Discover more from My Goodness! From Jo Elvin
I was 33 before I found my style confidence
Warning: mortifying photos ahead....
I found myself going down a rabbit hole looking at old photos and when I tell you I howled laughing at some of the sights of myself that I saw.
How did I get hired in the ‘90s? Or laid, for that matter? Answers on a postcard, I’m serious. How? Was my now husband the most desperate man in London?
This weekend I’ve been writing a fashion feature commissioned by a newspaper, all about my militant outfit planning for my #weekonawall hashtag series. If you’d have told 14-year-old me, or even 22 or 30-year-old me that my opinions would one day be regularly sought on any matters pertaining to fashion, I’d have sooner believed I’d be commuting to work in my spaceship by now and married to David Bowie.
I mean, look:
And by this time, I was a magazine editor. It was Sugar magazine, aimed at teenagers, so hardly Vogue. But still, I think I can forgive my now dear friend Jayne - the magazine’s ad manager - when I remember she really had to rearrange her horrified face when I told her I was the new editor.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in fashion in my teens and twenties. I simply had no confidence in my own self image and so spent many years just feeling lost. I’d look at outfits in shops and I genuinely couldn’t tell you if I thought they were nice or not.
I think a few factors contributed to this complete and utter fashion blindness.
1. I am from Australia. Maybe it’s different now, I haven’t lived there for 30 years. But when I was a kid, no one really cared that much about fashion. Even these days I find the shopping a bit lacking, if I’m honest. It’s an outdoorsy, sports-focused culture and it’s too bloody hot to wear much anyway.
2. My mum gives not even half of one shit about fashion. She lives on acres of rural land and tends to her horses every day. I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen her get really dressed up to go anywhere. She hates going out. I’m not one of these girls who could spend hours picking through the Studio 54 vibes in my mum’s wardrobe. And that’s fine, of course. But growing up with my mum, in a deeply un-chic Sydney suburb? Yeah, I wasn’t exactly exposed to much fashion influence.
3. I was constantly ridiculed at school for being so skinny. Every single day from about the age of 11 til leaving at 17, I am not exaggerating. I spent years trying to hide in clothes. On the odd occasion I dared to copy my peers in say, the tight jeans or the slip dress du jour ( I remember in 1983 everyone at my school went wild for these cotton strappy dresses that said ‘Bali’ on them. Lol), someone would usually tell me that everyone had been saying that I was too thin to look nice in that. So I lived in clothes that were too big for me, convinced this would help disguise my terrible skinniness. Years later, friends would say, ‘You have the sort of figure where you can wear anything you want.’ And I always told them they were 100% incorrect.
Somehow, this lump of clay in ill-fitting trousers landed a job on the Aussie bible for teens, Dolly. Probably because I could write and at that stage, I was so thrilled to be there that if they’d ask me to lick a toilet bowl clean I’d have done it and thanked them for letting me. I was Andy from The Devil Wears Prada, but if Andy also had a really terrible perm and wore jelly bean sandals (remember them?) with everything.
But wow, these magazine girls - these beautiful, chic, swishy women who swanned in every day in a completely different outfit (it was news to me that some people didn’t need to quickly wash Monday’s outfit ready for Thursday) - were so incredibly kind and encouraging to me. It was my first editor, Marina Go, who gently suggested that I was prettier than I believed and suggested I go see her hairdresser to get a style that didn’t hide my face under a mass of permed (matted in places) curls. I started looking at what the women around me were wearing and slowly daring to try out some of their styles for myself. Much like Nigel in the Devil film, the fashion editor Carlotta would urge me to try stuff on from her rails. She often gave me clothes she thought would suit me, which was just unbelievable to teenage me.
What drew me to magazines in the first place was the camaraderie I’d found emanating from the pages. The people I met in my first job on one turned out to be the real life embodiment of that. Slowly I started to quieten the voice that had been on a loop in my head since I was a child. Maybe I wasn’t quite as ugly as I thought and maybe my skinny legs were fine.
