At about 50 I gave up acquiring clothes. I was unwrapping a late Christmas gift, and there was yet another damned top. I felt a slight nausea. Ungrateful me. I couldn’t help it – my wardrobe was bulging and it staged its revolt through my psyche. Enough, we said. I soon discovered that (of course!) there’s a movement out there to support me, but honestly I don’t need it. My resolve arises from a deep place. My mum.
I come from puritan stock (albeit Jewish, Anglican, and atheist). My parents grew up in a time of genuine want. In the War, there simultaneously grew a rich devotion to the life of the mind, to which my begetters were fully in thrall. My mum had been an active member of the CPGB, and set me an unambiguous example. I’ve never seen her wear a lick of makeup. She wastes nothing; always turns lights off in empty rooms; never eats meat. (Her bed of nails is yet to be found.)
She hasn’t shopped for clothes for over 30 years. Then an invitation comes for a summer wedding this year, and suddenly it’s, “I don’t have a thing to wear for this.” A crisis that, at 90, mum can’t face alone.
Thus come I to be shopping. Mum is browsing v-necks, bright colours, broad-shouldered, tall-woman garments for a little old lady shaped exactly like Tenniel’s portrayal of Tweedledum (or was it Tweedledee?)
Clearly, the problem is too big for the both of us. I enlist the help of John Lewis’s personal stylist service. Victoria is lovely. She comes back after 10-15 minutes with a rail full of dresses for mum to try on. This is not when the trouble starts. It started a fortnight earlier, since when mum was trying to precipitate the cancellation of the appointment. The arctic chill coming off her feet was perceptible. Denying the ravages of the years is very hard to maintain while trying on new clothes. That doesn’t stop my mum, the Dowager Empress of Denial.
We start critiquing – not ourselves, of course, but the dresses. Mum was right about the necklines – wide, blousy openness doesn’t suit. Nor do flouncy, fabric-heavy skirts. We agree on two challenges, the first being age. Most of the items are too young. Can’t define it, but can see it when on, unmistakably. The second is shape. If a dress reveals the rotund middle, it is rejected. This is going to be tough! There’s a third. ‘This dress scares me,’ says mum about a lovely, simple, floral number that fits. ‘It doesn’t bite, promise!’ ventures Victoria. She leaves the room, and mum locates some of her marbles: ‘It doesn’t feel like my dress!’ So that is the third challenge: it mustn’t feel alien to the old woman.
After nearly two hours, mum is too agitated to be civil. I plead, Victoria has been so forbearing let’s give this one (pictured) a final try. Blimey – it ticks all the boxes: it’s dignified, it reveals what it may and hides what it must, and isn’t alien. Phew!
Thereupon a fourth challenge rises like a zombie from the grave. I should have predicted this: at £200 the dress costs more than mum can stomach. We leave empty handed. Atavistic instincts win again – our puritanism alone is satisfied.