The whole tweed skirt thing started at Oxford. When I got back from France I realised that my skinny-rib jumpers and cords and even my evening skirt were no longer quite the thing. I began to notice that my friend Sarah had an altogether different approach to clothes. When you looked at Sarah the words ‘quality’ and ‘country’ sprang to mind. She wore cords too, but they had a better cut, and she wore them with a check shirt and v-necked Shetland wool jumper. Occasionally the cords would be replaced by an equally perfectly co-ordinated tweed skirt, dark tights and sensible shoes. Somebody commented that in her blue and grey check shirt and grey cords and jumper (or the equivalent outfit in brown or navy blue) Sarah looked very French. I was not sure what they meant, but when the time came for me to buy new clothes, without even thinking about it, I copied Sarah’s look. The pale pink and black outfits were replaced by more autumnal tones, green and brown and beige, even though they played havoc with my complexion. The man-made fibres were replaced by wool and cotton, and I bought two very soft Viyella blouses, one cream and one green, and a long green tweed skirt in a boutique in Summertown.
Sarah was from Tunbridge Wells and I was from Wolverhampton, and that explained the differences between our clothes. In a sartorial sense, I was gravitating south, and of course, upmarket. My new evening outfit – the green blouse and tweed skirt – spoke of country pubs, walks in the woods and hearty Sunday lunches with sherry and wine and conversation about books. It was a world I had caught glimpses of when I visited Sarah and other friends in the vacation, and which seemed to offer a new kind of safe place.
The clothes were more sensible than sexy, but perhaps the tweed and wool did have their erotic charms. In my final year at Oxford, when I really did not have the time, I went on a day trip to Bath with the University Architectural Society. These people were seriously posh, so I decided I would sit on my own on the coach. My solitude was soon interrupted by an American who quickly introduced himself and explained he was an architect, working on the restoration of the Oxford stone. This seemed pretty glamorous to me, but at the same time I found him a bit tedious, harping on about Oxford ‘ac-anaemics’ all the way to Bath. We got off the coach and had lunch in a pub, and I just could not shake him off. Suddenly he grabbed my hand, in a slightly proprietorial way, but I did not protest. On the coach home I was tired and dozed off, and awoke to find him fondling my wool-clad breasts. Again, I did not protest.
He begged me to let him cook dinner for me at his house off the Cowley Road. I didn’t like him much but there was something attractive about getting out of college, and knowing a man who was an architect and had a house. Sarah was quite jealous –‘nothing ever happens to me’. I ate the dinner – lamb stew – and afterwards he did his best to get me into bed, going into ecstasies as he removed the Viyella blouse. But I was having none of it and escaped to the freedom of my bike and the cold air.
Another time I was at his house and he had to go off and do something else. I stayed there, ostensibly to work. In fact I explored the bedroom he was so desperate to get me into. I opened a few drawers and found another woman’s underwear. I did not even feel particularly shocked; he had mentioned an ‘ex’ several times. I felt myself drifting into a kind of passive decadence and I did not run away immediately. Then some sort of tweedy survival instinct kicked in, and I got out of there before he came home.
Great piece of writing again, Lyn. The more I read I think that clothes are indeed the best thread to follow when exploring class difference and discomfort – even more than food and parties. I remember that great Grayson Perry three-parter on class and it was only when he arrived, wrongly-dressed – far too smart – at a country house do – that he was genuinely lacking confidence (until his artist’s identity kicked back in for him). The copying motif really powerful too.
Lyn Thomas says
Oh thank you Tanya! I had not consciously thought about ‘copying’ as a theme, but of course you are right….This was one of the processes of changing class.