When I was about seven or eight, to ‘entertain’ our family, my sister would play the piano and I would ‘sing’ along in my out of tune reedy little voice (it hasn’t changed all that much over the years I have to admit). It started with some fairly standard piano lesson like songs,’The Pipes of Pan’ being a particular favourite of mine (I could sing it to you now if you like…Oh, the pipes the pipes of pan…), but as her playing and taste in music progressed we moved on to Elvis. Most memorably, Are you Lonesome Tonight’. My favourite bit was the spoken verse, which I would solemnly recite while my sister tinkled the ivories. It started ‘Someone said the world’s a stage and each must play a part…’ (by the way Elvis, if you’re listening up there, it was Shakespeare who wrote that line, in As you like it). It sparked my imagination even then to think we were all ‘playing a part’, and over the years it has become apparent to me that this is true, though we don’t play the same part all the time.
Oh don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean we’re all pretending to be someone, or something, we’re not. Mind you, I bet we all behave differently at an interview than we do down the pub, but what I’ve really noticed is how we all feel the need to dress differently for different circumstances – wear costumes.
These days I pretty much live in jeans and tee shirt (all right girls, I’ll admit to jeggings if I must – well, they’re comfy, what can I say?) but back in the days of spending my time at the office, I’d always wear something ‘smart’. Not necessarily a suit, they were reserved for meetings, but certainly a jumper and skirt with heels, and this was even when I was working in the office on my own. It was about feeling the part, feeling professional. Still the same me inside, but I was definitely putting a ‘face on’, even make up, to perform my role.
Last weekend we were invited to a Celidh being held for a friends 60th birthday. We don’t go to parties that often and I wanted to dress up a bit, look as nice as I could manage. As we would be dancing about, I put on some slightly posher jeans and a nice chiffon blouse ( the black one with stars on since you ask), and finished them off with some high heels, I felt good, but looking in the mirror with a critical eye I could see that I looked a bit, well, overdressed. There is clearly something instinctive about what to wear in any particular social setting. As it happens I changed into a plain black tee shirt which turned out to be exactly the right thing to do. To be honest I would have felt a bit of a trollop in my low cut blouse dancing about with all the other middle-aged, middle-classed conservatively dressed Celidh comrades, even though I have worn that outfit several times for sedate dinners in beautiful restaurants and felt a million dollars.
Yesterday I went to the hairdressers, one I’d not been to before. It was a bit chilly and I reached for my raincoat before setting off. This is the raincoat that I regularly wear to the shops, or pretty much anywhere. It is looking slightly the worse for wear these days and for some reason I felt that tatty old raincoat lady wasn’t the impression I really want to give, so I pulled on my posh wool ‘funeral’ coat. I’m probably doing the lovely hairdresser a huge injustice, but looking that little bit smarter made me feel that somehow I would get better service, that they would take my overgrown mop of hair to be a sign of rich eccentricity rather than lazy couldn’t-be-arsed.
On close examination of my inner self, I find this phenomenon to be, at it’s roots, a class and power thing. Looking smart equates to having more money. Having more money equates to being more powerful. And in our perverse minds we often equate power with intelligence. Blokes in suits are perceived to have decent, well remunerated, jobs, whilst chaps in grubby torn jeans and hoodies are more likely to be viewed with suspicion, even though the former might be a drug dealer and the latter a working-all-hours to feed the family labourer. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that many, many, too many, people don’t have the luxury of being able to choose what to wear anyway.
Whilst keeping my own unique style (!), I do like to feel ‘right’. I’m going off for my weekly swim shortly and I’ll be wearing jogging bottoms that have never jogged, and a sweatshirt that’s never been sweated in. But this is my ‘I belong here’ costume for the leisure centre. Tomorrow I’m off to a meeting at the town hall, and I’ll be dusting off my work costume to big up my confidence. I may not be rich, powerful, or intelligent, but by god, I’ll look the part!