Dressed by Shahidha Bari and The Pocket – two books on the secret life of clothes

Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian:

Mistrust all enterprises that require new clothes,” says EM Forster in A Room With a View, adapting a quote from Henry David Thoreau. What a spoilsport. Because surely one of the best bits about starting a new job, getting a dog or even taking up sky-diving is that it gives you permission to fashion yourself in a slightly different way. With the acquisition of new and unusual kit comes the chance to become someone fresher, sexier or, at the very least, someone who is prepared to give yellow a go. The reason we are so desperate to buy or borrow new clothes, says the academic and broadcaster Shahidha Bari in her clever, subtle book, is because they appear to bestow on us a charm and intellect that we can’t quite muster for ourselves. Yet the moment we acquire that new coat or those new trousers, we realise that nothing much has changed at all. For no matter how fancy we look on the surface, underneath we still come with metaphorical trailing threads and odd socks. “Dressing is so hard,” Bari writes. “It is astonishing that we ever find the courage to keep trying as we do every day.”

Although her writing is critically informed – Foucault, Deleuze, Cixous and Irigaray all rock up here to chat about schmutter – her tone is insistently personal, intimate even. Between her main chapters she drops in lyrical accounts of her own encounters with specific items of clothing. She tells us about mending a dress for a college friend who has since died, or the first time she wore spiked shoes as a schoolgirl and found herself running like the wind. Other passages are determinedly oblique, as when she buys little girls’ dresses the colour of buttercream yet makes no mention of who they are for. Her future children, her past self? The withholding is deliberate since Bari wants us to think not so much about what clothes say as how they make us feel. Take the suit. The one that she has in mind is worn by Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959). According to a panel of fashion journalists and stylists convened by GQ in 2006, this suit is “the best in film history and the most influential on men’s style”. Designed by Grant’s Savile Row tailor, Kilgour, French and Stanley, it is neither exactly blue nor grey, and combines a ventless jacket with high-waisted, forward pleated trousers. It is a suit (or suits – during the five month shoot Grant got through eight replicas, since hanging from Mount Rushmore by your fingertips involves a certain wear and tear) that is simultaneously authoritative and insouciant.

More here.