Why clothes are important

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It DOES matter what you wear, and this is why.

I was watching What Not To Wear the other day.

It is a guilty pleasure for me. I always get the feeling that I should really be doing something more intellectual instead, but the truth is, I love it.

I speak, of course, of the former UK version with Trinny and Susannah. Since we get things in France some years after they were broadcast in the UK, I have no idea how old this programme was, but it was the one where they made over women in their 70s.

It set me thinking about whether, and why, clothes are important. Because personally, I think they are, though I sometimes find it hard to articulate, and this programme partly highlighted why.

One woman, whose husband had clearly left her some years before, felt frumpy and unsexy and old. In an interview, he admitted that he couldn’t remember her, in their marriage, EVER looking sexy. Right there, I couldn’t help thinking, was possibly one reason that they had split up. Don’t we all – male or female – want our partner to look attractive, so that we can show them off?

This woman was also a member of a theatre troupe but never took to the stage, preferring to remain in the background and do the costumes. She also enjoyed dancing, but only did it at home, alone, because she felt too frumpy to go out. Clearly, a huge makeover was called for.  Once thoroughly fettled, she felt more confident to take part in things and re-engage in life. Such is the power of a ‘trivial’ matter like appearance.

Another lightbulb moment was a comment from Susannah when she and Trinny were trying to pick two women from their shortlist of five. She was looking at a very ladylike old lady in a hat and tasteful clothing, and she whispered: "It’s just that if I was a mugger, I’d think: YES." And she was right – this woman looked like a pushover, like the kind of little old lady you could just knock over and nick her handbag. Let’s face it, we don’t live in a perfect world and nobody in their right mind wants to look like a victim.

We will never know if Trinny and Susannah could have made this woman look more current, because they didn’t pick her. But the two they did pick were utterly transformed. OK, they took 20 years off the pair of them, though I don’t like to focus on the ‘young’ angle. But the combination of decent haircuts, some makeup to brighten up pallid faces, current spectacle frames instead of ones 20 years out of date and casual, comfortable, trendy clothes made these woman suddenly look like women you’d like to talk to rather than inmates of a nursing home. Like ‘us’ instead of ‘them’. 

Perhaps clothing, and our appearance generally, is important because it’s something that we choose. And in choosing, we send out messages about who we are and what we think of ourselves.

Often, this is all people have to go on and our appearance therefore gets us judged before we even open our mouths – what’s the saying: 80 per cent how you look, 20 per cent what you say? Something like that, anyway. 

I have a friend, a man-of-the-people leftwinger, who protests volubly about this kind of thing. People shouldn’t judge on appearances, he says, and I know what he means. But there’s no sense in railing at the world for what it isn’t. We are visual animals, and we take visual cues when summing up situations. "You do exactly the same," I said to him. "If you were waiting for two people to turn up, and one was the insurance agent, and the other was the plumber. And one person comes to the door and they’re dressed in overalls, which one are they?"

"Yes, but…" he said.

But there is no ‘but’, is there? We all of us, every day, put on a sandwich board of sorts that proclaims:  this is me, I’m such-and-such. The trick, as we get older and as our lives change, is to find the sandwich board that is appropriate to our current lives and to who we are inside.

It was instructive in What Not To Wear to see how many of the women featured had not bought new clothes for 20 years. In their 70s, they were wearing the clothes they had bought in their 50s, when they last felt like themselves. The truth is, you need a tweak, and an honest look at yourself for every decade. I am not the same at 45 as I was at 35. I will not be the same at 55. And the person I was at 25 is another country altogether.

We all of us need to live in the present, not the past.

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