December 30th 2017 – My Name is Prince exhibition, O2 London
‘Yeah I’ve dressed for comfort’
December 31st 2018 – BBC Offices, Swindon
‘Yeah, if I seem a bit over-dressed it’s because I’m going to a New Year’s Eve party later’
For the twelve months of 2018 I did something I hadn’t done for about two decades: I didn’t wear jeans to work. For the whole working year.
There are people reading this who’ve never seen me without blue legs and had probably laboured under the illusion I’m half Smurf, because like the love child of Status Quo and B*Witched I’ve worn denim with an unwavering commitment.
I was the Zammo of jeans. I couldn’t just say no anymore, because my wardrobe was piled high with jeans and T shirts, and to break that habit meant actually thinking about me and the image I presented to the world, and I’d somehow stopped doing that.
It wasn’t always like this – early on in my career I’d worked in newsrooms where jeans weren’t allowed, the rot only set in when fatigue did: I switched to presenting and did twelve years of 4am-ish starts. Sleep became the priority, not sartorial elegance. I met one of my boyfriends of that period – at work – wearing jeans (naturally) with a pale green fleecy jumper so large I looked like a hillock. I did not care.
Sure, I could pull it out of the bag for parties, weddings and holidays; I could make a concerted effort for a short period, but I always retreated into the comfort blanket of jeans and jersey when it was done. And that was a relief, to slip into the oblivion of just getting up and adding clothes without consideration. It was like Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility but without the chance of pairing it with a jaunty sorting hat.
And then the rains came. Or more accurately, the Purple Rain.
My husband had given me tickets to the Prince exhibition at the O2 and immediately counted himself out of accompanying me. So, I asked my friend J, who introduced me to Prince’s music. He’s known me since secondary school, and as with a lot of mates from that time it means not only a shared sense of humour, but also that your younger selves are drawn back into focus as you share anecdotes from that time.
J rocked up to the O2 and as we greeted each other I heard myself say the following: ‘I dressed for comfort’ and cringed inwardly.
J didn’t turn a hair – he’s seen me in a catsuit under camo netting for a drama production (we should both probably get therapy), possibly as a Ghostbuster (more later) and playing a camel (catsuit/drama again) so coming dressed as the sartorial equivalent of a sofa was barely worthy of a raised eyebrow.
I then realised a nano-second later my fourteen-year-old self would be even more horrified. Like I say hanging out with those who knew in your teens keeps you close to your former self.
Now lest anyone think this is some sort of diatribe against casual clothes, it really isn’t; I’m writing this in jogging bottoms, which seem completely right for right now. But what I wore to that exhibition had been selected for comfort, and admitting it was making me uncomfortable – and it was weird that I couldn’t shake it off.
When I first got to secondary school I’d experienced a similar sense of discomfort with my wardrobe. I don’t know if this is true for everyone coming from a village primary to a city secondary – but I felt like I was several years behind the kids that had been at school in town. I struggled a bit in the early months and as I was the eldest sibling I didn’t have an older brother or sister to help me navigate my way through it. I realised very early on that what I was wearing outside the classroom was not considered cool, and I didn’t have money to go out and ‘fix’ that situation. It’s easy as an adult to think you shouldn’t care about that stuff, but at the time it felt like EVERYTHING. A classmate told me about Wear What You Like Day (WWYLD) and rather than feeling joy at the idea of abandoning uniform, I knew it would leave me exposed.
Three people really helped me during that first year :-
– 1. Cath – quirky, creative and with a killer sense of humour, she’s in my form at school and soon becomes my best mate. She shows me we don’t have to become a clone of everyone else.
– 2. My Mum – she tells me I look great all the time and is a good shopping companion when I’m looking for things on my budget. She once sewed some turns ups into a pair of trousers that wouldn’t stay up of their own accord, and made me culottes when I couldn’t buy what I wanted in the shops.
– 3. My Dad – whenever I asked for stuff because other kids in my class have it, he would say: ‘…do you want to be a sheep all your life, Rachel?’ (Fun fact: my name means ewe) and would force me to consider my choices. OF COURSE I sulked at the time, but I knew deep down that he was right. It’s still infuriating.
Cath and I navigate our first WWYLD like (12-year-old) bosses and come dressed as Ghostbusters. I am wearing a white paper boilersuit (my Dad’s former snowman fancy dress costume) and have my Granny Green’s vacuum cleaner strapped to my back. Cath and I yell things like ‘don’t cross the streams’ in the school dinner queue, and when people stare we don’t care because it’s on our terms.
Another WWYLD we come as Batman, Robin with our friend Sara as Catwoman. I wear a turquoise catsuit to lessons (I can only assume catsuits were on the curriculum, no one willingly gives themselves up to that much camel toe), along with a cape and mask. Cath (who is fabulous at art) has made two halves of a Batmobile that come together.
Once you’ve pulled off that shit, no one expects ‘normal’ from you anymore. Except for that pair of girls who trash the kitsch Sindy House we’ve made in our locker – but let’s face it, it was probably envy.
When I go shopping with Cath I realise she has a really good eye and a stronger sense of self. I don’t start trying to dress like her (it would be impossible as she is petite and I am not; she is effortlessly cool as artists often are, I have to think about my choices) but she does make me think about clothes in an entirely different way: perhaps this could be fun, and I like fun. A lot.
I raid my Dad’s wardrobe, I sometimes borrow things from friends and the things I do buy I really, really think about before splashing Birthday or Christmas cash. I would often visit the same item repeatedly for weeks and once I was sure I loved it, I would then buy. Later, I would discover charity shops – but for now this works.
If you think this is a piece where I share how I became achingly hip and cool and something of a style icon then this can only disappoint, unless you think the finest fashion maven you ever saw was Rick Astley, in which case BOW DOWN BEFORE ME FASHIONISTAS ‘COS I’M NEVER GONNA GIVE YOU UP.
Smash Hits was a huge influence on my humour, so it makes sense that I also use it as a starting point when I decide what to wear. When you look at the photos of me from that time (coming right up), it’s clear that I think I have the most in common with Astley – I’m a boyish build and I have short hair. Secretly I want to look like one of Bananarama or Pepsi and Shirlie, so I take tiny bits of their look.
Clothes become less of a chore once I decide to have fun with it, and if you can navigate double French dressed as a Ghostbuster you can probably handle people staring at you if you don’t get it quite right.
So here I am going to Hereford’s May Fair; I think I’m fifteen here. If this outfit looks tame, let me assure you in eighties Hereford it was the equivalent of turning up to a Celine Dion concert in Vegas wearing an ‘I hate ballads’ T-shirt. Those white knee length socks tipped it over into stareageddon. What seems pretty standard for Pepsi and Shirlie on Top of the Pops, is not really fodder for standing outside Merrets in High Town. But I’m completely happy and confident, because I feel good about my choices.
There’s a WWYLD for the first Comic Relief, so fourteen-year-old me wears a favourite outfit , but in the spirit of the day decides to add some humorous (OK, ridiculous) touches. Check out the specs hair slide from Bunty comic, a gold chain, and some badges on the arms of my jacket (the Club des amies de Barbie badge is from a French pen-friend and is pinned alongside some old Brownie ones) and I later add a red nose.
Sadly we don’t have a photo of one of my fave outfits of the time: cycling shorts (as seen on Bananarama) under a tartan skirt which is held up by braces with a polo neck underneath. This is teamed with mid-calf woollen socks (Dad’s fire brigade standard issue) with Doc Marten style shoes.
By the time I’m in my first year of Sixth Form, I’ve discovered Prince, who you’ll be surprised to hear is lightly more risqué than Astley. Here I am in borrowed denim shorts (from the mate I went with), a see through blouse and a long-line bra which I’d dyed purple. This was appropriated from my Gran who’d never worn it, but seemed to have a stash of the things in different sizes; I couldn’t afford the type of bustier I’d seen Madonna wear, but I wanted to look good for Prince.
And that brings us neatly back to the exhibition.
We had a brilliant time looking at Prince’s costumes, but it’s clear he never compromised on his look. Chances are that he put the bins out in a lurex jumpsuit, PVC cap and high heels. I love that about him.
I was standing there in jeans, a long-sleeved T shirt and my running trainers. Purple running trainers admittedly, but I felt – for the want of much better words – wrong.
And the feeling wouldn’t go away. As well as thinking about it on the way home, I spend the next few days mulling over what I can do about it. I realise that somewhere along the way I’ve lost the ability to dress in a way that makes me feel like me, and automatically reach for jeans regardless of if they’re right or not. Eventually I decide I will stop wearing jeans to work for a year, and see if I can break some old habits.
And oh god, for the first couple of months I hated it.
Firstly it took me twice as long to get ready for work, secondly I had hardly any clothes that weren’t uber casual or for weddings, and thirdly people commented on what I wore. Frequently. As someone who’d gone to work in the fashion equivalent of magnolia for almost two decades and happily disappeared into the background, I felt like a peacock.
Teenage me was more comfortable with the staring – not because I had bullet-proof confidence – but probably because I had my mates around me, and I think I had a greater understanding of what suited me. Wearing a school uniform five days a week helps, because you have fewer occasions to dress for, but also it’s all a bit tribal isn’t it? So once you’ve worked out the gang you belong to, you dress along those lines – even if you’re being a bit experimental with it.
But which tribe did I belong to now?
I look at websites and social media trying to work out what I l like and what I don’t, because I don’t feel I can expand my meagre work wardrobe until I nail what works. I cannot buy myself out of this problem.
This paucity of work appropriate clothes means I’m often wearing outfits that are smart, but are making me feel as uncomfortable as I did at the O2, so I quickly realised it’s not all about the jeans.
As the weeks and months roll on I think even more about my wardrobe. I have good days and bad days, but I persevere with the resolution hoping I’ll suddenly get my teenage mojo back and know what to buy. I feel about this resolution like I do about running: it often hurts so it’s probably doing me good.
My friend Emma (one of the most stylish people I know) tells me to stop taking it too seriously: ‘…it’s costume Roo, have fun with it’ – and I know she’s right, but still I feel a bit stuck. I get to a point where I rotate the same five or six outfits over and over: one of them I love, and the others I feel OK or indifferent about. I’ve essentially found a school uniform of sorts, and although I’m still not sure enough about my style to buy new stuff, I’ve found a rhythm that works until I can work out my look.
And then, right in the middle of the year: seismic, life-altering heartbreak.
I was in turmoil, but I couldn’t share it. All those years of relaying every bloody thought and move on air and I’d finally found something to silence me.
My clothes changed their role in a heartbeat: they created familiar shapes around my unfamiliar feelings. Clothes were costume; they were armour. Forget fun, they helped me function – I could cry all morning at home in my dressing gown, and then I would put on the clothes I worked in and they prompted me to behave differently.
Colleagues didn’t notice my internal struggle because outwardly I looked no different. And if I had a wobble during my working day, I’d glance in a mirror and realise I looked together, and it was a comfort.
I forgot to analyse how the clothes made me feel, when I was more interested that they masked my emotions. As my wardrobe was so limited I was still wearing the same things over and over, and subconsciously I must have been logging something, somewhere because I bought the odd thing with little thought and found they worked well with what I already had. Additionally I bought more clothes for outside of work and failed to wear jeans to social occasions even when it was OK to.
Heartbreak is hard, but it does force you to really look at who you are and what you want. Perhaps focusing on that helped me to see myself more clearly than I had in years.
The six months until the end of the year felt like blur, yet somehow I reached it without breaking my resolution. The final show I produced in 2018 was New Year’s Eve, and I was going out straight afterwards, so I’d come in my party outfit. Pretty much everyone else in the office was dressed casually but I didn’t feel awkward, I felt good. My top and skirt were recent acquisitions and I truly loved them, rather than making do, or dressing for comfort.
And I thought that would be that. Challenge completed, I could return to denim for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Except, we’re now over a month into 2019 and I’ve yet to wear jeans to work, even when I knew it would snow. It turns out I cannot go back to how things were…
Some things remain the same though: I’m still not cool, I still don’t think I’m getting my clothes right all the time – but like my teenage self I’m having fun trying. I have rediscovered the joy you get when you find something that makes you feel good; that makes me feel like me.
At the beginning of 2018 I felt like I was stuck in a rut of my own making; it turns out to get change, I had to get changed.