Ruth O’Connor: I Sing the Body Eclectic

This is my season and, as sure as there’s no Yves in Saint Laurent, I’m going to enjoy it.

I shall cast off the shackles of the camel coat, the court shoe and the nude handbag in favour of velvet Mary Janes, a 1960s trouser suit (my mum’s ‘going away’ outfit might do) and a lamé polo neck. Oh, and I shall wear brooches with everything.

It’s been there all along, lying under the surface like a vintage camisole. But now my style eccentricity shall float to the top like the cream on a bottle of raw milk. Unctuous, rich, fashion tomfoolery, floating above the watery substratum of sophistication. I’m embracing my collection of intarsia knitwear, kimono jackets and leopard print cardigans and there’s not a damn thing anyone can say about it. Because if Miuccia says it’s okay thenApple's Reversed Hand With Middle Finger Extended the haters, the easily shocked or the just plain boring. Cinderella shall go to the (glitter) ball.

At Miu Miu this season there’s blown-up tartan worn with leopard print and stripy jumpers. Fur coats worn over Victorian style dresses with face jewellery at Givenchy. Patent leather dresses worn over trousers at Loewe and 1980s flashbacks at JW Anderson. The capsule wardrobe can sling her hook right here.

At certain times I have been lost in the wilderness of normality, sartorial safety, the folly of trying to fit in. While for many, it’s a natural and desirable state of existence and I can appreciate that, a toned-down wardrobe is often a state induced by ‘convenience’ ‒ the lack of time and motivation that leads one to embrace the easy ensemble and the neutral palette in favour of the sublime and the ridiculous. Not having time to change my clothes four times a day, to scour the charity or vintage shops for hidden gems and a dedication to an ego other than my own (two children) has often resulted in yielding to mediocrity which I am not and never have been entirely comfortable with.

“Is that the dark-haired girl ‒ the eccentric one?” said my mother’s friend when I was about 19. (As in, not the other daughter ‒ my dear sister who believes that brooches are best left to grannies). Her words jarred and stuck like a swollen door. She’d probably seen (or given me) the cornflower blue trouser suit reminiscent of a 1970s Swedish air hostess or caught sight of my 1960s polo neck with colour block hot pants and beehive in my post-father’s-stolen-and-adapted-corduroys and retro Adidas Roms phase.

Thinking about my late teens and twenties I am amazed at the things I wore. Ridiculously short miniskirts, crazy wide flares, lace vintage slips as dresses, shaggy orange fur boleros, crocheted tank tops and ponchos (my favourite last seen at Electric Picnic 2014), a knitted cotton boob tube with matching knitted sleeves (way cooler than it sounds), Swiss-style embroidered jackets… ‒ all worn with a constellation of sequins and a pinch of woven handbag basketry. Woollen capes, psychedelic patterns, Chinoiserie dressing gowns and velvet shoes from the Asia Market (it’s amazing what you find down the back among the bamboo rice steamers). Did I mention the crocheted tank tops?

I’ve been so this season for about 20 years, it isn’t even funny.

Well, it is now, but it wasn’t always. I’ve been bullied, slagged, slammed against the wall of Dublin Castle, oh, and mistaken for a prostitute (the guilty garment, now the stuff of legend among my friends, was ankle-length pink plastic with a white fur hood — the longer the zip, apparently, the greater the likelihood you’ve nothing on underneath).  

“Where did you get your dress?”

“In a charity shop.”

Cue vitriolic laughter from 16-year-olds who, six months later, would come to wear almost identical outfits fresh from the window at Penneys.  And then there was that time my vintage zip failed me in the middle of a nightclub exposing my torso to a packed dance floor. #scarlet.

It was only years after that throwaway ‘eccentric daughter’ comment that I looked up the true meaning of the word and learned that I was okay with it. I didn’t want to be like everyone else (most notably in the sartorial department) and I couldn’t be, even if I tried. Unconventional is just fine by me and many of the most creative people, the very best designers I’ve met or admired, are eccentric to a lesser or greater extent.

I’ve worn a pink leopard skin cowboy hat with an ankle length black coat (not my finest hour) and come back from India wearing all sorts of embroidered eccentricities. “Are you the one with the f***ing mad clothes?!” bellowed a man with whom I’d hitherto only spoken with by telephone in my first office job many years ago. My reputation had clearly preceded me. I guess that’s why the engineering business wasn’t quite for me.

In On Liberty, John Stewart Mill wrote: “Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.” The philosophical essay, published in 1859, could hardly be more on the money today, existing as we do in a society caught up in viral trends, self-same selfie poses and globalised, homogenised fast fashion.

Being someone who, as a teenager, wished the world would look the other way, I find it curious that I veered towards such unusual apparel. Back then, the clothes acted as a buffer perhaps. “See my purple paisley patterned shirt (and not my nose!),” they declared. Or, perhaps, they were a way for me to belong to something. We were so different, my gang. Or, as my mother says, so similar in our difference ‒ like many tribes of eccentric youths.

My looks over the years have been as varied as the designer influences this season. A dressing-up box with items inherited from my mother, aunts, friends and even friends’ mothers (donated with or without their knowledge by their daughters). Various eras blending together or worn on different days in different environments. Homemade creations and young designer items picked up abroad. In the olden days of the late 1990s, SéSí in Temple Bar, Eager Beaver and Damascus (ah, those vintage Levis) were the go-to shops for fashion eccentrics of limited means in Dublin. Shoes by Red or Dead and Doc Martens and later, vintage Ballys and Bruno Maglis in floral velvet or brushed silver leather. 

Even now my wardrobe is like a holding ground for clothing aberrations. There’s a floral coat with cerise, a vintage Yves Saint Laurent dress with starfish and seaweed and another with anchors and chains. A red wool coat from Wards Brothers, Lewiston, Maine est. 1927, lined in silk and trimmed in velvet. Embroidery, sequins and pattern and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My trouser widths have gone in and out more times than a seamstress’s needle. Eccentric fashion lover: 1. Little black dress: 0.

The shoe drawer reveals much of the same. Punched silver leather 1980s Clarks stilettos, beautiful vintage leather sandals with curious Egyptian-themed heel embellishment (I might break them out for the unveiling of Queen Nefertiti’s mummified remains), Dries Van Noten jade green lace-ups with red leather heels, snakeskin Moroccan slippers (a recent gift) and Pucci shoes with silver cubic heels, white net uppers and shredded chiffon pompoms, covered with the print of an Italian fishing village scene (just for good measure). Eccentric shoe lover: 1. Black court shoe: 0.

I know, of course, how to do classic, and there are many such items in my wardrobe too. But recently with just hours to spare and all in the name of research, of course, I snuck off, not to the land of tailored trousers and classic courts but to other places where the seeds of creativity and curiosity could take root once again. To Brown Thomas where I narrowly avoided caressing the glittery Miu Miu shoes and on to the creaking upstairs floor of vintage shop The Harlequin where the collar lengths went in and out like saucy bluebells.  On then to Om Diva where I picked up my newest wardrobe addition ‒ a cream Japanese blouse with Peter Pan collar printed with tubes of paint, the splashes of which proclaim in multi-coloured squiggles: “Me”, “You”, “Love”, “Hello”, “Rich”, “No!”

When I grow old you may find me swathed in camel and nude ‒ an elegant example of a human capsule wardrobe. Or, you may find me bat shit crazy in mismatching patterns, red leather heels and a leopard print hat. For fashion eccentricity is not just for one season. It is for life.

Ruth O’Connor is a journalist and Sunday Business Post fashion columnist. She tweets at @ruthoconnorsays

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