Alexandra Shulman’s introduction to her charming memoir opens with an inventory of her wardrobe. It is a disarming tactic, as if to say: “See, I have socks, bras and knickers just like you” … although most of her readers will probably not be able to match the four fur tippets and five full-length evening gowns; nor the 81 pairs of footwear.
Each chapter concentrates on an item of clothing or a colour and what it means to Shulman, who recalls her first party dress (navy poplin, puff sleeves with pink piping); her wedding dress (white, long sleeves, by Ghost; navy Valentino slip dress for a later wedding party thrown by her parents Drusilla Beyfus and Milton Shulman); and what she wore to Westminster Abbey when Catherine Middleton married Prince William (navy again, with a headpiece by Kate Halfpenny – don’t call it a “fascinator”; Shulman wouldn’t).
The narrative is relaxed and easy but never gossipy – readers wanting lurid details of the uncomfortable changeover of editorship at Vogue, when Shulman departed and Edward Enninful took over, will be disappointed. However, she does allow a slightly steely tone to creep in when she writes that although few profiles of her are without a mention of her weight, no comment is ever made about his.
Shulman’s relaxed self-confidence is what makes her seem so relatable – a normal figure in an industry not noted for its tolerance of those with breasts, stomachs and bottoms. Hence the furore over her 2017 Instagram post of herself in a bikini: a mature woman not covering herself up! But the guarded tone ensures that we might know exactly what is in her sock drawer, but are kept at arm’s length emotionally.
Her background was in newspapers although she did time at Tatler, the determinedly “high society” magazine; when she became editor of Vogue in 1992, sales figures “had been thought of as to some extent irrelevant”. That changed under her guardianship. She wanted it to be “beautiful and accessible”, and by the time she left she had increased circulation and made £200m profit for the owners, Condé Nast.
It is a shame that there are no colour photographs – of her rose-print Prada skirt or Erdem gunmetal shift – but it is clear from the reproduction of her leaving card, with its “101 Ways to Wear a White Shoe”, that what counts for Shulman is not fashion but style.
• Clothes … and Other Things that Matter is published by Cassell (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.