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Victims of our own excess

Since the mid-1990s, feminist opposition to fashion has all but evaporated. But are all these must-h

The designers displaying their wares at London Fashion Week from 18-23 September will no doubt be lauded by the media for their services to humanity. Their motivations in dressing us seem more philanthropic than commercial. They want to help women in the competition for love and promotion.

You can't get on, we are told, without knowing how to dress. This ability is regarded as a basic skill. Millions of us have acquired it, fearing what might happen if we don't. Our high streets are catwalks, full of people working their looks. The British have finally worked out how to dress and it's seen as a cause for national celebration. There are no countervailing forces - no one urging caution. The anti-fashion feminists have dropped their opposition. Their analysis of the dark side of dressing up has been mothballed. Everyone now asserts a woman's right to self-adornment.

In my youth, the woman of fashion was a pitiable figure. The books on my mother's shelves anatomised the precarious psychic position of the woman of fashion. Neither Germaine Greer nor Simone de Beauvoir baulked at describing her as victim of false consciousness. According to de Beauvoir, her fleeting sense of stability is founded on a misidentification with "the character she represents but is not".

“It is this identification with something unreal, fixed, perfect . . . that gratifies her; she strives to identify herself with this figure and thus seem herself to be stabilised, justified in her splendour."

It works for a while. Unfortunately, accidents will happen. Her dress might tear or, even worse, go out of vogue. She may see someone unworthy in a cheap rip-off of the same design. These disasters always strike; the moment of triumph never lasts.

This analysis reads like ancient history. When did we stop believing that fashion was bad for our psychic health? By my reckoning, the change came during the mid-1990s, when British journalists such as Ruth Picardie and India Knight implored their readers to stop fearing the consequences of submitting to our sartorial cravings. In their eyes, a dress obsession was psychically healthy, as long the garments in question were gorgeous "must-haves".

These early fashion savants were ironists. Their paeans to Ghost dresses and sexy knickers read like a Loaded writer's paeans to sexy women. The comic exaggeration makes it clear that the writer is identifying as someone who should know better. "Looking back, I don't have many regrets," wrote Picardie. "I was privileged to live through the era of John Frieda restructuring serum, which revolutionised life for women with curly hair."

A self-confessed puritan, Picardie received a pleasurable frisson from delivering the lines of the knowing fashion bimbo. The irony protects her from criticism. It does the trick, but the tone is difficult to sustain. Pretty soon, the inverted commas fell away. Overwhelmed with longing for their must-haves, the savants were unable to sustain the pretence of knowingness. It wasn't a joke; clothes really were more beneficial to women than feminism or modern medicine. Nearing death from cancer in 1997, at the age of 33, Picardie was comforted by the thought that her boots were nicer than the next person's. For the first time since her diagnosis, she no longer envied the living. "In evening went to Twins Club committee meeting - now there's thrilling - and felt even more superior than usual. I know I'm a puritan, at heart, so I am busy finding my inner Shallow Fashion Bimbo . . ."

We all were. It was tricky at first - the language of fashion was quite complicated and difficult for the novice to decipher. Thank goodness for Sex and the City - a televisual primer on how to get date-ready in under ten hours. The programme proposed fashion as the locus of female power.Natasha Walter agreed. A chapter in her book The New Feminism (1999) suggested that hot-pants were a route to "girl power".

Savants such as Walter were desperate to prove that fashion was a suitable pursuit for women of their ilk, yet none has made a plausible case for taking them seriously. Their publications focus on making clothes matter more than politics or gardening. All cite the supposed taboo against intelligent women writing about clothes.

The novelist Linda Grant's blog, The Thoughtful Dresser, is a treatise for intelligent fashion. Its tone is righteous. Grant doesn't feel the need to hide behind irony. She has nothing to apologise for. An interest in clothes hasn't made her superficial, she avers. To prove this, she intersperses the fashion segments on her blog with scanned-in pictures of the (non-fashion) books she's reading. Nothing was lost when she crossed over from feminism to fashion, she implies. Her brain gets more exercise adjudicating fashion dilemmas than it did reviewing feminist texts.

I was prepared to believe this. Like many intelligent people obsessed with clothes, I have pretended they were about something. They are not mere commodities, but cultural texts. My own sartorial practice was directed towards a theoretically savvy "reader", knowing he or she was equipped to decode the messages I had secreted in the folds of my favourite outfits. They were generally not very subtle. In the 1980s, I was using clothes to make subversive statements about society. In the Nineties, I was making statements about the malleability of identity. From the early Noughties to the present, I have been making self-referential anti-fashion jokes. The reader always got them, I imagined.

