My new friends don't judge
I haven't been dressing up much lately. Sometimes I haven't dressed at all, just stayed in pyjamas, or a version of lounge wear which might as well be that. Loose fitting, nondescript. Early on, when it was still quite chilly, my daily walk required the addition of the old Barbour jacket which used to belong to my daughter and now has the feeling of an old friend. It's around ten years old so I guess it is in fashion terms.
During May, when it was so warm, it was lovely to walk in just a teeshirt and skirt, but these were not chosen with much thought. In fact the thought was all about being invisible, skulking along the backlanes and alleys to keep human contact to a minimum. Please don't notice me, I think was my fashion statement during those months - and I'm trying not to revert to that now the second wave is here.
I have been dressing up on Friday evenings when I zoom with my family. It's the night I wash my hair and put on a bit of make up and something other than the lounge wear. It feels like a ritual, one I enjoy, and that has some point to it. I've passed on a lot of clothes to daughters, to friends, to charity shops. Trying to shed rather than acquire, and maybe to rate my outfits on the Arizona scale.
So I have been considering - who do we dress up for? In my case, not for myself, it seems. Which I think is a shame, but it's hard to make a judgement at this time. In fact, I have been making friends with inanimate objects since mid March when I pretty much stopped seeing anybody. These friends don't really care what I look like or what I'm wearing. We shuffle around the house together, chatting about inconsequential things. Patsy and Georgina, the two 1950s dolls pictured in this post have lived in my attic for years, but recently they've been occupying the sofa in the living room and also the bench outside. They've seen me cry on a couple of occasions, they've seen me in pain with toothache, and anxious about the future. They've been really great. They may have to go back to the attic soon, before I completely forget that conversations can be two way.
We’ve been pulling our old blue jeans on (thanks David) for decades. It’s possibly the most ubiquitous fashion item, and the most international, albeit in its many variations – stone-washed, boyfriend, skinny, mom, highrise, lowrise, with those holes in the knee that do not denote wear and tear. But where did the garment originate?
The term “jeans” comes from Genoa, or rather, the French word for Genoa, “Genes”. It was here that the cloth, a bit like corduroy, and used for work wear originated. There are images of Italian peasants wearing the fabric in 17th century paintings.
Garment makers in Nimes tried to replicate this cloth, and came up with a twill type fabric, which they dyed with indigo. This cloth was denim – or de Nimes (from Nimes). Once more, it was considered suitable for the smocks and overalls used by workers.
Nearly all the indigo used to dye the cloth came from indigo bush plantations in India until the late 19th century. It was then replaced by indigo synthesis methods developed in Germany.
Jeans were first mentioned in 1795 : a Swiss Banker Jean-Gabriel Eynard and his brother Jaques went to Genoa , set up a business, and then provided uniforms cut from blue cloth (bleu de Genes) for Massena’s troops, during the Napoleonic wars.
Levi Strauss was from Germany . He went to the US in 1851 to join his brothers who were running a dry goods business. Jacob Davis was a tailor who bought cloth from Levi Strauss and Co , then came up with the rivets idea to strengthen garments at stress points such as pockets. Denim was a sturdy material so they started using it for workpants, with strengthened, riveted pockets and bottom of fly buttons.
So that’s the history (very brief – see more here). But what about the iconography? The semiotics? I have friends who won’t wear jeans because they view them as a symbol of America and therefore of capitalism. However, during the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America, they became a symbol , worn by both black and white marchers, of the movement towards equality, and a way of showing visually how little had changed since share cropper days. Some civil rights leaders disapproved, wanting to distance themselves from this image, and feeling also that in order to make any headway in mid century America, it was important for people of colour to out smart their white contemporaries in every way, including dress. Looking and behaving in a “respectable” manner was thought to be the better way.
The link between the wearing of jeans and making a political or social statement carried on into the 60s and 70s. The rebellious young took on blue jeans like a uniform, starting with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause through Travolta in Grease to Tu Pac in Juice. Transgressive women wore jeans too: Marilyn Monroe in River of No Return, Marianne Faithful in Girl on a Motorcycle, and Sarandon and Davies in Thelma and Louise. Jeans are all about movement: whether as originally intended, as workwear, or as a symbol of a ready for action look that women have used to overturn the passivity implied by frills, corsets and layers of figure hiding skirts.
