Christina Patterson: Lessons in fashion and the female brain

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The Independent Online

When I was 13, I was obsessed with fashion. I spent boring car journeys with my boring family dreaming of the outfits I would save up for and acquire, the outfits that would shock and dazzle the world into knowing that I was someone.

Sometimes, I'd knock them up myself: from Heal's and Habitat curtain remnants, à la The Sound of Music; sometimes I'd see them on the rack in Dorothy Perkins. The family photos bear testament: a sulky teenager swathed in swirly cheesecloth, or washed out in daffodil yellow, or locked in a denim prison.

But I was 13. At 13, as recent studies have shown, the human brain is still growing. It may fire neurons that lead its owner to believe that there's nothing more important in the world than the platform shoes at Dolcis that your mother's too mean to buy you, and that your parents were put on this earth expressly to embarrass you, and that you will die, just die, if that guy you met at the youth club disco doesn't call you, but give it time and the patterns of those neurons will change.

Not, it seems, for some. On Sunday, I saw Coco Before Chanel, a two-hour biopic which was, I think, meant to be a heart-warming homage to an impoverished quasi-orphan who triumphed over adversity, and the men who tried to exploit her, to become a 20th-century (you've guessed it) icon. Audrey Tatou, as Coco Chanel, looked great, of course: winsome and gamine in that Audrey Hepburn-Felicity-Kendall-frightened-rabbit-androgynous way that British men find so alluring. And unthreatening. Kind of sex without the sex.

The message of the film, from what I could gather, was that frills and ruffles and bows were bad, and should be eschewed for jodhpurs, or simple skirts, and little straw hats, for which someone could charge a fortune. Whether a thought beyond that ever crossed Coco's mind (beyond the de rigueur passion for a handsome English bastard), or indeed anyone else's, remains unclear. It was all very pretty, but I came out feeling that I'd learnt nothing about the human species except that it likes frocks.

Before the film started, there was a trailer for The September Issue, a documentary (due out, tastefully, on what Americans call 9/11) about Anna Wintour, tormentress-in-chief at American Vogue. The woman who inspired The Devil Wears Prada has become what Hollywood would, no doubt, call an icon and a legend. She's scary, apparently. She wears sunglasses indoors. And she presides over a magazine that shapes an empire that shapes a multi-billion pound industry.

All very nice, I'm sure, but do we read breathless profiles, and watch Hollywood films, about the editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, or Furniture Today? No, we don't, because although the arms industry is worth even more than the fashion industry, and Billy bookcases aren't doing that badly either, the people who run them don't have the USP of Wintour and her ilk: this peculiar social construct called glamour.

Coco Chanel and Anna Wintour both managed to become living incarnations of that 20th-century obsession (that we now take entirely for granted), the brand. The brand is king. And queen. And God. Armando Ianucci told me the other day that he was recently asked at a Hollywood party what he was wearing. Resisting the urge to reply "a suit, are you blind?", he dutifully said "Armani". A friend of mine who works in magazines is constantly asked who her outfit is "by". By?! It's not a Picasso, for God's sake. It's probably made by an emaciated Chinese teenager, doing a 12-hour day in a sweatshop, if that helps.

I know that fashion in newspapers and magazines is about advertising, and that if we don't get it, we're all screwed (but we're probably all screwed anyway), but I really, really don't understand how someone can spend the price of a car on a dress or a handbag. Whenever I think I should wear something different, and force myself into the shops, I come back with another black top and another denim skirt. I just can't think what else to wear. And I don't really care. Because, you know what? They're clothes.

Sometimes, you should feel the fear and give up

I didn't see the Duchess of York's documentary about "broken Britain" because I'd rather eat my own liver, so I can't comment on whether or not she is the new John Pilger. But reports that she left a radio interview about the documentary, Duchess on the Estate, in a state of tearful shock have only confirmed my impression that this is a very silly woman indeed.

It all started so well. The woman who married our action-man prince seemed attractively down-to-earth, plain-spoken and sensible. When the marriage collapsed, and the debts mounted, she set about clearing them with what she would, no doubt, call admirable "focus". Not being Einstein, she dreamt up Budgie the Little Helicopter and reinvented herself as that thing now more common than teachers or nurses, a media personality. Well, good for her.

But, like her ex-brother-in-law, who also fancied himself as a media player (but without, alas, any of the necessary skills), she doesn't seem to grasp that journalism (even of the celeb-led "reality" ilk) is not a Californian therapy group in which all contributions are greeted with assertions that that's, like, really great? Or that a multi-millionaire former member of the royal family whose chief interest is skiing might not be the best person to offer a forensic examination of Britain's social ills. Or that positive thinking tends to work better for wealthy Americans than impoverished Brits. "Perhaps," said the dieting Duchess this week, "this will be the lesson to me never to do another documentary in this country". Enlightenment, perhaps, at last.

You can't beat a nice notelet

If I ever had to choose a special subject for Mastermind, I could probably do worse than Britain's stately homes. Memories of childhood are punctuated by family rows in National Trust tea rooms, and interminable car journeys culminating in embroidered fire-guards and Chippendale cabinets.

Maybe it's a trick of creeping middle youth, but I found myself cheering when I read that the National Trust has had the best year ever for gift sales. For me, no birthday would be complete without that little package from my mother, of pretty notelets or a nice tea-towel. Never mind that I can no longer hand-write a single word intelligible to another human being, or that I leave my dishes to dry in a leaning tower. It is, as my mother always told me, when frowning over some imaginative birthday gift, the thought that counts. And the fantasy that lurking somewhere, just a car journey away, is a better, simpler, calmer, neater and much, much nicer world.