Monday, 20 April 2015

What Goes Around Comes Around - Part 2

I didn’t know it would happen so quickly. In fact, I was sure it should take longer. Why so soon? How so swift? Couldn’t I be granted a longer grace period, a little longer for it all to come back – instead of returning before I was ready to face it full on? Was there any rhyme or reason to such odd circularity, history ready to repeat itself seemingly infinitely?

I could be talking melodramatic bollocks about any number of things above, but I’m afraid my attention is focused in tightly to something plenty will think of as frivolous – trends. Ah, trends. Like the friend at the party that everyone thinks is kind of cool, but does have that irritating tendency to repeat the same story again and again.

Maybe I’ve been more aware of this recently, because it’s the first time for me when the magazines and catwalk reports seem like mirror image copies of the ones I picked up five or six years ago when I was a newcomer to the whims of the industry. Clogs? Check. The seventies? Check. Florals for spring? (Groundbreaking). Check. Obi belts? Check. And suede? Check, check, check.

Then there are the generic similarities between designers that one can loosely group together – things with labels like ‘whites’ or ‘sports luxe’ or ‘stripes’ or, with true airheaded offensive aplomb: ‘ethnic prints’. These aren’t real trends, but constants that can be packaged up as something new. Continuing with the party analogy, think of them like the people who turn up to every gathering going – very familiar, all dressed the same, being mildly edgy without any real innovation, but probably guaranteed to have a good time.

Let’s backpedal to suede though. It genuinely is one of my favourite fabrics. I have suede boots, suede dresses, suede jackets and a sixties suede A-line coat. Still on the lookout for the ideal suede skirt (been eyeing up these Beyond Retro ones – starkly similar to what I wore at my first ever LFW. Sadly that Topshop number had to go when I actually developed hips). Oh, and of course, this suede top, pictured above. I want to call it ‘buttery soft’, as that’s how it would be described if it graced the pages of a glossy mag, but ‘buttery’ is among the more bizarre fashion adjectives. Butter is greasy, slippery, sticky and liable to melt if left out of the fridge too long. This suede top, however, is smooth, supple and pretty cosy.

I first posted it on this blog almost exactly five years ago on April 28th, 2010. I’m out by a mere eight days (if I was truly dedicated I would have waited, but, you know, I’m an impatient gal). Back then I wore it with a black body-con dress, pointy Italian heels and a long string of faux pearls I’ve since lost (damn it). The little accompanying post mentioned Phoebe Philo’s sway at Celine, and nodded to the heritage of that suede t-shirt – originally belonging to my paternal grandma in the seventies. I even quoted Oscar Wilde (go fourteen year old me!) The whole thing was titled ‘What goes around, comes around.’ So consider this a continuation of that orbit. Maybe I’ll style it again in another five years when the industry inevitably looks to the past again. April 2020, I’m looking at you. Hey from nineteen year old me to twenty four year old me (good lord). Hope you’re having a good time. Hope you’ve found your ideal suede skirt too. 

This time round I'm wearing my suede with a vintage Betty Jackson silk shirt, some second hand velvet shorts (basically impossible to see though) and second hand heels from eBay. 

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Politics of Engagement

The last general election in the UK took place when I was 14 – in my penultimate year at secondary school, an interest in politics slowly nurtured in between homework assignments. There was Nick Clegg. Oh, Nick Clegg. How exciting he sounded! Ready to shake up the political system, to listen to young people, to do things differently. Well, we all know how that turned out…

Skip forward to sixth form: coalition in place, cuts happening, various relentless rounds of grim news. One of my good friends and I had regular coffee and conversation dates in our favourite café – caffeine fuelling big, rambling chats about policy, art, education, the environment, gender, housing, benefits. In summer we sat outside in the courtyard at the back, gabbling excitedly – steam and words rising around us.

She’s now actually studying politics. I’m doing English at a University whose name appears in the national press regularly – often in relation to our cabinet, many of whom trod the privileged path from good prep to private school to Oxford - or Cambridge. Before the reshuffle there were more individuals who’d attended Magdalen College (Oxford) than there were women. Yep. Really.

I don’t claim to know the kind of social sphere they inhabited there. It still exists, but it’s not one I’m familiar with – only having observed it from afar, much as one might watch a wildlife documentary with odd curiosity. This city houses a lot of different versions of the ‘Oxford experience’ within its streets, spires and colleges. Words like ‘Bullingdon’ and ‘boating dinner’ have no relevance or interest to plenty of us studying here.

