Inspiration and identity—why do we wear what we wear?
Choosing what to wear is often a straightforwardly functional affair. There’s rainwear for the rain, beachwear for the beach, partywear, formalwear, workwear and so on. There’s even athleisurewear, for those leisure-related athletic moments…
Beyond function, we dress to flatter our bodies, whether we’ve been blessed or cursed with the shape we’re in. We choose colours that work well with our hair, eyes or skin and we follow fashion to varying degrees too, particularly if we’re young or haven’t yet nailed our personal style. We also love clothes for their sensual aspects. That luxurious feeling of silk, lace, linen or cashmere next to our skin. Even rubber—no judgement! And, sometimes, we wear clothes for sentimental reasons. Clothes that hold memories of special days when we shone, felt loved or knew we’d had a crack at being our best selves.
Before any of this, however, clothes start as ideas. About who we are and who we want to be. Clothes are our semiotic messages to the outside world. They may be mute but they’re infinitely expressive. And the ideas that underpin our clothed identities most often start during our ‘almost’ years – after our parents have stopped dressing us and just as we’re just beginning to trial our independent selves.
During my own chrysalis years, the thing I remember thing more than anything is how powerful my yearning was to be independent, somewhere beyond school or family. It was a period when real life, either in my small hometown or the big cities I one day hoped to live in, felt like a flickering, distant movie. I craved for someone to reach out and pull me in.
The influences I was taking onboard meanwhile may as well have been imprinted on my glistening retinas with branding irons. As I think about them now, I still feel their impact. In fact, I’ve barely diverted from them for the whole of my adult life.
There were perhaps half a dozen key influences that contributed above all others to the patchwork collage of my future self. And here they are…
In the last year of primary school, I was more than ready to leave for bigger playgrounds. When a girl in my class had a birthday party that summer and shared it with her older brother—who happened to go to an all-boys’ school—that bigger playground came enticingly into view.
I can remember how much I loved my outfit that night. A black dress with a scarlet and green cherry print and a Peter Pan collar in crisp, starchy white. A child’s dress but one that referenced the grown-up vibes of 1973: Chelsea Girl, Mary Quant, Celia Birtwell.
When we arrived at the party, the older boys’ gang was already assembled on the opposite side of the hall, in true West Side Story style. The leader was obvious. He was super-handsome, with the sharp features of a young Paul Weller, and wore Wrangler jeans with a matching jacket in brand-new, deepest indigo, over a white shirt patterned with small purple flowers. One of his henchmen asked me for the first dance. Then the boy made his move. Perhaps he was waiting for the right track, because it couldn’t have been more perfect. David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’.
This was the precise moment my life moved into technicolour. Finally, I was in the movie. And, as we danced, with the lyrics acting as my personal soundtrack, I really thought I was Bowie’s ‘girl with the mousey hair’. The sheer rush of it all—the boy, the dress, the song—ensured romance, clothes and rock’n’roll would be entwined in my heart forever.
Having My Own Money
Growing up in the 70s, it seemed you could start work at any age. I got my first Saturday job at 12, selling fruit and veg in our local covered market. The first head-to-toe outfit I bought with my £2.50-a-day wages is still clearly-framed in my memory. Black Oxford Bags with a one-inch turn-up. A black t-shirt with the words ‘New York’ written beneath skyscraper silhouettes, all outlined in multi-coloured sequins. Black patent shoes with a 1-inch platform and 5-inch heel (£1.99 from Marks & Spencer, the precise heel height obscured from my mother’s watchful eyes by the over-long trousers). Make-up was Miners’ stick-on stars, three under each eye; Miners’ mascara; Miners’ blue and yellow nail varnish (on alternate nails) and Rimmel’s Wild Cherry Roller-Ball Lip Gloss.
I was answerable to no one for my choices and that felt fantastic. A first intoxicating lesson in the power of financial independence.
