November 6, 2021

Hanife Melbourne

After 18 months of living in covid-induced slob-gear I’m here to share my clothing memories, adorations, hauntings, and dreams. I have loved reading Textile Message posts from contributing writers and artists and it’s an honour to join them.

I am also here to confess that, quite simply, I love clothes.

Such a wild statement won’t come as much of a revelation to those friends who have witnessed the ease with which I part with money for yet another piece of wearable art. To quote one friend, who I was on a day out with when I spotted a must-have that I said I needed to buy: “Yeah, you need another leather jacket like you need a hole in the head.”  She was right, a pale blue suede biker jacket was one-too-many suede biker jackets, even if it was by Comptoir de Cottoniers.

But I was beyond buying clothes because I needed them.

And while I am somewhat reformed, because I have barely bought anything new in the last two years (save some larger-sized jeans and more ‘joggers’), I still get a dopamine hit from the slightest glance at a beautifully draped piece of clothing.

In the background of this love affair is my mum: the proud daughter of a seamstress, I grew up watching her put together women’s skirts. She would take apart all the pieces in each bundle that arrived, and with a sample to copy she would magically sew them up to match. I didn’t realise what a talent this was until I was much older. And it was an early lesson in the price of clothes versus value: I learned what set one skirt’s price at 60p and another’s at £1, and I knew how inaccessible those at the latter end of that scale might be for people like me. Mum would sometimes chat about work with her friends or with dad, and pass comment on the fabric, and design—it’s a pencil skirt/princess cut/pleated—and whether lines or checks had to be aligned at the seams.

Yes, she’d say, this woollen skirt is good quality, wondering where it might be selling next season, commenting on the feel of the fabric; whether it was a softer pure new wool or combined with polyester to make it cheaper and less velvety, the talk about the difficult top-stitching and hidden zip, and oh yes, the lining. All extra work making it a piece that needed time and patience, so the fabric would curve as desired in the right places, assisted by the nips, well-placed to emulate the curvature of hips of the soon-to-be owner, the perfectly flat hidden zip cooperating in its neat slide into the waistband. Whereas a summer skirt, well, that was a simple cut, or maybe it had side pockets or a belt, the fabric perhaps a relatively cheaper cotton. A simple zip but no lining. Easier to make all-round unless the fabric was slippery like a viscose or jersey.

These were her meanderings from which I learned so much. She was paid piece work you see: the price determined by the boss and her wages by the number of skirts she could make. Some seamstresses were paid by the hour but only if they were making samples. Each skirt still had to pass the quality controller’s inspection, so no loose threads or wayward topstitching or they wouldn’t get past the beady eye of the lady who was almost as important as the boss.

When my sister and I were little mum sometimes made us clothes, probably before she started making them for a living. I have a family photo on my wall in which my younger sister and I are in matching dresses made by mum. I must be about six and I’m holding hands with my sister. I vaguely remember that the dress was crimplene, in a light blue colour with some white patterns, but what I loved were the shiny buttons mum had sewn on the two front patch pockets. My most cherished memory of clothing that mum made for me was a green and black checked cape. I was in primary school and remember wearing it on my first day at juniors. I felt as cool as it was possible to feel at the age of six and a half. There was no comparison with the clothes mum and dad could afford to buy us as we got older, most of which came from places like the stalls in Dalston Market. Sometimes even a school uniform can’t conceal poverty. It’s the kind of thing I just accepted, averted my eyes, and promised myself I would work my way out of. No rocket science psychology required to explain my clothes habit.

What I wear feels like an expression, a voice I didn’t have – especially in my younger years. I started to feel that freedom of expression as I grew older. By then, I defined the clothes I wore rather than the other way around. It took a while for me to find what really represented me – it wasn’t just my budget that was changing.

In my early teens flowing flowery florals, layers and lace became fashionable for UK women. Aged 13, I didn’t have much choice in what to buy and therefore wear. I didn’t feel like me wearing those floating flowers, I felt like I was faking it. However much I tried I just didn’t feel pretty, and at that time I didn’t know whether that was at all possible; what I did know was that my quiet, studious and geeky personality was not coming through in those kinds of clothes.

