The more I spent, the more I hoped each purchase could fill that void inside me

Yes, the fashion industry itself has many issues but at its very best, it is an art form. And isn’t feminism, at its very core, about choice? asks Louise O’Neill

The more I spent, the more I hoped each purchase could fill that void inside me

When I was a child, my grá for fashion veered towards the eclectic; a slash of bright red lipstick, cheap wigs in colours never seen in nature, ghoulish Halloween masks.

I had my own vintage trunk full of dressing up clothes — lace, feather boas, gossamer-thin summer dresses that my mother had worn to Greece and Spain in her early twenties, the fabric as faded as the photo albums of those same holidays.

I adored bright colours, my Oilily dresses an explosion of cerise pink and canary yellow, my rubber-soled shoes dyed to match.

The summers in my grandparents’ farmhouse had black and white movies on in the background, women in slips of silver silk click-clacking their way across a dancefloor in spindly heels. I loved all of it.

I agreed with Anne of Green Gables when she said that “it is ever so much easier to be good if your clothes are fashionable” because I could understand, even at a young age, how powerful and transformative fashion could be.

I’m not sure when that love became tainted, warped into something almost grotesque.

I don’t know when I began using my personal style less as an expression of joy and more as a mask to hide behind.

It had become something I could use to gain approval from others — “oh, you have a good eye,” and “you have good taste, don’t you?”

Sometimes there would be envy in their voices, and at that time I wanted people to be envious of me. That would mean I was doing something, anything, right.

If I looked perfect, maybe that would seep through the clothes, through my skin, and bury itself into my very bones. If I looked good enough, maybe I would feel at peace.

I bought some clothes. Shoes and dresses and trousers and jewellery and coats and bags.

Society had promised me consumerism worked, that handing over your credit card at the till to an eagerly smiling assistant was a form of magic.

Each time I was convinced anew this was the outfit that was going to change my life. It would make me happy. The more money I spent, the more I hoped each purchase I could fill that void inside me.

It was 2011 when I left my job at a fashion magazine in New York to come home to write my first book.

Within a few weeks of returning, it was as if my life in the States — a life where I spent an hour every night agonising over what I would wear the following day — had never happened.

Back home in Clonakilty, I didn’t have any makeup and the thought of straightening my hair made me so exhausted I would want to take a 20-minute nap.

I spent most of my days in my pyjamas and an old dressing gown, watching as the words began to add up on the page, one chapter, two chapters, three chapters more, until somehow I had managed to write an entire novel.

It seemed impossible and yet, there it was. Magic, and I hadn’t needed to spend a cent.

Now that I am a full-time author, there are more demands on my time, demands that often necessitate washing my hair and leaving the house. (Oh, the humanity!)

There are interviews to be done, photos to be taken, signings and festivals to show up at. My first reaction whenever I agree to attend such events is, well, what am I going to wear?

I have to admit, I was initially discomfited by this. If I was to be a serious author writing about serious topics, surely I should be above such petty concerns?

Then I remember Anais Nin with her dark-painted lips against alabaster skin, and Donna Tartt with her signature sharp bob above high-collared shirts. Neither seemed worried about seeming less intelligent by investing time in their appearance.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie uses her Instagram to highlight clothes created by young Nigerian designers, and in her essay for Elle magazine entitled ‘Why Can’t Smart Women Love Fashion?’ Adichie wrote:

I no longer pretend not to care about clothes. Because I do care. I love embroidery and texture. I love lace and full skirts and cinched waists. I love black, and I love colour. I love heels, and I love flats. I love exquisite detailing. I love shorts and long maxidresses and feminine jackets with puffy sleeves. I love coloured trousers. I love shopping. I love my two wonderful tailors in Nigeria, who often give me suggestions and with whom I exchange sketches. I admire well-dressed women and often make a point to tell them so. Just because.

I realised it was ridiculous to think a love for fashion was anti-feminist.

Yes, the fashion industry itself has many issues — particularly around race and its fetishisation of extreme thinness — but at its very best, it is an art form.

And isn’t feminism, at its very core, about choice? That you can choose to love fashion or you can choose to reject it, and that both are acceptable as long as you’re doing what makes you happy rather than attempting to appease society’s arbitrary standards of beauty.

I suppose ultimately the point is that it’s important we feel just as comfortable in our Penney’s pyjamas on a lazy Sunday as we do wearing a full length dress to a black-tie event, because as awfully hackneyed as it sounds, true beauty comes from within.

It is derived from loving and accepting yourself, just as you are now.

Louise Says

GO: The West Cork Fit-Up theatre festival is in its final week, and well worth checking out. The Man in the Woman’s Shoes will be performed in venues from Whiddy Island to Timoleague. Finishes August 12.

LISTEN: I went to see Qadasi & Maqhinga at the mighty Debarras Folk Club in Clonakilty and I was stunned by their performance. Hailing from the heart of Zululand, this acoustic duo are reviving traditional Maskandi music. Download their latest album now.

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