According to the anthropologist Igor Kopytoff, we can learn a lot about culture by studying the lives of objects. How they change hands, and what we swap for them; the emotional, sometimes magical values that we place on them; the uses we put them to – all these things tell us a lot about the societies where the things we make and own live. As all good students of Design History know, Kopytoff calls this the ‘cultural biography’ of objects.
Igor Kopytoff: it always strikes me as the sort of name that a bloke with a very big brain might have. And I have always reserved my contemplations of Kopytoff’s theory for the big brain activities, like essay writing. It never really occurred to me that that there might be an object with a ‘cultural biography’ in my loft.
That’s where, after a bit of a search earlier today, I found my purple suede fringed jacket.
Yesterday, out shopping with my daughter in Nuneaton TKMaxx – an activity low in cultural capital if ever there was one – I tried on a fake leather fringed jacket. I would have bought it, if not for the overwhelming smell of vinyl it exuded.
But it did remind me that I owned a fringed jacket already – this purple suede number which I think I acquired in 1989.
Professor Kopytoff would be interested to note that, as an item of western wear, it’s entirely fake. It came from one of those discount leather shops you used to see at the tacky end of Oxford Street and the label, to my surprise, says ‘Handmade in England’.
As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to have it: at the time, all shades of purple were a signature colour for me. I had read the 80s fashion self-help classic ‘Colour Me Beautiful’ and identified myself as a ‘summer’ – since when, I had acquired a wardrobe almost entirely made up of lilac, magenta, lavender, violet… you name the shade of purple, I wore it. All my jewellery was amethyst. Occasionally I broke the monotony with a splash of those other 80s favourites, fuschia or electric blue, but I mostly stuck to purple. The lilac chelsea boots in the photo, bought in a sale at the Covent Garden branch of Hobbs, were a particularly prized possession. I found them in the loft too and they still fit.
I wore this combo to lots of gigs. This was the era when cool country singers nailed their traditionalist colours to the mast by wearing jackets by the great hillbilly tailor, Manuel. Manuel liked purple too – look at this jacket and shirt he made for Jim Lauderdale, who still wears his clothes onstage today. And if Jim, and Dwight Yoakam and Marty Stuart thought western wear was cool, that was good enough for me.
The older generation of British country fans didn’t agree. They thought that dressing western gave country music a bad name and was responsible for its reputation for naffness. And I do remember seeing, at my first ever Tammy Wynette gig in 1987, a middle aged lady dressed as a squaw. So I completely understand why the then-editor of Country Music People magazine greeted me, as I arrived in this jacket, at the Royal Albert Hall to cover a 1990 gig for him, with the immortal words, ‘What the f*** are you wearing?’
You see what I’m getting at here, Kopytoff-style? Just as a Manuel jacket was a signifier of authenticity for my favourite artists, this purple suede jacket had a meaning for me. It showed the kind of country fan I was: my discovery of country music might have been fresh, but I liked my country to sound old. And even now that I’ve read all that I have about country music history and I understand about different types of authenticity and even acknowledge that a softer style of country was the way the music started, still in my heart I know that, when I hear the searing fiddle and wailing steel guitar of a great honky tonk band – well, that’s the real thing.
Even so, the next statement that this jacket, with its huge shoulder pads, brash colour and unforgiving nipped-in waist, might have made could well have been one about the cruel whims of fashion. It could so easily have gone, long ago, to a charity shop, had it not become a piece of personal memorabilia for me. I think it must have been in 1991 that I wore it to interview the Queen of Country Music Authenticity, Emmylou Harris, in London. It’s the only time I’ve ever met her and she was so bright, so interesting and so gracious that I’ll never forget it. And as I came into the room she complimented me on my jacket. To be fair, I had teamed it that day with a fuschia skirt, so maybe she just felt she had to say something; I mean, she could hardly pretend she hadn’t noticed my outfit, could she?
The jacket’s fate was sealed: I was never going to be able to part with it, ever, after Emmylou had said she liked it. That’s how it came to spend twenty years in a loft – and to survive into a world where your mum’s old clothes are no longer laughably unfashionable, the subject of ridicule. They are vintage. I wonder how much longer I’ll be allowed to own it?
And one more thing: after I had accepted Emmylou’s compliment, she gave me a piece of fashion advice. She told me only ever to wear one piece of western wear at a time – so the boots, the jacket or the shirt, but not all or even any two of them at once.
Now. I have the greatest respect for Emmylou and I knew, even then, what a privilege it is to receive fashion tips from her. I nodded and agreed.
Then I took absolutely no notice. Put it all on, I say! Fringes, piping, rhinestones, pointed toes and Cuban heels. Kick ‘em up, cowgirl – however real or fake they, or you, are!