No Filter: Jess Cartner-Morley Writes About Her Fashion Childhood
I was a funny-looking child, but I had great clothes. I can say this with no conceit, because I had absolutely nothing to do with choosing the clothes. It is my mum who takes the credit. Which is only fair, since she also holds full responsibility for my haircuts. Friends, if you ever thought the bowl haircut was just an expression, take a look at my fringe circa 1974–76. Oh yes, that’s an upturned cereal bowl silhouette right there.
But I’ve been a fashion editor for 20 years now and I have worn some great gowns, yet I don’t think I’ve ever had a better party dress than the home-sewn Liberty-print frocks that my grandma would give to me when we visited her in Manchester. (I grew up in a commune with dozens of people living in it. We had a lot of birthday parties.) In almost every photo in which I am wearing one of those dresses, I am also wearing the triumphant and usually jam-smeared smile of a girl who is confident she is absolutely owning the dancefloor in her dress every time the DJ prompts another round of musical chairs.
Forty years after I grew out of the last of my grandma-made dresses, I’ve only to run my finger over the distinctive spongy surface of a smocked Ganni dress and I can taste birthday cake. As for the hooded duffel coat that I used to wear to scramble up trees in Epping Forest, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve spent every autumn shopping spree since trying to recapture the softness and security of that coat. A Burberry trench comes pretty close, especially when it comes to feeling equipped for the British weather. A classic Max Mara camel wrap coat brings the same earthy, human-to-planet connection you want to feel on a country walk. But the gold standard will always be that duffel coat.
Childhood photos bring clothes to life more vividly than the ritziest ad campaigns. When I look at a photo of little me wearing that duffel coat, I can hear the crisp-packet rustle of the dry autumn leaves I kick with my scuffed mary janes. I swear I could put my hand in my pocket right now and pull out a dog-eared box of Sun-Maid raisins, which, as every child of the 1970s can testify, were what passed as a travel-convenient treat food in the pre-snackification era.
The intense sensory experience of looking at childhood photos starts with the physical act of digging out the photos. We live now in an immersive, ever-present image gallery of personal photos, with an endlessly searchable database of memories at our fingertips – literally. Photos of ourselves, our family, our friends, friends of friends, friends of siblings’ colleagues. It feels so infinite that it is strange to realise, when you dig a little deeper, that this image bank ends quite abruptly, in its coverage of most us, about 15 years ago, when the smartphone became ubiquitous. You can’t scroll back any further than that, not on a touchscreen. You will need to log on to a hulking desktop computer, where family photos were digitised in the old days. Or flip through photo albums, with their neat annotations (remember when we had handwriting!) and curling corners. Or shuffle through the dusty shoe- boxes in the loft, peeling apart photos that have stuck to each other with sticky dots of Blu Tack from when they were a fixture on someone’s fridge long ago.
But the deep dive is worth it, because there is a richness to the memories in those photos that no VR headset can replicate. There is a photo of me and my little sister post-swim on an East Anglian beach, arms around each other, our bodies gawky and rigid in a way that brings rushing back how uncomfortable those new-potato-sized pebbles are to stand on. I can hear “Every Breath You Take by The Police” playing as soon as I look at that photo, so I guess it must be from 1983. I can almost taste the lurid emo-orange of a Lyons Maid ice lolly. And I can feel the thick navy fabric of my swimsuit, my favourite; I can remember how I wore it even when I’d grown too tall and the straps dug into my shoulders.
We remember childhood clothes for how they feel. The dungarees you can climb in, the skirt that twirls when you dance, the collar that itches, the shoelaces that are tricky to tie. Even when we remember how they look, that is also tied in with how they feel – the T-shirt in your favourite colour, the cardigan that you loved because it matched your best friend’s, the polished shoes that were carefully fitted to you by a serious-looking lady with a tape measure around her neck, delicately squeezing your in-step. But throw in a few decades of hindsight, and a whole new layer of meaning starts to shimmer out of those photos.
