Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Through the Looking Glass

This was originally written for the second issue of the wonderful Ingenue magazine (which I suggest you all go and buy, as it's absolutely gorgeous and packed with intelligent content) - so it's a fair bit longer than your average blog post.. One of my favourite commissions I've worked on in a while though. Quick content note - some discussion of sexual assault. 

When I was in my early teens there were so many things I was uncomfortable with: the assumption that it was normal  - and expected - to shave off all body hair; the divide whereby guys who slept around were ‘lads’ while the girls were ‘slags’; the fact that to be female was to be judged according to your weight, your appearance, your desirability; the assumption that certain spheres like politics, business or science were just a bit more male; the way in which women were usually represented (or rather misrepresented) in the media.

Well, I’m not sure if I was consciously frustrated with the latter. I was certainly aware of it though. How could I not be, when it was one of the contributing factors to all those other forms of unease? I’m not claiming that it was solely fashion ads and movies and porn clips and newspaper commentary and gossip mags and website features and music videos that instilled those feelings, but they certainly contributed - especially when all of that filtered down into the realms of secondary school, where bitchiness ruled and judgment was par for the course.

In spite of so many advances, we continue to live in a culture where boys are expected to be active and girls are expected to be beautiful. One where actresses are asked about their weight-loss regimes rather than the nuances of the characters they play. One where gossip rags focus in on every perceived female ‘failing’ – encouraging us to mock any sign of life or age, like cellulite, sweat-marks, weight gain, weight loss, or wrinkles. One where the dominant ideal of beauty is slender, young, and white – anyone falling outside of those parameters labeled as an exception if they attain mainstream celebration. One where a woman speaking out is a woman who is threatening – perhaps one who needs shutting up. One where, ultimately, we are shown that female achievement isn’t manifested in skills, but in the width of a waistline.

Well, fuck all of that.

A little later on, I began to question those corrosive assumptions and expectations. I also started responding critically to what I was reading and looking at. A flourishing interest in feminism gave me a framework for what was going on – also, most importantly, a means to analyze the uneasiness. I realized that what I was consuming wasn’t a given – but something that could be challenged.

Maybe you’re reading this going “yeah, yeah, beauty ideals, gender roles, underrepresentation, the wage gap, inequality, capitalism etc – I get it.” If so? Great. That’s a good position to be in – one of awareness and education and anger. But it took me a while to reach that stage. As one person says in the excellent documentary Miss Representation, “the media is the message and the messenger.” For most of us it requires quite a bit of work to unravel those messages – to get a grasp on just what the messengers are doing at the moment, and then, maybe to consider how to change them.

Luckily there are plenty of others who are both clear-sighted and proactive, like Madeline Di Nonno - the CEO of See Jane, an organization set up by actor Geena Davis (she of Thelma and Louise fame) to look at gender inequality in films and TV. With a mix of research projects, education resources and an increasing number of events, they’re provoking big conversations. Their statistics have been groundbreaking, while the symposiums focused on women onscreen are opening up new dialogues within the industry.

Incidentally, Thelma and Louise does a pretty fabulous job of passing the Bechdel test (a set of requirements dreamt up by Alison Bechdel, in which a film must have at least two women in it, who talk to each other and, crucially, talk about something other than a man). Yes, there’s a fair bit of shooting, but also an incredibly nuanced, in-depth look at female friendship. It’s as political as it is entertaining. We still need more films like that, more than twenty years on. 

I sat down with Di Nonno recently to discuss the work of See Jane, spending plenty of time comparing our teenage years and time at university before we got on to talking about films. I mentioned how the revelatory thing for me was seeing all of those things I was aware of (the lack of powerful women onscreen, under-representation of women of colour etc) being quantified – properly researched to provide hard evidence.

Alongside these studies, See Jane has a very specific set of ways to combat inequality. They mainly work from the inside out. As Di Nonno points out, ‘by fuelling what’s going on behind the camera, you can then see the results on camera.’ From encouraging more multifaceted women leads to discussing the lack of female directors, writers and other creatives, they’re interested in both the process and the product.