Happily for us addicts, the pro-fashion PR drive had the desired effect. Today, none of us feels conflicted about our passion for fashion. It's not a guilty pleasure. We don't feel silly chuntering on about clothes but rather smug, in fact. The savants are just as delighted. They couldn't have predicted how quickly their crazy prescriptions would come to seem like common sense.

With growing confidence, they now propose the notion that dressing up delivers true self-­esteem - not a gorgeous simulacrum, as was previously thought, but the real thing. Unchallenged by feminists, rationalists or the liberal media, Gok Wan and his fellow stylists prescribe fashion as a remedy for self-doubt. Their position in our society reflects our belief that our selves are an expression of the image rather than the other way around. They've gone from being the people who chose clothes on photo shoots to physicians of the soul who reach the parts that therapists can't reach.

Their overblown claims - to improve your sex life, relaunch careers, heal broken marriages, restore shattered confidence - should have got them run out of town. But we want to believe it too much. The idea that fashion will lift women out of depression is alluring, for obvious reasons. The prospect of a day at the shops has often seemed more pleasant than actual therapy (though possibly not in reality). The guilt you get from splurging on things you don't need is ameliorated by the thought that the bits of fabric in the fancy bags are helping you feel better about yourself.

I was keen to adopt this model of fashion as practice, rather than pathology. The June sale preview day at Press in Primrose Hill, north London, felt as psychically enhancing as a yoga class. The process felt wholesome. I'd forgotten my feminist mother's warnings about the dangers of participating in what was once called the fashion system. She was less worried about eating disorders than the sacrifice of dignity. In her eyes, the woman of fashion looked as silly as a lemur in a tutu. And as sad.

The scene in Primrose Hill would have seemed outlandish to her, but did not to me. My eyes have adjusted to the point where this riot of extreme styling is a version of normality. The fortysomethings in playsuits with their haut-boho progeny look like Average Josephines.

There were more "takes" on gladiator sandals than I've ever seen. Many were "channelling" the trend of evening wear as daywear - towering heels and opera coats were accessorised with well-coiffed dogs. I wondered where they did their delinting since, remarkably, all were hair-free - an achievement of sorts, one would have to own. No wonder they looked so smug.

In the Seventies, this scene would have looked rather different. Many of the attendees would have come as they were - in the clothes they'd been wearing since breakfast or, in some cases, before. Some would look a mess, no doubt. In those days it wasn't all but illegal to leave the house in an ill-considered ensemble. The dog walkers would have been covered in hair. The mothers would have been covered in hummus. Their children would have been covered in mud.

If they looked happier and more carefree than our contemporaries, that may be because they hadn't spent a large proportion of the week leading up to the event planning, sourcing and finessing their outfits. Fashion is hard labour: trudging round the shops is no pleasure, nor is deciding on whether an old pair of sandals works with a particular outfit. The savants admit this but say it's worth it for that "ta-da" moment.

I know what they mean. Getting dressed for a party recently, I thought "ta-da" when I looked in the mirror. It was Cadillac pink - a gloriously pointed parody of conventional femininity. I pictured my entrance into the Palmer's glass-bricked reception hall. People will comment on the dress, but no one will ask how my work is going (I had at the time reached an impasse in my writing that I had no desire to discuss). In her splendour, the woman of fashion needs no supporting evidence.

I twirled, then realised to my horror that I hadn't considered shoes. The ones I had were OK, but not right exactly.

I looked at my watch. There was no time to get to the shops. And no money, of course. I had nothing to wear - in the sense of a garment with the requisite promotional powers. With the wrong shoes, the outfit would be unrealised, and so would I - not "fixed and perfect", but purely and indubitably the writer of an unfinished "project". I decided I wouldn't go. Like many women, I have lost the knack of not looking good. Everyone used to have this - we had plenty of time to practise and no reason to assume there was anything bad about not looking your best. In the old days, you dressed up for specific occasions - a date or a party. You wouldn't wear high heels to the library or put on a face full of slap to go out with your mates on a Monday night.

