A couple of years ago I pitched up to my friend Gina’s house in a wild vintage maxi skirt. I’ll explain how I came to find it in a moment, but Gina’s reaction to it was telling.
It’s so you!
she proclaimed. It felt like it too. We headed off into town with our protest placards (a whole other story) and my inner show-off was gratified as it attracted raised eyebrows and comments throughout the day.
Dressing as ourselves
As I’ve dissected my style crisis of recent years, the maxim I read about time and again is the importance of dressing to reflect yourself. The ‘self’ in question may vary from day to day, but that’s the joy of clothes – you get to change them according to your mood.
My problem though – it’s one thing to understand the importance of ‘dressing like yourself’ – but quite another to figure out how to actually do that. I instinctively knew that skirt was somehow ‘essence of me’ – but I wasn’t quite sure how I managed to do it. And if I didn’t know the answer to that – how was I going to pull it off again?
By coincidence I’ve just finished reading ‘Work like a Woman’ by Mary Portas. There’s a lot of wisdom in there – as well as a good deal of style, mischief and mayhem – all reasons why I like her so much. She talks about the strength of bringing your whole self to work – and analyses why, especially in large organisations, we’ve learned not to do that; in effect, hiding large parts of our identity. Citing a survey of 2000 working women which showed that 75% admitted changing how they looked or behaved to succeed, she concludes:
…this question of identity is, I believe, crucial to what slows women down on the way to the top. It’s why, in so many cases, we aspire to leadership but don’t actually want to become leaders because of who we have to become.
With that in mind, is it any surprise that so many of us struggle to work out how to dress in a way that actually reflects our sense of self on any given day? And if we can learn (or re-learn) how to do that – what effect might it have on our ability to be ourselves?
Stumbling across a style story
So, back to my big skirt. How did it come to be? And how did I figure out that it might hold the key to dressing like me?
When it comes to the formative years of my wardrobe history, when I wasn’t been making clothes, I was riffling through sale racks and furtling through piles of clothes in second-hand shops, auctions, jumble sales and (when I could get away with it) the bottom of my mother’s storage trunk. I still have gems unearthed in the late 70s and early 80s. It breaks my heart to think of others abandoned through necessity under stairs and in cellars across Colchester and London.
Fast forward to December 2018; wandering through a local antique centre with a friend I came across this:
A full length, full-on taffeta skirt with a deep ruffle at the bottom. The fabric made a wonderful rustle as it moved, with no holds barred on the design front. I tentatively held it against me, established that it might be a bit tight, but not beyond the bounds of alteration. However I was supposed to be looking for Christmas presents on a budget, not personal indulgence, even if only to the tune of £12. So I put it back on the rail, took a wistful picture and moved on.
Except I couldn’t. The vision of that skirt haunted me all the way home and was still lurking at the front of my head the next morning. Before the day was out, I’d called the shop, checked it was still there, paid and asked them to put it by until my next visit.
It took a minor alteration to the zip and waistband to make it fit. Its first outing was to be paraded around the streets of central London as mentioned – although having put my foot through the hem it’s now in need of a little repair. Even I have to confess that a full length skirt isn’t always the most practical of dresses. But I love it and have been itching to dress it up as it truly deserves. It almost had a pink jacket made – and might yet. But bearing in mind my usual style leanings towards simplicity, clean lines, shirts and trousers, how on earth has this full-on 50s evening skirt come to claim my heart so boldly?
Me and my big skirts
In the light of the announcement that this skirt was ‘so me’, I cast my mind back to big skirts I’ve known and loved. And it turns out, there are many. The absence of Instagram in my teens and twenties means there’s little in the way of evidence, but I recall them vividly; they include:
- A fancy dress party dressed as Elizabeth 1, courtesy of carefully shaped and sewn-in coathangers
- A succession of gathered 1950s printed dresses and skirts through the early 80s
- A variety of bubble skirts and Cyndi Lauper / Betsey Johnson inspired dresses in the later 1980s. Taffeta was frequently a feature of these.
Most of these excesses were exaggerated by my mother’s collection of 1950s tiered taffeta underskirts; the more, and the more visible, the better. Here is the one picture I have of me wearing her Horrocks 50s sundress with (count them if you can) three petticoats underneath. (Yes, that is me – and no, that’s not the fashion police – just ignore the gentlemen in uniform…)
Where did all the big skirts go?
Then of course, the 90s happened. Vertical lines, simplicity and slip dresses. The world of work took over for me – and took over my wardrobe too. Occasionally an amazing skirt would dodge my mental barrier and grab my attention – only for me to resign myself to not having the opportunity to wear it. The odd party skirt was made and worn but without the same sense of gusto as I recalled.
Over recent years however, as I saw the most amazing brocades come and go through the ClothSpot collections, I’d increasingly dream of wearing a fabulous skirt. It would be wide, pleated, have pockets, be a statement. The vision would nag me briefly, then fade again.
When I went to the Balenciaga exhibition at the V&A in 2017, I was struck by the volume that he created in some of his clothes. Sometimes that was achieved by developing entirely new fabrics with textiles manufacturers. On other occasions, he was extraordinarily creative with support structures inside his garments – using gathers, tapes and even metal wire as you can see in this x-ray.
These all left a shadow of longing – and that’s what that skirt in the antique shop clung onto in my mind.
Big Skirts 2021
When I wore my big wild skirt back in 2019, I had a feeling of courage, of exuberance and a sense of belonging. I felt confident; I felt like me. I think the skirt did that because it connected my personal fashion history and the fabrics and designs that inspire me.
I couldn’t possibly wear a big skirt every day. I’d break my neck on the stairs for one thing; for another I love the sense of occasion that comes with wearing a statement garment.
That said, I was gratified to see that big skirts are making something of a comeback. This month’s Vogue has some choice examples, net underskirts and all.
This embellished and ruffled spring stunner is by Miu Miu…
…while this 80s throwback with ridiculous volume gathered into a more fitted lining, is by Ashley Williams.
What I really liked is the way they’ve been styled up with casual tops – this one from Marni has been topped off with an oversized hoodie.
‘I can do that’ I thought – digging out my ‘Toaster’ sweater in navy ponte and layering it over my daughter’s black hoodie.
The scale and print of my vintage skirt is obviously very different – but the combination of that with a very plain, totally casual top – well – I like that. A lot. It makes my big skirt wearable and once we’re allowed out, I’m looking forward to pulling on my stompy boots and stepping out boldly.
Looking forward to more!
When we put new fabrics up on the site, we always spend time working out just what someone might make with each one. We make individual pattern suggestions and sometimes there’s a whole narrative in our heads behind a fabric. That was certainly the case with the amazing brocades we posted a couple of weeks back. There might be a current style reference, the potential for a classic garment, a wardrobe staple – or simply the opportunity to have some fun. F-U-N! Remember that?
The penny dropped that this process is one that I could apply to my own wardrobe. A style favourite from the past; a vintage find; inspiration from the fashion pages. I’ve spent time working methodically through my style crisis and yes, part of me does like the idea of developing a sense of personal style and a cohesive wardrobe. But sometimes, it’s important just to go with the flow and have a bit of fun with it all.
The upshot is that I’m planning to have more style stories to tell – so watch this space. And I’d love to know if you have any similar sartorial tales that draw on inspirations from a variety of sources – please – do tell!