During the recent women’s wear shows I found myself on a bench at Tao Comme des Garçons (Tao being one of the young labels that is being developed under the CdG umbrella) sandwiched between Ikram Goldman, the eponymous owner of a store in Chicago, and Tricia Jones, editor of special projects for ID magazine. All of us looked with great desire at the shoes the models were wearing and whispered our shared product lust. The footwear in question were motorcycle boots wound round and round with studded leather chains at the ankle, and they were kind of cool and kind of fancy and kind of mad (in both meanings of the word), all at the same time.
“I’m not sure what my kids would say, though, if I showed up with them on my feet at school,” I said, picturing the looks of horror on the faces of my seven- and nine-year-old daughters. Sometimes they just don’t want to know about any latent biker fantasies a parent might have. My son, who is four, on the other hand, would just think the boots were neat. He’s too young to understand sartorial subtext – though when I occasionally attempt to wear a Rick Owens harem-pant-style knee-length playsuit, which is kind of like the hippest LBD, even he looks a bit embarrassed and tells me to change my clothes.
“I used to show up at school in my flight suit,” said Jones, whose children are now grown up. “We also had a car that we patched with rust-resistant paint whenever it got a scratch. The children used to make me park around the corner.”
Dressing for the school run is, I have discovered, more fraught than I ever would have imagined. To be honest, I had never imagined it as an issue at all. Entering the workforce I had many male friends who felt wearing suits was akin to donning a disguise, and pre-and-post office hours immediately changed into their “real” clothes, but I have always worn pretty much the same clothes to work and play. Or at least I did. Until I looked at them through the eyes of my children, and my children’s friends.
And I am not the only one: consider recent newspaper commentary about Victoria Beckham’s “over the top” appearance at her children’s school in Los Angeles in head-to-toe leather, including a shoulder-padded Balmain jacket and studded Dsquared trousers; or the praise by madeformums.com of Claudia Schiffer’s and Elle Macpherson’s “school run chic” (perfectly fitting jeans, sweaters, and flats, with scarves artfully flung around their necks). According to your outfits, your parental fitness will be judged.
After all, there are few places that can make someone seem as glaringly out of place as the school gates. There, in a sea of parents or babysitters clad, almost entirely (in my case at least), in jeans or suits or occasionally yoga gear, appearing in a quasi-skating dress and platform wedges, both of which constitute a sort of work uniform for me, is to feel a bit of a freak. It is to invite glances and speculation.
“What do you do that you dress like that?” I have been asked more than once, and once a woman came up to me on the street after pick-up to say hi and introduce herself – we had a mutual friend – and said she had figured out who I was because of my handbag.
Now, though I love my handbag (for the record, a big Louis Vuitton tote designed by Takashi Murakami for his show at the Brooklyn Museum that is weather-proof and capacious enough to house both notebooks and lunch boxes), and I know I natter on about the message of clothes all the time, I have to say I found the fact that my bag revealed so much about me a bit of a shock.
I am sure there are some schools and places where this would not be true – where my handbag would just be one among a sea of similar handbags – but both the educational establishment in London my kids used to go to and the one in Brooklyn that they currently attend are full of parents whose professions tend to the artsy, self-employed, dress-code-free end of the spectrum, and thus the majority of the ladies don’t do lunch but do do Ashtanga. And here’s the thing: at school you’re not representing you, you’re representing your children – and most children find their parents embarrassing enough without having to worry about their clothes marking them out as Other.
Indeed, not long ago I had another conversation with a fashion world mother who lives in London, about the problem of her spike-heeled Giuseppe Zanotti boots. “I wore them once when I dropped the kids off, and got my heel stuck in the grate,” she sighed. “I felt like I had a giant sign over my head saying, ‘fashion victim’. It was awful. Now I keep them in my bag until I get out of the area.”
So, despite the fact that I know assimilation may be the wrong message to send to my children – that I should stand up for being different, dressing like an individual, and all the stuff I tell them when we have long talks – I have taken my cues from Mmes Schiffer and Macpherson and adapted. I have a costume for the school run that involves jeans, sneakers, T-shirts and wool jackets, and in it I play the role of Mum, even if 10 minutes later I, like Superman, throw off my Clark Kent camouflage and become Superfashionista. Well, OK, not exactly Superfashionista, but someone in YSL power platforms. The question is, when it comes time to trick-or-treat, which pair of shoes do I wear?
Vanessa Friedman in the FT’s fashion editor
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