It’s no secret that I am something of a prude. Buttoned-up, prim and proper. My décolleté was last seen in the wild sometime during the early Noughties, and my knees haven’t felt the breeze for years. Not for nothing does one friend call me “Lady Mary”, of Downton Abbey fame.
So when I read John Lewis’s latest lifestyle report, my heart leapt out of my corset with joy. The annual round-up, called ‘How We Shop, Live and Look’, which identifies patterns in our buying habits, has declared that we have entered a “new age of modesty” – embracing long hemlines, utility chic, loungewear and comfy underwear… while sales of suspenders have slipped.
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Welcome to the era of understated dressing, where we modest types are finally having our moment. Let’s call it prudecore.
John Lewis has credited small-screen stars for the upswing in strait-laced styles. Sales of black jumpsuits, they say, have soared 66pc after Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character wore one, with trainers, in Fleabag. Fashion forecasters have also predicted that ‘Little Women dressing’ will be all the rage as Greta Gerwig’s film version, starring Emma Watson, hits cinemas in January.
The high street is already awash with pie-crust collars and long dresses that wouldn’t look out of place on the racks of Laura Ashley circa 1976, while vintage examples have been going on resale websites for upwards of €100.
Boilersuits, meanwhile – which John Lewis has also identified as part of the trend – have been spotted on everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Margot Robbie. My favourite, a forest green number by LF Markey, zips right up to the neck and has long arms and sleeves. Almost every inch of flesh is covered – it’s like an adult babygro.
In fact, the only problem is that I look like a paramedic. Still, rather that than a Love Island contestant.
The prevalence of bodycon – the bandage dresses that have been constricting the Kardashian sisters for a decade and are now the uniform of reality TV stars everywhere – has been bewildering for we prudes. I have never felt comfortable wearing something that shows off whether or not I had a big lunch.
I’m not ‘slut-shaming’ and will defend to the bitter end every woman’s right to wear what she likes. But I can’t help thinking that the sudden surge in covered-up clothing shows that it was what many of us were hankering for all along.
For years now, women have been fed the message that to bare our assets can be empowering and a reaction against dark forces that would have us ‘cover up’. No doubt that is true for some. But not all of us feel that way. There’s something about understated, prudish, dressing that makes me feel equally confident and self-possessed.
It’s not in the slightest because I feel any shame at flashing my flesh or worry that a tight top would be distracting for my male colleagues – more that I like having control over what I choose to display. It highlights my strength, rather than diminishing it. And while I’m sure some people will think that my preoccupation is all a bit Handmaid’s Tale – and my style has been called “Amish” more than once – for me, there’s nothing unfeminist about preferring a high neck to a low one.
I am convinced that Melanie Griffith would be wearing midi-skirts and jumpsuits were the film Working Girl made today – soft-power dressing for an era in which professional women understand they don’t have to act and dress in a certain way to make an impact.
You only need look at TV style icon of the moment – media empire heiress Shiv Roy in HBO series Succession, with her low-key Katharine Hepburn-influenced outfits – to see that. Nor do you need an office to get in on the act; John Lewis has reported a 129pc rise in the popularity of luxury loungewear as more people work from home.
There’s no denying that comfort is a factor here. When you’re dressed in layers of voluminous fabric, there’s no need to wear chafing underwear. Sales of thongs have been on the wane for a while and will be missed by absolutely no woman, while John Lewis has also reported a drop in sales of push-up and underwired bras (which also speaks to the fact that pie-crust collars demand as flat a chest as possible). It’s likely there’s also a green element at play – sustainable fashion by its very nature tends to be more understated; less Lycra, more linen.
Yet one of the biggest misconceptions about understated dressing remains – that you have to hide your personality to be a prude. Far from it. While many of the clothes in our wardrobes might be technically modest, they can still be attention-grabbing. Demure, in 2019, can still mean daring.
Frocks by the likes of fashionable brands Ganni, Batsheva and the Vampire’s Wife (who made my wedding dress) borrow heavily from Victoriana, but in bright patterns that have spawned endless high-street versions and a new breed of social media influencers to go with it. Take London-based Olivia Jackson (24), whose Instagram account Clothes My Boyfriend Hates features her wearing oversized dresses and boilersuits in bold colours and has amassed 60,000 followers in just a few months.
I predict that the new age of modern modesty has only just dawned. And it won’t be covered up again for a long time.
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