This symbolism is not simple. Capitalism has always been good at subsuming symbols of rebellion into the mainstream and selling it back to us. Think of the spoilt teens of Beverley Hills 90210, sporting their highwaisted denims whilst whining their way to adulthood. The stone washed East Germans flooding through the breached Berlin wall in 1989, choosing a system with individual choice (superficially at least) at its heart.
Many labels make jeans now. Mother, Paige, and Frame are all labels worn by celebs, expressing membership of a club: everyone will know whose label you have wrapped around your bum. Whereas once, if it wasn’t Wrangler or Levi, it wasn’t worth bothering. I still like Levi jeans, and find the demi curve actually fits the English shape. But I also like Topshop jeans, well priced and a good fit. I get a buzz from buying a new pair. I tend to make them last, although I am not immune to such details as leg length and width, and where the waist goes. Not to mention the range of colours that are possible. I would never buy jeans with holes in them, and can be quite snooty about rips – until I remember the efforts we all made to make our new Levis look well worn. La plus ca change.
This is all a bit worrying, as it possibly puts me in the same changing room as Joan Collins – who continues to wear jeans well into her 70s, whilst telling us mere mortals we should chuck ours out on our 40th birthdays. I don’t like age restrictions on clothing – it’s up to each person to decide if they feel happy in what they wear.
In the end, jeans are a practical, comfortable garment – I don’t see them as a glamour item, or as high fashion, and think it would be mad to pay 300 quid for a pair. I wouldn’t want to be buried in mine, but as long as I can haul them on, I probably will. I think it will be a while before I consign them to wardrobe oblivion.
I was at All Points East this June to see Patti Smith and Nick Cave and had an amazing day. It was part of the fun to check out what everyone was wearing. Still stunned by the efforts some people make to look fantastic in a red hot London, when the temperature was most unEnglish. Men seemed to be mainly in the summer uniform of knee length shorts and either a polo or short sleeved shirt. Flip flops or trainers. Band tee-shirts were mostly a bit disappointing and worn by the older chaps – I didn’t see a single woman wearing one. I wouldn’t have been bragging about seeing some of the represented musicians. But some very cool – the rule here is you can only wear band tee-shirts if you totally love that band. Somehow it shows if you don’t.
Women have more scope – was surprised how little this has changed, how much we still conform to gendered dressing. I was expecting to see far more non binary choices. I loved some of the vintage– a stand out was a beautiful 1950s dress with large yellow cabbage roses, summery and sexy. I also love the look of tall people dressed purely in black with perhaps a very red lipstick and some interesting shades. I am not tall and sometimes wish I was – it would also help in terms of seeing over everybody when the band is on.
But who wins the JC Fashion award? I offer several: Patti Smith of course – the long black jacket with the cuffs rolled back so you can see the boney wrists, her amazing hands, her long grey hair. St Vincent, a sexy glory in orange rubber, beautiful matching elbow length gloves.
Nick Cave should have been clad in a long robe as he whipped the crowd up with his Jesus act, but in fact looked very good in his suit, dapper and sexy. Did some of the young girls he pulled up onto the stage look more bemused than delighted in a what just happened kind of way? Kylie looked fragile and beautiful. Skeleton Tree is an amazing album, and NC is a poet at heart, as you can read here.
I’ve always noticed what people wear – and I can’t forget Roger Daltry in fringed suede over naked torso, or Richie Havens in his long kurta – but really? It’s the music that matters.
It’s a classic: the warm caramel colour, the sharp tailoring and attention to detail, combined with the softness of the hairs. It is casual and smart. It conveys an aura of affluence and privilege.
For some of these reasons I question why I am so enamoured of my two vintage camel coats (yes two: embarrassing. In fact, it would have been 3 had not my very stylish daughter stolen one). Why do I, an avowed socialist, want to be seen swanning around in a coat that makes me look like a member of the royal family who has lost her way and somehow ended up in a small northern town? Beats me – except it’s precisely because I live in a northern town that the camel hair coat has become dearest companion and soul mate this freezing, snow covered winter. There is nothing like camel for keeping out the cold. It’s impenetrable: you can plod through a blizzard in it and you will still be toastie inside.