Being here does give a glimpse, however, into the inevitable flaws to be found in having a cabinet primarily composed of those who’ve never worried about money; who were told by their elite fee-paying schools that they were destined to succeed; whose sense of entitlement is stitched into the seams of their clothes. And that’s before we get to the overall make-up of Westminster, where only one fifth are female (more like Stella Creasy, please. I love her. She’s fabulous.)

Oxford is also the constituency I’ll be voting in come May 7th. This is the first time I can take part rather than watching from the sidelines and I’m pretty much positive that vote will be going to the Greens – for all the reasons I articulated in the Sunday Times Style the weekend before last (see the pictures above).

Please, please can I stress at this point that the deadline for registering to vote is April 20th. It takes less time than watching a Youtube video or procrastinating on Twitter. Students and young people need their voices to be heard, but you’re silent if you can’t (or can’t be bothered) to vote. There’s a huge number of missing female voters too, as pointed out in the excellent #XXVOTE campaign by the Youth Media Agency.

I’ve been dipping in and out of election coverage – trying to inform myself, but also not to live in a perpetual state of raised blood pressure. I am simultaneously more fired up by and frustrated with politics than ever before. What raises my hackles most is the slippery rhetoric: the hollow words, pat phrases, sound bites and general performance of it all. I don’t mind performance if it's interesting or meaningful, but there’s little of that to be found in this dull (and pretty dirty) grapple for seats. Instead it becomes about who can win more voters with this comment or that neatly enticing policy. Fuck the actual human implications. It’s all about power here. Many of them speak a lot - but say pretty much nothing in an attempt to win everything.

Obviously there are some brilliant MPs out there. To deny that would be unfair and ignorant. Many do care about their constituents, about improving this country, about the environment, about the NHS and schools and housing and mental health and plenty of other things too. But you know what? Not enough of them, by far.

I was talking over all of this with my mum. She’s a former teacher. The state of education is an ongoing conversation in this household. Yet, as she said, “every time I look at any exchanges taking place in the House of Commons chamber, and see the behaviour on show, I feel like I’ve stumbled across a riot in the classroom.” 
Having gone to a secondary school where lessons did sometimes descend into chaos, I fully agree.

“My inner ‘teacher voice’ rises”, she continued, “and I want to stand in the middle, and in quiet, commanding tones, remind everyone of the rules that basic, civil human behaviour operates by: taking turns, no shouting, treating each other with respect, listening, putting one’s hand up to speak, and not saying rude, personal or provocative things. These seem to be lessons that many instantly un-learn once they become an MP. It would not be tolerated in any school, or by any inspection. Why can’t Ofsted fail Westminster on its behaviour policy?”

We need more of that all round. Respectful human behaviour – grounded in empathy and understanding, rather than a quest for control. That doesn't mean claiming that you totally ‘get’ what a life is like that’s very different to your own, but it does mean a willingness to put yourself aside, listen, respond and think your way into someone else’s shoes. It’s what great novelists do all the time – asking the big “what if?” Why can’t more politicians do that?

I was styled in the most fabulous Stella McCartney ensemble for the shoot, along with my own vintage coat and shoes. Photos were by David Yeo and styling by Flossie Saunders. The fab Fleur Britten was immensely searching in her questions, and I was thrilled with the write up. A pleasure to meet everyone else who was featured too - stressed to me again the importance of being young, and engaging with politics, even if it feels like the politicians aren't engaging with us. 

Monday, 13 April 2015

A Vintage Adventure at Angelo's Palazzo

For a little while my days have been a mix of ducking, diving, zipping and zooming. The holidays hit partway through March, and the first fortnight away from academic work became an alternating rhythm of London day-trips and languorous lie-ins to catch up on sleep. Things have slowed down since (I’ve just returned from a family trip to Turkey – more on that soonish), but among the train commutes and meetings of those initial two weeks, there was another adventure further afield – a 24 hour interlude in Bologna, joined by the lovely Olivia, Carrie and Monica.

The reason for our oh-so-fleeting visit? A treasure trove of clothes found a little way outside the city called A.N.G.E.L.O. Vintage Palace – aka, the actual embodiment of my personal heaven. As someone with a keen-cut taste for everything from twenties to seventies (occasionally stretching to eighties if it’s one-of-a-kind fabulous), several floors full of carefully cultivated vintage clothes is nigh-on close to perfection. A hint of hyperbole there? Maybe. But I feel it’s very much justified.

This Palazzo is owned by Angelo Caroli, a man who knows more about vintage than I could ever hope to guess at. He’s been working in the realms of the past since 1978, when, at 17, he was employed as a styling consultant on a radio programme. A quick-forged link with a local second hand shop owner piqued his interest, clothes initially amassed for personal and commercial use slowly transforming into a desire to gather, preserve and protect a (rather large) slice of fashion history. His current shop is three years older than me, having opened in 1992. All in all, he owns about 180,000 items from 1850 to present day.

