In some ways, then, Alexandra Shulman’s new book, Clothes… and Other Things That Matter, could not be more perfectly timed, for all that the nation’s shops, whether selling fashion or books, are currently closed. Its jacket of bubblegum pink letters on grown-up navy certainly suggested to me that it might just be the perfect lockdown pick-me-up, and among its pages, there are some lovely, resonant set pieces. Shulman understands that when we look back over our lives, lots of us find that we associate the big moments, and even the small ones, with whatever we were wearing at the time (or vice versa); she knows, too, that the buying of clothes involves complex emotions as well as, sometimes, a certain spirited ridiculousness (for her, this means a “fabulously expensive” Gucci T-shirt with a picture of Elton John’s face circa 1975 on it – an impulse buy that certainly puts my sale pyjamas to shame). If she’s good on outsize sweaters (for hiding in) and red shoes (good for showing off, even when the rest of your gear is undertaker-solemn), she’s even better on bikinis (who cares how old you are?) and holiday wardrobes (all those scrappy, floaty things you will only ever wear in Mallorca).
A series of short, crisply written chapters take off into unexpected directions from familiar pieces in the wardrobe: “Suits”, “Hats”, “Red Shoes”, “Slip Dresses”, “The Beaded Skirt”, “Many Kinds of Black”. Shulman weaves memory, history and anecdote with observations about working life. An early mentor tells her that no matter how few the words, “you have to tell a story”, and this advice makes for compelling reading. The larger story, however, is told in the not telling, or rather, in the determination to put thoughts about aprons, maternity clothes, track suits and trainers, beanies and boiler suits – and, my favourite, “The Hairdresser’s Gown”, a garment “without a single iota of charm or grace” – alongside “The Big Ticket Dress” and “The Perfect Dress”. Fashion’s values do not include comfort, or perhaps care and consideration. These “other things that matter” figure an alternative moral universe.
The narrative is relaxed and easy but never gossipy – readers wanting lurid details of the uncomfortable changeover of editorship at Vogue, when Shulman departed and Edward Enninful took over, will be disappointed. However, she does allow a slightly steely tone to creep in when she writes that although few profiles of her are without a mention of her weight, no comment is ever made about his. Shulman’s relaxed self-confidence is what makes her seem so relatable – a normal figure in an industry not noted for its tolerance of those with breasts, stomachs and bottoms.
The book’s relatability is one of its chief merits. So is its smart interrogation of what different clothes mean, and why. Shulman marvels at the seductive simplicity of the white shirt, a staple of “executive female publicity shots” for its ability to convey “unshowy competence”. In an essay on handbags, she describes how an article that once offered women freedom of movement became a weighty status symbol — and the chief moneymaker for fashion houses. Today, the truly privileged carry no bag at all — suggesting there is “an aide hovering out of sight carrying the things you might need”.
A memoir, a book of any kind, is only a filter through which we see a life; it’s not the life itself. We can still learn a lot from how a person was dressed for her second birthday party (a navy frock with puff sleeves, decorated with small, pale pink roses), what she wears on the beach (a bikini, as captured in a holiday selfie that went unaccountably viral), what she wore to get married (a white calf-length Ghost dress with long sleeves) and what she wears on the bus (a pair of £400 Balenciaga trainers she bought while sheltering from the rain). Still, 32 bras, 37 handbags and 22 coats feels like quite a lot of clobber. Even if she really doesn’t own any jeans.
Clothes… is not only a memoir. It is also a witty, zippy sartorial history of the last half-century in which Shulman reflects on grunge, beanies, stockings, aprons, tracksuits, maternity wear, trainers and the effects of wearing indigo, black and gold. She remembers exactly what she wore for each dinner, gala or first date and tells us how each outfit made her feel. She’s not comfortable in full length, but loves slip dresses and any dress with bare arms and rose print. Everything she says about the magical power of clothes is worth quoting, but here are my favourites. Dressing gowns are ‘the transit lounges of life. You wear them as you wait to move from one state of being to another.’ T-shirts ‘reject whimsical and capricious transience and glide endlessly on their own flight path’. Suits somehow manage, by ‘matching your jacket to your bottom half’, to make you ‘more efficient’. She has no problem with body hair, but a pubic hair poking through bikini bottoms is ‘as distasteful and disturbing as a fly in soup’. As we all know, having scanned the Instagram picture of Shulman, aged fifty-nine, in her holiday bikini, there’s never a hair out of place. What a pro.
This is a book that will doubtlessly be divisive. As the ever-blunt Shulman said in a recent interview in The Times, some will think, “Who is this complete tosser who thinks lipstick’s important?” Certainly those who believe the planet-destroying age of conspicuous fashion consumption is over will be less than enthralled. For others, who consider clothes to be a source of happiness, it will make perfect lockdown reading, an opportunity to shut out the real world and meander through the Arcadian years of fashion, expertly guided by a woman who has been there, done that, got the complimentary T-shirt.
She is more interested in what clothes say about a historical moment than in fashion for fashion’s sake, is candid on women’s often emotional relationship with them and very funny on the nightmare of buying bras. It’s comfort-reading at its most reassuring. If you can’t binge on the real thing right now, binge on this.
On one level, she seems like a bundle of insecurities. ‘Would I always feel under pressure to look wealthier than I was? Was my real life not going to measure up to the person I would be assumed to be?’ are the sort of questions she repeatedly asks herself. She is frightened of flying (‘the kind of fear that wakes you burning with terror for many nights before’); and has never coped well with stress. ‘For years I was claustrophobic, agoraphobic and prone to panic attacks,’ she tells us in a chapter on handbags. (Hers always contained a Valium.) At a dinner hosted in Paris by Karl Lagerfeld, she is seated next to her ‘major movie-star crush’, Richard Gere: ‘According to my diary of that evening, I pathetically fail to say anything other than hello to Gere or he to me. I am always struck completely dumb in the company of anybody famous.’
The appeal of this book lies not in Shulman’s revelling in the fashion world’s fabulousness, but in her matter-of-factness about it all. Yes, she may have had white high heels custom-made for her by Manolo Blahnik and handfuls of free Chanel jackets, but even while being a linchpin in the industry she remained fashion’s quiet observer. Doubtless this is what made her such a good and long-standing editor. So many in fashion affect nonchalance, Shulman just has bags of it.