The Power To Dress As You Like

Of late there’s been quite a lot of column inches produced about the sartorial choices of Steve Hilton, former Director of Strategy for David Cameron. He of the beach-bum-by-way-of-no.-10 look. The man with the audacity to meet President Obama whilst wearing only socks on his feet.It’s fascinating how much of a stir one man can cause as a result of straying from the acceptable norms of attire. This isn’t a storm in a teacup on the fashion pages either – I don’t think fashion editors would allow him onto their pages – Hilton’s personal style has been written about in the news sections of various broadsheets. It begs the question; does allowing yourself sartorial freedom give you power or does power give you sartorial freedom?

It is a long-established fact that clothes are as much a form of communication as speaking and body language. The likes of Ted Polhemus and Alison Lurie have written copiously about the subject. It isn’t just what you wear, it is how you wear it, when you wear it and what you wear it with that forms the message for others to read. But is the dress code for power shifting?

Another ‘radical’ is Mark Zuckerberg, he of that little social network thingie. He is well-known for attending Wall Street meetings in a hoodie and jeans. This is probably to be considered even more scandalous given his recent windfall of a few billion dollars. Call the cops!! Would we think of Mark Zuckerberg in the same maverick light if he had long since left behind his college kid style and adopted bespoke suits to rule his empire in?

And what about for mere mortals? My husband (sorry husband, you are of course a deity in my eyes) owns a creative business. His day-to-day attire is very much of the Zuckerberg variety. But he works with a lot of corporate clients and whenever he has to art direct a shoot involving such clients, he dons a suit.

As an ex-stylist, I have been known to laugh at the preposterousness of wearing a suit to a shoot. I’ve made the suggestion that given his status as a company director, he should be able to wear what the hell he wants. His retort? That he has more power if he is dressed on a level with his clients. Kow-towing to what is expected or arch manipulation of a situation?!

Another thing that fascinates me is the practise of Dress-Down Fridays. Have you ever wandered into an office in the midst of a Dress-Down and noticed that though there are no suits, there is another uniform of sorts – chinos, casual shirt and perhaps a jumper slung round the shoulders?! The employees have seemingly been given the power to dress as they please, but the reality is that the power is still all with the employer.

On the flipside, there are more and more companies of the Facebook ilk springing up, where casual is the norm. CEOs are indistinguishable from office assistants. So, when casual is the norm, what do you do to gain or retain power? Is it laughable to imagine that an office assistant wanting to assert themselves within this kind of casual environment could gain power simply by wearing a suit?

Perhaps this is where I find the answer to my question; does allowing yourself sartorial freedom give you power or does power give you sartorial freedom: It is the person who dares to wear exactly what they want to wear who has real power, be they a CEO or an office assistant. As Roxette once sang, you’ve got to get ‘dressed for success’. But long gone are the days when that automatically means donning a suit.


The lengths we go to

Ok, so here’s a vanity statement about me: I’m 5’9” tall, a size ten and I’ve got lovely long legs. Go me! But this is my reality; I’m no longer a teen. Hell, I’m no longer in my twenties. To be completely frank, I can only see my early thirties if I stand on tiptoes at the top of a really big hill.

And now I’m at the top of that hill staring back at my youth, the fashion police might say there is only one way for me to go and that’s over it. Of course I don’t listen to a word. Much. But I do find myself at a crossroads, where things I would happily have worn even five years ago, shorter things in particular, just don’t feel… well, they just don’t feel appropriate anymore.

Which in recent months has led me to ponder: What are the rules when it comes to donning a skirt or shorts once you are less ‘young lady’ and more ‘all woman’? How short is too short?

Given the times we live in, this little quandary isn’t as simple as you might imagine. A few months back I thought I had all the answers; hot pants should be consigned to my fashion history. But then up popped Sandy Shaw on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny, resplendent in shimmery black hot pants.

Whilst the sight of her didn’t make me want to race out and splurge on a pair of Kylie-like hotties, it did get my mind racing. There was a woman old enough to be my mum, wearing hot pants and not just getting away with it, but looking HOT!

Then it hit me; I’ve never been good with numbers. I need to stop focusing on aligning the number of years I’ve been on this planet with my skirt length. I need to stop worrying about dressing appropriately for my age and start focusing on dressing appropriately for my body and me.

