The Youth End
I must forget myself and what I wear: youth is at the centre of the life of clothes. At night outside clubs I may weave my way through them, past whitened faces, hair that is jet-blacked or gelled in short spines, past men in T-shirts and girls in next to nothing who bawl their laughter in the freezing gale – exposing arms and bust, midriff and thigh – with extraordinary audacities, or vulgarities, of colour. I notice them but they do not see me, for I am invisible because I am older. If, back in my study, I turn to journals of fashion theory, there again the analysis is of youth sub-cultures, and the complications of retro chic – the Pop Art look, the Op Art look, and the gaffs the unwary make when they put on a mid-sixties mini-dress (a replica, in which the arm-holes do not have the authentic 60s tightness) together with platforms that are clearly late 60s. And if I turn to the weekly and weekend fashion supplements, yet again it is a world of teen or twenty somethings. The models are attractive and young, and the designer names are youthfully shaved to a single syllable – taupe belt by Cos, sheer tights by Cette, Fred at Tesco. If the names are longer, they are funny, like Mango or Nougat: it is true that the odd ancient name survives, of a line that has managed to be at once venerable and cutting-edge, like Balenciaga. There are scoop-necks and cow-necks, and V-necks and button-necks and halter necks and funnel necks – and still even polo-necks – but all of them are young necks. There are styles again that look best on the young – cable knit and chunky knit, the cacquard dress and pinafore dress – and nearly of them in the supplements are well designed. Truly we live in a Paradise of Clothes, and even if many of them end up in landfill sites, still the production of more of them races, and is endless. For the fast money is Young Money – to an extent not seen before in history. Here at the youth end is the crucible, the ferment, the volcano of dress-invention and dress-production, flaring in the furnace of close-packed young people jumping on the spot to look out better for partners. Here trends change rapidly, skirts soar and plunge, sleeves lengthen and shorten and loosen and tauten, and colours change like a firework display. For all the fairground flurry and fashion bazaar, the conspicuous instant consumption of fat young pay-packets in a fireworks of fabrics, are not there for their own sake. They have a further purpose. The writhing, shimmering, yawning clothes find endless ways of hinting or showing the desirable young body within the clothes. They show it in glimpses, a magic creature of attraction, for the whole swirling Salome’s dance of coverings is concerned with the human spindle within them. Clothes cosset it and clasp it and conceal and reveal it, and make it seem to be in change for ever. Because the play of dress is a play of dress-dreams and dream-bodies, until the moment when consummation comes, and with a languorous sigh or with stumbling impatience, the clothes slip off or rip off, they unzip and divide and disappear, and body joins body with no envelope intervening.
Still, the youth end cannot be the whole story. Looking back at the older folks – those who make the most conspicuous show of their clothes – we may wonder quite what game it is, that the famous dandies are playing. The Beau Brummells, the Counts d’Orsay. They sport clothes that seem made for the mating game with little purpose of mating, but simply to be adored for a perfect display. There seems an odd short-circuiting here, an arrest at the exorbitant-ego stage of the young peacock’s life, protected as he advances into adulthood by a sort of inner ice. Then, it may be, he can provide fashion leadership – though fashion leadership is the ghost form of leadership: it may guess the future, but it has no power.
For power is the other issue, to which clothes relate. Love at the youth end, without substantial social power. And power at the hither end – success, position -- perhaps without much love. Clothes matter most vitally and importantly to us, and we choose our clothes with the greatest urgency, in those places and times when it is we who are most anxious to be chosen. Behind our choices is the terror that we may not be chosen. There are different rules of course for those who want to be chosen as partners, and those who would be chosen to lead – the politicians, the would-be COEs, the promotees in every firm and team. Being chosen for leader does not require that clothes uncover skin, nor that the body be made beautiful by teasing: the work of power-clothes is to simulate power without causing fear. But still power-clothes speak body non-stop: the power suit, both for men and for women, models a figure that is shapely in addition to seeming strong. For power-clothes like partner-clothes need to seduce – to seduce as well as to impress. So power-clothes to some extent resemble love-clothes, for the competitors will succeed better if they are also sexy, and can win desire as well as regard. And love-clothes, for their part, will resemble power-clothes. Because would-be partners also need to show competitive strength: love me, love-clothes say, but to rivals, back off. So power-clothes clothe and reveal the will, as love-clothes show will and desire together. Power clothes sheathe the tiger, as love-clothes reveal, at a hundred points, Eros.
For most of our life, none the less, we are not at the crisis point of being either chosen or chucked. Our clothes, and choosing them, are a part of life. If we get them right, it will be with help of many kinds from others. And getting clothes ‘right’ means what? There is no absolute value or good in clothes. If we ever were the last man or woman left in the world, our clothes would have no meaning at all. They might keep us warm – though who would want to live, then? But they would not be in any sense right, because what makes clothes right is a matter of meeting happily, and in a way that has something fresh about it, a diverse bunch of expectations which are shared with other people. Not that anything can ever please everyone, nor can one be trying to please all day long. Perhaps in the end it is simplest to try to please oneself and one’s dearest: that is something one can seek to do with integrity, and let the dashing trendy world look after itself.
From Clothes, Chapter 3 ‘What shall I wear, who shall I be?’, pp44-7.