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Style Matters

 

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Why Style Matters

The Times, September 2005

 

In museum cases around the world, the grave goods say it all. The frivolous objects ancient Egyptians (and others) chose to have buried with them shout defiantly from the past that Style Matters. Mirrors, earrings, necklaces, pots for cosmetics, head-dresses....how could they do without them in the afterlife? And who is more stylish than the famous Nofert, wife of prince Ra-Hotep - whose statue in the Cairo Museum shows her in a white robe over a vest-top, with an elaborate necklace and floral headband reminiscent of the summer of love? Carlyle commented, 'The first spiritual want of a barbarous man is decoration.' In other words, the impulse towards adornment is hardwired into the human psyche. It speaks of civilisation.

Yet it has always been an intellectual posture not to bother - to believe only the frivolous care for frocks. The dishevelled blue-stocking in lumpy skirt-and-jumper will still surface at literary festivals (women who've not so much selected their clothes as been ambushed by the wardrobe) and her male counterpart clearly regards colour and culture as incompatible. It's always been the mark of religiosity as well as political puritanism to vilify vanity in dress. The prophet Isaiah had no doubt that women who dress up are doomed: "...The Lord will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments...the chains and the bracelets... the bonnets...and the headbands..and the earrings, the rings and nose jewels, the changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles..and the crisping pins, and the fine linen, ad the hoods, and the veils..." Ah, but note that word, 'bravery.' You can't put a stylish woman's spirit down.

Let people wear what they will, I hate the association of lack of style with virtue. To come clean: I adore clothes, jewellery, make-up. From the age of sixteen, when I would run up a new dress in an evening, to now, when I love the way different outfits (sharp Armani trouser suit, cool biker leathers, pretty pink tea dress) make bold statements about aspects of my own personality, I have been as unashamedly interested in style as I am in books, paintings and music. And why not? All are expressions of the multi-faceted human spirit.

Why do we wear clothes? Beyond protecting ourselves from the elements, clothes are signs of status, of confidence and of belonging. So the lady carved on a medieval tomb is shown in full finery beside her knight; the ragga girls in West London can't afford designer clothes but boldly customise their fakes, and the Goth must needs wear black to fit in with his 'tribe'. What's more, clothes can send out two signals at once, public and private, which may even conflict. A few months ago I was sitting in the Rameses Hilton in Cairo, fascinated by the groups of burka-clad women who sat around chatting or puffing on hubble-bubbles. The enveloping cloth sent out the obvious messages of faith and gender roles. But beneath the burkas I could glimpse brightly-coloured clothes, even sequined tops, indicating a world of private, westernised glamour. What's more, they allowed themselves one outward sign: to a woman they clutched designer handbags.

Let nobody confuse the concept of style with that ubiquitous phenomenon, fashion - for they are not synonymous, overlap though they do. If somebody is fashionable they must needs follow the trends, yet you can be stylish without following any. Being fashionable is not necessarily to express any individuality, yet individual confidence is the sine qua non of being stylish. Fashioned is 'received', style is a 'given': the mysterious indefinable thing you recognise when you see it. Once, on an underground station in London I found myself staring at a black girl wearing skinny jeans tucked into boots, an old flying jacket, a black Kangol cap and red gloves. Her charisma went beyond her beauty; it was embodied in the very way she stood in clothes put together with louche elegance. She possessed more style than a whole clatter of footballers' wives with their conspicuous consumption of mere 'labels'.

Last weekend, at Manchester Art Gallery I caught the end of the terrific 'Black British Style' exhibition, which began at the Barbican. It was a reminder that for black communities 'presenting oneself publicly in the best possible way is a tenet passed from generation to generation'. This is, of course, the bravest and coolest response to deprivation, and the children and grandchildren of the suited and hatted Windrush generation go on saying (as in Althia and Donna's classic 1978 track), that they're 'Uptown Top Ranking'. So - forget David Beckham as a style icon and think the sharp-suited Ian Wright. Forget any number of model-clones (even Kate Moss in terrible shorts) and think Jamelia - whose style and music convey soul.

The truth is, fashion is often anti-style. Why were the streets of Manhattan a-swish this summer with sparkley gypsy skirts and ethnic flatties? Which fashionistas dictated that so many girls in England feel obliged to show a roll of white pudge beneath a short top and to encircle broad hips with a wide Morrocan disc belt? 1960s StyleWhat made men's shorts grow so long, baggy and unflattering? Such clothes may contain interesting social messages, but neither elegance nor style play a part in their ubiquity. One might hazard that dressing like a Romanian gypsy, wearing the hot pinks and sequins of Rajasthan, and accessorising out of north Africa are instinctive responses to a technologically-obsessed society, which seeks to mitigate modernity with a mass-produced head of the Buddha.

The history of costume is full of large shifts which mirror social change, as well as small trends which demonstrate individual style. In the second World War, for example, the look for women became one of greater maturity, with heavy tailoring and shoulder pads, adapted from men's clothing. Did this speak of a need for stability and security, as well as mirroring the important role played by women in wartime? Whatever - my mother tells me how, with only expensive black market nylons available, they would go out barelegged on the coldest winter days, carefully drawing eyebrow pencil stocking seams up the backs of their legs.The clothing trend may be a matter of fashion, but that attention to detail shows the 'bravery' Isaiah so despised. Anyone who travelled in the Communist States will recall how younger women would make do and mend in the most inventive ways, and wear their makeup as a mask of defiance. In a remote corner of Romania, in 1990, I saw girls going to church in their traditional sheepskin jerkins and white peasant blouses, but with short skirts and black fishnets. That's style. That says, 'Look - I'm ME!'

In her excellent anthology 'Out of Fashion' Carol Ann Duffy calls clothes 'a liberating and repressing part of our lives.' One of her choices is 'Negations' by Matthew Sweeney which begins: 'Style negates soul, you said to me/ I looked at your Armani coat/ your purple and blue Von Etzdorf scarf/ and wondered if I still spoke English.'

His lady is lofty but hypocritical; the poet knows her appearance reveals far more than her words. Of course what you choose to wear tells much about who you are. A friend of mine was informed by a banker in Barbados that he would never lend money to a man with dirty shoes: 'If he can't be bothered to clean his shoes, he won't be bothered to pay me back.'

Not long ago, on my Wednesday advice page, we printed a letter from a 20 year old woman who had never had a boyfriend and felt 'invisible, like a living dead person.' My reply was complex, but one element was to ask about her appearance, wondering whether she paid attention to those exterior signs. Significantly this was the only part she seemed to take on board, coming back sniffily with, '..if I was a boy would I have been told to Topshop?' Well, 'Charlotte', the answer is 'Yes'. Just two weeks earlier I had said this to a 55 year old man who wanted to meet ladies: 'I urge you immediately to invest in a new haircuit, clothes and men's moisturiser (really!)...'

Not long afterwards I bought the classic text' The Art of Counselling' by the important American psychotherapist Rollo May - and found this: 'The tendency to blame heredity or environment for personality difficulties should be avoided. The unattractive woman may say, 'Well, I just wasn't born beautiful', but the counselor can often indicate to her that her so-called unattractiveness is due to mistaken attitudes and therefore wrong use of the physical form with which she was born.'

The Jenny Joseph poem 'Warning' which begins 'When I am an old woman I shall wear purple' is hugely popular for very good reasons, since most of us like to imagine we will go down fighting - so that choosing to spend on 'satin sandals' rather than 'butter' becomes a metaphor for survival. In the nineteenth century novel both class and morality are encoded in fabric; George Eliot understood the connection between millinery and the mind. In one of the most moving episodes in 'Middlemarch') when Harriet Bulstrode understands the magnitude of her pompous husband's disgrace she puts off all her finery, 'the gladness and pride of her life,' before descending in ' a plain black gown' to demonstrate to the stricken man that she embraces a new style to stand by him in their terribly altered life.

Freud used the general appearance of his patients as a means of diagnosis: 'Every change in the customary attire, every little negligence such as an unfastened button...means to express something the wearer of the apparel does not wish to say directly; usually he is entirely unconscious of it.' So the person who turns up at your party wearing an old, none-too-clean T-shirt is waving two fingers at all your careful preparations in a freshly cleaned house. The young Americans who think trainers and jeans appropriate for Covent Garden are saying they don't care about the splendour of the surroundings, or the conventions of dressing up to go out. That's their right (personally I hate it) but as Rollo May points out, 'Slovenliness of dress, the need of a haircut, broken shoelaces and so on tell us things the meaning of which no one can mistake......a habitual lack of care for one's appearance indicates a general lack of interest in other people.' So lack of style can indicate lack of respect, rather than some sort of spurious intellectual probity. When I dress up to go to the exquisite 200 year old Theatre Royal Bath I am announcing that I am still excited to have that privilege, so gladly make an effort.

Show your brave spirit in your style! Play the glorious game of fashion your own special way - seeing it as an affirmation of life. I still have the sewing machine on which I ran up all those fabulous mini-dresses, and recently used it to customise a coat. My joke is that come the dreaded revolution, when the newspapers speak only lies and the artists are put in the fields, I will survive - by sewing uniforms for the Politburo. And into the cut of a sleeve, the line of a collar, the width of a trouser I will stitch subversive style - so that they are forced to stop for a second to gaze in a mirror, not knowing quite why, but thus proving they are still human.

 

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