We’re not here to sell clothes

In Fashion magazines on May 14, 2013 at 10:32 pm


A very nice person called Claire made a very good point on comments about my recent consumerism horror post – that it was a bit ironic to see those sentiments coming from a fashion writer…

I couldn’t agree more (and she said it nicely…) and it did cross my mind when I decided to venture into such radical territory that people might think it was an odd bunch of ideas to come from a clothes pusher.

Because that is what fashion writers and fashion magazines have become. Pushers for the false highs of consumerism. Must haves! New season essentials! Buy this now! What you need for this season!–shopping-fix

But I’m from a different generation. When I started working on magazines and going to fashion shows in the early 1980s it was all very different.

For one thing, we couldn’t feature clothes from chain stores because the printing deadlines were too long and the shops just weren’t set up to provide samples in advance. Most of them didn’t even have proper press offices.

Now they all have oiled machines constantly supplying product to the magazines which have become little more than catalogues of what to go out and buy.

In my day fashion was more about ideas. Obviously the designers supplying samples to be photographed by Vogue were keen to promote their wares, but very few of the readers actually went out and bought specific items – it was more about giving hints about the kind of thing you might like to buy.

I was once sent on a mission to buy a lovely shirt a (wealthy) friend of my mum’s had seen in Harpers. I was living in London, they were in the provinces and the ideas was I’d pop over to South Molton Street and pick it up from Browns for her.

After the utter thrill of having a valid excuse to enter the high fashion emporium I revered above all others, I was bewildered to find they didn’t have any of the shirts left, not understanding that they would only ever have had about four of them in the first place.

The women who bought serious designer clothes back then had a personal relationship with the assistants in the shops they frequented and would shop at the beginning of each season. They were outfitting a life, not feeding an addiction.

The rest of us used fashion mags for inspiration. With Friday night approaching, the teenage me would sit down and analyse the latest issues of Vogue and Honey magazine (which I eventually worked on… oh joy), to choose which look I would then interpret using items from the dressing up box, the army surplus store, charity shops, my sewing machine etc.

If I wanted, for example, something resembling a pair of leggings, I would dye long johns, or go to a dance wear store. It was a creative process, not a breathless shopathon.

Later on when I started covering the serious fashion shows in Paris and Milan, as well as London, it was still always the ideas that interested me. The context of new trends in relation to current socioeconomic shifts and political events; within fashion history; and the artistic development of individual designers.

I didn’t go to look at a walking shopping list.

That’s still how I see fashion. I’m fascinated by it for those reasons most of all. Of course, I love clothes for themselves and choosing a few key pieces which will update my wardrobe when new styles come in each year is always great fun (it’s all about my necklace with fluoro details for this summer…), but it’s still the ideas – and how they can be interpreted for real life and real bodies – that interest me the most.

So I was very interested, on Monday, to see the following words on an invitation to a book launch from my old friend and colleague, stylist and fashion historian Iain R Webb: ‘We’re not here to sell clothes.’


The book (picture above taken by Mark Lewis) is about his days as fashion director of iconic Blitz magazine in the early 1980s (when I first met him) and it sounds very much like he is making the same point as I am here.

I’ll see him on Friday, at the launch, so I can ask him about it and report back.

Read more about the book and the associated events at London’s ICA here:

  1. So true. It’s hard to tell the difference between some fashion mags and magazines like “Shop Til You Drop”. 50 must-have camisoles, good grief. Some magazines even have their own online shops where you can buy the items they “showcase” (aka advertise). Home decor magazines are the same now too, buy buy buy. Even the DIY articles require several bought items to make. Oh the irony.

  2. “…I would then interpret using items from the dressing up box, the army surplus store, charity shops, my sewing machine etc.”

    I cannot express how much your post has gladdened my heart. Real fashion does not equal shopping. It is innovation, interpretation and individuality.

    Ms Alderson, you are fabulous!

  3. I totally agree… I was thinking recently about the fact that style blogs featuring one person wearing different outfits each day don’t really interest me much – I’m more interested in a story narrative that goes with fashion, something that tells of the mood in fashion at the moment… and most of those blogs just leave me wondering where they are wearing the incredible get up they’ve put on (if they actually wear it anywhere). It’s quite different from a magazine such as Vogue.
    For me, reading Vogue as a 14 year old was a creative process, as you say. My friends were the same. I’d pick an image or images that inspired me from a current look, go through my tiny existing wardrobe, look in Op Shops, make things on my Mum’s sewing machine/ borrow things from her and try to style my hair and makeup the same way. It wasn’t about shopping at all.
    I’m an avid Pinterest user, and frankly some of the Dressing Room/ Walk in Wardrobes that are featured on there sicken me. I just can’t imagine owning the amount of shoes/bags/ clothes that some of the images feature. There is no way they could wear all of it, the waste! Usually there is a breathless caption underneath like “WANT!”… especially if there are stacks of Orange Hermes boxes featured….

