Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The Tale of a Marvellous Velvet Suit

I’ve always loved velvet. The last seven years of blog posts can attest to that. It’s one of my most consistent fabrics: forget-me-not blue velvet capes, bottle green velvet coats, plum velvet blazers, khaki velvet heels, navy velvet boots, deep turquoise velvet skirts, raspberry velvet waistcoats, and plenty of black velvet trousers, dresses and jackets. You name the garment, I’ve probably got it in velvet (sometimes in multiple permutations – I am the girl, after all, who rather obscenely owns four – four! – different blue velvet jackets). I’m always on velvet high alert: picking it out in charity shops, always ready to discern between the cheaper, nasty stuff, and that properly heavy, thick texture.

Recently, I went a step further, buying a whole velvet suit. Highly unusually for me, it was from Marks & Spencer. In a rather uncharacteristic turn of events, having spent a good half hour eyeing up all the satin bras and beautiful knickers (honest to god, the M&S underwear department is one of the most consistently soothing places on earth), I spotted the suit being sported on a mannequin. It was delicious. It was gorgeous. I wanted it to be mine. Half an hour later and I walked out with heavy bags and a much lighter wallet than planned.

It was worth it. Since that point I’ve hung out in it, danced in it – that swoosh of fabric adding extra rhythm to my hips – and sported it at events. I feel different whenever it gets pulled on: bolder, more assertive, more decisive, more glamorous, fully inhabiting my limbs. Like the best garments, it bestows a sense of both possibility and capability.

Angela Carter writes in ‘Notes For a Theory of Sixties Style’ that: “Velvet is back, skin anti-skin, mimic nakedness. Like leather and suede, only more subtly, velvet simulates the flesh it conceals, a profoundly tactile fabric.” I adore this essay, but I’m not sure if I’m entirely with her. Instead I wonder if it part simulates, part embellishes. Unlike silk, there’s less mimicry here – more a suggestion of something jeweled, something that, yes, does invite tactile appreciation, but also hides and clings to what lies beneath.

Anyway, velvet is most certainly back again. It’s all over the internet, the catwalk, and the high street  – people praising it left, right and, well, everywhere else too. This is unsurprising. Depending on the shape it takes, it has the capacity to be sexy, playful or deliciously understated. It’s also a fabric which manages that neat hat-trick of feeling good, looking good, and tapping into a particularly enticing set of cultural images.

Velvet is dusty red stage curtains. It’s green sofas at antiques markets. It’s the Christmas dress you wore when you were five. It’s Prince strutting his way around the stage. It’s vamps, harlots and femme fatales who know just how fabulous they look. It’s every person who ever felt suave in a plush black suit. It’s sixties minis, seventies maxi-skirts and Laura Ashley dresses at their finest. It’s stage costumes and cocktail parties. It’s Halloween high drama with lace aplenty. It’s medieval style sleeves, and perfectly cut trousers, and Pre-Raphaelites. It’s princesses, knaves, witches.

Of course, us commoners have only been allowed to wear the stuff in all its tremendous permutations for the last few centuries. Pre 1604, sumptuary law enacted plenty of weird and wonderful restrictions on who was allowed to wear what. Velvet, silk and “spangles” on sleeves and linings were for the upper echelons only (you can read the exhaustive list of rules here). Clothes were literal embodiments of power. They were coded messages – visibly marking rank and status. And the more luxurious the fabric, the fewer the numbers of people allowed to go about their day in it.  

Well, no such issue there now. We can all revel in velvet. And it seems that plenty are. I’ve chatted to several friends recently who’ve been enthusing about all things crushed, brushed and luxuriously textured. One had bought a red velvet suit. Another a gold velvet dress. And me? Am I happy with just possessing this navy suit? Yes. Mostly. I think. Though there is a small, illogical, wholly ridiculous part of me that wants it in green too.

I enjoyed giving the suit the full Rosalind treatment: an item not being truly mine, it seems, until it’s been worn somewhere entirely out of context. When I bought it, I didn’t expect to be trying to leap onto hay-bales without scuffing all that navy goodness. But there we go. A gal’s gotta do what a gal’s gotta do. Here I styled it with second hand brogues, the Aspinal feather print box bag of dreams, a perfectly colour matched vest, and lashings of Revlon berry lipstick.
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