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Dressing the part

'Come to dinner,' Elizabeth said, 'I want you and Jean to meet each other.'

To be fair, I have to point out that it was hellish hot that evening; also, that it was not a dressy affair. I forget what I wore; probably cotton pants and a tunic. Elizabeth was in a summer dress. Jean, however, reclined on the sofa, the full length of one naked leg protruding from the chiffon sarong that she had roughly draped around a leopard-print swimsuit. Age is just a number, but in case you have centre-fold images in mind, let me add that Jean is over 70 and that her once-impressive legs are not quite what they were.

'Have you been swimming?' I asked, before I could stop myself.

'No,' she replied. 'I had a shower and put on something clean. This was cool.'

It certainly was.

Half an hour into the dinner party, it was of no concern to anyone – least of all Jean – that she was sitting at the table in her cozzie. Because she was comfortable, so were we.

How exhausting to have to stress about clothes. Wear whatever you like, whatever suits your shape, personality and budget. Wear what lifts your spirits when you put it on, what you can move in, what feels good against your skin. Decide what works for you and stick to it, like the marvellously eccentric man in my neighbourhood whose voluminous outfits (hat included) are made entirely from shweshwe. He barrels along on his bicycle, a colourful tumble weed at one with his world. I love his style and I love his larger-than-life attitude.

I have friends who sew their own clothes; friends who shop at second-hand stores and others, like Laura, who spend on big labels. Some only wear black; some rotate a couple of favourite outfits for the whole season. As long as they are clean and decent, who cares? Throw off the shackles, I say, and do as you please.

'Nice top,' Laura said one day, fingering my soft cotton blouse. 'Where did you get it?'

'Chic Mamas.'

Laura frowned. 'How come I don't know it?'

'It's a great second-hand shop. Good quality garments and all proceeds go to charity.'


Laura doesn't do second hand. She doesn't even do shops with a 'worth' in their name, except in a pinch. She buys her clothes from boutique stores with girls' names: Jemima's, Samantha's, Tiffany's, Lucille's … I'm making those up because I've never actually been into such shops in case I faint when I look at the price tags.

'I don't understand how you can wear other people's clothes,' Laura sniffed.

'Laura, they are washed, and most are hardly worn. Women bring in impulse buys that didn't work; things that don't fit any more but that might be perfect on someone else.'

'Hmm. I suppose it would be okay if I knew the people. I mean, at least you'd be sure that they weren't dead people's clothes!'

Laura has a way to go before she's comfortable with the idea. My theory is that being an only child plays a big part in her reluctance. She's accustomed to having everything new, whereas I, being the second daughter, had my sister's hand-me-downs. My mother would change a hemline, turn a collar and, hey presto, a dress had another innings. She taught me to get mileage out of my clothes. I like something new (hardly surprising) but I also like the challenge of reinventing something old.

Although I'd never go out in leopard print beach wear, I do fantasise about something dramatic in purple. Perhaps the shweshwe man has a seamstress who can oblige. I shall have a party, and invite Jean. We'll drink champagne and laugh at the silliness of life.


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