"Richard 1st not only had the heart of a lion, but the undergarment of a camel"
Strictly speaking, only one of my coats is classic camel: the other is a cashmere and wool blend, still stylish and much loved, but lacking the heft of the true, number 1 camel, which has a Jaeger label. It was actually Jaeger who introduced camel hair into Britain in 1904, and used it to produce a range of cold-defying garments. Earnest Shackleton wore Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System long johns, for example. But camel hair’s history goes back much further than the 20thcentury. References to the material appear in the Old Testament and in the 1300s, Richard 1st not only had the heart of a lion, but the undergarment of a camel, worn to prevent his armour from chafing during the Crusades.
Camel hair also has a Raj connection. Garments called polo coats were made out of the material, to serve as a robe worn by polo players in India among the British Cavalry. It was their “waiting robe” (known also as the “wait coat”), worn between chukkas (the seven minute polo bouts) to help the players stay warm. To be honest, this is no more mysterious to me than most sporting customs. Although: polo? What is that about?
Camel hair is traditionally gathered from the Bactarian Camel, the two humped variety, which is sadly now under threat as a species, with less than a thousand of them still roaming the Mongolian Steppes. The hair was collected during the moulting season, from late spring to early summer, before undergoing the lengthy process to turn it into cloth.
"polo playing colonialists, blood thirsty kings, all manner of toffs .."
I almost wish I had never begun the process of finding out more about camel hair. It has resulted in a guilty pleasure becoming even more guilt ridden. Aristocrats abound in the history of camel hair in clothing: polo playing colonialists, blood thirsty kings, all manner of toffs and royals, and aspirational others, have used it to keep their blue blooded bods warm. And now the camels themselves are fast disappearing from their original habitat. I would never think to buy a new camel coat (even if I could afford one) although I take comfort from the fact that the collection and sale of camel hair is sustaining people who live in difficult climates
I justify the pleasure to myself thus: finding garments of consummate quality in second hand shops feels serendipitous, the universe bringing me together with something beautiful for no reason whatever. To reject a gift of this kind on the grounds that I am accepting an item discarded from someone wealthier than I does not seem an option. I believe that I will wear the garment with more love and respect than the original owner, and that, perversely, I will look better in it. Nonsense, but it works for me and my dearly beloved camel coats.
I sing with an acapella band called ‘Henwen’ ‘Henwen’ is a Celtic goddess, and the name derives from Hen/hinny, meaning ‘woman’ and Wen/wan meaning pale; the implication is of a white-haired woman, who is aged, and thus wise, a significant tribal elder. Henwen is the wise crone form of Caridwen, and also appears in the Mabinogion (and Disney’s ‘Black Cauldron’) as a magic pig, although we tend to gloss over that when introducing the band.
"Better to look dyed than dying…."
I was a blonde child, who went mousey at puberty (leading to a lifetime of pouring chemicals onto my head), and who has gone white-haired in later life. My peerless hairdresser is able to turn this into something a bit like platinum, thus giving me a pleasingly Scand-wegian, slightly peroxided look. Well, I hope so: anything other than ‘white’, as in coach parties of cauliflowers, bingo parlours of nanas, bewildered targets of cold callers, customers for comfy reclining chairs. Better to look dyed than dying….
But how can I be sure what I look like, what impression I’m giving?
Well, of course I can’t. I try to judge my own appearance, but that’s not easy; what I need is a statement from an unbiased witness, saying either, ‘it was a blonde woman, m’lud’ or ‘it was a white-haired lady’ so that I can calibrate my physical/visual effect in the world. We all know what it is to look at yourself in a known and well-lit mirror, but then to catch sight of yourself unexpectedly, and to see the undefended truth. For many years I have had very upswept hair, occasionally prompting complete strangers to compliment me in the street, and that has given me peace of mind. But recently I had my hair cut short for a visit to a tropical and humid country, and now I fear I may have entered cauliflower territory.
