How to get dressed: tailoring

Keira Knightley in the 2008 film The Duchess

Keira Knightley in the 2008 film The Duchess

Discussing her new film, The Duchess, Keira Knightley revealed that the rigid 18th-century corsets made her and co-star Hayley Atwell belch constantly, and constricted their frames to the point where they couldn’t breathe. Charming.

They look magnificent, however. Georgiana, the duchess in question, was married off at 16 to the Duke of Devonshire, a withdrawn patriarch who was entirely immune to her considerable charms. Clothes – or, more specifically, being the height of fashion – became a form of armour to her, according to Knightley.

The Duchess makes you wonder at what point people stopped using clothes as armour and began using them as cuddle blankets, because one thing’s for sure: the loose-fitting, stretchy clothes and trainers favoured by so many of us today may be comfortable, but they’re not impressive in the way that a whalebone dress or frock coat is. In the past, clothes seemed designed to give the wearer an architectural outline that filled a generous space. Today’s leisurewear is often technically sophisticated and conceived to take up as little space as possible, and often so baggy that it makes the wearer resemble a moving heap of melting slush.

I’m not a pannier fetishist, I promise. I have no desire to return to stays or crinolines or any other clothes that have a deleterious effect on health. Lycra is a beautiful thing. But – and this may seem perverse or counterintuitive – we may just become obsessed with comfort at the expense of everything else. And that can only be a zero-sum game. After all, the more comfortable life gets, the softer we get, and the more luxury we need just to bring us up to a basic level of wellbeing.

Does that mean that the woman prepared to run the gauntlet of bunions and pain in pursuit of an elegant high heel is a fashion noble, and not a victim as commonly portrayed? It probably depends on whether her shoes genuinely empower her or hobble her. In the past decade or so, however, we’ve confused status with power. Georgiana used clothes literally to improve her standing (try slouching in a corset). In the absence of clothes that make us carry ourselves properly, we’ve resorted to bling to give us confidence. The livery of Messrs Gucci and co have become our escutcheons.

The current economic wobble is bound to have an effect on that and, bang on cue, fashion is turning to clothes that rely on form and cut, and not extraneous embellishment, for power. The It-bag and the screaming logo have both been silenced. In their way, these new clothes are as architectural as Georgiana’s. Most of them may remain on the magazine page, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room in all our wardrobes for one or two tailored pieces, something a little spiky or just a bit challenging. After all, it’s always good to have something to live up to.

Copyright© 2008 TIMESONLINE