My nan had two “nice” dresses – a grey-blue one for weddings and a black one for funerals. Every other event was a case of adding a brooch, fake pearls and a brighter lipstick to a day dress and feeling acceptably within the dress code. Her friends all did the same. A significant disparity in income notwithstanding, I’m not sure how her granddaughter ended up in a position where I’ve bought a beloved new dress for each of my two book launches and worn them a combined total of three times, and own more party dresses than T-shirts. I consider myself pretty sensible and yet I recently caught myself saying in all sincerity that I’d worn a star-print maxi frock “to death”, then realised this in fact translated to “three work events and a wedding” before I’d confined it to the back of the wardrobe for overexposure. I’m not a wasteful person by nature (I shop infrequently and buy heaps second-hand), nor even someone who much likes to be noticed, so how did I come to accept that occasionwear must be so ephemeral, no sooner worn as worn out, its wow factor evaporated at midnight, like Cinderella’s taffeta meringue?
Actor Tiffany Haddish is opting out. She did the unprecedented and went for the triple at this year’s Oscars by wearing a $4,000 dress for a third high-profile event. Haddish, who first wore a traditional embroidered Eritrean zuria gown, cape and headdress, in honour of her late father, on the red carpet, later changed into a white halterneck Alexander McQueen dress for the ceremony (concealing furry Ugg slippers borrowed from co-presenter Maya Rudolph, who went barefoot). The latter was arguably as significant to Haddish as the former, since she also wore it to the premiere of Girls Trip and on Saturday Night Live, when she became one of just a few women of colour to host an episode. But also, as she pointed out, because it cost a bloody fortune. After SNL she said, “I don’t give a dang about no taboo. I spent a lot of money on this dress! I’m gonna wear it multiple times!”
At a time when Kate Middleton, Fearne Cotton, Keira Knightley and Victoria Beckham are routinely called out for “recycling” their clothes (that’s “washing and wearing”, to the likes of us), and in an industry where actresses are expected to wear (albeit borrowed) dresses worth up to £20K only once on the red carpet, Haddish is absolutely right: wearing a dress to two significant occasions has become a taboo – and not only for celebrities. We may not own any four-grand frocks, but almost everyone I know, regardless of disposable income, feels a sense of obligation to fork out for a new dress – whether a Primark bargain or Net-A-Porter splurge – for a wedding, even though the average cost of attending already stands at between £300-£700, depending on which survey you believe. I know girls as young as 14 who see buying something new from ASOS as the unavoidable price of admission to a cool party and who know they’d effectively commit social suicide by wearing an existing dress to a prom (they’re a thing in Britain now, apparently). Even I saw some girlfriends two weeks ago and changed when I realised I’d worn exactly the same outfit at our last lunch, despite the fact that I am 43 and old enough to know that literally no one cares about anything beyond the next round.
Wearing a favourite dress is like meeting up with an old friend and remembering how fabulous their company makes you feel
Somehow, many women have ended up thinking we can’t confidently enjoy a special occasion without spending money on something new, as though everyone will notice either way, much less give a damn. It’s neither practical nor affordable and I’m determined to resist the temptation to play ball. It began last year, when someone impolite on Instagram asked me why I was “always wearing that stripy scarf” and I wondered crossly how winter scarves had become a one-season only deal. Then I decided there was no way I was prepared to spend a fortune on a white wedding dress I could never wear again and opted for two midi dresses – one black, one green – to wear on the big day and to as many occasions I can reasonably and comfortably get away with thereafter (I plan to take one of them to an awards ceremony in a fortnight, provided I can shift 7lb of marital bliss in time to get the zip beyond my arse). I’m dressing down party dresses with boots and chunky belts, so I can get increased day-to-day use and lower cost per wear, instead of having to wait for the increasingly rare occasion I can be bothered to leave the house after dark.
I’ve bought only two items of clothing since Christmas and I’ve pledged to acquire no more dresses until autumn at the absolute earliest. This is partly a shifting change in priorities (there comes a time in one’s life when a boiling-water Quooker tap is a more desirable luxury than a pair of posh stilettos), but mainly because I have a wardrobe full of clothes that I love and I feel more inclined to wear what I already own than I do to chase disposable trends, spend precious cash and contribute needlessly to landfill. Wearing things to death isn’t “recycling”, as the tabloids call it – it’s doing what we’re supposed to do. Besides, wearing a favourite dress is like meeting up with an old friend and remembering how fabulous their company makes you feel. It’s respecting and honouring what you have, feeling confident in your own skin and accepting that you don’t need to pay a premium to be good enough. You already are and so is your frock. Make like Tiffany Haddish and own it.