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Stop trying to find the perfect, snark-proof work clothes

I’ve recently changed jobs and now work in quite a style-conscious office. Is there a failsafe office outfit I can wear to work that will get me cred from all my colleagues and no snarky comments?

Allison, by email

Ahh, Alison, welcome to my world. I don’t actually work in a particularly style-conscious office – obviously everyone at the Guardian wears hairshirts and trousers woven out of organic quinoa – but the desire to find the one perfect outfit that will always work is one I know well. It’s this fantasy, this fashion Brigadoon, that drives us ever onwards, as we (I) plough more money into our (my) wardrobes than we (I) have spent on our (my) home. Every time I buy something, I fantasise that this, this great pair of black trousers from Zara with a white racing stripe down the side, will be the one that makes getting dressed in the morning effortless and makes me effortlessly chic. And I believe this throughout the bus ride home, when I hang them up in my wardrobe and admire them on the hanger – only then to wear them precisely twice in a year, and whine every morning that I have nothing to wear.

But your search for this mythical fashion oasis has an extra element to it, an element of misunderstanding, and it’s a notably popular misunderstanding. You say that you want an outfit that will get approbation from “all” your fashion-conscious colleagues. There is a common misunderstanding that there is some sort of universal consensus among fashion people about which clothes are Good and which clothes are Bad. When I used to review the fashion shows for this paper, I was always amused by people who would complain vociferously that my verdict on a show was “wrong”, and what proved it was “wrong” was that another journalist had liked it and therefore I had failed the fashion exam (needless to say, the people who tended to issue these complaints were mainly fashion PRs.)

I know it may seem like there are hard fashion rules – Céline: good! Whatever was last season’s trend: bad! – but it really isn’t like that. It is all pure subjectivity. Sorry for showing you that the great and powerful Oz is just a grumpy fashion hack behind the curtain. As the weirdly brilliant TV show Fashion Police – hosted by the late, great Joan Rivers, who, along with various randoms, passed judgment on clothes worn by celebrities that week – demonstrated, people have different takes on clothes. Just because Kelly Osbourne liked Angelina Jolie’s dress didn’t mean Joan did (and she usually didn’t). And for the record, I find Céline kind of boring.

But who can blame you, Allison, for looking for that one thing that you can wear that will escape all blame? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to wear that one thing, eat that one food, live that one way, that will be decreed acceptable by all and not actually be pig ugly/potentially carcinogenic/immoral. In a world of ever-changing uncertainties, where Sterling Archer can be a spy in one season of his eponymous FX cartoon series and a cocaine baron in the next, can’t there be at least one steady raft that we can cling to and know we will be safe from the buffering waves of change and snark? But no, I fear, there is not, because people love to criticise and carp, and if there’s one thing they especially love to criticise, it’s women, and there is nothing a woman can do to stop this. If a woman is single she should be married; if she’s married she should have a child; if she has one child she should have a second, and so on and so forth ad finifreakingitum.

I was forcefully reminded of this at the weekend when my attention was drawn to an article in the Daily Mail that was the meanest thing I have ever read there (a very, very crowded field). The article, written by one Geoffrey Levy, who also claimed that Ed Miliband’s father “hated Britain”, was about a British actress and what Levy described as her “train-wreck love life”. I was intrigued by this claim because this woman, as it happens, is in a seemingly very happy relationship and about to give birth to the couple’s second child. Surely this is the epitome of what the Mail wants for all women, no? But no, you see: this woman’s personal life is “disastrous” because she didn’t marry the boyfriend she had when she was 18, she later didn’t marry another boyfriend, and now she’s happily shacked up with a man to whom she is not married. All of this, according to the truly delightful sounding Mr Levy, proves this young woman is “unwanted”.

Anyway, the point is, there will always be people out there who criticise. All that really matters is that you are happy with your choices, so stop worrying about the reaction of others. Instead of making it a source of stress, Allison, enjoy that you work in a style-conscious office and wear your favourite things to work. And most of all, stick two fingers up at the Daily flipping Mail.

Post your questions to Hadley Freeman, Ask Hadley, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Email ask.hadley@theguardian.com.

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