‘Heaven shall forgive you Bridge at Dawn/The clothes you wear – or do not wear’. These words are from Ballade d’une grande dame by G. K. Chesterton, written sometime in the early twentieth century, epitomising the challenging conundrum about couture. Clothes have been a constant obsession in my life; at times wanting nothing more than a wardrobe full of beautiful and alluring fashion finery and at other times, avoiding the superficial and sophisticated assumptions implicit in it all. I first embarked on my mixed-up mission when I was a mere child; making clothes for a doll with my mother’s off-cuts.
The experience was enjoyable and exciting; dressing up my doll in different designs I created myself. I also loved shopping with my mother; buying materials for outfits she sometimes made for me as well as buying clothes off the rack. At 13, as I’ve penned previously, I entertained a fantasy of being a model so I could pout, prance and parade on a catwalk dressed in the best. The issue was that ‘the best’ wouldn’t belong to me; borrowed for the beauty of the body, not bought for myself. Understanding this as the bottom line of catwalk couture, my dream was soon supplanted by a more realistic recognition that modelling was a mere masquerade for manipulative designers to direct malleable females to a new fashion destiny. I was aware that my skinny body may have slunk sexily in the garb, but I also realised I wasn’t good-looking enough as traditional norms of beauty dictated. My penchant for clothes however lived on and still does; understanding as I matured that wearing what made me feel good and look good too, was very important to me.
I was always careful in spending money on clothes; I didn’t have enough of it to really buy much of what I really loved but nor was I extravagant with sheer indulgence. In my teens, I bought fabrics for a dressmaker, designing some pieces myself and asking her to make them (I never learned to sew well enough). When I started work in the media at 18, I bought some new clothes because as a reporter, I had to dress inconspicuously, even conservatively, though tastefully, or as our cadet counsellor had imparted: ‘You must dress so you can interview a doctor or a dustman’, his distinction interesting in itself; reflecting a social snobbery and class-consciousness on the one hand about the two jobs, while on the other hand, acknowledging that our clothes needed to be ‘egalitarian’. For me, the clothes I purchased were mostly ‘boring’, moderately priced as my budget allowed for and too ‘ordinary’ at the same time. Occasionally, I opted out of the conventional apparel wearing a black, leather jacket (my mother had purchased for me when I was sixteen), over dresses and skirts, but even ‘slacks’ had to be tailored and no denim was allowed. I felt restrained in expressing myself with my clothes, often envious of the few other females around whom I knew had far more expensive clothes than I could afford. They also appeared classier and more elegant than I was, as I had put on poundage in my late teens and my less costly apparel paled into insignificance. Yet, I flourished with the written word and my clothes soon became incidental as what I wrote took precedence over what I looked like. Much of that psychology and philosophy stayed with me throughout my working life.
In different jobs, as times changed, and ‘fashion’, too, abandoning its rigid customs of style and dress, I became aware that most of the females I worked with or worked in the same offices and companies, were akin to ‘fashion plates’; specially in the world of TV I worked in in Britain. I hated it. Unconsciously, I withdrew from the competitive couture challenge of it all; simultaneously depressed by it too. I justified my contempt for fashion as a subversive oppression of females; irking my sense of feminism in my twenties to wage my own ‘class’ war (not of the Marxist kind) on the female gender who seemed to ‘use’ their clothes and appearance to establish a pecking order I condemned as completely meaningless and marginal to what was really important. After a few years of this unconscious denial of my passion for clothes, despite dwelling on the issue ad nauseum (I couldn’t clarify what import clothes and my appearance really accounted for ), I came to realise that my unconscious had channelled me into a dark abyss of drab and dowdy dreariness that I hated about myself. The many years of confused introspection about this issue soon surfaced into a bright corner of my psyche, now consciously acknowledging that I’d been in denial of not just wanting to look good, but feel good as a female; even sexy, too. I started to invest in a whole new vista of clothes. I was nearly 28, had become slimmer and fitter, and money then became the more pertinent issue. I was earning a pittance. Somehow, I needed to find avenues to buy clothes I could afford and return to the feel good, look good, philosophy. In London, I discovered markets and op-shops as well as cheaper department stores but more importantly, I had to really ‘learn’ what suited me as well as being stylish, sexy and classy. On one level, I went back to clothes I’d always loved in my teens but wore little of; tight jeans with loose flowing jumpers or tops with high boots or high heels as well. It was an experimental exploration of self with a new agenda as its basis.
Travelling and living in Europe I had already appreciated money couldn’t buy ‘class’. So many of the young women and men I saw on the streets of Madrid, Paris, Munich, etc didn’t reek money, but manifested style in a class all of their own which was simplicity personified; often jeans, a T-shirt, a well-cut shirt, jacket, dress or slacks, clothes that certainly didn’t seem out of the windows of Chanel or Dior. Labels were irrelevant (I didn’t know the designers to even identify their clothes anyway). It wasn’t just the apparel per se, but a whole body repertoire, engaged in feeling good and looking good, or that’s how they appeared to me. They were elegant without extravagance; and I reflected back on how many women I’d known who had spent lots of money on clothes but looked garishly ostentatious; cheap, not classy. Thus, these young women and men in Europe became my role-models, trying to emulate their style with my own unique sense of self. I had never forgotten that I’d had a few garments in my teens that were tasteful, stylish and elegant; however, there were so many others that were ‘not so much cheap and nasty’, but certainly did not enhance the innate elegance I knew I had. It was as if Europe reignited something inside me I always had; lost for a few years in my strident feminism, unconscious rebellion against sexual objectification and all the assumptions about appearance. I had to withstand it all without burying myself again in flab and false flattery. The young women and men in Europe were mostly slim; but even the older and more rounded women and men still possessed panache and perspective about clothes, as if fashion per se was outclassed by style and elegance. Money didn’t seem paramount.
From that time on, my meagre earnings for many years dictated lots of T-shirts and jeans, now able to wear these at work, though I purchased a couple of dresses from markets in London and in Melbourne on my return to Australia. Back in Melburbia, I even flirted with the fancy of becoming a fashion designer, ringing one of the universities to inquire but was quickly dissuaded by the cost of the course. I simply couldn’t afford to study again at 34. I still didn’t read fashion mags but as I had more money in Melbourne, I started investing in even more clothes, mostly carefully chosen according to what I really felt good in. Yes, I made some blunders with my budget, but as I got older, stayed slim, and learned from my retail mistakes, I started to collect a wardrobe of clothes I loved. The problem became I ran out of space for them all. I gave away some; sold some too at a market, and then, about eight years ago, in my late 50s, I started reading fashion mags to examine anew the whole concept of fashion and clothes. Some women friends then started commenting on my style; I had never perused Vogue, but I started buying it with a fresh perspective. When I sold my apartment to take up a home my sister (who I thought sincere for the first time in my life) had purchased with her husband, supposedly as an investment but for me she said, I had ‘money’ to play with. It was another new world for me.
I cruised expensive boutiques, department stores and jewellery shops (I’d already started wearing hats all the time as I loved them too) as well as markets, recycle and vintage shops. Reading Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar et al, I was initially flabbergasted at the prices; thousands of dollars for dresses, coats, jackets, jewellery, etc that I believed were often tasteless, vulgar and mostly over-the-top. Few garments or accessories ever appealed. They didn’t register as ‘fashion’ for me; rather, gimmicks of designer garb for gullible, rich women who had no sense as to what suited them, looked good and felt comfortable; just slavish devotion to expensive clothes as if that bought ‘class’ or ‘style’. There was an occasional piece, by Armani particularly, that I would have bought if I’d had the money, but overwhelmingly, I considered most of the advertised apparel as ‘trash’. I still do. Yes, I did indulge with my money in some expensive clothes; spending $600 and $700 on jumpers (they are years old and I still love and wear them) as well as a couple of hundred dollars on other items still hanging in my bedroom. At the same time, I bought a $5 Sass and Bide pair of black jeans from a market I still love and wear as well as lots of other recycle and vintage purchases. The issue now is I live on a pension, but my penchant for clothes and jewellery lives on, too..
So how do I fulfil my passion? For the past four years, I’ve had little money but it’s enlivened my clothes’ shopping in a way I never imagined. I no longer haunt the expensive boutiques or department stores; instead, I visit recycle and vintage shops constantly; as well as the odd market. My greatly reduced spending has inspired me with a clearer vision of what suits me and what feels and looks good as well as buying pieces that I believe are far more stylish and classy than those I mostly see in Vogue. I spend no more than $20 on an item, usually $5 or $10, and I now have so many ‘cheap’ but ‘classy’ clothes bursting out of my bedroom. It’s as if I’ve discovered that there are more ‘fashionable’ garments on sale in these shops for almost nix than the costly clothes in more trendy, retail outlets. I always shopped in op shops, even in my late teens, but nowhere near as often as I do now. I receive many compliments walking down the street or sitting in cafes about how elegant and stylish I look, laughing to myself as I know how little my clothes have cost me. Right now, I’m sitting here typing wearing a gorgeous black jumper I bought for $10 at a Chinese shop some three or four years ago and a pair of black and white striped trousers I bought today for $15. I am also wearing a sexy, lacy bodysuit I bought for $20 at a vintage shop about three years ago, too. I feel a million dollars. I too have ‘donated’ clothes to recycle shops, more because I no longer wore them or they were mistakes of purchase, but I wonder about the women who do ‘donate’ such good items and am thankful that they do. Certainly, op shops aren’t as cheap as they used to be during the 60s or even 80s in Melbourne, but it’s great you can still buy some great clothes for a few dollars. While I fantasise sometimes about being rich enough to get off the pension, and have more money to indulge in movies, concerts, opera and the theatre et al, I don’t think I’d ever surrender the ‘creative chic’ I have found anew at recycle and vintage shops. They are in a class of their own, but then, you do have to know what suits you, what feels good and looks good and more importantly, have good taste about what’s classy, not simply be enslaved by a fashion fascism that tries to dictate what clothes to wear – or not wear. And it’s not just about women these days, but males too are increasingly subject to a code of fashion that can undermine ‘class’. The challenge should be individual creative chic, where money and so-called fashion are irrelevant with style its own unique inspiration!
By Paulyne Pogorelske
Paulyne is a Melbourne writer and dilettante…
currently photographing and talking to people about why they dress rather than what they wear…