In London, the sixties are swinging. But in provincial Derby, her life remains heavily circumscribed by her mother’s fears of being contaminated afresh by moral turpitude. She is studying ‘A’level Art and attends the local art college once a week to do life drawing. (Her mother says ‘Is that really necessary?’) In contradiction of her mother’s earlier aspirations, this youngest daughter’s thoughts of going to university represent a step too far. It is high time she earns a living and tips her ‘board’ over.
A young woman attends two interviews to study Sociology at the University of Durham. Her father has fought her corner and won. At the departmental interview, the male interviewer tests her knowledge of social class. What are some of its indicators? She talks about appearance –the way people present
themselves in dress and speech. These are the wrong answers. She is ﬁ
nally prompted, with ill-concealed disdain, to consider occupation. She doesn’
t know that growing up in a shop and going out ‘on the rounds’
has taught her to ‘read’class and gender even if she hasn’t acquired the socio
logical tools to put them into a wider structural context. In any case, contemporary sociological analyses of class count women out –women are still
hidden inside ‘households’whose heads they are not. Feminism hasn’t
reached her –or the sociology departments of the North-East –yet, and
neither has Bourdieu. The establishment of Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham is still in its infancy, and she comes away understanding that her focus on how people look and how they talk is shallow and superﬁcial. Later, her experience in this interview will be brought to
mind by reading Hanley’s account of ‘ﬂying solo in blissful ignor
ance’at her interview at Christ’s College, Cambridge.
It is the end of the 1960’s At Newcastle University, a young sociology undergraduate is beginning to acquire the language of class that provides a key to understanding family, schooling and work –although it doesn’t really accommodate her own ex
perience of gender. She spends a disproportionate amount of her time browsing in Fenwicks departmentstore and a disproportionate amount of her grant on dress fabric. She returns home at the end of the ﬁrst term and meets up
with her old classmates at a Christmas party. She is wearing: a red suede coat and a ﬂoppy brimmed hat over a home-made mini-dress and knee length red
leather boots. Her ex-classmates say Wow! Back in Newcastle, she moves in with a bunch of Fine Art students. She stays on to do a post-graduate qualiﬁ
cation in social work. She extends the reading list and discovers Erik Fromm, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, Carl Rogers –and Ruth Etchells, from down the
road at Durham. She is excited –who wouldn’tbe–when still strenuously
trying to become a person in one’s own right, by such titles as ‘The Fear of
Freedom’,‘IandThou’,‘The Courage to Be’,‘On Becoming a Person’,
‘Unafraid to Be’? They provide a second key to making sense of the world.
Alongside a largely unrequited love affair with one of the artists, who introduces her to Kurt Schwitters, Wittgenstein, Rilke and Erik Satie, and tells her to ‘wear something nice’when he takes her one night to the
opera, she continues her love affair with art. Somewhere along the way, she acquires a postcard of a Hockney painting depicting the fashion
designer Ossie Clark and textile designer Celia Birtwell. She is vaguely aware of links between the worlds of art and fashion
. She leaves university with the knowledge that, for her, clothes play a central role in the fashioning
of the self and that the work they do is a mixture of the performance of class, gender, creativity and self-expression.
It is the mid 1970’s
A young woman gets married. She makes a white cotton dress with embroidered ﬂowers. She updates the ﬁve-point haircut she had in the 1960′s, as
modelled by Grace Coddington, with a Purdy-style ‘bob’.
It is the beginning of the 1980’s
A woman somewhat belatedly becomes a mother. Somewhat belatedly, and perhaps not coincidentally, she also catches up with feminism. It provides a third key –to understanding her experiences of gender and identity polit
ics. She reads Carolyn Steedman’sLandscape for a Good Woman. She under
stands that Steedman’s mother’s desire for the ‘New Look’–what that style
signalled, what it bestowed, what ‘hidden injuries’
it might heal –comes into all three of the black boxes whose keys she has
tentatively held –boxes containing the classed self, the authentic self, the
gendered self. She is still making her own clothes: culottes and a jacket made from beautiful quality deep-black linen bought in Siena; a wide shirt with epaulettes from a Wendy Dagworthy pattern; a trousers
, tunic and jacket ensemble from an Issey Miyake pattern.
is less a way of signalling the middle-class status going to university has conferred on her (although it inevitably does that) but of seeking to express a degree of individualism, even if she is unavoidably reading and making reference to others’ideas and designs.
It is 2016
The auto-ethnographic account above which traces one woman’s relation
ship to clothes and fashion through the inheritance bequeathed to her by her female family members (maternal grandmother, mother, sisters) also highlights the prisms –class, gender and now age –through which other
working-class girls have made sense of their lived experience (Hanley; Skeggs; Steedman). And if there is always an element of
ambivalence in these stories of social mobility, then it is one that is mirrored among my contemporaries’personal relationships to clothes in older age and to
the ‘fashioning of the self’–although not necessarily along the lines hither-
to documented in academic papers. For a feminist who has always inclined towards the political economy end of the spectrum, an interest in clothes –
and my own clothes –still feels slightly superﬁcial, despite the fact that there
is now a well-established academic literature on the body and its modiﬁ
cations (Featherstone, Hepworth and Turner; Howson and Inglis; Scott and Morgan; Williams and Bendelow).
Justiﬁcations are still evident, however. While Steedman’s account of her mother’s life is used unapologetically to justify ‘the politics of envy’in relation to ‘things’like clothes, novelist Linda Grant, daughter of immigrants who sometimes arrive in a new country ‘with only the clothes on their back’, isdeﬁant.
I consider it absolutely normal to care deeply about what we wear, and detest the puritan moralists who affect to despise fashion
and those who love it. Who shrilly proclaim that only vain foolish Barbie dolls, their brains addled by consumerism, would wear anything but sensible clothes made to last. As if appearances don’t matter
when, most of the time, they are all we have to go on. Or sometimes, all that is left in the ruins of a life. (Grant)