The controversial case of the 'overgrown student': When friends criticised her 'baggy' look, Isabel Wolff consulted a style counsellor
Sunday 23 January 1994
'I'm five foot four,' I replied accurately, smoothing the front of my ankle-length Katherine Hamnett skirt. 'And actually five foot four is a perfectly normal height. You just think I'm small because you're very tall. Anyway, I like this skirt.'
A small crease momentarily furrowed my friend's brow. He inhaled thoughtfully before venturing further. 'And that jumper; I don't like to criticise, but it's awfully big and, and . . . baggy. It totally smothers you. You don't need to cover yourself up like that. You're not fat.'
'I'm not trying to cover myself up,' I countered. 'I happen to think it looks good.'
'Yes, but the proportions are all wrong,' he insisted, 'It makes you look like an overgrown student. I'm just not mad on all these long fashions,' he added darkly, before we diplomatically changed the subject. 'And I think quite a lot of men would agree with me.'
Now this last statement had a certain resonance. Paul Johnson was fulminating in the Spectator recently against the 'fashion frogs' of Paris who dress women in 'black, ankle-length cretonne bin-bags' and 'different versions of the pyjama-suits and nighties currently worn by experienced Calcutta street-dossers'. In offices where I have worked recently I have often heard men disparage the voluminous ensemble of their female colleagues. In one newspaper office a slim young woman journalist turned up to work in a flowing, tent-like dress and was jokily asked by no less than three of her male colleagues when the baby was due.
The current trend in fashion is definitely towards length and bagginess. 'Fashion has really loosened up', says the Independent on Sunday's fashion writer Tamsin Blanchard, enthusiastically. 'It's moved away from all that tight-fitting Lycra stuff to much longer, fluid styles which a lot of women feel comfortable in. But men don't always like it.'
In my own case, independent sartorial advice was to be forthcoming in the form of an unexpected Christmas present, a gift voucher for style and design counselling at the House of Colour in London. According to the brochure, I would have a full analysis of my body frame, and be given advice on which shapes, lengths and outlines to wear. I would also be advised on what necklines, fabrics and patterns to stick to.
House of Colour occupies three floors of a narrow building in Soho. There, stripped to my underwear, I stood against a large mirror while Alice Prier, the designer, analysed my frame. I found myself staring at her black and shocking pink check tapered trousers and asymetrical zippered jacket. 'What we want to establish is what body type you are,' she said as she made black felt tip marks on the mirror all around me. 'Like most people, you're a mixture,' she informed me, as she replaced the top on her felt tip pen. 'You're sharp on top, and rounded below. It's rather like putting a triangle on top of a circle. And you've got rather long arms,' she added.
'Should I wear long or short things?' I inquired, anxious to have this question resolved.
''You can certainly wear long skirts,' she said. But you would need to wear heels with them.'
'What about jackets?'
'You should wear a longer length,' she said, to my relief. 'A peplum would suit you, or an Edwardian-style riding jacket.'
As we went through the consultation, Ms Prier was making marks in a folder.
'What about shirts and jumpers?' I asked her.
'Your jumpers should be long but fairly clinging, not loose and baggy. You should be, as it were, reclining on a chaise-longue, not slogging up Ben Nevis.' I resolved to throw out my knee-length, size 48 chest, M&S man's jumpers.
'Your overall style should be big, bold and glamorous', she said. 'I feel that you're somehow hiding.'
'Glamorous. Does that mean Joan Collins?' I inquired.
'No, more like Kim Novak,' she replied. 'It's a sort of 1950s glamour.'
Having mentally donated to Oxfam more than 80 per cent of my wardrobe, I went upstairs to see Ms Prier's workshop. Her designs may not follow current trends but, she says, they are guaranteed to suit the wearer.
'What sort of thing would you design for me?' I ventured. She started to scribble quickly on to a pad. 'I think a bubble- gum pink two-piece ribbed wool suit would look great,' she said. 'The jacket would be tailored with a peplum at the back and the skirt would be short and neat. And because you've got long arms I'd put some spiralling detail from elbow to cuff.'
'Interesting,' said Tamsin Blanchard ambiguously when I showed her the sketch the next day. 'Bubble-gum pink . . . I wouldn't really like to venture an opinion. I suppose it might look OK but it's not exactly the height of fashion.'
'What do you think about style counselling?' I asked her. 'I'm not mad about it,' she replied. 'Fashion isn't just about what looks right, it's also an expression of personality. Women should wear the kind of clothes that they feel most comfortable in.' I asked for her professional opinion on my 'overgrown student' outfit. 'I rather like that,' she said.
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