For parents who have been enjoying the freedom of living child-free, now comes research to spoil it all
The bedrooms have been redecorated in grown-up colours, the 25-year-old soft toys chucked out, the washing machine is blissfully underused and, thanks to the apparent current raging addictions of baby boomers, a holiday or two – cruising in the Med, the Antarctic, anywhere that avoids dry land – have been booked. And then they’re back.
According to a recent study by the London School of Economics (LSE), adult children who return to the family home after a period away – often at university – cause a significant decline in their parents’ quality of life and wellbeing.
So there I was, perched on my gilt chair at the Paris haute couture shows one evening in January, waiting for the Givenchy show to start, fiddling with the satin ribbons that cinch the wrists of my favourite new Mother of Pearl sweater, idling the time away with a little light screen-shopping. I zoomed in on a new-season Ellery dress whose sleeves, curled and trailing like a lemon zest twist in a cocktail glass, caught my eye, but then I was distracted by the heavenly black Givenchy blouse being worn by the PRs, with frothy tulle sleeves that look like tremendously chic angel wings.
Sleeves are having a moment. But here’s the weird part: sleeves have been having a moment for five years. Towards the end of last year, we were at fashion week swooning over puff-sleeved gothic blouses on Stella McCartney’s catwalk, while wearing Versace knits with POWER or UNITY emblazoned from elbow to wrist. “The Statement Sleeve – STILL!” proclaimed Vogue in its spring trend report, reporting on the poet sleeves and trumpet flares that abounded a year ago. And the year before that, sleeves made headlines both at London fashion week (virago sleeves at Erdem) and during the presidential campaign, when Melania Trump wore bell-sleeved Roksanda. And two years before that, the Alexis Colby statement sleeve was already being championed by Olivier Rousteing, at the height of Balmania.
This is not, surely, how fashion is supposed to work. Spring comes along and kicks the winter look into touch, as surely as day follows night and with the same ones-and-noughts contrast. Out with the old, in with the new: that’s the whole point. What’s hot, what’s not; what goes up (hemlines) must come down; keep up at the back. This is both the business model and the manifesto of fashion.
Not any more, it seems. The midi-length skirt caused a sensation when it swept across fashion weeks during the spring/summer 2014 shows; four years later, hems haven’t budged an inch. (“Midi skirts make up the largest proportion of our skirt sales and we don’t see that stopping,” says Lisa Aiken of net-a-porter.com.) Trenchcoats have been top sellers for so long now that retailers struggle to remember what they sold before everyone wanted a trench. Outsize earrings have slowly, surely, edged out every other fashion jewellery category. “The trend cycle is diverging down two separate paths,” says trend forecaster Chrissy Hilton-Gee. “We still have high-speed fashion with a short turnaround – but we also have these slow-burning trends that shift very subtly, influenced by consumer lifestyle rather than fashion industry diktats.”
A five-year period is a fundamentally different proposition from a six-month one. Five years is a term in government. It’s a university degree. You can conceive, have a baby and be standing at the school gates waving that baby into reception in five years. This is a weighty, meaningful length of time. A five-year trend is an entirely different concept from a flash in the pan. This is where fashion gets real.
The long-life trend “can be a great piece, like a trench, or a fabric, such as velvet,” says Lydia King, director of womenswear at Selfridges. Vanessa Spence, design director at Asos, nominates the floral tea dress, which “has been around in various guises for a few seasons, and still looks really new”. “Midi-length dresses, trenchcoats, floral prints, animal prints,” adds Coco Chan, head of womenswear at online retailer stylebop.com. And “the high-fashion sneaker isn’t going anywhere,” points out Tiffany Hsu, buying director of mytheresa.com.
Frankly, the two-seasons-a-year model was broken anyway. Fashion week became a victim of its own success a decade or two ago. Once the looks on the catwalk started getting beamed all over the world immediately, it was tricky to make them feel exciting six months later. Catwalk shows were conceived as industry previews, the secrets of fashion week heavily guarded against “spies” who might reveal the “new look” before it was ready to hit newsstands and shop windows several months after the event. Even within the industry, secrecy was once the norm: in the 1950s, the legendary fashion editor Carmel Snow would maintain a poker face in the front row, alerting her assistant to make a note of those looks she planned to feature in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar via a sly dig in the ribs. Now, catwalk looks are on Instagram within moments of hitting the catwalk, and copies are on sale on the high street within a matter of weeks, several months before the actual collection arrives in designer boutiques.
And besides – for reasons both selfless and self-centred – women are no longer content to be instructed to change what we are wearing at arbitrary intervals. The impulse to be proud of what you buy is as strong as ever, and sustainability is now as much a status issue as an oversized beribboned shopping bag once was. “There is less of a throwaway culture than we used to see,” Lydia King says. “Our customers want a long-lasting piece that will still be relevant the next season.” Six months is a ludicrously short lifespan for any piece of clothing; five years, on the other hand, is a realistic time frame in which a frequently-worn piece of clothing may well wear thin, or fray, or otherwise give out.