The mood music of the 1970s is all there in the family albums. Me, chubby and frog- legged on my mum’s lap, about a year old. Mum is looking at me; I am very focused on a cracker. My mum’s skirt is short and her hair long. It hangs forward, poker straight, parted in the middle and tucked behind her ear on one side. She is wearing shades of brown; I am wearing ketchup-red dungarees with rainbow-striped straps. And on the same page, another photo from about the same age – black and white this time, so you can’t tell what colour my overalls are. But you can tell from the way they stretch softly over my barrel of a tummy that they are terry cloth. Every object in that memory is a tactile memory of a moment in time – the nubbly terry cloth, the tartan blanket laid out on the patio for me to sit on, the tin camping mug behind me, the modernist plastic lines of the broken telephone that I have commandeered for my toy basket, complete with ringlet curls of cable.
When I’m not wearing the beautiful dresses my grandma made for me, I am usually in red or yellow or navy, rather than pink. At our commune birthday parties you can’t tell, when the kids are toddlers, who is a boy and who is a girl – it is OshKosh dungarees and rainbow stripes all round. (When we kids get older, though, we assert our own ideas, sometimes less progressive than our parents’.) By the late 1970s, I have adopted Princess Leia plaited doughnuts in my long hair, and party photos document my taste for accessorising the chic neutral clothes chosen by my mum with gaudy bits of costume jewellery that I have somehow acquired from local Dalston markets.
The contradictions of a decade whose mood board mixed Laura Ashley, kaftans and punk beam out of every family photo album of the 1970s – yours, as well as mine. One day it was Liberty prints, the next it was dungarees. There are Clarks shoes and toggle buttons and lacy white socks, but one of my most prized dresses was, my mum remembers with pride, bought in Paris. With three white buttons on a navy bodice, a raised waistband and a chequerboard skirt, it has the wannabe- French charm of an early Alexa Chung collection. In a photo taken in the Dordogne in 1976, I am just about tall enough that when I stand on the driver’s seat of our battered orange 2CV with its soft-top rolled down you can see my tomboy grin for the camera over the top edge of the windscreen. We are on a dusty French road and, even in a faded photo, the sunlight is distinctly continental, but my sundress is red and white gingham, all English-picnic charm – and I distinctly remember that the headline event of that holiday was that the Heinz ketchup we had taken with us was stolen out of the car. You can take the girl out of England, etc.
When you flip through my childhood photos from the beginning, you start off thinking that the 1970s had the worst hairstyles of all time. And then you get to the 1980s, and – wow! – the mullets, the duck- bottom wedges and sub-Diana flicked fringes. In my childhood photos, the pictures from the 1980s have a garish, popcorn-y, Spielberg vibe that makes the earth-toned 1970s look like a Loewe campaign by comparison. There is one oversized, pink and grey striped jumper I am wearing in several photos – 1985, I’d say – which I distinctly remember being my prized fashion possession at the time. It is, I can confidently tell you, the ugliest jumper you have ever seen in your life.
I was born in 1973, so by the end of the 1980s I was in the middle of my teenage years. Here’s the other thing about family photos from the pre-digital age: we didn’t know how to pose. Sometimes my sister and I are smiling, sometimes we are goofing about. Some- times we are reading our books or listening to our Sony Walkmans and completely ignoring Mum’s camera. There is an almost Martin Parr-ish candour to the portraits. We didn’t know there was such a thing as a best side. It would never, in a million years, have occurred to us to play with our hair and glance winsomely aside when someone pointed a camera at us, as pretty much every year-8 girl has now mastered. If you want hot dog legs, or cute captions, or puppy dog filters, Instagram has everything. But if you want to see great fashion, get the family album down.
All images courtesy of Jess Cartner-Morley. Taken from Issue 65 of 10 Magazine – FAMILY, FOREVER, LOVE – available to purchase here.
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