“You feel empowered in a dress. The right dress can completely change your day”
Frankie Graddon | The Pool and Finery
I’m nervous about talking to Polly Stenham – intimidated, even. At 19 years old – an age when most of us are binge-drinking cheap white wine and wondering what to do with our lives – she wrote her first hit play, That Face. Premiering at the Royal Court Theatre, it was hailed as “one of the most astonishing debuts in 30 years”, and earned Stenham a clutch of awards, including the Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright. The following year, it transferred to the West End before moving to New York.
Now, at 29 – an age where I am still binge-drinking cheap white wine and wondering what to do with my life – she has written a further three plays as well as several screen plays, and worked with Nicolas Winding Refn (who directed Drive) on his horror film The Neon Demon. Fêted as the poster girl for the new generation of young female writers, Stenham also owns an art gallery, lives in a house with Warhols on the walls and and counts Lena Dunham as a friend. So, yes, I am feeling a little intimidated.
However, my angst soon disappears when she picks up the phone and starts apologising profusely for the short time I have with her. “Christ, it’s been one of those weeks.” she says in her posh London accent (Stenham went to the private boarding school Rugby and now lives in Highgate). Over the 20 minutes that we speak, Stenham swears like a trooper, laughs like a drain and sounds just a chaotic as I feel. It’s just like talking to a friend – I only wish we were in the pub.
I am talking to Stenham not about her impressive career or glamorous lifestyle, but about dresses. She has designed a dress for clothing brand Finery, as part of their new Forever Pieces collection. Inspired by “a shit tone of dresses and jumpsuits that I like in my wardrobe”, the dress is a short-length tunic shape with a deep V-neck, and mirrors her own Pattie Boyd-esque style.
Stenham swears like a trooper, laughs like a drain and sounds just a chaotic as I feel
What strikes me most about Stenham’s dress is not how it looks, but how she describes it – she calls it “a powerful thing”. And this is where I want to start – I am interested to know what makes this remarkable, defying, twentysomething woman consider a dress powerful.
“There is an element of costume and story-telling in what we wear,” she explains. “Clothes are more than just clothes – what you wear tells a story; it presents an attitude. When I wear a dress, I feel different, I move differently, I stand differently. It shows another side of my personality and I feel empowered. The right dress can completely change your day.”
She recalls the first time she realised the power of a dress was when she was in New York, during the American leg of That Face. She was 22, lonely and “having a really shit time”. She bought a dress from Theory – blue, cotton and with a 60s-inspired shift silhouette. “It was the first time that I realised I could feel comfortable whilst still looking smart, and I could go out in it later. That dress is everything.”
I immediately think of the time I met Channel 4’s Cathy Newman and the pink dress and matching high heels that she was wearing. If ever a “power dress” did exist, then that was it. But, as a fellow twentysomething and having felt, at times, uneasy about wearing a dress and what it might signify, I float the idea that perhaps dresses are too girly to be powerful.
Clothes are more than just clothes – what you wear tells a story; it presents an attitude.
“There is a lot of this argument in feminism, but what is girly? Why is girly different from feminine or masculine? I think the word girly in itself is the patronising thing. I think if you want to wear something like that and it makes you feel good, it is very empowering. Wearing it because you feel that you have to is completely different.”
We touch on “the hoo-ha over that amazing costume lady” Jenny Beaven at this year’s Oscars. “Everyone was so fucking patronising about that. She’d costumed herself to referenced the film [Mad Max]. And that’s so much more interesting, isn’t it?”
We talk about the expectation for women in Hollywood to wear long red-carpet dresses, and the outcry when someone doesn’t. So, where does that leave us with the idea of a dress being powerful? “In that instance, I don't think a dress is a powerful thing, because they [women in Hollywood] have to wear them. It’s about choice.”
If choice is power, I wonder whether she feels that the young women today have more choice in what they wear. “Yes, but probably still not enough. I think it’s complicated, being a girl. I think it’s better than it ever has been, but it’s still difficult.” By way of explanation, she tells me about the contrast in treatment between her and her male peers. “I’ve done photoshoots where I am standing on the roof of the National [theatre] in a tiny dress and I’ve thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ Boys don't have to do this. If I was a boy playwright, there would have been one moody shot of me against a wall – job done. And, instead, I am being tweezed and poked and styled. I mean [Harold] Pinter didn’t have to worry about this shit.”
Stenham’s success has had her featured in Vogue numerous times – an experience that she describes as “intense” and, I get the impression, not in a good way. She describes the experience of photoshoots as “fucking horrible on a personal level”, but appreciates that being in a fashion magazine might help inspire other young girls to become playwrights so is “a good thing for an industry that is still predominantly male.” And then, of course, there are all the clothes – “the shiny new things are so great. It’s hard”.
If I was a boy playwright, there would have been one moody shot of me against a wall – job done. Pinter didn’t have to worry about this shit.
I suggest that, like many women, she has a complicated relationship with clothes. “Oh my God, totally. Clothes can make me hate myself, they can make me doubt myself. I’ve done crying in front of the wardrobe when I’m getting ready to go out and nothing looks right and you start to feel a bit teary. And, by the time you’re out the door, you’re smoking a cigarette, even though you said you wouldn’t. And then you arrive feeling edgy and feeling like you look crap.” She laughs exasperatedly. “Oh, it’s the worst. But then there is something very hopeful about a new piece of clothing. For example, I am wearing a blue jumper today that is making me feel really happy. Like anything quite interesting, it’s complicated.”
Clothes – what we wear – are a complicated issue indeed and it is interesting to listen to Stenham tussle with the complexities. While she enjoys shopping (& Other Stories and Finery are her favourites: “they do really great knitwear”) she describes it as sometimes feeling “crappy and materialistic”. Her synopsis of the fashion industry is “sort of wonderful in a way and really dark in another way”, which, as someone who works in fashion, I would say is pretty accurate. But what is clear, talking to Stenham, is that, after all of that, she still finds the magic in clothes – the magic in a dress. The description she gives to her Finery dress is like something out of adventure story – “It’s a dress a runway would take with them because it could be so many things, so many disguises.” I ask her what it is about clothes that hold such escapism. “It’s transformation,” she replies. “It’s alchemy. It’s about changing you – making you feel better and look better. It’s the idea that you are attempting to transform yourself in however large or small a way. That is a magic act.”