Graduating from smocked paisley print and Lycra leggings to a passion for Prada, YOU’s star columnist Liz Jones looks back over five decades of style highs and lows.
The first moment I knew there was something called ‘fashion’, other than just ‘clothes’, I was nine.
The year was 1967 and my mum had got me a ‘teddy bear’ loose-fitting blouson jacket, gathered at the waist. I had never worn anything off-the-peg before. Mum had always bought hanks of fabric – needlecord, heinous jumbo cord, psychedelic paisley and brown velvet – and made everything I wore on her ancient manual Singer sewing machine. Her speciality was ‘smocking’: I was ruched for the first 15 years of my life. From that day, I never looked back. I asked my mum to turn the brown velvet into hot pants. The paisley was made into a dress with a very 60s zip down the front. All my dresses were minis, teamed with pop socks.
My elder brothers and sisters became hippies, a look I never really bought into, though I did succumb to a brown afghan coat, bequeathed by my sister Sue. Today, whenever my dogs come in from the rain, the smell reminds me of evenings huddled in a bus shelter on my way to the Odeon to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Love Story and The Great Gatsby. The latter film inspired everyone in my school to change into wide, cream oxford bags the moment we got home. Mum made mine from Dad’s old cricket whites.
As I moved into my teens, weekends were spent in a purple Laura Ashley smock atop brown loon pants bought from Chelsea Girl, the epitome of high-street chic in the early 70s. didn’t discover denim until the mid-70s, when Jean Jeanius opened inside Chelmsford market. It sold Levi’s from a brown-carpeted, joss-stick-fragranced dungeon: thousands of pairs, rolled up on shelves or lolling in piles. The night I won Miss Talk of the South, a beauty pageant in Southend, I wore a denim boilersuit. It would take ages to wriggle out of to go to the loo, but it made me feel beautiful.
Levi’s from a brown-carpeted, joss-stick-fragranced dungeon: thousands of pairs, rolled up on shelves or lolling in piles. The night I won Miss Talk of the South, a beauty pageant in Southend, I wore a denim boilersuit. It would take ages to wriggle out of to go to the loo, but it made me feel beautiful.
When I moved to London in 1977, I headed straight for South Molton Street: three words familiar to me because I had also discovered Vogue. I merely stared in the window of Browns, too scared to enter, but I did venture inside Joseph Tricot, a few doors down, and made my first bona fide designer purchase: a blue cotton ‘snowflake’ sweater. It cost more than £100 and was too precious to wear, so I never did.
I had a new friend, Arabella Weir, who grew up and still lived in Camden, and was far more worldly wise than me, a mere Essex girl. She introduced me to the hairdresser opposite, Molton Brown. Thus began the double-headed hydra of my existence: fashion and grooming.
In the early 80s, I got a job on the fashion magazine Company, housed round the corner from Carnaby Street, and spent every penny I earned on clothes. I bulk-bought Lycra from Pineapple in Covent Garden – I even wore Lycra cut-off leggings and crop tops to work. And I loved my black Azzedine Alaïa jacket with lacing at the back from Browns. I have no idea how women can ever donate their clothes to the V&A: I wore that jacket until the cuffs frayed.
In the late 80s I discovered Katharine Hamnett. She had a shop on Sloane Street with a fish tank in the middle. I bought a blue parka and a cap-sleeve black T-shirt that disintegrated only a couple of years ago – boy, were her clothes made to last. I had a Hamnett giant denim shirt that I paired with Liza Bruce black leggings and brown suede jodhpur boots. I wore this ensemble to a Prince concert with a photographer I was then, still a virgin, trying to seduce. He ignored me all night and eventually went off with the model Susie Bick. It was a harsh lesson: men barely register what you wear.
So I decided to give up attempting to be catnip to men and to dress for myself. When I took on the job as editor of Marie Claire in 1999, I adopted a uniform: mannish Helmut Lang and Jil Sander trouser suits in brown, black and navy, worn with slides (back then you could only get them in New York). My first shopping trip as editor was to the posh London boutique Matches, where I bought a Helmut Lang black tuxedo in a size eight. I felt I’d arrived.
I would get huge discounts because of my job, but having to sit front row at fashion shows also meant I would fall in love with a look. A pair of cream suede Pocahontas trousers on the Alberta Ferretti catwalk, 1999. Embroidered jeans at Gucci under Tom Ford from the same year. My goodness, I wish I still had these – now worth many thousands on Ebay…
I bought into the ethos of Sex and the City – which first aired just before I landed the editor’s job – that I deserved all this stuff. With a spangled Fendi baguette or a Tod’s bucket bag or a Gucci white shirt, I felt gilded. I forget the names of men I’ve dated, stars I’ve interviewed, relatives who’ve died the names of nephews and nieces, but I can recall every single designer purchase: how much, where from and when I wore it.
A Jil Sander cashmere duster coat bought for £3,500 at Barneys in Los Angeles and worn to the Vanity Fair post-Oscars party in 2008. I remember the high-street bargains, too: the silver sequined trousers from Kookaï. The sequined minidress from Forever 21 that I wear as a skirt. But they never quite have the same gravitas: I didn’t starve in order to be able to buy them.
