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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Licentiate Column 10/03/11: Too Poor to be Stylish

This season's fashion weeks have drawn to a close. Catwalks have been dismantled in New York, London, Milan and Paris, models are now eating something other than cotton wool whorls dipped in orange juice and editors are now retreating to their desks to tell us what we'll be wearing next winter (polka dots, plaids and an obscene amount of fur, apparently).

I shall be wearing none of those things. I might indulge in some dot action, but they'll be Penney's polkas, not Prada's. Unless a Euromillions win is imminent, I'll never own anything hot off the catwalk. This isn't for lack of wanting. If wanting was a currency, I'd be richer than Warren Buffett.

But wanting isn't a currency. I am poor - the kind of poor that makes passing church mice think, 'there but for the grace of God'...

I am poor partly by circumstance and partly by choice. It's a trade off; either I work a job that I really don't want and have spending money or keep working towards something that will bear dividends only in the future. Looking at some of the people I know in the former situation, I feel as if the right choice has been made (especially when they buy me a slap-up dinner).

This kind of decision is not made lightly and it has an effect not unlike living on a faultline in a treehouse built of glass. The aftershocks are frequent; every small jolt affects your life.

As I grow less and less solvent, my means of spending become less and less. I've gone from frequent high-street buying, to infrequent, to charity shops, to a total clothing embargo. Now, due to a very large, very nasty bill, I am forced to sell the contents of my wardrobe.

You'd think that fashion would suddenly become less fun, wouldn't you? But, in reality, the less I have to spend and the narrower the sartorial leeway, the more interesting getting dressed becomes. Being poor opens you up to new horizons, new ways of dressing, new modes of expression.

Women with a higher level of disposable income might find that they don't know how to take up a hem or let out a jacket. They might not know how mix packets of machine dye to turn that shirt from white to the perfect, jewel-tone, deeply-hued magenta that can only be seen on the racks at Gucci. They might not know how to wear a maxi skirt as a mini-dress or even how to sew on a button. Necessity is the mother of invention and when there's no necessity, you get lazy. Trust me, I've been there.

It's not a new phenomenon either. Frugality has been an admirable trait since the austerity years of the Second World War, when 'Make Do and Mend', a pamphlet on stretching your clothing allowance, was first published. It is still in print today.

British Vogue recently resurrected their 'More Dash Than Cash' feature, which shows readers how to reimagine catwalk looks with a mixture of canny high-street buys, ingenuity and a steady hand with a pair of scissors. It maintains that a self-aware, resourceful person can always look stylish.

Some people will inevitably think that it's shallow to contemplate personal style when living below the poverty line. I think that it's essential for living. Being poor is debasing; it makes you feel inadequate, that you're not a real part of society at large. Dressing well is an outward declaration of your dignity. It tells a world that thinks otherwise that you will not be cowed, that you have integrity, that you will not compromise.

Expressing yourself is a basic human right. It's harder to do that without money - that's why getting dressed is so important.