When I first started fashion journalism, I did it reactively: hot-headed, impulsive, aiming snarks at someone who’d wounded my ego in the only way I could — by making witty comments about the banality of their wardrobe. Looking back, it was little more than crystallised bitchiness on my part; but I dressed it up in wry (anonymous) observations about the misleading gentlemanliness of cashmere polo necks, and, somehow, I ended up having lunch at Vogue magazine.
That was two years ago, and for me the fashions of first years have now transformed into the wardrobes of finalists. Do we change the way we dress at university? Do we undergo some kind of evolution in style as we undergo an evolution in exam technique? I think so. Whether we do it consciously or unconsciously, I’m less certain. But few people, I’ve noticed, retain exactly the same sartorial aesthetic they came here with.
Of course, there is something remarkably assuring about the people who do manage to wear exactly the same clothes at 21 as they did at 18. You will always encounter a William in the same gilet/red trousers combo that he wore the hazy hungover Sunday following Matriculash. There will be a standard Saz who only seems to have altered her style by expanding her range of Claire’s chokers. You will find an Eric who is still glorying in the dip-dyed nostalgia of his Gap Yah. And there will always be a dependable John, who bought his college sweater in freshers’ week, and has yet to remove it. Such folk are to be commended on finding a secure sense of identity so early on in life: people whose clothes do not change rarely change themselves. If they were nice people then, they are probably still nice people now.
The same cannot be said, however, of all of us. Particularly not those of us whose university experience has largely been a series of small but cumulative epiphanies, resulting in the inevitable: I’m not who I thought I was. This thought usually follows some disproportionately enormous dilemma, such as one only experiences when life is filtered through the melodrama of serial essay crises, lack of sleep, Fifth Week Blues and terrible decisions made regarding strange men (sporting dubiously wonky blue mascara) while occupying a shadowy enclave in Cellar.
As time moves on — through a phase I believe some call “growing up” — the exposure we have at university to multiple intellectual strategies, not to mention plain old Other People, begins to turn us into something less fixed, more prismatic. Based on purely anecdotal evidence, I like to think that we have the better parts of ourselves unearthed at university: that the melting-pot nature of the academic world works its magic and individuals, for the most part, become increasingly accepting of alternative points of view. And also of each other.
Which doesn’t mean the metamorphosis is not traumatic. Nobody comes out of this without a few bruises and scars: to the ego, to the heart, and to the mind. To get to the jelly bit of the trifle you have to first get through the foam, as they say (or don’t). Hopefully those we care about don’t get lost in the between-spaces for too long.
When I got here, I was certain I was your archetypal Nice Girl. I dressed in ribbed tights and A-line skirts in pastel colours and I left my hair to its natural curls. I wore copious amounts of vintage. I wore princess dresses to college balls, frothy chiffon, icky virginal whites. I thought all of this legitimated my Goodie Two Shoes persona. Someone, somewhere, before university, had told me to be pretty and accessible but not too pretty and accessible: to also look smart, and a little bit frosty. To not let the boys think I was easy.
Several drunken mistakes later, I had ricocheted to the other extreme: I was obviously a Terrible Human Being and dressed accordingly. I was hard and cold and impervious to heartbreak, I squished the egos of men under towering black leather lace-up army boots (gross exaggeration, but whatever). It was my very own aesthetic rebellion: armoured up in gratuitous amounts of black kohl as a frontline defence against my outdated little-girlishness, I looked as though someone had put Sienna Miller’s face with a Panda’s in a blender, but I was making a statement. Someone had said I was too “perfect” (read: unattractive) to be loved; if I couldn’t be loved, then I damn well wasn’t going to look, or be, perfect.
Still, time moves on and everyone learns not to take drunkards seriously (particularly when that drunkard is your own reflection in the mirror). Finally, as a wise old third year, I’m happier with my golden mean: an affable-enough girl who sometimes spectacularly fucks up, I dress mostly in black, and wear considerably less eyeliner. I’ve started collecting my first “designer staples” (including a frankly incredible Balmain jacket discovered in a charity shop); I still buy vintage and always will, and I have an expanding collection of fabulous jackets, which the shallowest part of me tentatively tries to correlate to my slowly increasing sense of self-worth.