Their main mantra is ‘if she can see it, she can be it’. It’s a simple point. If we could see female presidents and leaders and breadwinners on screen, then young people would hopefully consider that to be what’s normal - just as it’s currently seen as standard for all those positions to be male-dominated.

Essentially, See Jane wants to readdress the balance. ‘If we can organically change the content that our children are seeing, and boys and girls grow up seeing media images that have lots of girls doing interesting things, then subconsciously it becomes the norm, and not the exception.’

And my God, is visibility important – in so many ways. It affects what we think is acceptable, expected, right, everyday. Recent research showed that children between 8 and 18 spend around 7 hours a day engaging with media. It’s a huge force – one present whenever you open a magazine or watch a film or eye up your phone. If you can transform that force, you can transform how people – especially young ones - think.

‘The approach we’ve taken is collaborative – one in which we don’t shame,’ says Di Nonno. ‘Every studio, network, production company etc has been extremely responsive - because we’re saying, “we all want our children to grow up with a sense of infinite possibilities, our girls, our boys.” When it’s positioned that way, and we’re able to say that our research is showing that we’re bereft of female presence - but we’re 51% of the population - everyone is shocked.’  It’s not about pointing fingers, but encouraging positive, active decisions to do things differently.

All Walks Beyond the Catwalk do similar things with fashion, placing gentle pressure on the industry from the inside out – asking change to come from designers, photographers, stylists, casting directors, and anyone else who can actively choose to challenge the status quo. Like See Jane, they’re all about both showing and telling. It’s important to raise rallying cries and point out what’s wrong and shout loudly, but also to push for transforming what young women and men are seeing and taking in everyday – whether it’s on film or in a fashion ad. Both of them also offer up a set of tools – a way to engage critically, and question what’s put in front of you.

Di Nonno also mentioned the presence of ‘unconscious biases’ – of the way certain types of status quo are assumed to be normal. There’s no huge conspiracy here, no tycoons rubbing their hands and going “hahaha, let’s reserve all the big, serious roles for men” (Maybe. Hopefully.) Instead it’s just that ‘the default is always male.’

I pointed out to her how irritated I get that it seems like the ‘LARGE SERIOUS THEMES’ are reserved for men. If an experience is to be considered ‘universal’, it’s most likely embodied by a male protagonist – whereas if the main character is a woman, it’ll be considered niche or specialist or mainly for female audiences. Some progress is being made in breaking the mould – everything from The Hunger Games to Mad Max: Fury Road – but they’re still considered the exceptions.

It’s unsurprising that this is how it is in films, in an age where research has also showed that books with male main characters are more likely to win serious literary prizes. ‘As an artist, you write what you know, you want to be authentic,’ Di Nonno says. ‘So if you’re a storyteller, and the ratio of male to female storytellers is five to one, then that automatically is going to manifest in terms of the product that’s onscreen.’ See Jane’s 2012 study showed that if there’s a female writer or director, there’s a ten percent increase in female roles onscreen. Change the narrative, change the creator, change what the audience sees.

There’s often this argument that comes up when talking about gender and the media – a rallying cry that there are “more serious” issues to focus on, as though there’s a set ranking of issues neatly ordered from ‘mildest’ to ‘most awful’ that must be addressed in strict sequence. But this fails to chart any of the intricate links between different areas of inequality, or to take account of the way the media normalizes certain things.  

For example, images of violence against women are rife in the media: in shadowy fashion ads suggestive of assault or death; in film and TV narratives that use rape as a gratuitous plotline rather than something explored sensitively; in video games that allow female characters to have two functions: a.) Physical object, all boobs and bum and no personality, and/ or b.) punchbag.

Add to this the disquieting fact that under the American Film classification system (the MPAA), scenes featuring sexual violence towards women often gain lower age restrictions than those showing women enjoying consensual sexual pleasure. Brutality inflicted on a female might gain a movie an R (those under 17 can only see it accompanied by an adult), but if a woman is shown receiving oral sex, it’s immediately an NC-17 (basically the equivalent to a UK 18).

And oh, remind me where all this is taking place? Ah yes, in a society where women are overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) the targets of domestic violence; where rape victims are often assumed to have been ‘asking for it’ or to somehow have been provocative; where female pleasure is still seen as vaguely taboo. The media doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists on our screens, in our houses, seamed throughout our conversations and expectations.  

