Over the holidays, I overdosed on Netflix documentaries. I was consumed by discovering who pushed whom down The Staircase, and I accidentally became the world’s most unlikely Dr Dre fan after watching The Defiant Ones, a fascinating and highly worthwhile four-part infomercial for his headphones. Summer has been a confusing ordeal for the neighbours…
But by far the biggest influence was the documentary about Iris Apfel, the 97-year-old style icon and rock hard, New York business woman. It was so mesmerising that I watched it twice in one day. She has spent nearly a century steadfastly swimming against the tide of how women should look and who they should dress for. She dresses for her own eyes. She enjoys looking interesting, expressing her individual style, and personality through fashion choices.
Iris inspired a shift in perception in me about my own appearance. She really got me thinking… For a fat lass, in fact for a lass of any size, there is a pressure towards dressing in what is "flattering". Translated, that means: makes you look less fat. Flattering also means hoiking up, sucking in, scaffolding or padding the bits of our bodies that we are told are either aesthetically pleasing and/or will attract a mate.
Only I'm not on the look out for a mate, and let’s be honest vertical stripes will not bamboozle anyone into believing my size 24 arse is a size 12 one. And on a more profound note, why should I feel compelled to aim for a look that says "less fat", when fat is what I am? Why should I apologise?
I’ve been unapologetic about my size for ages. So long as I'm not putting a strain on the NHS, my body is nobody’s business but my own. If anyone has an opinion on it, that’s OK, their opinion is theirs and nowt to do with me. Fat used to be a central part of my identity, now it’s not. It’s been a long road to get to this point of self-acceptance. So long in fact, that the gathering storm that is middle-age now lashes at my windows.
Happily, I couldn't give a shit about getting older. In fact I bloody love it. I feel liberated, not threatened by it. It’s as though I've spent the first 45 years making all the mistakes and learning all the lessons. And now I’m equipped. Sleeves rolled up. Ready for action.
Telling a story
With all of these thoughts and influences swirling I’ve become attracted towards a different personal aesthetic and stumbled on a Swedish designer called Gudrun Sjoden. Her clothes are all about telling a story through no-nonsense shapes, constructed layers, good quality fabrics and loads of colour. When my pal and I wandered into her London shop my companion described the look as "retired arts academic who no doubt has a conservatory extension".
Gudrun’s a dear do though, so I spent a long time at home, looking at her website and reading around the design concept. Then I found the word. A sparkling new word that joyfully barged into my vocabulary: Kulturtant.
It’s a Swedish word whose direct translation is "culture aunt". The meaning however, is middle-aged woman who enjoys theatre, literature, music, art – y’know, culture 'n' that. She dresses to please herself and express her creativity, often in something bright and flowing with chunky statement jewellery. She might be a librarian, teacher, artist, writer, doctor, therapist or academic, but she’s definitely a matronly, middle-aged or older woman of substance.
Delighted, I thought: "THIS IS ME! HEAR ME ROAR! AND SO ON!" It was a warm hug of certainty to learn there are so many women with whom I have aesthetic choice and personal interests in common, that there’s an actual term for us. I've got to admit I was also a tinge miffed that I conform to an obvious stereotype that I didn't even know existed.
I was recently sitting round a table as the only teacher among a load of senior education sorts. One prominent female leader was wearing what essentially constituted pastel-hued robes, another sported and 80s-inspired scarlet suit, adorned with a hint of Michael Jackson-style military gold twine. Both expressed their power and personalities through their clothes and both looked fabulous.
The men were all in virtually identical uniforms of dark suits with smart shirts that complemented. They conformed to their aesthetic stereotype, no doubt feeling obliged to do so. One man arrived wearing a smart jumper over his shirt instead of a jacket. He looked perfectly professional yet a male colleague jokingly chuckled: "What is it? Dress down Friday?" It was a mark of friendship rather than unkindness, but there was a truth about what constitutes the professional uniform at the heart of the quip.
Now it’s not often I say this, but women have the better deal. Yes I know our appearances are judged more acutely and assumptions are more quickly leapt to, but what a wonderful gift to have all the sartorial options available. So long as there’s a nod to the appropriate level of formality for the occasion we can adorn ourselves in whatever we want. We can embrace a unique visual identity and choose clothes that makes us smile. Thanks to Iris, Gudrun and fellow kulturtanter I will be smiling more often.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands, and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons