For many men, fashion is a foreign country. Luke Leitch, who has gone native, provides a map ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2011

In September 2009 I was working on the features desk of the Times in London when I was told that I was needed to cover for a member of the fashion team who had gone on maternity leave. Under-dressed and overwhelmed, I set off to report on a round of womenswear shows. From New York to Paris via London and Milan, I sat shabbily hunched among the straight-backed, soignée ranks of the world’s fashion professionals, staring dumbly at the catwalks like some novelty savage on his first day in court.

I have now spent two years embedded deep in female territory: in fashion, with a capital F. And I have started to get the hang of it. What has become clear is that fashion is to many women what sport is to many men: a pastime, a passion, a shared language, a form of self-definition, and a temporary escape from the opposite sex, all rolled into one deeply satisfying whole.

Most men regard this female passion from a default position of distrust, derision or at best patronising tolerance. Even the cleverest males are liable to take this line. Kant both derided and distrusted fashion: “[It] belongs under the heading of vanity…and also under the heading of folly.” Nietzsche preferred to patronise: “Comparing man and woman in general, one may say that woman would not have the genius for finery in general if she did not have the instinct for a secondary role.”

I very much doubt that either of these great chin-strokers spent any time contemplating the interior life of a woman via the interior of her wardrobe. Because men, when they think of women’s fashion at all, tend to see it only in terms of how it makes them feel—whether it arouses, confuses, or repels them—rather than considering what it makes a woman feel.

Let’s not overstate this: cracking the code of fashion won’t provide men with an Enigma machine with which to read every baffling unknown in a female soul. Yet a close and at least partially informed snoop through the contents of a woman’s wardrobe can at least explain why they wear the things they do. And that’s got to be better than nothing.

Take the wardrobe. How much space does she devote to it? The answer is often: “not nearly enough”. The walk-in wardrobe—effectively a separate bedroom for clothes, bags and shoes—has been the ultimate clothing-consumers’ fetish since the mid-1990s. Anna Dello Russo, the flamboyant, self-styled “Lady Gaga of fashion” and fashion director-at-large of Vogue Japan, has gone one step further. She has two apartments in Milan: one for her, and one for her clothes.

Size is not the only issue. Recently I toured the cavernous walk-in wardrobe of Tamara Mellon, the co-founder of Jimmy Choo shoes, and was confronted by a systemised kaleidoscope in which everything inside was grouped by shade. It was like walking into a paint-colour chart. Other women I have consulted speak of ordering their dresses according to season, designer, length, material—or various combinations of all these. The more elaborate the personal Dewey system, the more central fashion seems to be to its mistress’s identity. The point of a well-marshalled wardrobe is to allow its owner total mastery over her fashion arsenal. And only when everything is thus at her fingertips is she best placed to choose what to wear. Humdrum considerations such as weather and practicality play a passing part, but ultimately this is a decision dictated by three factors: the individual, the occasion and the season’s trends.