In one of only three photographs that exist of me before I was 10, I am wearing a red velvet dress with short sleeves and three small pearl buttons, one slightly chipped. It’s a school photograph, and the background is sky blue; the red is deep and slightly faded, maybe a tiny bit Velázquez-y. I have a wry expression, a bit jolly, a bit reserved. I’m six-ish. Life is complicated but not unpleasant.
If I were a dress, I think I would be that dress. It sums up something important about me. It was on the invitation to my 30th birthday with the words “THWACK! Susie hits Thirty.” It was reproduced in a memoir I wrote some years ago, next to a picture of Dorothy relaxing between takes, with Toto, on the set of The Wizard of Oz.
It is one of three important childhood dresses, the other two being a 1950s cotton summer dress printed with pictures of gift-wrapped parcels, and a dark green wool dress with embroidered lazy daisies at the neck that my mother made me to receive my cycling proficiency certificate at Islington town hall.
But the red dress is the main event. It’s dignified. It tries to show a polished front. It tells a story.
So you can imagine my surprise when I went to give a talk at a local girls’ school today and was told by the librarian, who had invited me, that she used to live next door to us when I was small and that my mother had once given her a red velvet dress which I had grown out of, for her own daughter. It had become a firm friend, this hand-me-down. They have a favourite family photograph of her daughter wearing it, she told me.
It was a strange piece of information to receive. Did it make this important, era-defining dress less mine, somehow? Was there a precious doubling evident in this coincidence or was it what Phillip Larkin would have termed a “dilution”? It was a bit like the feeling I had two weeks ago when a woman walked into a party wearing the same dark teal (which reads as navy) shift, printed with white squares (that read as polka dots), as I was wearing. It didn’t feel ideal, but there was nothing to be done but to shrug and grin. (Grug or shrin).
I phoned my mother later on about the red dress, but she did not remember any more details.
“Where did you find that dress anyway?” I asked, with a nose for a good tale.
“I don’t know. In a jumble sale, probably.” She was using the brisk telephone manner of someone who is trying to complete a painting of the last leaves glimpsed from her window before they crisp and blow off the trees, so I did not press her further.
The schoolgirls I talked to were fresh and lovely and engaged. It was only halfway through the event that I realised I was unwittingly sporting 80 per cent of their school uniform: a navy kilted skirt and a navy cardigan. My navy mac was folded neatly over the back of my chair. Add a pale yellow shirt, and might I have almost passed as a sixth former? It was a thrilling thought. “Well, perhaps to someone with severely limited vision,” I answered myself tartly. (Of course, the sixth formers wear their own clothes anyway, just to make the matter utterly clear.)
Perhaps my unconscious uniform matching could be seen as an attempt at courtesy. My godmother often used to take on the accent of the person she was speaking to, very, very, subtly, and this always struck me as the height of politeness. It was considered charming but it was a risky strategy.
I talked to the schoolgirls about my life and my work. We touched on fashion writing, a subject that interested some of them greatly. I said that my thinking about fashion hinged on the fact that I liked my own clothes to communicate quite clearly that anything that has ever gone wrong in my life – well, none of it was my fault.
Later on, I mentioned my early love of the stage and everything to do with it, and how happy I am that a book I wrote some years ago will soon be a play. “You must be in it!’ they said, which went down very well with me.
It was a day of outfits twinned and recreated, for in the evening on the way to a friend’s book launch, still in my uniform, I caused some mirth in the Dover Street Acne store. I went upstairs and tried on a slightly A-line wool knee-length skirt and a matching, single-breasted A-line wool coat. Putting on something so reminiscent of a district nurse in this temple of cool was a strange sensation. The outfit worked well, and I did feel a little stab of delight, so it’s not surprising that it took about a minute for it to sink in that in almost every respect it was exactly the same as the one I was wearing.
“Well, you know what you like,” the assistant said approvingly.
We agreed their coat would be fractionally warmer than the one I had on, being made of a medium-weight felt rather than wool gaberdine, but we both knew we were splitting fashion hairs.
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Vanessa Friedman’s column returns on December 14