From The Issue: Growing Pains By Hadley Freeman
For a long time I dressed like a child. And not when I was a child, just to clarify, although I definitely dressed as one then. Judging from family photos, my mother must have had a loyalty card for Bonpoint between the years of 1984 and 1991.
The problem was, 15 years on, my taste hadn’t really grown up. Dresses with Peter Pan collars, flat mary-jane shoes, thick wool tights: at 26, my wardrobe was pretty much indistinguishable from my wardrobe at six years old, the only differences being there was less Bonpoint and more Marc by Marc Jacobs, aka hipster Bonpoint for adults.
The early Noughties were a strange time to get into fashion and to have, for the first time, disposable money to spend on clothes. On the one hand, there were lots of sexxxxxy grown-up clothes by Tom Ford at Gucci, Versace and Michael Kors. And on the other, there were lots of clothes that looked like they were for overgrown children by Marc by Marc Jacobs, Marc Jacobs and various other designers whose names weren’t Marc Jacobs. It was, if you will, the Sex and the City dichotomy of fashion, with Samantha on the one hand dressing like an ’80s vamp and Carrie on the other dressing like an eight-year-old with a credit card, and it’s a moot point by now whether that TV show created this dichotomy or reflected it. The upshot for me was that this divide allowed me to feed my worst tendency, which is a refusal to accept that I am a grown-up.
Much has been written of late about “man boys”, that strange species of twenty-, thirty- and even forty-year-old men who live like teenagers, playing boring computer games all day, dress like absolute shit and treat the women in their lives even worse. Less, though, is said about their female equivalents – the “woman girls”? – because, I guess, the idea that maybe not all women are thrilled about growing up contradicts the popular media narrative that women are humourless shrews and mad with baby hunger. Maybe some of us aren’t out there at 24, trying to trick men into settling down with us and then stealing their sperm. Maybe some of us would quite like to live on our own for as long as possible and go out all night and then stay in bed all day the next day, watching a Murder, She Wrote marathon while eating peanut butter out of the jar, without anyone judging us. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to my early twenties to mid-thirties.
The idea of behaving like a grown-up was completely anathema to me during that period. I looked at friends who were in serious relationships – who lived with their partners! – the way I still look at people who go on juice cleanses. (Why are you doing this to yourself? Don’t you know life is short? Why would you deliberately make yours so freaking joyless?) And so I set out to live my life exactly as I wanted, which meant not saving money for a mortgage or a baby or any of those normal things, but spunking it all away on Diptyque candles and weekends in Ibiza and clothes. So very, very many clothes. But it wasn’t until I was recently going through these clothes to make some much-needed space in my (new and now – gasp, horror, spoiler alert – shared) closet that I realised how very firmly I expressed my then-life through my then-clothes.
When people asked me in my mid-twenties who my fashion icon was, I would say, ever so proudly, “Wednesday Addams,” without ever asking myself if it was a tiny bit weird to want to dress like a cartoon child when I was 27. Think Winona Ryder’s wardrobe for her 2002 court appearance and you have some idea of my fantasy self-image in that era, all sweet princess coats and Alice bands, but undercut with an attitude that was less punkish and more toddler tantrum, which in my case meant not brushing my hair. The truth is, I looked less like Wednesday and Winona and more like a deranged overgrown child, a truth confirmed to me when I went through the clothes that had been staples for me during that period: a pink Luella prom dress; polka-dot Marc by Marc Jacobs party dresses; wonky pink minidresses by Marni; weird tops with cartoons on them by Miu Miu; the occasional deconstructed cardigan by Junya Watanabe (the Japanese, unsurprisingly, are really good at childlike clothes). These are not clothes worn by a woman wanting to be seen as a sexually confident adult. In fact, the slightly asexual silliness was kind of the point and a point of pride for me. “See?” I was saying sartorially. “Being OBVIOUSLY sexy is so basic. It’s the way I’m making myself unsexy that’s sexy – get it?” (“No,” the world replied, judging from my twentysomething love life.)
