The first time I wore a pencil skirt, my boyfriend ran away from me. But that was after I misplaced St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Identity. The stories we tell ourselves. I am a Londoner therefore of course I know where St. Paul’s Cathedral is. Except, when I came out of the tube station, I didn’t. I stood amongst the crowds of map-happy tourists and miserable City dwellers combined, exuding an air of “I know exactly where I’m going” while squinting, as nonchalantly as squinting will allow, at my baffling surroundings which – inexplicably, impossibly – did not feature a giant dome. But I’m a Londoner and it’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. Of course I’m not gonna ask. I spotted a churchy-looking building in the distance and, to the tune of “Feed the birds, tuppence a bag” and flashes of pigeons and Dick Van Dyke serving as the only images my brain could supply of the landmark in question, I set off confidently in the opposite direction. After reaching the impostor (a tall, rectangular thing, the opposite, perhaps, of a dome) and establishing, firmly, that I was an idiot, I laughed at myself and surreptitiously checked Google Maps on my phone. And then, as my blue dot made its way back to where I’d come from, I used the phone to call the person I was now late meeting: Pencil Skirt Catrina, in town for a few days from Liverpool, who’d managed to find St. Paul’s Cathedral without any trouble at all.
‘I have to confess,’ I told her, half-hysterical, in the first conversation we’d ever had, ‘that I’ve lived in this city for 20 years and I don’t actually know where St. Paul’s is.’ To my immense relief, she laughed, this stranger who now knew me to be an idiot.
‘It’s a giant dome!’ she pointed out, as the thing itself finally came into view. A giant fucking dome. And I walked straight past it, because I am a Londoner. Do you see where I’m going with this?
I didn’t see it, to begin with. I was meeting with Catrina to talk about pencil skirts and writing. Specifically: I was going to write about pencil skirts. And though I was intrigued, I just couldn’t see it. I’d never worn a pencil skirt; I had no pencil skirt stories in me as yet. I didn’t see what these pencil skirts were all about. I saw Catrina, tall and imposing and elegant in hers – fittingly – but warm and funny and unconventional, the kind of person who is amused that you stood her up because you misplaced St. Paul’s Cathedral. My kind of person. In a pencil skirt. What does this say about her? What does it say about me, late and flustered in my uniform of jeans and All Stars, questioning my credentials as a Londoner and trying not to jump to conclusions?
This happens all the time. We learn things, important things, and then we forget them. And I forgot the most important lesson of all: that you can be exactly who you want to be. I learnt it bit by bit, day by day, by being all sorts of people I’d never been before. By doing things I’d never thought I’d do, simply because I hadn’t done them. But that’s where our stories come in. The preconceptions that we write ourselves into. I am a Londoner. I am never late. I always drink my coffee this way. This is who I am. And then: I’ve never worn a pencil skirt becomes I don’t. I’m not that kind of person. But which kind of person is that, exactly?
Identity. The costumes we put on. I have a ring in my nose and ink on my skin. What does that tell you about who I am? I used to wear a lot of jewellery but it began to weight me down so I took it off. Life is a lot lighter when you have less to prove.
There was a time when a man who had been flirting with me all night insisted that I was a lesbian. We had just met at my work Christmas party, and happened to catch the same tube home.
‘I’m not,’ I told him, ‘but what made you think so?’
Was it my boy-short hair, I wondered? Was it the big, chunky boots? Was it the fact that I spent most of the evening smoking with the boys in the garden? Was it that I swear a lot?
‘No,’ he said. It was none of that. It was my nose ring.
My nose ring: an item I have never associated with any particular type of sexuality; a relic of teenage rebellion; a thing I barely know is there.
Which goes to show that it really doesn’t matter what you say or do or what costumes you dress yourself in. People will draw their own conclusions anyway. Sometimes stereotypical, sometimes completely inexplicable but always theirs, not yours. You might as well do what you like. You might as well have fun with it. It’s how you see yourself that matters and even that, arguably, matters very little at all.
‘I’ve never worn a pencil skirt,’ I confessed to Catrina over coffee. ‘It isn’t me.’
And Catrina smiled and explained why pencil skirts were everyone, and as she talked I began to see it, the thing that I’d missed: this wasn’t about an item of clothing; this was about a symbol. And symbols I understand; symbols I can get behind. And this particular symbol was one that I could wear. I could put it on and see what kind of person it made me. What stories she would tell. This is the story I’d write.