Close friends age alongside you, and unless you don’t see them for a couple of years, you generally don’t clock their changing appearance. However, I have had the experience of waiting for a friend in a supermarket, and then realising with a jolt, that the elderly person my glance had swept past, was actually the friend in question. Something in her whole bearing had briefly altered at the checkout, and in that second, she looked ‘aged’.
"Ageing is inevitable, and better than the alternative.."
So, does it matter? Ageing is inevitable, and better than the alternative, and I deplore any article which tells older (or any age) women ‘you shouldn’t wear this’ or ‘don’t do your hair like that’. I also know that many women agonise over their hair as they age: it’s too thin, it’s too frizzy, it’s lost colour or condition, I’m dyeing it dark but my parting’s white, I look like a witch, I can’t find a good style anymore etc. I also know infuriating older women who break all the ‘hair rules’ and still manage to look amazing: confidence and style are definitely key to that.
Whatever happens to your hair as you age, it will, undoubtedly, change, so hair styles that suited you once may not continue to work. Is it your business and no-one else’s? Yes, absolutely. Should we all be revered as white-haired and wise tribal elders? Yes, of course. Does such a trivial thing really matter in this world of pain and joy? No, not a jot. And yet, we can see the power of the ‘dtmh’ movement (black women – Don’t Touch My Hair), most recently in the Solange Knowles incident . Hair, particularly women’s hair, is patrolled by all religions, including the commercial patriarchy. My hair, and how it looks, actually does matter to me, and I’m aware that most of the women I know care and worry about theirs as well, so it’s not nothing.
My advice is to check out the women whose looks you like and consider what’s working for them, then find a peerless hairdresser. Your personal taste may be natural and under-stated, or Vivienne Westwood, or comfy cauliflower, that’s for you to decide. Work it, own it and don’t be silenced. It’s all about the hair, hinny!
I’ve been having a clear out. Must be the time of year when you look again at those garments lurking at the back of the wardrobe that escaped the earlier cull. Yes, dodgy culottes bought after wine at lunchtime, and jeans from the hyper skinny era, I’m looking at you! So I’m feeling a little unencumbered, and am able to get a pretty good view at the current state of play clothes wise.
It seems that mainly, I wear grey. Not so much beige, but an awful lot of grey, from dove to mid to dark. Next to that green: olive or bottle, nothing vibrant or neon. It made me think a) have I always gravitated to neutrals and b) are bright colours considered a complete nono for the older person?
For the first: seriously? You expect me to remember? Probably it went something like, op art monochromes (Mod phase), hotter curry colours (Hippy phase), a lot of murky colours (Vintage phase), chintzy (Laura Ashley/young mum phase) beige/grey/black (Professional woman, big shouldered phase). These days, whatever comes to hand. So apart from the hippy years, I have probably always tended towards neutrals although I do love red and orange.
"None of us are going to stop wearing black, fashion police."
For the second, don’t bother googling, as there is so much contradictory and often bordering on the misogynistic advice around. My favourite suggestion is to check out the colour of the veins on the inside of your wrist and go with that. Apparently people’s veins vary through purple, blue and green: the advice is to decide which you are, then look for garments that are within the range. Blimey. Something slightly vampiric about this method, but it certainly wouldn’t work with open veins, as it seems red, along with black, is one of those don’t go there colours once you are past 50. Which is a shame, as the odd bit of red can cheer up the grey, surely? Is it that red has some kind of association with sex, or sensuality? Older women clearly cannot be seen anywhere near that. And maybe the black too, with its implications of the gothic, funereal, deadlier than the male femme fatale. None of us are going to stop wearing black, fashion police. It’s a very practical colour.
Once I have baffled myself with a lot of advice, I pretty much always reach the sod it phase and decide to follow my instincts. Things do change as you age: hair colour, skin tone, shape. But this doesn’t mean you have to hide yourself in neutrals. I don’t like the idea of deliberately not drawing attention to yourself, or of toning yourself down in case you frighten the horses. Looking at the Portraits we have included over previous Foxy editions, I am struck by how amazing they all are and how their style exudes confidence and self-assurance. That’s the thing, really. There’s no need to apologise for the changes or to hide ourselves from view. Surely now is the time to wear whatever the hell we like? No wrist gazing for us, thanks very much.
btw There's a really lovely little film on Nowness, in which American Stylist Shirley Kurata talks about colour and the power of uniformity.
