I can’t even say which decade people are supposed to wear. I think I can probably go for the 60s, but that’s about it. Thought I could know what the 80s were like, but most of the time that’s what college kids wear, and they can’t all be on their way to a themed party, right ?
It’s not the only office where I was the only person to have no idea of style while surrounded by incredibly glamorous colleagues. In fact, it is sort of an overall career theme. Women who have built wardrobes around rows of beautiful shoes and who have dressed in Italian brands. I remember one saying with a slight sneer, “Oh that’s a pretty dress. Have I seen this before?”
“Of course you’ve seen it before,” I replied, fearlessly. “This is my evening dress. You’ll be seeing a lot more in the next few months, too.”
We had to go to a black tie event at the end of last year for work and I showed my coworkers pictures of what I was going to wear. Even my evening dress wasn’t going to look good enough, so I borrowed the stretchier items from a better dressed friend.
“No,” they told me. “These are work dresses, you absolutely cannot wear them.”
So two of them (men, might I add) took me shopping where I spent more than I spent on my entire wardrobe in the last three years for a dress, (this, to be honest, is more of a reflection on how little I buy, rather than the price of the dress). I pointed to another coworker as I entered work. “I have a dress!” I said, holding her triumphantly towards her (notice, her, a woman). She looked at me questioningly and said, “Or could that be a coat too?”
“Hmm,” I said, in a very marked moment not picking up the politeness and subtle signals of others because I don’t care about myself. “I’ll have more wear and tear on it,” I said.
I came home, did my hair with a thousand bobby pins, put on makeup and ran, late as usual, down the stairs. But, as I took the last step on the path below, I happened to look down.
“Well,” I thought. “I’m pretty sure it’s not meant to be visible.”
It turned out that the last button of my dress was located just below my belly button. Absolutely fine if you were standing in a store yelling at your coworkers, “I don’t care, pick one, yes or no?” Absolutely not good if you needed to walk. Or sit down. Or bustle around in uncomfortably high heels.
No time to put on anything else, I stuck a safety pin on the bottom and spent the evening drinking as much as I could, telling strangers I was wearing a coat and laugh like a drain.
Anyway, now, because, I don’t know, karma, the Otago museum is having a fashion exhibition. And I read about fashion, wrote about fashion, and unfortunately met some style icons and claimed to know even the youngest about fashion. I can’t even count the times I’ve worn my evening dress.
It started out rolling our eyes on our way to meetings. My God, who cares if your pants match your shoes, the big question I ask my clothes before I put them on is, “Are you clean?” But then I read Ben Barrys’ introductory essay at the show, and I started getting it. Fashion, like art, is a way to have a bigger conversation. It’s a way of breaking dull conventions and arguing with those who adhere to stifling traditions, two things I really enjoy doing. And then I realized that these women, designers and fashionistas, were all as cool as [anything]. They were women 10 years older than me, 20 years older than me, and 35 years older than me who were all exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. Vivacious, sucking the marrow of life and being quite terrifying in the process.
And the more I spoke to them, the more I realized that we shared common values. Buying 15 new dresses that you will never wear because they are for sale on the internet and are probably made by children in Bangladesh is incredibly stupid. Buying something beautiful and carefully made from a local manufacturer, or finding a vintage woolen jacket and remaking it into something charming adds to the beauty of the world.
Fashion is a way of telling the world who you are without having to say a word. It is just a shame that what I am is both neglected and lazy.
– Kate Oktay
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