Except obviously, it’s all bullshit. If my last three years have taught me anything, it’s that my original conception of fashion, and fashion’s obligations/uses, was totally ridiculous — regardless of how it got me into the corridors of venerated glossy magazines. I’ve overviewed my own wardrobe transformation here, because three years ago, I would have been stupidly keen to overview somebody else’s. To dismantle it, appraise it, give it the old “hermeneutics of suspicion” treatment, say this is an indication of that, psychologically, sociologically, et cetera, et cetera, blah blah blah.
In other words: I would have tried to rifle through somebody’s wardrobe without their permission, making reductive judgements, trying to argue my way to a suitable evaluation of their style choices as though I am the Suzy Menkes to the catwalk show of people’s lives (or telepathic). I would have cast them as indicative of a “type” of “fashion strategy” and twisted that into polemic, disguising annoyance/revenge as “aesthetic insight”.
And it would have been oh-so-tempting to pose this article as an encore review of the person who got me here in the first place. “The Way We Wore: Person X, then v. now“. What does their wardrobe look like these days? Largely the same? Drastically different? Somewhere in between?
What does that say about them? Is theirs the wardrobe of a consummate poser? Is it the wardrobe of someone who has learned their lessons? Do their socks indicate they are truer to themselves nowadays?
Have they finally learned how to convey their haphazard, wonderful, crazy personality via eccentric jackets? Are they still oppressed by stereotypical gender/class roles, and is that clearly demonstrated by their choice of bifurcated garments?
Are they evidently more confident because they dress to stand out as opposed to blend in?
Does loneliness really present in a V-neck?
Am I still talking the same old shit?
Because don’t we all do that, to a certain extent? I’ve been on the receiving end of other people’s critiques of my fashion choices; I’ve never enjoyed having to defend myself. From the outright accusations (“she dresses like a slut”) to the well-meaning passive aggression (“but don’t you think you always dress for men?”), every “interpretive” comment has been an assault loaded into an assumption. It’s affronted me. And I’m guilty of doing the same; for, just because the presentation of my criticism has been different, doesn’t mean the underlying impulse has been. I once said a tuxedo does not a gentleman make, but that said, neither does an Apple keyboard a bitch unmake.
In the end, despite the tours I’ve taken through fashion criticism and philosophy — breathtaking tours through Lars Svendsen and Stella Bruzzi, Diana Crane and Menkes herself — I’ve learned sweet FA about what people’s clothes can actually, conclusively tell us about them. Neither Roland Barthes nor Karl Largerfield could have ever prepared me for how very far away from the truth my “evaluations” have been, no matter how sculptured my semiotic strategies. The language of interpretation is a necessary investigative perpetuator of our culture and our textbooks and our trends. But it is dangerously unintelligent about real life.
If I’ve learned one vital lesson in my whole time at Oxford, it is this: to stop pretending I know everything. I may be able to offer advice on someone’s clothes — I may be able to take them out and dress them up in ways that satisfy some kind of sartorial zeitgeist — I may be able to talk endlessly in hypothetical ways about fashion theory — I could probably hold my own debating McQueen v. Galliano with the FROW.
But I cannot legitimately claim to know why the person next to me wears what they do. Not without meanly obscuring facets of their individual experience. Loud clothes can mask loneliness, jackets can be comfort blankets, a basically boring pair of jeans can be the trousers in which we raise the strongest battle cries of our lives. The people you thought would fall in love with tulle and glimmer, fall in love with sweatpants, and that’s just the way this funny old world works.
Some things come full circle. You may look better and dress better and behave better three years after you first stumble into the JCR, hoping desperately to make a friend; you might be considerably suaver and cooler now than you were at the time you lost that friend; but sometimes, if you’re insanely lucky, collisions reoccur, you get a second chance, and, regardless of what you’re wearing nowadays, conversations have the flavour of excitement they used to have — back when you were too busy trying to be kind to somebody to try to interpret them.
Those are the honourable endeavours, unfashionable as they may sound.