To include an element of fashion in an event aimed at supporting and educating unemployed youth may be deemed by some as deeply trivial, even shockingly frivolous. Surely dressing up and prancing on stage to a disco beat is a dangerous diversion, distracting minds from the Real Issues, presenting a happy-happy front which suggests things can’t really be as bad as people make out?
That, at any rate would be the fashion-hostile Drabble analysis of what happened last week at the Hammersmith and Fulham Unemployment Festival. Thirteen young men and women competed in a show that set the challenge of putting together an outfit at a cost of under £50. Some wore clothes they’d bought, others things they’d designed and made. All of them took it seriously – and not just for the sake of the prizes, which included a try-out for a job at The Locker Room, a local fashion chain.
It wasn’t an event organised by some earnest grown-up intent on teaching the virtues of sound budgeting. The show was the idea of the ten young organisers, themselves unemployed, who are more than au fait with the difficulties of stretching dole cheques. For them, the question of dressing fashionably is not couched in terms of a Problem; it is simply something they enjoy and do very well. Just because they’re unemployed, they see no reason they should be barred from looking sharp and feeling good about themselves.
The festival organisers, Jeanette Perez, aged 23, Ometha McKay, aged 22, and Gaynor Nassy, aged 21, are past-masters at styling themselves. They are cheerful, gutsy, practical – and in social terms, right at the bottom of the pile. Jeanette has a son and lives on £22 a week, Ometha supports a son and a daughter on £57 a week, and Gaynor, with two daughters, runs her home on £39 a week. They do not present themselves as downtrodden members of the ethnic minorities. They do not sigh at the difficulties of shopping for clothes, they go about it with a glee apparently unshadowed by resentment or envy of girls of their age who can fritter wage packets in South Molton Street.
Gaynor, looking snappy in a nautical-style duster coat and sailor cap, says: “It makes me laugh when I ask people how much they’ve spent on something and they say £50 or £60, and I’m wearing something great that cost £2. You look better than some of the people out there! We impress people with what we wear. Providing the kids don’t starve, I’ll buy clothes, but I’ll never go above £6. It gives me satisfaction. You play the game, watching things being reduced and when they reach the price you think people will buy at, then you go in. It doesn’t stop at clothes. We are cooks, we only use fresh food – I walk one end of North End Road to the other to save 8p on potatoes.”
Ometha, sporting a jaunty pillbox hat, a grey jacket with huge shoulders and a smart pair of black trousers, says: “It all depends on how imaginative you are. You look around at what people are wearing and then create your own style. I don’t read fashion magazines – I don’t want to look like everyone else.” She has her winter wardrobe planned. She’ll cut down jumpers to make leggings, wear big jumpers with knitted mini skirts and thick tights – a remarkable and instinctive approximation of the Joseph Tricot look, in fact.
Jeanette cuts her costs by making everything she possibly can – a khaki trouser suit for £4, for instance. “I make my own patterns,” she says. “I learned it from watching my mum and from school.” She even makes hats to finish her outfits. For her, an enthusiasm for fashion has led to ambition and a possible way out of unemployment.
“I left school with no qualifications. I intend to go to the London College of Fashion – I’m starting O level tailoring, dressmaking and art at evening classes.” A tale, perhaps, to warm the cockles of Mrs Thatcher’s heart – that idea of the unemployed being thrown back on their own resources and becoming self-made business people. It happens, but that was not truly the point of the Hammersmith show. It was more an expression of youthful exuberance, a celebration of achievement on a personal level.
To be sure, the styles we saw at the Palais, though trendy and eye-catching, were overtly no political statement against the circumstances the competitors are forced to live in. They don’t hold with the punk ethic of holding up two fingers and sneering: “We don’t want to be employed anyway.” For Ometha, Gaynor and Jeanette and all the other sharply-dressed kids who packed the hall, dressing creatively and competitively is resistance rather than rebellion. It is a last line of self-defence against poverty: it is pride in themselves.