Fiona McCade: Dress sense from Audrey to tawdry

Julia Roberts' 'working girl' outfit in Pretty Woman now looks so tame. Picture: Getty
Julia Roberts' 'working girl' outfit in Pretty Woman now looks so tame. Picture: Getty
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Young women aiming to look hot should try wearing more clothes, rather than aping sex workers, writes Fiona McCade

TWENTY-four years ago, Julia Roberts starred as a prostitute in the film Pretty Woman. She was certainly pretty, but she wasn’t particularly tarty. The one concession to life on the streets was the outfit she wore at the beginning. Thigh-high, black plastic boots, and a blue-and-white dress with cut-out sides.

Circa 1990, that was just about the sluttiest ensemble Touchstone Pictures could imagine a Hollywood Boulevard hooker squeezing herself into. If only they could have seen almost a quarter of a century into the future, to what some ordinary British lasses would be wearing – or not entirely wearing – on an average Saturday night out.

These days, it’s not necessarily desirable to be pretty. “Hot” is what girls want to be, and to achieve hotness, many of our young women are following the sort of style that would give working girls a bad name. The question is, why?

Barbara Hulanicki, founder of and now consultant for the fashion label Biba, which has been taken over by House of Fraser, believes that many celebrities are guilty of severe sartorial tackiness.

“There’s no mystery,” she shudders. “Talk about cleavages. It’s like porn – over the top.”

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I think she’s right. Some of the outfits you see on the red carpet really wouldn’t look out of place in a tolerance zone, but this is where many women get their fashion inspiration, so is it any wonder that what appears on Miley Cyrus one week can often be found, not so very long after, staggering around the West End of any major city, drenched in slammed tequila. As the likes of Rihanna try ever more desperately to stay on the front pages by wearing less and less tasteful attire – or just less and less – the girl-in-the-street can’t help but notice that dressing like girls-on-the-street can be a good way to get attention. It works for the famous, so why not for her?

Meanwhile, the high street retailers are copying the sort of seedy stuff the so-called stars are wearing. Sooner or later, the two get together, and young women who have such huge potential to look lovely are staggering around in the trampiest trappings anybody could imagine.

Hulanicki yearns for mystery, but that’s not going to make a return as long as anybody’s trying to look like Kim Kardashian. Short sells; revealing sells. The old rule about showing off either your legs or your chest – but not both at the same time – has completely disappeared. Now you have to show everything, or you’re just not trying.

Women like Audrey Hepburn are still applauded and admired for their elegance and glamour, but we’re drifting further and further from that gold-standard of sophistication.

I think I first realised how far some of us were straying from the path of classiness when I went to a winter funeral a couple of years ago. One woman, probably in her mid-thirties and so extremely well-built that a bit of slimming black would not have gone amiss, turned up in what I can only describe as funeral fancy dress. She teamed a light grey, crotch-skimming, strapless dress with shiny tights and cream-coloured, chunky-heeled stilettos. The ensemble was topped off with an attempt at propriety – a shawl – but it was excruciatingly obvious that the poor lass obviously had no idea what to wear, so she’d come as a footballer’s wife. Perhaps for the first time in her life, she’d been called upon to dress tastefully, but she’d had no role models to follow; no arbiter of good taste to emulate. She was utterly lost, and the result was much more Aintree than Audrey.

The problem is that a lot of women’s fashion is now over-sexualised, but we just haven’t noticed quickly enough to prevent it happening.

Unfortunately, the genie is now well and truly out of the bottle and every now and again, even in the most upstanding of retail establishments, you can find something so unexpectedly trashy, so gobsmackingly sleazy, you wonder if you’ve accidentally stumbled into some sort of weird, Ethel Austin/Ann Summers crossover universe.

For example, take the kind of hideous, chunky-heeled stilettos that the woman at the funeral was clumping about in. They are just fetish footwear that has filtered into the mainstream. Lots of young women buy them in the mistaken belief that they will make them look sexy, when in fact all the shoes will do is make them look like Leigh Bowery on Katie Price’s hen night.

Not all of us are looking to be Scotland’s answer to Lady Gaga. Sometimes, all we want to do is buy a nice pair of heels, but we’re forever being swerved towards someone else’s idea of style.

In this case, the “someone else” is the sort of insecure celebrity who feels they have to show as much of themselves as they can, to provoke the greatest possible reaction.

I don’t believe that what is in the shops is necessarily what ordinary, well-adjusted women want to wear. Some of us buy it simply because it’s there; because we haven’t the experience, or the imagination, to reject it.

A few needy women in the public eye, who don’t mind objectifying themselves in the pursuit of fame and money, are managing to persuade many young and impressionable women that less dignity and less class equals more recognition. They don’t seem to realise that baring all is old news. It’s already been done far too much to have any sort of continuing impact. There’s not much more that Rihanna can take off to make us sit up and take notice. If she went completely naked, most people would just wonder what took her so long. As things stand, the most outrageous, internet-crashing stunt she could pull would be to actually wear sleeves.

Someone should tell her that, sometimes, you can get more attention by looking like a pretty woman than by looking like a loose woman.

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