I remember going clothes shopping when I was 15 or 16 and feeling ridiculous.
Most teenagers feel ridiculous, out of place, lost and confused at some point (or most of the points) and I felt the typical square peg. I found it very difficult to fit in, with nothing in common with other teenagers and painfully shy. And nothing fitted me cos I was a weird shape, just starting to gain a bust but with a tiny waist and big hips so jeans were (and still are) a problem. I tentatively tried the current fashions and always felt I looked wrong – like I was trying too hard to be cool and failing. The world around me and the friends I had from school seemed almost alien to the secret world I longed for but I knew I’d be laughed at for admitting to.
I had spent much of my childhood completely enraptured by the genre now known as the Golden Age of Hollywood, and predominantly musicals. I would sing show tunes at anyone who made the mistake of asking. My idols were Judy Garland, Ginger Rogers, Ava Gardner, Ann Miller, Vivien Leigh, Hedy Lamarr, Cyd Charisse, Doris Day, Audrey Hepburn. I longed to find clothes that looked like that, fitted me like that. (Forgetting of course they were likely professionally tailored and perfectly coiffed).
The men I dreamed about were Lawrence Olivier, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Gordon McCrae, Larry Parks, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly. The effortless grace of the dancers and picture perfect romances made me feel like they were gods and goddesses I could never aspire to be myself.
I used to sing, joined amateur dramatics and even in my twenties learned to tap dance. I eventually trained as an actress hoping to make my dream come true. But I knew I was born in completely the wrong decade. As a child I couldn’t reconcile myself to the fact that I would never be a Broadway star, a Ziegfeld Girl, a Hollywood siren because that world no longer existed.
And I didn’t know anyone else outside my family who loved what I loved, no one I could share things with or talk to about it. That is why the internet is such a wonderful thing. In the 80s and early 90s I had no outlet, no way of knowing there were other people out there exactly like me – that I wasn’t a freak.
I remember once finding a close approximation to a circle skirt in New Look and being over the moon because it felt like maybe old-fashioned styles were coming back and were not just for frumpy old ladies. Terms like vintage and retro fashion just didn’t exist. Or if they did, they never found me.
Now we have forums and websites, social media like Instagram and Facebook where I have found a whole wonderful world of crazy fans just like me. Thousands of people who think a 1930s evening dress is the height of sophistication, that flappers did have all the fun, that a wonderful wide skirt and petticoat is beyond feminine.
Vintage fashion is now an enormous industry with endless collectors and resellers, as well as companies making excellent reproduction styles to fit everyone.
These days, of course, I’m a sensible woman of forty but I usually don’t dress vintage because I still feel I will be too conspicuous and get laughed at and the teenager inside still desperately wants to fit in. I have tried to learn over those years to find a style that worked for me. I can’t say I’ve managed it yet but on the rare occasions I look fashionable I feel incredibly proud that I achieved something so remarkable.
But when I do wear a vintage styled dress, my hair curled and coiffed, beautiful jewellery and a bright red lip I feel like I should have felt all those years ago.
I feel like me.