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An occupational hazard of writing this column is that people think I can answer all their questions about clothes. The latest was posed by a male friend who has two daughters in their late teens. “If they were boys,” he said, “I’d take them to buy their first proper suits. But what is the equivalent for girls?” It’s a good question, if a first-world one, for anyone interested in how we dress.
What can you give a girl today as a welcome to adulthood that will last a long while, preferably a lifetime? Or, to put it another way, what in the fast-churning world of fashion qualifies as a true classic?
I assumed that my friend was trying to replicate a rite-of-passage visit he’d made with his father to a tailor, perhaps on Savile Row, where measurements were taken and the question broached, “Which side does Sir dress?” (How do you even know that? Is it a choice, or something you’re born with, like being left-handed?) But I was wrong. His father had never taken him shopping. This was simply the idea of a loving, if mildly exasperated, father of girls, a man who’d spent too long feeling “100% redundant in Topshop”, watching his daughters buy clothes “that make them look identical and which last about 20 minutes”. He wanted to give their wardrobes a coming-of-age present, which is a nice thought.
Jewellery would have been the answer—diamonds and pearls don’t date—but it dodged the question, so I disqualified it. Here we were looking for something made of fabric; something animal or vegetable, not mineral. I also disqualified handbags, as not being something you actually wear on your body, and any form of plastic surgery—for all the obvious reasons, but mainly because parents love their children as they are. Ditto tattoos. And I resisted the temptation to ask the girls what they might like, as this was a trans-generational present, chosen by an adult with the supposed benefit of hindsight.
My first thought was a suit, because that’s what you’d get a boy. Indeed my friend e-mailed to say that he was thinking of “something fairly classic. Everyday, but very smart. Like a channel suit?”, by which I think he meant not a neoprene onesie for swimming to France, but a signature tweedy number from Chanel. This would set him back several thousand pounds, and although Chanel suits are always referred to as classics, they are not immune to the tides of change. Shoulders may be bigger or smaller, the fit of the jacket boxy or close, the gilt buttons and ribbon trim more or less obvious. If I was 19, I’d probably love one—but I wouldn’t bet it would still be in use 20 years on.
A suit threw up the same difficulties as my next idea, a little black dress, because both need to fit properly. Although girls in their late teens have probably stopped growing vertically, their shape and weight may still alter. So anything close-fitting would be doubly risky: it demands that both fashion and figure stand still. And even if the girl doesn’t change weight, which dress will endure? “Timeless” is one of the most over-used words in fashion journalism: translated, it just means “worth spending more on”. When I was a student, my mother gave me some birthday money to have an evening dress made. I chose black taffeta, which seemed a timeless option, but fabrics soon moved on. Worse, it was the era of the Princess Diana wedding dress, when the meringue look seemed desirable, and soon my dress’s flounces—modest as they were—looked passé.
And so to outerwear. That was getting warmer, in both senses. Biker jackets are always touted as classics, what about one of those? Not smart enough, I decided, and a bit too down-with-the-kids to be entirely dignified for the giver. Disqualified. But a coat—unless obesity strikes, it’s harder to outgrow a coat than a dress. Not so long ago a fur coat was a common coming-of-age present, but then it’s also less than a century since women had their teeth ripped out and replaced with dentures for their 21st birthdays—a thought that makes you weak-kneed with gratitude for modern dentistry.
When I considered the shapes that really don’t change, all that came to mind at first was a dressing gown, which is too redolent of the boudoir to make a wholesome present for a daughter. And then it struck me: a trench coat! A just-above-the-knee, neutral-coloured, belted raincoat, as simply cut and gimmick-free as possible, to escape the ticking of the clock. Of all the so-called classic items of clothing, this seems to be the one that varies least.
Yes, I know it’s rather prosaic, as well as weather-obsessedly British, but I reckon that if I’d been given a good-quality trench coat from, say, Burberry or Aquascutum when I was 20, I might well still be wearing it today. It should just be smart enough to tick the box for my friend, and in northern Europe at least it surely qualifies as “everyday”. What’s more, with the changing climate, there’s a good chance that one day it will seem not only a timeless present, but a positively prescient one.