I grew up with the myth that serious artists and thinkers were interested only in their discipline. They were unable to perform rudimentary tasks, like make a cup of tea, and could forget to eat for days. They eschewed ‘trivial’ things like personal appearance so tended to be scruffy, skinny, and unwashed. People who called themselves artists but dressed well and brushed their hair were kidding themselves, and anyone who felt compelled to buy well made, stylish clothes was shallow. And as for housework… This myth continued to bully me well into adulthood, regardless of Samuel Beckett’s cheeky haircut and dapper suits, or Frida Kahlo’s colourful frocks. But what is an artist if not someone who organises material and space, and what are clothes (hair, make-up…) and furniture if not material, our bodies and homes the spaces on/in which to organise them?
Like a lot of young women I began my artistic development with myself as the canvas. Clothes, hair, and make-up were my media, and Vogue my almanack. Once I’d nailed that I moved on to the house I lived in, the food I cooked, the garden, finally landing on writing a decade and a half ago.
The last few years have seen me so strapped for cash most of the clothes I wear come from charity shops or the tail end of sales when you can get a jacket for a tenner, as long as you don’t mind it being three sizes too big, and I’ve been perfectly happy, on the whole, to focus on my writing and not bother with my appearance. I had begun to think the myth had some truth: serious artists don’t trouble themselves to match their socks or care if a shirt flatters, all we require from clothes is that they cover our cheeky parts and keep us warm. I did have trouble reconciling this with the fact I’d rather have no haircut than a bad haircut, but managed to reframe this anomaly as nothing more than an excuse to stay out of the hairdresser’s. But a change in circumstances sees me earning again, and my true colours are showing. A lust for new, well fitting, well cut, flattering and comfortable clothes has flooded my brain like an opioid.
I keep imagining myself in a perfectly tailored trouser suit, floppy silk shirt, and trainers. While a laser-cut shaggy bob disguises my ageing jawline, and highlights cheekbones freshly revealed by gravity’s relentless tug on the flesh that once blanketed them.
Regardless I’m not earning a fraction of the cost of such luxuries, I’ve begun to keep my eyes open for affordable options. So, yesterday, I popped into the Next outlet in Gretna while on my way to the health food store to stock up on chia seeds, and came out with a purple velvet jacket.
A purple velvet jacket! This is light years from both my imagined, and usual style, and I thought I hated purple, so I’m not quite sure what happened. Have I been overtaken by a desire to look like Iggy Pop? Whatever it is, I love this jacket, I want to put it on and promenade in the vicinity of the Sagrada Família. It’s a departure, not unlike the one I’ve taken by finding a well paying gig. Maybe our clothes are a reflection of our art, or whatever discipline our practice covers, and not shallow vanity?
I recently heard someone say clothes are a way of telling people who we are without speaking. They’re an invitation to some, an early warning sign to others. We can usually tell in the first nano-second if we’re going to get on with someone we meet for the first time, and clothes have a lot to do with that. I shy away from men in thin-soled shoes, and ill-fitting suits, and veer towards anyone wearing a fairisle tanktop or a certain tone of green.
I have met some serious thinkers who dress apparently without thought, some artists who are always covered in paint, and more than a few of both who live in middens, but they’re rare. Most of the serious artists and intellectuals I’ve met, or know of, dress with care and have lovely homes. Apparently Mondrian’s studio was so exquisitely ordered that one woman felt the whole sense of it would fall apart if she moved an ashtray. This tells me that Mondrian’s drive to organise material extended well beyond his painting.
Virginia Woolf recognised the importance of dress, and Sylvia Plath chastised herself for buying too many dresses when a check arrived. Not unlike me, now, chastising myself for buying a purple velvet jacket instead of something hard wearing and practical. But, maybe, in the not too distant future, I’ll be walking down a road in my purple velvet and see someone wearing a particular shade of green, and we’ll instantly connect and end up collaborating on the project we were made for.
Writers, it seems, organise more than words on a page. Serious writers tell their stories with everything they do: decorate their homes; dress; feed their guests; plant their gardens. One’s art doesn’t have to be limited to a single discipline, it can bleed into every aspect of one’s life.