If my good friends were to describe me, they’d say I clomp around most of the time looking like Morticia Addams. On a beach holiday last year, I arrived with a suitcase full of black items: sundresses, bikinis and sarongs. It’s not that I wear black clothes solely, because I’ve tried desperately for decades to move towards colours and prints. But the truth is that every time I don’t wear black, it has been down to a deeply concerted effort not to. I reach for black first, always, and then rein myself in.
Each bold shade or floral print feels like a laboured nod towards behaving like a more everyday woman; someone who would roll into Zara and head straight for the terracotta shift frocks, or think nothing of slinging on a pastel dress, or a T-shirt with a slogan that gives away some of the thoughts in her head. This person might go to buy a winter coat and consider choosing a red one, or relish a wedding invite because it gives them a chance to splurge on a vivid frock.
I can be this woman, temporarily, for a photograph or a TV appearance. I’ll play the part of someone who loves fuchsia, peach and emerald, but I find the facade exhausting. Everything takes five times longer to prepare; life is too short to weigh up which shade of green makes your eyes pop and which makes you look as if you have jaundice. Or matching shoes to a fractal-patterned skirt only to realise that the tonal combination makes your legs look ghastly. When I get home, lovely, comforting black is where I ricochet back to.
Draped on a chair in my bedroom, there is a gorgeously ghoulish pile of jeans, fitted tunic T-shirts and slouchy, off-the-shoulder knitwear, all in reassuring shades of deepest noir. Elegant, cocooning black. I’ll slide these garments on and feel more human. Everything else feels like cosplay, but this is much more like skin. “Once a goth, always a goth,” I often mutter when I glance in the mirror, not much altered from the way I looked as a teenager – hanging about Carlisle town centre with crimped hair, an armful of bangles and a Fields Of The Nephilim 12-inch in a carrier bag. I see this in other women all the time, even in my 40s, as I look across the table at meetings at someone swathed in similar sombre shades, often with a handful of costume rings, and think, “I bet you owned First And Last And Always by the Sisters Of Mercy as a kid.”
Goth was a fleeting phase in millions of people’s lives, but it is a state of mind that lasts a lifetime. As a small child, I’m sure I saw images of Jackie Onassis mourning chicly, or Isabella Rossellini in an LBD shot by Helmut Newton; however, but it was Siouxsie Sioux on the 1983 festive Top Of The Pops, performing Dear Prudence with the Banshees, who changed my outlook for ever. Aged only 10, I watched Siouxsie sway moodily in a fantastic backless, leather pencil dress. Blood-red lips, back-combed bob and her iconic, geometric four-tone eye makeup beginning just under the brow and merging into points by her nose. No mere mortal clutching a blunt Rimmel kohl pencil could pull this feat off, I later learned as I daubed away fruitlessly at my mam’s dressing-room table.
Siouxsie was being introduced by DJ Peter Powell for the Christmas special, yet, rather magically, she was not remotely dressed for Christmas, or even in the spirit of it. I had been taught that dressing for the festive season involved vibrant colours and enforced joy. Here was Siouxsie, armed with a powerful goth beauty and presence that made all the other girls in the studio, bopping about headbutting balloons with tinsel in their hair look, frankly, quite idiotic.
Olivia Newton-John’s Sandy is a jelly-elbowed nitwit until she pulls her finger out in tight-fitting black
I ripped photos of Siouxsie from my big brother Bob’s New Musical Express and Blu Tacked them to my bedroom wall. She was – and still is – incredibly sexy, but it was a sex appeal that cared not a jot if your dad watching at home didn’t fancy her. Black clothes do this: they are ostensibly unperformative; they mute your signifiers and give onlookers little to go on. They add mystery, which is often much sexier than being an open book. They don’t really send any of the messages that nice, cooperative, fragrant ladies should: easygoing, bright-humoured, amenable, maternal, the sort of girl who would enjoy packing a picnic and tumbling through a meadow. In the movie Grease, Olivia Newton-John’s Sandy is a jelly-elbowed nitwit until the last 10 minutes, when she pulls her finger out and seals the deal with John Travolta. Her transformation from nice girlie-girl to broodingly smutty empowerment is marked by tight-fitting black.
I still think of this while getting ready to appear on shows such as BBC One’s MasterChef, when, after picking out seven or eight different brightly coloured dresses, I sometimes give myself “the treat” of resorting to a black, fitted number. Maybe, I think, if I’ve worn colours and patterns for three or four appearances, I can sneak in a black week? If you wear black on a red carpet and someone else turns up in bright colours, theirs is the photo that will be used in the next day’s papers, even if their dress is unflattering. Luckily, I rather enjoy being discreetly in the background, and prefer to pick the times when I want to stand out. That’s when I’ll throw on leopard skin or orange, take a deep breath and leave the house.