When I got my first magazine role in London and was earning OK money, I started saving up to buy the odd status item of the day, figuring if I could brandish enough labels, I would feel and look fashionable. But, as an example of how clueless I still was: I bought a pair of the Patrick Cox loafers that were the big deal of the early ‘90s.
And I wore them with absolutely everything. No, I mean… I once paired those chunky, black square-toed flat shoes with an electric blue satin slip dress for a black tie event, which the husband still teases me about sometimes to this day. If you’ve only met me in the last 20 years or so, you would not believe that back in those days, I usually owned no more than three pairs of shoes. And they got worn into the ground. Not because I couldn’t afford any more than three pairs of shoes, but because I was so unable to identify in myself any likes or dislikes, that I felt it safer to just not buy anything for fear of getting it wrong.
It wasn’t until I worked at Glamour magazine, in 2000, aged 30, that I eventually discovered how much I love fashion and how much getting dressed can give you confidence, rather than rob you of it. (I often wonder what Nicholas Coleridge, the Savile Row-clad sophisticate, boss of Vogue, GQ, Tatler, who hired me, made of my standard issue high street black trousers and button-down shirts in those early days. Credit to him for seeing past that. But I do remember once, when he was the chair of the British Fashion Council and we were all required to attend the Fashion Awards, he quietly, awkwardly said to me one day, ‘It’s the kind of event where everybody really wears their very best clothes.’ Hint received. Designer samples borrowed.)
Again, it was the women I worked with at Glamour who really changed me.
I’d been there about a year and was still wearing trouser suits to every black tie event I was required to go to when one day, our style director Charlotte-Anne Fidler practically begged me to try on a black satin Dolce and Gabbana dress that was in the fashion cupboard. I was up for a big magazine award, and she wanted me to wear this dress. It had a corseted waist, capped sleeves, a very low, sweetheart neckline and was tight all the way from the waist to just above the knee. Several of my absolute worst nightmares in one garment, especially the amount of leg on show.
When I relented and put it on, I still remember how stunned I felt with everyone’s reactions. I was urged by the whole fashion team to believe it looked good and to please wear it. So despite being so far out of my comfort zone, and being - genuinely - afraid to put myself on show like that, I did. I presumed some people were taken aback by my stick insect shins - there’s always someone who’s moved to say something - but equally I’d never ever had so many compliments in one night, in my life. And I won the award.
It was the first time in my life I’d worn a dress like that. I was 33. It was that night, daring to forget everything I’d ever told myself about how I look in tight dresses, short skirts, anything that reveals my actual body, that changed the way I feel about my self image and my confidence in fashion.
It really changed me. I realised I probably was more worthy of being seen, of not hiding away in clothes, than I’d been convincing myself all these years. It unleashed someone who’s only grown bolder and more confident and experimental in what I wear. Just last week, I wore a bright red jumper with practically glowing magenta trousers. People stared. How could you not, it’s an outfit they could see up there in space.
And I realised what a different person I am to the woman I was in my 20s, because whether you’re staring because you like it or think it’s hideous, the only thing that matters is if I feel happy wearing it. Those high school years trained me to think that someone laughing at your outfit was a fate worse than death. Now I always wear what the hell I like and enjoy getting dressed, every day.
I’m steadfastly heading into my mid-50s, a time when apparently many women start to feel lost all over again. Menopause, a changing metabolism, an ageing body all bring challenges to our self-confidence. But there’s plenty of examples out there of the older women really bossing their personal style and not being cowed into invisibility just because their hair is grey. I spent too many days in my youth simpering in the shadows in my baggy blacks. I can guarantee you I’ll be the one wearing leather dungarees if the mood takes me when I’m 90.
My advice if you need to find your style mojo? Find someone you trust to give you kind but honest advice. And listen to them. I know from experience that so much of what we tell ourselves about the way we look and what we can and cannot, or even should not wear, is nothing but the bullshit we’ve made up in our own crazy heads.
Anyway, to end on a nice note, here is probably one of my favourite things I ever wore. I was about 41 and it was during Milan Fashion Week, and I had discovered that I adore bold colours and that I can wear dresses and still hide my bony knees. That was a good day:
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