Harriet Walker: 'I look clownish in little lilac things'


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The Independent Online

We haven't really worked out how we feel about clothes, have we?

For some people, they are an evil and boring necessity because it isn't legal or practical to walk around with your bits hanging out. Because you need somewhere not too intimate or difficult to reach with one hand to store your wallet.

Others feel that clothing is a mode of self-expression. These people are invariably awful. They are the people for whom colourful, wafty scarves were invented. And self-help books.

The rest of us wear clothes that we think are nice and won't show up our lumpy bits. That we don't look mad in. That might help us out emotionally, as though we were builders donning hard-hats and steel-capped boots. That's what a nice coat or a pair of heels really is: a hard-hat for the soul when the sky falls on your head.

Clothes can be armour, they can be your first line of defence, they can make you smile and laugh or they can make you feel infinitely, infinitely worse.

When you work in fashion, your wardrobe becomes a bit like a pregnant woman's distended tum. Everyone thinks they can have a little pat of it and start asking wildly inappropriate questions. Just like when you're talking to a baby bump, you forget that the person toting it got that way by HAVING SEX; so, too, when one speaks to a fashion-y person about their clothes, you forget that they also wake up every morning looking a bit rough and have a dithery moment of not knowing what the hell they're going to put on. (I'm talking about a more impressive caste of fashion-y person than myself, obviously, as my morning ditherings are always plainly obvious in telltale creases, raddled and rolling hems and the wrong colour tights.)

However you get dressed and however much you might protest that you're not interested in fashion and all that nonsense, your clothing means something to you. Sorry, angry man in black T-shirt and jogging bottoms professing to be interested in more lofty concepts: that includes you too. Sorry, contemptuous woman who thinks she's opted out of the system by just wearing the same old cardie again and again: you and all.

For a while, I thought it was because I was vain and fashion-y that clothes mattered so much to me. But it's actually a feeling fundamental to everyone who has ever not left the house naked. When I broke my leg, it stopped me dressing like myself – and it was discombobulating. When I had to go out it would be in wide-legged sweatpants that would stretch over the plaster cast and I'd experience something close to biblical mortification. In consequence of not being able to leave the sofa most of the time (and a diet of self-pity and Scotch eggs), I then put on quite a lot of weight and couldn't fit into any of my existing wardrobe. And that was pretty awful too.

That's not to say I get glammed up even to bring the milk in, but whatever I'm wearing I like to feel like me. And I didn't feel like me. I felt like I'd got lost really close to home, or as if someone had asked me to create a nutritious meal using only tomato purée and some iron filings.

I know what you're thinking: "Quick, give the daft cow something to really worry about! Drop a plant pot on her head from the top of a tower block! Send her back in time to exist as a medieval villein!" Well, yes, I'm not suggesting that a clothing quandary is as important as third world debt or climate change. But that doesn't mean it can't affect you, or that it's totally trivial.

I say this with the recent exhortations of family members and friends ringing in my ears to stop wearing only big, black, baggy and shapeless items. "Stop dressing like a widow," my mum told me during one pep talk. "Or like a fat person."

"Oh look," said my friend as we went shopping last week, holding up something that looked like a giant funereal tarp. "This would be perfect for you." For herself, she picked up something little and lilac, two things which are not really my sartorial cup of tea. In fact, two things which are not my more general cup of tea, either, seeing as my cup of tea tends to be quite indelicate and stompy. When I wear little, lilac things, I feel like a clown riding one of those tiny bikes.

But I have tried of late – and with some success – to branch out from simply wearing black smocks all the time. Specifically, I began to try harder when a handsome man pointed at a photograph of me taken last year and asked me why I was dressed like an Amish person. Originally I'd shown it to him to prove that I'd once stood next to Courtney Love at a party but once he'd clocked how terrible I looked he didn't even notice her. That was a motivational pseudo-insult if ever there was one.

So I'm writing this wearing a pink frothy ballgown. Not really. I'm wearing a dress covered in pictures of cats. No, I'm serious. And I'm not wearing it for a joke either.