Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 22, Autumn 2017. Illustration by Amy Blackwell, used with kind permission.
I fought it for a long time, but I have recently started to fully embrace my role as flamboyant textile lady. This means bright colours, brash prints, interesting weaves and embroidery originating from diverse cultures.
I feel I owe it to the wonders, skills and diversity of the world to shun style that is commonly referred to as neutral or classic – styles that uphold the dominant hegemony. Let me explain…
I wholeheartedly agree with the growing call for respectful and conscientious consumerism: buying less, and respecting the human and environmental impact of clothes manufacturing. However, I cannot get on board with the dominant approach to achieving such a wardrobe. You see, when I hear terms like ‘neutrals’, ‘classic’, ‘timeless’, ‘chic’, ‘staples’ or ‘basics’, I start to squirm with ornery conviction because, in the vast majority of instances, this describes a look from a narrow window of recent Western history. Such styles have spread globally thanks to colonialism – both in the old-fashioned, sending- ships-out-to-‘discover’-new lands sense, and in the sly contemporary sense of cultural imperialism.
What makes my blood boil is that these seemingly innocuous terms for our ideal capsule wardrobes are code for clothing worn to signify and maintain white affluence. Ideally old money, not nouveaux riche. How can any clothing be timeless when trends are constantly changing? I have never seen a ‘classic’ silhouette that I couldn’t date. My grandmother’s trench coat from the 1940s doesn’t look like one from the 50s. Is it possible that ‘timeless’ is really a signifier of class rather than style?
Remember that when the fashion press uses words such as ‘timeless’ and ‘classic’, it is not referring to the perpetual popularity of large gold hoop earrings or Reebok Classics. It does not mean the hoodies and black-quilted coats that have been favoured by inner city youths for the last few decades. It does not indicate turbans for men or headscarves for women, though these, being signs of enduring religion and not temporary trends, might truly be classified as ‘timeless’ attire. Leather jackets and animal print tread an interesting line, sitting on the fence between opulent society and rebel chic from 50s bike gangs and 80s punks. Denim and trainers are sort of free agents now ubiquitous, yet still banned from The Ritz.
Of course you’d be most welcome in The Ritz in your ‘classics’ or ‘neutrals’: pumps, cashmere, camel, boat necks and trench coats, LBDs, white shirts and understated gold jewellery (though not all at once). Dresses and skirts that stop around or below the knee. Tasteful fashion favours modesty under the guise of ‘flattering’ shapes (don’t even get me started on that word). For a good few decades this would have certainly included the twinset and pearls. ‘Classics’ are likely to be the legacy of Chanel, flowing on innocuously through Donna Karan and Eileen Fisher, into more minimally named brands like APC and onwards to YMC. Chic? Yes. Accessible? No.
Though Coco Chanel was radical in her time for adapting menswear and deconstructing women’s garments (and for using knits), for the most part these brands facilitate a desire to blend in, not stand out. I find this specifically problematic when it comes to women because not all of us want to be seen or treated like the understated, modest ladies that these fashions would have us be. So if you truly love ‘classic’ style, then wear it, by all means. If not, forget the rules and create a look that stands out of the pastel-coloured crowd.
I like to think the Suffragettes embraced purple as their colour as a way to makes themselves seen. In 1856 the accidental discovery of aniline purple dye caused a fashion sensation. Mauveine, as it was also known, certainly took the well-heeled world by storm and trickled down from there because it was accessibly priced. It was the first successful chemical dye, providing a much more affordable way to achieve a colour that some ancient cultures had valued above gold owing to its complex extraction methods. I find this interesting because it appears that well-to-do society currently actively eschews bright colours. Is this because they have become more readily available in affordable fashion and therefore appear uncouth? Old money is entrenched in tasteful neutrals, and being chic certainly isn’t about following technological advancements, like Day-Glo or later Global Hypercolor. It is inherently regressive, aiming to maintain a status quo of socio- economic status.
Navy, red, white, beige, and of course black, black, and more black. Interestingly, this doesn’t translate to handknitting, because black is a tad harder to work with, proving that pleasure and ease do have their place. Grey is a more recent addition to this lineup of non-offensive non-colours.
