Why I Love Fashion
When people find out someone is interested in fashion (or clothes, or style, or shopping, or whatever word you’re using to describe it), their first assumption is normally that the person is vain, or empty-headed, or just plain stupid. I wrote a bit about those assumptions and why they’re so, so wrong here – but if we don’t buy clothes because we want people to tell us we’re pretty, why DO we do it?
Well, in my case, I guess I’ve always viewed fashion as a way of solving a problem. Or a set of problems, as the case may be.
As I said in my post on why I blog, I’ve never really felt like I “fit in” anywhere, and for a long time, I tried to use clothes as way to “fix” that. In my last two years of primary school I was badly bullied – to the extent that my parents seriously considered removing me from the school. By the time I started high school, the bullying itself had stopped, but the damage had been well and truly done, and I’d gone from a happy, confident little person to someone who lived in constant fear of being singled out for abuse. My way of dealing with that was to try and make sure there was nothing to single me out – and that started with clothes.
Our high school didn’t have a school uniform – or, at least, not when I started attending it. What that meant was that every single day was a fashion parade, with everyone, male and female alike, trying desperately to make sure they had the “right” clothes, from the “right” brands, in order to be accepted. If you think it’s strange how much emphasis I put on clothes NOW, all I can say is that you obviously never went to my high school, because, back then, you were judged almost entirely on what you wore: not in terms of what it looked like, but in terms of where you got it and how much it had cost.
This was the era when branded sportswear became big. In order to be accepted by your peers, you had to wear very specific brands of sneakers and clothes – British Knight, Travel Fox, Reebok… later Kickers shoes, Benetton sweaters, Pepe jeans – oh, the LOLs! If you didn’t wear these brands, you’d be mocked mercilessly – and, hey, guess who didn’t wear any of those brands? Here’s a clue: it wasn’t the popular kids. No, it was the kid with the bad perm, the thick, unflattering glasses, and the monobrow, and GOD, did I not have ENOUGH to deal with, without adding “being badly dressed” into the mix, too?
“You should be unique,” my parents would tell me, “Be different! If everyone else in your class jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?”
But actually, yeah, I would have. In fact, before my parents could even finish that sentence, I was asking where the cliff was, and if they could maybe drop me off there after school. I didn’t WANT to be different or unique: I wanted to be THE SAME. I wanted to AVOID standing out, at all costs – because to stand out was to be different, and to be different was to be laughed at, teased and taunted. I’d had enough of that. So my parents would take me shopping, and would hold up various garments, saying, “Look at this! I bet no one at school will have one like THIS!” and I’d roll my eyes and wonder what on earth was WRONG with them, and why they persisted in trying to make me do the EXACT OPPOSITE of all the things that would give me a chance of actually, you know, having friends.
(I was a HORRIBLE teenager, seriously. One of the reasons I don’t have children is that if I ended up with a teenager like I was, I’d probably leave home myself…)
So, clothes were a problem I had to solve, and I did my very best to solve it. Back then, I had absolutely no style or taste of my own: honestly, if the kids in my class had started wearing clown suits to school, I’d have nagged my parents until I got one too – which, inevitably, would happen three weeks after clown suits were declared tragically uncool. I’d buy fashion magazines and watch fashion shows on TV, convinced they would give me the answers I was looking for, but always disappointed when they just contained photos of leggy models in fancy dresses, when what I needed to know was how to buy expensive sportswear with just my pocket money. Over and over again, I got it wrong: I couldn’t seem to work out what I needed to wear to “fit in”, and I knew I’d be teased if I tried to wear the things I liked, so I spent my entire teenage years feeling awkward and uncomfortable in my own skin – and looking it, too.
Then I went to university. Again, I viewed dressing for university as a problem that needed to be solved, and I attempted to solve it by buying all of the things I thought a student might wear at that time: baggy sweaters, Doc Marten boots, jeans … On the first night there, however, I met the girl who was to become my best friend. We decided to go out to the student union that night, so I went and changed into what I’d decided would be my “going out” uniform – Doc Marten boots and slightly smarter jeans than the ones I’d worn all day – then there was a knock on the door and Stephanie was standing there in heels and a dress.
It was kind of a game-changer for me.
I didn’t start dressing exactly like Stephanie, because what I learned from her was that I didn’t have to dress like ANYONE if I didn’t want to. Actually, I could wear whatever I wanted to: sure, Steph would get the inevitable questions about why she was “all dressed up” (She once turned up to a tutorial in a suit, and was asked if she was the class secretary…), but no one actually CARED what the answer was, and after a while they stopped asking, and accepted that she was dressed like that simply because that was how she dressed. I mean, what a revelation, huh?
It took me quite a few years to work out how I wanted to dress, and I’m not going to lie, I made a LOT of expensive mistakes along the way, but eventually I started to feel more comfortable in my own skin, and to buy things because I liked them, not just because I thought they’d allow me to “fit in”. These days, in fact, “fitting in” isn’t something I think about much: I often get questions from people who are visiting Scotland, for instance, and who want to know what to wear to “fit in” with the locals, and I’m always confused by that, because when I travel, I only think about the weather and the activities I’ll be doing – unless I was going somewhere with a culture that required a certain style of dress, it wouldn’t even occur to me to worry about whether I’d look like a local or not, so I don’t relate to that at all any more.
With that said, I do spend a lot of time thinking about what’s going to be “appropriate” for whatever I’m doing (by which I mean will it be comfortable, will it be practical, will it be the right level of formality etc, not “will it be the same as what everyone else is wearing”), so in that respect I DO still view clothing as a problem that needs to be solved. I’ve written a lot recently about my struggle to find practical /casual clothes that I still feel like “myself” in (My capsule wardrobe is my attempt to solve that particular problem…), and I also struggle frequently with the feeling of being over-dressed. I’d love to be the kind of person who genuinely doesn’t give a crap and who thinks nothing of wearing a ballgown to walk the dog, but I’m just not there yet: I still feel quite silly and uncomfortable if I turn up somewhere in a cocktail dress and everyone else is in jeans, so figuring out the “right” thing to wear is still important to me. It’s still the difference between walking into a room and feeling confident and relaxed enough to actually enjoy myself, or just pretending to feel confident and relaxed, while really wanting to hide behind the nearest pot plant.
It’s also, however, transformative. One of the reasons I love shopping is because of all of the possibilities it holds. I’ve written a lot lately about dresses having “characters”, or making you feel like if you put them on, you could almost turn into someone else. I’m exaggerating, obviously, but I do love the self-expression that comes from clothing – the fact that I can walk into my closet every morning and pick out the outfit that best matches that day’s mood. And most of all, the fact that – to quote Rachel Zoe – “Style is a way of saying who you are without having to speak.”
Fellow fashion lovers: why do you love clothes?
Related: How to get used to wearing heels