It was when I opened my wardrobe and saw a seemingly endless line of summer dresses, in every pattern and shade, from pale pink to bright yellow, many still to wear, that I realized I might just have a shopping problem. The combination of cancer and the Covid pandemic had fueled my desire to look, if not beautiful, at least trendy, even if the circumstances meant that no one but my husband Kris and the children would actually see it.
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 I had dressed in the previous nine months.
Thinking back to the photographs of the five years we lived in New York, a time during which I gave birth to two babies and suffered from a stillbirth, I didn’t just wear a similar style for five years, I wore essentially the same dress . It would take a return across the Atlantic and a diagnosis of stage IV cancer to help me rediscover my sense of style.
It started during my initial diagnosis of breast cancer – when you start losing all your hair, maybe it’s inevitable that you start focusing more on your appearance. When I was in good health I had the luxury of being able to say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter how people see me,” but once I got sick I started to worry more about the image I offered to the world.
I found that the wigs offered to cancer patients, while remarkably realistic to look at, made my head itch too much in the summer. Instead, I decided to channel my inner “Middle Eastern potentate youngest wife” with a set of dramatic turbans and three-quarter sleeve gowns.
Sarah Hughes has been a prolific and talented journalist for I and many other publications. She died on April 5, 2021 at the age of 48 from cancer after completing her memoir on “life, death and all the madness in between” leaving behind a husband, Kris, and two children.
Her family and friends created the Sarah Hughes Trust to hold an annual conference on her behalf.
After the mastectomy, my hair began to grow back, thick and curly with a white streak across the front that I was quite attached to. My post-cancer plan was for breast reduction and I was first advised to lose weight. I was about to start when I received the terrible news that my cancer had spread to the liver and was now metastatic.
What followed was a particularly grueling period when fashion was once again out of my mind. I was on a huge amount of steroids and can barely look at photographs from this period – I’m enormously fat and puffy with a moon face. I am unrecognizable. At night I would lie in bed and wonder how Kris had managed to convince himself to touch me.
Having managed to feel positive for much of my diagnosis, including the announcement that the cancer had spread, I found myself on the verge of severe depression.
But when my oncologist turned me off the steroids, the effects were almost immediate. The weight slipped off my face and body. I stopped looking bloated and became more than a normal size. More unusually, the weight continued to decrease, partly because that was when I developed ascites (abdominal fluid), which required regular drainage, and partly because of the progression of the cancer.
It was at this point that a little voice in my head noticed that this wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
It was stifled, however, by a louder voice that acknowledged that even so, it was actually pretty cool not to be overweight for the first time in nearly two decades. At this point, I was definitely moving into rough waters. It is one thing to want to be fashionable and quite another to equate style with a certain weight.
We are repeatedly warned against pathologizing our appearance, believing that looking one way is good and another is bad. Yet I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there was some satisfaction in seeing my weight initially drop and then stabilize.
The most exciting thing about the end of body swelling and moon face was the new opportunities to wear different clothes. After a couple of years of feeling deeply uncomfortable with my appearance and spending my time dreaming about fashion instead of wearing it, suddenly I was able to make those dreams come true.
Before that, I had fantasized about clothes rather than buying them. I embraced the concept of imaginary fashion; that is, entire dresses that existed in my head rather than in real life. There were days when I was Margaret Howell Woman, wearing Guernsey, immaculate shirts and perfectly cut dark blue pants, staring out at the sea from the potter’s house where I lived.
Or I was living in Paris during the Belle Epoque, where I spent my time with Romaine Brooks and Natalie Barney, wearing elegant men’s suits, or in Devon’s ‘Hangover Hall’ in the 1930s, watching Djuna Barnes complete Night Forest.
I was Mitford’s sister and Biba’s girlfriend; I queued for Dior’s New Look and joined the hordes that flocked outside The Limelight, CBGBs and Studio 54. I was the nightclub star and the doll bird, the rocker and the mod, the punk and post-punk and the queen of indie.
Now, suddenly and surprisingly, thanks to a combination of time saved money and weight loss, I’ve had the opportunity to act on those impulses. I could shop in French boutiques like Rouje, stocking up on their Gabin dresses and lipsticks in every possible shade of red. I could buy perfectly cut sweaters from Navygrey and Me + Em and full skirts from Uniqlo, Whistles and Collectif.
I rummaged through vintage online stores like the Bloomsbury seamstress and browsed through the shirt dresses from ethical clothing company Palava.
Most importantly, I became Margaret Howell Woman in reality, buying a pair of dress pants, a navy blue cable sweater and two shirts. I might not move from Perivale to the fictional potter’s cottage in Cornwall, but I could put on the clothes and pretend to be there as I felt like a long-standing fashion dream had finally come true.
At this point, he is probably raising more than one eyebrow. After all, we are constantly told about the evils of fast fashion and the importance of ethical shopping. To which I can only answer yes, fair enough, but different rules apply in the realm of cancer.
There is something about knowing that you are dying that changes the way you respond to things. Of course I can only speak for myself here – many other people living with metastatic cancer don’t choose to splurge, thinking it’s a crazy thing to do when you can’t guarantee how long you’ll be around. My experience, however, is that I desperately want to spend the last few months of my life looking as beautiful as possible.
I don’t care in the least that Covid and the subsequent lockdown mean that only Kris, the children and the doctors and nurses who treat my illness can see my different outfits. Because ultimately I believe that the style, the clothes you choose to wear, the things you fall in love with, have nothing to do with other people. You wear them for yourself.
Fashion might be serious business, but wearing it should always be fun. This simple understanding is the reason it took stage IV cancer to remind me how much I loved clothes. Because as my world shrinks and the end is in sight, so I want to look as beautiful as possible.
This is an excerpt from Sarah Hughes’ “Holding Tight, Letting Go”, published by Blink Publishing, an imprint of Bonnier Books UK, which is now available, £ 16.99