By the age of 13, I’d begun ruining my mother’s best saucepans while dyeing things black with 001 Dylon. I loved Patricia Morrison, who played bass guitar with the Sisters Of Mercy, and Grace Jones as May Day in A View To A Kill. I loved Winona Ryder in Heathers and Brix Smith from the Fall. My wardrobe grew more crypt-like. Shopping in Chelsea Girl and MK One I’d head towards the pleasingly muted rails of black ruched skirts, black Spandex trousers and black-lace Stevie Nicks dresses. I began to look less like Pepsi and Shirley, and more like a Victorian crinoline doll, in black petticoats under black dresses.
Removing colour from my wardrobe felt like a giddy escape after a childhood being prodded by my mam into tartan skirts, orange cagoules and a dreaded multicoloured, home-knitted fringed poncho, that I would regularly try to lose at primary school, only to have returned. “A young child should dress gaily,” my gran always said in the 70s, before being quietly informed that the word “gay” had taken on a new meaning. To please them, I wore red velour Adam-Ant-style pedal-pushers, C&A Clockhouse neon ski pants and jelly shoes in jubilant colours. But as blackness filled my horizon, it felt that the sun was finally shining. I learned early on that, while wearing only black is not against the law, it is certainly deeply anarchic. “Isn’t Grace hot?” my mother’s friends would mumble. Is she depressed? Is she worshipping Satan? Why does she want to blend into the background? Doesn’t Grace realise life is for living?
But I was as happy in black in the 80s as I was at raves in the early 90s (eschewing DayGlo and opting for black catsuits). I am happy decades later striding into Claridge’s for dinner, wearing a black Westwood number. In fact, I’m happier in black in my mid-40s then I’ve ever been.
Fashion comes and it goes, and trying to be hip after 30 is a mug’s game, if you ask me. A well-cut black dress with bare legs and good lipstick will never not be “in”. It is minimum effort and maximum bang for your buck. You can wear a muted black dress all day to meetings, then turn it into a Sicilian Dolce-and-Gabbana-style glam-fest with a pair of fancy earrings, heels and hair chucked into a messy updo.
If one’s goal is to look a fair representation of one’s weight, then reaching for black is your solid, loyal friend
I take inspiration from Sophia Loren, Joan Crawford and Wallis Simpson. Sometimes, I play an LBD right down in flats, with just my ancient Jimmy Choo clutch bag, hair down, a pair of false lashes and one very good bracelet. I wish, at some level, that when I was on downtime, I could sling on peach Lululemon Wunder Train high-rise tights and a neon hoodie for brunch, ever so casually, like the young things who model for Victoria’s Secret; it seems such a carefree way to live. But I’m more likely to go for breakfast in black trousers from Zara, a black Wolford body, and sage- or coral-coloured ballet pumps. I like the sleekness and sense of order that an outfit like this brings.
Of course, common opinion is that black is slimming: that’s why women love it. But after decades spent at the coalface of this matter, I’m not sure this is entirely true. A size 16 doesn’t become a size 10 by swathing it in black. However, what black definitely doesn’t do, which I find quite magical, is make you look any bigger than you are already. So if one’s goal is to look a fair representation of one’s weight, then reaching for black is your solid, loyal friend. If, instead, you’re resolutely body-positive about each kilogram that has settled on your hip and thigh area, horizontal stripes and vibrant patterns will certainly draw the eye and loudly advertise every joyous kilojoule.
I have written in the past about my quiet acceptance that the right to feel confident when bigger seems to have passed me and many of generation X by. We were bred on a diet of Eric Morley reading out Miss World’s 36-24-36 measurements and staring sadly down at a tape measure. It’s no accident that, as my figure filled out in my teens, leaving me aware from early on that to be thin would always be a pitched battle and that I could gain a dress size by breathing deeply outside Greggs bakery, I slid into black clothes to make the “best” of this “shameful” scenario. I see women like me everywhere, because black certainly makes the most of wobbles and curves. When Kim Kardashian’s dress sense is slagged off, I often feel oddly defensive, because she chooses exactly what I would if Forbes magazine reported my annual net worth: tight-fitting black, almost constantly. She’s not terribly fashionable: she dresses to accentuate curves, to hammer home the ratio between her waist and hips, and to highlight her heavenly skin and doe eyes. It’s an old-school type of glamour that goes hand in hand with smoky eyes and good body butter.
My round bottom may not yet have “broken the internet”, but it is more or less the same proportions as hers, and it has certainly broken the odd deckchair. Kim’s stylists clearly push her into gingham, red leather or floaty white linen for premieres and launches; but when you see her off duty, just out eating sushi with Kanye, she is contentedly herself in head-to-toe black. I often wonder if, like me, she needs a head torch to go into her wardrobe, or spends a fortune on Muji lint rollers. I often wonder if she gets in from the Met Ball, takes off her custom-made, flesh-coloured, white-crystal-embossed Thierry Mugler minidress, shoves on a comforting black tracksuit, peels off her false eye-lashes and leaves them in unattractive piles on the sofa arm, and says, “Thank God I’m home.”