In spite of the V&A’s Versace festival, and books like Fashion Statements: Archaeology of Elegance 1980-2000,I’ve never been convinced by the idea of fashion as art. I don’t see why it has to be; it has so much else to do. When culture and art swan up and down the catwalk bedecked in ‘fashion’, I find myself scrummaging around in the oversized wardrobe in the spare room at the back of my mind, thinking about my lifelong romance with what I can’t help calling ‘clothes’. Call them ‘clothes’, and what some people think of as art and cultural studies become for me private history, memory and a grossly overspent youth and middle-age in search of the perfect garment. I recall a much-published novelist claiming in an interview that she would rather never have written a word than have lost the husband who divorced her a dozen years before. I gasped to read this. Give up writing for love? Really? World peace, maybe, social and educational equality, possibly – though I would demand firm guarantees. Then an image slithered into my head of a cupboard – let’s call it a closet – stuffed with slinky Galliano slips of dresses, a handful of witty Chanel suits, a selection of madly deconstructed Margielas and Demeulemeesters, a St Laurent smoking section, an unworn sprinkling of sparkling Versace, an almost invisible beige shimmer of Armani, and beneath, all in neat array, row upon row of Blahnik, Miu Miu and Jimmy Choo kitten heels. Well, would I have traded work for frocks? Certainly I’d give my right arm for such a wardrobe (I’m left-handed). My soul, without doubt (but then before the tragic days of giving up, I once offered up my soul in return for a late-night cigarette when I’d run out). My integrity you could have for a song, though I value it enough to demand lyrics by Cole Porter or Lorenz Hart. My sanity I gave up long ago when I discussed with a friend whether it was preferable to be mad or fat. But I wouldn’t give up writing. At least I don’t think so …
But it isn’t really fashion that has such a hold on me. It is (like the ultimate book in my head, which is storyless, characterless and perfect) an image, without any detail, of the perfect outfit, the one that slips over my frame and drapes itself around my contours in a way that finally defines me – look, this is what I am – just as my flesh defines the boundaries between myself and the world. And it’s a private thing essentially, not primarily about being seen in or envied for a fashionable look: indeed, I generally imagine wearing these incomparable outfits in the privacy of my own home. It’s stuff to sit on the sofa with that I’m after first of all; then it’s OK to go out and flaunt the frocks. Fashion statements and identity statements are much of a muchness as far as I’m concerned. To look like, to feel like and to be like are as close as flesh and bone.
The crucial encounter with fashion occurred when I was 12. Until then I had put up with whatever my mother considered respectable, an accurate mirror of the life she wished to be perceived as having. I baulked loudly, it is true, at discomfort, which came mostly in the form of woollen vests that she told me were as soft as butter (meaning expensive and imported from Belgium) but which were actually as scratchy as barbed wire. But by the time I was 12 the family fortunes had taken such a severe downturn and swerve away from the Belgian imports that Social Services had issued her with a voucher to buy me a pair of shoes to wear at my new secondary school. This was a matter of desperate shame for my mother, returning her to a poverty she had devoted her life to escaping. The idea of handing over – in public – vouchers from the state instead of crisp currency agonised her. Worse, the vouchers were rejected with the disdain she feared at all the shops she usually went to – Daniel Neal did not X-ray any old child’s feet. The only place that accepted them was a gloomy little cobbler’s shop which, as I remember it, was hidden away under a near derelict railway arch in the fashion wasteland of King’s Cross. The Dickensian and mawkish nature of the occasion as I recall it, the drab light and huddled aspect of the shoe shop, suggest that this may be one of those false memories you hear so much about, conjured up to match the dismal mood of the event. The old man who owned the place, unshaven, bent, gruff and wheezing – the Victorian workhouse vision just won’t go back in its box – inspected the voucher, measured my feet, and without a word shuffled to the back of the shop. He returned with a single shoe box.
‘See if these fit,’ he said to my mother.
Taking off the lid, he brought out a pair of the grimmest black lace-up school shoes I had ever seen in my life. ‘Sturdy’ doesn’t even get close to describing their brute practicality. In today’s fashion-diverse world it is hard to imagine the despair I felt at the sight of what he expected me to put on my feet. And then greater despair yet as it occurred to me that I would be expected actually to wear them out in the world. They were so blankly, stylelessly sensible that they might have been orthopaedic appliances (poverty and disability perhaps being seen as equally reprehensible). Great clumping virtuous blocks of stiff leather with bulbous reinforced toecaps, designed (and I use the word loosely as a small bubble of ancient hysteria wells up) never to wear out. The best that could be hoped for was to grow out of them, after which they would still be sound enough to be passed down to generation after generation of the undeserving poor. Probably today they would be at the more moderate end of chunky footwear. I confess there have been times when I’ve rejoiced in wearing very similar things with an incongruously delicate little number in chiffon – though Doc Martens are ladylike in comparison. But back then – think 1959, the burgeoning of youth culture, rock and roll, multilayered net petticoats, ponytails – I only had to take one look at them, to see myself arriving at my new school with those on my feet, to know and feel, gut and spine, head and heart, the shame of becoming an instant fashion (and therefore everything else) pariah in the cruel girls’ world of T-bars, flatties and slip-ons. The shoes would stand for my entire character, my class, my race, my lack of nous, and for ever after my almond-toed peers would deem me a sad case to be avoided and sniggered at as I clunked my solitary way around the playground. But it wasn’t just the social disaster of such unfashionability that froze my heart: it was the fear that appearing to be the kind of person who wore such shoes might mean that that was the person I actually was. It wasn’t just that my peers would despise me: I would despise myself. I didn’t even dare risk seeing my reflection in the mirror in the empty shop.