I’m not arguing here that there’s a direct A to B link, as though one causes the other. Oh no. Instead it’s a series of relationships and influences. It’s all wrapped up – the focus on image and attractiveness, the over-representation of women as objects, the under-representation of women as complex individuals, the marginalization of women of colour, of older women, of women of all sizes... Sexualisation, body image, job prospects, violence, gendered stereotypes, aspirations, assumptions, anxieties – all interacting, all connected.

That sounds kind of miserable though. Surely we, as individuals, can attempt to make changes too? ‘There are so many things that people can do who are not making movies,’ argues Di Nonno – firstly pointing to social media. From the #askhermore hashtag to the ability to critique things, ‘everyone can have a voice, and call this out.’ Next she says, ‘I think it’s important if you’re a care-taker to watch what your children are watching… to watch it with them and have a conversation.’ It’s about chatting, giving young people a space to ask questions and be responsive.

What if you have some kind of authority? ‘For people who are in a leadership position… How are you attracting diversity? What is your means of messaging – print, website, social media? What are your hiring practices? How many women do you have on your board? How many executives?’

She also relayed the story of a guy she worked with at one point. ‘He sat through and listened to our research, and at out next meeting, he said “you’ve changed how I parent.” I said, “really? What happened?” He replied, “well, I have a son and a daughter – they both play soccer, and are both really into sports. But I realized that when I saw my son, I’d ask him about the game, or what he was doing, and when I saw my daughter the first thing I’d say is “Oh you look so pretty today.” All I was reinforcing to my daughter was her beauty, and not recognizing that she’s as good an athlete as my son.”’

So it’s about conversation. About using what Di Nonno calls ‘a gender lens’ to opening up chats, critique what you see, always be curious, query the stuff in front of you, and never get complacent. It’s about wanting more from our media-makers, and also changing our own behaviour. It’s about supporting those doing good stuff, like Act for Change (a project aiming to encourage diversity across the stage and screen), Arts Emergency (they look to get young people from all sorts of backgrounds into the arts through mentoring and schemes), The Fawcett Society (a charity campaigning for gender equality) and The Women’s Room, (an organization set up to get more women in the public eye, especially experts in their field), to name but a handful. It’s a good position to be in – one where our voices are important. And it’s one where they can only get louder.

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media are partnering with the BFI this autumn – hosting a global symposium on gender in media on October 8th.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Orange Silk and Green Hills

At 8.30am this morning I was strolling along the edge of a lake with my dad, our boots slowly soaked through by wet grass. There were spiders-webs on the thistles – each strand perfectly picked out by dew and light. Dad had his camera with him, and kept stopping to catch this bird or that reflection in the water. Looking ahead, everything was soft and slightly blurred by mist. Looking behind, it was all blue sky and bright sun.

I scrabbled around by the trees looking for conkers. Those wonderful, prickly green shells have already begun falling. There’s a knack to cracking them open. You have to find a point on either side where you can grip without lacerating your fingertips on the spikes, then squeeze hard. Each shell divides perfectly into segments. Sometimes you only need one to come loose. Sometimes you’ll need to totally dissect the shell, pulling apart those spongy white wedges in turn. Either way, there’ll be treasure in the middle – a wonderfully smooth, shiny, lopsided blob of brown. A conker. Doesn’t matter how many years I’ve done this now. There’s still a fresh sense of magic in the way they fit in a palm like sea-washed pebbles.

Today I collected nine, clutching them together like treasure. They perfectly matched my suede sleeves. A handful of glossy, solid satisfaction. Maybe that’s what I marvel at most. There they are – hidden away in their funny big jacket of bristles, so small and so strong. They’re hardy little buggers though. No wonder plenty of playground games used to revolve around smashing them together. In fact, when I was at primary school, one of the songs that our music teacher rolled out every autumn (without fail) included a raucous chorus beginning: “conkers! I’m collecting conkers! I’m trying hard to find the biggest and the best!” Unsurprisingly, they’ve become part of that general set of images we associate with autumn, taking their place alongside orange leaves and warm firesides and hot mugs of tea. I like conkers in particular though because they’re seeds – nothing but burnished potential.

