Alexandra Shulman on the Inspiration Behind Clothes...and other things that matter
Witty, entertaining and bold, Clothes... and other things that matter is an enticing mix of memoir, fashion history and social commentary, touching on issues such as body image, motherhood, sexual identity, ambition and power. In this exclusive essay, the author, former Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman, describes why she wrote such a singular book.
When you leave the job that you have been doing for 25 years, obviously one of the key questions you grapple with is, what are you going to do with yourself next? It was certainly a question I asked myself when I decided to leave my role as British Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief, a job I had held since 1992.
The fact was, that every time I considered leaving I would think of that question and I couldn’t come up with an answer. There was a blank. Which is one of the reasons why I stayed for such a long time. But one day I woke up realizing that it wasn’t a blank. That there would be all kinds of opportunities. That although I would be leaving the protection of a wonderful job, a monthly salary, the companionship of the office and the status that went with it, I would also have the chance to focus on other things I enjoyed that I didn’t have the time for. Importantly, that I could work towards a future and not just rely upon a past.
I have always been a writer of one kind of another – usually journalism. And during my time at Vogue I wrote three books - two novels, Can We Still Be Friends? and The Parrots, and Inside Vogue: My Diary of Vogue's 100th Year about Vogue’s centenary. So it was clear to me that part of what I would do when I had time to focus on my own projects was to write a book. The only problem was I didn’t know what to write. I didn’t know what I wanted to write. I knew that there were things that I thought were worth saying about my job and also that Vogue was something people would like to read about, but I also knew I didn’t want to write a straightforward autobiography or memoir. Aside from any other considerations, I couldn’t remember that much in detail.
So Clothes... and other things that matter came about as a kind of patchwork of ideas to address the things I was interested in. Clothes yes. Vogue yes. But also some of the things that all of us confront as we go through life – ambition, parenthood, love, heartbreak, loss, ageing.
The book is not strictly chronological but it does start with the shoes I used to wear as a child – Start Rite red sandals. Shoes which informed my opinion about how I looked from an early age since, when I was measured for them in the shop, the sales assistant would always look grim and say to my mother ‘I’m sorry modom. But I’m afraid she’s a double E.' Those shoes and the process of buying them told me early on that there were people who had more delicate feet. And that more delicate feet were generally more desirable than the rather wide ones I had. It was those shoes then, that were an early determiner of the way I saw myself.
From then the book veers backwards and forwards in time as I pick out items of clothing that mean something to me, and which I hope mean something to other people. There are White Shirts and White Shoes. Trainers and Track Suits. Aprons and Beanie Hats. Bikinis and Bras.
It’s a book that is essentially about the way we feel about our clothes and sometimes why. All of us make decisions on a daily basis about what we are wearing and the result of that decision says something about us. Even if we don’t care. For example at the moment as we all live under the restrictions of the Coronavirus pandemic, people have very different attitudes to how they feel about their clothes. Some, like me, feel that they want to get dressed each day as if they were still going out and about. As if people were still going to see them. If I spend more than a couple of hours slopping around in my dressing gown I start to feel that life is slipping away from me. If I get dressed I take more of a grip. Others are simply delighted to be freed from the obligation to get dressed up and the requirement to dress according to their job or others expectations. That choice says as much about them as mine does about me.
As I wrote Clothes... and other things that matter, I found strange connections which I enjoyed exploring. For example how the beanie hat, now so popular with many of us, derived from early knitted wool caps. During the Crimean War they morphed into standard military wear as balaclavas, which then became the headwear of disguise. Balaclavas are worn by ISIS recruits, burglars, and rapists in order to hide their identify. As rather ironically, are beanie caps when scrunched down on the heads of famous film stars and footballers.
Trainers, surely now the most popular footwear the world over, started life as soft shoes worn for sports at the court of Henry VIII when only royalty and aristocracy were able to take part in such sports. So far from the egalitarian positioning it enjoys and not so far from the fashion must-have that certain brands have become.
But there are other connections that are more emotional and more personal: The silky slip dresses that I regard as pieces of clothing irrevocably linked to my marriage; the dressing gowns I found to be the sartorial transit gowns of life, where we stop off between activities, and in particular one that I wore during the period I decided to change my world, and the refuge I realized I found in the colour navy when I want to feel safe.
Clothes... and other things that matter might be the story of my personal wardrobe but I hope it also encourages readers to look at the stories they will find contained within their own drawers and cupboards where their clothes gather, waiting to be worn and speak out.
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