One of the most unusual entries in a document held by the Imperial War Museum in London concerns a shipment of supplies to the just-liberated death camp of Bergen-Belsen. Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin, one of the first British soldiers to enter the camp, wrote of a lorry which turned up bearing perhaps the single most inappropriate item for the emaciated survivors of Nazi horror: a consignment of lipsticks.
I can give no adequate description of the Horror Camp in which my men and myself were to spend the next month of our lives [Lt. Gonin writes]....It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted. We were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don't know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it. It was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick....At last someone had done something to make them individuals again: they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.
It is a commonly held view that fashion and makeup are trivial concerns: Superficial, unnecessary, and concealing by trickery what is held to be 'real' beneath. Fashion is surface, fad, transient. Yet time and again one uncovers moments when clothes and makeup become the things that render us human. Stubbornly, humankind resists the Puritan instinct. In mid-17th-century England, 10 long years of Republicanism, black clothes with no adornment, and the closure of those pleasure pits, the theatres, were forcibly rejected with a return to the monarchy and the adoption of long curly wigs and a great deal of lace and bosom.
The writer is supposed to be above fashion. The writer's eye gazes ever inward toward deep consciousness. The writer cares nothing for how he or she dresses and of course their characters walk about naked, or all they wear is actually described. This myth does not survive the lightest scrutiny. Photographs of Saul Bellow show him in a series of loud checked jackets and snazzy headgear. The history of literature shows that the high-minded denunciation of dress and personal appearance appears to be a late 20th-century phenomenon. Chaucer carefully describes the attire of each of his pilgrims setting out for Canterbury, Shakespeare's Malvolio wears cross-gartered yellow stockings, George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke, on the opening page of Middlemarch, is described as wearing plain dress because she knows it sets off her fine figure.
And then we reach Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, where, after some hundred or so pages of church porches and hawthorn bushes, we reach some of the most detailed and pleasurably written descriptions of women's clothes ever set down, including the first sighting of that revolutionary garment, the Fortuny gown, a loose, pleated dress which radicalized the female silhouette away from the waisted, tight-bodiced frocks of the previous 1,000 or so years. For Proust was concerned with the birth of Modernism, or the shock of the new, whether it be the experience of making the first telephone calls, or that modern Miss, Albertine, behaving like a hoyden.
So I make no apologies at all for being a writer interested in fashion and makeup and I entirely reject the idea that it is a frivolous preoccupation. If one is lucky enough to receive an invitation to the twice-annual fashion shows, particularly in Paris, one sees at close quarters the intense concentration of creativity and spectacle reduced to a heart-breaking 15 minutes of impossible creatures raising their feet like horses, prancing down the runway. And then there's the poor designer who, with these shimmering visions inside his head, has to make them work for the average woman of no great height or slenderness. As a writer, I could only sympathize, for what other artist has to water down their work so that it can be consumed?
Fashion is, necessarily, about transience, but then so are our own lives. Looking back at old photographs, we can often date them by the clothes we wore, not merely the decade a certain style was in vogue, but remembering that a particular dress or coat or pair of shoes was what we wore when we were in college or had just gotten married, or had purchased after a long time of hard saving-up. Naked we are not timeless; we age, and the clothes we wear tell many stories about how our identity progresses, from the teenager trying every new trend, however we may wince when we look back as adults (Did I really wear those hip-hop baggy pants?) to the first business suit and the struggle from middle age onwards to find clothes that cover up what we don't want to display.
Our clothes are our identity. They are, whether we like it or not, how we are judged by others. Out in public, they send out numerous messages, about our social status and our sense of ourselves. A flamboyant tie, high-heeled shoes, this season's shade of purple — all make announcements to the complete strangers we walk past on the street.
Should we care what others think? My immigrant grandfather, arriving in England from a Polish shtetl at the beginning of the 20th century, quickly understood that a person was assessed by the way they dressed. A working-class man wore a cap, a middle-class man wore a homburg hat. In class-ridden England the new immigrant had no pre-ordained place and could choose his own. My grandfather chose the homburg. He realised that if he wanted to get on, to succeed, he would need to rise to the occasion, to be taken for what he was not. If he dressed like a middle-class person he would, he reasoned, be treated like a middle-class person even if when he opened his mouth he gave away his origins.
This lesson was handed down to his children and from them to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His motto was The only thing that's worse than being broke is looking as though you're broke. Defiantly dressing as well as he could my grandfather took his family from the status of penniless refugees to one of wealth and education. A hundred years on is a granddaughter who can take as much pleasure in Dior as Tolstoy.
Clothes maketh the man. To pretend otherwise is to ignore who we are. The women of Bergen-Belsen understood that a lipstick was not a superficial adornment, but a means of repairing that which had been broken, their sense of themselves as women, not bald, shivering skeletons reduced to a number. Clothes are not everything, but you cannot have depths without surfaces. They communicate with what is within; between the two there is always a great dialogue.
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Linda Grant is a novelist and journalist. She won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000 and the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage in 2006. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph, and Vogue. She lives in North London.
Books mentioned in this post
Linda Grant is the author of The Thoughtful Dresser: The Art of Adornment, the Pleasures of Shopping, and Why Clothes Matter