As you may be able to tell, this weekend I caught a last gasp of the countryside – returning home and throwing myself back among the trees and sharp air and sun-warmed paths for the last time before uni begins. I rarely miss it when I’m away, only realizing on return how much I’m still a countryside girl. I’ve had three days full of gold-stubble fields, woods dappled with late afternoon light, valleys dotted with hay-bales, and hill-top views that stretch for mile upon mile.

I also tend to forget how exhilarated it all makes me feel. It’s an intriguing mix of memory, familiarity, and possibility: all the resonances of past escapades (walks and den-building sessions and hours spent exploring), and a sense of what’s ahead to enjoy (a part of me still harbours a very fanciful, flighty urge to run away to a tumble-down cottage and just write poetry all day). There’s also a sense of being grounded and brought back down to the immediate: an in-the-moment-here-I-am-nothing-exists-but-this-sunny-afternoon kind of sensation. Maybe we all need a bit more of that.

This time last year, I had tea with a friend in Hyde Park – she’d brought along a flask in her bag. We sat outside and chatted and drank and ate dark chocolate. As we got up to leave, brushing grass seeds from our legs, she picked up a conker and said I should keep it, because it would always remind me of that afternoon. It’s now sitting in a martini glass (among my jewellery, obviously…) in my new room in Oxford. She was right. Every time I see it, I recall that day vividly. I have a feeling that the same thing may happen with those nine conkers I scavenged this morning. I left them scattered on my desk at home. They’ll stay there for a while. Mementoes of nothing particularly extraordinary - just a bright misty morning and a brief moment of calm.

My mum took these photos in one of our favourite spots. I've been dragged up this hill since I was tiny. Now I'm a little more willing to climb to the top... I'd planned a whole outfit around the dress (those images will come at another point), but there was something so magnificent about the simplicity of this. We just had to leave it as is, and soak up that magnificent light. 

Thursday, 24 September 2015

A Few Favourite Female Essayists

I spent a vast amount of this summer reading essays – partly for academic reasons, partly because I bloody love them. (And partly because I also happen to write quite a few myself.) Normally something of a novel-gobbler, the last few months have involved an unusual level of straying into non-fiction territory. It’s been wonderful. There’s something intensely delightful about a good essay; a sensation akin to the kinds of conversations that leave you buzzing from the thrill of new ideas to contemplate.

However, the minute you begin to stray back into the history of the essay, the same thing happens as with every other area of literature… As the decades roll back, the list of notable names becomes ever more overwhelmingly male. Big surprise. That’s not to discount how excellent Montaigne, Hazlitt, Lamb, Addison etc etc etc can be (or, to give some slightly more more recent examples, Laurie Lee, Alan Garner, George Orwell, Al Alvarez and Philip Larkin, who have all produced stunning essays). It’s more of a nod to the fact that in my brick-sized edition of The Oxford Book of Essays, there are a mere handful of works by women.

I wanted to readdress the balance here, and focus in on all the collections by female essayists that I’ve adored reading recently. I tried to stick to writers who are still alive and kicking and working, but with a few others thrown in who were too ideal to resist. It was meant to be a top ten, but somehow an extra one snuck in  - so it’s my top eleven, for the time being…

Siri Hustvedt – Living, Thinking, Looking and A Plea for Eros

I picked up Living, Thinking, Looking on a whim in Blackwell’s, thinking it looked potentially interesting. I then spent several days completely rapt, snatching every spare moment I could to immerse myself in the workings of Hustvedt’s clear, engaging thoughts. It was the same experience with A Plea for Eros. In both cases, the topics (books, psychology, family etc) are approached with a kind of decisive, penetrating directness.

Anne Fadiman – At Large and Small and Ex Libris

At Large and Small is one of those delightful collections I just want to foist on friends and family. “Look!” I want to say, “an essay that uses the phrase 'The Emperor of Ice-cream'! Another on the history of coffeehouses! Lots on things that aren’t to do with food too. Read it, read it, read it.” Well, something like that. It’s delightful and life-enhancing Oh, and Ex Libris is a glorious little morsel of a collection – one that approaches the topic of books in a number of wonderful ways. Expect everything from the perils of re-shelving to her literary upbringing.

