A MAN'S GUIDE TO A WOMAN'S WARDROBE

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. 

Trends are the lingua franca of fashion. To understand them—and to articulate them by wearing them—emits a signal of membership. Women notice other women wearing pink jeans, an Issa drape-front dress or an Erdem lace, and recognise this as very now. Or at least they did in April. Maintenance of fashion membership demands constant vigilance, for what is very now can very suddenly become very then. 

Take trousers. Until about a year ago, trousers were a no-brainer: the silhouette to be seen in was tight. From high-street skinny jeans to high-fashion skinny jacquard, legwear was close and clingy. Then came the first intimations of change. There was a brief flowering of “boyfriend jeans”—generous at the thigh, and wide at the ankle—which wilted relatively quickly as it became clear that the “boy” part was unflatteringly true. Next was the “harem pant”, skinny-ish from the mid-thigh down, but extremely loose and baggy around the crotch.

Happily, crotch-levels are now returning to normality and a new—well, not entirely new—trouser-shape is spreading. Wide trousers—aka flares—flared up everywhere at the 2011 shows. On the first day of the spring New York Fashion Week, none of the catwalk-watchers were wearing them. By the last day, at Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, I spoke to four fashion-editor flare adopters who had dug out pairs from their “archives” (a term I’ll return to later) so as to be early-articulating, alpha-consumers of the new trend. Skinny, it was clear, was over.

Yet despite the restless ebb and flow of trends, most contemporary wardrobes are also repositories of longer-term vogues. The thinking behind some of them is relatively straightforward—the LBD, or little black dress, for example. A garment so vital it comes with an acronym, it is the eternally recurring female equivalent of a man’s tuxedo: flattering, undemanding, and generally admired by all. But the thinking behind others can fox even the most careful male observer.

women's wardrobeConsider accessories. These are the bits that dangle off the edges: bags, shoes and, latterly “statement”—in other words, big—jewellery. For some time they have supplanted actual clothes as the big-ticket fashion trophies that most women aspire to acquire. This is because a £1,000 bag or pair of shoes gives a better return on your investment than a £1,000 dress. Whereas a dress can only be worn a few times before a woman’s friends will start wondering why the hell she’s wearing that old thing again, a great pair of shoes makes every outfit look sharper. An “investment” (aka wildly expensive) status-symbol bag—such as the Fendi Baguette, the Hermès Birkin or the Mulberry Bayswater—can be given endless airings without anyone getting bored. And accessories have the added bonus of being wearable whatever their owner’s dress size: handbags don’t demand diets.

The long, wide and billowy is another apparently inexplicable theme that takes many forms, from empire line (seams under the bosom) to kaftans or the current maxi dress. This originated in the 1970s, when it looked great on the willowy Talitha Getty, and was equally attractive three decades later on the minnowy Sienna Miller. Mostly, the style gives its wearers a tentish aspect. This summer, nonetheless, you will have seen flotillas of them sailing along high streets and beaches. This is because voluminous clothes allow the wearer simultaneously to live the Getty-Miller dream of going boho, while hiding the bits of their body they worry about most.

If the maxi dress is a practical way of enjoying a fashion fantasy, brightly coloured tights are a sign either of total self-confidence, or disturbing self-delusion. For although they channel kookiness, they demand incredibly good legs to pull off with any aplomb. The wearer is probably either a supermodel, a fantasist or a potter.

Ugg boots started life as practical Australian footwear for padding around in—always indoors—during winter or after a bracing dip. Now, often trademarked, American-owned and Chinese-produced, they have swept the globe as a high-fashion item to be worn outdoors, regardless of the fact that they pick up dirt in a flash and become waterlogged in seconds. Like Birkenstocks and the chunky-soled, almost medical training shoes that have become fashionable by claiming to firm the thighs, Uggs are both comfortable and ugly, which makes this trend seem a relatively healthy counterpart to the beautiful, but often fiercely uncomfortable, high-heeled shoes that are so fetishised today.

At this point, perhaps a little miffed by the women-only exclusivity of it all, a man could try to torpedo the whole notion of fashion as a vibrant female dialect by making this brutal observation: Fashion (with that capital F) is just a mechanism for the manufacture of novelty to fuel consumer desire. The reason that wide trousers are suddenly “in” where skinny trousers are “out” is to encourage lots of suggestible women to buy new pairs of trousers they don’t really need. Sticking to this line is fair enough. But it won’t help understand why women wear what they wear. And they in turn might be entitled to ask this hypothetical man why he craves that new car, phone or watch that he doesn’t really need. 

Fashion is now so woven into so many women’s day-to-day lives that they unselfconsciously aggrandise it by using words more often deployed to describe a person’s job, art collection or pension plan. So a woman who wants to remove some clothes from her day-to-day wardrobe and stick them in the attic will say she is “editing” her wardrobe to “archive” certain “pieces”. This is not just about buying stuff. It’s part of the job of being a woman.

To go back to that sport analogy, women don’t consume fashion in quite the same way that men consume sport. Although women may follow fashion, only a few victims succumb entirely to its decrees. Whereas men who follow a particular team will continue to follow that team however heart-rendingly bad its performance, albeit with a few grumbles, many women will reject fashion-led trends if the levels of ridiculousness are too high. (Harem pants may be an exception.) Last year, first designers and then the high street all went big on the most uncomfortable footwear of all: clogs. Very few women fell for it. Clogged with clogs, shops tried selling them at cost. And still very few women fell for them.

Catwalk shows, similarly, have a function beyond merely creating the desire for new clothes. The trends they celebrate are never entirely new, just slightly new. Minimalism is now on the rise again, after a ten-year period of neglect, as is the 1970s look, after only four years off the boil. My theory is that the twice-yearly shows are the equivalent of those interminable tribal bonding ceremonies that mean a great deal to the participants, but are utterly bewildering if you aren’t part of the tribe. Though wearing butterflies, painting your face or plaiting your hair with feathers—whether in a tribal rite or at a fashion show—has no practical use, the very fact that it happens provides a context within which the tribe, or fashion-aware, can frame the day-to-day, until it’s time for the next ceremony. The point is that all these women are in it together. Even if what, exactly, they’re in is not always clear.

Women do sometimes dress for men. The 1970s pin-up Britt Ekland said: “If I come home alone, my shoes are always the first thing to come off, but with a man around they are the last thing to go. Men love to see women in high heels.” Yet clothes’ power over men is, much more often, a secondary function. Their real purpose is to make women feel womanly, self-confident and up-to-speed with other women, and here the parallel with sport gets stronger again.

“Getting” fashion is about recognising the consensus of trends, but then wearing them in an individual way. The fact that flares make all but the skinniest bottoms look bigger than they are, or that last season’s fluorescent colours are—let’s face it—often pretty repulsive, is by the by: trends are for the women who wear them and watch them to enjoy. Whether men think they’re hot or not matters not a jot. And that is the real lesson that women’s fashion holds for men. Not only is it not all about us, it’s barely about us at all. Who’s secondary now, Herr Nietzsche? 

Luke Leitch is the deputy fashion editor of the Daily Telegraph 

Illustrations by Bill Brown