Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Dressing down the sartorial naysayers

The Thoughtful Dresser by Linda Grant (published by Virago)

Novelist Linda Grant doesn’t claim to be a stylist or even a fashion buff. What she enjoys, she explains, are good clothes. And shoes. And handbags.

So what she has set out to do in her new book is to explore why clothes are important – and why making an effort to think about how we dress is not wasted time.

This accessible – and in places very, very funny – book is not what you’d call a work of scholarly rigour, but Grant still manages to get across a number of messages with enjoyable ease.

She illustrates, with just a cursory look at the distant past, how humans have always cared about how they look – about how they present themselves, from the earliest adornments and tattoos. Which, as she points out, makes a nonsense of the view that fashion is only a product of capitalism and consumerism, and that shallow women are just manipulated into contemplating matters sartorial.

She also illustrates the inherent misogyny in the view that thinking or talking about clothes is an indicator of vapidity. Men base so many of their responses to women on how women look, and criticise them if they don’t look ‘good’, but also criticise the time they spend achieving that look.

As Grant points out, we have to wear clothes: a man begging on the street might have plenty of people pass by and ignore him. But if he’s naked, the police will turn up pretty quickly and take him away. Clothes, in our society, are not an option. It might sound howlingly obvious, but if that’s the case, why do some people consider it to be an indicator of a weak mind – or a capitalist plot – when people enjoy thinking about clothes, shopping and dressing?

Why, for instance, is shopping derided more than, say, watching football or playing dangerous sports or playing shoot-em-ups on a computer – or any other predominantly male form of pleasure?

Grant rails against clothing being limited to the strictly utilitarian, and peppers the book with anecdotes about her own mother – the daughter of immigrants – who understood the way clothing could be used to help fit in. And there is a series of interviews with Canadian style doyen Catherine Hill, an Auschwitz survivor whose teenage life was possibly saved by a moment of old-fashioned, female vanity.

The point that, in the 19th century, department stores were a new and liberating place for women, where they could go unchaperoned, is made too (see Zola's The Ladies' Paradise). And how new designs (by designers, thus stressing the importance of designers) for shoes and dresses also helped in the process of liberating women (from corsets etc).

We read how Coco Chanel created the timeless little black dress as long ago as 1926, and how, in the aftermath of WWII, women swooned for Christian Dior’s beautiful New Look.

Grant is quite clear that fashion – in terms of the catwalks etc – is not ‘real’ clothing, but a form of art, and every bit as valid as a painting or a piece of music. However, she also believes that our innate desire to look aesthetically good – to be attractive – is “irrational”.

But that begs the question of whether art in general is irrational – indeed, whether it’s irrational to consider aesthetics in anything that could be strictly utilitarian (architecture, for instance). And unless you think it is, then it’s difficult to conclude that clothing should adhere to a different ethos.

Grant ends with the story of a single red, high-heeled, patent shoe that she spotted on the top of a display of shoes at Auschwitz, where they’d been stolen from owners who were mostly destined for the gas chamber.

She dares us to denigrate the unknown victim of the Holocaust who had worn or carried with her on that final journey, shoes that she loved.

And she leaves us with a challenge – to live and to make the most of it. Including in the enjoyment of what we wear.

This feels a little like Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion: as he was eventually provoked by fundamentalists into writing, so Grant has been poked with a stick by those (including women) who pour derision on others for taking care over what they wear.

And while it doesn’t have quite the force of Dawkins’s work, it’s an enjoyable, interesting and welcome rebuttal to a particular attitude and critique.


  1. Amen!

    Oh, and tell me $70 isn't too much to spend on a handbag, especially if it's the loveliest shade of blue, has wide comfy straps, and loads of room and I really need a bag with comfy straps and room for a still camera, cam-corder, guidebook and google-phone. I mean, yes there's a recession and all, but wouldn't it be stimulating the economy? I usually don't go over $35 for a handbag, but it is for New York, and it would be serving a practical purpose. And I'd feel less anxious about it if I had the Sybarite Seal of Approval.

  2. ~~LOL~~ If the sterling or euro equivalent of $35 was my limit, I wouldn't own most of the bags I do. So you certainly win my seal of approval, Irene.