It's been one of those things that everyone's been talking about. It's even gained its own hashtag: #thedress. Is it blue and black or white and gold? I'm in the white and gold camp, based on photos I've seen online, though of course when I see two photos set next to one another, I can see it as black and blue as well... although, ultimately: who cares? It's just one of those passing fashions: meta, almost, a passing fashion about a passing fashion: a stripy dress which will go out of style almost as quickly as people forget the online debate about what colour it looks in different kinds of light.
I've never really got fashion anyway: no surprise to many of those who know me, perhaps especially the teenagers I teach, who were keen to know my opinion on #thedress debacle. Every so often I have that typical female crisis. I look old. I look awful. I look fat. I do the Eminem thing: clearing out my closet; I try on long-forgotten items and wonder what on earth I was thinking when I bought them, as my reflection and my husband's delicately chosen words of sarcastic commentary make it seem as though I've entered a fairground hall of mirrors where I don't look fashionable at all: I just look weird. This isn't about whether the stripes are black and blue: this is about a bruised ego and bemusement about how on earth to get it right next time.
That hall of mirrors which has materialised, as if by magic, just like the Shopkeeper from Mister Benn, on the front of your wardrobe, offers up a hundred different versions of yourself. Unlike Mister Benn, who tried on a costume offered by the magical Shopkeeper, and then went off through a Narnia-like curtain in the fitting room and had, quite literally, a 'fitting' adventure before coming back, putting his suit back on and going home for tea, you've had a hundred different adventures inside the internal mirror of identity, and, although you haven't left home so you're definitely home in time for tea, you've somehow lost your appetite. You recreate the crush and hassle of sales shopping - the Saturday morning when you couldn't face the rigours of the fitting room or the superior, figure-assessing glances of that size zero assistant in her little mini-dress and stiletto boots as you stumbled in out of the wintry weather, awkward in the layers of coat and scarf and gloves. Or those other times, when you fitted something on and thought it looked ok - good, even - and now you look at it or offer it up for opinion and wonder... why didn't someone tell me that I looked ten years older or six pounds heavier? Were they happy to see me engage in a fashion car-crash, or was I actually fashion tumbleweed, so invisible that no-one noticed just how unflattering that outfit was? You lurch, like a model on impossibly high platform shoes, from the horrors of 'What was I thinking?' to the terrors of 'What were they thinking?' to the despair of 'Was anyone thinking anything at all?'
And so two roads diverge in a narrow, impenetrable, neurotic fashion wood. A popular television series traces the genealogy of celebrities, Who Do You Think You Are? It could as easily be the title of a fashion-and-shopping show (though I'd quibble that it should be entitled: Whom Do You Consider Yourself To Be?) because we're defining ourselves daily by what we wear. It starts with work place dress codes: even those not wearing uniform can be spotted, with teachers or business executives or fashion assistants (or whoever) all identifiable. Off-duty, you're faced with the challenge of being just you, with that bewildering array of decisions and choices and definitions. Take jeans. Skinny, bootcut, flare, skinny-flare, traditional bootcut, boyfriend, wide-leg, ultra-skinny... there will be others, too, but I'm not be 'with it' enough to know them. The jean category which has become my favourite - in name at least - is the 'distressed boyfriend'. Factually, these are slightly loose-legged, hip-hugging, straight-cut jeans which have been given a 'fashionably dishevelled' appearance. They might be a bit faded. They might have a couple of artful holes or rips. They're instantly comfortable in the way that the jeans you've had for years tend to be. Husbands don't really 'get' this... perhaps it's the financial utilitarianism of the male gender, expecting to get what you pay for, while women might have a different notion of what this might be. I read recently about one well-known high street store which has an assistant available to adjust newly-bought jeans: as well as hemming, they offer a 'distressing' service to make jeans look worn-in or 'pre-loved'. And so: picture it. You give your new, really comfortable, really stylish 'distressed boyfriend' jeans their first outing. Your husband observes with horror.
'Jesus Christ. What happened to those?'
'Fashion. They're... you know, 'distressed'.' You pronounce the quotation marks, emphasising them with an eyebrow.
'Distressed? I'll tell you who's distressed. I'm bloody distressed. Some bastard is ruining perfectly good pairs of jeans with a... with a bloody razor blade or something. I've thrown out better jeans than that after doing DIY in them. In my next life, I want to be paid to ruin perfectly good clothes, all in the name of fashion.' He enunciates the quotation marks so effectively that his eyebrows almost disappear, and then stomps away shaking his head, adding a whole new definition to the style, distressing boyfriends (or husbands) because they don't quite represent the fit for purpose/ value for money principle held so dearly by males.
I'm left more puzzled than ever. Do we buy new jeans, then hand them over to an expert to make them look as though they're old? It's a delightful irony: you buy brand new jeans, but before you leave the shop you get them beaten up a bit. However, removing the irony like the hipster who's given up Instagramming their coffee for Lent, it's just as confusing as the perception of that stripy dress. It's actually black and blue, but in certain lights it can look gold and white. In the different light of fashion, those new jeans are much more stylish if they don't look new at all. I think I understand it, but I'm never going to get it. It's like the moment a few days ago when someone asked me if I was planning to get a spray tan for a social event this month. Although tanning seems almost de rigueur, her tone implied the very idea of my being fashionably modified to a few shades beyond my usual 'deathly pale' was somewhere on the other side of ludicrous. Was the thought of me looking stylish quite literally beyond the pale?
We've all got closet skeletons. It's not just about those impetuous sale purchases: those are easily dealt with, the spending guilt offset by donating dubious fashion decisions to a good cause. The real skeletons, though, lurking in the dust at the back of all our closets and cowering, scared, beneath the fronts of costume and artifice we try on for one another every day, are the rattling and bony insecurities which hold us upright. Those skeletons embody our hope of being visible in a light that doesn't distort the truth of who we'd like to think we are.
And no amount of knowledge about fashion - no earning of fashion stripes - can ever offset an awkward truth like that.