Juliet Dunlop: Women who fashion fate and fortune

Every now and then a television programme takes you by surprise. Of late we’ve grown fat, weepy and bored on a diet of cooking, singing and celebrities; tuning in has become the same thing as tuning out.

Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Then, very occasionally, something comes along that actually makes you think. Not news or drama in this case, but a gem of a documentary tucked away on Channel 4 late on a Tuesday night. It didn’t preach, prod or nag but lightly skimmed the surface, saying something important without actually saying it was important. It pulled off this subtle trick by delving into the wardrobes of six rather wonderful women who all just happened to be pensioners. They all loved clothes and were unapologetic about the fact; fashion made them feel good.

Now, there are two schools of thought about fashion: the school which thinks it mere fluff and the school which takes it very seriously indeed. If you belong to the former, clothes are things to be bought and worn out of necessity only. If you belong to the latter, they are an extension of who you are; things to long for and admire. But for all the women in Fabulous Fashionistas, fashion wasn’t just a fix, it was a means to keep going; a way to stay visible and relevant. And all the women in Sue Bourne’s film really were fabulous.

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There was 75-year-old Jean, a fan of Doc Martens who wouldn’t look out of place propping up a bar in Dalston. We discovered how she’d “reinvented” herself after she was widowed and became Gap’s oldest shop assistant. Bridget, also 75, an enthusiastic bargain hunter and charity shop expert, kept her favourite leopard print catsuit pinned to the wall. Then there was Gilly, who at 87 was still working as a choreographer and showed us her new and expensive Prada shoes: “I thought, well, sod it.” Britain’s oldest model, 85-year-old Daphne Selfe, explained how she’d been “rediscovered” – at 70 – and was now in demand because of her long, silver hair. Sue, at 73, was the baby of the bunch. An author-turned-artist who only wears her own designs, she was draped in jewellery made from dolls’ heads. And then there was Baroness Trumpington, a 91-year-old with a love of catalogue shopping who goes to the hairdressers once a week. When asked why she still bothered, “Why not?” came the sharp reply. This was the same Baroness Trumpington who gave a two-fingered salute to a fellow peer in the House of Lords a couple of years ago. Here was a woman who could give Vogue’s Anna Wintour a run for her money, had she only been planted in the front row at London Fashion Week.

But despite its tricksy title, Fabulous Fashionistas was clearly not all about fashion. It was about not wanting to disappear in a youth-obsessed, looks-obsessed world (see London Fashion Week). These were women who thought about dying and worried about illness. Shopping, choosing clothes, buying shoes, having your hair done, it was all about staying interested and feeling alive.

As I watched and I thought about what these women were saying, I was reminded of my late granny, and how she wouldn’t leave the house without a dash of red lipstick. To not take an interest in your appearance was, in her book, the same as giving up. And that is what this programme was all about – not giving up. It was also, in a way, a two-fingered salute – a Trumpington, if you like – to all those perms and print frocks that women are supposed to adopt as part of some dreary uniform when they reach a certain age. It was really a lesson in how to dress for life.

It was also a reminder that fashion isn’t always frivolous; that it can be clever and witty and life-enhancing.

These were women who really did live up to that Chanel quote: “Fashion fades, only style remains the same.” But in this case, the line for best fashion quote must go to 73-year-old Sue. As the zaniest dresser of the bunch she was full of useful advice. “Beige is the colour of death,” she warned, “Don’t wear beige. It might kill you.” In her enormous red spectacles, matching cape and clogs, no-one could accuse Sue of taking any chances.