For me there is something ominous about the catwalk season. Within weeks of shows in Paris, London or Milan a new wave of designs for clothing or accessories will adorn high street shop windows and with the help of articles in newspaper and ubiquitous promotion the next round of frenzied fashion buying will begin. Heels, hems, necklines, waists will be that bit higher or lower, colours greener, redder or whatever – with the equivalent for men – and the fashion-for-fashion’s-sake purchasing spree will be in full swing. But here’s my problem, I have a deep antithesis towards fashion fads and ephemera. Indeed, I see the fashion business as, by and large, a cynical waste of energy, time and money.
However, in reality, the reaches of fashion are inescapable and fighting against it difficult. Nevertheless, in the last few weeks I have begun to see my way through this dilemma. More importantly, I have been reminded that perhaps my views are less outlandish than some would have me believe.
Help in my venture, in the form of a new word, started when I was asked if I had any clothes to give away to charity. My wife was sorting through her wardrobe and had found several wide-bottomed trousers that dated back a few years and were no longer in fashion. Did I have an equivalent hoard in my wardrobe and, if so, could I add them to the Oxfam collection? But I was faced with a problem – I did not see the idea of being out-of-fashion as applying to me. I am never in fashion!
My principle is to buy clothes primarily for comfort, quality and usefulness, and only throw them away when they no longer fit, are threadbare or have lost their mate – the single-sock syndrome! Accordingly, I have three dark grey suits, the oldest aged forty five years, the youngest around twenty, all of different sizes – waist 36″, 38″ and 40″ – which I use as befits. Yes, these suits do vary in style – slightly broader lapels or wider trouser bottoms, but not enough to reflect any ephemeral fashion. They were, we decided, ‘classic’, rather than fashionable, and that being the case they should stay. And with that idea I was armed with a word that somehow legitimised my approach.
With my new descriptor still buzzing in my ears I went to buy a new watch strap. I showed the shop assistant my 18-month old, frayed, black plain-leather strap and after a moment she looked up and asked, “Perhaps sir would like something a little more fashionable?”
My reply was predictable, “Thank you, but no. I am looking for a classic black leather strap just like last time, and the time before, and the time before that.” After shuffling around in a drawer behind the counter she found one that matched mine exactly. A classic indeed. They are, she said, still being made by a small traditional leather company in Germany!
A day or two later, at an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, I found support for my stance against the fashionistas and it came from the best of authorities. We were at the gallery to see the winners of the 2014 Photo Portrait competition. In fact, this year’s selection was uninspiring but luckily the exhibition in the adjoining rooms caught our eyes. “William Morris and his legacy: anarchy and beauty”. The title was irresistible so we bought our tickets and went in. How could I miss an exhibition on the work and ideas of one of my lifelong heroes, William Morris, the nineteenth century designer, painter, printer, furniture maker, author, poet and socialist campaigner?
A panel just inside the entrance was a tonic. It was Morris’ golden rule for his Arts and Crafts movement. It read, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” In a stroke, by linking beauty and usefulness, the whole notion of fleeting frivolous fashions was somehow dismissed. In the exhibition the theme continued, gelling for me as I stood staring at glass cabinet displaying a woman’s jacket. In its colours and its form it was an object of extraordinary beauty and totally fit for 2014. The label said it was made in the 1920s, so how could this be? The clue came from a note beside the frame. This jacket, and many other clothes of the period, were designed and made as ‘anti-fashion’ statements. And it worked. Beauty was indeed above fashion.
Yes, in clothing there are always likely to be fads and ephemera, but the Arts and Crafts movement, whose influence continues still, shows that, once achieved, classic beauty is enduring.