Why so frumpy, asks Linda Grant. She launches an attack on beige sacks and other garments that are not out of date but never fashionable in the first place ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2009
When I see drably dressed women wearing cardigans like ironed porridge, or wrinkled, beige, calf-length linen skirts, I wonder what was going through their minds when they picked their clothes off the rail in a shop and tried them on. Did they really think: “This is lovely. I’ll take it”? Despite the cutting-edge eccentricity of British street style, despite the British designers Alexander McQueen and John Galliano running notable Parisian fashion houses, despite, back at home, having Vivienne Westwood and the quieter pleasures of Nicole Farhi and Betty Jackson to choose from, many British women—unlike their French and Italian counterparts—dress like frumps. Of course, British men dress even more badly, but being men, they are not on the receiving end of endless finger-wagging from the fashion pages. The word frump is always applied to women; there does not seem to be a male equivalent.
The frump’s wardrobe is one that changes only imperceptibly as decades pass. In the 1990s, it would have embraced a navy suit, a dress with a pleated skirt that fell to just above the ankles, and a white cardigan. Ten years on little has altered other than the colours: typically, beige, grey and stone have replaced navy and white, perhaps because such non-colours are even more invisible than the originals. It’s as if such women don’t want to be seen.
Since the debut of the BBC’s “What Not to Wear” in 2001, a proliferation of makeover shows has attempted to teach women how to dress, while personal shoppers have become almost ubiquitous in department stores. Books such as “Style Clinic” by Paula Reed, or Nina Garcia’s “The Little Black Book of Style” have laid down rules and regulations for how to conceal your hips (a-line dresses), or what colours to choose to suit your hair and skin tone.
Yet for many women this vast re-education project has failed to take. Still they look a dull, badly co-ordinated mess. Is it that these women do not care what they wear or what they look like? It seems unlikely—for if they did, their choice of clothes would be more truly random: they would buy the first thing they saw when they walked into the shop, or wear what they already owned until it fell to pieces. Yet I often see women trying on outfits that make them look ten years older, that drown their shapes, in shades that draw all colour from their now-lifeless skin. They gaze intently at their reflection. They ask a friend or husband for their opinion. Does it suit me, they ask? Do you think it’s too short? Do they have it in another colour? Should I get the next size up?
On occasion I have even been bold enough to intervene, and begged them not to buy something so unflattering. Sometimes this works, and they put the shapeless beige sack back.
What business is it of mine what people wear? The answer is, it’s everyone’s business. Other people’s clothes are part of the background music of our lives. As we walk about we can hardly avoid the sight of others; and just as it is a pleasure to gaze upon a good-looking man or woman (however unfair that may be to the rest of us), so it is a delight to see a really stylish man or woman. You don’t have to be young, thin or rich to be stylish; merely to care about what you look like, to take an interest, to regard dress as part of aesthetics, like architecture and landscape.
Earlier this year, Marks & Spencer introduced a particularly risible a-line calf-length denim skirt. It disappeared at once from their stores nationwide. Hopes were briefly raised that irate fashionistas had torn the skirt from the rails in an act of sartorial revolution, but no, it was shoppers who loved it so much that it sold out at once. Here at last was the ideal frumpy item: a skirt not out of date but never fashionable in the first place.
Why did so many women buy the thing? Perhaps it’s simply that they like dowdy clothes, clothes with a straightforward lack of noticeability that chimes with their own personalities. Just as Coco Chanel always wore black or Victoria Beckham invariably carries a matching handbag, frumpy garments, hideous as they might seem to others, are a valid expression of the wearers’ character. They may actively wish to resemble a mid-1970s geography teacher, fondly remembering her reassuring neutrality. In a world of style aggressively attaching itself to the humblest of objects, from pastel Smeg fridges to Cath Kidston dog beds, there is comfort to be gained from heading in the opposite direction.
Dowdy dressers have the same right to be provided for by the retail trade as fashion victims who crave leather leggings, and everyone else in between. But I suspect that many women’s apparent desire to dress invisibly conceals a rats’ nest of insecurities. Wanting people not to look at you can be caused by anxiety about your size; or your shape; or your age. It might even be caused by uncertainty about your actual identity. If you don’t know who you are—or don’t like what you are—how can you accurately express or define yourself through clothes? So wince, if you must, as a badly dressed woman passes by; but remember that the prompts for her choices were, probably, not entirely sartorial.
Illustration: Brett Ryder