Throughout the 1980s, I admired second-hand fake “leopard-skin” coats very much but I never could find one which passed muster. There was always something not quite right; a bad fit, too frumpy, tatty, smelly, or just too trashy.
Then, around 1990, I stumbled across the perfect specimen, in Jive Hive on Oxford Road (near Johnnie Roadhouse), priced £25. I only had a fiver on me, so I handed it over and hurried off to borrow the rest. When I returned half an hour later, I was forced to wrestle a poor unsuspecting woman out of MY COAT! The shop assistant had a memory like a goldfish – apparently.
My proud purchase wasn’t for every-day wear (seeming to demand make-up) but was ideal for nights out during the colder months. The only downside was my conviction that it might be stolen at any moment, which interfered somewhat with the joy of ownership. I would eye cloakroom attendants suspiciously, convinced they would become smitten and steal it. A friend christened it my Crimewatch coat – not because of my theft paranoia, but because she thought it made me look like a hapless woman of the night.
I met my husband in 1995, while nightclubbing without my coat. (In fact I was inappropriately dressed in a dark brown M&S jumper for boring reasons which I won’t go into. The jumper was silk and cotton fibre, slash/boat neck with a flat cable rib, quite clingy, hip-length… I wore it to death and then slung it without ceremony.)
My husband and I got a mortgage in 1997 (to buy a house in Whalley Range, where prices were low due to its red-light reputation) and thereafter went out much less, having very little spare cash. After our first baby was born I was quite depressed for a while. I coped better with our subsequent new arrivals but sadly I became quite fat.
Fat and forty. Suddenly fake leopard seemed like a really bad idea. I imagined myself wearing the coat at the school gate (where else did I go?) and the pitying looks which would ensue. What would other parents think? That I was a fantasist, deranged, or perhaps even an old tart? (Though I’m sure they wouldn’t consider me capable of such excitement.)
So one day I bundled my beautiful coat into a black bin-bag and donated it to Age Concern, along with satin shorts, various mini skirts and some gorgeous brightly coloured tights. I felt weirdly triumphant… as if something (what?) had been achieved. Driven to drastic action by my own personal age and weight concern, I never-the-less hoped sincerely that someone else would fall in love with my coat and that they would embark on a fabulous new life together…
Of course, I was a fool.
This wasn’t just a moment of madness, but a prolonged phase of negative self-delusion, during which I lost all confidence in my appearance and imagined the future would only get worse. At the nadir of my spiral of despair (do spirals have nadirs?) I was trudging round Asda in my husband’s cast-offs.
Over the several years since becoming a parent I had completely shed my original identity in the false belief that I no longer had any claim on it; something to do with preconceptions about motherhood and age, bound up with our culture’s obsession with youth, and my terror of looking like ‘mutton dressed as lamb’, a phrase frequently used by my mother to damning effect.
My wake-up call came unexpectedly when Radio 4’s PM programme requested that listeners send in photos of themselves. I picked out a picture of myself and the kids in which I was only visible from the neck down… I don’t know why exactly.
The very first photo which presenter Eddie Mair described on-air was the same; sent in by a mother, it showed her from the neck down with a baby on her lap. The baby was now grown-up, she said, but she still felt that this picture best represented her life. I recoiled in horror – initially with disgust at my own lack of originality – but later with a sense of having wandered unwittingly into an alien landscape full of headless women, only to discover that I had become one of them!
I have since tried to replace my coat using Ebay, but buying ‘vintage’ clothes on-line is a tricky business… most of my purchases have been sold on again. Many coats made in the 1950s and 60s have ‘bracelet length’ sleeves designed for glove-wearers, which make me look like a man because my arms look too long and my hands too big. Also, leopard print’s high contrast pattern is misleadingly photogenic on-line… the best way to gauge the quality of a fake fur coat is by seeing pictures of the lining.
Lister Katmandu (by Listers of Bradford) and La France Safari (by Riegel of South Carolina) are the the most consistently good brands of vintage faux leopard fur I have found. Bet Lynch’s coat in the picture above is almost certainly Lister Katmandu, which was made from mohair and acrylic and is apparently fireproof and mothproof. Great British brand Astraka used various faux fur suppliers; my original coat was, I believe, made from Bri-Lon Furleen, manufactured by British Nylon Spinners and sold under license by Astraka.
It only dawns on me now, that by reclaiming the right to wear faux leopard over forty, I am blindly embracing the cliche of the “strong but unsophisticated northern woman”. In attempting to rebel against the stereotype, I may end up simply fulfilling it. I must learn not to hate that idea… it’s better than being headless.