By Shonagh Marshall
In 2003 I applied to study Fashion History and Theory at Central Saint Martins. I wanted to get to the bottom of why a layperson might select one blue sweater over another in the store. Fifteen years later and mountains of academic research around fashion later, I am no closer to answering this relatively naïve question. I doubt I will ever know all of the mysteries of personal style but, through looking at my own, I can better understand how it develops.
When I was fifteen years old, I moved to Norwich, a small city in the UK located in East Anglia, two hours by train from London. Norwich is full of independent shops and restaurants, and although the city centre is home to the chains every British high street has. The local culture is to frequent places specific to Norwich — a restaurant that serves only waffles called The Waffle House, a shop called Feet on the Ground, next to the bong shop Head in the Clouds, where you can buy velvet Mary-Janes (it’s still there, I still wear them).
I’m unsure if it was my peers, my budget, or wider fashion culture that encouraged me, but at the time I became a very dedicated thrift shopper. I would spend hours working my way from the North side of Norwich, snaking through the city to the South. I was only interested in charity shops and I knew which days they would put out new stock. I remember a suede red belt and a pair of red 1980s boots I would wear together, a total cost of under £10. At schol, younger girls would copy the things I had bought.
I was affected by a much wider fashion movement. In 1990 the twenty-five-year old fashion photographer Corinne Day captured a fifteen-year-old Kate Moss for the cover of ‘The Face.’ The shoot, titled “The Third Summer of Love,” signaled a new era. In opposition to the 1980s, which had championed an unattainable glamour, both in fashion, design and photography, these images presented a natural aesthetic. Kate Moss was photographed on Camber Sands wearing clothes noted in the credits as being sourced at Portobello Market, and Birkenstock sandals from The Natural Shoe Company.
The curator Charlotte Cotton organized an exhibition called ‘Imperfect Beauty: The Making of Contemporary Fashion Photographs’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2000. She brought together the key creative voices from the 1990s, and in the accompanying catalogue asked them about what made that period so influential.
“I didn’t care if the clothes were creased — I wanted them to look as if the person owned them. I wanted to look at the images as a whole.” Melanie Ward, the stylist on the shoot, said. “For me it was more about the attitude the model was giving…we wanted to achieve an emotional response from the model, so there was something you could relate to as a person.”
“You didn’t have to appease advertisers, because there weren’t really fashion advertisers in The Face, so you could do this thing that Melanie did all the time, which was, ‘model’s own’ basically, some of her own stuff,” Phil Bicker, who was the art director at The Face at the time and commissioned the Kate Moss shoot, explained. “Because of the way Melanie styled it and Corinne shot it, people really thought that was how Kate dressed and that it wasn’t styled at all. Kate comes through in those pictures, but that isn’t how she dressed. That was how Corinne and Melanie dressed: cheesecloth, army surplus, and Birkenstocks.”
“It’s all a bit like being at school. Fashion is about permission,” Dick Page, who was the make-up artist on the shoot, said. “Someone like Melanie came along and said: “A mohair sweater, a silk bias-cut skirt and Birkenstocks, you have my permission.”
When I look at the images now, they have an almost personal effect on me. I gaze at the model in the photograph and I feel like I know them. Charlotte Cotton, when talking about photographer Nigel Shafran and Melanie Ward’s collaborative work in the early 1990s, wrote:
“In this context, where a person cast from outside of the commodified and self-aware bubble of the fashion industry gives something of themselves to the camera, styling is the act of sensitive amplification of an authentic subject.”
The events of 9/11 and the fact that the images created during this time were labeled as heroin chic, associating them with the glamorization of drugs, meant that the industry shifted back to codes that had been employed in the 1980s — a sexualized, objectified, unattainable vision of beauty. Corinne Day told an interviewer for The Telegraph in 2003 that “the grunge look, as people called my style, simply showed girls as they really are, without make-up, styled hair, flattering light… Of course grunge, being about Oxfam and not needing money to look cool, was no good for advertisers. Grunge never sold a £1,000 dress.”
So, naturally, the style principles that had been established during the 1990s became commodified and folded into the commercial concerns of the fashion industry. An example is the shoot by Juergen Teller in the May 2003 issue of British Vogue, featuring Kate Moss wearing vintage clothing from 1960s icon Anita Pallenberg and stylist Bay Garnet’s personal collections.
In the pictures Moss loafs around London wearing vintage ensembles, in one image she stands in an aisle of a corner shop, in another she sits under a bunk bed wearing a banana print top and a brown lattice woven belt. Phoebe Philo who was then designer at Chloe saw the images and asked her friend Garnett to borrow the top and belt, which had been bought at Portobello Road Market. Philo copied the two items and put them in her Spring/Summer 2004 collection for Chloe. They defined her period at the brand and have a place in fashion history; I had a copy of the brown belt, which I bought from Topshop.
In recent years, there’s been a shift and fashion photography has become a renewed space to explore identity. When I relocated from London to New York in September 2018 I stopped buying any new clothes. I had been looking at different elements of my life and realized I had increasingly purchased clothes and accessories to feel a sense of fulfillment. At the same time, in the context of the climate crisis, I began thinking about ways to reframe the insatiable desire for new clothes. I wondered what it would be like to put pause my consumption.
I went for six months without buying anything new, and bought only one pair of vintage boots. During this time I thought a lot about my teenage years, where I would spend hours trawling through shops to find something I loved and could afford, then taking it home to try it on with other items from my closet in a bit to see how many outfits I could make. It took so much time, thought, and commitment. We often talk about slow fashion in terms of alleviating the pressure fashion puts on the environment; I began to wonder about slow style — the eradication of convenience. What if we were to acknowledge and promote the idea that you can’t purchase a fast fashion ensemble and look stylish — style takes time and commitment. Like anything, if you want to be good at it, you have to work at it.