Marina Keegan – The Opposite of Loneliness

I’ve already written about Marina and her work here. To reiterate what I said then, 'Whether she’s talking about generational hubris, food allergies, empathy for animals, or the contents of her car as the “physical manifestations of… memories”, she’s kind of dazzling. To me, the best essays pluck at the thread of something, no matter how simple, and hold it up to the light - making you stop, think, respond. Here the fine filaments of analysis and honesty are strong and flexible. She weaves them with care.'

Ali Smith – Artful

A series of essays on topics from ‘time’ to ‘form’ to ‘edge’, each is a compelling, page-turning ramble or meander through various ideas, creators, and possibilities. Yet this is isn’t a straightforward series. These essays are embedded within and woven around a quietly devastating (fictional) narrative of an individual whose lover has died. I’d love to read more collections that play with form like this.

Jeanette Winterson – Art Objects: Ecstasies and Effronteries

Like much of Winterson’s writing, this is a slightly dizzying and very exhilarating gallop through topics from sexuality to the power of Virginia Woolf’s prose. I sometimes end up feeling slightly breathless or overwhelmed by the intensity of her sentences.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – We Should All be Feminists

This is cheating, as it's a single essay. But it's worth including. Brilliant in the first place and popularised further by Beyonce, this concise piece is not so much a cogent argument (I mean, it is) as a necessary call to arms. Adichie is coolly precise and powerful in every sentence, in the kind of way that makes you simultaneously wish you could express yourself as beautifully as her, and also feel like she’s making points you’ve always known FOREVER and really needed to hear articulated.

Margaret Atwood – Curious Pursuits

A mixture of book reviews, autobiographical pieces and general reflections, this is an incredibly satisfying collection to dip in and out of at will. As with her novels, Atwood has a keen sense of vivid scene-making and telling details.

Susan Sontag – Illness as a Metaphor and Against Interpretation

I found Sontag a struggle at first. Her sentences can be dense, her ideas requiring a little bit of time to unpack and truly ‘get’. It’s worth the legwork though – her observations are brisk and brilliant, whether she’s (almost literally) dissecting our cultural use of the word ‘cancer’, or discussing cinema as “a new language.”

Zadie Smith – Changing my Mind

Worth it alone for her glorious, glorious essay on Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo – as well as 'Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend', which feels like reading a gossipy magazine article with actual solid substance seamed throughout. Her literary essays also have the conspiratorial tone of a good conversation with a smart, savvy friend.

Virginia Woolf – A Woman’s Essays/ A Room of One’s Own/ every essay she ever wrote

Just do it. She’s the mistress of essays. I love her work unreservedly, and get excited/ overwhelmed all over again whenever I remember that I still have lots of her work left to gobble up.

Angela Carter – Nothing Sacred and Expletives Deleted

Carter is witty and sharp, always. Nothing Sacred holds what is possibly my favourite of her essays: Notes for a Theory of Sixties Style (predictable, me?) There she writes, “Clothes are our weapons, our challenges, our visible insults.” Expletives Deleted focuses in on book reviews and discussions of authors, but becomes the launchpad for interrogations of topics from fairytales to the snobbery of food choices.  

And here’s a quick list of the essayists I’m yet to discover, but have been told (in no uncertain terms) that I should investigate: Joan Didion, Roxanne Gay (who I know for her writing online, but am yet to read Bad Feminist), Rebecca Solnit, Janet Malcolm, bell hooks, Cynthia Ozick, Audre Lorde, Anne Carson (I know her poetry), Sheila Heti, Hermione Lee… Let me know if you have any others to add to my ever-growing, ever-tottering ‘to read’ list. 

Of course it had to be icecream-sundae shades of pink (and plenty of roses) for this post.. What else to celebrate women?! I joke, I joke.. However, I did enjoy picking out all the books I could find in our house with vaguely similar-tinted covers, shading through from magenta to baby pink. The dress is vintage. I've been meaning to shoot it for the blog for years now. 

Oh, and if you like this combination of reading recommendations + pink clothes (which somehow I seem to have turned into a formula), see this blog post here for some suggestions of individual essays. 

