Updated: Jul 11, 2022
I will begin with a confession: I am deeply unsettled by anyone who chooses to wear a ski jacket in St Andrews. I don’t mean those who wear their Canada Goose on suitable occasions, like when it’s raining or snowing or quite literally freezing, but those who have chosen a ski jacket to carry them through their university career.
My sincere question to the intrepid ski jacket wearers of St Andrews: why? I will concede that it does rain a lot here, but certainly not enough to warrant this crackly monstrosity. I’m certain that any of the other St Andrean cold-weather staples – the black North Face puffers, Barbour jackets, Saint Sports windbreakers – would serve you just as well. Where is your expedition headed? Why do you need so many zips? Are you aware that you (and your coat) are entirely too visible for coastal Fife?
To put it plainly, your jacket is neon in a way that provokes quite a primal reaction from me – sadly not the sexy kind, but rather the sort that makes me feel as though there is an impending natural disaster I must prepare for. While there is a decent chance this may be an overreaction on my part, I believe my point still stands: it matters what you wear.
Of course, I am suggesting nothing as untoward as the notion that everyone must dress themselves according to my tastes. But I must disabuse you of any lingering childhood fictions – likely instilled by well-meaning but harried mothers – that your outfit doesn’t matter, that you look fine, darling, let’s go, we’re already running late.
I learnt my own lesson about a decade ago, during a time when it was de rigueur for a girl at school to dress as similar to everyone else in her boarding house as she could – to look unremarkably and blandly pretty. That summer, I had followed my mother to Paris for the first time. And it had only taken one wave of impossibly stylish passers-by striding past a woefully underdressed ten-year-old me for the grand discovery: being well-dressed was absolutely essential.
Once I stopped hiding behind my mother’s glamorous skirts and started truly observing, I realised that garments could speak volumes about their wearer. They constitute a material sort of communication that operates regardless of their wearer’s wishes. When you put together an outfit that is unobtrusive, or quelle horreur, utilitarian – you are broadcasting to the world that you are, at best, average; at worst, inconsequential.
It is just as Virginia Woolf declares in Orlando: “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world's view of us.” Our clothes more often than not constitute the difference between whether someone decides you are interesting enough to talk to, or dazzling enough to kiss (the latter of which is, of course, a matter of utmost importance).
A striking velvet coat, for instance, telegraphs the twin forces of indulgence and tactile pleasures. Likewise, a pair of salmon chinos will speak very eloquently on its wearer’s character. There is what you may wear, which always has limits; and there is what you can infer by what you wear, which does not. What of ourselves is revealed in the choice of linen over satin? Of tote bag over backpack? Of Stan Smiths over Chelsea boots?
We outfit ourselves daily in a multitude of tacit declarations: of intent, of status, of belonging, of hopes, of ambitions. And in doing so, we simultaneously engage in a furtive act of secret-keeping, where our insecurities and vulnerabilities and despair are buttoned up and tightly laced closed. Though neither act is entirely within our control – our clothes constitute a language in eternal flux, and fluency is thus elusive. But as with all things in our silly little lives, we must at least try.
Thankfully, fashion in St Andrews is neither as cultivated as it is in Paris, nor are its judges as discerning – it is a gentler, more varied sort of scene, though business casual and athleisure disconcertingly tend to be the most pervasive. There exists no impetus to conform to any specific style, though I hope I have successfully conveyed the importance of dressing in a considered manner. While I, a terribly judgemental individual, might sneer at perfectly lovely athleisure gear, many others would undoubtedly welcome it.
In short, be yourself. But keep in mind that you are undeniably dressed – you are you-in-your-outfit. Do wear what you please, but choose very carefully indeed. (And let it not be a bright red ski jacket.)
Illustration: Kate Lau