Adolescence may well be a transitional phase for both body and mind, but there’s also a uniquely sartorial chameleon element to this odd interlude between childhood and adulthood that is crucial to finding who you are; it’s as though you need to sample a series of brands on the shelves of the cultural supermarket before you eventually find the one that fits, the one you’ll most probably stick with for the rest of your life (most usually pick their favourite at some point of their 20s). Of course, some remain admirably restless and resist ‘settling down’ with the same pair of trousers, whereas others – from the geriatric biker to the retired stockbroker – located their comfort zone forty or fifty years ago and have stayed there.
As a teenager, the swift shift from one social group to another – gravitating towards those with shared interests and passions – is marked by the taking-on of each new clique’s appearance with unconscious ease. It’s very much a natural adolescent habit for teenagers to instinctively tailor their look to match the crowd they’re with; and for all the adolescent claims of ‘individuality’, the pack mentality inculcated in the playground creates a craving for like-minds and the desire for a tribe to belong to outside of the school gates. It also helps if the new hair colour or item of clothing that earns membership of said crowd meets with parental disapproval; all part of the necessary severance of the apron strings, even if the economic climate of this particular century means the ever-changing wardrobe is usually funded by the Bank of Mum & Dad.
Looking back, I think I wore around half-a-dozen completely contrasting hairstyles (of various lengths and colour) between the ages of 13 and 23, all of them usually prompted by falling in love with a band or youth subculture; unfortunately, my own personal experience was of a constant failure to find anyone else who shared a love of whatever prompted the annual visual regeneration, but most are lucky and locate a ‘set’. Even so, I do recall certain acquaintances I had in the 80s who I’d bump into maybe once or twice a year, and every time I saw them they’d changed radically from our previous encounter just a few months before. That doesn’t really happen at any other time of life.
It goes without saying that the longer you live, the lengthier can become the gaps between bumping into acquaintances; and if there has been a radical change in their appearance when your paths cross again, it’s usually not one they’ve chosen (unlike during adolescence). Once you reach your 40s – or 50s – the main differences you notice when reuniting with people you knew 20 or 30 years before are the wrinkles, the waistline and the grey hairs (if there’s any hair left). Perhaps one reason why some recall their teenage years with fondness is that it was the one time of their lives when they felt in control of their destinies, a time when they had yet to succumb to hopeless defeatism via the demands of the workplace, they hadn’t been worn-out and wearied by children, and they remained a long way from being at the mercy of the aches and pains that accumulate with the passing decades.
Nonetheless, such chameleon traits are not the exclusive province of adolescents. Some continue to utilise this ability to blend into their constantly changing surroundings when it comes to relationships, so that each new partner has a different version of the same person that their predecessor had. Sensing the kind of man, woman or non-binary individual one’s latest other half is subconsciously searching for can result in a subtle alteration from what the previous partner required. We often notice it in the recently-divorced when arm-in-arm with their post-‘decree absolute’ lover, looking distinctly different from the way they dressed when alongside their ex. A change of image can therefore result in both partners visually complementing one another for the duration of their relationship, settling into items of clothing they’d never before worn or expressed a preference for. Not necessarily ‘they look just like two gurus in drag’, but John & Yoko understood – as indeed did the first wife in the Lennon marital bed; Cynthia admitted adopting a ‘peroxide Parisian’ look in the early days of her relationship with John mainly because she was aware of his lustful yearnings for Brigitte Bardot.
This strange way in which lovers or spouses can suppress their own identities in order to keep their other half happy was brought home to me when I was researching my book about a dear departed friend name of Alison (veteran readers may recall the story). Her son told me of a point in the 1990s when she’d hooked-up with a bit of a flash twat who lived somewhere in the Little Venice neighbourhood of London; he noticed his mother seemed to be adopting this guy’s taste for material goods in a way that had never been a hallmark of her personality before. He recalled her sudden interest in ‘designer gear’ with both bemusement and amusement, for it appeared so out of character with the woman he knew.
Alison’s experience makes me aware that – if they’re not careful – some risk being solely defined by their other half, as if they were unwittingly conditioned into sacrificing personal development in favour of constant companionship from too young an age, forever refashioning themselves to suit whoever they happened to be with. Should their voluntary role as an appendage come to an end, perhaps the fear of trying to survive without that clear definition – and being suddenly confronted by the unnerving absence of a personal identity outside of a relationship – propels them straight into ill-advised dalliances with unsuitable successors. Alison was a parent too, another factor by which women in particular can be exclusively defined in denial of who they might actually be. The Alison I knew seemed to be very much her own person, but she had lived alone for a number of years by this stage, so that might have helped her become the unique and original individual I remember. Anyway, I digress once again.
As I was saying, the cliché of time moving at a slower speed when younger could probably account for the breathless pace of the constant changes of image and tastes that can characterise adolescence; so much is crammed into a relatively short space that the memory tends to recall months as years and years as decades. I know from my own experience how the period from around 1983 up to roundabout 1993 (which retrospectively feels like a quarter-of-a-century) saw so many alterations in appearance that it’s just as well I never had a passport. Chances are I’d have confused more than one customs official when switching his gaze from photo to person.
At about 40, I felt as if I’d found the character I’d been putting together for 25 years, albeit one who remains a work-in-progress; there’s always room for improvement, though I have my sartorial side sorted now. If Fenella Fielding had managed to persuade Peter Wyngarde to have a crack at batting for the other side just for one night of passion, I’d probably have been the product of that fantastically louche liaison. Who says dreams die when you turn 21?
© The Editor