It was when I opened my wardrobe and saw a seemingly endless line of summer dresses, in every pattern and hue from palest pink to bright yellow, many yet to be worn, that I realized I might just have a shopping problem. The combination of cancer and Covid pandemic had fueled my desire to look, if not good, then at least stylish, even if circumstances meant that no one apart from my husband Kris and the kids would really see.
In my teens and twenties, I had a keen interest in fashion. But after my first child was born I found that I lacked the energy to change the way in which I had dressed for the previous nine months.
Looking back over photographs from the five years we lived in New York, a period during which I gave birth to two children and suffered through a stillbirth, I didn’t just wear a similar style for five years, I essentially wore the same dress. It would take a move back over the Atlantic and a stage IV cancer diagnosis to help me rediscover my sense of style.
It began during my initial breast cancer diagnosis: when you start losing all your hair then it is perhaps inevitable that you start to focus more on how you look. When I was healthy I had the luxury of being able to say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter how people see me,” but once I was sick then I began to care more about the image I put forth to the world.
I found that the wigs offered to cancer patients, while impressively realistic to look at, made my head itch too much in the summer. Instead, I decided to channel my inner “younger wife of a Middle Eastern potentate” with a series of dramatic turbans and full-skirted, three-quarter sleeve dresses.
Sarah Hughes was a prolific and talented journalist for I and many other publications. She died on 5 April 2021 aged 48 from cancer after completing her memoir about “life, death and all the madness in between” leaving a husband, Kris, and two children.
Her family and friends have created the Sarah Hughes Trust to establish an annual lecture in her name.
After my mastectomy, my hair began to grow back, thick and curly with a streak of white at the front that I was rather attached to. My post-cancer plan involved a breast reduction and I had been advised to lose some weight before it. I was about to begin when I received the terrible news that my cancer had spread to my liver and was now metastatic.
What followed was a particularly gruelling time when fashion was once again far from my mind. I was on a huge amount of steroids and can barely bring myself to look at photographs from this period: I am hugely fat and bloated with a moon face. I am unrecognizable. I would lie in bed at night and wonder how Kris was able to bring himself to touch me.
Having managed to feel positive for large parts of my diagnosis, even the announcement that the cancer had spread, I found myself teetering on the edge of serious depression.
But when my oncologist took me off the steroids, the effects were almost immediate. The weight slide from my face and body. I stopped looking bloated and became more of a normal size. More unusually, the weight continued to fall off, partially because it was then that I developed ascites (abdominal fluid), which required regular drainage, and partially because of the cancer’s progression.
It was at this point that a small voice in my head noted that this was not necessarily a good thing.
It was drowned out, however, by a louder voice that acknowledged that even so, it was actually quite nice not to be overweight for the first time in almost two decades. At this point, I was definitely moving into tricky waters. It is one thing to want to be stylish and quite another to equal style with being a certain weight.
We are repeatedly warned against pathologizing how we look, believing that looking one way is good and another is bad. Yet I would be lying if I didn’t admit that there was a certain satisfaction in watching my weight initially drop and then stabilize.
The most exciting thing about the end of the body bloating and moon face was the new opportunities to wear different clothes. After a couple of years of feeling deeply uncomfortable about how I looked and spending my time dreaming about fashion rather than wearing it, suddenly I could make those dreams come true.
Prior to this, I had fantasized about clothes rather than buying them. I embraced the concept of imaginary fashion; that is, whole outfits that existed in my head rather than in real life. There were days when I was Margaret Howell Woman, wearing guernseys, immaculate shirts and perfectly cut navy trousers and staring out to sea from the potter’s cottage in which I lived.
Or I was living in Paris during the Belle Epoque, where I spent my time with Romaine Brooks and Natalie Barney, wearing sharp men’s tailoring, or in Devon’s “Hangover Hall” in the 1930s, watching Djuna Barnes complete Nightwood.
I was Mitford sister and Biba girl; I queued for Dior’s New Look and joined the hordes thronging outside The Limelight, CBGBs and Studio 54. I was nightclub star and dolly bird, rocker and mod, punk and post-punk and indie queen.
Now, suddenly and surprisingly, thanks to a combination of long-saved money and weight loss, I had the opportunity to act on those impulses. I could shop at French boutiques such as Rouje, stocking up on their Gabin dresses and lipsticks in every possible shade of red. I could buy perfectly cut jumpers from Navygrey and Me+Em and full skirts from Uniqlo, Whistles and Collectif.
I rummaged through online vintage shops such as the Seamstress of Bloomsbury and browsed the shirt dresses at ethical clothing company Palava.
Best of all, I became Margaret Howell Woman in reality, buying a smart pair of trousers, a navy cable knit and two shirts. I might not move from Perivale to the imaginary potter’s cottage in Cornwall but I could put on the clothes and pretend I was there while feeling as though one long-held fashion dream had finally come true.
At this point, more than one eyebrow is probably being raised. After all, we’re constantly being told about the evils of fast fashion and the importance of ethical shopping. To which I can only reply yes, fair enough, but in the kingdom of cancer different rules apply.
There is something about knowing that you are dying which changes the way you respond to things. Obviously I can only speak for myself here – plenty of other people living with metastatic cancer do not choose to splurge, thinking it a crazy thing to do when you can’t guarantee how long you will be around. My own experience, however, is that I want desperately to spend the last few months of my life looking as good as I can.
It doesn’t matter to me in the slightest that Covid and the subsequent lockdown means that only Kris, the children and the doctors and nurses treating my disease get to see my different outfits. For, ultimately, I believe that style, the clothes you choose to put on, the things that you fall in love with, have nothing to do with other people. You wear them for yourself.
Fashion might be a serious business but wearing it should always be fun. That simple understanding is the reason that it took stage IV cancer to remind me of how much I loved clothes. For as my world narrows and the end hovers in sight, so I wish to look as good as I can.
This is an excerpt from ‘Holding Tight, Letting Go’ by Sarah Hughes, published by Blink Publishing, an imprint of Bonnier Books UK, which is available now, £16.99