The 21st-century mindset is that personal taste takes precedence. “The modern attitude, in all areas of life, is that we look for what suits us, rather than wait to be told what to do,” says Lizzy Bowring, head of catwalks at trend forecasting agency WGSN. In other words, “We cherry pick.” At Harvey Nichols, “If customers like wearing something, they don’t stop wanting to wear it just because the designer has a new collection out,” says Hazel Catterall, the store’s head of womenswear buying. The modern woman wants “easy ways to make a relatively boring top or shirt into a standout. That is why sleeve detailing appeals to the magpie in all of us – it’s that eye-catching glint that transforms a run-of-the-mill piece into something special and noteworthy, while being easier to wear than bold pattern or colour.”
“That old word ‘consumer’ is terrible,” muses trend consultant Anne Lise Kjaer. “No one thinks of themselves as a ‘consumer’. We are moving toward a more human-centric way of thinking about the interactions we have with fashion brands. Take the success of Phoebe Philo’s Céline. That look was about who you were as a person.”
The kind of whimsically themed collections that were once fashion week bread and butter – “Geisha meets Motocross”, “Dolly Parton goes raving”, “Alpine hippy” – have fallen away in favour of words such as minimalism, utility and athleisure which chime with the way we live now. Alessandro Michele at Gucci and Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga have forged a new model of an agenda-setting brand that is based on “repeating and developing ideas that women respond to, rather than starting from scratch each season,” Lisa Aiken says.
The trends that go the distance, says Natalie Kingham, buying director of matchesfashion.com, are “pieces that stand the test of time because they work hard. Cross-body bags and year-round boots, for instance. The trends that are fussy, complicated and uncomfortable tend to be the ones that burn out quickly – like super high heels and over-long trousers that drag in the rain.” The industry is recognising “that fashion and comfort aren’t mutually exclusive,” says Maria Milano of Harrods womenswear. “Realistic dressing has introduced new long-term trends. For instance, flats were once reserved just for daytime or commuting – but an embellished flat is now often the most chic choice for evening.”
The high street has shifted gear from the relentless churn of new trends to a drip feed of newness. At Topshop, “the sleeve has been a focus for the last few seasons, but we are still seeing some dramatic new shapes, from extreme puffs and deep cuffs to extra-long lengths,” says head of design Mo Riach. At Marks & Spencer, the design studio talk is of “updates” to foundation looks; of “nodding” or “tapping into” trends rather than following them.
With its starry cast of influencers showing off their look-of-the-day on the beach, on picturesquely graffitied urban streets or just in their bedroom mirror, Instagram has lifted fashion off the catwalk and put it in a new context. “There is a much stronger sense of the importance of personal style,” Coco Chan says. Social media celebrity happens, for the most part, organically – which makes for a slower tempo than the all-change-every-six-months of old. A decade ago, supermodels starring in advertising campaigns destined for glossy magazines were paid to look completely different from last season, but on social media, an immediately recognisable personal brand is all-important. So savvy influencers are motivated to stick to a recognisable aesthetic. It is in their interest to make consistency look desirable.
“If you are kicking yourself for not buying a velvet dress or a padded jacket last season, don’t worry,” Lydia King says. “More collections than ever are focusing on these for 2018.” Not got round to buying a floral tea dress yet? You haven’t missed the boat, “layered over jeans and white ankle boots”, Vanessa Spence says. Natalie Kingham tips a trouser suit (“Because you can wear it as separates, it works really well as a long-term buy”) and Lisa Aiken a trenchcoat (“They don’t date, they don’t go out of season”). Me, I’ve got a hankering for a spiral-sleeve dress. But maybe I said that already.
I was a terrible mother, a great mother. Pregnancy changes everything: our body, our feelings, the hierarchical order of our lives. The convention by which we have always considered ourselves one and indivisible fails. Now we have two hearts, all our organs are duplicated, our sex is doubled – we are female plus female or female plus male. And we are divisible, not metaphorically but in the acute reality of our body.
The first time I got pregnant, it was difficult to accept. Pregnancy was an anxious mental struggle. I felt it as the breakdown of an equilibrium already precarious in itself, as a revelation of the animal nature behind the fragile mask of the human. For nine months I was on a seesaw of joy and horror. The birth was terrible, it was wonderful. Taking care of a newborn, by myself, without help, without money, exhausted me; I hardly slept. I wanted to write and there was never time. Or if there was some, I would concentrate for a few minutes and then fall asleep fretfully. Until slowly everything began to seem to me marvellous. Today I think that nothing is comparable to the joy, the pleasure, of bringing another living creature into the world.
Of course, it took a lot of time away from my passion for writing. As a girl I’d imagined myself without children, entirely absorbed by my own yearnings. I admired women who were childless by choice, and I still understand the rejection of maternity. What I can no longer tolerate is the lack of understanding for women who do everything possible to get pregnant. In the past I had an ironic attitude, I thought: if you want children so much, adopt them. Today I think that the most extraordinary thing in my life was to conceive and give birth.