    • I feel exactly the same about those ME ME ME blogs, although were I 17 now I would SO SO SO be doing one! I do sometimes wonder whether I could have developed a proper critical eye for fashion if I’d been able to just buy all the new trends the way young kids can now. Even without much money you can buy so much off the peg. It was having to make do and create which sparked the creative volcano Iain R Webb is showcasing in his book about the 1980s.

  4. To an extent I feel that high fashion magazines are still about ideas. Most women I know (I am from a working class suburb…) can’t afford the big designer labels. They read them for ideas…and then buy lots and lots of the super cheap knockoffs from chain stores.
    These clothes are cheap. So cheap.
    These new clothes are even cheaper than secondhand ones.

    I supposed the advent of today’s cheap factory labour (which often borders on slavery) is not unlike the industrial revolution that left the weavers and spinners (and other such folk) in a bad way.

    However convincing the local young women that they should consider the plight of the downtrodden factory worker over whether they will have enough money for Bacardi Breezers this weekend is probably easier said than done.

    • I agree 100% with what you’re saying – although second hand does cover op shops/charity shops as well as the mostly ridiculously overpriced ‘vintage’ shops. As I said in another comment, I’m sure if I were young now I would be shopping exactly as you say. Why would I go to the huge lengths I had to go to when I could get it all ready done for me – and as you say, super cheap? Also I would look ridiculous in home dyed long johns when I could buy a pair of leggings for $5…!

  5. Our shopping centre (Westfield) has dedicated parking spaces for hybrid cars. This from an organisation dedicated to facilitating consumption!

    That’s exactly why I’ve been a devoted follower of your blogs and articles for so long – You are NOT about buying. Remember your piece against camouflage as a decorator fabric? Or laughing at tote bags costing hundreds made of recycled feed bags? Nick Alderson might have approved, but!

    • Ha ha he would only like the feed bag bags if he’d made them himself… Yes, Marks & Spencer has the same dual standards here in the UK. They talk about Plan A ‘because there is no Plan B’, then they sell cherries from America in the height of the UK cherry season and ‘cheddar’ cheese from Australia. I am the official Mad Woman at my local store because I’m always making complaints!

  6. Totally agree. As a teenager in the late seventies my friend bought Honey Magazine on subscription and i got the handme downs .Such amazing fashion editorials and then tried to put the looks together within my (non) budget which involved re making re-using and working the Op Shop much to my Mum’s horror.Even Vogue Australia and Mode always featured our Aussie designers and as you say,the idea wasn’t always to go and buy the look but to cobble together your own. Now every magazine is full of the same stuff. Just returned from New York and ask myself – is there any reason to go overseas to shop? Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdales, Macy’s – I could have been in Myer or DJs.

    • Funnily enough I was in New York at Easter and I didn’t go into a single big store – that was a first. Mind you, I think Liberty and Selfridges in London are way better than the New York ones now, although I treat each of those as a museum. I go in to look and get ideas, just as we both did with Honey mags. The one I do shop in is Fenwicks as they have such amazing stuff bought with women over 35 in mind and I buy a couple of really good things there, rather than a load of cheap crapola.

  7. Maggie as a girl living in country Vic in the late 70’s & early 80’s my taste centred more around Dolly and dressing up for the Blue Light disco. As you said the fun ( & the challenge in a small country town) was in putting the outfit together. I dont always remember much from my childhood but I have lots of fond memories of designing outfits for Blue Lights, school dances etc. I think it definitely fostered my creativity. Even now I love a dress up party and the fun is in putting the outfit together.

    Your entries are definitely starting to run to a theme ” less is more” and I couldn’t agree more!

    • You’re so right – I still do it, when I’ve got a jolly to go to, go through my own wardrobe seeing how I can put things together in new ways. I’m going to do it for the party on Friday and I’ve still got some things I bought when the 1980s fashion pics in it were taken…!