Growing older I realised that not being a classic beauty, wearing something slightly androgenous or edgy gave contrast: my face wasn’t fighting to be as feminine as the flowery pastel clothing. Maybe it was also a cultural defence, a rebellion against being thrust centre stage when you are approaching the age that suitors might ‘ask about you’ and you are allowed to flash your femininity at certain accompanied family events, but not, say, when you were going out to the pictures with your best friend. A bit like a pre-debutante but without the fun or the money; it was like your arrival at that age and your availability had to be signposted to the community: ‘marriageable daughter – apply within’.

I do love shoes. From stilettos with attitude to the understated casual elegance of women’s loafers, or maybe even pumps (maybe!) masterfully carved footwear is a thing of beauty. My favourite item though, must be a boot: I love them all whether knee-high, ankle, pixie, or cowboy. Again, it’s that contrast, the edginess they bring to an otherwise feminine outfit.

I have fond memories of a pair of Dr Martens, which I once wore to a Marc Almond concert back in the early 90s. They perfectly offset a pink velvet minidress, to which I added opaque tights and a black leather jacket I had bought—with my then fiancé—on the King’s Road. It was like a proper biker jacket (hard leather and weighed a ton). Those were the days I was probably the happiest; contentedness meant it didn’t matter what I wore, so I could be daring, more me, and step outside that comfort zone of clothing compliance. I have no photos of that dress so I offer you a picture of me in the jacket, taken on a trip to Paris, the Louvre in the background.

My mum’s work instilled in me a love of tailored clothes, and that serious clothes habit set in following divorce. Sometimes it was the therapeutic impact I was chasing; new clothing didn’t change me but, in that moment, I found it uplifting. Finding therapy in clothing is not to be recommended – we are enough without – sometimes we just need a change.

My wardrobes are full of suits dating back many years (and too many leather jackets) that I have kept despite the changes in trends. Some were classic styles, but even classics don’t stay the same. Turn-ups come and go, jacket lengths lengthen and shorten, trousers become wider then narrower, collar shapes change. Shoulder pads though are still awaiting a revival from those 80s Dynasty-inspired trends.

A good suit outlasts most trends. The way it fits and holds your body and how the style and fabric adorn and flatter your shape are always the result of a good cut, good fabric, and design, as well as an understanding of what flatters you.

These are not fast fashion criteria. Maybe climate change will help us see beyond trends and bestow admiration on styles between current and vintage.

As others have written here, I too have an attachment to certain clothes that I once wore. Those that hold cherished memories are not easy to part with, whether or not they still fit me. Like the pink velvet minidress which I decided to give away last year because, perhaps, it was time (it wasn’t—please don’t make the same mistake!) and anyway, I was too old to wear it in a way that would make it sparkle. I gave it to a younger relative hoping it would get the wear and exposure it deserved. When I asked her for a snap for this essay, she said she had given it to charity. One person’s treasure is another’s charity bag filler.

I have had many fashion inspirations and wondered where to look for a possible dream outfit. And what dream would it be for? The next life or this? Or the one that might have been but never was?

I thought of Julia Roberts in the brown polka dot dress she wore to the polo match in Pretty Woman. Or maybe something from Anne Hathaway’s wardrobe in The Devil Wears Prada – the cap and shirt-with-sweater outfit heavily adorned with Chanel necklaces, so quirky, and with a little Parisian vibe.

Then I remembered Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. I had watched every single episode, not just because I happened to be single at the time it began to air, but because the premise was of someone who was paid to write a regular column about relationships and life. Dream job! How much she was paid had not crossed my mind, but thinking back she had a NYC apartment, a designer wardrobe and shoe collection that seemed infinite, and, well, she also had a vibrant social life. Her style varied and not all her outfits would be something I’d consider, but one stood out. It was a Vivienne Westwood pinstriped dress she wore to that Vogue interview, with nude Manolo Blahniks. That was in 2001, well before anyone was lusting after nude courts here in the UK. There is a small nod here to my days in the City, because I love a soft chalk pinstripe. But yes, that dress is a dream outfit of mine. All hail Vivienne Westwood, and not forgetting costume designer Patricia Field.

I am no Carrie but should there be any dreams being granted by the universe, I’d happily take the Dream Outfit, and if it should come with the dream job, I promise to remove all slob-gear from my wardrobes.

Hanife Melbourne is a graduate in mathematics from the University of Bath, and an alumna of the Faber Academy’s ‘Writing a Novel’ program (Maggie Gee’s class of 2012). A Londoner, she is a chartered accountant and has worked for several decades in the City, in financial services.