One of the things I love about dressing up, is dressing up. I mourn slightly for a time before I was born, where people used to wear what we now deem ‘fancy’ clothes, every day. Pretty frocks and waistcoats and pocket handkerchiefs, shiny shoes and everybody seemed to wear a hat. So, what happened? Have we become a generation, and a nation, of dress downers? Why did it happen and is there any chance of the fashion future reverting back to everyday dressing up?
Since clothes started being more than just a practicality, getting dressed has been a way of showing role, belonging, wealth and expression. Society dressed based on class, purpose and dressing up in frocks and matching doublet and pantaloons was just what was done for many people’s day to day wear.
Through every era, those who could afford it draped themselves in the most sumptuous fabrics, cutting edge designs and trends, and plenty of glitzy status affirming trinkets and accessories. Dressing became less about need and more about want. Not necessarily a bad thing though, as the choices made throughout fashion time allowed more and more people to dress up according to their own wishes and styles. Being able to dress in our own clothes, especially for a special occasion, has allowed us to develop our own sense of style and reflect our personality.
Even in many ancient civilisations, dressing up wasn’t just for occasion. Yes, there could be symbolic, religious and cultural reasons for certain colours and styles; in Ancient Rome, only the Emperor could wear a full purple ‘trabea’ toga, and purple was reserved exclusively for the VIPs of the day. Whizzing forward many centuries, and the thing that pops to mind when talking about everyday extravagant dressing is what is called ‘Modern History’ from the 15th century on. The start of this era saw the wealthy and middle-classed dressing in some especially complicated and expensive fashions and styles, just for day to day wear. For example, Tudor style with its ruffs, velvet, silks, furs and jewels. And think about the amount of effort it would have taken to get dressed into the pomp and pouffery (and wigs!) in the 1700s or to assemble the huge crinoline gowns of the mid-19th century.
At least the 1920s toned it down, with more slimline silhouettes; no more nipped in waists and layers upon layers of taffeta, but it was replaced with embellishing and fringing and glamorous art deco jewellery. And then, after World War II and the austerity imposed on fabrics with the ‘make do and mend’ culture, Christian Dior launched the New Look in 1947. This was a turning point in fashion again, showcasing high end looks that revived the tired fashion era. The days of more is more were back, with big skirts, more material and fitted waistlines and this style was the choice for even daily wear.
It was ready-to-wear collections that changed the face of dressing forever. After the Industrial Revolution, easier trade and manufacturing meant that people started to gain access to fast fashion and they could afford fancier clothes despite their age, wage or place in society. Although ready-to-wear has been available for the last 100 years or so, the latter half of the 20th century has seen a huge boost in our consumerism - new designers, high street brands and stores are always opening and ready to churn out many different styles. Whilst Haute Couture is all very well (and trés expensive), collections from the catwalk to the high street have allowed us to wear bits of luxury on a daily basis or buy ‘occasion’ clothes off the rack.
As strange as it sounds, I kind of wish I had lived in an era where it was ok to dress up – and I mean really dress up, every day. Don’t get me wrong; I am so grateful for the fact I have choice. I no longer have to wear only skirts and dresses, corsets and other items that before the feminist revolution, weren’t really options for women. But when I look at my wardrobe and I think of how many gorgeous dresses and statement items, designer goodies and unique vintage pieces I have, that I save for ‘just the right occasion’ or special moments, it seems a shame. These items are longing to be seen, to turn heads and most importantly to be worn. How many times have you bought clothes for a special occasion and then they've never been worn again? Because we don’t really dress like that anymore day to day.
When I get the opportunity to dress up, especially in a style of a bygone time or something particularly sparkly or unique, it makes me feel something special. Some might say ‘well, if we did it every day then it wouldn’t be special’. True, but what I would like is to be able to dress up more, and not to be shot weird looks and overhear comments (‘errr, why is she wearing a big tulle skirt during the day?’ Answer: because I want to.)
So, here comes the possible fashion predicament – is there a way that one can wear their beloved special occasion clothes and still make them every day and relevant? For most items I believe so.
One of the best ways of dressing down when dressing up is accessorising. It’s a simple thing but can completely change the tone of your outfit. Keeping jewellery simple and classic can work well. If we want to blend our special clothes and daytime looks together, it’s about finding a good balance. As Coco Chanel once said, “before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” I get that; less can be more. The second helpful hint is to keep within a neutral colour palette, or a block colour. My ostentatious gold trousers, for example, will look great with a simple white t-shirt, or a coloured top that I would style to match my shoes and accessories. A neutral or block colour allows intense items to be a paired down at the same time.
Could I wear one of my fabulous vintage style dresses out on the high street? Hopefully. I could probably modernise the look of my pretty prom dresses and fairy-like tulle skirts with a crisp pair of white Vans or cute black ankle boots. Styled with some comfy knitwear this season, it’s a look that could work. One of the things I coveted most when watching Disney’s live action Cinderella was that blue ball gown Ella/ Lily James got to wear. My jaw dropped. I want to wear clothes like that all the time please. And if they’ve got glass slippers in my size, I’ll take them too.
And this winter, you might just be able to get some of your party clothes out of the closet to wear every day. Many designers, including Preen, Erdem and Dolce & Gabbana, showed opulent fabrics such as brocade and jacquard on their catwalks for this season’s looks. Velvet is huge for the party season, but it’s also warm and comfortable. Rachel Zoe and Versace both wowed Fashion Week with metallic pieces and velvet suits and dresses. The high street is at it too; the party wear collections are filtering in. Winter is the perfect time to wear these OTT party clothes – and not just to the office Christmas do. The next time you reach for the jeans, have a think about a beloved special item that you could rework to give it an outing. Likelihood is, you’ll be bang on trend.
So, with that said, if I want to walk around like a Disney Princess/ Mad Men wannabe/ extra in an 18th century French aristocracy documentary, then surely, I should be able to do that.