Harriet Walker: South Yorkshire vs Milan? No contest

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The Independent Online

In London, you can wear what you want and nobody will bother you. The flipside of this is that nobody cares what happens to you, and should you stumble, trip, fall down a hole or die a lingering, solitary death inside a streaky-walled bedsit, your passing will go entirely unnoticed, like that of a mediocre saint waiting to be canonised. While fashion in the capital might get us noticed, it doesn't necessarily help us interact or make friends on a day-to-day basis.

It's a far cry from my formative years in South Yorkshire, where everybody is so friendly they can't wait to tell you how terrible you look. The woolly Inca hat I bought aged 15 in imitation of Gisele Bundchen prompted gales of laughter from my baseball-capped peers, and even my friends walked a few paces ahead of me whenever I wore it. On reflection, this might have been because I looked more Jay Kay than Brazilian über-model. Still, they were laughing on the other side of their faces last winter when the trend finally trickled down (or, rather, up) to Sheffield's premier shopping destination, Meadowhall.

(Oh, who am I kidding? They didn't care. They wore those hats all winter without the faintest remembrance of making an early-adopter cry more than a decade earlier. But I'll shut up now, and wait for my inevitable canonisation.)

Unless you're a fireman or a flasher, it's hard to know what effect your clothing will have on other people's lives. In sprawling, anonymous urban districts, where wealth and poverty exist side by side, chances are they're rubbing somebody up the wrong way, but it's only in smaller, more conservative communities that you get to hear about it. Cities are places where the men who sleep on pavements outside high-end shops are more likely to recognise the window displays than they are a friendly face, whereas in towns people ask you where you bought your dress. Or they tell you your hat looks "gay".

Really, clothing is just another code people have to remember to abide by wherever they go, like driving on the right or not talking with your mouth full. You wouldn't wear an all-in-one PVC number with a zip-up face mask to Grantchester water meadows, just as you wouldn't have a night out in Liverpool without at least five changes of clothes, a push-up bra, three wigs and a sedan chair in which to make your entrance. Compared with anywhere else, we Brits are almost cartoonish in the specificity of our clobber and how fitted to scenarios it all must be.

The rest of the world is more consistent; they stick to what they know – and look how well it has worked out for them: the French resplendent in eternal classics; Americans and their healthy, preppy, impeccably groomed athleticism; the Swedes and their sharp cuts, gothic tastes and architectural shapes. We're a bunch of rag-tags next to them all – quick, someone throw us a woolly Inca hat so we at least look current.

When I was in Milan for Fashion Week last month, I was amazed by how a city can live and breathe a discipline. One expects a certain amount of showiness at the, er, shows, but straight-off-the-catwalk looks fill the streets, regardless of whether their wearers are part of the industry or not. Vuitton handbags are thrown into bike baskets, Armani suits are worn in supermarkets. One of my fashion friends calls the women who sport these power looks "the head to toe-ers". It was as much as I could do to remember not to leave my head or any of my toes in my hotel room or a taxi.

The one occasion that week that I braved some high heels, I felt the same anxiety that I had all those years ago with the hat. I knew I was meant to be wearing them, according to an unwritten code of cool, but they made me feel as though someone else was controlling my feet. When I toppled, it was spontaneous and comprehensive, as if Death had scythed the strings supporting Muffin the Mule.

"Signora!" came the shouts, as immaculate men shot out from the doorways of top-grade boutiques. "Signora!" The anxious faces, the outstretched hands, the faces fearful that a woman not in charge of her own heels was as ominous as the sun being blotted out or a shower of frogs. They were not worried about my neck, I realised, so much as horrified at my amateurism.

And that is why, for all its cold-shoulder, nose-in-the-air hauteur, I think I prefer the London way of doing things, where you can wear what you want and people leave you alone. And if you fall off your shoes, everyone will pretend it didn't happen. In London, you can be fabulous in your own head, because nobody else will notice you.