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Angela Tilby: The fashion challenges for a cleric in retirement

09 June 2017


LET us forget election results, and talk about clothes.

For 20 years, my day dress was all black: clerical shirt, black trousers or pencil skirt, and black jacket or pullover. This was sad, since black is a colour that I was once told I should never wear.

Now, on retirement, I am free to dress as I please. But I have no idea how to. I have been advised that everything now is layered, nothing is “tucked-in”; clothes are informal, and I should aspire to a casual, im­­provised look.

I don’t mind casual, but I don’t do improvised. I want clothes to look meant. When I go into Gap, or M&S, and find myself confronted with rows of unironed tops, my instinct it to sweep them off their hangers and submit their creases to the stern corrective of the ironing board. I cannot understand how creases in linen can be intentional. Properly ironed, cool linen is won­derful — for half an hour at least.

This summer’s styles bewilder me. To uncover one shoulder would leave me shivering; variable hem­lines would induce disequilibrium. I look back with nostalgia to the pas­tel florals of the 1970s; the luscious silk shirts with proper scarf rings and chunky cufflinks.

I love denim in most of its manifestations, as long as they are blue, straight, with­out frills, patches, or rips — and ironed. I can do leather, too. I have a black leather coat which came from Turkey, and I am not going to give it up, not least because of what I went through to acquire it.

I was on holiday near Ephesus, and had gone on a coach trip that included a visit to a leather factory. We were promised a fashion show at the end. Just before it began, the tour guide came up to me (I was one of the larger members of the party) and more or less insisted that I personally model a knee-length item in black leather.

It was one of those moments when I had to make a choice: either to look a prat by refusing, or to risk looking an even worse prat by agree­ing. Everyone was looking on — there was no escape. On the spur of the moment, I decided that the least conspicuous thing to do was to agree, and so I put it on, and, to music and drum rolls (perhaps these got added later), I sashayed down the catwalk in the leather coat, paus­ing at the end to show off the silky silver lining.

In retrospect, this was the biggest challenge I faced in 20 years of pub­lic ministry. At least I still have the coat to show for it.


The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church Cathed­ral, Oxford.

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