed as so-called ‘pears’, these lucrative ventures often suggest that only those who have their chest measured, their colours done, and their naked body pinched and prodded by Gok Wan are ready to enter the ring.

For too long, these institutions have been holding the monopoly on style. Every magazine, every Sunday supplement, every fashion book comes with a whole host of hints and tips on how to get dressed. At best these primary coloured boxes represent what can only be described as the idiot’s guide to the blindingly obvious. At worst, they are thinly disguised marketing ploys, designed to perpetuate that glossy paper ceiling separating those ‘not in the know’ from those who think they are.

Bra-fitting, dressing ‘for your shape’– just two of the issues that the media address time and time and time again – are neither interesting, nor particularly difficult to work out; some common sense, good friends and a mirror are all that’s necessary (and you too could find yourself churning out such gems as ‘if your bosoms are of particularly formidable proportions, avoid halter-necks and spaghetti straps’).

The real struggle, though, lies not in recognising the conventions, but in challenging them. As a nation we seem to be obsessed with classification; style, far from being the exception, has become the most insidious rule. Even old familiar M&S, the store that prides itself on being ‘exclusively for everyone’, distinguishes (politely, of course) between its more fashion-conscious customers, and those ‘Classic’ – read mature – disciples… leaving my grandmother in a state of angst every time she finds a tell-tale Per Una heart on a new purchase.

Some like to consider these generational boundaries as rough guides, to be interpreted sensibly as you deem fit. For myself, I prefer to do away with them completely, including those that exist between men and women’s clothes, and even between adults and children; some of the best boots I ever bought were from the junior department.

This approach is particularly fruitful in a recession, when even a new pair of M&S knickers seems an unimaginable luxury. Working under the general assumption that sharing is caring, my mother and I have successfully broadened our closets to include not only each other’s clothes, but also my father’s (a veritable treasure trove of over-sized jumpers, ties and belts) and even, when the mood is right, my brother’s; his rugby shirts and graphic tees look quite striking when teamed with some classy denim shorts and an Alice band. On me, obviously. Not on him.

It is, I suppose, the stylistic equivalent to the ‘Seefood diet’ currently in vogue amongst those who would rather ‘see food and eat it’ than follow the vacillations of the health industry. Just as today’s superfood is tomorrow’s food scare, so the chances of leopard-print leotards surviving a transition from London Fashion Week to Watford High Street are slim. Far be it from me to add more rules to an industry already drowning in advice, but if I were to make a teeny, tiny suggestion it would be this:

Leave the inhospitable terrain of catwalk couture to the models, along with the wheatgrass juice and the gruelling exercise regimes. By all means continue to indulge in the glossy magazines (I for one couldn’t bear to go without those ‘Real Life Stories’), but be wary of taking their guidelines as gospel; catwalk shoots and ‘new trends’ selections are, without exception, designed to make you think you need ‘just one more thing’ to make your assembly work. Try to work with yourself as a model, not the Vogue cover girl. Ask friends, interrogate family, confront the mirror – and, if you do draw on magazines for inspiration, stick to the ‘realistic’ photos of stylish celebrities and models captured out and about and off-record.

And that includes those unfortunate enough to have made it into the What Is She Wearing?! pages. Even leaving aside the wanton cruelty of these exposures, the idea of any lady having her outfit held to account by some anonymous upstart in the depths of the OK! building is ridiculous in the extreme. ‘Style’, even within the fairly conventional confines of the Oxford English Dictionary, is described thus: ‘a distinctive appearance, typically determined by the principles according to which something is designed’. Bearing in mind that the ‘something’ in this case is a human being, those so-called principles of design and distinctiveness can only refer to two things; a woman’s looks, and her personality. Thus when Liz Hurley was captured wearing a completely unconventional, unprecedented dress that not only suited her, but epitomised the imperturbable diva she really was, it was not, as some celebrity magazines initially tried to suggest, a fashion faux pas. It was a triumph.

That Versace’s LBD-meets-gold-safety-pins ensemble is now hailed as one of the most iconic outfits of the 20th century is remarkable enough, but it was the effect that his creation had on its wearer that I find so inspiring. In less material than it takes to cover a pin cushion, Elizabeth Hurley of Basingstoke went from small-time ‘Hugh Grant’s girlfriend’ to an international celebrity in her own right. In the weeks, months and years that followed, women the world over would pay tribute to Hurley’s taste, strength of character and sheer ballsiness. She wasn’t particularly fashionable (Hurley’s first modeling job was with Estée Lauder when she was 29; prior to that she had no experience in the fashion industry), and she wasn’t particularly talented. She was, quite simply, herself; classy, quirky, confident.

Almost 2000 years ago a Greek philosopher declared ‘Know, first, who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly’. Perhaps Epictetus was speaking before his time; perhaps such sentiments were lost on a society that considered white tablecloths to be wardrobe staples. Today, his soul-searching philosophy seems more pertinent than ever before.

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