As a teenage girl with not enough money (or sense) for traditional home decor, I used to draw on my bedroom walls. Over the course of a few months, I buried the duck-egg blue paint under a mound of cut-and-stuck photos of Johnny Depp, a poster I’d stolen from outside a church, and the Sharpied scribbles of anyone who came to visit.
Nearly everything about these walls was embarrassing (there was a giant motivational quote painted in acrylic paint… a giant motivational quote that I’d made up!), but there’s one memory that makes my body fold into itself with cringe to this day. On the wall opposite my bed, where I could look at it every night before I went to sleep, was a saying (often misattributed to Coco Chanel, but actually said by cosmetics businesswoman Helena Rubinstein): “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”
It’s tiresome to think of all the misogyny I internalised as a teenage girl – it certainly didn’t start and end with that quote. Yet I’ve been reflecting on those words recently because, as a freelance journalist who religiously has the same 32-minute nap at 3pm every day, I’ve become a lazy woman. And I love it. Both at home and outside it, I’ve become a convert to the joys of unflattering, shapeless, and comfortable (oh, so comfortable) clothes.
I used to think miniskirts were powerful. From around the age of 13, I wore short, pleated skirts (and while we’re trotting out my trauma, I might as well admit one of them was a lilac and pink tartan). The older I became, the shorter the skirts – in sixth form I wore T-shirts as dresses, to the point that one kindly librarian had to come over and issue a hushed warning as I bent over the printer. At university, the problem (and the skirts) reached new heights: as a hardened northerner, I shunned both tights and jackets on nights out, even in the dead of winter. In 2014, I took my longest skirt to Rome and was horrified to learn it wasn’t good enough for the Pope – I was turned away from St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
Miniskirts are powerful – they liberated women in the 1960s, and to this day, unabashed fashion remains a political act. I don’t think miniskirts are anti-feminist, but I do think, dear God, trousers are comfortable. As women we go through our own personal revolutions. Trousers may have become socially acceptable clothing for women in the early 1900s, but my own revelation came a little later.
This weekend, I threw out my miniskirts. If it was short, pleated and came from American Apparel, it went into the bag for the charity shop. Gone is the flouncy tartan one, the high-waisted burgundy one, and the ill-advised olive-green-and-brown checked one. Their place has been usurped by a new pair of big, thick (slightly ridiculous) pink corduroy trousers. This wasn’t a feminist act, or a political one, although it does feel good to do it in an era where former White House staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman has been quoted as saying, “President Trump doesn’t like frump.”
While on holiday with a friend recently, a pleasant Chinese tourist offered to take pictures of us as we stood by a lake. He knew the perfect rock to stand on to get the most effective shot, he said, and we dutifully stood and struck a pose. Afterwards, flicking through the photos during lunch, we realised we looked like librarians. We laughed at our baggy trousers and lumpy cardigans, which contrasted so deeply with the velvet minidresses we used to wear on nights out.
There is a real joy in reclaiming your body by making it less, not more, attractive. While hiding your body can be a sign of insecurity – later in my teens, I wore oversized shirts to obscure my eating disorder – it can also be liberating. When I go shopping now I look for dresses that will skim over my body, not pinch it, push it and pull it into a new shape. I love chunky knitted jumpers, and trousers elasticated at the waist. I love, in essence, to be a frump. I’m not saying I’ll never wear a short skirt again – a few remain in my wardrobe, and I’ll undoubtedly buy more in the summer months – but I’ll never again freeze to show off my legs, or give librarians aneurysms in aisle D-E.
In 2017, just a fortnight after the hashtag #MeToo began spreading on social media, the New York Times published an article questioning, “What’s really behind fashion’s – and women’s – love of concealing clothes?” Unflattering (but still stylish and sophisticated) clothing is having its moment, and the Times theorised that seemingly-conservative clothing could potentially be an act of liberation. Or is it oppression? The article also acknowledged that many men still see miniskirts as invitations.
I’m not sure what an overarching trend for big, comfortable clothes says, or how our current styles will be interpreted in the history books. But I do know that my personal new-found love of cardigans and trousers makes me feel powerful in a fresh way. When I was a teenager drawing on my bedroom walls, there were a couple of girls in the year below who used to pull grotesque faces – pulling their heads into their necks to force out as many chins as they could – and take pictures of themselves to post online. I couldn’t wrap my head around why they would want to be seen as unattractive – why two beautiful people were deliberately making themselves less appealing. I get it now. Shunning the societal expectation that women should strive to be seen as attractive is inherently powerful.
I now feel a new sense of ownership over my body – I know it’s there, and you don’t have to. Most importantly, I feel warm. “There are no ugly women,” is how Rubinstein’s quote should have begun and ended. But if I may offer a late contribution: “There are ugly walls.”
This article appears in the 23 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state