Noel Duan on the sometimes surprising style of Oxford

When I moved from New York City to Oxford last year, I thought I had seen everything when it came to fashion on the streets. I have seen Amazonian women sprint across rush-hour traffic in five-inch stilettos and I have seen purebred dogs in bright pink tutus eating hot dogs in the park. And that was just one lazy summer afternoon in Manhattan.

To my delightful surprise upon arrival, the myriad of quirky styles in Oxford is just as filling for hungry eyes as the dreaming spires and picturesque park grounds.

Robin Givhan, Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion columnist, once wrote:“Fashion is not the most important thing in the world, certainly. But it does tell us a lot about who we are as a society in the same way that great architecture, music and art do.”

Nothing in New York — not even all those seasons of attending the circus that is NY’s fashion week — could have prepared me to see fuzzy onesies from Primark worn nonchalantly on Cowley Road, flannel and distressed leather jackets worn in Headington, fur coats and bare legs shivering in front of Freud’s in Jericho, and crisp blazers and salmon-coloured pants striding (too) confidently on George Street.

One day in Oxford is like visiting the United Nations of Fashion. (To be honest, if you were bold enough to wear a Primark onesie at New York Fashion Week, you might actually end up a street-style star.) One November afternoon in Summertown, where I was taking a walk, an elderly lady with silver hair complimented my equally silver neoprene skirt. “It reminds of the wild things I wore when I was a young coquette in the ‘60s,” she said. “I hope you take that skirt dancing. Take it out dancing because you’re too young to stroll around alone like an old woman like me.”

I did take that skirt out later and I did end up spilling red wine on it, irreparably ruining the fabric forever — and while the skirt is tossed away, the fun memories remain. Former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland once said that a “new dress doesn’t get you anywhere; it’s the life you’re living in the dress, and the sort of life you had lived before, and what you will do in it later”. Fashion is not just about the latest runway trends and what appears in fashion magazines.

It’s a storytelling medium that gives people a sense of belonging — and a sense of individuality. Geographically speaking, Oxford is far enough from fashion capital London to develop a sense of style that mirrors the individual residents instead of the catwalk — but fellow fashionistas, don’t distress, I found vintage Prada in a consignment store here, and even Vogue editors shop at Reiss and Zara. Oxford is a petri dish for personal style because it is city with stories to tell — stories that contradict one another, stories that are too shy to be told in words, and stories that elude spoken and written communication.

With a rich Anglo-Saxon history, a varied economy — from manufacturing to publishing to tourism — and an international population aged nought to 99, this city has never needed the London catwalk for a bold stroll in style.

Traipsing on Cowley Road in stilettos is just fine. Indeed, many great books have been written here — but sometimes, the most intriguing stories are told by the swish of a skirt.

Noël is a postgraduate student in women’s studies at the University of Oxford, who has a double degree in anthropology and art history from Columbia University, New York