Around this time last year, I bought a black velvet dress from & Other Stories. I didn't need it – I needed jeans – but it called to me from the hanger with such urgency that I'd handed over my debit card before I really knew what was happening. It was short, fitted, with long sleeves and a prim white collar, and it was only as I stood on my tiptoes in the changing room that I realised why I wanted it so badly. It looked exactly like Pauline Fossil's “m'audition” dress from Ballet Shoes.
Little did I know I'd been harbouring a deep desire to dress like a 1930s pre-teen, but there it was. Apparently, I’d had that image of Pauline (and I wanted to be a Pauline first, far more than I ever wanted to be a Ginger Spice or a Carrie or a Jessa) filed away in my brain for the past 22 years under “Now That’s What I Call An Outfit” – and now, finally, here was the chance to live out my Noel Streatfeild dream. I might never go to stage school or drink hot ginger with lady doctors or take blustery morning walks up the Cromwell Road, but there was a little piece of childhood magic in my functional adult wardrobe. It was all I could do to stop myself turning up to last year’s Christmas parties en pointe.
Pauline is one in a long line of unlikely, fictional fashion heroes. At various points in my adult life, I’ve stood in front of a mirror and realised that the look I am striving for isn’t inspired by Alexa Chung or an Olsen sister, but Jadis Queen of Narnia, or Claudia and Stacey from The Baby-Sitters Club. I spent most of last winter in what I thought was a very chic kilt and jumper combo, only to later realise it was an unconscious homage to Katie Morag.
While TV and film are endlessly being mined for fashion references, books make for much more personal, subjective style icons. Anyone can put on a waistcoat and tie and claim to be “channelling Annie Hall” – finding clothes that bring alive an old pencil sketch or a string of vibrant adjectives is a whole other matter.
clothes have a narrative power in life – to communicate a mood, crystallise a moment, or make the whole room stop and gawp
For one thing, a full outfit description in fiction is a rare treat to be treasured – on screen, everyone has to be wearing something, but there are great swathes of literature that never mention so much as a sock. And even when authors are more generous with their detail, we’re generally always left to fill in a few of the blanks ourselves. I’ll never know exactly what Meg March’s ill-fated high-heeled slippers looked like, but I know that every time I’ve worn crippling heels to a party and ended up barefoot in a kebab shop, I’ve had that remark from Little Women echoing round my head: “Dear me, let us be elegant or die!”
When I asked friends and followers this week for their own literary style cravings, the answers ran the gamut from Miss Havisham (“Fuck that second shoe!”) to Arthur Dent’s dressing gown (the only style inspo a freelancer needs), via a dandyish spread of Willy Wonka’s velvet cords, Cruella de Vil’s fur-trimmed ankle boots and the vast rustling skirts of numerous Hardy heroines. It turns out the 1930s were an especially ripe decade for all this – you only have to mention I Capture The Castle to send a certain breed of style fancier gooey-eyed over Rose’s wardrobe, green dye and all. Likewise Love In A Cold Climate, with Polly’s silver lamé dress that “smells like a bird cage when it gets hot”, Vile Bodies’ Agatha Runcible in her scandalous trousers, or Cold Comfort Farm’s flowery Elfine, who spends all day wafting about on the hills. Luckily for would-be wafters, the shops are full of Elfine dresses just now.
But the most popular shout in my unofficial survey is Eva Rice’s The Lost Art Of Keeping Secrets – one of my own most beloved books, not least because Rice treats clothes (and food) with the same giddy reverence as the romantic action itself. “Writing great clothes on to a fictional girl is like righting every crap sartorial decision I've made in the real world,” she tells me. And it works both ways: when protagonist Penelope gets given the perfect dress by a mystery benefactor, it’s a perfect air-punch of redemption for every single one of us who has ever walked into a party in an outfit that felt screamingly wrong.
Unlike real-life fashion icons, who might cock up their track record on a red carpet any minute now, great fictional style transcend trends and stays immortal. It proves that clothes have a narrative power in life – to communicate a mood, crystallise a moment, or make the whole room stop and gawp. Because, every now and again, we all need an outfit that does more than just look appropriate. We want an outfit that feels like a plot twist.
The literary style edit
Pauline Fossil's dress
Rose from I Capture The Castle's cardigan
Katie Morag's kilt
Willy Wonka's Cords
Cruella De Vil's boots