“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”
Virginia Woolf – Orlando
As Woolf points out in the above quotation; clothes are more than just protective, insulating barriers between us and the world; they serve aesthetic and occasional purposes. Some people couldn’t care less what they’re wearing and some people make it their life’s work to influence what everyone else is wearing.
As a young woman, I am acutely aware of the impact clothing can have on my own confidence and the way other people react to me. Here are a few moments in my life when I’ve realised how important – and with the gift of hindsight – how unimportant what I’m wearing is:
When I was eleven years old, my Mum accidentally ordered me a boy’s blazer for the start of my first year at secondary school. She didn’t realise the error and I didn’t either, until one of my friends pointed it out to me in the school playground. The fundamental difference was the ‘butt-flap’ on my blazer and the lack of ‘butt-flap’ on the girls’ blazer my friend was wearing. She found my blazer mishap quite hilarious; and as an eleven year old girl, with great big Dad-style eyebrows and a tiny sense of self-esteem; I was internally mortified.
I spent the first two years of senior school covering my ‘butt-flap’ with my extra-large school bag, praying no-one would notice I’d accidentally come to school dressed as a boy. I feel this incident inspired my later attempt at an androgynous look in my early twenties.
Fast-forward a few years, and my awareness of fashion trends had increased. It was a crime to not wear Nike trainers in P.E, and if your blazer sleeves were not rolled up and your tie wasn’t longer than a millimetre; you were obviously a complete dork. On non-uniform day, If your clothes didn’t have labels; you were likely to fall under the label of ‘nobody’. I bought in to it as much as the next kid. My parents insisted I would grow out of these new clothes within six months, or change my mind about them within three. They were wrong about one thing; I didn’t grow until I hit the age of fifteen, but they were definitely right about the mind-changing (Damn my wise, patient, caring parents).
I remember one particular non-uniform day when I wore my brand new fluffy body-warmer, with matching fur boots, and an older boy walking behind me on the way to class kindly remarked; ‘f*****g hell, did she kill a bear before school or something?’. In hindsight I applaud his creative insult, but at the time I was highly embarrassed. Fur was on trend that season and I thought I looked the bees knees. Perhaps that was the problem – bumble bees are excessively furry.
Another time, I wore a pair of bright pink converse-style shoes during my first week of sixth form, only to have a random year 9 girl exclaim ‘what the f**k is she wearing on her feet?’ as she walked past me in a corridor. At the time, I’d just grown in to a size 8 shoe and was struggling to find footwear to fit my awkward goat feet. This girl’s comment bothered me so much that I stopped wearing the shoes to school. If I could go back; I’d wear the shoes every day and politely remind her I HAVE SIZE 8 FEET THAT CAN AND WILL DO YOU SERIOUS DAMAGE IF YOU INSULT ME AGAIN. (That’s a lie; I’m a lover not a fighter; but sometimes passive aggressive imaginings make me feel better).
More recently, where I work; I was serving a Mother and daughter who were discussing what the daughter’s plans were for that evening. When the Mother suggested the daughter wear her favourite dress, the daughter insisted she couldn’t wear that outfit because on her Facebook profile it would look like she’d worn the same dress two nights in a row. This was a crime she was convinced she could not commit, so she spent an extra £30 on a dress she wasn’t all that crazy about, in order to avoid outfit-repeating.
As a budget queen, student, and owner of a ‘make do and move on’ attitude; I found it difficult to understand why this young girl wouldn’t want to re-wear her favourite dress. I consistently repeat the same outfits, because I know they look good, and more importantly; they make me feel good. Then I remembered how closely people had monitored my clothing choices in the past; and the embarrassing comments they had made about what I was wearing. Perhaps this young girl hadn’t found a way of saying ‘I’ll wear what I like, regardless of what you think’ to anyone yet.
All of these experiences proved to me that the clothes you’re wearing are apparently, the most important thing about you. What you’re wearing is up for public scrutiny at all times; whether it’s your friends at school, a random boy/girl, or your friends on social media; your clothes or your ‘outfit-repeating’ suggests that you’re not dressed in the correct way (whatever that is?).
As I’ve grown, I’ve tried and mostly succeeded in ignoring these kinds of pressures, and slowly found my own style (with the help of some truly excellent clothing outlets like Missguided, Asos & TopShop, as well as raiding charity shops). It wasn’t until recently, however, when I thought about these accumulated experiences; that I suddenly felt the need to justify to myself that it’s okay to resist the pressure to look absolutely-bloody-fabulous every time you walk out of the door to buy some bin-bags. For some, the pressure is external, and for others it’s internal, but it can be overcome.
Ultimately, I take comfort from Virginia Woolf’s words. Yes, clothes do tell us a lot about a person; but they are not the only way to identify with someone. Sometimes they’re a complete enigma, or a disguise; and we should endeavour to live and let live, whatever we’re wearing.
Dr. Martens and socks, on the Rocks