A costume designer with years of experience, through painstakingly accurate period pieces to frayed-at-the-edges regional cop shows, pointed out the obvious: the clothes are always wrong. The only era-specific conformity in any TV image grab is that the outfits do not conform; they arrive piecemeal, in survival instalments from lost decades.
“Clothes are our weapons, our challenges, our visible insults,” Angela Carter said in her 1967 essay, Notes for a Theory of Sixties Style. They have been imposed on us by the papal dictums and wild misjudgements of the fashion industry. They infiltrate group consciousness from paparazzi flares of celebrity shame. Kate Moss down on all fours, red carpet to air rage.
A carousel of between-gigs models falling out of clubs into taxis. To retain faith in individualism, the mob (that is: you, me) are in a perpetual flush of copycatism.
Postcode gangs mark their turf with trainers slung from telephone wires. Fashion slaves operate the same system with discriminations of footwear: brown brogues, heels, sandals, bovver boots. We slope out in sports brands that will never be blooded in a boxing ring. The only fashion compliment I ever received came in Texas: for a pair of modest, sand-coloured Skechers lace-ups from Debenhams in Hastings.
If I interrogate my past through photo albums, a purgatorial landscape of fashion crimes is revealed. I am always wandering into the wrong wedding reception in a tight-under-the-armpits, wear-once suit. Or experimenting with a Mediterranean outfit from someone else’s mislaid Northern Lights suitcase.
I never supported Chelsea FC, even in the swaggering King’s Road days of Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson, but I acquired the T-shirt. It was a nice deep blue, and was being knocked out cheap from a stall on Kingsland Waste, a now defunct Hackney street market.
Buying clothes was a shiftily neurotic activity confined to the open air. Shops made me claustrophobic. They were fine if I didn’t have to purchase anything. I mean: as environments.
A stroll on a rainy day through galleries of never very appealing exhibits. The Chelsea T-shirt, only to be exposed outside Chelsea, outside England, came with a pimpish Peter Wyngarde moustache and dark glasses of a bloodshot glaze, like the promise of a permanent hangover. It took many years and a steady drip of marital scorn to understand that quality is worth its price tag. If there is a price tag.
The folded shirts displayed in those Shoreditch installations, laid out on their blocky central altars, between minimalist clothes racks, are not defaced with tickets. If you have to ask, don’t bother. Try somewhere budget like Bond Street.
When I progressed from assemblages of saggy-necked T-shirts, Chinese jeans, thin white socks and autopsy jackets too long in the arms, to varieties of black-on-black linen, audiences at readings saw me as a demented, non-conformist preacher. I probably sounded like one, too. Which was not the effect I intended. But as soon as there is an effect, we are undone. We shift from covering our nakedness to playing a part.
Years of education and social conditioning, supported by a complex hierarchy of uniforms, graded ties, stiff collars with choking studs and tolerated levels of drainpiping in the grey flannel department, were based around the thesis that fashion does not exist. It’s a metropolitan aberration, effete, morally suspect. And that brainwashing took: proper coats were inherited and passed on. The material was indestructible. It was like wrapping yourself in a mildewed section of Hadrian’s Wall.
Fashion made a big comeback around 1965. There were new markets to exploit by way of new media. Angela Carter remarks, very astutely, that fine details of women’s apparel are sprinkled over novels by male authors in order to convince us that they can do female characters. In truth, what females regard, with beady or approving eye, is each other.
The late Sixties was the period when writers of Carter’s standing began to publish pieces on clothes. It was now acceptable, even hip, to riff on Moroccan scarves, tattoos, body piercings and the transit of fetish freakdom into mass-market commodity.
Have writers ever been reliable as fashion role models? Two Londoners whose generically promiscuous books were a goad when I started out were Carter and Michael Moorcock. Both had style, not only in their confident prose, but in their persons. Both dressed as they wrote, across the generations: Edwardian quotations, elective affinities.
Rings, hats, waistcoats, walking sticks for Moorcock. His character Jerry Cornelius set the template for Jagger and Bowie and the Savile Row aspects of James Bond. Carter understood how clothes acted as signifiers for a new book: she changed her look dramatically from cover portrait to cover portrait. “We think our dress expresses ourselves, but in fact it expresses our environment,” she said.
JG Ballard, Moorcock’s great collaborator in the days of New Worlds magazine, was so much anti-fashion that he was doomed, after the late success of Empire of the Sun, to be pure fashion. His fashion mistakes – including a selection of Hawaiian shirts with floral ties – could be seen as ironies. Ballard’s mentor, William Burroughs, stood out from the crowd of low-rent scribblers by trying to dress as anonymously as a suburban bank manager. I devoured their books, but stuck with what arts critic Rachel Cooke, describing the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, called “nubby Scandinavian”. Like getting dressed in the dark.
Faces in Bethnal Green realised that the Krays were finished when Reggie appeared on the street without a tie. Late-boho invaders labour after a rigidly casual stance, lumberjack beards and skinny trousers, where the old villains, in the same parts of town, threw off their working clobber and dressed to kill, literally, for that funny night out in The Carpenter’s Arms.
Shifts of fashion are now so virally swift, so responsive to movement through location, that I had to walk north from Dalston Junction to Stoke Newington to get a taste of what was really happening. There were jumps of ethnicity and presentation, outlets dissolving from charity bunkers to wedding bling to hipster display. Until I arrived at the 1894 building that once offered space to a Kurdish diaspora. It was labelled “Beyond Retro, Vintage Clothing”. The strap line said it all: “Life is too Short to Wear Matching Socks”.
Unless you are Jon Snow. And those socks are your brand recognition for grappling with the day’s news on Channel 4.
Iain Sinclair is an award-winning writer and film-maker