Fear and clothing: If it works for you, wear it proudly
A reflection on the vagaries and charms of fashion
Everyone thought we’d be watching SONA today. Sadly not. There was a brief flurry of a sideshow in Saxonwold on Wednesday followed by a really good gas-lighting attempt from the Jacob. But for now the delight of the parliamentary red carpet in all its incongruous glory, missteps and fashion fails has been postponed. So much for sharpening of my wit for the 20-gun salute.I won’t lie to you, I am always slightly bemused by the notion of ballgowns in parliament. What does it mean that all these ostensibly serious politicians, bent on policy and realpolitik, want to step out in their gladrags and put on a show? Let’s not even go to the canary yellow show (you never want your fashion choices to be immortalised as memes – ever! )
And yet despite my snark, research tells me that I am the one out of step with actual fashion reality. Parliamentarians are not fickle, shallow types ready to strut their stuff. Retail sales over the past couple of seasons have shown that athleisure and eveningwear are the growing segments of the fashion market, while ladylike ensembles involving smart daywear have tanked. Seems that the market for the kinds of dresses Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera produced for the ladies who lunch and those who go to parliament have gone the way of the pillbox hat and the dainty day-glove of yore.There was a time when women who worked wore black pants-suits and women who lunched did not. Their wardrobes were as distinct as if they belonged to a separate species. The one – a dull manifestation of the “take me seriously in a version of your work clothes oh men”, and the other – birds of paradise that manifested in charming lunch spots to spend an afternoon of pleasant burbling and competitive acquisition.
Nobody knew what to do with the women who worked and did not want to wear the dreaded black suit sexless uniform.But now work is sexy and necessary for almost all women, even ones who can build in a lovely little working lunch. As jobs have become more flexible and often more entrepreneurial, and the world of work relaxes its norms and boundaries, so the kinds of clothes women wear have changed. After #MeToo nobody would dream of suggesting that some ensembles are less work-appropriate than others for fear of meeting with the wrath of women everywhere. It is not a good place to be. Almost as bad as the bad yellow dress meme.
As society becomes more casual so the clothes follow suit. Hence athleisure. A category of clothes that says “I really like clothes, but I would never be seen to be trying too hard”. A category that conflates wellbeing with luxury. A category that transforms the humble tracksuit bottom into a nappa leather extravaganza. A category Victoria Beckham owns because she lives it every day, sporting her effortless yet manicured style while running a multimillion-dollar fashion empire, a family of preternaturally photogenic people, and her Instagram account.But what, you might well ask, have ballgowns to do with it? Perhaps the democratisation of the workplace, the flattening of old hierarchies and the casualisation of chic, has its counterpoint in la-la land. That happy place where everyone lives out their Hollywood dreams and gets to strut their stuff. If everyone is the star of their own show, then goddammit they will wear what they like to celebrate themselves. They will live their dream in their own ballgown. Maybe this is also why matric dances and the attendant dresses have grown in amplitude and significance in the minds of their young denizens. They, like the parliamentarians, need to sparkle all night long every chance they get.