This kind of fashion serves as a sort of camouflage. If you wear a hot-pink polkadot dress over mint leggings and yellow kicks pulled together by an intricate colourworked cardi, it will be pretty obvious if you wear it again the next day. If you wear standard, low-key attire, it’s harder to tell. It’s sort of smoke and mirrors. The function of staples is to make it unclear whether you’re wearing the same thing repeatedly or switching it out every day to something similar. Of course, wearing the same thing repeatedly means you’re poor and/or smelly, and therefore uncouth and not doing your bit to uphold capitalism. Previously, below high society, you were lucky if you had a Sunday best and didn’t wear the same outfit every day. It’s now normal for many to observe even a minor special occasion with a new outfit – what if someone notices you wore the same party dress a month ago!? That is all well and good, and cleanliness is obviously important, but what does it really matter if you wear the same outfit two days in a row? I once made one of my dearest friends because, in the briefest of stints that I worked in an office, I once wore the same decidedly noticeable outfit two days in a row, signifying to her that I was friend-material.
The notion of a capsule wardrobe, a term coined by Susie Faux and popularised by Donna Karan, is also known as a ‘uniform’. I’ve read strong arguments for creating your own uniform: it saves time and energy spent on choosing what to wear; it uncomplicates things. Obviously, if you’re the sort who enjoys dressing up, this type of sensory deprivation might not work for you but an unchanging and unremarkable daily outfit certainly works for some.
When it comes to making not buying, the styles of garment that knitters and sewers create for themselves and loved ones (rather than for production) are in a fashion biosphere of their own. It is a more diverse environment than it was a decade ago, when it was the preserve of vintage styles and romantic frump, but that doesn’t mean it has caught up: running alongside fashion doesn’t mean mirroring current trends. This is largely because handmaking can’t and shouldn’t try to keep up with the speed at which the fashion world currently moves. For those reliant on making clothing using patterns, there’s going to be a lag between the emergence of a trend and the time it takes for a designer to write, sample, tech edit, go through a testing process and publish a pattern that reflects it. Then there’s the time a garment spends on the needles or on the sewing table. So it makes sense that handmaking clothing for personal use has its own parallel universe of style. Making clothes to look exactly like something you could buy in a chain store is not only an ineffectual process, it is also missing the point.
Imagine if everybody treated their wardrobe as though it were an art collection. Standard advice given to those embarking on an art collection is to start ‘cheap’, buying works you are attracted to, ones that speak to you and allow space for you to discover something new every single time you look at them. Something that will make you think and that sparks conversation, has intrigue, yet instant appeal. You are encouraged to be guided by your heart, not by what might make a sound investment. How different this is from the standard tenets of embarking on building a basic wardrobe? But I believe the same advice should hold true. Perhaps if we surrounded and clothed ourselves in wearable art that we found truly satisfying, intriguing, entertaining, engaging, and beautiful, we might end up wanting less. Perhaps these stripped-down basics create a lack in our creative minds, thereby instilling a desire for more and more clothes that might finally satisfy us. The neutral, chic, classic, and timeless pieces we are told to acquire do not tell us enough of a story. They do not connect us to the hands that made them, the mind that designed them, the process that wove or printed or coloured them. Could society’s insatiable and damaging hunger for fast and disposable fashion be a sign that we are not getting the beautiful, one-of-a-kind garments we crave? I look at a camel coat and it leaves me cold.
So in this day and age, when we make things for ourselves out of choice and not necessity, why not make them exciting? Why make something identical to the mass-produced things you could buy for less? Why adhere to other people’s standards of classic style? We should make the clothes of our wildest dreams and build them to last. There’s a deep sense of smugness and self-sufficiency in the knowledge that you have made something yourself. But it’s also part of readdressing the manufacturing balance for the greater good; it is a quiet rebellion. What if that rebellion was shared, made public and obvious through re-wearing clothes that obviously buck fast fashion trends and supposedly timeless style that upholds centuries-old hierarchies? And remember, your personal style is also about being generous: give the people-watchers of the world something to look at. Entertain yourself and others by making eye-catching and engaging clothes.