What was it that constructed me as a girl?
Was it my mother, when I was a very young child, her open toed white sandals and the summer dress she wore one lovely May morning?
Was it my father and the fairy tale book he bought me with its illustrations - some colour plates, some line drawings - of princesses, of Cinderella, of Snow White? The frills and flounces and furbelows that immediately drew my attention? I did not make a good tomboy. Unlike my sister, I was too anxious for tree climbing or the blasé ignoring of Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted signs.
I wanted long wavy hair (mine was straight as stair rods and cut short in a pudding bowl bob) and dresses ludicrously layered in lace. This version of femininity lasted for years. I haunted the local market and bought trimmings for a few pennies, tried to stitch them to my schoolgirl pants. With very limited success. I was still a chubby schoolgirl lacking in glamour or allure.
Way before periods and puberty I had an idea of what a girl was. Since most of my ideas about the world came from books, then this must have been the place. Those princesses, willowy, perfect featured, wearing dresses with tight-laced waistcoats and flouncy sleeves. Nothing whatsoever like my own life, or my own body and yet .. I wanted to be pretty, feminine, floaty, a dandelion wisp of a thing, lighter than air.
My favourite garment was a pale blue sprigged party dress with a paper nylon underskirt. It was like wearing fibreglass but I think I grasped early on that it was necessary to suffer to be glamorous. Maybe this is some version of a celice, the pain an indication that femininity-wise, you are in the right zone, and will be rewarded for your suffering. Absolutely insane, but very powerful.
By the time I was in my 20s, I was in rebellion against this ultra-feminine view of womanhood, and wore denim dungarees, men’s suits and overalls. With my own daughters, especially the first one, I think perhaps I tried too hard to avoid pink and frilly, although grandparents and older relatives certainly provided a fair share of traditional for a girl garments. When she was 2, the oldest girl simply decided she would only wear either pink or red, and that was that. My second daughter was curiously unbothered by what she wore, but perhaps I was also more relaxed. By then it had dawned on me that maybe it was more important to encourage my daughters to be assertive, to see that they had choices, rather than impose unreasonable prohibitions of any sort.
I wonder if the construction of a girl without reference to pink and blue, or other stereotypes is easier these days? It seems like the gender neutral baby clothes business is booming. Kardashian babies wear black, and the whole issue of gender is being reimagined in a myriad ways. Although I do not believe masculinity is no longer an issue for men, it certainly seems that lines are blurring.
However, maybe it takes more than David Beckham in a skirt to have a real impact on attitudes. Here’s Glosswitch, writing in the New Statesman a couple of years ago:
In a world that is supposedly more equal, gender stereotyping has gone underground. We tell ourselves that we treat babies the same, regardless of whether or not we know their sex, but research suggests otherwise (e.g. here and here)
Gender is a language we can critique, but it is not one we can easily opt out of speaking. It is not just that we cannot control how others see our children; whatever our personal principles, we cannot always control how we see them ourselves.
Some parents have gone down the road of total gender-neutral child rearing, as this article in the US magazine Parents discusses. In the world at large new gender-neutral pronouns and adaptations of language are being invented and issues around gender and gender stereotyping are discussed openly these days.
Constructing a girl via the pink frilly path is no longer the only option. Whilst it’s true that the bombardment of images goes way beyond an illustrated Fairy Tales, at least the deconstruction of these images is also available. As Viv Albertine said recently in discussion with Lauren Laverne at the Sage Gateshead’s Free Thinking Festival:
“Young women are much better informed and that’s a weapon in itself.”
This post was inspired by Monica Jones, an academic rather than a librarian, and the long term lover of Philip Larkin, poet and university librarian, and not exactly glamorous. Bear with me. I’ve had to do a lot of convoluted thinking.
