I was not born with the shopping gene. My heart is not set aflutter by the spectacle of newly pressed clothes on neatly lined racks. I have never enjoyed the full-length mirrors in changing rooms, the small talk with sales assistants, the art of matching skirt with top. Shopping has just never been my thing – until recently. Until my dad, bless his carefully selected cotton socks, appointed himself my stylist.
When he comes to town, we go to a department store together and he picks out clothes for me. We’re quite a sight: young woman lost in the infinite rows of outfits, her father walking just ahead of her, laying out dresses and blazers and jeans on his cocked arm as he commentates on what colours, cuts and angles might suit me. Cold colours are out, I’m told, on account of my pale skin and light eyes. Warm colours are a go. The usual sorts of floaty fabrics I’m attracted to by nature are out; they’re unflattering and belie my age. Instead, it’s all about fitted items, things that actually sit on my body properly, snugly. He piles clothes up, I disappear into a changing room, and he passes things over the curtain. He’s brutally honest about what suits me, too. He will tell me, with a look, if something doesn’t work and I appreciate that.
My dad is a surprisingly talented stylist. It’s not exactly the standard role for a father to play, but he does it with an almost impossibly endearing commitment. He takes pride in it, too, like helping me dress well is a vital part of my growing into my 30 years of age. It’s also a little bit laced with emotion, I think, for both of us. My dad’s mother, my grandmother, died before I was born but my mental picture of her is of a stern-but-kind, good-looking woman in a fitted skirt suit with lashings of bold red lipstick. She was a nurse, but she was always, I believe, impeccably dressed. Dad adored his mother; he was the eldest and they had something special between them. I think he measures every woman in his life against her, trying, I suppose, to invoke her memory. He is very proud of me when I wear red lipstick, which I do sometimes deliberately to please him, because I think it’s like a little tribute to the grandmother I never got to meet. So, when he dresses me in London department stores, I can’t be sure but I’d take a pretty bold guess that he’s picking out things she might have worn; things she might have liked to see her granddaughter wear. It makes me all the happier to put on whatever he picks out for me.
And he has flawless taste. He has never, not once, picked out something hideous for me. It’s all my sort of thing: navy, sky blue, pale pink, lilac. He encourages me to get investment pieces, too, proper-nice clothes that will last years and make my wardrobe a little bit more dignified (otherwise, I’m known to hold onto clothes from five summers ago that are barely holding it together – in fact, as I write this, I’m wearing a dress my sister gave me after wearing it for years herself). There’s one piece in particular that makes me think of Dad when I wear it: a navy blue blazer with black leather trim. I actually went through a phase this winter where it was the only thing I wore on nights out: that blazer, navy jumper, jeans, boots. It became my socialising uniform and I felt smart in it, with this secret added delight of knowing I was styled by my dad.
We don’t just shop when we get together, either. We talk. We talk in a way we don’t always get to do, living so far away from one another and otherwise joined by the rest of the family. Shopping time is, for me, some very rare one-on-one, father-daughter time and we don’t waste it just talking about whether I can pull off a jumpsuit. We talk about important things, things that don’t come up over dinner or on the phone. We talk about whether I’ll marry my boyfriend, when I think I might be ready to have kids, why I’m scared of being pregnant, what form my depression takes, what insomnia feels like when it stretches on for weeks, what my next book might be about, his time living in London in his 20s, his feelings about being a grandfather, his thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn and the wellbeing of various members of our family. It’s just this very lovely time where emotional candour and fashion overlap.
Fathers and daughters can have complicated relationships sometimes, and I guess all you can do is try to find a way to connect that belongs just to you. We have found that, oddly enough, on the women’s fashion floor in London department stores. I adore my father. My greatest fear, my most tender worry in life, is one day having to live in a world without him in it. He is one of my favourite human beings and I cherish spending time with him – it’s just funny, to me, that the setting for our bonding would be in a clothes shop. He still does classic dad stuff – pulls his pyjama pants up past his waist, hoards old novelty caps – but he’s a very well dressed man and I guess he’s trying to pass that on to me. I wouldn’t employ the services of another stylist in all my life.