As I was dressing for a short flight, the image of a photograph from 1950 kept flashing into my mind. It was Marlene Dietrich aboard the Queen Mary, got up in a grey wool single-breasted Dior suit with peplum and notched lapels . She wore a mink coat, cape-style, over her ensemble, a silk rose at her throat, white gloves that made doves of her hands, and a sliver of a hat with a light veil. Astonished- looking eyebrows completed the look as adoring fans gazed on, stage (or rather boat) right. The suit itself, designed by Christian Dior in 1949, is one of the exhibits in the new Ocean Liners: Speed and Style show that opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum next month. I wanted it.
Travel is so often lowering, mildly humiliating even. It can assault the personality, on occasion, because if you have spent decades teaching yourself not to put your safety and happiness in the hands of others, you have to force yourself to forget all about it. How do you succumb to unpredictable elements, endure cancellations and delays, the wrong kind of snow and leaves, food you haven’t chosen (and wouldn’t choose), cramped conditions and strangers? How can you embrace at least the illusion of control, a dim sense that you are the master of your fate, the captain of your soul?
These thoughts are, of course, not helpful when you are trying to get dressed in a hurry with a taxi waiting. They’re not especially helpful at any time, truth be told. Still, I tried to concoct a contemporary-ish version of Marlene’s splendid travel attire that would take me, neatly, to Madrid, with spirits intact. I had a tweed skirt, quite strict, in a soft green-brown-black herringbone tweed, and a thin jersey in a similar colour, flecked with Lurex, which had two small dice appliquéd just below the left shoulder, nodding to the side of me that finds it hard to walk past a fruit machine. As I closed the front door, I remembered a line from Vogue in 1926, quoted in the catalogue accompanying the V&A show, claiming that travel clothes are “the acid test of true chic”. Oh.
At the airport I waited by a small group of teenagers who were sharp and beauteous, slouched on their seats, glued to their smartphones. I blinked a few times because my focus seemed unreliable, as though the proportions had gone haywire in some way, or I was drunk. These girls were wearing clothes many sizes too big for them, their angular forms shifting oddly beneath great swaths of fabric. This was not just the roomy sportswear beloved of teenagers, with sleeves that might conceal a litre of vodka on a Friday night, these clothes were wildly exaggerated, almost clown-like. In these outfits you could have pretty much flown a couple on one ticket.
I tried to work out what it meant. These one-size-fits-two hoodies and monumental trousers seemed to convey both low self-esteem and self- esteem of the highest order. Bulky beyond belief, they were outfits refusing to pander to society’s evil preoccupation with the whittling away of women’s flesh — yet they were also proud and deliberate and extreme and they had tons of style. They were travelling clothes to disappear in, and were attracting a great deal of attention. Super-comfortable, playful clothes that had a bold defiant edge. One of the girls had a bone–coloured mac over her shoulders, which flapped loudly, as though hinting at her sideline as a detective. Teenagers are obsessed, after all, with clues, almost as much as their parents are.
To my eyes these teen angels seemed to cry, “You cannot fathom me or my look, so maybe, like, stop trying? I am off duty, just now. In fact, I am so off that I am wearing my off sign as though it’s made of neon. Look at me! Don’t look at me! Cut me some slack . . . Celebrate me . . . Leave me alone . . . ”
As I peered, it struck me how I have always liked words and expressions that mean what they mean and its near-opposite at the same time. It pleases me that clams, figuratively, indicate both happiness and discomfort, and that the word discriminating means taking distinctions and fine details very seriously indeed, or failing to see things clearly. Once I heard a friend describe another woman as “angry” and it turned out she meant of beautiful skin tone and bright apparel, as in a portrait by Ingres. You get the picture. These travelling outfits, in a similar vein, said everything and took it all back as quick as a flash: “With great effort and style we refuse to try. You will never figure us out. Ha!”
My own clothing, and even Marlene’s, which conveyed only two or three things — I prosper, I’ve self-discipline, I am doing my best — seemed suddenly to hold no mystery at all.
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