Clothes tell the world who you are – but first you’ve got to figure that out

Hadley Freeman
‘Betty White now opts for patterned blouses and cute pastel trousers, and has never looked happier.’ Photograph: LA Times via Getty Images

As this column is part of a fashion special, it seemed an opportune time to write about one of my pet fashion subjects. No, not how Rob Lowe’s vest in St Elmo’s Fire is the most important contribution to men’s style in the history of cinema (that requires more space than a mere column). Rather, about women’s relationship with fashion. Contrary to what some will have you believe, this does not begin and end with Kate Moss giving us all eating disorders. Fashion is the most universal form of self-expression, and we can debate all day whether it’s a sign of tragic self-effacement or delightful defiance that so many women use clothes to make a statement about themselves. Rather than disappearing up my own peplum by arguing theoreticals, I’m more interested in how our relationship with clothes changes as our relationship with ourselves shifts. Welcome to The Five Fashion Ages Of Women.

The Golden Age (birth to early adolescence) This period of life, when you look at relatives who gift you clothing as second only to the Child Catcher in evilness, is a blissful prelapsarian state, because you have the self-confidence not to need to outsource your self-expression. Rather, you saunter through life with the unapologetic ballsiness of Marion Kelly, who famously gatecrashed her father’s Skype interview with BBC News and is now very much my role model for life. Some girls start to show an interest in exaggerated femininity: frills, ballet dresses, pink. (You will not be wildly surprised to know I was such a girl.) This is just an extension of what all fashion should be to the under-13s, and that is “a costume”.

The Fall (teens-early 20s) Self-awareness hits, big time, and the result is rarely happy or photogenic. In my early school days, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what made some girls (not me) cool and other girls (me) not. Was it that the cool ones all had older siblings? Or names that ended in “I”? (Nikki, Tiffani: it was the 80s.) Was it because they were allowed to watch TV with advertisements? Obviously, the answer to all of the above was and remains a strong affirmative, but at the age of 14 a suddenly more important factor presented itself: fashion. By now, we were in the 90s, which meant baggy trousers and cropped tops: not a natural look for a skinny-legged, pot-bellied Jewish girl. But this is when you try to assert your identity, and because at this age you are still blurred around the edges and have no idea who you are, you do this by copying the people around you.

The Joy (late 20s-mid-30s) This is when things get fun – after all, fashion, like all the fun things in life, is made for this age-group. In my 20s, I lived with two friends in a former travel agency in east London (swivel chairs and out-of-date maps of Pakistan piled in one corner), and occasionally I had spare cash for essentials such as Topshop skater dresses and Miu Miu alice bands. It was an adult version of how I dressed as a child, and while I still had no idea who I was, really, I was at least being true to my 25-year-old self, which turned out to be the same as my five-year-old self.

The Uncertainty (mid-30s-40s) “I have no idea what to wear,” is a cry common among women of this age, but what they really mean is, “I have no idea who I am any more.” Perhaps their bodies are blasted after having babies, perhaps they’ve realised they’re turning 40 – not “one day”, as Sally sobbed in When Harry Met Sally, but yesterday. I never felt less myself than when I was slopping around the house on maternity leave in tracksuit bottoms and a giant sweatshirt – not by choice, but because bodily fluids of every colour were leaking out of my person, so I wore my equivalent of the invisibility cloak. When finally I fitted back into my normal clothes, I was almost as happy as the day I gave birth, because I felt like I’d come back to myself. I swear, clothes that mute personality (including work suits) are bad for mental health.

The Purple Era (50s onwards) I have never felt the need to wait for old age to break out the purple, but I agree with the spirit of Jenny Joseph’s poem. I know some older women opt for self-effacing black, but I would urge them to take inspiration from Betty White: while in her youth White wore gowns, now she opts for patterned blouses and cute pastel trousers, and has never looked happier. Best of all, White once said she finishes off every day with an ice-cold vodka and a hot dog, which is the chicest thing I’ve ever heard. After all, she is being her own self, which is what true style is all about, even if it takes a lifetime to find it.

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