Just because you don’t want to flash your ageing flesh, it doesn’t mean you don’t want to be fashionable. Retail giants take note.
Yesterday, 13 July, Marks and Spencer were taken to task by a 75-year-old widow at the company’s AGM at London’s Festival Hall. Ms Hilary Roodyn – to great support from the floor – verbally smacked the bold boys on the board of directors when she told them that M&S had, effectively, dumped and abandoned the older customer.
The over-60s, Ms Roodyn claimed, want to dress fashionably, comfortably and suitably – they do not want to be mutton dressed as lamb.
M&S were accused of pandering to the younger market with racy outfits and designs leaving the older customer out in the cold. Ms Roodyn’s friend, Helen Garfield, added that the over-60s have spending power that’s being under-exploited. ‘When we were younger’, she said, ‘we wanted to wear mini-skirts but didn’t have the money. Now we’ve got the money but we can’t spend it.’
Both women implied that the range of clothing in M&S is not age appropriate for them; that it wouldn’t be proper for women of their age to be baring bits of themselves to all and sundry. Speaking after the meeting, Ms Roodyn commented that ‘nobody’s going to have a bare midriff at our age’. I can’t make up my mind whether they consider their bodies are not fit to be seen or whether they just don’t consider it proper to be flashing the flesh, no matter how lovely or otherwise it is.
And I reckon it’s probably a bit of both. These women grew up in an era that had a very different fashion culture in a very different society. The dress code was strict and starchy and governed by modesty. Very far removed from the designer déshabillé that is the order of the day today.
Anyone who reached puberty before the 1960s – 1970s even – will know that fashion and modesty went hand in hand. Who remembers ‘Charlie’s dead’? ‘Charlie’s dead’ was a nice little euphemism girls used among themselves as a sort of secret code to let each other know that there was a bit of slip showing. A sneaky little half inch or so of white lace dipping below the hemline. If one of the sisterhood caught your eye and told you Charlie was dead, you knew exactly what the situation was. You legged it to the nearest loo and gave the offending garment a bit of a hoike. If you were lucky, it was a half slip and you could roll it up around the middle which was a quick fix but, alas, temporary. Chances were it would roll back down again and many visits to the loo and repeat hoiking were necessary.
At least, though, ‘Charlie’s dead’ had alerted you to the wayward undergarment and, whereas it was a pain to have to keep adjusting and hoiking, you were spared the embarrassment of walking around all day with your slip on show. It was, I suppose, the female equivalent of ‘flying low’ or ‘egg on your face’ which was the euphemism then for untidy male trouser flies.
Two things strike me here. First of all, I don’t know if slips even exist anymore. I couldn’t tell you when I last saw one in a shop and I don’t think I’ve personally worn one since my school uniform days (when it was an absolutely essential item given that the fabric of the gymslip was like sandpaper). They would be considered to be quite an old-fashioned item these days. Female clothing is generally of better quality now than yesteryear. Modern fabrics are more refined and comfortable and everything is lined. Slips have become somewhat redundant.
The second thing that strikes me is that, even if slips were still in vogue, ‘Charlie’s dead’ would be quite an unnecessary warning because today’s young women wouldn’t care two hoots if they had an inch or two on show. It seems to be quite the fashion statement these days for the foundation garments to be on full view. Modern trousers are deliberately designed to be low slung so that the minuscule triangle of fabric at the top of the modern thong is visible.
And you’re absolutely at nothing fashionwise these days if your bra straps aren’t showing. Better still if the outer garment is see-through and the whole bra can be shown off.
The undergarments of today are as integral to the modern look as the outer garments they complement.
I don’t think there was any euphemism for the bra strap thing. The reason being, bra straps then would never, ever show. Not even by accident. There was just no way in the wide earthly world that they could slip or slide or become wayward in any shape or fashion. Bras back then were made out of something resembling tungsten and were quite unlovely. They were big and bulky – no matter what size they were – and there was absolutely no chance that they would wander about your person. Getting them on and off was a palaver as they had millions of hooks. Particularly difficult ones were put on backways, hooked up and then swizzled and hooshed round to the back. And they were generally given their full title. They were brassieres. No nonsense, no frippery, no frilly bras. Full blown, industrial quality, formidable brassieres.
And, a bit like Henry Ford’s Model T, they came in only one colour. Unlike Henry’s black auto, though, the colour of the brassiere was white. They went a bit grey after a few washes but they were essentially white. Yes, they were available in black… but a black bra put you into Jezebel territory. Even though it was as big and bulky and unlovely as the white version, and even though nobody was going to see it, the fact that it was black said something about your morals. The very fact that you bought it. You were brazen enough to walk into a shop and buy a black bra. Definitely a Jezebel.
When flesh-toned ones came onto the market, that was a whole new level of depravity. You’d wait till you got to Dublin or somewhere else anonymous before you’d buy one of them. And you certainly wouldn’t put it in the wash for your mother to see. She’d have lifted it out with the laundry tongs and sprinkled it with holy water. She’d have burned it only that it cost good money and anyway, bra burning in that era was anarchic. And even black or flesh-toned was better than none.
But these days, anything goes. They’re padded, underwired, gel-filled, water-filled, strapless, invisible straps, backless, inflatable, cross-your-heart, push-you-up, plunge-you-down, lift and separate, squeeze you in for cleavage. They’re pink, yellow, blue, green, purple, polka dotty, have writing on them, plastic clasps, Velcro fasteners, stick on and just about anything else you can think of.
And, maybe it’s because they’ve made such startling advances that it’s a fashion imperative that they’re on show. We told each other in bygone days that Charlie was dead – our innocent slip was on show. These days, I suspect the sisterhood still tip each other the wink to signal that an underwear adjustment is required – only the modern alert is probably that there’s nothing showing. Run to the loo quick and hoike out your bra straps. Or pull your jeans down a bit for proper showing-off-the-thong purposes.
And M&S, it seems, have decided to go with the modern flow and pander to the low slung, flesh-baring, bra-showing generation. But, after the events at the AGM, they do it at their peril. No harm for them to be reminded that, just because you don’t want to flash your bits, it doesn’t mean you’re dead. You mightn’t follow modern fashion – but, like Ms Roodyn, you’ve still got style. And the grey dollar to spend on it.