A dress for best

The dress for best. Photo: Hakan Oktay
The dress for best. Photo: Hakan Oktay
At work, I am surrounded by beautiful young things who care about fashion, and style. I work alongside them feeling slightly dishevelled, but wearing a lot of make-up in order to balance things out, writes Kate Oktay.

Kate Oktay
Kate Oktay
I can’t even tell what decade people are supposed to be wearing. I think I can probably pick out the ’60s, but that’s about it. I thought I used to be able to know what the ’80s was, but a lot of the time that’s what it looks like students are wearing, and they can’t all be on their way to a themed party can they?

This isn’t the only office where I have been the sole person who has no idea of style while surrounded by colleagues who were impossibly glamorous. In fact, it is somewhat of an overarching career theme. Women who built walk-in wardrobes around rows of beautiful shoes and who dressed in Italian labels. I remember one saying with a slight sneer, "Oh that’s a nice dress. Have I seen that before?"

"Of course you’ve seen it before," I replied, undaunted. "It’s my going-out dress. You’ll be seeing a lot more of it in the next few months, too."

We had to go to a black-tie event late last year for work and I showed my colleagues pictures of what I was going to wear. Even my going-out dress was not going to be good enough, so I borrowed the stretchier items from a better-dressed friend.

"No," they told me. "They are work dresses, you absolutely can’t wear them."

So, two of them (men, I might add) took me shopping where I spent more than I have spent on my entire wardrobe in the past three years on one dress, (this, to be honest, is more of a reflection on how little I shop, rather than the price of the dress). I showed another colleague as I walked into work. "I got a dress!" I said, triumphantly holding it aloft to her (note, her, a woman). She looked at me quizzically and said, "Or it could be a coat, too?"

"Hmm," I said, in a very on-brand moment of not picking up on other people’s politeness and subtle cues because I don’t bother with either myself. "I’ll get more wear out of it, I s’pose."

I got home, did my hair with a thousand bobbie pins, layered on more make-up and ran, late as usual, down the steps. But, as I took the last step on to the path below, I happened to look down.

"Well," I thought. "I am pretty sure that’s not supposed to be visible."

It turned out the last button of my dress was situated just below my navel. Absolutely fine if you were standing dead still in a shop shouting to your colleagues, "I don’t care, just choose one, yes or no?" Absolutely not fine if you needed to walk. Or sit down. Or fidget on uncomfortably high heels.

No time to put on anything else, I shoved a safety pin on the bottom and spent the evening drinking as much as I could, telling strangers I was wearing a coat, and laughing like a drain.

Anyway, now, because, I don’t know, karma, Otago Museum is putting on a fashion exhibition. And I have been reading about fashion, writing about fashion, and, uncomfortably, meeting style icons and pretending I know even the teensiest bit about fashion. I can’t even count the times I have worn my going-out dress.

It started with rolling my eyes on my way to meetings. God, who cares whether your pants match your shoes, the big question I ask of my clothing before I put it on is, "Are you cleanish?" But then I read Ben Barry’s introductory essay to the exhibition, and I started to get it. Fashion, like art, is a way of having a bigger conversation. It is a way of breaking dull convention and getting into an argument with those who embrace stifling traditions, both things that I very much like doing. And then I realised these women, designers and fashionistas, were all as cool as [anything]. These were women who were 10 years older than me, and 20 years older than me, and 35 years older than me who were all exactly what I wanted to be when I grow up. Vivacious, sucking the marrow of life, and being fairly terrifying in the process.

And the more I talked to them, the more I realised that we shared common values. Buying 15 new dresses that you will never wear because they are on sale on the internet and are probably made by children in Bangladesh is unspeakably dumb. Buying something beautiful and thoughtfully made from a local maker, or finding a vintage woollen jacket and remaking it into something lovely is adding to the beauty in the world.

Fashion is a way of shouting to the world who you are without having to say a word. It is just unfortunate that who I am is both unkempt and lazy.

 - Kate Oktay

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