  8. Dear Maggie,
    Hear! Hear! (to both your wonderful post, and many of the brilliant comments I have just read.)
    I certainly think you can have/be both (an avid-fashion/style follower and be mindful/concerned about consumerism.) I have always loved fashion. And magazines. But have used them in the way you have said – pored over them, been inspired over them….referred back to them – but then have begged, borrowed and stolen (from my mother/sister/friends/op shops….) Yes, I have bought, but judiciously and carefully – classic, well-made items that will stand the test the time. I still have many items that I have bought years (and I’m talking YEARS) ago. Good design & quality always prevail…
    I am very much from a working-class background and never had much of a disposable income to spend on fashion (as “roughneck” – who doesn’t sound like a roughneck at all! – put so well) – but, saying that, I just spent my allowance really carefully on a few key items that I loved and kept (and really looked after) for many years. But I have always had comments on my style. Positive one at that!
    The problem now is that so much clothing today is so cheap. Ridiculously cheap, as it is produced in almost “slave labour” conditions (again, to quote “roughneck”). People buy masses and masses of the stuff – rather than a few quality items. Clothes are now considered almost disposable, rather than something to cared-for and used for many years.
    I have total empathy for those who are struggling financially to need to purchase lower-priced items, but the problem seems mostly to the young of today who obsessively buy masses (and masses) of “fashion” clothing to be “current”, giving no thought to the way it was produced or the cost to the environment (in both how it is produced, the distance it has to travel to get to them and the enormous impact of landfill).
    Sorry – waffling on! Could go on about this all day!
    Keep up the fabulous work, Maggie – you are always such a delight to read! Love your work,
    x Caroline

    • I agree with you on every point. Not sure if you are based in Aus or the UK, but it’s much worse in the UK where there are so many ultra cheap outlets. They provide temptations you couldn’t expect the young to resist and it’s quite normal now for them to wear things once and then put them in the bin – whereas I was like you, brought up to look after clothes. Like you, I have things going back years in perfect condition. Buy less, buy well… xxx

  9. I luuuuuuuurve you Maggie Alderson. I had not the faintest interest in fashion until I started reading your stuff more than 10 years ago. You help me understand the world.

    • Thank you so so much for me. Can’t tell you what it means. Can I be cheeky and ask you if you would tell anyone you think might be interested about this blog? I’m trying to make up for the gap in my life left by losing the Good Weekend column, but it’s so much harder to get the word out about a blog xxx

      • I still lament your departure from the Good Weekend. It was the only thing I read in that section. The.Only.Thing.

      • I’m still gutted about it. If I thought it had come to a natural end, as other columns I’ve done have, I wouldn’t mind, but I still get lovely tweets practically every day from people saying this miss it. But I’m hoping this can take it’s place, so please tell all your pals!¬ xxx

  10. Do you remember there used to be a back section in Australian Vogue back in the 70s/80s called “More Dash Than Cash” (I think)? I loved that, because even though I adored the beautifully styled and photographed ‘looks’ in the rest of the magazine, I had no chance of buying them. “More Dash” always had great tips and do-able interpretations of the high end.Though in 1979 I finally bought a real designer dress: cream silk Trent Nathan. I still have it: I can’t bear to chuck it. It was beautifully made and timeless. Fat chance of it fitting me now, but still…

    Real style has always meant consistently creating and owning a look – not meaning that the look has to stay the same (it can be power woman one day and ingenue the next); rather that the person wears the clothes, instead of the other way round! A bit like Bowie.

    Maggie, I wish you would write a book about your past ‘lives’ with Honey, Elle and so on: you mentioned a while ago the interviews that you still rated and the ones you would prefer to forget, so to speak. That in itself would make amazing reading, let alone the wonderful tales you could tell about the 80s and 90s fashion shows. Real art and real style.

    • They used to do More Dash Than Cash in UK Vogue too and it was revolutionary at the time – although now I see it was the first beginnings of the mags we have today, crammed with cheap clothes to buy NOW NOW NOW alongside the ridic expensive ones which are just for inspiration – and to sell the perfume and lipsticks we buy to own a little bit of the brand.

      Gosh, it would be amazing to write about those days past. I did have some truly amazing experiences… xxx

      • I would definitely buy that book!

      • Me too! Would be a fabulous read! Please do, Maggie!

      • You are v kind, but I’m not sure a publisher would agree!

      • Please pitch it to your publisher, Maggie – if it’s a book you want to write it, that is! Your writing is so popular here: fiction and collected columns; so it follows that we would LOVE to read about the life behind it. Such tantalising glimpses: in Pants on Fire, Cents and Sensibility and most notably in Handbags and Gladrags. More, please.
        PS Just to remind myself of supermodel days I watched George Michael “Freedom” earlier. Gorgeous!

      • well, it would be fun to do, but I fear it would fall on deaf ears in this difficult time for all publishing… Thanks for being so lovely xxx

      • Now, not that I am obsessing over this…but why not self publish via your blog? To be honest I feel a bit guilty that I get so much of your writing for free: I would quite happily pay a monthly fee, and I’m sure I am not alone there!

