And now for the leather...
Perennially stylish, fabulously low-maintenance and surprisingly versatile, every woman needs a BLS*, says Johanna Thomas-Corr, whose trusty Topshop number has been her ‘second skin’ for the past five years (*that’s black leather skirt).
In a world that spins as quickly and as confusingly as this one, there are a few things that a woman must hold on to with both hands. Her sanity, ideally. Her dignity, hopefully. Her friends, her Chanel Rouge Coco lipstick, her side of the story. And her black leather skirt.
I didn’t learn this useful lesson until I was 32 and pregnant, when I first acquired this miraculous item. And I relearn it each time I find myself scrabbling around in my wardrobe for something that is chic, practical and isn’t in the wash — because it can’t go in the wash.
I wish I’d learned it at a younger age. You especially need to hold on to your leather skirt if you’re in a Dante-esque soft play facility in a retail park off a purgatorial ring road and your toddler wants you to hold his hand on the slide. If you don’t, the damn thing will stick to the plastic and turn itself inside out. Then your child will go flying while you hurtle into the infernal ball pool with no dignity whatsoever.
But experience has taught me that if you can steer clear of slides, leather sofas and country stiles, the black leather skirt can become your best fashion friend. It’s not precisely a wardrobe staple, in the same way as an LBD, or a pair of blue jeans, or a crisp white T-shirt, or even a leather jacket, but I have become convinced that it should be. My black leather mini is easily the most versatile and durable item I own, more so than any pair of jeans I’ve ever bought. Skinny, bootcut, flared, high-waisted, straight leg — I’ve never managed to find the Holy Grail.
My own BLS isn’t even a particularly noteworthy one. Unlike this year’s more directional numbers from Alexander McQueen, Azzedine Alaïa or Isabel Marant, it has neither belt nor studs nor laser-cut embellishments. It doesn’t even have buttons, pockets or fancy topstitching. It’s not pleated or asymmetric. It’s totally basic, in fact, a generic A-line mini with a tiny slit up the back.
But there are amazingly few places where a woman can find decent basics on the high street. There are plenty of shops in which a man can find identikit shirts, for example, all arranged neatly by size and colour and style, but women’s fashion doesn’t work like that. Our exterior self is expected to change every six months or so, with the addition of zips and the varying of hems and the fluctuations of pelmets.
When you find something simple and unfussy, it’s worth a thousand novelties. It arrived one birthday five years ago, courtesy of my husband via the second-hand bit of Topshop in Oxford Circus. It came with a series of anxious excuses: I know it’s not your size. I couldn’t remember what colour you wanted. I searched everywhere. They’d sold out of leather skirts in Whistles! Why, oh why, do you issue me with these impossible sartorial challenges?!
As I remember, I’d dropped no more than an airy hint. I wanted some sophisticated garments to toughen up my style, which until my early 30s might best be described as romantic-tea-dance-with-a-preppy-WesAnderson-twist. I got away with this whimsical look when I was a girl but what I needed were womanly clothes with attitude. I remembered my friend, Emma — who is a little bit older than me and a lot cooler — telling me: “Whenever I wear my leather skirt to work, I tend to get what I want.”
Evidently my husband had taken my hint seriously enough to go traipsing up and down the high street, finally falling upon the vintage rails in Topshop, where he pulled out a black, Mary Qaunt-esque miniskirt. Short but not too short, it had a timeless, easy elegance. The kind of skirt that might previously have been owned by a hip feminist in the 1970s. Perhaps worn with a turtleneck and accessorised with a Gitane. If it were a book, it would be printed in the calm, authoritative tones of a Penguin Classic.
It was perfect — except that it was two sizes too big. It took a while to get the skirt taken in and, by the time it came back, I was in the early, somewhat accidental stages of pregnancy.
For a few months, while I got over the shock and tried to hide my little bump, it acted as a decoy piece. No one expects a pregnant woman to start wearing a leather miniskirt, especially a woman who spent much of her 20s in lacy cardigans and tweeds.
My friend Jill told me it was “grown-up sexy”. Another, Laura, that it made me look “like you’re off for an evening of cocktails and poetry in New York”, which pleased me, since she lives in New York.
I wore it to birthday parties in speakeasy bars, to interview actors and musicians, and to gigs in dingy bits of Camden. I pushed the limits of its waistband until, at around five months, I had to succumb, like most pregnant woman, to maternity jeans.
A couple of months after my son was born, and desperately sick of stretch jersey, I dug it out again.
Around the soft, buttery leather of the waistline, it still bore the wrinkles from where I’d stretched it. But that ruched cowhide made space for a never-to-be-flat-again tummy.
Granted, the curvy effect was a little more Kim Kardashian than Kate Moss, but paired with a denim shirt or Breton T-shirt, it created a look that was simple, elegant and clean — wipe clean, as it turns out. Ideal for life with a small baby.
There is a psychological value to clothes, and this particular piece reminded me of my pre-motherhood identity. It made me feel less ho-hum. For other women, it might be a pair of Nike Airs or a backless dress. The BLS kept me company during the lonely winter of maternity leave, when I felt dowdy and lost in a cycle of Bach to Baby classes and tea and cake with similarly exhausted new mums.
And its wrinkles spoke of an undeniably changed life.
In the past five years, it has become my second skin. I don’t even know if it looks that great any more and I’m not sure I care; it’s too much part of my life. It’s moved house with me six times.
I wore it canvassing in the rain during the 2016 referendum campaign and on the 2017 Women’s March in LA. I’ve tried to show it a good time. It's accompanied me to Ibiza, Manhattan, Provence, Rome and Weston-super-Mare. I’ve taken it to Chateau Marmont, to the Royal Opera House and to Sugar Hut in the heart of Towie country (but we don’t talk about that). It’s seen Tottenham Hotspur play Besiktas at White Hart Lane and been treated to Sunday lunch with my grandmother-in-law. I’ve even paired it with a sequinned top for a wedding.
When the right person dies, I’ll inevitably wear it to a funeral. In fact, note to mourning relatives: I really wouldn’t mind wearing it to my own.