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Ode to Beyond Retro

I first went to Beyond Retro when I was 14 – new to exploring the vintage offerings of London, and still feeling like the trek to Brick Lane and beyond was some kind of special escapade. I went with my mum. It was a chilly, grey day, as far as I remember, and we pounded down Cheshire Street wondering just where this trove of clothes could be found. Then ahead, finally, we glimpsed that yellow sign with its anchor logo, signaling the vaguely nondescript looking entrance leading to a very bright Wonderland beyond.

I still have one of the acquisitions picked up that day – a gorgeous little mint-green tunic with gold buckles up the front. I’ve worn it on this blog numerous times. It featured in various early shoots with Flo and was once employed to recreate the colours of a Roget’s Thesaurus in outfit form. I also bought a grey shirt with white ruffles up to the neck, which is sadly now too small and has been relegated to the dressing up box. Over the years plenty of other purchases have filtered through my wardrobe. Some stayed. Others didn't.

I was reminded of that initial fresh, flush thrill though when I visited one of the Swedish branches of Beyond Retro – marveling all over again at all the different shapes and hushed stories hung up on rails. The quality was incredible, with a real smorgasbord of good fabrics and shades: tangerines, pinks, baby blues, lime greens, zinging scarlets. I recalled just how exciting it was some six years ago to spend an hour just browsing through beautiful things, eventually choosing one or two items to claim as mine. This time around though it was just one: a marvelous bright orange shift dress with a zip, deep pockets and embroidered detail.

It’s hard not to fall back on a limited number of ways to refer to huge vintage shops though (also including places like Armstrongs, Blitz and Rokit) - easy to call them treasure troves or Aladdin’s caves, and leave it at that. They’re apt descriptions though, with more of a sparkle of truth to their labels. There is definitely a sense of discovering some large hoard or stash – one that’s yours to sift, search and sort through. I’m a seeker and gatherer. I like to feel some small sense of achievement in sniffing out the garment that absolutely works just for me, on my body, with my taste and aesthetic. It’s a simple pleasure, but an oh-so-satisfying one.

It’s also about pleasure in the unexpected. I rarely enter a vintage shop in search of something specific. Instead it's about the frisson of not knowing what could be accompanying you as you leave. Sequins? A jumpsuit? A gorgeous floral dress? Who knows... anything is possible, depending on what’s stumbled across. For example, I had absolutely no idea that I’d be exiting Armstrongs with THE most glorious full-length seventies maxi with a red and green striped skirt, and a translucent black top. (I can’t wait to shoot it for the blog).

That general principle makes this particular skirt a little unusual though. It’s from Beyond Retro’s own label, which I love because it’s very sustainable – everything being repurposed from pre-existing clothes and fabrics. The clothes are produced in a factory in Western India that Beyond Retro actually owns, meaning they know exactly how their workers are treated and what they’re being paid (read more about all of it here). God, just imagine if more brands did that!  

I was very kindly given this green panelled beauty after expressing my absolute adoration of the design. So unlike every other item I own from Beyond Retro, this one was entirely premeditated – having been eyed up (and tweeted about) in advance. I knew exactly what I was lusting after. I’ve worn it endlessly over the last few months. It goes with cropped jumpers and tied shirts and black button-up tops and suede jackets. It also reminds me of a skirt from Topshop I had aged 15 that I wore to my first LFW (one that sadly had to be sold on when I grew hips). I wore it at a point when my love of vintage was fully fledged – probably about a year after first discovering Beyond Retro. It’s all circular, really. And I always have loved suede..

Big thanks to Beyond Retro for the skirt. It's glorious. Here it's worn with a cashmere top from a charity shop, some vintage boots, a Bill Skinner bracelet, and a necklace that belongs to my mum. 

Friday, 11 September 2015

Gadding About in Oxford

It’s always satisfying to see work come to fruition. Over the last few months, there’ve been plenty of projects I’ve quietly spent my time on – writing and shoots and other exciting ways to creatively fill my days. I’ve passed plenty of afternoons hunched over my laptop (drinking an awful lot of caffeine), had the occasional very early morning, and indulged in the odd half hour of obsessively refreshing my inbox.