Anyway, enough of biography – back to the clothes rails for a moment. Entering the shop was a little like moving through a bright, fabric-filled Wonderland; a suspended space cut off from the drizzle and damp streets outside. The best vintage shops often do this. They’re not necessarily stranded in the past, but nonetheless give an air of otherness, of existing slightly outside the clock the rest of us work to. Maybe a more apt literary comparison would be something like a sartorial Narnia (sans witch and lion, obviously) – i.e. a private kingdom complete with its own internal time, only to be found behind an unprepossessing entrance. A Narnia with more denim jackets, perhaps.

The ground floor stocks women’s, men’s and children’s clothes. Up the curved staircase lie further gems – several rooms of meticulously chosen goodness, including a handful of more high-end designers. I can’t think of a better word here than the (now over-used) ‘curated’. This is a shop defined by Angelo’s conscientious eye for detail, shape, proportion and good design; from the clothes themselves to the displays assembled from hatboxes, handbags and mirrors. I ran my hands over tea-dresses and silk blazers, salivated ever-so-slightly at the suede capes, and generally felt a bit miffed I couldn’t buy pretty much everything.

That’s not the end of it though. Above the shop lies Angelo’s private archive, stuffed to the rafters (literally – on the top floor we could hear the drumming of rain on the roof) with some seriously special garments. These clothes have been used in fashion editorials, films, music videos, adverts and exhibitions, with others influencing new collections (plenty of designers have knocked on his door seeking out inspiration). He’s also supplied plenty to private archives, including Gucci’s.

The best part? We were allowed to play dress-up there. I felt like a child let loose in a sweetshop – one part exhilarated at the liberty of it all, one part overwhelmed at where to begin. First I dabbled in the odd delectable outer layer, quickly moving from a green velvet Dior dressing gown to a Moschino coat with purses for pockets to a cape Little Red Riding Hood would have been proud to wear. Then it got serious: a seventies YSL black dress with an inbuilt cape (general note to the fashion world – more inbuilt capes please), followed by more YSL in the shape of a long-sleeved leaf-print gown. After that, some gorgeously constructed couture dresses. Plus hats. Oh the hats! While I swished around and jumped in and out of one outfit after another, Carrie found a fabulous baguette bag, Olivia hung out in a fifties dress in the bathroom (it has pink walls and a retro bathtub full of rolled up pairs of jeans), and Monica eyed up all the handbags.

I suppose I should explain the reason for this whole trip (aside from sheer revelry in gorgeous garments). The four of us had been invited along by McArthurGlen, a designer outlet chain with stores across Europe. This year they’re running vintage festivals in two of their UK locations – Swindon (30th April to 17th May) and York (21st May – 7th June). For each of them, Angelo has assembled a pop up collection of items for shoppers to get their hands on. In addition, there’s also a ‘Timeless Style’ exhibition charting the significance of particular items, trends and iconic pieces from the 40s to the 90s. Think everything from Chanel quilted handbags to designs worn by Marilyn Monroe and Jane Fonda. Plus, on the VIP launch weekends for each, there’s the chance to have your own vintage items evaluated by the man himself. If the whole experience is anything like the enclosed whirl of patterns, cuts and careful choices we got to glimpse here, then we’re all in for a treat…

This post was sponsored by McArthurGlen, but consider the unbridled enthusiasm for all things A.N.G.E.L.O. vintage to be as genuine as genuine can be. If you ever find yourself near his shop, then go, go, go! Many thanks to MG for treating us so well whilst we were there, and to Angelo and his lovely assistants for being charming, enthusiastic and gracious while we ran around his shop. Also big appreciation for Olivia and Monica who kindly supplemented the images taken by the photographer on the day with a few from their cameras too.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Blank Page: A Few Thoughts on Writing

Writing is a funny thing. I do so much of it. Often I feel like I know nothing – at other times that I’ve got it reasonably sorted, that I know how to arrange words and sound out their rhythms. Those are rare, wonderful moments, but significant ones. They must be rare though. I’m still negotiating this medium, continually learning the art of a good sentence, the ways to tailor cadence. The more I feel it out the more I love it, my lines and paragraphs becoming supple material to work with; to hew, construct, assemble, polish to the right pitch. 