The likes of Sandy Shaw and the rest of the Baby-boomer generation have blown the blanket rules for age-appropriate dressing out of the water. We follow in their wake and have the freedom to dress according to how we feel and how our bodies look.

How. Your. Body. Looks. That is the key to it. There are plenty of women 40+ who kill it in shorter lengths. Not just the likes of celebrities like Madonna, Kylie and Elle ‘The Body’ Macpherson, but everyday women who know how to put a look together that works for them.

Of course too much freedom can lead to anarchy and anarchy isn’t necessarily a pretty sight. Can you ever be ‘all woman’ if you only look half-dressed?

To my mind, the easiest way to make sure you don’t trip up is to take a look in the mirror and see the real you, rather than a memory from yesteryear. Dress the woman you see in the mirror and surely you can’t go wrong.

What lengths do you go to? If you haven’t already, why not take a long, hard look in the mirror and work out what really works for you?

Breton stripe overhype

The Breton Stripe is shorthand for good taste, but has its ubiquity in recent years rendered it boring as hell? How dare I question the Stripe? Because I’ve been seduced by it time and again. My wardrobe doth overflow with variations on the theme. I’m living in a self-imposed Breton Stripe fashion prison and I can’t find a way out.

So, what’s the allure of the Stripe? I think Marion from Saint James, the French knitwear company who’ve been making Breton Tops since 1889, sums it up succinctly in an interview with Olive Clothing:

“It’s just easy to wear and easy to team up. It’s as classic as the little black dress.”

And the history of the Breton Stripe? Traditionally the top is a knitted matelot with long or three-quarter length sleeves, a boat neck and 21 navy and white stripes, one for each of Napoleon’s victories. Vive La France! In 1858 it was decreed in French Law that the Breton stripe matelot would be an official part of the regulatory uniform for French sailors.

So there it was, happily bobbing along on the crest of a wave, when along came Coco Chanel in her chic twinset and pearls pirate ship and hijacked the Stripe for her 1917 nautical collection. From whence the Breton Stripe set sail into the previously unchartered waters of fashion, art and pop culture. Ladies wot lunched on the French Riviera pre-war wouldn’t be seen in anything less than their finest Breton Stripe and wide-leg trouser combo.

Skip forward to the 50s and 60s and a Beatnik wasn’t a Beatnik without a Breton Stripe. Art world luminaries including Warhol and Picasso sported the Stripe, alongside Hollywood legends like Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and James Dean. And in the here and now it can be seen on the likes of Kate Moss, Olivia Palermo and Alexa Chung.

So, what’s the problem? Well, stepping back to what Marion at Saint James says of it. Yes, it is as classic as the little black dress. But it isn’t as anonymous. Whilst an LBD is like a blank canvas, the Breton Top and all its variants and mutations have a distinct personality. And like magpies swooping on a gem, women (and men) the Western World over have swooped on the Breton Stripe in recent years as the quick fix for their wardrobes. It’s gone from being a staple of the style cognoscenti to being as ubiquitous as Katie Price.

I have my theory on why this might be; the proliferation of information fed to us about fashion and the volume of choice when you hit the shops is overwhelming. We live in a fast-paced consumerist society where fashion trends are created by designers and style leaders, swallowed whole by the media, chewed up by the major manufacturers and regurgitated onto the high street all in the blink of an eye.

For me, a little choice is a good thing. But too much choice causes my brain to freeze up. I can’t think, I can’t make decisions. So what do I do? I reach for something familiar. Something I know will slot into my existing wardrobe. Something that won’t cause eyebrows to rise for being a bad fashion choice.

But the downside is that it won’t turn heads for being in the slightest bit interesting either. The Breton Stripe has gone from being the uniform of French Sailors to the uniform of the sartorially dull.

So today I’m making a pledge. I will not buy another Breton Stripe top until the ones I own have been sent on their way to the recycle bin.  And when I do buy one, it won’t be a high street replica, designer variation or recreation; it will be a classic, knitted matelot with a three-quarter-length sleeve and a boat neck. Something that Coco, Andy and the French Mariners would have approved of.

By JOURNAL contributor

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