The universal importance of clothing


By Sasha Shuttleworth


Illustration by Niamh Power

When I was growing up I used to sneak the clothes my mother had binned and hide them under my bed.

This bizarre act of love was one of many strange ways I maintained my tiny, fermenting wardrobe. For seven year old me, clothes had to be comfortable and practical. They had to smell right and feel right. At the time I was, in the words of my sister ‘completely feral’. Personal style was not high on my list of priorities (I mainly cared about animals, and stories- but mostly animals). My interest in personal style and all its personality indicators came later, spurred on by my ever growing fascination with the ways in which we communicate with one another.

Looking at people wearing the clothes that they have chosen, gives me endless enjoyment. When I meet people the first thing I do is look at their clothes. Coats first, shoes last. I check to see if their trainers are dirty (I find clean shoes disconcerting and quite funny). I don’t care very much about brands but I use them as a barometer to indicate other parts of their personality. I know that might sound bigoted but I promise it’s not. I just enjoy finding patterns in the way people dress.

The reason why I lead with coats is because they are so telling. Coats, like shoes are leading items designed to tell the world what gang we are a part of. This is especially true for men.  The easiest way to spot this is at the pub. Groups of Carhart workmen’s coats, faded barbers and denim jackets often huddle together around a single ashtray smoking Golden Virginia. Meanwhile, their clean cut counterparts sit on high chaired bar stools in a rainbow of Patagonia puffer jackets. Coats are loyal. They are expensive and hefty, we carry them around with us like flags, telling the world who we belong to.


Illustration by Adeline Schöne

Similarly, shoes are indicators of clan.

There are the classics. Creepers, docs and platforms all of whom carry associations from another time, when subcultures were set in stone and the style of your shoe was a part of an established uniform.  These days the rules have changed, fluidity is normal. We hop from trainers to stiletto’s with little trouble. It makes me smile when I see people on the bus wearing old boots with new laces. Girls on their way to school with recently re- healed brogues. All of them quietly holding on to shoes that they feel comfortable in.

I like to listen to people talking about trainers. My mate Alice knows pretty much all there is to know about them. I have seen her screw her face up at the sight of a pair of last season’s Adidas and quietly enjoy a new style of Nike. I don’t understand the rules that govern this process of shoe judgement. Personally I like to wear the same pair of shoes until the souls give out, but I am aware there are many.  Another friend and stylist I know owns so many trainers they have their own room. They sit in their allotted boxes, each a piece of a valued private collection which is rarely on public display.

But clothes aren’t just indicators of identity, or prized possessions, clothes are emotional maps.

They give us clues to how people feel about themselves, who they believe that they are. Heel height, rumples and colour choices are all clues as to the emotional state of the person standing in front of you. I believe that paying attention to the clothing habits of the people around us is one way of watching over them. Understanding a little of what might be going on in their life. The thing is that, most of us have put together a discombobulated hungover outfit, bought a new top that makes us feel like an absolute babe, worn the same jumper for two weeks because it makes us feel safe.  Subconsciously we know what these things mean because our relationship with the cloth on our backs is such a personal one.

Clothing is with us from the moment we arrive in this world, to the moment we leave it. From the beginning we use it in tandem with our emotions to both help and hinder ourselves. This intense relationship between our internal lives and the cloth around our waists manifests in a lot of funny personal habits. I have about a million strange secret clothing habits. Like, when I’m hungover I wear orange. When I’m happy I wear blue. When I have a crush on someone I tend to wear more layers which I fling off onto chairs; some weird expression of performative flirting which I don’t understand. I feel really at ease in purple, and have a deeply passionate hatred for waistcoats.

The thing is that, clothes lead. Before you open your mouth you have already said a large amount of what people will remember of you. This is partly why I find slogan t-shirts so stressful, and generally avoid wearing any item with words on because they don’t give you a chance to change your mind. Imagine trying to have a righteous cry in tesco in a t-shirt that says “little miss sunshine”. The problem is as soon as you put them on, that’s all you are saying. I remember once trying to make small talk with a guy wearing an oasis top and all I could think about was whether or not he wanted me to bring up oasis, was that the purpose of the t-shirt? Did he really like the album or the band? Both? It’s possible he meant nothing by it but that didn’t stop my ever persistent brain from chewing it over the entire time we were talking.

I am, in the eyes of the law a full grown adult now and so have more or less left my bin diving days behind me. Though, I still refuse to wear anything uncomfortable, and will hold on to t-shirts with more holes than fabric. I have grown into a passionate lover of personal style. Of course, it is important to say here, that the freedom to express ones true self through clothing is a luxury in this world and thankfully I am lucky enough that clothing brings me joy every day. There really is nothing I like more than sitting and watching people’s outfits walk past me. Seeing the confidence, a new dress can give is a privilege. Watching someone turn up to a lecture wearing the clothes of their new lover, or their best friend’s t-shirt is a performance of love. In my short 22 years of life I have lied about where my jeans are from, swapped t-shirts at a party, spent money I don’t have on leggings I don’t need.

Truly there’s not much I wouldn’t do, for the love of clothes.


Art by

niamh power and adeline schönE
Words by
sasha shuttleworth

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