Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
The last item of clothing that I bought was a pair of pink dungarees from M&S children’s department nearly two years ago. So I must confess my bias: I’m not the Vogue-reading, fashion-conscious type. Back when working in the office was still a thing, I didn’t hesitate to wear a plaid skirt that I acquired as a 12-year-old.
It won’t come as a surprise then that ex-Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman’s wardrobe inventory sent me hyperventilating. She lists 556 pieces, including 34 pairs of heeled shoes, 37 handbags, 35 dresses and eight sarongs (I had to google that). Yet I didn’t hurl Shulman’s Clothes… and other things that matter out of the window as you might’ve expected — in that, it has achieved a remarkable feat.
The book is part memoir, part meditation on the social history of clothes and why they matter. Shulman runs through her wardrobe in a kind of sartorial version of Desert Island Discs, where instead of music, items of clothing take her back to memorable moments in life. With a sloppy joe, we travel with teenage Shulman to Paris on a trip that turns out to be a very-near grooming experience; with hats, we meet her Jewish grandmother who fled Russia to Canada; with bras, she reveals her aversion to them. The personal comes laced with more general history. The chapter on handbags — which I barely own — is particularly interesting, charting how they became a symbol of female emancipation. For centuries, women’s possessions were hidden below their skirts, hung on a chain or stuffed into small pouches. When women were released from the constraints of domesticity, bags were a vehicle for going out in the world. I view my meagre selection of bags with a renewed respect.
Shulman is a witty, self-deprecating writer, and this where the book is at its best. In the chapter about the sloppy joe, the 17-year-old author tells her parents that two wealthy older men — essentially strangers — are taking her and a friend to an expensive restaurant in Paris. Her parents merely confirm that “yes, it was a very smart restaurant. [–] They did not say, why on earth is some wealthy guy you haven’t even met taking you two 17-year-olds out to a wildly expensive restaurant in Paris?” Indeed.
I never thought could identify with a Vogue editor, but her definition of hairdressers has exactly that effect: “a room where people sit in rows of chairs in front of mirrors, swathed in drab material that disguises their clothes and their shape, leaving only their heads exposed, waiting like storeroom dummies to be worked upon.” I can understand the aversion: after her mother forced a Twiggy-style geometric crop on Shulman’s 11-year-old head, she kept out of hairdresser’s for the best part of 25 years — until she joined Vogue. Learning these not-so-fashionable titbits makes Shulman’s writing, so often full of mentions of high society and privilege, strangely relatable.
At times, though, the writing misses the mark. “The world changed irrevocably on the day we watched two planes fly out of a clear blue sky into New York’s Twin Towers. Everyone remembers where they were at the time,” she writes, followed with: “I was on holiday in a beautiful house belonging to the Duke of Wellington that overlooked the plain of Granada.” I doubt this is intentional satire, but it certainly got a scoff out of me. There’s also a layer of superficiality that raises its head in somewhat problematic ways: describing wearing her favourite pair of jeans, she writes: “people often ask me, ‘Have you lost weight?’ What more could you want?” Surely in the 21st century the answer should be “a lot more”.
There is also the issue of the ethics of fashion. I’m not saying that any book on clothes should be dedicated to anti-consumerism and self-flagellation, but given how much we know about workers’ (non-)rights and the environmental issues facing the clothing industry, these questions deserve more than a nod, (see my review of Fashionopolis by Dana Thomas for more on this subject). Instead, all we get is a brief mention of how vintage shopping has become a pastime for the privileged.
Shulman could — and should — have been more ambitious and gone out of her comfort zone. But if a light summer read and a care-free ode to clothes is what you’re looking for, this is the perfect fit.
Anna is a journalist and linguist.
Alexandra Shulman, Clothes… And Other Things That Matter (Cassell, 2021). 978-1788401999, 352pp., paperback..
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