By the time I was earning enough from my fish and chip shop Saturday job to head out shopping with some cash in my pocket, I already had a complex about clothes. I was painfully aware of my impulse to search for something “flattering” – something that would hide or disguise my loathed teenage body. Years of exposure to What Not To Wear makeovers and a fierce identification with Christina Ricci taping her boobs in Now And Then (like hers, mine arrived long before I was ready for them) filled me with insecurity about my body that stayed with me for decades. Having it on display just didn’t feel like an option.
And so, during teenage shopping trips, while my friends tried on teeny-tiny shorts, spaghetti-strap tops and boob tubes, I dutifully hunted out dresses that would give me a “cinched-in” waist, A-line skirts and wide-leg trousers, determinedly avoiding anything that might hug my thighs. I got hung up on the advice I heard those makeover shows doll out to women who looked like me – “Jeans are out of the question for you” – watching as they dressed the nation’s women in an endless procession of elasticated waist belts, V-neck tops, high-heeled shoes and knee-length skirts.
Over the next decade, the variety I had in my wardrobe narrowed even further. I abandoned trousers altogether and found myself with a collection of dresses to be worn belted at the waist, 60 denier black and navy tights, and very little else. It’s a wardrobe that made sense when I worked in theatre – dressing for the office every morning was relatively simple and, though I always felt slightly overdressed, I reasoned that a belt that dug into my waist after a day behind a desk, or a dress that slightly restricted movement in my arms, was worth it if I looked “my best”.
After decades of covering up as much as I could, I want my wardrobe to work for me
It was a pair of boots that saw the start of the shift. After balking at paying for yet another pair of heeled boots that would wear through in a single season of my London commute, I invested in a pair of Dr Martens. My mum saw me in them that winter and referred to them as “clodhoppers”. They don’t flatter my already short legs and large feet; Trinny and Susannah would probably have thrown them in a bin bag. But I can walk for miles in them and, three years on, still wear them every day from October to March.
The most tangible change came last spring, as I found myself staring at a photo of a woman with my body shape dressed in a bikini. She looked brilliant. I had been wearing the same black one-piece swimming costume since university – certain in the knowledge that the less of my body there was on show, the better. But it’s a swimming costume. Realistically, I’m hiding nothing but a bit of skin – no amount of ruching or panelling is going to make me thin. And so, before a trip to California, I bought a bikini for its style and flair, not its potential to flatter my shape. It shows only a couple of inches of my middle but, when I walked on to the beach in it, I felt like I was thumbing my nose at decades of trying to hide my body. I felt wonderful.
I now work as a food writer and a cook. Recently, after months of waking up every morning and getting dressed in my running gear, because it best suited what I had planned for the day ahead, I bought a pair of dungarees. They’re the antithesis of what I have always recognised to be flattering on my body – they do nothing to disguise my ample thighs and fail to highlight what waist I do have. But they flatter my lifestyle like nothing else I have ever owned. They’re ideal for the kitchen or for writing – I’m sitting in them as I type this, legs crossed comfortably underneath me on the sofa. I don’t have a belt digging into me as I bend down to pick up a pot of potatoes. Later, when I venture out in the heat to visit the supermarket, I won’t have to think about my chafing thighs or about taking a bag with me – I have an abundance of pockets for my phone, house keys and cash.
Whether I like it or not, my body is on display. I’m visible and in three dimensions. I can’t escape it or hide from it, as much as I would sometimes like to. After decades of covering up as much as I could, I want my wardrobe to work for me – to have clothes that feel functional, comfortable and appropriate for the differing scenarios I find myself in. I haven’t abandoned my cinched-in dresses. But I have supplemented them with pieces that make sense in the kitchen, when I need to walk for miles and when I want to go to the pub with my mates without looking like I’m dressed for a fancy night out. After nearly 20 years of shopping for myself, I finally have a wardrobe full of clothes that flatter my lifestyle, not just my body.
Kate’s shopping list
My “every day in winter” boots
My “clodhopper” boots are classic Dr Martens. They cut off right above my ankle and make my legs look short. They are comfortable and I can wear them every day, for 15 hours a day, and I love them.
They’re corduroy dungarees, with a bit of stretch, in bright, gorgeous colours. They’re from Lucy & Yak and I’m not sure I have worn anything quite this comfortable since I was six years old.
My body-hugging dress
I went to a fancy event earlier this year. I’d normally plump for my classic silhouette: a cinched-in waist with a wide skirt to accentuate an hourglass shape. I bought this figure-hugging dress on a whim and didn’t want to take it off.
My kitchen trousers
My lovely friend Maxine, who makes trousers for female chefs, gave me a couple of sample pairs. I put a pair on and, for the first time in five years, saw my thighs in a pair of trousers. They were fitted, right down to my ankle. And they were great – they meant that, in the kitchen, I could squat and stretch and move about.
My old polka-dot bikini is no longer available online, but when I next buy one, it’s going to be from Bravissimo – I’ve recently become enamoured with the bras, after realising that (like a huge number of women in Britain) I’ve been wearing the wrong size for years.