I was sitting on my grandmother’s bed one morning, watching her get ready to go into town on the bus to buy meat for our Sunday roast. She was looking in the mirror, her mouth in an “O” shape, applying fuchsia lipstick by Boots No7, then powdering her nose with Max Factor Crème Puff and smoothing her wavy set with a cheap plastic comb. Still only four and yet to discover the joys of make-up, I wondered why we were going to all this trouble for a butcher in a blood-stained apron, and asked her why she wore this stuff. She said, “Because now I’ve got my make-up on, we’re ready to go on an adventure.”
This, I now realise, was a huge moment in my life in many ways – not least because it sparked my deep and enduring love for getting ready. At this time of year, magazines are full of party features, each focusing on where to go, what to eat and drink without gaining weight, how to behave without feeling Morning After remorse. But, for me, the preparatory rituals of a rare night out (who is invited to this many Christmas parties anyway? I attend two, max) are at least as important as the main event. No sooner is a date inked in the diary than I’m mentally sticking on falsies and backcombing furiously. Doing my hair and make-up, and choosing a dress (by checking my friend Lauren isn’t wearing the same one) and killer shoes to go with it, are the anticipation-raising pleasures that contribute hugely to my enjoyment of a rare evening on the tiles. Frankly, I’m disappointed to have to go out at the end of it.
Maybe the reason I so enjoy getting ready is that it seems a fantastically indulgent use of my time when, in normal life, I barely have any. It’s an hour or two spent entirely on myself, when I can languish in a bubble bath without caring what my kids are doing on the other side of the locked door, or painstakingly paint my face instead of shakily dusting it on between East Croydon and London Victoria. Getting-ready time is mine – it’s an act of self-care, a chance to experiment and have fun with my appearance. I socialise so infrequently that I want every engagement to count, and wring out every last drop of ceremony.
The air is still thick with scent fumes; Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross – now via Spotify, not C90 cassettes taped off the radio – still fail to drown out the hysterical laughter
Likewise, I love to imagine my mates getting ready to see me, just as I’m needlessly shaving my legs for them. Because contrary to what so many people seem to imagine, I don’t get glammed up to attract men (frankly, no one sees me look worse than my boyfriend does) – I do it primarily for my girls. While I love having mates who’ll come round on a Monday night to watch First Dates in ponytails and old pyjamas, nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing a gaggle of my favourite women, all looking amazing in their respective styles, like the Spice Girls with matured taste and better straighteners. Looking great puts a spring in our step, lets one another know that tonight’s gathering is a special moment and we all mean to do it right. Cocktails taste better with three coats of lipstick; filthy jokes sound funnier with earrings the size of a Ford Mondeo. Great shoes make me walk taller, literally and metaphorically. A good outfit and lashings of slap are like extra party guests that bring with them a greater sense of occasion.
The sooner that occasion starts, the better. The dream party preamble is spent with friends. Admittedly, the opportunities for this are scant in my dotage but, once in a while, as with my recent book launch, I can gather with girlfriends and get ready together, just as we did before school discos way back when. There are some subtle differences. Our booze is now sipped from nice glasses, not smuggled in empty Body Shop bottles. Our hair is a whole lot better, our dresses a tad longer. We wear proper coats and our bags contain Lego. But the air is still thick with scent fumes; Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross – now via Spotify, not C90 cassettes taped off the radio – still fail to drown out the hysterical laughter. Our just-painted fingers shield glasses of prosecco, not Bacardi and Coke, from falling Elnett particles. We no longer discuss fifth-form crushes, but crap jobs and relationships are taken to task and new ones are passed through our rigorous quality-control analysis. With not a single man in sight, compliments abound (“Ooh, nice shoes”; “I like your hair like that”; “Your boobs look great in that frock”) and mean so much more from people who definitely aren’t trying to nail you.
Men just don’t get it, and that suits me just fine. Because getting ready – either en masse or by satellite – remains, at least for me, the ultimate female bonding ritual, the least competitive, most enjoyable, supportive, raucous and life-affirming way to spend two (OK, maybe three) hours. And I’m quietly optimistic that, even in my eighties, I might have a girlfriend or two to come round with a bumper bottle of sherry and set my hair, ready to go on our adventure.