Secrets are back: here’s why

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Marilyn Monroe by George Barris. The breeziest way to wear cashmere.

Max Mara’s 2015 Autumn collection, imagined what Marilyn Monroe might have worn to her secret life as a literature student at UCLA Night School. Night School was a place where she could hang up her sex bomb stilettos and indulge her intense curiosity. The visual inspiration for this freer Monroe was George Barris’s playful photo of her on the beach in a clinging cashmere blanket. On the catwalk, models  in the guise of Monroe, with wind and water textured curls, rose from a blue ocean background, and clasped luxurious camel coats to their waists, merely hinting at the slinky flesh-textured clothes beneath.   One of the most intriguing outfits  layered a quilted teal strapless cocktail dress over a translucent gauge knit, and was accessorised with black-framed glasses. This was Monroe in transition from spectacle to student, and the diamond patterned quilting implied incubation and mystery.

The collection moved me because it celebrates the private, meandering passions that drift off the main course of one’s life, but ultimately fertilise it. As I’m writing in a springtime cold snap, I see the coats as cocooning, they give the catwalk Monroes the space and warmth to nurture a secret life, to adapt, without feeling exposed and naked.  As they rise from the sea, like Venus, they do not so much reveal their bodies as their occult creativity- I can’t help but think they are on the verge of pupating into something new.

A pregnant gesture. Max Mara, Autumn 2015
A pregnant gesture. Max Mara, Autumn 2015

I’ve wanted a secret life ever since I could read and write, which is funny, because if anything, writing is communication. But the people in the books I read always had secrets, and they would reveal them slowly and artfully. Like them, I wanted to have a layer beyond what was immediately obvious. Secret-sharing for me and my school friends became an elaborate ritual, which incorporated a hushed tone of voice, the highest room in the house, or the bottom of the garden, and a promise to swear on your mother’s life that you wouldn’t tell, with all ten fingers spread before you, to show that you weren’t crossing them. I remember the heady rush of adrenaline that came from revealing a secret, or being amongst the chosen few to hear it.  There was also devastation when a third party gatecrashed your secret, and shame when you’d revealed someone else’s, and had been found out.

How high the moon. Where to spill the beans
How high the moon. Where to spill the beans.

Oddly enough, as we grew and had more to conceal, some people gave up on secrets. The taboo and the banal were splashed about on the bus ride home, and the unsuspecting friend of a friend who had tagged along, might learn everything without any major trauma. Those of us with overprotective parents or artistic pretensions still cultivated secret lives – I remember the mini skirts rolled up into my friend’s rucksack, or the times I would disappear off on some adventure without telling anyone where I was going.

Quilted incubator dress, officially Max Mara, ready to wear, Autumn 2015
Quilted incubator dress, officially Max Mara, ready to wear, Autumn 2015

When Facebook first came about, I regarded it with the suspiciousness of an ugly fashion fad. Why would anyone want to seem so accessible and obvious all the time? For a few years everyone was posting everything, and the secret threatened to die, along with the thousand, thousand anecdotes that perished because they were too ubiquitous, and no one was interested. Still, some learned the art of post-tease, sharing elusive things that led people up the garden path about their lives, or hinted at something important.  The experts hit Monroe’s sweet spot of public mystery.

From Somerset House's 'Invitation Strictly Personal' exhibition
From Somerset House’s ‘Invitation Strictly Personal’ exhibition of vintage fashion show invitations.

Of course this virtual life is a bland foil for the sadder, more complex, infinitely richer  lives that people actually lead. But the private self continues to thrive, as a space where we can experiment with new ideas and identities before they are wholly exposed to the world. Secret hopes, dreams and fears are shared delicately, with a few choice confidants, and often face to face. I’ve even seen some of my childhood secret-sharing rituals return: clandestine lovers and crushes are nicknamed, and scrutinised in pubs that you’ll never return to; creative projects in embryo are coded after a single letter; and there’s a Wednesday afternoon that you won’t account for, but leaves you smiling.

Another way to code your secrets. La Gazette du bon ton, 1920s.
Another way to code your secrets. La Gazette du bon ton under glass, 1920s.