In Clothes… and other things that matter, Alexandra Shulman delves into her own life to look at the emotions, ambitions, expectations and meanings behind the way we dress. From the bra to the bikini, the trench coat to trainers, the slip dress to the suit, she explores their meaning in women’s lives and how our wardrobes intersect with the larger world – the career ladder, motherhood, romance, sexual identity, ambition, failure, body image and celebrity. By turns funny, refreshingly self-deprecating and often very moving, this startlingly honest memoir from the exEditor of British Vogue will encourage women of all ages to consider what their own clothes mean to them, the life they live in them and the stories they tell. Shulman explores the person our clothes allow us to be – and sometimes the person they turn us into.
Alexandra Shulman is a journalist, consultant and commentator. She was Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue from 1992–2017, the magazine’s longest serving editor. She has been Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery and The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity and is an honorary fellow of the University of the Arts. She won 2017 Periodical Publisher’s Association Editor’s Editor Award and The Drapers Award 2017 for Outstanding Contribution to Fashion. She is Vice President of The London Library and was awarded the CBE in the 2017 New Year’s Honours List. She has a weekly column in the Mail on Sunday, is a contributor to other national newspapers and has written two novels: Can We Still Be Friends? (2012) and The Parrots (2015). Inside Vogue: The Diary of My 100th Year was published by Fig Tree in October 2016 and sold more than 30,000 copies in hardback and paperback (Nielsen TCM). Alexandra was featured in a three-part primetime BBC series on Vogue’s centenary year in 2016.
My thoughts: I find Alexandra Shulman quite interesting, years ago I used to read her newspaper column and I watched the Vogue documentary series on TV. She doesn’t fit the mould we imagine Vogue editors to fit – think more Anna Wintour (US Vogue’s legendary editor) or Meryl Streep’s version of her in The Devil Wears Prada. Shulman is not as slick and glamorous as them, although still hugely privileged and wearing designer clothes.
I don’t buy Vogue, I never have, I could get half a dozen secondhand paperbacks from the charity shop for one glossy catalogue of adverts, which is after all what a fashion magazine is. I don’t buy into the mythology around it but I remain intrigued by the allure of these things. I contemplated writing about magazines as part of Masters in literature and material culture – they might not seem like the former but they’re definitely the latter.
This collection of short essays on the different types of clothes Shulman catalogues in her wardrobe allow her to explore her personal history, from her grandmother’s millinery as a refugee in Canada, her parents’ careers in the British media (her father was at one point the Evening Standard’s theatre critic and her mother an editor), her relationships, her career in the press and her many famous friends and acquaintances.
It’s an interesting angle for a memoir – something many of us can relate to – we all have those items of clothing that hold meaning and memory within them. The shoes I wore to my wedding or the jumper that signifies comfort, knowing that putting it on is like a hug. While my wardrobe contains no high price labels, it does contain a multitude of moods to slip on, personas to project through my outfits. And it is this that Shulman shares within her book.
The suit she wore when starting out as a young journalist, the perfect dress that works whenever and wherever it’s worn. The reason we wear certain things and what it says about us. She’s very disinterested in worrying about the way she looks, mocking the media fuss over a photo she posted a few years ago on Instagram of herself in a bikini on holiday. She’s aware that the slim models she championed through her time at Vogue and the people behind the scenes, like herself, are very different. Fashion magazines promote a sort of fantasy world of beauty and glamour that the average person probably won’t ever attain.
There is a note of bitterness about the way women are objectified, pointing out that her successor at Vogue, Edward Enninful, won’t have his appearance, dress size and figure commented upon the way she did. That we always circle around a woman’s body looking for flaws, while men mostly sail blithely on.
I enjoyed the way writes about the history of clothing, not just the personal side, but how for example denim jeans, originally workwear, have become so much a part of fashion that pairs sell for upwards of a thousand pounds. Or how hats, once a staple of ladies wear are now worn by only the fortunate few who suit them.
This was a very interesting book, that I think appeals quite broadly to people interested in fashion, history, memoir and Shulman herself (I’m interested in all of those things btw). I just wish the photos had been printed in colour – in a book about clothes being able to actually see what’s described makes a difference.
*I was kindly gifted a copy of this book in exchange for taking part in the blog tour but all opinions remain my own.