Occasionally it can feel like there’s some sort of gap between putting in all the hours and assembling stuff, and then waiting for the point where you can share it with others. At times, it’s a nice kind of anticipation however - one where you know that good things are waiting just over the horizon. Right now, there are still various bits of work hovering out there that I’m excited to see come to light soon-ish.

In the meantime though, here’s one I can share. It’s a lovely little project I worked on with Jack Wills. Fabulously ace, inventive wonder-woman Jenny came and hung out with me in Oxford for an afternoon. I sprawled on my bed reading books, wandered around the city and stopped off at Quarter Horse for a natter over coffee and banana bread. The aim of the day? To gather some thoughts on all the things I can’t live without. We snapped pictures a-plenty and I darted around my room finding stuff like my essential item (it’s a corkscrew, by the way) and my lucky token (an owl necklace I’ve had for years). All of this was assembled into an entirely delightful collage, alongside a feature that you can go and read over on the Jack Wills blog. Includes mention of Kate Bush, Virginia Woolf, lipstick, and lace skirts, as well as lots of other images.. 

The whole collaboration got me thinking about where I am right now, this month, standing on the edge of my third and final year at Oxford. Earlier today I had a piece published on the NUS blog where I talked about how it’s ok to not be ok when you first get to uni. I talked there about how I initially struggled, saying: 

“There were lots of other unexpected things to negotiate too: a creeping feeling of my own inadequacy (in various ways); deeply missing family mealtimes and my dad’s laughter; anxiety over how I viewed myself and how others viewed me; questioning what I used to define my character and sense of self; frustration at not immediately finding some marvellous new friendship group, as plenty of others seemed to have done. I felt uprooted and at odds with myself.”

It feels pretty special to look back on that time, and recognize how far-removed it seems now. All of those anxieties and moments of upset have dissolved since. There’s no more pacing around the park crying on the phone to my parents. Well, at least, it’s very, very rare now… The loneliness is long-gone, and I feel privileged to know a wonderful bunch of people in this city of all ages (moral of the story being: make friends with the people who serve you coffee). I have my favoured hangouts and hidden spots – the best places to swim outdoors, the charity shops most likely to yield up gems, and the cafes, oh the cafes! I've also recently moved into a flat that looks like a proper home inhabited by adults, rather than a slightly grotty student property where you’re not surprised to see the odd slug in the bathroom. (Side point: my new household is so delightfully on the margins of pretentiousness that we really do actually have a blue vintage typewriter in our living room. Visual evidence here).

On top of all that, there are so many glorious snippets and golden memories to keep a tight hold of too. Adventures, escapades, languorous afternoons, raucous nights, endless conversations, new encounters, early morning walks, huge communally cooked breakfasts… the lot. There's also been laughter and books and cocktails and intensity and plenty of evenings where I was meant to stay in and work, yet somehow ended up spontaneously dancing until the small hours.

It has not been an easy two years either, for all sorts of reasons.  In fact, at times it’s been bloody horrible. The image assembled in the previous paragraphs has a sort of sheen to it – constructed as it is from all the cherry-picked glittery ‘best bits’. To acknowledge a true and whole image I’d have to balance up good and bad side by side. Yet I feel overwhelmingly privileged on the whole. There've been challenges, but I have stability, community, friendship, and, you know, some really great additions to my wardrobe. I also have lots of looming academic deadlines, so now I’m off to the library. Essays are calling…

Thanks to Jack Wills. It was a blast. Clothes credits over on their blog. 

Monday, 7 September 2015

Swimsuits and Capes

Sexy is an odd word. Somehow there’s a slight whiff of something dated – perhaps an odour of mid-2000s ‘I’m bringing sexy back’ style sentiment. In fact, it’s got a long and rich history. The OED dates one of the first uses back to 1896 – when it was charmingly spelt ‘seksy’ and referred to things considered risqué or bawdy. The way we tend to use it now, i.e. to refer to someone who is sexually attractive/ alluring/ appealing (delete according to alliterative preference), seems to have gained traction in the 1920s and flourished since then.

