My packing for a countryside week of gardening, DIY and essay writing: old jeans, warm tights, hiking boots, bulky L-sized fleece jumpers, and Linda Grant’s 2009 paperback The Thoughtful Dresser.
Perhaps it was a bad idea to spend leisure moments in this style of sixties revival comfort outfit on a book which essentially centres on a pair of Dolce and Gabbana shoes and an Armani coat. But it was not envy of Linda Grant’s style-conscious metropolitan lifestyle which made me lose patience with this book by chapter five.
I admit that my attitude towards Grant is ambivalent: I appreciate her work and style as a feminist presence on the internet: her calling out of casual misogyny and contemporary support of International Women’s Day before the Everyday Sexism project hit the Twitter mainstream. As a novelist, however, I find she may briefly capture, but cannot hold my interest: something about her prose, plots and characters just rubs me the wrong way. I was intrigued by the premise of The Cast Iron Shore: it seemed to tick all the boxes of a twentieth-century feminist adventure story, but the protagonist, and the narrative voice – which became one as the narrator’s role as the author’s alter ego became increasingly obvious – eventually got on my nerves.
The Thoughtful Dresser had the same effect. The premises of Grant’s arguments are principally excellent. She is a very self-conscious feminist, and uses the strength of her position as a successful, articulate, independent woman in her fifties to pre-empt and tackle the inherent misogyny of dismissive attitudes towards women and fashion. And, bearing in mind that the likes of Louise Mensch are now attempting to hijack ‘feminist’ fashion with the advice to wear Pam Jones-style fuchsia two-pieces because, really, that’s what your man likes to see you in, the reminder that you should dress for yourself, and not for a man, is a necessary one.
I love clothes, and would be the last person to argue that an interest in fashion is by definition un-feminist. The assumption that because one is a woman, one ought to care about dress, own branded handbags and toe the anorexic line of fascist couture beauty standards, of course, is; but to abandon all interest in fabrics, designs and silhouettes because they have become, like so much else, the domain of men who feel they are entitled to tell women what to do, how to look and what to be, is to surrender a form of self-expression which should have reference only to your own desires, requirements and creativity. Grant’s recognition and exposure of the Catch-22 of fashion is the highlight of the book: she astutely points out that an interest in clothes and fashion is habitually dismissed as vain, irrelevant and indicative of women’s natural empty-headedness, whilst a woman who does not care about what she wears is looked down on as thoughtless, lacking control, and generally failing at being a successful woman or person.
I come from a family where the making of clothes was an expression of vision, talent and creativity, whilst allowing my grandmothers and earlier generations of women to make a significant contribution to the family income, whether by frugally producing quality wear for their own children, or putting their skills to more direct remunerative use. It is still a very productive hobby for my mother, and provides an opportunity for intergenerational connection and solidarity in a context that is inventive, cosy and fun. I never saw the need for branded clothes because I was lucky enough to have a wardrobe full of my mum’s unusual creations, which really needed only the most basic store-bought additions. My mother, grandmothers, and their foremothers were not vain, silly or empty-headed: they were actively responding to necessity with creativity and skill, and with the least possible reference to their husbands or any other men.
For all these reasons, I was inclined to welcome this ‘thinking woman’s guide to our relationship with what we wear: why we want to look our best and why it matters’ (blurb, 2009 Virago edition). But then Linda, who ostensibly was so full of solidarity between women regardless of class or the size of their purse, began to do just what she despised male outsiders for doing: whilst still proclaiming that we dress only for our own confidence and pleasure, she began to tell other women what to wear.
This was not a huge deal as long as she was merely assuming that her desire for impossible D&G shoes was a universal female desire – this could still be dismissed and ignored. It became an undeniable problem when she aimed her barbs at insecure young girls. She cites ‘Simon Doonan, creative director of Barney’s and one-time celebrity judge on America’s Next Top Model, the reality show in which small-town homecoming queens compete for a modelling contract’, who ‘reduced a contestant to tears by advising her to “go down to the docks, see what all the hookers are wearing and avoid it”’.
‘When the crying girl accused Doonan of calling her “a ho on national television”, he tried to explain that he was merely advising that if she dressed like a porn star, she might be taken for a porn star.’
This sickening episode came in the midst of an originally well-meaning passage which addressed the sort of rape culture which made young girls feel that they were required to dress more scantily than they might like, in order to appeal to men. Grant’s view is that these girls are ‘acting sexy’ with reference to external influences, rather than dressing to enhance their confidence and ‘feel sexy’. However, in this equation she completely ignores the pressure on vulnerable young women who do not have the internal balance she herself has attained through her hippy youth and literary success. She makes the matter worse by describing an excursion to a Vietnamese sex club where underage girls performed ‘the ping-pong act’. She sadly comments that,
‘To the eyes of a grown woman, myself, the harmless gyrations of the hips and twiddling of little button nipples were heartbreakingly fake. They didn’t look sexy because they didn’t feel sexy.’
Heartbreaking indeed – but hardly for those superficial reasons. In a case of sex-trafficked teenagers performing for lecherous middle-aged western men, the fact that these girls didn’t ‘feel sexy’ as they were forced to eject ping-pong balls from their vaginas does not seem to be the biggest tragedy they are made to suffer. Linda’s solution is simple:
‘I thought that if I had a magic want I’d turn them all into kittens, chasing playfully round the squalid stage after a ball of wool.’
Because robbing trafficked under-age sex workers of their person-hood, and leaving them in unhygienic surroundings to provide another kind of cutesy, mindless entertainment will make everything better.
But it is not merely young women finding their own fashionable self-expression that come under Linda Grant’s disapproving scrutiny. As she scrambles to make the point that she is definitely not denying her middle age, but facing up to it bravely and classily, she lashes out viciously at those of her generation who either lack the personal confidence to make what she considers good fashion decisions, or who are so secure in themselves that they can afford to dress whichever way they like, or those who simply don’t care. Don’t dress too young for your age, she hammers home: you may still feel twenty-five, but rest assured you don’t look it. But nor must you let yourself go. She herself, of course, is fortunate enough not to have an ‘inner frump’ waiting to burst out, but if you do, mind you guard against it. Is it really necessary to point out to a language-conscious self-professed feminist that even using words such as ‘frump’ is a propagation of the patriarchal side-lining of aging women, based only on social standards of appropriate appearance?
In her vehement plea for women’s independence in dress as in all else, Linda Grant has succumbed to precisely that fault she assigns to misogyny: she has become prescriptive of other women’s roles, duties and appearance. I fail to see how judging other women on their clothes and appearance promotes solidarity between women and combats the misogyny of fashion. Surely the first step towards the ability to dress for ourselves is to trust other people to dress according to their own needs and inclinations?