I was born in… well, we can gloss over that. Let’s just say that my childhood was spent in an era of extremes. War and calls for peace dominated the headlines, crooners shared the charts with pop groups, hemlines varied between revelation and medieval and most married women…and God help you if you weren’t…still stayed at home to raise their children.
My mother had already broken that mould by working full-time when I was small. She had grown from a pretty young woman to look like Susan Hayward and dressed like Marilyn Monroe. She had fixed ideas on fashion and it was into this environment that my first stirrings of femininity would flutter.
I was blonde when I was very young, with pale wild waves that were rigorously moulded into an acceptable shape with rollers, curling irons and a back-comb, then glued into submission with lacquer. When I was about seven, the pale golden glory began to darken to a nondescript mousey brown. My mother, whose own enhanced hair colour cycled through several shades of auburn, objected to this and began the application of a vile peroxide product known as ‘Light and Bright’. Not, she would assure me, a hair dye. More of a colour corrector.
Although it was certainly unintentional and even though I was not conscious of it at the time, it was one of those ‘not good enough’ moments that undermine a child’s self-confidence. You begin to believe that who you are must be changed to conform to the ideas of others. All children spend at least part of their childhood wearing clothes others deem appropriate and it is one of the first areas touched by rebellion.
At eleven, all pretensions to sartorial freedom ended with the imposition of the cherry red uniform of the grammar school. The obligation to conform for nine hours a day (including travelling time) was mitigated only by the extremes of the decade that allowed you to wear pretty much anything the rest of the time. There just wasn’t much time left after school and homework.
By the time I was ready for teenagerhood, the decade-that-taste forgot was well under way, and for one brief, glorious moment, it was acceptable, even desirable, to have a wardrobe that contained garments as diverse as leather hotpants, orange suede platforms, white vinyl boots and psychedelic maxi dresses.
Then I started work and uniformity sucked me in once again. The unwritten dress codes of the working world were fairly strict at that time. Few defied them and prospered… especially women. Luckier than most, my first ‘proper job’ required no more than jeans and T-shirt. Being a window dresser, skirts were out of the question as, most of the time, I was either up a ladder or on my knees in a store window. Being part of an ‘artistic’ team, even though the others were men, it was de rigueur to go for colourful embroideries and sequins… but even so, there was still the expectation to conform. My own taste was varied…mostly black leather or vivid satin… but it did not include jeans.
Then there was Paris… and I dressed how I damned well pleased. Mainly in red. After arriving in the expected British tweed, it was made apparent that the only expectation was that I had style. Any style…as long as it was my own. For a few brief years, I was able to dress as me. And I loved it.
Then I moved back to England and into the corporate world and became ‘a suit’. The mindset and social requirements can be as restrictive as the clothing and as difficult to escape when you leave that world behind. Off duty and on, there is an unwritten code that proclaims position. Rebellion came only in the height of a hemline and a refusal to wear dark, boring colours and ‘adventurous’ was seldom more than mid blue.
After the horrors of childhood peroxide, I had never dyed my hair. I just left it to grow and occasionally hacked the ends with the meat shears. When I was obliged to leave the corporate world and become a carer, I hacked to some purpose and experimented with various shades of red. Not those auburn reds that might have been acceptable to my mother, but brilliant, obviously fake scarlets and mahoganies, and finally my favourite orange.
It was brief phase but an important one as I began to realise how little of ‘me’ was allowed to face the world. The clothes were still stuck in the rut of practicality and the expectations of the corporate world still lingered. It is only fairly recently that I have thrown caution to the winds and begun to embrace my inner hippy.
My hair once again grows wild… though slower than I would like now and peppered with grey. The hemlines creep ever closer to the ground. The embroideries are more discrete than they were in the 70s. And I’m comfortable. Not just in the flow and drape of the fabrics, but in my skin.
After decades of conformity, I found that it is as simple as that… a change in the way you choose to present yourself to the world makes all the difference to how you see yourself. After a lifetime of feeling obliged to conform, we probably don’t even think about it much. We are who we have become, through choices…our own and those of others… and necessity. It is not easy to make a change when habit means that you don’t realise that is needed…or when you seek to be what you think those around you would like you to be. Yet how often do we ask? Those who truly care for us, love who we are, not who they would like us to be.
I was lucky. My sons already fondly call me weird, so externalising a little minor weirdness is no big deal. The village where I live might not always agree… The others whose opinion I care for already look beyond the surface… for which I am grateful, as the surface is more than a little worn these days. You could say that love gave me permission to be me.