I don’t really know very much about Monica. It’s hard to get to the actual woman, surrounded as she is in a haze of misogyny, damned with faint praise, or covertly ridiculed. Kingsley Amis is said to have based Margaret Peel, a character from Lucky Jim on her, with Larkin’s agreement (I presume nobody asked her for hers). Amis Junior has also been very unpleasant about her, calling attention to her less than perfect teeth, which I find surprising, since his own teeth were the subject of controversy not so long ago. She died in 2001, aged 78, still unmarried. Larkin messed her about for decades, but she must have been very fond of him, because in spite of being a very attractive woman, she did not form a lasting attachment to anybody else. Clearly, she had different standards of loyalty.
I was going to title this piece The Slut Librarian. Then I thought again – why use a derogatory term for such a great look? I feel the need to watch my language, to be aware in a way I would have been in my younger, more straightforwardly feminist years. It’s not necessarily OK to “reclaim” a word with such negative connotations, maybe. I set off wanting to write light-hearted pieces about fashion, and before I can blink, I am angry. This time, it’s because, when I investigate a little further into the lives of the real women whose image I am thinking of, all kinds of ugly beasts creep out of the woodwork.
But it’s a look I have always enjoyed, and tried to make my own. Maybe it dates back to my first job, as an accounts clerk in a well-known high street bank in Leicester in the late 60s. I was, in many ways, an innocent, but very interested in clothes and in image. It was a training bank and there was an influx of young women, all aged between 16 and 18, all sporting various looks. I loved the Cathy McGowan style of a tall willowy girl, and the cropped-haired, peroxide mod look of another. One girl from Asian heritage wore a shalwaar kemise, but most of us went for a conservative A-line skirt with a nice Courtelle or Orlon sweater in a pastel shade. However, the look I was most impressed by was that worn by some of the older (i.e. 30 plus) women, most of whom were cashiers. Swept up hair, a well-fitted pencil skirt to the knee and a silk blouse, both sexy and demure. Black suede court shoes. Some of them also wore horn-rimmed specs. I thought they looked fabulous.
Dressing for work is relatively new. The clothes you wore to work in the fields, depending on what part of the world you lived in, were just clothes – only very special occasions demanded anything more. During the industrialization process, women just wore their clothes to the factory, although the notion of the Sunday Best may have originated here. In the history of women's entry into the workforce, those joining the ranks of school teachers, nurses and librarians were encouraged to distance themselves from other kinds of female labour, which had become associated with prostitution. It was at this time that a kind of respectable uniform became the norm.
When it comes to the library, it seems that Dewey was a strong advocate for the use of women as librarians. He was not a feminist: far from it. He simply believed that the system he was promoting, which required the tasks of receiving, cataloguing, shelving, finding, and checking out books was more suited to women than men. These kinds of monotonous tasks were felt to be beyond the boredom threshold of the male. Women, however, were ideally suited to the mindless task of working in a modern, Dewey-ized library.
No hint of disrepute could be endured, and their respectability was secured by thoroughly de-sexing themselves through clothing, behavior, and hairstyle.
From a blog post in Savage Minds
So how is it now, on a Monday morning, as I rifle through my overstuffed wardrobe looking blearily for something to wear to work? My vintage clothes don’t seem right – too much story going on there, and at my age, the concept of vintage clothes might just translate into something she used to wear. Dress codes for work are a lot less formal, but I don’t want to dress down too much. In fact I have more or less reverted to the GL but with less of the G: a skirt, a simple top, a cardigan. Boots more likely than courts. The glasses are a cross between horn-rimmed and Dame Edna. I occasionally risk the pearls.
The illustration for this post is a cyanotype print by Cath Walshaw
What is Herringbone?
Herringbone is a V-shaped zig zag pattern that is usually made from tweed/twill fabric. Some historians believe that the V-shaped pattern was developed around 500 B.C. during the Roman Empire’s construction of an expansive world-class road system called the Viae Publicae. The basic principle for the construction of this very important road was called Opus spicatum, or “spiked work”. This simple pattern of interlocking bricks creates an intensely durable and stable geometric matrix, which, in fashion design is often used symbolically to connect a modern garment to its historical predecessors. Its name derives from the pattern’s resemblance to the bones of a herring.
