To fully explain my feelings about fashion, first I must tell you about my mother.
For Mum, the seventies weren’t sexy, the eighties weren’t excessive and the nineties were about shielding one end of the family from their own raging, surging oestrogen levels and the other from their own baby sick. She grew up in an era when we were reacting to the structured, the rule based, the shaped. She was born to go braless, to wear jeans (because they help you move faster), and I think she had to be persuaded to wear make up on her own wedding day.
Perhaps because of her Catholicism, and the idea that vanity is sinful and sexiness is worse, Mum seemed to be born not to care about clothes. Also, she did a lot of her growing up when Thatcher was on the throne and money was tighter than Britney’s cervix circa 1999. And she arrived at the tail end of a big, boisterous family, and her confidence took a little while to blossom because, had she chosen to wear clashing clogs and look-at-me-neon, her brothers would have made her life insufferable.
Then she got married and birthed a daughter who seemed to share genetic make up with Ru Paul and Lolo Ferrari – not with her.
I believe every mother who claims they tried and failed to ban Barbie, because I was that kid. I pouted and strutted like a tiny version of Emily Howard, the Little Britain transvestite, in a hot pink cardie, pale pink tights, a fuchsia frock with my M&S vest over the top, because it had lace on and was embroidered with pink top hats. (My younger sister had the ‘seahorse with the sparkly eye’ vest – I was too big for it, and I hated her for it.) They either had yet to invent tiny plastic pretend heels, or I was forbidden from wearing them for mysterious reasons of ‘suitability’. Either way, I popped a couple of Brio building blocks down each socks and staggered on, just like a grown up.
At four, I was entirely secure in my own aesthetic. I knew what I liked, and I never wavered. And what I really liked was fairies.
Admittedly, it was probably Tinkerbell lighting up the Buena Vista logo with her wand that did it. But then, Tinkerbell was more promising a proposition than Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Ariel. I had no interest in being a princess. It was obvious they were just fancy WAGs. Palaces were places where one had to keep one’s bedroom tidy. Handsome princes would invariably grow up to become arsey, put upon Kings. So Menalaus nagged and Helen cried. Even the kit was a bit whevs. Crowns looked heavy, and you couldn’t run around in a crinoline. Fairies dressed for comfort and speed. They wore clothes to make and break rules in, because they could do anything. To wish to be a fairy is to wish for infinity wishes. And so I wished for a fairy dress.
I put my order in early. “So, Mummy, I was thinking that maybe Santa could bring me a fairy dress at Christmas?” This was August ’89, and ninety degrees in the shade.
“Darling” replied my mother, thinking quickly, “I’m not sure Santa can get those. You probably have to actually be a fairy,” (My lip wobbled and I blinked defiantly) “which I’m sure you will be, if you keep practising, but for some fairies it takes years and years. Why not ask Father Christmas for a nice…” she looked around wildly “paddling pool?”
There was no more talk of fairy dresses. But I practised very hard, and when I shut my eyes before I went to sleep at night, I saw a vision of pink ribbon and tulle. Something for jumping and soaring. A spell casting dress.
The heat shimmered and faded, autumn’s crunch came and gave way to wintry Radio Times covers and hot chocolate, not milk, before bed. I had a dim idea that Christmas was coming, and it was so exciting I didn’t know what to be excited about first. Nan and Grandpa were on their way! The Snowman was on telly! We were getting fish and chips! (I was given a battered sausage and told the crunchy part was essentially a giant Quaver. It wasn’t.)
On Christmas morning, I woke to a stocking full of promise. I decided the giant tube of Smarties would double as a wand, and was possibly a message from Santa – he was saying ‘hang on in there, kid’. I also acquired a pink parasol for my tiny drag act, an enormous encyclopedia and a Tinkerbell make up set – fairy endorsed. I set about applying pink lipstick to my chin until my father suggested I might like to read my encyclopedia.
It was a great day. There were plenty of presents, dinner was delicious and nobody wet themselves. It wasn’t until the evening, when I was starting to get sleepy, that Mum smiled and told me about the gift Santa couldn’t fit in my stocking.
She produced two boxes – one for me, and one for my younger, seahorse vest wearing sister. And we pulled out two dresses – visions of pink ribbon and tulle. Proof. Proof of glorious, unpredictable magic. Proof we were worthy of the powers those dresses would bestow upon us.
Looking back, I know the dresses were proof of a love even more potent than magic. Mum, who was taking care of a very young family, running a household and hated sewing even more than she disliked clothes and vanity, had been staying up, sometimes sitting in the dark when everyone else had gone to bed, stitching and cutting and pricking her fingers, because she wanted her daughters to believe in something mysterious and amazing.
I’ve spent my adult life searching for another fairy dress. Something to make me feel equal parts powerful and pretty, that I can jump and soar in. But then, maybe I don’t need a specific frock. Perhaps the fact someone loves me enough to have once made me one is what transforms all my dresses into fairy dresses.