It’s the kind of word that, when used by one person in a certain situation comes off as absolutely creepy and inappropriate – and by another, at the right time, complimentary. It’s all down to context.

I’m really interested though by what it means to feel/ look sexy. If we worked to conventional imagery and media representation, the first pictures to spring to mind would probably include heels, lots of flesh, slinky stuff, and maybe some black satin. You know what? All those things can and do have the capacity to make the wearer feel sexy. Agent Provocateur eat your heart out (or rather, break your bank balance). But I think it’s often more complicated than that – so dependent on individual circumstances, the day at hand, and whether that quality of ‘sexiness’ is for the benefit of oneself, others, or perhaps both. 

To push the questioning further, how do we draw a line (if we could) between 'looking' and 'feeling' sexy? I guess that ‘feeling’ suggests something internal and personal, while ‘looking’ suggests something external – viewed through the eyes of others. But neither category is always that neat. Both influence and interact with the other, obviously, and besides – that sense of ‘looking’ sexy can also be entirely down your personal, self-led perception. 

By way of example, I’m typing this wearing a high-waisted knee-length seventies style blue denim skirt and a cropped grey short-sleeved sweater with a little collar (whew, that’s a lot of words in one sentence). There’s a flash of stomach between the sweater and the skirt, which is cinched in with a brown leather belt. My legs are bare, and I have on blue socks and clumpy men’s Chelsea boots. I'm wearing no make-up other than a sweep of brown eyeliner. My hair is super-tangled and could really do with a wash. Yet you know what? I’ve felt weirdly sexy all day. But maybe ‘weirdly’ is the wrong qualifier there. In plenty of ways it makes perfect sense – because this is a kind of sexiness manifested in feelings of confidence and being damn comfortable in what I have on. There is an element in there of feeling attractive too, but it’s not so much about actually requiring or soliciting attention from other people - but instead a more subtle sense of assurance in myself (and my outfit).

To give another (less descriptive) example, I’ve also had days when I’ve worn a dress that displays a lot of cleavage, or a set of tiny shorts and shirt tied at the waist, and not given a second thought to whether or not it exhibits any quality of perceived sexiness… Similarly, with the vintage swimming costume and cape worn above, it might be considered a conventionally ‘sexy’ get-up in some ways – but to me it felt more delightfully dressed up and dramatic than anything else.

Linda Grant in The Thoughtful Dresser - which is great, by the way - writes that, ‘Sexy is not the desire to have sex. Sexy is not what turns on the person on looking at you. Sexy is a state of mind, of understanding that under all the drapery there is a body, and inside the body are instincts and desires. Sexy in other words is a state of being. It’s a way of knowing you’re alive. It’s the sensual relationship of skin and cloth. It’s the awareness of the distance between yourself and another.’

I’m not sure if I fully agree. I think that ‘sexy’ is more multifaceted than a list of prescriptive things. What it ‘is’ and 'is not' can change all the time dependent on context. But I do like her suggestion that it’s ‘a state of mind’ – or of ‘being’. Moreover, I definitely agree that sexiness doesn’t actually automatically always link to the notion of sex. Sometimes it absolutely does, and ‘sexy’ becomes a synonym for ‘desirable’ or ‘deeply attractive’ or plenty of other possibilities. Other times it blithely doesn’t, especially when it comes to clothes…

That much is apparent in trying to collate a rough list of garments I own that have felt sexy at one point or another. They include oversized cotton white dress shirts; wide-legged well-tailored trousers that call to mind Katharine Hepburn; a full-length close-fitting silk dress; massive black heels; men’s brown brogues with bare ankles; a suede sixties-esque miniskirt; velvet hot-pants; skinny jeans and a yellow halter-top; a full-length seventies dress with a low cut front… You get the idea. A myriad number of forms and possibilities. Also plenty of room for change. Something that feels sexy on a particular day, in a particular mood, in a particular combination, can feel very different the next time it’s tried on for size. Much like the word itself, really.

These photos were taken in Sweden, and everything I'm wearing is vintage.  70s swimsuit from Reign Vintage in Soho, London. Also, this post could have extended to the length of a thesis. I'm aware that there's so much I haven't referenced or explored in here - but isn't that the case with pretty much every subject?