It’s an ongoing process of learning and refining, so I find it interesting that I’m sometimes asked for tips from others - receiving emails requesting advice. I have to admit this is something that still feels strange. The questioning tends to fall into three categories: the first to do with improving one’s own writing, the second asking where I find ideas, and the third addressing ‘success’, however that may be defined. Even though I don’t feel hugely qualified to answer any of them, a few scattered thoughts came to mind – and I may as well set them down.

First – how to improve? Well the easiest way forwards is practice. Write and write and write. Having a blog for nearly six years has been the most invaluable structure for me, needing self-imposed commitment week in and week out. I may look back on posts from several years ago and wince at the grammar, but I can only do that because I’ve improved through constantly working at it. Moving from ‘not-so-good’ to ‘better’ requires as much typing/ scribbling/ scrawling as you can regularly achieve. It also helps to look at it all with critical perspective – and never get complacent. Where do you want to go next? Is it worth pushing yourself out of the usual comfort zone to do so? If a section doesn't flow, why - and how can you rectify it?

On a more general note, reading things aloud usually reveals a multitude of (small) sins like repeated words, labored images or overly long, baggy sentences. I just cast an eye back over my last few lines and realized I’d used the word ‘only’ in three adjacent sentences. Two of them have gone now.

The flipside to ‘write, write, write’ is ‘read, read, read.’ Read anything and everything. Read it, then question what you like – and what you don’t. Whose style and thoughts do you admire most? For me at the moment, that list includes Jeanette Winterson, Siri Hustvedt, Alan Garner, Laurie Lee, Anne Fadiman, Margaret Mahy and Virginia Woolf. A mix of essayists and novelists (some are both). All treat language as both tool and craft. And these are just a few of the writers I admire on the printed page, before we even get to the multitude I read online... 

Second – how to find ideas? I’m definitely not the best person to ask here. I tend to dream up too many then fail to find the time for completion. They spring up from all sorts of places, whether an in-depth conversation with a friend, a book I’ve read, an exhibition I saw, an idle musing inspired by too much time on Twitter… You get the idea. Most are united though in my desire to question, explore, celebrate or interrogate a thought; giving it room to be rolled around, unraveled, and hopefully pieced back together again. Essentially, be open to what’s around you, and zone in on what you find interesting. Also, if in doubt, brainstorm and work through knotted ideas with ink - bullet points, arrows and squiggled lists galore.

Third – how to find ‘success’? Oh lord. I kind of didn’t want to include this, as my ambitions stretch so far into the future that I can’t see (and wouldn’t want to know) the end-point. I feel I’m hardly started. But I guess if we break it down to the basics of “how does one end up writing for particular platforms?” then there are a few practical pointers. One is that the two principles above come first. You have to be willing to learn, to tweak your voice and content for a particular audience, to come up with new ideas all the time. After that, it’s a lot of unsuccessful pitching, the almost certain belief you’ll never get there, quite a bit of legwork (usually for free), the sacrifice of lots of spare time, a pinch of luck, and the occasional gleam of opportunity. Enter writing competitions. Begin a blog. Get yourself on social media. Take small chances in the hope that later they’ll lead to bigger ones. Networking helps too, both in person and online. It’s an unfortunate name for an activity that, if genuine, should be about having a deep-felt interest in others – rather than some cynical way of viewing people only in terms of what they can give you. Tirelessly create your opportunities – and be open to those that come your way.

I guess the fourth point to all of this is that every writer has a different trajectory, and way of doing things. So many love to write about writing, packaging up their personal experience of pitching and publishing then delivering it as general truth. Of course we all have our own quirks and interests and means of getting our work done. So maybe some of this will be relevant, maybe none of it. Who am I to say anything with more authority than another?

(Fifth - When finished I read this aloud to someone else, and as a result made at least ten tweaks, deletes, word changes and clarifications. Apt, really...)

The link to the outfit? Well of course daaaaarlings, this is exactly the kind of thing I sit down in at my desk for a day of work - boots and all. I jest. It's not far off though. The mornings when I write sometimes take place in pyjamas, at others in full-length dresses, floaty smocks or great shirts. No regular uniform, so to speak. This just slots in among the rest. And, of course, everything here is second hand. 

Friday, 3 April 2015

Desperately Seeking Jumpsuits

For a while, I was a woman on a mission. What was the grand goal ahead? Was I working towards some big achievement? Well, yes, actually (more on that soon), but for the purposes of this piece of writing – no. I had a far simpler mission. I was a woman desperately seeking a jumpsuit.

I hunted through clothes rails, combed eBay, sniffed out every one-piece in Rokit and Beyond Retro, all to no avail. Being rather tall and very picky (eighties? No, no darling, not quite what I’m looking for. Think good tailoring and louche elegance, not shoulder pads), I knew it was going to take a while… I was in this for the long haul.