Now, I feel I should explain something here for all the youngsters out there reading this who weren’t even alive when Sex and the City was on TV. Designers in the early Noughties didn’t actually want adults to walk around looking like overgrown eight-year-olds. No, all of the clothes I have described above were supposed to be worn with a degree of irony: think of Carrie Bradshaw pairing her J’adore Dior T-shirt (which I totally would have bought) with a very grown-up couture skirt and high heels (which I absolutely would not have bought). Or, if you want an only slightly less-dated reference, Lily Allen wearing her prom dress with trainers. But I’ve never been any good at irony, so I wore mine with wince-inducing literalness: prom dresses with round-toed high heels, Peter Pan-collar dresses with frilly ankle socks. And this was OK – it was a strong look and I committed, dammit – but at a certain point (let’s say 32) I felt less like Ryder in court and more like Grayson Perry in drag. And as much as I rebelled against adult sexiness, not even I wanted to look like a middle-aged male transvestite.
But change – in my experience – does not happen when it is forced. This is why no one ever sticks to diets: because people are too aware of what they are denying themselves. But when you are getting over a heartbreak, or bereavement, or you’re just in love, it’s incredible how thin you get, because you don’t actually notice you’re not eating. So my initial, and far-too-effortful, attempts to mature my wardrobe were, quite frankly, a disaster. I genuinely blush as I type this, but I took as my role model – kill me now – Kate Middleton. Yes, I fully concede I was probably suffering a mental as well as a wardrobe breakdown at this point. I bought an absurd Issa dress that I wore precisely once, and a Reiss dress that I wore never. I didn’t, thank God, buy nude courts from LK Bennett – I hadn’t entirely lost my mind – but I did find myself wondering if getting extensions might help matters (it might have, but I’ll never know because, honestly, who can be faffed with that nonsense?). But slowly, things started shifting of their own accord. I bought a pair of herringbone-tweed trousers from Marc by Marc Jacobs, which were the first pair of trousers I ever owned that weren’t denim and made me feel like Annie Hall. With growing confidence, I then bought a pair of slouchy black trousers with a white racing stripe from Maje. Bella Freud jumpers, I found, hit my sweet spot between “grown-up” and “not boring”, while Stuart Vevers at Coach acted as my transition out of Marc by Marc Jacobs and Luella (both of which went out of business just as I was growing out of them. Coincidence? I THINK NOT). Vevers’s clothes, I found, were fun (jumpers with dinosaurs on them, dresses with planetary prints) but not infantile. Then Alessandro Michele burst into my world, like an exciting celebrity cameo on a tired sitcom. He reassured me that grown-up labels such as Gucci can be fun and then promptly near-bankrupted me, because I might have tweed trousers but I’m still terrible with money. And just as my wardrobe was growing up, I, without even really noticing it, moved in with someone.
The thing is, if you asked my friends, I doubt they would say my wardrobe has changed that much in the past 10 years. OK, I don’t wear as many weird dresses, but I still definitely wear a lot of stuff I’ve always worn: my Luella tweed cape, my Marc by Marc Jacobs band jacket-style cardigans, my Marc Jacobs round-toed mary-janes. But I wear them all in a different way, because I’m no longer trying to tell the world I’m still 14 (I don’t wear all three of those things together, for a start). I own grown-up trousers, for God’s sake, and even a pair of high(ish) heels. I changed, but in my way. I don’t look like one of the women on LA Law, which was previously my image of how grown-up women looked, but nor do I look like Grayson Perry. I look like what I am: a woman in her late thirties in a dinosaur jumper from Coach, a pencil skirt from Gucci and a pair of ankle boots from Topshop. And I’m good with that.
Text Hadley Freeman
Illustration Stephen Doherty
Taken from the latest issue of 10 Magazine, ALAÏA SHIFT POWER NEW, on newsstands now…