09/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lessons in Fashion and the Female Brain

When I was 13, I was obsessed with fashion. I spent boring car journeys with my boring family dreaming of the outfits I would save up for and acquire, the outfits that would shock and dazzle the world into knowing that I was someone.

Sometimes, I'd knock them up myself: from Heal's and Habitat curtain remnants, à la The Sound of Music; sometimes I'd see them on the rack in Dorothy Perkins. The family photos bear testament: a sulky teenager swathed in swirly cheesecloth, or washed out in daffodil yellow, or locked in a denim prison.

But I was 13. At 13, as recent studies have shown, the human brain is still growing. It may fire neurons that lead its owner to believe that there's nothing more important in the world than the platform shoes at Dolcis that your mother's too mean to buy you, and that your parents were put on this earth expressly to embarrass you, and that you will die, just die, if that guy you met at the youth club disco doesn't call you, but give it time and the patterns of those neurons will change.

Not, it seems, for some. On Sunday, I saw Coco Before Chanel, a two-hour biopic which was, I think, meant to be a heart-warming homage to an impoverished quasi-orphan who triumphed over adversity, and the men who tried to exploit her, to become a 20th-century (you've guessed it) icon. Audrey Tatou, as Coco Chanel, looked great, of course: winsome and gamine in that Audrey Hepburn-Felicity-Kendall-frightened-rabbit-androgynous way that British men find so alluring. And unthreatening. Kind of sex without the sex.

The message of the film, from what I could gather, was that frills and ruffles and bows were bad, and should be eschewed for jodhpurs, or simple skirts, and little straw hats, for which someone could charge a fortune. Whether a thought beyond that ever crossed Coco's mind (beyond the de rigueur passion for a handsome English bastard), or indeed anyone else's, remains unclear. It was all very pretty, but I came out feeling that I'd learnt nothing about the human species except that it likes frocks.

Before the film started, there was a trailer for The September Issue, a documentary (due out, tastefully, on what Americans call 9/11) about Anna Wintour, tormentress-in-chief at American Vogue. The woman who inspired The Devil Wears Prada has become what Hollywood would, no doubt, call an icon and a legend. She's scary, apparently. She wears sunglasses indoors. And she presides over a magazine that shapes an empire that shapes a multi-billion pound industry.

All very nice, I'm sure, but do we read breathless profiles, and watch Hollywood films, about the editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, or Furniture Today? No, we don't, because although the arms industry is worth even more than the fashion industry, and Billy bookcases aren't doing that badly either, the people who run them don't have the USP of Wintour and her ilk: this peculiar social construct called glamour.

Coco Chanel and Anna Wintour both managed to become living incarnations of that 20th-century obsession (that we now take entirely for granted), the brand. The brand is king. And queen. And God. Armando Ianucci told me the other day that he was recently asked at a Hollywood party what he was wearing. Resisting the urge to reply "a suit, are you blind?" he dutifully said "Armani." A friend of mine who works in magazines is constantly asked who her outfit is "by." By?! It's not a Picasso, for God's sake. It's probably made by an emaciated Chinese teenager, doing a 12-hour day in a sweatshop, if that helps.

I know that fashion in newspapers and magazines is about advertising, and that if we don't get it, we're all screwed (but we're probably all screwed anyway), but I really, really don't understand how someone can spend the price of a car on a dress or a handbag. Whenever I think I should wear something different, and force myself into the shops, I come back with another black top and another denim skirt. I just can't think what else to wear. And I don't really care. Because, you know what? They're clothes.

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