Let me take a step back and unravel the logic. Why did it have extra significance, above all other wardrobe items? Call it the elusiveness factor. Unlike, say, a cotton sundress or good silk shirt, the jumpsuit is hard to get right – to be tucked and seamed for perfect fit, providing an optimum amount of confidence. Think of it as the relationships conundrum of the clothing world. Intelligent, interesting, attractive, compatible people where it just works aren’t always easy to find. Plenty have qualities making them ideal friends, but nothing more – well suited to fabulous conversation and raucous evenings, rather than longstanding, unwavering devotion. (Actually? Who am I kidding? That’s exactly how I view my best friends too). 

It’s easy to try plenty of them on for size – nearly there, but a little too tight, or short in the leg, or designed in such a way as to make your torso seem twice as big. There are also many that one could settle for, if necessary, but with the knowledge that they’re only temporary, merely a stopgap on the way to a better fit. But oh the moment when you find the ideal! Suddenly the waiting is worth it. Now you can look fabulous, and feel all the fiercer. Whether it’s some strappy black thing, or a more robust creation complete with sleeves, buttons and a collar, there’s a hard-to-pin-down quality to the best jumpsuits - a kind of easy, practical glamour adding extra slink to your stride (plus, obviously, the less sophisticated frustration of having to half-undress every time you go to the loo). Jumpsuits are powerful. They mean business. You can’t stand around apologetically in a jumpsuit. The right one won’t allow for that.

I don’t think I’m the only woman who’s been seeking out the superlative jumpsuit. I’ve had a handful of conversations/ rounds of commiseration with others over the pursuit of this seemingly unattainable garment. I guess it’s a hard one to get right. It must suit your body shape, flatter without either constricting internal organs or leaving you with lots of excess fabric, and hold its own with some audacity. Not much to ask…

I finally found mine in a charity shop (where else?), hesitantly taking it the changing rooms, convinced it wouldn’t accommodate my length of leg. But I got lucky. I’m not sure yet if it’s the one for me, but for now it suits just fine. And I tell you what – I feel rather formidable whenever I’ve got it on.

Everything I'm wearing with the jumpsuit is also second hand. This set of observations was partly inspired by a Twitter conversation earlier this week, when the ever-excellent Sophie Heawood was singing the praises of (and looking amazing in) a particularly delectable jumpsuit from BOB by Dawn O'Porter. In response, Niki from Miss Magpie Fashion Spy swooped in quick-smart with her pens to whip up some wonderful illustrations. She kindly allowed me to reproduce them here. I think between the two drawings, she aptly captures the potential of a fabulous jumpsuit to uplift, enhance and generally make the day a bit better. Oh, and while we're in the subject of all things all-in-one, I should point out that Vix rocks a catsuit like no one else. See here if you need convincing. 

Monday, 30 March 2015

A Spring in my Step

It’s no secret that I’m a flat shoes aficionado – I’ve said that much before. I like their stability, their practicality, their strideability (I’m making that a word, as of now). I’m a quick walker, committed dancer and regular cycler. All of these are improved by having things on my feet that are comfortable rather than intricately pretty.

But there’s still an issue – namely, the navigating of fancy events more suited to elevated heels than battered boots. Most of my flats err towards the pragmatic, my favoured choice at the moment being these much-loved velvet DMs. Otherwise, it’s black leather lace-ups, brown brogues, or blue suede boots. All great for libraries and London day trips, but not so good for more elegant occasions.

I’ve got a few ornamental pairs of flats, but they're often just as painful to wear as stilettos with serious inches to them. So usually I plump for being incongruous. I figure that few people will be looking at my feet, so I can get away with thick soles and clumpy weight rather than flimsy nothingness with a bow on top (I’m not a fan of ballet flats – they remind me of school uniforms and the awkward flush of adolescent conformity).  

Occasionally I’ve thrown away caution and just plumped for the extra elevation, thinking that I’d grit my teeth and flit through the pain. Usually this isn’t the wisest of ideas. There’s a sizeable gap between projection and reality.

On one especially memorable night last summer at a ball in Oxford, I chose vertiginous shiny shoes that added at least four or five inches to my height. They looked perfect with my black gown shot through with silver threads. But, outfit perfection notwithstanding, they were bloody uncomfortable. After queuing for about an hour in increasingly chilly winds, with only a small scarf to protect my shoulders from the cold, I was miserable. My feet ached. I began doing that thing where you balance on one foot, flamingo-style, and flex the other – trying to get feeling (and blood) back into toes. By the time we finally got in, each step hurt. It also required that extra confident stride one has to adopt in tall shoes, with feet placed firmly, quickly, carefully one in front of the other. When everything is already feeling a bit numb, that kind of pace isn’t pleasant.