I came home and gave my boyfriend the long version of losing St. Paul’s Cathedral and finding Catrina and blah-blah, something about skirts, and he did the nodding and the making of appropriate sounds but I could see that his eyes were glazing over until I mentioned that I was going to buy a pencil skirt, as an experiment, and the light came back on.
‘Oh yeah?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I confirmed. ‘And I will wear it!’
‘Oh. I don’t have heels. You think I need heels?’
‘You’ve gotta have heels.’
So we went online and looked at pencil skirts and heels.
‘But I just can’t see myself in this thing,’ I argued, hesitating over the “Buy now” button.
‘I can,’ he said, and smiled, this man who has loved me in my jeans for many years.
I think this counts as a pencil skirt story.
There is power in symbols, and costumes. I saw it, when I first put my pencil skirt on: I saw what Catrina was talking about. There was something about it that made this tomboy soul of mine long for things it doesn’t quite understand. Swinging hips and mysterious half-smiles. A level gaze, not arrogant, but exactly as tall as you are. Elegance. A sort of power that is exclusively, inherently female.
And terrifying, as it turns out.
My boyfriend walked in as I stood in the middle of the room, swaying gently as my centre of balance tried to compensate for the heels, and staring at myself in the mirror in utter bewilderment.
There was a pause, a moment of silence.
‘Oh my god,’ he said.
‘I know!’ I took a step towards him; he took a step back.
He made a strange sound in his throat. And: ‘You look too sexy’, he managed. Followed by: ‘I’m getting out of here.’
He backed away carefully as I tottered uncertainly towards him, spun himself around on the spot and literally ran out the door.
‘Um,’ I said to his retreating back. ‘I don’t think this is the effect I was hoping for.’
I didn’t go after him; I couldn’t, in my heels. So I stood in the doorway for a while, leaning against the frame, smoking a cigarette and channelling the femme fatales of all the ages, staring wistfully at the spot where their lover once stood, and blowing smoke rings that, when you wear a pencil skirt, look sexy and defiant. Nobody saw it, but it happened. I was that girl, for a time.
I have a friend who tells me I’m clumsy and, around her, I am. I perform that role for her. But I was a barmaid for years and never dropped a glass. And there’s no contradiction in this, after all. Do you see where I’m going now? Identity; the stories we tell. It’s just a script, a performance, a game that we play. And once you realise that, there is no greater freedom. That’s the lesson we mustn’t forget: that we have the freedom to choose who we want to be, at any given moment.
And if it takes a symbol to remind us, then so be it. If I can wear a pencil skirt, if I can be that girl and tell that story, there is no end to how many other people I can be. I can perform competent barmaid as well as I can perform hopelessly but endearingly clumsy friend; I can blend into the background in my jeans or I can stand in the middle of the room in a pencil skirt and terrify a man with my sexiness. And I don’t know if I’ll be adding more pencil skirts to my wardrobe, but as a symbol, I’ll be putting one on every day and channelling Catrina, immaculate in hers. Pencil Skirt Catrina, who is several other people, too, untouched by my preconceptions; who is a mother and a wife and a daughter and a kick-ass businesswoman and a brave entrepreneur and a former Londoner who can locate St. Paul’s Cathedral in time to meet me for coffee, and a stranger who helped me remember who I am. And maybe next time we meet she’ll be wearing a pair of jeans and I’ll stand her up again because I’m still learning to walk in my heels. And that’ll be another story.
And to draw this one to a close: if I can wear a pencil skirt, then so can you. Wear it figuratively or literally, it doesn’t matter; but wear it proudly and defiantly, and lightly, so that you can take it off anytime you like.
A word of warning, however: if you pair it with heels and your boyfriend runs away from you because you are too sexy, you won’t be able to run after him. A lot of good men have been lost that way. Better start practising your smoke rings.
This piece was commissioned, almost three years ago, by the wonderful Catrina, for the first issue of her Perfect Pencil Skirt magazine (online). I’ve no idea if it was ever published. But I’ll never forget her, or my pencil skirt moment, though I have never worn one since. And that boyfriend ran away from me for good.
Photo by Domantas Klimas on Unsplash