Monday 12th August 2019

I’d like to talk about party dressing. “Whoa, what is this – Mainstream Fashion Monthly?” you cry. “I thought I was buying a cool, edgy fashion mag, not bloody Marie Claire. Are you going to tell me that pockets on a dress are, like, really great?”

Calm down, dear, it’s only a feature. And no, I’m not going to do a round-up of who has the best red dresses, or what amazing leopard-print numbers you can buy at River Island next season. I’m going to talk about how party dressing gets to the nub of the central contradiction in women’s fashion. 

William Morris said that everything in your home should be either beautiful or functional, and while many feel both would be the ideal, I have yet to see a beautiful fridge, and if any of you are shouting “Smeg”, I’m sorry, do I look like an episode of Bake Off? Bog off with your twee, bunting-decked, Cath Kidston bullshit sentimentality, please. Anyway, fashion has a similar dichotomy: it should make you look good or feel good, but ideally both. In the past decade or so, coinciding with the fourth wave of feminism, there has been a bit of jazz hands-ing about this distinction. Once, Karl Lagerfeld could get away with saying things like, “No one wants to see curvy women”, and Kate Moss could wang on about how “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”. Now, in order to look inclusive and empowered and whatever vague word is big on Tumblr that week, fashion has to justify itself by saying it’s actually good for women because it makes them feel better about themselves. Hence, fashion lovers now come out with conveniently self-serving aphorisms about how, “If you look good you feel good, and if you feel good you look good.” And in certain regards, this is true: when I bother to get out of my usual working-from-home outfit (Isabel Marant tracksuit trousers, Zoe Karssen sweatshirt) and put on, say, some Chloé trousers, a Gucci jumper and shoes that aren’t slippers, I objectively look better and feel better. When I finally got rid of my disgusting Marc by Marc Jacobs army coat, which I’d had for a decade and it looked like it had actually been through the First World War, and swapped it for a lovely Vanessa Bruno blue wool coat, I absolutely looked and felt better. But I’ll tell you where this looking good and feeing good theory completely falls apart: party dressing. 

With party dressing, unless you are very young and/or thin, you generally have to make some kind of choice between looking good and feeling good. Don’t get cross with me, I’m just the innocent messenger. Let’s start with the most obvious issue: shoes. I at out refuse to believe any woman who claims to find high heels “really comfortable”. It is physically impossible to be comfortable walking around on tiptoe, all your weight thrown onto your knees. Are you Barbie? No, you are not. Your feet are not shaped like little Ss, and the balls of your feet are not meant to support your entire body, and this is why high heels are actually instruments of torture. I firmly maintain that a woman running happily around in a nice pair of flats always looks better than a woman wobbling around in visible discomfort in a pair of heels. And yet, most fancy going-out outfits for women only look good with heels. I realised this while shopping for my birthday party dress last summer and, despite my traditional vow to not spend too much money, I made my even more traditional breaking of that vow and forked out for the most gorgeous Stella McCartney one-shouldered midnight-blue minidress. When I got home I – obviously – took a selfie in front of my full-length mirror while wearing it with my birthday present from my boyfriend: a pair of pearl-studded Gucci loafers (I trained him well). I immediately got a reply from my always-supportive, passionately right-on feminist best friend: “Nice. But you’re gonna wear heels, right?” 

And of course, I was going to wear heels, and I did. I wore them to my party and I looked amazing – and after about 20 minutes I kicked them off, because my feet were fucking killing me, and what’s the point of that? But being barefoot was acceptable in a way wearing flats was not, because being barefoot is universal code for “I’m theoretically if not actually wearing heels”, whereas flats would have just ruined the dress. Which brings me to the next point: the dress. 

Now, there are party dresses that feel good – I have several myself. They include long-sleeved crushed-velvet wrap dresses, long-sleeved crazily patterned satin dresses from Coach, a long-sleeved (you might spot a pattern here) black velvet YSL dress with a lace collar that looks like something a psychotic Victorian child would wear in a horror movie. But these dresses all fall into one of three categories: respectively, basic, not very flattering, mental. Dresses that are exciting and gorgeous and fabulous are not, by and large, comfortable. They are often cold, tight, awkward, heavy, impossible to pee in, impossible to get out of, impossible to sit in, too short, too long, sweaty, scratchy and, sometimes, all at the same time. These dresses look fabulous, no question. Do they feel fabulous? Mmm, not so much. And obviously, they all require heels. And finally, the requisite beauty regimes. I am not exactly the most enthusiastic maintainer of beauty norms, but despite my feral inclinations, even I have a pretty basic pre-party beauty regime and it goes like this: blow-dry (obvs), threading, waxing, facial, bath with body oil, whole-body moisturiser, make up, more make up, more sodding make up. Some women argue that going through all that makes them feel better, and I guess on one level it does, as you know that, after all that expense and medieval torture, you conform to what is deemed to be conventionally attractive, yay for you. And here’s a hint: saying that it makes you feel better about yourself to put loads of gunk on your face and rip your pubes out with hot wax does not mean that the gunk and hot wax are inherently good. It means that society makes us feel so insecure that we feel we need to do this to ourselves to get through the day. Really channelling the ghost of Andrea Dworkin, ain’t I? Anyway, doing all this to myself does not make me feel comfortable, it makes me feel like a trussed-up table decoration, scared to touch my own face or hair in case I mess something up. Which is pretty weird, really, given that the “something” is me.

So what is the solution? Well, because this isn’t a basic women’s magazine, I don’t have a simple solution that can be bought at River Island. The older I get and the more parties I go to, the more certain I am that, when it comes to feeling good and looking good at a party, one part of that equation is going to be compromised, and that’s OK. Increasingly, I’m inclined to stint on the “looking good” part in order to enjoy myself, but as my fascinating Stella McCartney-dress story proves, I can still pull it out when I need to. But the trick is to decide whether you are stinting on either the looking good or feeling good – do not compromise on little bits of both in the hope that this will give you both fabulousness and comfort. It won’t. It will just give you a totally basic out t in which you neither look nor feel good. You’ll just wish you weren’t wearing a fucking wrap dress with kitten heels. 

Text: Hadley Freeman
Collage Artist: Anna Bu Kliewer

From the latest issue of 10 Magazine Australia, on newsstands now.




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