I did have a lot of fun that evening – I danced, ate good food, was liberal with the Irish coffee on offer, and hung out with friends. But you know the single best moment of the night? Sneakily managing to switch from those damn heels to my brown Chelsea boots, complete with thick socks (and a cardigan too). Suddenly I could think clearly again, and move without uncontrollably shivering.

It’s that ease I value above all - to the point that this summer, any fancy events will either be attended in brogues/ other flats, or with something more pragmatic stowed away in my handbag. Maybe these patent Ops & Ops ones pictured. Aren’t they beautiful? They’re handmade in a family-run factory in Portugal, and are soft as soft can be. The founders/ designers Steph and Teri (two seriously cool women with backgrounds in journalism) were inspired by their adoration of sixties shapes and colours, wanting to create durable shoes one could dance in all night - and also wear during the day. Well, I'm yet to go out dancing in them, but as someone pretty committed to boogying on into the early hours, it can only be a matter of time... But here they worked ever so well to complete my vaguely idealised sixties student get-up, complete with some stylish Penguin reissues picked up in Blackwell's (somewhere I spend too much time and money).  

Many thanks to fabulous Dina of She Loves Mixtapes for taking the pictures (see the shoot where I was behind the camera here). Everything else I'm wearing is second-hand, with the zip-up dress bought from Vix's FABULOUS Kinky Melon boutique by my mum. 

(Jumping for joy in my best, slightly blurred Avedon style)

Monday, 23 March 2015

Burning Bright

If you asked me, I’d never say I was someone who aims to be bright – to fill life with colour, or to dabble in especially zany fabrics. But look in my wardrobe, and immediately you’ll see the clash of pinks, yellows, greens, blues and oranges, with plenty of stripes, patterns and prints thrown in among them. An ample dose of subtler background shades too, but they tend to be less noticeable. My necklaces are all jeweled tones and magpie-glitter, while my gloves range from raspberry to mint to lemon (and plenty that can’t be described with references to food either).

For I actually do love colour, especially when it’s mixed together: the satisfaction of a yellow vintage shirt under a blue boiled wool tunic; a baby pink gingham fitted dress with a bright green sixties coat on top; the delicious combination of mauve velvet and teal silk; red mohair facing off a grey leather full fifties style skirt; orange pleats matched with khaki layers. Whether there’s a number of juxtapositions, or one shade standing proud against a muted palette, I feel comfortable when my get-up is a little eye-catching.  

Plenty of my favourite film sequences and photographers tend to focus on colour too. Consider Kay Thompson with her instructions to ‘think pink’ in Funny Face, Moira Shearer looking glorious in a spray of petrol blue layers and flashes of lavender in The Red Shoes, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell dripping with red sequins in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or Audrey Hepburn’s array of dresses in orange, lime and light pink in Paris When it Sizzles – and that’s before we get to the technicolour brilliance/ headache of The Wizard of Oz. Also, think quickly of Erwin Blumenfeld, Horst, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Tim Walker, Nick Knight. All adept at monochrome, but dazzling in colour too.

But to rein it back in to the personal, it's easy to forget that it’s more unusual to love the vibrant and lively - and that for some a uniform of dark, restrained colours is much more desirable. I often think about this when I’m on the Tube (London Underground) - as I have been a lot this week - where the usual tone of coats, jumpers and trousers errs towards the darker end of the spectrum. Not always, by any means. But to be intensely colourful remains a way of making the choice to stand out slightly. As I try to stay upright, one hand gripping the rail and the other balancing a book, I’m aware that my red lipstick, turquoise cardigan, velvet shorts and purple tights (a combination that works, I promise) marks me apart. I appreciatively note others who’ve also chosen to be bright and bold, as well as the odd man or woman who looks intensely chic regardless of the need for something vaguely flamboyant. 

My own choices change from outfit to outfit too. One maxim I frivolously work by is ‘the greyer the day, the more intensely colourful my clothes.’ If it’s drizzling, out come the florals or electric blue beanie hats. (Also, the chillier it is, the shorter the skirt - but we’ll save that for another time). At other points I’ll move towards muted tones, reveling in charcoal, black, brown and navy. Also, uni taught me to dress for comfort, then provided another valuable lesson too – the art of sometimes dressing down, colour-wise. Right now I have on a black leather mini-skirt, black brogues, and a blue and white jumper. Still ‘dressed up’ by some people’s standards, but a little more low-key for me.

