There came Ezra, dressed
To the nines in his velvet
Jacket, pants with equestrian
Seat, his cowboy hat, swinging
His silver-headed cane as he
Made for San Ambrogio, women
Applauding him from their
Windows. It was one of the
Sights of the town.
James Laughlin on Ezra Pound in the poem “Olga”, Byways: A Memoir
A shirt dress is ideal for daytime or work, plus you can catwalk it up with some ski pants and then totes nod to the tunic-trouser trend. Result.
This is an anecdote about some trousers.
It begins with a cry as I approach the school gates of Te Kuiti Primary: “Nightrider pants!”
A kid called Josh (he lived down the street from me and was famous for getting $40 a week in pocket money; in 1989 this was an unimaginable amount of money) was going past on his bike.
“She’s got Nightrider pants. Aue, she’s got Nightrider pants!” In this way he alerted most of the school to my pants. What the hell was Nightrider, and what was the implication of this reference? I learnt later that Nightrider was a character in the film Mad Max. Real name Crawford Montizano, Nightrider was basically a berserk motorbike gang member who was eventually killed in a high-speed chase with Max Rockatansky.
Up until that point I’d worn normal stuff from Ezibuy and DEKA – dependable leggings, trackpants, polar fleeces over turtleneck skivvies. Maybe I had no idea what fashion was, but I knew the difference between different and the same, and that it was always better to be the same. By this point, I knew that my pants were not just different; they were alien. When I walked they made a foreign whispering sound. When I sat down they puffed air. When I shifted they cried out. Pulling them that morning on I’d felt a slow dread, like I was about to go on a long car trip in a mountainous region. I don’t remember any pressure from my parents to wear the pants. But I felt a strong sense of obligation: the pants were a present, and it was my birthday that day.
Later that morning, the kid Josh sat behind me on the mat in class. With no explanation or preamble, he grabbed hold of my butt and wouldn’t let go. I remember the teacher reading a story – she had a long, stern face and was wearing two tortoiseshell barette clips in her yellow hair – and I was too confused to move. The hands squidged my bottom almost mechanically. The teacher talked on and on. I remember staring into the strings of mobiles hanging from the ceiling, which drifted like seaweed in the air above our heads. The simplest solution – moving somewhere else on the mat – was not an option, because the pants would make a noise and people would look at me again.
After that interminable lesson, the kid Josh cornered me in the art room with a flat, frozen look in his eyes. He had quite a large head, and lush curly hair. He said robotically, “I love you.” Then he made a slow lunge for me, his bear arms outstretched.
I think I discovered the power of clothes that day.
Edward Gorey via Goreyography
Primark is a gigantic store full of cheap, on-trend yet readily disposable clothing. It has huge windows and featureless white mannequins. There are stories about people who go to Primark sales, and afterwards their shopping bags, stuffed to bursting, begin to shed clothes into the street, but the person just keeps walking because the thing they bought was only worth two quid anyway and it’s not worth the trouble of picking it up – economically, it’s actually not worth it. I don’t know if such stories are true, but they capture the Primark ethic: cheap, abundant, disposable. Before I came to London, I didn’t really know what consumption could look like.
Primark is almost comically depressing. Outside the Oxford Street branch on any given day, you can see rows of people slouched in rows on the purpose-built ledge. They’re waiting for their friends and partners who are still inside. Or they’re simply resting, re-orienting themselves. Many of the waiting people hold their heads in their hands, staring into their shopping bags as if each is a wormhole to another universe. All sit in exhausted silence. Primark has devoured their souls.
Anyway, this is all by the by. Here is the anecdote. The last time I walked past Primark, I saw a guy kneeling on the footpath in front of (I assume) his girlfriend. He seemed so engrossed in this act of kneeling that it was almost as if he were kneeling in a church pew, not in the greying, gum-splattered Oxford Street outside seller of “Future WAG” t-shirts and padded bikini tops for four-year-old girls, employer of sweatshop workers doing 80 hours a week in Bangladesh.
Then I noticed that he was re-positioning the tongue of each of the girl’s Nike shoes. He was pulling the tongues out so that they sat more neatly over her socks.
Then he was turning up the hems of her jeans so to make them into cuffs. He was arranging the cuffs over her shoes and patting them gently like a flower arrangement. The girl just stood there looking over the top of his head, a bit gormlessly. Then she took her phone out of her pocket and started texting. To salt the wound, she was chewing gum.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this. Maybe the guy cared more than the girl what the girl’s jeans looked like. He may have been obsessive compulsive. Maybe the girl paid the guy to do this and he was happy to do it, like someone I know who pays his girlfriend to cook dinner and then wash the dishes every day. “She enjoys doing it,” he says, “so what’s the problem?” God, who knows. More than anything I wanted to go over there and rough up those cuffs and stuff the tongues back into the Nikes.
Sometimes my parents still send me clothes. One year there was a Big Coat – a huge, engulfing coat in the shape of a wheelbarrow. When I wore it I disappeared and became pure coat. Another time there was a shimmery blouse that rasped and scratched and soon, unforgivably, became a window-cleaning rag.
This week, something new arrived – a long-promised Writer’s Cardigan. I’d made some flippant remark on my Facebook page that I needed a cardigan for the specific purpose of writing in, and my mum (look – I know, I know) read it.Her friend Margaret, she said, would knit a cardigan for me. Margaret is the lady who looks after our cat when my folks are away, and the lady who comes round to watch the rugby sometimes and falls asleep on the couch in solidarity with my parents.
Like the perfect pants, a Writer’s Cardigan is elusive. Under normal circumstances it will only appear to you when you give up and stop looking. It’s not something you wear to make you look like A Writer; it’s something you wear to actually do the dirty work in. It’s fusty and a bit threadbare and has large pockets, one of which is falling off. It’s usually brown – dead-leaf brown. There are big pilled bits growing all over it like lichen, some more like barnacles. You may have to wrestle the cardigan from a dog who wants to sleep on it. But it’s home; it’s the most non-judgemental, forgiving garment you will ever own – a bit like a dog itself, actually.
So the other day the knitted cardigan arrived – the garment that I hoped would become my writer’s cardigan. Gingerly, I unwrapped it. It took a while to unwrap.
Revealed was a vast, white, landscape of cable knit. My god, it was a cardigan made for David Attenborough on Frozen Planet. Three dark brown buttons were positioned low on the waist, as if to house an well-established belly. It was what they call in the trade a “statement cardigan” – a cardigan so conscious of its own cardiganness that everything about it, from the glazed buttons to the slight gather at the waist, is self-referential, nodding to cardigans past and future. It was pretty complex.
I put it on and faced the mirror. I looked to be in my mid-seventies and arthritic. I noticed that the garment actually restricted movement, like an upper-body plaster cast. For a second opinion, I showed my boyfriend Matt. He laughed and laughed, for ages, then he called it a “horrible thing”.
But I will not give up. I haven’t tried to write in it yet. I’m wearing some other, lesser cardigan right now. Anyway, I’ll report back.