You never imagine that people won't notice what you've got on. People will be as harsh on your ill-judged shoes as you would be on theirs. The savants think poorly dressed people are contemptible. There is no excuse, they say, for never thinking how this looks. Grant's rants in this vein make more sense when you think about them as expressions of self-hatred. "Yet for many women, this vast re-education project has failed to take," writes Grant. "Still they look a dull, badly co-ordinated mess."

Slating the vileness of someone else's appearance gives you respite for a moment from the contemplation of your own vileness. Even as she "winces", Grant suggests that the frumps she sees on the high street may have been driven to vileness by their "insecurities". She is angry with them for advertising their self-hatred, rather than projecting it outwards, as she has managed to do.

For all their talk of pleasure, the savants can't help but sound miserable. At a deep level, they are. Their insistence that fashion makes you happy, that shopping is "balm for the troubled soul", is roundly contradicted by their writing. Grant often sounds like someone describing how the colours of life were drained by an addiction: "I can't be bothered going out [into the garden] to do the work of making it bloom. I watch the flowers wither and die from lack of water and mourn them. But if I wake and know, at the moment of the mind streaming back from dark into light and consciousness that what a new navy linen jacket needs is a scarf with a bit of red in it, then I will have ants in my pants until I can get to the shops to find that scarf."

There is a hidden psychic cost to selecting a lifestyle where the childish "I want" is pandered to rather than challenged. Without patience, the woman of fashion is incapable of nurturing anything of value. Her relationships "wither and die" and she would be lonely, if she had the patience for that. All that registers is the loss of peace of mind. At best, this will mean a lifetime of low-level discontent. Whatever she might hope, the ants in the woman of fashion's pants will outlive the next expedition and the next. They are her constant companions, more loyal than the partners who peel away, feeling unloved like the flowers.

If psychoanalysts are right, and depression is a refusal to mourn, modern women of fashion are an at-risk group. Incapable of mourning the "one that got away", they believe they were entitled to the unaffordable shoes to complement the unaffordable dress. This belief makes us vulnerable. The Priory is full of fashion savants in various states of psychic disrepair, all in denial about the role that fashion has played in their malaise. My Priory therapist wore a different pair of shoes to every session. In my six-week stay, I never saw a single repeat. Naturally, most of her clients believed recovery is simply a question of finding the right fashion prescription.

“If I'm feeling really low, I go and see Philip cover my face and feel fantastic," said the late style icon Isabella Blow of her friend, the hat designer Philip Treacy. Like my Priory compadres, Blow believed that fashion "worked better than pills" when she was depressed. She came out of Treacy's studio feeling defended yet desperate already for the next "fix". Like any addict, she is prepared to give up everything, including her dignity. Her apparently masochistic relationship with the designer Alexander McQueen was inevitable, given her dependence on his largesse. In an interview, she described a terrifying withdrawal when the lifeline to his clothes was severed, albeit temporarily. "When we fight, I get very depressed and my whole life falls apart if I can't get what I want," she said.

Poor Issy was mistaken. Fashion didn't bolster her self-esteem. Rather, it gave a sop to her insecurity - a reassuring sense of superiority that came at a cost. Promising transcendence rather than accommodation, it degrades its adherents. "I can't bear looking normal," she often said. On a trip to the jungle she refused to exchange her Manolos for something more suitable. Every step was agony. A few months later, in 2007, following several failed suicide attempts, she died after drinking weedkiller.

The fate of this emblematic woman of fashion gave me pause. After the Priory, I realised that the smugness I exude when I think that my shoes are the best in the room isn't confidence, but something brittle and transient. I reflected on the role that fashion had played in my own psychic downfall. Unarguably, my preoccupation with fashion had kept me away from more nourishing pursuits, or prevented me from enjoying them. In my Pilates class, I was too busy thinking about what everyone else was wearing to follow the teacher's instructions. Most importantly, fashion marooned me in a world of absolutes wherein everything was gorgeous or vile. The woman of fashion is gorgeous, then vile to herself. She is always fleeing vileness, yet is never able to establish herself decisively in the camp of gorgeousness.

A truly thoughtful dresser would be able to rationalise the experience of appearing in an ill-judged ensemble. Far from wincing, she would view her calf-length M&S skirt as a form of psychic protection. Looking bad liberates us from the belief that we are, in some essential sense, unpresentable. Fashion is a pharmakon, remedy and poison to its adherents. We would do well not to underestimate its role in the present epidemic of female misery. It did for Isabella Blow, while appearing to offer a defence against her psychic demons.

Charlotte Raven is a former editor of the Modern Review

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives