I was 11, it was Christmas Day, and in order to celebrate in appropriate fashion, I had decided to finally unveil to my unwilling family my signature ‘look’. I went through my wardrobe very carefully, pushed aside my safe, sensible, ‘won’t get you beaten up on mufti-day’ jeans and jumpers and pulled from the back of the wardrobe those trousers. Oh those trousers. They were, what I think are technically called harem pants. I can assure you that when I emerged that festive morn, no one was thinking harem. They were thinking hammer, as in MC. Those trousers were big in all the wrong places, and yet simultaneously somehow too small for me. They made me look like a toddler at the beach with sand poo in their pants. They were turquoise paisley, and silky despite having no relation to actual silk. I paired them with a boxy white shirt, the bottom 4 inches of which was made of crochet – perfectly positioned to show off slightly too much midriff. There was a strange lace inset in the sleeves that did not match the crochet. To finish the look I put too much mousse in my hair, a splash of iridescent lipstick and a pair of pink ballet slippers. Voila! My personal style.
Fortunately for my family (who must have almost burst trying not to laugh that day) my personal style moved on over the years. There was the ‘oh god I just want to fit in’ phase, the ‘not really a goth I just like black’ phase, the ‘maybe boys will like me if I wear this’ phase followed by the ‘yes, I am very deep and intellectual really’ phase (not unrelated to previous phase, obviously). I went through the ‘I wear vintage because I’m at art school’ phase, the ‘oh crap I’ve moved to London what do they wear here?’ phase and the ‘shit I’ve got to get a job’ phase before things settled down.
I kept bits and bobs along the way. Black has always been a mainstay, work clothes have always proved more difficult than I would like them to. In art school vintage meant 60s and 70s, Pucci prints and polyester. It has become a love of repro (because machine washable) and a 50s silhouette. I am not ample of bosom, I do have much junk in the trunk, there is always a discernible middle bit (regardless of how big/small/less small I am) so a 50s silhouette just worked. My wardrobe, therefore, became an amalgam of 50s wiggle dresses (in black), 50s circle skirts (in black), 50s sweaters (in black), and 50s wide-skirted day dresses (in black) for work mostly paired with black ballet shoes. A small smattering of leopard print in the form of scarves or cardigans emerged – because as all fashionable Parisian women know, leopard print is a neutral.
I liked my look, I liked what I saw in the mirror. I had, through many years of trial, error and homages to Mr Hammer stumbled across a proper personal style. As I headed away from 30 and towards 40 the quality got a bit better, the fabrics nicer, I added in decent shoes and more obvious specs. My hair got brighter, my weight sometimes fluctuated, my silhouette remained the same.
Then, thanks to a bout of food poisoning I found myself bloating. I thought bloating was what I did if I binged on pasta and felt a bit puffy, oh how naïve I was. Due to a salmonella-induced-gut-condition, bloating now is frequent, painful and dramatic. Strangers offer me a seat on the tube because I look pregnant, not just big, pregnant. Taxi drivers ask me when I’m due because I look pregnant. Friends I haven’t seen for a while side eye me as I drink wine because I look pregnant.
You know what doesn’t work with pregnant? A 50s silhouette. To start with I had a loose cardigan on hand at all times that I could swoosh across me when needed to hide my bump. For anyone trying to conceal a pregnancy, I can confirm that any and all swooshing of knitwear has the opposite effect. I might as well have had a sign above my head. Before long the cardy wasn’t enough and my clothes started to protest. I would get undressed at night to find welts where seam and bloat had fought. Buttons popped off, zips gave up on me, skirts got frighteningly short as waistlines, fighting for air, headed upwards and positioned themselves directly under my bra. Tights went the other way, leaving my distended gut out in the cold. My ‘look’ was no longer fit for purpose. In town one day I spotted a loose shirt dress, black on black leopard print. I bought that, and a pair of pregnancy tights and tried them out at work the next day. I found I was better at my job that day, for the first time in an age if I needed to talk to someone I got up out of my desk and went to see them rather than hiding me and my bloat under my desk. I didn’t have to rub vitamin E into red raw sores on my body that night. I was happier. I bought another shirt dress, a giant sweater dress and 2 maternity tops. I went to work, I came home. My skin and my productivity improved. I had cracked it. Then I looked in the mirror, and it wasn’t me that looked back.
To my friends, I (apparently) looked chic and more grown-up.
To me, I looked like an amorphous ill-defined blob of a human. Shapeless, sexless, old and tired.
I didn’t know what to do, how to reconcile what I saw in the mirror with who I felt like I was inside. I overcompensated. My muu muu’s got more exaggerated, giant asymmetric black dresses dwarfing even my bloats very best attempts, I could be having triplets inside one of these beasts and no one would ever know. Where before if I ever wore a print it would be small and subtle, patterns are now huge and odd. Strange animals wearing cowboy boots (yes really) adorn one of my tents dresses, turquoise toasters and pans of scrambled eggs another. Neutral leopard print got bigger, and pinker and then morphed into giant scarlet and black camouflage – perfect for blending into the background. My glasses which were statement, but black, got more ostentatious. More Apfel, less apology for my astigmatism. I always wore statement rings but have now added huge necklaces into the mix. Shoes for work were sensible and black – now I wear boots, often with stripy socks to draw the eye and my one pair of sensible lace-up brogues are silver. Trainers once black are now very white and very obvious.
My 50s style had become a quiet statement of not quite fitting in – unusual enough to be me, but not so weird as to draw all that much attention. More often than not my new look YELLS – I turned 40 in a muu muu, and I liked it. I have become more adventurous, less uniform. It wasn’t just my Hammer pants that only came out at home, there have always been things in my wardrobe that I’ve bought and then never had the courage to wear out of the house, but not anymore. Bright yellow vintage coat – hell yes, ideally with a stripy top, giant men’s dungarees and my Iris Apfel broach (thanks Lisa). Minnie Mouse Ears? Not enough. I now regularly wear a cap with ears attached OUTSIDE and in PUBLIC.
In my overcompensation for hating how I now looked I found comfort, now it’s only my gut fighting me and not my clothes. But more importantly, I found fun, and joy, and silliness and not dressing my age. I found that I truly have zero fucks to give.
For anyone else with zero fucks to give, my top shopping tips are:
- Pregnancy clothes are GREAT, but mostly in the summer. Massive lairy t-shirt dresses for the win, polite knitted winter clothes less so.
- Proper collars and cuffs (ooh err missus) turn a shapeless cotton shirtdress into a statement. They do however need to be crisp and ironed at all times. I don’t even know where my iron is but I have thankfully discovered hair straighteners do the job much more swiftly anyway.
- Go big or go home. I am probably a size 16, ish, who knows – but I seek out a size 22 by preference, big very much is beautiful. Same applies to accessories, jewellery and lipstick colours.
- If you actually have to ‘go’ shopping it’ll take longer than it used to, you will need to search through racks, go into shops you’ve never gone to before and actually try things on, bleurgh.
- Obviously go online shopping instead, try it all on in the comfort of your own home (with wine) and send back anything you hate. You still need to go places you’ve never gone before and get things you wouldn’t have done before, but it can be fun and if you’re going out of your comfort zone, doing it in the comfort of your own home really helps.
- The thing that yells at you in the shop (real or online) yeah, buy THAT.