Thursday, September 10, 2009

The look of comfort

What follows was commissioned by The Age back in June, but due to a series of comical misunderstandings it was never published. Not to let my work go to waste, please enjoy it here.

Cruel winter is a time to dress for comfort. Fleecy tracksuits, layers of cotton jersey, shapeless jumpers and cardigans, fluffy socks, flannel shirts, slip-on shoes, and even this season’s key piece – a fleecy blanket with sleeves.

As a keen proponent of the notion of “No Pants Friday”, I can attest that baggy tops and tunic dresses worn with leggings are some of the cosiest winter outfits around. I write this while wearing harem pants.

Problem is, comfort and fashion don’t often coincide. Vitriolic condemnations are proffered at and Lindsay Lohan’s well-documented love of leggings is often considered one of the American actress’s personal troubles, along with her controlling parents and drug abuse.

Harem pants have also endured a backlash, especially in their current drop-crotch incarnation. Some say they distort the body’s natural proportions. Others ridicule harem pant-wearers for resembling MC Hammer, a penguin, or a baby with a full nappy.

Indeed, dressing for comfort is generally considered the antithesis of caring about your appearance. People are quick to condemn comfy clothes as ugly, slovenly, and even warning signs of mental distress.

For some reason, comfortable shoes especially enrage fashionistas. Crocs have become the shoe people love to hate, ousting Ugg boots, Birkenstocks, hiking sandals, massage sandals, sheepskin moccasins and those dove-grey vinyl shoes with zippers. The Facebook group I Don’t Care How Comfortable Crocs Are, You Look Like A Dumbass has close to 1.5 million members.

I must admit to a feeling of dumbass-ness as I clomped around in a pair of black suede, Velcro-fastened ankle boots by sensible German brand Ara. They had been given to me by my mother, for whom they were slightly too small. “I know you’ll think they’re ugly,” she’d presciently told me.

But the true ugliness of these shoes wasn’t their actual appearance, but the way they made me seem like someone who doesn’t care how she looks. No amount of physical comfort, it seemed, could offset this social discomfort.

But by calling comfortable clothes “ugly”, we reveal that they don’t operate in a separate sphere from fashion where aesthetic considerations don’t matter. Instead, fashion’s denigration of comfort reveals its own high stakes.

The fashion world has always defined style as something ineffable and difficult to acquire. Learning this sensibility is a mental discipline and fashionable clothes themselves are a bodily discipline. Difficult-to-wear things such as teetering high heels, stiff tailoring and corsetry are mimetic symbols of the effort and sacrifice it takes to be chic.

Many criticisms of comfortable clothes also carry socio-economic inflections. Moccasins and flannelette shirts are deemed bogan uniforms; outer-suburban mums are fashion criminals in leggings and baggy windcheaters; silky tracksuits by Kappa and Adidas are “woggy”.

Wearers of Birkenstocks and Crocs (themselves derived from peasants’ clogs) are mocked for being pretentious bourgies, while we sneer at nouveau riche celebrities for their Juicy Couture velour tracksuits and Ugg boots.

However, one of fashion’s most iconic names made her reputation by turning devalued symbols of class into statements of luxury. I’m talking, of course, about Coco Chanel.

As dramatised in the current film Coco Avant Chanel, Gabrielle Chanel came from humble, provincial origins and made her own clothes by adapting men’s sportswear. French fishermen’s everyday clothes inspired her high-fashion silhouettes, and she created glamorous, feminine garments in cotton jersey, which had formerly been viewed as a cheap fabric for men’s undies.

Disdaining the Belle Epoque’s corseted waistlines, fussy ornaments and enormous, feather-filled hats, Chanel found new elegance in simplicity and freedom to move.

With layers of padding and interfacing, Dior’s traditionally tailored New Look garments were incredibly heavy and sometimes needed help to put on. By contrast, Chanel’s famous tweed jackets were made by simply sewing the lining to the outer shell, and were as light and comfortable as cardigans.

“Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury,” opined Chanel. And while I wouldn’t claim she inspired the Snuggie, it’s true that luxurious things are those purely intended to give pleasure. There are definitely tactile delights in swathing our bodies in soft flannel and fluffy angora – and even much-maligned fabrics such as polar-fleece and Tencel are designed to be pleasant to touch.

Dressing for comfort doesn’t mean giving up on looking good, either – it has visual pleasures. Soft fabrics fall into exciting, sculptural folds. Bias-cut garments skim the body gracefully, creating fluid waves as the wearer moves. Loose garments skim flatteringly over pudgy or gaunt figures.

Sorry Mum – nothing is going to make those German walking boots stylish. But funnily enough, the main reason I’m not wearing them is because they’re cut awkwardly just above the ankle and dig into my legs as I walk. They’re simply not comfortable.