Going to BIBA
Aged 13, on a trip to London, the twin daughters of an old schoolfriend of my mum’s looked after me for the day. They were 18 and frankly may as well have come from another planet; tall, glamorous and sophisticated in a way that made my Northern parochialism especially evident. They were darkly-bobbed sentinels, one on either side, as they led me towards paradise: BIBA, followed by a visit to the Kensington Roof Gardens, where flamingos paraded all around, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
I’d heard of BIBA, but nothing could prepare me for my first sight of that wondrous five-storey retail coliseum. In my memory, time stands still, though the atmosphere around me was frenzied, like a barely-lit gothic jumble sale. Everywhere, the most beautiful items were piled—clothes, make-up, knee-high suede boots in every shade of berry—regularly punctuated by BIBA’s Art Deco black and gold logo. Objects were merchandised inside giant Pop Art tin cans or set around towering, mirrored totems.
All I could afford to buy that day were two posters, featuring the 70s-via-20s flapper girls shot for BIBA by Sarah Moon in dreamy soft-focus. One for me and one for my best friend, as I tried to communicate on my return the magnitude of what I’d seen.
The Importance of Icons
Two of my icons have been with me almost my whole life. First, Lauren Bacall. Then, slightly later, Patti Smith, after the release of her seminal Horses album with THAT Robert Mapplethorpe image on the cover.
By this point in my early teens, I already knew traditional femininity wasn’t my thing. I loathed the colour pink, hated dolls and dresses and had zero desire to be a cheerleader, fairy, princess, bride, beauty queen or dolly bird of any variety. I wanted to be where the action was, which seemed to be, back then, mostly where the boys were. I loved music and football and would settle for nothing less than boy-sized freedoms.
I may have been a classic garcon manqué, but it wasn’t lust for androgyny that attracted me to Lauren and Patti. It was more their take on being female. These weren’t necessarily tough women. They quivered with other qualities—talent, fierce pride and a fearless, brimming vulnerability. Above all, I loved their total lack of apology. These were women who didn’t need anyone’s permission. In terms of attitude, they represented exactly what I needed to light the path ahead. Not so much what to wear, but how to wear it.
Cabaret, Sally Bowles, and Weimar
At some point in my early teens, I also saw ‘Cabaret’ for the first time and encountered Sally Bowles. The character, unforgettably interpreted by Liza Minelli, was sweet, funny, fabulous and perfectly at home, along with all the other free-spirited drifters in the film, in the decadent surrounds of Weimar Berlin.
Cabaret—and the Isherwood stories and Van Druten play it was based on—opened the door for me into the fluid, dangerous and politically-polarised Berlin of the late 20s and early 30s. Through this, I discovered heroes like Brecht, Grosz and Heartfield—and a historical moment, more than any other, I would love to have lived through.
As for Sally Bowles? God, the style of her! The bowler hat, the choker, the sequins, the suspenders, diamante, cocktail jewellery, flower corsages and headscarves—the eyelashes and the beauty spot! Clothes and make-up in the very colours of neurosis—pale lemon, lime green and lurid purple—as if an Edvard Munch artwork had come to life 40 years down the line.
One of the 20th century’s most influential movements, Russian Constructivism, burst into life after the Russian revolution, led by names like El Lissitsky, Rodchenko, Popova and Stepanova. Artsy calls it nothing less than ‘an attack on art’ and, whilst it may sound slightly crazy to relate clothes to a movement I mostly discovered in the form of ceramics and graphic design, it really knocked me for six.
There was something so simple about its beautiful, fragmented geometries and its endless repetition of red, black, white and gold. It proposed art that could be constructed from simple shapes and colourways. Exactly as clothes could be.
When I look back at this period now, what fascinates me is the question of how much of our identity is predestined? Were we all amorphous clay forms in adolescence, ready to be moulded by a series of chance encounters? Or were our identities already cast, albeit locked in and formless, so that when we encountered these key influences, we were already on the lookout for future mirrors? Was it in reality only their shape we were seeking, to help give form to feelings we already had? Had always had?
Caroline Collett is a Yorkshire-born writer, with a particular interest in the interrelation of art and gender. A former television writer, presenter, and producer—for MTV, BBC2, Channel 4, ITV, Super Channel and BSB—Caroline was educated at Oxford and lives in Dorset. A commercial copywriter by day and creative writer at night, Caroline is currently working on two manuscripts—a teenage punk rock diary and a novel about art, love, and gender. Her most recent piece concerned the public judgement of Christine Keeler. It was published on Christine Keeler’s official website and performed by four poets at the ‘Reframing the Profumo Affair’ Symposium at the De Montfort University of Leicester.