The No Stress Dress

This week I happened to walk past Countdown’s Rachel Riley.

Rachel is a young woman who has learnt the power of the dress early in her life. She has a degree in Maths from Oxford University and can slay a man with a figure. Hers.

Wearing dresses is something I’ve come to as I’ve matured. It wasn’t something that came easily to me as a young woman.

At my convent boarding school we all had a ‘best dress’. It was a red pinafore which we wore over a white, turtle neck top made of non-breathable, highly flammable man-made fibres. I hated it.

Hell, the nuns deserved the ripe smell of adolescent girls which hummed around the chapel on warm days.

At university, I dipped into The Female Eunuch, Spare Rib and other feminist texts.

I decided that dresses represented repression and the acceptance of group norms and I therefore eschewed them.

I also eschewed them because, when you are small and short, it is not easy to find dresses which suit you.

If you have long legs, be grateful.

As I’ve said to friends who tell me to stop moaning, “There’s nothing wrong with my legs; they’re just too close to the ground. An extra six inches and I’d be happy.”

I’d put on a dress and find that it would always stop at exactly the point to make my legs look stubby. Ernie Wise, eat your heart out.

For many years I stuck to trouser-based outfits.

For black-tie events I’d don a pair of black cigarette trousers with a halter-neck bustier.

I had a smart culotte jump suit for weddings and a pin stripe trouser suit for work.

I totally got by without dresses.

Dresses take commitment.

You simply don’t put on a dress without making your face up, for example. Or shaving your legs. 

You have to think about shoes.

The sneakers you wear with every pair of jeans in your wardrobe may only serve to make you look like you’ve  run away from a bowling green, when you team them with a dress.

And you need to plan.

Wear a dress and you are closing down your options. No spontaneous cycling, football in the park or energetic rounders, for a start.

A few years ago I found myself working in a job which required me to look professional but to do so at 3.30am.

Enter the fine knit jumper dress, black tights and heeled boots.

OMG. Three items, no thought. This combination worked so beautifully for me. Why hadn’t it happened sooner?

It hadn’t happened sooner because the jumper dresses in question came from Hobbs. I was 40 before I had enough in my purse to cross its portals.

I started browsing other brands: Whistles, Jigsaw, LK Bennett.

Suddenly dresses seemed the easiest option for a woman in Executive Youth who didn’t have any games of rounders planned.

And then I started some TV work.

I discovered that my shape worked for the telly.

The curves, wide hips and big bum which had been extremely unfashionable in the 80s and 90s and which I had detested and hidden, had had a renaissance.

(Kim Kardashian, I have no idea who you are, but ta, love.)

The hourglass was trumping that pint glass figure I’d so yearned for.

My friend Steve, who has a lovely dress shop ( encouraged me to take a risk with a fitted dress. 

“Venture out of your style comfort zone,” he said, “you might be surprised.”

He was right. I was.

I was surprised to find I looked like a proper, grown up woman, with boobs in the right place, a waist and everything.

The dress was a costume. I was playing a womanly woman, in control of stuff.

I zipped myself into figure hugging, block colour dresses and high heels and let the new-found confidence flow.

I received encouraging feedback from viewers.

Ok, some of it conflicted with my feminist position (I’ll get messages now, asking me which site features that position) but I’ve come to realise that the relationship between fashion and feminism is a complex one.

And once you’ve attracted attention, it’s up to you how to use it, right?

Rachel Riley uses the attention to direct fans to the joys of applied maths and quantum mechanics.

It’s fun to be more than the dress would suggest.

And I’m totally over the leg length issue.

I’ll find those six inches somewhere else…

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