Men have always been jealous of that experience which is ours alone, and often dreamed – in myths, in certain rites – of forms of male pregnancy. Not only that: they immediately appropriated conception and birth metaphorically. They conceive ideas, give birth to works. And they have convinced us that since we already had the animal prerogative of maternity, the profoundly human prerogative of giving form to the world through sublime works was theirs alone.
But now we are demonstrating that we, too, are capable of metaphoric births, shadows are looming over maternity that seem to me threatening. A uterus can be bought. And among the countless prosthetic devices that will advance the connotations of the human there is one, the artificial uterus, that will free us from the annoyances of pregnancy.
I believe that in this case we should absolutely not be freed. Children are our body’s great, marvellous prostheses, and we will not give them literally to anyone, not to mad fathers, not to the country, not even to those machines that promise an inhumanly perfect humanity.
The problem with the science of diet is that if you’re only partially interested, gobbets of information go in and stick, surrounded by great gaps that you fill by whistling and not quite caring. So, I know that the microbial environment of the gut is crucial to good health and longevity. And that fermentation is vital to the gut, though I didn’t realise how vital until I spoke to Tim Spector, professor of genetics and author of The Diet Myth. It’s part of a suite of things that are good for you, along with “low-salt” and “very green”. “The complexity of adding fermentation to any food, as well as adding 10 times more flavour, releases more chemicals into the food; and the more chemicals there are, the more likely they are to be helpful to the body.”
The process works differently depending on the food type, but there are a few key principles; you can’t just pickle, you have to pickle in brine, not vinegar, because acid kills everything. The English were left behind by fermentation, having prematurely fallen in love with vinegar, which is why we’re not as hardy as the Hungarians. Problematically, if you like your health awareness with a side order of self-flagellation, fermentation is quite delicious.
Flat Three is a Swedish/Japanese fusion restaurant in London where they ferment in-house and pair their pickles with fermented juices, though you can have wine, if you like, because that’s also fermented. Miso looms large, but the flavour bomb is meju, a fermented bean paste to which you can add brine to turn it into doenjang, or fermentation squared. Something incredible happens to celery and cabbage pickled in brine: the intensity of flavour is like a dream, or the beginning of a stroke.
Kombucha, the black tea, is brewed from a live culture called a scoby; Merlin (of course the restaurant guy’s called Merlin) has a culture at home that was his grandmother’s (though we may have been talking about a yoghurt by then; something in the ineffable proliferation of the microbes makes it hard to track which superfood you’re on). “Did you get the scoby?” Spector asks. “I bought a kombucha in Hackney at the weekend [of course it was in Hackney], and it had this little blob of microbes and fungi, all living together, at the bottom.”
That living community will react with your own microbes to produce something new. But they’ve recently found that the microbes don’t even have to be alive: chocolate and sourdough both undergo fermentation, which is long dead by the time you eat it, but they’re still good for you, because the process has started breaking down the food before you try to digest it.
“We can’t prove it yet,” Spector says, “but there’s a theory that even dead microbes can have a signalling effect, that makes your own microbes want to copy them.” I started to think of my gut as like a 1990s rave, the mad vivacity of partially intelligent life forms all mimicking each other. It’s a strangely hedonic health kick.
What I learned
A British Gut survey of 3,000 people found there is not much to choose between vegetarians and non-vegetarians, but there is a clear difference between people who eat a varied diet and those who don’t
A quarter of young adults in the UK live with their parents. Three families talk about the effects
A report this week found that young adults who return to the family home can have a negative impact on their parents’ quality of life. The London School of Economics study found that about a quarter of young adults in the UK now live with their parents – the highest number since records began in 1996 – as a consequence of spiralling housing costs and poor job security. We talked to three families affected by the “boomerang” generation about life in household with young adults.
Oxford University has said it is “deeply sorry” after a female cleaner was pictured removing chalk graffiti saying “Happy International Women’s Day”.
Sophie Smith, the associate professor of political theory at University College, shared a picture of the scene on Twitter, writing: “What an image for #IWD.”
The university replied to the professor in a tweet saying the incident should not have happened. “We are deeply sorry for this and for offence caused. International Women’s Day is hugely important to Oxford. This should not have happened.”
Smith thanked the university for the apology but said she hoped the cleaner, whose face she obscured in her tweet, received “a heartfelt apology”. She called on the university to ensure that all low-paid staff at the institution earned enough money to live in Oxford.
“I appreciate your apology, but far more importantly can you please make sure that the woman asked to remove the message receives a heartfelt apology, a warm cup of tea, the rest of the day off and, along with all our precarious staff, good enough pay to live in this city,” she replied.
Garrick Taylor, a laboratory manager at Oxford University and the president of the Oxford UCU union, said the symbolism of the image was key to the debate.
“During a peaceful International Women’s Day rally. A low paid and probably precariously employed female cleaner was sent out in the freezing cold to clean chalk writing saying Happy International Women’s Day. Did it have to be removed? Then?,” he wrote.
But others were baffled by the university’s decision to apologise. “Are you for real? I’m assuming it’s her job as a cleaner. Why would she get an apology and the rest of the day off? That’s bizarre,” wrote one.