        The core could be your Style Notes, with a monthly special treat featuring career highlights: past interviews, fashion shows, publishing adventures etc. Plus, you could host an issues/problems “page” – I always feel uplifted and often provoked by Style Notes and the discussion it produces.

        Not that I’m trying to organise your life or anything (pushy woman that I am) but with the massive changes occuring in the publishing industry…. it could be a goer. You are such an enjoyable writer, and in terms of how you run your blog, very generous: so accessible and reader focused.

        Now I will shut up. I am just greedy for more!

      • Thanks for caring! It would be something fun to do in the future… I might start making notes x

  11. I do remember Honey, some UK mags reached our distasnt shores and this was one of them. I am absolutley astonished at the number of fashion magazines produced and sold in our small market and the ever more foreign chains opening here. I am told by those in the know that the old unsold stock is dumped on Australia ..

  12. I too grew up in Country Victoria in the 70s and 80s and it was incomprehensible to me that anyone could actually get what was in magazines. I’m so pleased looking back that op shop dressing was pretty much compulsory at my uni – so unlike today!!

  13. How we used to love studying the magazines then heading off to the fabric shops to spend hours with our noses in the pattern books before heading home to make our outfits ready for a night out.

  14. Let’s hear it for creativity & sustainable, classic fashion (ie items> 5 yo) & thumbs down to disposable, sweatshop, 5-minute trends & exploitation of Third World workers. We all have & want TOO MUCH – get out the Janome & experiment – visit the local opshop or Auntie’s wardrobe. Be like the thrift generation & learn how to look after your clothing & accessories & make them last – not to be tossed out after 6 months. Some of my much younger co-workers have NO IDEA how to handwash woollen/delicate items-if it can’t be chucked in the washing machine, it is not worth having! And as for polishing shoes etc, don’t get me started…

  15. I loved pattern books and used to make my own clothes too,no kid today would be seen dead in homemade, and really, it doesn’t make economic sense with the price of cheap imports. I have a 17 year old niece, never wears the same party dress twice, but her group do at least have a practise of swapping dresses between them to ‘ extend’ the wear. I wonder if the factory collapse in Bangladesh will make the industry and consumers rethink this.

    • The shops have already started making gestures to improve safety – which is GOOD – but the solution will have to be so much more radical, because as you say, there’s a generation who don’t know it any other way. Sigh…

  16. By the way, I LOVE the outfit pictured with this post, and the gorgeous photography.

  17. I haven’t bought clothes in years. I mean the odd piece, perhaps 4 or 5 things from ebay in the last three years (bought quite a few items in the states 3 years ago). Clothes actually last a long time, and i just can’t BEAR to part with my hard earned money on something as fleeting as so called fashion. People complain so much about the ‘cost of living’ then part with such huge sums – I can’t do it. (I’m also in the middle of a year off work – travelling and studying with the money i saved – there’s a pay off!) Despite not buying clothes, i feel i hardly ever wear the ‘same’ outfit. Always a different necklace, scarf, skirt worn higher or lower, something. And i’m a size 18, so size is no excuse (I’ve often heard it used). I’m proof it is possible to stop buying!

    Oh, and i don’t buy magazines!

    • Good on you. I buy microscopically less than I used to – I’ve stopped impulse shopping. I buy what I ‘need’ to stay smart for lunches, events etc and then just a couple of pre-chosen bits each new ‘season’ to make it all look fresh. I’m working up to doing a massive clear out of my ridiculously overstocked wardrobe, but then I think I should save it for my daughter… I need to make my mind up!

  18. Hurrah for you Maggie!
    This post took me straight back to being a fashion student (20 years ago, good grief!), the way we absorbed everything avidly, and then reproduced the ideas and directions that appealed to us, in our own mad ways. Such a wonderful time, pre internet, pre mobile phones even, and all the changes that these phenomenons have wrought….
    As a designer I have struggled with this duality my whole career. Things have changed radically over the past 2 decades, in terms of availability of this ‘fast food fashion’, the speeding up of the cycles, buying and spending patterns etc. I try to avoid excess packaging, not only in what I buy, but in what I produce. Let’s not forget all the extras that go along with all these ‘landfill items’ (as my mother terms all this disposable clothing). Long before your purchase gets bagged at the counter the fabric will have been wrapped in heavy plastic to be delivered to the designer, garments will be shipped to stores individually wrapped, and all sorts of other steps along the way depending on the nature of the item.
    We ALL need to be more mindful, and more aware of the impacts of all the choices we make.
    I am aware that by designing, making and selling my tshirts I contribute to the problem, in a sense, but I do my best to make my impact as small as possible.
    Ok, getting off my soapbox now….keep on keeping on Maggie, I adore your posts, and will be sharing this one for sure.

