I, like many others, have a tendency to idolise the past. For the past is present in the methods of capturing and continuing: burned onto celluloid; cut into the fabric of vintage dresses; recorded onto the grooves of a vinyl record. These visions of decades known only by our grandparents or great grandparents are probably as realistic as the Hollywood films that perpetuate the desire for ‘times gone by’. The fifties may have beckoned forward Dior’s ‘New Look’, but women’s rights and civil liberties were a good ten years away from gaining prominence. Similarly, the landscape in Thomas Hardy’s novels is rich and evocative, but much as I would like to visit the hills and towns he created, I can be thankful for not being born in the times about which he was writing.
However, the allure of something beyond our present existence is appealing. It is unadulterated escapism. Screwball comedies, musicals and films where costumes took prominence over plot are all temporary worlds to skip into for an hour or two. A word often associated with the past is ‘genteel’. A longing of sorts for more mellow years, perhaps? A refuge from the constant, but fleeting, renewal of information pulsing across the internet? A belief, not that the grass is greener, but that life was somehow better? It is easy to regress into something contained – it has happened; unchangeable, irrevocable. It is safe. And furthermore, we can pick and choose parts of the past at will in order to best suit our mood or longing. We can glide over the well-dressed surface, only descending beneath the image if the fancy takes.
(Images of Orla Kiely AW 2012 show courtesy of the beautiful and very intelligent Dina, with whom I had the great pleasure of spending time at LFW)
However, the Orla Kiely presentation at LFW 2012 provided ample inspiration when it came to regressing to snapshots of dance halls and velvet curtains. The theatrical set up - a charming scene on repeat - featured dancing models, a live band and tables with refreshments. It was the equivalent of a British Marie Antoinette – less pastels and satin shoes; more ankle socks and tea dresses. The best aspect was that the models looked genuinely happy. They smiled when they caught your eye. They spun with their partners as the trumpeter played a flourish. They performed the role of nervous debutantes waiting to be chosen for a dance. Overhead, a gold glitter ball threw out flecks of light, and the viewers crowded in two narrow channels on either side of the mini production. I heard tell of cakes earlier in the day, but the catering was pared down to champagne by the time Dina and I immersed ourselves among the dresses and ponytails. The clothes themselves were both sweet and classic, with bows and full skirts scattered across the scene. To use some fashion jargon: the prints were delicate, and the fabrics light, with the retro palette that defines Kiely. To add my own twist, I felt that the girls looked like the grown-up embodiments of an Enid Blyton story – imagine Anne from the Famous Five discovering the delight of gold collars and sweet berry-burgundy dresses with buttons strung down the front, and then sneaking out to go dancing.
Dance halls are now rather monochrome tinted – recognised more as an emblem of the past than an embodiment of the present. They still exist, just. But Saturday night is no longer ruled by the Waltz or even the Argentine Tango – instead replaced by gigs and clubs. However the principle of dancing is still divided between those who practise it as an art, and those who take part for the freedom and abandonment to rhythm. It is a creative form like many others – being both exhilarating to watch or to participate.
It is also perhaps a chance to embody another character, or at least another mood, for a few hours. It starts with the ritual of ‘dressing the part’, whether in a sequinned dress that shivers with movement or a full length green silk gown. Fashion throughout the ages has provided another form of escapism. It always has, and still does, allow the assuming of a persona; the expression of an individual; the chance for rebellion. Clothes and the fashion industry can be highly theatrical, much like the dance hall with its sprung floor and faint smell of beeswax mingling with the perfume of an evening. In the case of Orla Kiely, it was refreshing to watch a presentation that combined that very theatricality with the practicality of a collection - in which the clothes could be observed in motion, as they would naturally be worn.
A photographic shoot also involves an element of fantasy – of carefully choosing, laying out and slipping on a character. The particular persona I whipped up here for the top photos was a purely Orla Kiely inspired creation, with a hint of the previous decades I find so fascinating: with a vintage tea-dress, blouse and accessories, alongside second hand Betty Barclay silver heels and ankle socks (not a natural combination for me). I wanted to spin across the fields in the sunshine.