It struck me with force as I stood at a London railway station looking at the crowd on the platform opposite: the uniform. No, not the railway staff – the passengers. Practically every single person was wearing tightly-fitting black or blue casual trousers. A few men – very few, about six or seven out of a couple of hundred people, I would say – were in suits. Three or four women wore skirts. But everyone else was in the standard uniform.
What has happened to us? Anyone arriving from the Britain of fifty years ago would think we had been invaded by a conquering army and forbidden from dressing attractively. Girls don’t even refer to shirts or blouses any more – everything is just a “top”. And, of course, often not very much of a top – the correct form for today is that it shouldn’t meet the trousers and there must be a bulge of flesh in between. For the seriously fashionable, the bulge should include a nasty glimpse of inadequate underwear, and of the body beneath.
No, this isn’t a gripe against the young. I’m middle-aged and my generation is just as bad, too. Ugly track-suit trousers, lycra stretching over vast behinds, rolls of fat emerging from tight-fitting “tops” that cut into fleshy shoulders: ugh.
Anyone arriving from the Britain of fifty years ago would think we had been invaded by a conquering army and forbidden from dressing attractively.
Some women do wear jackets skirts for work. But – in London and elsewhere – this outfit is often donned at the office and discarded at the end of the working day in favour of the regulation black or blue jeans and loose top for the journey home. Men, too, usually keep their office suits in a cupboard at work and do not subject them to public view beyond the office walls.
This uniformity is partly, alas, a matter of fear. We are routinely warned not to wear jewelry that might be a temptation to a thief and, by extension, we have all developed a fear of looking too “posh”, too middle-class, too likely to have a briefcase or handbag containing something valuable.
Will we ever be able to dress pleasantly again? Summer dresses in pastel shades or with stripes or even the occasional flower motif? Pink or cream or some other-coloured blouses – with collars, even cuffs, and set off by a pretty scarf? Skirts: pleated, wrap-around, layered gypsy-style, A-line, or gored? Is all this too much to ask?
We do seem to be allowed to dress up for a limited – very limited – number of formal occasions. These include weddings and perhaps first Communions (but not necessarily christenings, and only to a limited extent funerals), grand charity functions, certain race-meetings, and lavish birthday celebrations.
For these occasions we are expected to buy something that we will rarely, and perhaps never, wear again. It’s too ludicrous. And while on the subject of weddings, I feel sad for brides who buy a fabulously expensive dress and can then never wear it again, as there are no formal dances or parties that are grand enough. When I married it wasn’t exactly in Queen Victoria’s day (it was 1980, to be exact) and my lovely Laura-Ashley-style white dress with a deep ruffle round the hem and a satin ribbon sash came in very handy for several dances over the next couple of years. Before that, I’d been twirling around joyously at parties in a succession of very delightful dresses made by my mother on the family sewing-machine and modeled on those we’d seen in some of the grander London shops. They were ideal for 21st birthjday celebrations, and for trendy summer barbeques where below the dress one had bare feet, in one’s hand a large shady hat and somewhere there was Simon-and-Garfunkel music…
Can we do anything to revive a sense of beauty in fashion? One might make a start in hot weather. Ladies of all ages: please, no tight, hot, uncomfortable, black trousers, no rolls of unsightly flesh, no bulging out of inadequate clothing. Let’s have a range of attractive colours, swinging skirts, a variety of blouses. Let’s re-introduce that vanished garment, the summer dress: cool and elegant, or bright and swishy, or plain and enlivened with something snazzy by way of belt and scarf.
There are some good things around. A teenage niece looked great in something called a “handkerchief skirt” – difficult to describe, but calf-length and designed with different shapes of material all fitted together and making a very attractive whole. At recent weddings, I have seen some delightful bridesmaids’ dresses – with delighted girls wearing them. I think the current fad for little clip-on hats, vaguely reminiscent of the 1940s, with a bit of net and ribbon, and a flower or feather or two, and something sparkly, is huge fun. And there are some nice summer things emerging on one or two fashion pages – soft, cottony, swishy, glamorous – more, please.
But my main plea is for everyday wear. Can we get rid of those dreary, uniform black trousers? And can the new generation of bright young things rediscover the importance of beauty, not just for special occasions, but in our everyday clothes and the way we wear them?
Joanna Bogle writes from London.