I like being able to chop and change though, to move between peacock and pigeon – knowing that I feel equally comfortable in either guise.

Here we have a mix of the intensely bright and the slightly more muted, thanks to my late great-grandma's mohair cardigan, and a velvet embossed/patterned - it's like flock wallpaper - dress from a charity shop (with the requisite polo neck underneath). Also a second hand cobalt blue handbag and men's shoes. Thanks to Stella for snapping the pictures. 

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Barbie Girl

Why does Barbie have such an enduring appeal?

At first, my mum hated her. She railed against that unrealistic figure - all snap-in-half waist and boobs big enough to cause backache. After much begging from five year old me, she finally relented and let me build up a small collection – but with the proviso of encouragement to be creative in making some of the clothes for them myself.

I had a box full of fabric scraps and bits of ribbon, creating costumes by wrapping, tying and (occasionally) stapling together these oddments and my mum also ran up a few tiny garments on the sewing machine. Alongside homemade skirts, there was a modest array of shop-bought outfits – emerald green gowns, shiny pink dresses, polo-necks you had to wrestle over Barbie’s head, little plastic shoes to jam on her feet. My favourites were some green glittery platforms with chunky heels and lots of straps. Different times indeed…

So, I look back and I don’t think Barbie is necessarily awful. I had such fun with all of mine, whether I was setting up elaborate scenes (I was that child who was more into dressing/ arranging/ making them interact and look great than actually playing) or on occasion urging the dolls to abseil down the tree in the garden. Bratz were out of bounds – an illicit treat I could only access at a friend’s house. My Barbies provided hours of entertainment and imagination though, and a good grounding in how to layer up silk and velvet.

Yet there are a few important things to point out. The professions of my Barbies, when first bought, ranged from the ubiquitous (princess) to the rebellious (skater girl) and the professional (photographers and scientists). They weren’t all blonde, long-haired and white either; my mum covertly ensured I had a diverse range. I was perhaps encouraged to play with my dolls in a particularly inventive way. And although there was a certain amount of fluffy female stereotyping, not everything was pink and sparkly and reductively ditzy/ more hair than brain cells.

It seems that in recent years the Barbie stereotype has heightened. Maybe that’s also because I’ve got an increased awareness of beauty ideals and gendered toys. But I do think beyond that, Barbie is less fun than she used to be – even more ‘perfect’ and airbrushed than before. And, yes, the word ‘Barbie’ has always been shorthand for describing a particularly ridiculous, archetypal expectation of brainless femininity, the type that asks boys for help with anything too smart or technical. But I’m sure that the relentless emphasis on looks and proportions and passivity have become more – rather than less – prominent in a world where women are reduced down to their appearance so much of the time.

Add into this the resurgence of Barbie in the fashion world last season - from Moschino to the Karl doll. Apparently all of this is meant to be ‘fun’ and ‘tongue in cheek’ and ‘soooooo innovative’ (fash-speak for, umm, I liked it, but can’t quite articulate how, so I’ll resort to hyperbole). Really though, and I’m only speaking for myself here, I find it quite bizarre. All the Moschino show underlined to me is how ridiculously slender the mould is for catwalk models. In a recent interview with The Observer, Jeremy Scott said that ‘she’s there to bring fun and you shouldn’t really look further into it. She doesn’t promote body dysmorphia, she’s a 12 inch-tall doll. People bring too much of an adult perspective to it. They do to all fashion, really. It’s just clothes and, above all, it’s a choice. Buy it or don’t – you don’t have to have a conniption fit about it.’

As someone whose basic mode of operating is to ‘look further’ into plenty of things, this held no sway. Scott ignores any sense of context or cultural awareness. ‘Perspective’ is bloody important, actually. Yes, fashion is meant to be ‘fun’ (at times) – but one designer doesn’t get to dictate exactly how that ‘fun’ is manifested, and then ignore all suggestions to the contrary. Nothing is ever ‘just clothes’. Designs are rooted in this culture, this age, this society. To claim anything can be separate from all that is pretty laughable. But maybe he’s right. It’s not Barbie that promotes body dysmophia, per se – but the entire ideal pushed forward by the industry. She’s just a kind of vamped up, hyper-exaggerated version of that.

There’s no better exemplification of this than the @barbiestyle Instagram account, which obviously mimics many high profile fashion bloggers/ industry figures. Yet it parodies the conventions, whilst also flagging up the fact that the kinds of bloggers given the biggest exposure and celebration are often those who fit the incredibly slender Barbie-esque measure of what's considered 'attractive'.

