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When I was a little girl I had a dressing up box. It contained none of the extravagant shop-bought Disney princess dresses worn by today’s generation of little girls. Instead, it featured a random selection of cast-off clothes from my mother and grandmother, including – no doubt – some original 50s petticoats which I trailed around the mud, pretending to be a queen or a ballroom dancer.
I don’t remember the precise age at which actual clothes replaced dressing up clothes in my affections but I do recall as young as nine or 10 the thrill of going to jumble sales on the hunt for clothes. The look on my stepmum’s face was a picture as I would arrive home with my latest haul of moth-eaten coats and shrunken, felted jumpers. To her they were worthless rags, to me they were a joyful expression of Kateness.
To her credit, she dutifully washed them all for me before allowing me to put them on and she kept her comments to vague and non-committal noises of approbation as I put together the latest weird outfit. Her own daughter, my stepsister Lucy, loved to dress head to toe in the latest fashionable designer clothes. We were as far apart as it is possible to be in our dress sense.
All but the most memorable of my clothes combinations have now seeped from my mind, but I do recall a rather unusual outfit comprising skintight red satin trousers (1970s disco style) worn with my, then, boyfriend’s naval cadet jumper complete with badges and epaulettes. I had an equally classy pair of leopard skin trousers that I used to team up with my dad’s suit jacket – huge on me – worn with the sleeves pushed up and a big black belt around my waist.
My penchant for wearing red Chinese satin shoes with my black and grey school uniform memorably earned me the accolade of “scruffiest girl in the school” from an irate deputy headmistress. She must have been seething when, at the end of that same year, I was voted Miss Edward Orme (the name of my school, not my name!) by a panel of students and teachers and presented with a sash and crown. I still have the sash somewhere, signed by many of the people who voted for me. The teacher who crowned me told me they’d “never had a student quite like me” which I think he meant as a compliment, although I’m not absolutely sure!
My love of clothes has never left me, although at certain points in my life it has become so toned down as to be almost conventional. In particular I have never lost my passion for seeking out bargains and putting together unusual clothes combinations from the secondhand stuff that I find. Mostly it works well, sometimes less so but the fun of experimenting far outweighs the disappointment of the outfits that don’t quite come off.
I saw on my friend Katie’s face recently some of the childlike joy of playing around with clothes that I’ve had all of my life. She was heading off to see her daughter in Australia and, unlike me, has very few summer clothes. I offered to lend her anything of mine she wanted to borrow. Although I’ve often lent her clothes, it is the first time that I’ve opened my wardrobe to her and said “taken anything you like”. It was such fun to see her try stuff on and see herself looking amazing in a selection of beautiful summer outfits. She was visibly uplifted by the experience of playing around with clothes and it took me right back to the joy of my childhood dressing up box.
Since I’ve been writing this blog, women so often share with me that they feel unsure about what to wear, that they don’t really know what suits them or they feel afraid of wearing any but the “safest” of colours. How sad that so many are denied the sheer joy of playing around, experimenting and having fun with clothes. It seems to me that we lose many precious things as we grow up, not least of which is our ability to be spontaneous, self-expressed and unselfconscious in the clothes we wear. Thankfully I never lost this myself but it seems that I am in a small minority. I reckon it’s time women (and men) reclaimed the joy of clothes, stopped worrying so much about trying to get it right and started just having some fun. What do you think?
Today’s dressing up box outfit is a deep purple crinkle skirt by Mistral, bought from Paul the rag trader for £2.50. I am wearing it with a dark purple silk crinkle shirt by one of my favourite designers, Privatsachen which I bought many years ago on Ebay. The jacket is a rather splendid military-inspired one by Principles which I bought for £10 from Ruby at Frockaholics Anonymous. I hadn’t realised it until I saw the photos, but the look is rather piratey, particularly with the brown lace-up boots.
Boots: J Shoes
Necklace: Vintage Indian silver and enamel