For me clothes began as a source of anxiety, rather than of pleasure. Would it fit? Would there be anything that would fit? I arrived in England on my fifteenth birthday, a child from New Zealand too well-fed on butter and meat, into a war-torn, hungry England. Relatives looked at me askance. It was 1946: days of ration books and clothing coupons. ‘Pity,’ they said, ‘she takes after her father’s side.’ More of me to feed, more of me to cloth. Large sizes took up more coupons than small. Rationing ended, plenty ruled, ‘fashion’ returned, but skinniness stayed valued. The clothing industry has stayed stubborn throughout, ever reluctant to provide large sizes – perhaps because a size 4 uses half as much fabric as a size 16, while yielding the same profit. Even so, the problem for me has never been the body beneath, which I always rather liked, but finding clothes that made the best of it, not the worst. There’d be something you’d be happy to wear somewhere – but you had to look and you had to spend.
The problem became more acute with time. In the 40s fashion houses aimed for the well-heeled and well-fed – which tended to mean older and larger. The post-war New Look demanded waists, and to have a waist you at least needed hips. Look at any 50s Vogue, pre cult of youth, and see the Mona-Lisa/over-forty look was all the rage – models posed and poised, corseted and tidy; slender, perhaps; thin and bony, never. Then Marilyn Monroe came along, and sex took the place of haughtiness – even so, Marilyn could still get away with a size 16. But since then the fashion has gone for smaller and smaller, younger and younger. And it’s nothing to be a size 0 and anyone over a size 14 (me, I’m well over) is lucky to find anything wearable in the shops. Since the nation was gripped by a neurotic fear of fat in the last couple of years – and ‘obesity’ ranked as our No 1 killer – things have gone from bad to worse. The rag trade seems in denial of the horrible truth that the average UK woman wears a 16 or 18. So these days I rely on clothes parcels sent over by friends in the US, where such scruples do not apply.
And no use searching the charity shops, as thinner friends do to good effect. My daughter-in-law, who’s in the clothes business – explains that women who wear larger sizes are so grateful to find anything that suits them they never part with it. It’s only the smaller sizes who are forever clearing out their wardrobes and taking them round to the charity shop.
The 50s were okay: I was young enough to get away with cheap and cheerful, and spent most of the decade in black V-neck pull-down sweaters you could buy at Woolworth’s, shiny black plastic belts – they cracked within the week – and full skirts with layers of built-in petticoats. I might have wide hips but at least I had a waist and ‘good shoulders’. Then I had babies and became a writer and had little time for fashion anyway. In the 60s and 70s I went on Harley Street diets and slimming pills NHS doctors disapproved of and was back on the apple a day nature had decided was all I needed to keep going As a result at least I knew a time when fashion-wise I could pick and choose from the rails – even hot pants and thigh-length boots if I was so moved. But in the end a passion for butter – left over from the war years, no doubt, when the ration was 2 oz a week – and a general dietary self indulgence led me from the straight and narrow. I was just so tired of being hungry. In the 80s and on a larger scale I could at least find Escada blouses and Jean Muir Essentials, veering wildly between satin lurex and good taste. In the 90s a few understated Donna Karan’s could be found that were big enough, and lush Missoni still catered wonderfully for over-16s. These days you’d be lucky to find one in a size 8. Curves upset Missoni zig-zags.
I am well aware that clothes look better on lanky, boy-like figures. I am well aware that the answer to my problems is diet or diet pills. That the clothing industry won’t change, so I must. The fear of fatness, or rather a suicidal love of thinness, has taken over the land. Are we all to be anorexics now? I fear so. Where will it all end? Size minus 2? Perhaps we are willing ourselves out of existence altogether?