Fashion for me was about having the right name stitched inside a collar. For my wedding day in 2002, I wore a cream Helmut Lang trouser suit, with a spare tux handmade (£2,400) by Robinson Valentine on Kensington High Street. I wore the cream suit with £900 brown sandals with a glittery heel by Bottega Veneta, one of my all-time favourite brands. I bought a strapless cream dress by Bottega for my niece’s wedding, years ago, not realising that it needed breasts to hold it up, so because I am straight up and down it kept slipping to my waist. (I can be heard on the video mumbling, ‘How on earth does Carrie Bradshaw do it?’)
I had a daft ambition, while a fashion editor, to own a piece from every single Prada collection. It started well: a ribbon coat from the nylon collection (I wore this to a party the other day, it’s so classy it lifts even a pair of jeans or slouchy Moncler tracky bottoms); a black skirt from her all-lace collection, a skirt seemingly made of squashed milk-bottle tops; the lipstick skirt, famously worn on screen by Charlotte in SATC. Ultimately I lost my editorship, my front-row seat, my Prada discount. But I still wear a black, nipped-in skirt suit from 1998 when I want to feel corporate, as though I’m off to a board meeting in Paris again, just like the old days.
I wanted fashion to be my friend, and it was, for the most part. It gave me an identity and it gave me courage. It meant I was ‘Way In’ (a fabulous boutique in Harrods) and not left out. I remember falling in love with every garment at the 2007 Dior 60th anniversary show in Versailles, and afterwards, backstage, the thrill of seeing Gisele, one of my favourite supermodels, fresh off the catwalk. She gave me a very Brazilian ‘mwah, mwah’. I felt I belonged. Finally.
I no longer own most of these full stops and exclamation marks from my life. I wore my wedding outfit (both of them) to death – to the office, on holiday. I wish I’d kept one suit pristine. My Ashish sequins went to charity, along with my Tod’s and Mulberry bags and my YSL trouser suit. I sold an awful lot on Ebay: my Louboutins, which only gave me pain whenever I wore them. I still have all the Prada: a lover I’m finding it hard to dump. A Dries evening gown and my nude Victoria Beckham bodycon dress, which is the only garment guaranteed to snare a man. I wore it on a first date with my last boyfriend; he said the reason he asked me out again was because it showed the contour of my pubic bone. Who knew that was all a dress had to do?
I still have unrequited love affairs with fashion that I can’t have. A green Moncler parka currently taunting me with its ribbony belt and astronomical price tag. Imagine the wonderful weekends I could have in that! A black Dior trouser suit that will surely land me another editorship. A Vuitton traveller. I had one, once (it cost £1,700, but was gifted to me by the designer) and gave it to my PA. I’ve been far too generous with my possessions in the past. I realise that they define my life, my ups and downs, more than anything I’ve written, any house I’ve lived in, any man I’ve loved.
I still have the blue snowflake sweater – in a box, shrouded in tissue paper, with anti-moth sachets. It’s so pristine, it could sit in the V&A. When I bought it, I felt: ‘I’ve arrived. It will make me desirable, successful. It will be there when.’
I love this jacket with tails from Sarah Burton’s first collection after the death of Alexander McQueen. I wore it to a state dinner with President Obama at Buckingham Palace in 2011, to promote British fashion. The Manolo heels are the same style that Carrie lost at a baby shower in an episode of Sex and the City.
It’s 1967 and I’m wearing a psychedelic mini-dress my mum made, with shoes from Freeman, Hardy Willis – and pop socks.
Big in the 80s
The outsize Katharine Hamnett shirt and black Liza Bruce leggings combo I wore to a Prince concert in 1984.
This was 1978, in St James’s Park. I’d borrowed my friend Alan’s sweater and biker jacket, and a boy I fancied, Mark, was taking my photo for the Honey magazine model contest. I was rejected.
The year was 1986, the night before my sister Lyn emigrated to Australia. I’m in a Paul Smith man’s coat with red-felt lining.
This photo was taken to announce my first day as editor of Marie Claire in 1999. I am in a dark brown Jil Sander suit, which cost a fortune. I got a discount, thank the Lord. I’m also in Nike slides, which you couldn’t yet get in the UK, so a friend bought them for me in New York.
Shock of the block
London Fashion Week, 2011. Samantha Cameron had promised to revitalise British fashion, so we were invited to a party at Number 10. I’m wearing the then fashionable but now merely frightening trend that was ‘colour blocking’.
The bride wore…
It’s my wedding day, 10 October 2002, and I’m in a cream Helmut Lang tuxedo, over Hanro underwear. My Bottega Veneta glittery heels were so high I had to hang on to guests to keep upright.
My turn on Celebrity Big Brother 2014. The top, from a special Oxfam edit by William Vintage, is worn over an A/W 2008 Prada skirt, with Louboutin shoes and vintage chandelier earrings.
This is about four years old and is the only Stella McCartney garment I’ve ever bought. It cost almost £1,000, due to the embellished collar that always snags my hair. I love it, though, as it’s long in the body: most T-shirts and tops are too boxy for me.
Way to FROW
On the front row at the Mark Fast show, London Fashion Week in 2011. I’d been told by my editors at the Daily Mail I mustn’t wear black, and to embrace colour!
And she’s off!
Here I am at Ascot, in a blue coat dress by London couturier Suzannah (borrowed), and Prada shoes. The bag is by Tod’s: I’d been taken to the store on Capri with the PR, who invited me to buy ‘anything in ze shop’. This was the smallest bag I could find.
I saw this bodycon dress on the Victoria Beckham catwalk in New York in 2012 and fell in love. It cost £1,500 but is still going strong! I’m wearing it with a Rick Owens jacket and Louboutin heels.