    • That’s such a good point… The huge scale of it all struck me the first time I went to a Primark store in London. That’s the place where a T shirt is literally £2. I just wanted to see what it was like. T

      he lift doors opened on the wrong side and I saw straight into the loading dock with these HUGE haystacks of clothes all wrapped in heavy plastic as you describe, being moved around by fork lift trucks. I felt ill and left the shop.

      I’ve only been back a couple of times since – once to look (the place was rammed with people with huge baskets of stuff) and another time to buy my daughter the bunny onesie she so desperately wanted. I had to drag her out of the place.

      It’s conflicting because a lot of the people shopping in there were clearly on low incomes and for them to be able to have a big shop must be a joy. Tamara Ecclestone does it with Hermes bags, why shouldn’t an office cleaner have her taste of buying three handbags at once?

      The answer is NONE of us should be doing it, but I believe gathering is an essential part of human survival instinct… I could go on ! xxx

      • I have been to the Primark Store in Oxford St, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was dazed by the stacks of clothes crammed in every possible space and the people leaving with bags & bags of clothes. I was amazed & a little shocked.

      • I went in there once for a look – terrifying. But I can appreciate that for mums on low incomes it’s a lifesaver. Have single mum friends who can kit out teenage daughters in new outfits for school discos and things, so that’s the good side of it. But the huge bags of stuff going out to be worn once, is just repulsive x

  19. Love this post maggie! It just hit me that my daughters dress up box is full of revolting polyester actual fairy and princess dresses that people have given her. When I was little our dress up box was full of my mums old clothes that we turned into fairy and princess outifits. So my next project is to make her a box of my old frocks- just hard to work out if some of the things I’ve been saving would get more love in a dress up box or to be saved to be worn when she’s a teenager and off to her formal.

    • Sorry pressed ‘go’ too early! And to conclude my ramble… No wonder everyone’s going for the cheaper, less imaginative option when that’s how they’re being trained from such a young age.

    • Oh I so get the laying down vintage for later dilemma! I’ve even thought about doing a post about it, so thanks for reminding me. It used to kill me hearing about some of the things my mum had got rid of, but I think it’s actually more fun in the end to find things yourself, don’t you?

  20. Dear Maggie, I have been devoted to your take on clothes and style since smh days. The first turn of the paper every Sat was to your column. I have a wonderful and sensibly priced consignment store one block away and the owner rings me if she has something. The stuff that comes in there – hugely expensive and hardly or not worn – astounds and saddens me. I am addicted to style, not fashion. Remember your column on things that divide people – do you unpack in a hotel room or live out of your case? I felt we were lost twins after that column – always unpack!

    • I have a store like that near me! She doesn’t ring, but I pop in when I feel the call and once found a NEVER WORN Diane von Furstenberg gold sequinned jacket which was still in the shop at over £700… Tags still on it. How could someone do that??? x

      • My “go to” special place in the 90s was the twice yearly Peter Pan Committee jumble sale held in Potts Point in Sydney. You would queue up with your black bin liner and… grab. This of course goes against the mindfulness we are discussing, but the clothes, bags, shoes etc were amazing. All cast -offs from the ladies who lunched, so all quality (and I wore most of my smash and grab items for many years).

        Legend was one year the prize find was a crocodile Kelly bag. My treasure was a glorious Victor Edelsten couture green silk velvet tulip skirted party dress. I would still wear it if I could s-q-u-e-e-z-e into it. I contacted him last year to see if he could shed light on the provenance, but no dice: he said he churned out bucketloads of party frocks back then ( he is now an artiste…).
        Happy times.

      • Ah yes, the posh jumble sale… I’ve still got happy memories of the two best I ever went to. I have some v good friends whose granny was a legendary fixture of the grand social scene on the Cote d’Azur and NOW THEY TELL ME that every year she hosted a sale of clothes, bags, costume jewellery etc from all the grand dames in aid of some posh charity. Chanel suits were just the start. They would go over each year to help out AND THEY NEVER TOOk ME. Boys, you see…

  21. Your philosophy about fashion really shines through in your writing. You make plebs like me (who is otherwise not involved in fashion) really enjoy reading about it instead of feeling poor and a bit dowdy. I like reading about fashion more as an art form than as some exclusive club.

  22. Funny thing fashion,it seem to come back round ever 30 years so at some point all generations wear the same clothes at time in their lives.

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