Essentially the continued message is that beauty and popularity are constituted online in extraordinarily slender, white figures (black Barbies only make cursory appearances, at best) dressed head to toe in expensive designer gear. This Barbie blogger’s imagined life revolves around shopping, spa days, exercise, jet-setting and taking selfies. Seeing a doll posed to emulate a blogger/ online celeb – but knowing it’s not a piss-take, but rather a seriously clever commercial move – leaves me unsettled. That particular incarnation of Barbie may resemble satire, but she’s not being laughed at. She’s being taken deadly seriously. 

The idea for this post was mainly sparked by realising just how perfectly 'Barbie' this vintage 70s pink satin blazer was - it was a present from my mum (and I actually snaffled the skirt off her too for the shoot). The shoes are from a charity shop, and the Barbie was dug out of the loft and dressed accordingly. And talking of Barbies, a while back I wrote a piece for All Walks on Louise O'Neill's brilliant YA book Only Ever Yours - which imagines a dystopian society where looks are the sole factor in determining young women's futures. It's great, and kind of bloody scary. You should buy it. 

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Mother's Day Musings

I didn’t plan to write anything today. As far as I was concerned, my blog could sit by itself for the weekend: images selected, text published, some musings on chilly temperatures and big coats enough to sustain the site for a while. But as I lay in bed this morning, contemplating which was more pressing – further snoozing, or making myself a massive breakfast (hard life, I know) – I began thinking about mother’s day.

I’m still negotiating the strangeness of not being with my family for these kinds of celebrations. Independence fits with an easy comfort, and I enjoy having my own, separate life for a portion of the year. Right now though I’m anticipating the next holiday interlude back at home, or, rather, back at my original home. It’s not the only one now. Oxford feels more and more like ‘my’ city as the months wind by.

What am I looking forward to back among the hills though? Big meals, laughter, walks, bickering, hanging out clutching mugs of coffee, conversations over wine, charity shop trips, creative ideas, sustained projects, a little bit of nurture. The freeing feeling of not being responsible all the time. Being able to have loooooooong, meandering chats with my mum without having to pick up the phone (which, admittedly, I do all the time here). Spending time in the presence of a close-knit family that I’m overwhelmingly privileged to have, and to be loved by. Access to my full wardrobe probably figures somewhere in there too…

All of this floated through my head as I snuggled under my duvet earlier. I realized that today, of all days, it would be fitting to write about my mum – create some little essay for that intelligent, resilient, witty, empathetic woman.

But rather surprisingly (for me), I have no idea where to begin or what to focus in on - mainly because the field of possibility stretches far beyond view…

I could discuss our shared adoration of vintage dresses and jumble sales, unwrapping the significance of my style heritage and nodding to the power of second hand silk shirts. I could plait together choice anecdotes about her side of the family, discussing each successive generation of mother and daughter – all quiet frustration and flashes of love. I could distill down the tale of how she met my dad, the meeting of the performance poet (him) with the teacher (her) – and how they married after knowing each other for less than a year. I could skim over the challenges my mum has faced: the bereavements, tricky situations, and family illnesses, both physical and mental, that required her to be so very strong in looking after others. And I don’t mean the ‘2D-female-stock-character-on-a-TV-show’ version of ‘strong’, but rather something veined with resilience and true tenacity.

Oh, and I could also relay the irritation/ absolute brilliance of having a mother whose editing skills are second to none, sharp eyes trained on extraneous words and grammatical errors (hi Mum! Am sure you’re going to tell me to correct some of these sentences when you see this!)

Any one of those is an outline that might be worked up into a full picture. But, maybe, actually, this is enough. Rather than expanding any further, I’m going to condense it down - leave this on a quiet note of appreciation. My mum is a fabulous lady. Truly fabulous. I’m lucky to have her. Not everyone has access to stable or supportive parents – and for some, mother’s day is not a time for merriment, but pain and weariness. That makes my heart ache. 

For that reason, I’m not going to finish by saying a general Happy Mother’s Day – because it’s not universally applicable, and this Sunday will be different for everyone (besides, it's only a UK-wide thing). But I do want to say it specifically to my mum. Happy Mother’s Day, Polly. You’re ace – and I've got a rather gorgeous seventies coffee pot waiting for you…

I took these photos of my mum in 2013 – when I was still living at home permanently. We tramped up to the bluebell wood behind our house, her resplendent in this glorious green dress. The light was extraordinary. Time always feels suspended when you’re standing among those trees. Nice to capture a snatch of that serenity on camera, and to be able to share it nearly two years later.