Between the echoing brick walls of a chilly studio in south-west London, four women are travelling through time. One is spinning in a crinoline in 1860, one is demonstrating a dance in 1965, one is pouting in the middle of the English Regency, and one is gliding ladylike through medieval courts. And all they’ve done is get dressed.
The women, actresses from the Royal Shakespeare Company, are playing with a rack of clothes from different periods, dug out of the bowels of the RSC’s historically completist costume department. I’ve asked them to pick a dress, try it on, and describe how it makes them feel.
Being performers, they tend to show rather than tell: Sarah Belcher, the most compact of the four, with a tidy black bob and a quick laugh, slips on a red a-line minidress with capped sleeves and not a lot of give. Her smile disappears; she slumps her shoulders. “I feel, ooh, I don’t know—it’s like I’ve got to do this…” She makes a few robot-shapes with her arms, before gyrating, frowning, on the balls of her feet. When I point out that within seconds of putting on a 1960s dress, she has unconsciously struck a classic photographic pose from the period, then done The Twist, she pulls a face. “That’s how this dress makes you be,” she says. “It’s not me, though. I’m just not Sixties.”
Ask any woman which decade suits her and odds are, she’ll have an answer ready. A lifetime of staring glumly at changing-room mirrors, however painful, does give you a clear picture of your own proportions—of which bits of you are long, or round, or short, or high, and which period of female fashion you feel you fit. I’m late-era Edwardian: the particular distance between my feet and my waist, my collarbone and my face is right for the high necks and long skirts of immediately before the Great War. Our editorial assistant (small-waisted, with elegant calves) says she’s mid-1950s; our associate editor (straight-backed, straight-haired) is 1960s-going-on-1970s.
Actresses have a further insight. While most of us might have gone in fancy dress to the odd party, they regularly hop about the centuries, squeezing their bodies into wasp waists and crinolines, under shoulder pads and bustles. So it was actresses we chose to answer the question: what era are you? And why?
We start with Amie Burns-Walker, a slight, serene 25-year-old in jeans and a striped matelot top. She nearly explodes my theory by apologising and saying “I feel I’m still discovering things like that,” but then gathers courage and says: “It’s the 1940s. I love the cut of the dresses, and the whole mannish high-waisted trouser thing. And the stockings and suspenders. They take you to a different place.”
I mention that Emily Taafe, another young RSC actress, e-mailed me to say something similar—1940s tailoring “suits everybody”.
“Yes. It’s the cut of the dresses. They’re swingy…”
“And they’re a nice length, aren’t they? Just below the knee.” This is Kirsty Bushell—low-key good-looking, in her mid-30s, with an easy confidence and a dancer’s control of posture. I ask which is her decade. She’s adamant: “Seventies. The fashion then was quite sexy, but quite flowy. Long, lean lines—like these flares I’ve got on today.”
She stands up so we can inspect her. She’s not over-tall, but there seems to be a lot of distance between her hip-slung belt and the floor. All she’s wearing is a black, close-fitting polo neck and red cords—but yes, they are a bit flared at the ankle, and slightly high-waisted; and while still being resolutely modern the effect is subtly reminiscent of a Barbara Hulanicki fashion illustration. It’s Biba, but not quite as she drew it.
“I suppose I’ve always been aware of line,” Kirsty continues, turning out a foot and putting a hand on one hip. “I’m relatively boyish so I like to dress quite sleek, and I think the Seventies had that. Sleek, but sexy and feminine as well. Also, there’s a certain sense of liberty about the Seventies. I like the freedom.” She shimmies her hips, and laughs.