I said, politely, that I didn’t like them, thinking he had mistaken me for someone who might be happy to help him get rid of his unsaleable items and that he must have kept back his stock of fashion footwear. He showed no sign of having heard me. He was not impressed, he wasn’t interested in an opinion: he just wanted to know if he needed to bother to get another size. These, it was made clear, were the shoes you got in return for vouchers. Take them or leave them, he told my mother, not so much as glancing at me. Though I sensed that the world was about to end (in the way it often did when things went wrong for my mother) I shook my head firmly. I refused even to try them on. I would simply not have them on my feet. His lip curled at my bad character. My mother’s embarrassment redoubled at having to be embarrassed in front of this miserable old man. It was bad enough having to be on the receiving end of charity without having to suffer the charity-giver’s contempt. But I shook my head steadily from side to side and kept my toes curled tightly so that even if they used force they would never get those clodhopping shoes on me. I ought to be grateful that taxpayers were providing me with any shoes at all, the shopkeeper rasped. (Was he really wearing a food-stained, cigarette-burned buff cardigan and checked felt slippers?) It was these, or it was nothing.
‘Then it’s nothing,’ I said, quite prepared for whatever civic punishment befell ungrateful children who didn’t know their place (though I looked forward less to the moment when my mother got me home). I would wear my present shoes down to a sliver. If necessary I would go to school barefoot. My mother didn’t bother to wait – she shouted at me all the way home. I slunk along beside her in silence. How could I do this to her, she screamed. What did a pair of shoes matter? In fact, they mattered more than her wretchedness, even more than my loved, lost and delinquent father who had put us in this situation. They mattered like life itself. More, perhaps. Now, I am somewhat ashamed of having been obdurate when times were bad, but the truth is that even as I write I flush at the imagined ignominy of wearing those shoes. It was, as it were, my first fashion statement.
Between then and now fashion and my fortunes have been up and down and back again, but at no point have clothes been secondary. In the 1960s, I was in cheap frock heaven, alternating between instant fashion (skirts the length of a window pelmet, crushed velvet bell-bottoms, fishnet tights and purple boots with platform soles from Biba and Granny Takes A Trip) and wild antique fantasies (Victorian lace nighties and velvet frockcoats, original 1940s working-girl bias-cut dresses and moth-eaten movie-star fox-fur jackets) culled for shillings from Portobello Road. Later, it was the denim and boiler-suits of the school-teaching radical 1970s (Camden Market), then the swagger of big-shouldered jackets and snappy high heels, followed by loose, soft, draping viscose (how I thank the gods for letting me be born into the era of viscose) and silk, layer on layer of it (beloved Nicole Farhi), or parodic mannish suits (Emporio).
Buying clothes is an act of bewitchment. As soon as I stand in front of a rail of garments, a trance descends on me. My consciousness rises slightly above my corporeal body so that I seem to be looking down on myself (a near clothes-buying experience) as my hand reaches out and slides the hangers along, one by one (small grating noises, wooden clicks), my fingers twitching the fabric, feeling its texture and weight (no hint of Belgium wool), my eyes drawing a bead on each item, assessing it to see if it belongs in my life. No, no, no: and then – yes! This is the one. I’ve found it. It has found me. As if I had been drawn into the shop by its presence. As if getting up that morning and leaving the house had been a response to the whispering in my sartorial soul of this garment, reaching out to find me as it waited, created as it was, destined as it was to be mine. I try it on only for the pleasure of seeing myself for the first time exactly as I should look and feel. At last, after all these decades, after all that shopping, I have the garment I was always meant to wear. It’s a silk shirt, a linen skirt, a pair of jeans, a sharp suit, a wispy frock, a pair of pink kitten heels, a sweatshirt, a pair of pull-on baggy trousers: but what it really is, is perfect. And (almost) whatever the cost, no matter the state of my bank balance or the condition of my house and car, however many remarkably similar – similar but not perfect – things I may have in my cupboard at home, I buy it knowing that now at last I will be content.
And for a while, I am. Yes, of course all the skirts, shoes and dresses in my bulging wardrobe were each the perfect garment when I bought them. And so they remained for days, weeks, occasionally even months, as I existed at last in the world looking exactly like I wanted to look, just right: until I began to feel that scratchy need somewhere in my solar plexus and it seemed to me that I heard a susurration in my inner ear, telling me that something, somewhere was hanging on a rail waiting for me to meet it. The next siren call comes, the last thing bought seems somehow not quite right. And, sleuthing around the shops, I discover once again a garment that in my mind balances perfectly on the narrow boundary between inner and outer definition, which I have been looking for, doubtless, since the day of the implacable black school shoes. That’s why fashion as culture, fashion as art, leaves me cold: I’m too preoccupied with clothing myself to pay it proper attention.