Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Draped in despair but keeping up appearances

From this weekend's The Australian

THE last complete sentence my mother uttered before her death was said in a whisper, her hand shakily pointing towards my sister's neck: "I like your necklace." Following this utterance her speech centre failed, then everything else failed, and she died.

I grew up in a family where appearances mattered. My grandparents on both sides were Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, decanted from a remote area of Polish farmland into the English class system, and they believed in a series of maxims, such as, "The only thing worse than being skint is looking as if you're skint", and most significantly, "Only the rich can afford cheap shoes".

So I have never taken to the idea that clothes, shoes, handbags, hairdressing, manicures are part of the realm of the superficial, the trivial. That the high-minded woman should care little for what she wears. For we are clothed almost 24 hours of the day and, like it or not, we are looked at and judged. It came to me a few years ago that you cannot have depths without surfaces, it's a physical impossibility, and how the two cohere is what makes life interesting. There shouldn't be shame in being interested in fashion.

read on


Phyllis said...

I certainly believe all of this to be true, and yet I see something different in my family among members who, due to the nature of their work, wear a uniform.

My grandmother (as some of you know from my own blogging) was an ardent student of fusion, whereas my mother (who became a nurse) has never really shown the deep interest of her mother - that gene came down to me. I think that’s in large part because because my mother wore a nurse’s uniform in her work life for over 40 years and fashion just didn't factor in on a daily basis. My sister in law has worked for an airline for over 20 years, and she likewise has zero interest in fashion.

Now when I think of the men in my family who wore uniform for work, they somehow still managed to be dressed and turned out to a level that the women just don't achieve. My father was career military and was always perfectly turned out regardless of whether he was in uniform or not.

Toby Wollin said...

I've come to believe that fashion - clothing, accessories, hair, makeup, etc. - is our surrogate for sending the message to the world that we are healthy, important and worthwhile. For a long time, my family raised sheep and goats. I can tell you that even the most casual visitor to the barn would be able to tell which goats and sheep were at the bottom of the "pecking order" - they were the ones who were bullied by the others, shouldered away from the feeding station, crowded out of the barn when it as nasty and sometimes even attacked. And it showed: These were the animals that were generally smaller, had poorer quality coats, ended up with the highest baggage of parasites, did not do well as mothers,etc. etc. And it would do no good really to take them out of the flocks, put them in their own paddocks or pastures for rehab, etc. because the rest would just home in on the animals that were just above them - who were just marginally "better" and they would hound and harass and make those new victims "poorer".
Appearances send very important messages: "I am big and important; don't mess with me." "I am young and healthy and don't you want to ..." "I am at the bottom of the pile - I am not important; I am marginally healthy but probably will not be able to bring my babies to term or if I do they will be small, weasely and probably won't survive." And so on. Because these are sheep and goats we are talking about here and not people, the "poor keepers" don't have makeup, new clothing, etc. to change into to make themselves look more healthy and important to the rest. People, on the other hand, DO have such camouflage at our disposal and we use it all the time to send the messages that are important to us. Consciously or unconsciously, we send messages by what we wear and how we look, so paying attention to appearance is not a stupid or frivolous thing - out in the barn, it's a matter of life and death.

Belle de Ville said...


There is no question of the importance of clothes and how the world sees us. It's basically how we market ourselves.
I have posted about the about the article in the Wall Street Journal connecting Michelle Obama's wardrobe to Jacki O's, sending the marketing message that she is Frist Lady material.
And, I've linked to your blog and your article in The Australian.
Check it out.

Anonymous said...

I can't find the original, so I must paraphrase, but I liked a 'net writer's comment that your clothes send a message whether you plan to or not, so you might as well take control over that message.

I'm a latecomer to the world of actually taking pleasure in one's dress, but that was an idea that made a whole lot of sense to me.

Anonymous said...

Linda I hope you bought some merino wool/possum sweaters while in NZ - they are fabulous - better than cashmere being warmer and lighter. Never heard of you till that not-so-good interview on radio NZ - but have just enjoyed your blog.