The enduring charm of city dressing

Eva Marie Saint exemplified city dressing in Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” (1959) in this scene with co-star Cary Grant

It might be a tutu in Times Square or a bowler-hatted and pinstriped gentleman striding across London Bridge with a furled umbrella, but the idea of city dressing has for decades – centuries – been a perennially persuasive one. What does the city represent (especially to a country dweller) but freedom from the domestic, the humdrum and practical, the kitchen sink and muddy walks – freedom to follow the lure of bright lights and opportunities? Naturally, we have to dress accordingly.

From the novels of Jane Austen to those of Elizabeth Jane Howard, a day – or a season – in town has always required a whole wardrobe: from corsages and décolletés to tailleurs and cocktail dresses. There might be balls or carriage rides, walks in the park, shopping and tea at Claridges; there could – whisper it – be nightclubs (Zoe Cazalet’s backless dress, worn to enter the Gargoyle Club at midnight in Howard’s The Light Years is evening-in-the-city dressing par excellence.) And as the world opened to women in the workplace there was finally The Office. In Rona Jaffe’s irresistible paean to the New York City career girl, The Best of Everything (1958) clothes are both tool and reward for financial independence and so central that when the novel was made into a film, supermodel Suzy Parker was hired to play one of the parts.

Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw, in “Sex and the City”. PHOTO 12/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

The image that comes to my mind whenever I think of a city wardrobe, perhaps hopelessly out of date but no less seductive for all that, is the opening scene of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, as Cary Grant strides through the lobby of his Madison Avenue offices in a bobbing sea of career girls in pencil skirt suits and veiled hats, trailed by his secretary, shorthand notebook in her white-gloved hand. And Eva Marie Saint’s outfits in that film, which were not, for once, designed by the brilliant Edith Head but selected by Saint herself off the rack from Bergdorf’s, are the epitome of the urban working wardrobe: a navy wool suit, a dove-grey tailleur with matching hat, an orange linen ensemble and a rose-patterned, full-skirted cocktail dress for professional soirées.

For Carrie Bradshaw, the city represented a career

More recently, the marker was set by the free-roving ladies of Manhattan immortalised by Candace Bushnell in Sex and the City, dressing up to the nines for a trip to the corner shop and sacrificing the mortgage on the altar of fine footwear. For Carrie Bradshaw and her cohort, the city represented a career, and the consequent pleasing of oneself in the wardrobe department: you dressed to have it all and there was no need for your handbag to match your shoes any more, unless that was your vibe.

Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw, and with co-stars Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon and Kim Catrall in “Sex and the City”, the hit series that set the benchmark for modern urban fashion. LANDMARK MEDIA/ ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

And in truth, dated though some aspects of SATC can look, twenty years on, the series might reasonably be considered the springboard for post-pandemic city wear. Carrie was, after all, the poster girl for Working From Home, tapping on her keyboard while perched cross-legged on her duvet cover in her knickers, or breezily filing her column from the coffee shop while giving the barista the eye. Then there was the series’ tendency towards Do Your Thing: if you wanted to flounce in Minnie Mouse polka dots like Charlotte or look stern in full Thin White Duke trouser suit and slicked-back hair like Miranda, no one was going to bat an eyelid. They might not have predicted the trend for attending Zoom meetings in Dri-Robe and trainers, but even that wouldn’t have fazed the SATC girls.

Dress-down Friday, then, marked only the beginning of the end for the office suit. Even a die-hard addict of the pencil skirt, such as your correspondent, has begun to contemplate slipping into something more laid-back for a day Up West. Not merely for comfort but in memory of the late great London restaurateur and byword for urbane sophistication, Andrew Edmunds, who once confided in me that a bit of Jean Seberg beatnik was his favourite city look. Because let’s not forget that for all its hard edges and fast living, it is in the city, where hundreds of thousands must rub shoulders and do business every day, that tolerance lives. So whether it’s a dressing gown and slippers to pick up the morning paper or a latex catsuit on the Victoria Line, let’s celebrate the urban jungle, where – increasingly – anything goes.

Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. Her latest novel “In Deep Water” is out now

More Like This

Get a free copy of our print edition

April 2023, Arts & Culture, Style Maven

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Your email address will not be published. The views expressed in the comments below are not those of Perspective. We encourage healthy debate, but racist, misogynistic, homophobic and other types of hateful comments will not be published.