If, in fact, herringbone’s roots are in Rome, it is no surprise that many suits, jackets and overcoats have been created in this pattern. It has also been found in Celtic history: horsehair herringbone cloth has been found in Ireland from around 600 B.C.
How is it made?
The herringbone pattern can be woven into all fabrics or fibre combinations using a twill weave. Wool is the fabric that is most commonly used. The pattern is made by cutting and reversing alternate vertical sections of a broken twill weave. The twill diagonals are arranged into vertical columns and are staggered along the vertical line at the point where they reverse. This produces a characteristic vertical ‘break’ or ‘cut’ in the fabric.
There are two main ways in which a herringbone pattern may be produced in a woven fabric. The first is by weaving the fabric in a herringbone weave structure. The second is by using special drafting arrangements when setting up the warp for weaving; the fabric is then woven in twill weave or combination of different twill weaves, and the drafting arrangement automatically changes the direction of the twill line at regular intervals to form the herringbone pattern.
At first glance, you might look upon Herringbone as the go-faster stripe of tweed, perhaps making the wearer look a little less stolid than in your average Harris or Donegal tweed? But this would not reflect the inherent stability of the pattern and its durable and reliable heritage. It’s hard to imagine Romans using herringbone as a fabric for high viz togas whilst toiling over their great arterial viae. The Celts probably made more use of the fabric in sturdy, durable outerwear.
That reliable, conservative element means that herringbone as a fabric for sportswear and suiting has frequently been chosen by politicians (Ronald Reagan, for example) to accentuate that I’ve been around for a long time look. But it has also been adapted by (especially) menswear designers to appeal to a younger, less conservative market, and has broken away from the traditional black on grey colour combination.
Herringbone is elegant and reassuring at the same time. A person wearing herringbone is a person you can trust. Is this because they are persons who can afford lined trousers, or can otherwise deal with chafing? Hmm.
On my first date with the handsome lad who, reader, I married, he was wearing flared herringbone trousers in shades of donkey brown and beige, with a small back belt to nip the fabric in around his neat buttocks. This was a blind date, but the trousers won me over immediately, paired as they were with a very pale pink shirt. We went to a pub on Canvey Island and I was charmed by the chevron pattern on his thighs and by his stories of a childhood in South Wales.
I've always fancied a pleat. Maybe it's a flashback to the plaid skirts and kilts of my 50s childhood. Plaid and pleat went together: probably my mother was trying to emulate the Royals striding around Balmoral up to their killing tricks.
Unaccountably, I am still sporting versions of this, Morag inspired tartanesque tweedy garments, bearing the woolmark with pride and often made in some kind of mill north of the border. And no, I am not Scottish whatsoever. It is heartening that Cath Walshaw, a printmaker living in Whitley Bay who is this edition's Portrait, has a similar look she calls her Flora Robson.
A pleat means more movement, of course: more movement for the wearer, but also movement in the garment itself, the swing and ripple that almost makes it look like the skirt or kilt is wearing you. Perhaps it also expresses extravagance: the devil may care use of fabric, cramming in as much as possible, and hang the expense. Plus that amount of fabric, especially if it's all wool, is going to keep the wind out, as all those handsome Scottish boys know. I wore an all wool red tartan pleated skirt in Berlin in December, and scarcely felt a breeze. Of course, I was wearing full thermal undies also.
Vivienne Westwood knows all about tartan and pleats, and her early 90s fling with tartan couture was also a nod back to the late 70s when punks strutted about like unloved members of the clan, mixing kilts with bin bags. Some of Westwood's designs are on display at Vogue 100, showing until May 22nd at the National Portrait Gallery in London. And yes, they are worn by the very very tall young models of the day: Campbell, Crawford, Evangelista. I like to think my own take on tartan is more a Miss Marple with a make over look, and I make no apologies for this. I still love the extravagance and weight of the fabric, and the security of knowing it will keep my bum warm in a blizzard.
Pleats come in many guises: the accordion, the box, the knife pleat, to name a few. And let's not forget, even a tiny pleat can bring joy: the kick pleat, for example just makes you want to dance. A line of stitched pin tucks on a beautiful blouse. Mouthwatering.