Thursday, 19 December 2013

Festive Finery







The text to accompany these photos can be found in this piece I wrote for Guardian Students on alternative ways to source a festive outfit, from customising old clothes to swapping with friends. My own favourite find for this year is a vintage taffeta skirt from Reign in Cowley, Oxford. Here worn with various vintage and second hand accessories, the stripes and length call to mind a Victorian circus. It was such a joy to return to the playfulness of packing a large basket full of clothes and jewellery to suspend from (still growing) Christmas trees. We had to tramp across several fields, wrapped up in many layers, to reach the plantation - all the while listening out for the sound of tractors or landrovers heading in to chop down a few more for the festive market.

Talking of unsustainable consumerism, Izzy wrote this wonderful post questioning buying habits and the power of an individual's action.

I hope your next week is filled with food, family, friends, warmth, laughter, parties and long walks.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Calibration










At the end of my first short-but-frantic term, I had to finish packing fuelled by a mere two and a half hours' sleep. At 5.30am I’d been eating beans on toast before stumbling off to bed. Fun as it was, I regretted the near all-nighter as I eyed up the pots, pans, folders, books and oddments still to be stowed away in suitcases. The detritus of the last two months would have to be swept away much faster than it had taken to stack up. Still so much to do and so little time to complete it all.

I have to move in and out again twice more this academic year, vacating my room over the holiday and bringing back more stuff with which to fill it each term. Part of me relishes the challenge. Each return means a different set of clothes, decorations and study materials. When I first arrived I had a crate of Victorian novels and silk scarves in shades of pink, yellow and turquoise to smother my pin board. Next time it’ll be Virginia Woolf and Angela Carter accompanying me, with collages and magazine clippings for the walls.

Oxford has been an experience of opposites. Wonderful and difficult. Exhilarating and exhausting. Satisfying and disappointing. University is often cited as one of the best times of your life - an unsurprising claim. The intensity of those three or more years; the close proximity to other students as you live, work, play, party, eat, drink and have long conversations together; that enclosed sphere of the city or campus where you’re based; the intellectual gratification of finishing an essay or hurdling a particularly tricky question. But I also wish that more people might say, “Hey, it’s ok if you don’t immediately enjoy it, if it doesn’t always live up to expectation. It’s fine if you struggle from time to time or just want to cry and go to sleep. That’s completely natural. It is hard. It takes a while to adjust.”

The rigour of a new workload has to be taken on at the same time as the mantle of personal responsibility. Being pretty independent and self-motivated, I assumed that I’d adapt with ease. But, as the old adage goes about ‘not appreciating what you have until you lose it’, there were things previously taken for granted that I quickly missed. Not a sense of homesickness as such, but a deep awareness of the lack of family breakfasts and lengthy discussions with my parents over coffee. No more long walks along the backbone of hills with valleys stretched beneath. No room bursting with arts materials and an overflowing wardrobe.

I had to re-calibrate, and that took time. Of course, there were plenty of new and exciting opportunities and experiences. So many plays to see, bookshops to browse, lectures to attend, people to meet, societies to join, cafes to sit in and soak up the surroundings. Wine and dancing with friends. Snatched hours of combing through Cowley’s charity shops. Staying in the library until midnight, the walk back to my room scattered with stars. Consolidating how much I love cooking. Cycling under both moonlight and lamplight. Spontaneous cocktails and evenings spent talking and listening to music.

But the activities above are embellishments. It’s oh-so-tempting (both in terms of memory and writing) to condense two months into a series of lovely snapshots. They’re only fragments of the full picture though. Most of each week revolved around vaguely frantic reading, essay writing, Old English translation and language classes. For every late night socializing there were two or three spent working. The breadth and depth of two months’ work is startling. English literature is all-encompassing: not only including the inevitable study of authors, poets and playwrights, but also history, philosophy, politics, science, religion, art. I’ve arrived back home with a sense of my thoughts sharpened, my responses honed and an extreme appreciation of any breakfast cooked by someone else. 

But home is not home in the same way any more. The contained timeframe of summer - the transition point between sixth form and moving away, has been left behind. Now I straddle two places. As I sit by the fire with a free day stretching ahead, I can enjoy the sedate pace of life in the hills. At the same time I already miss that newly tasted liberation, possibility and tug of a complex city.  

This vintage Christie’s trilby is testament to the saying that wherever one lays one’s hat is home. Here it's accompanied by a delectable vintage coat (£15 from a charity shop) and a sixties cocktail dress I stole from my mum's wardrobe - she originally bought it from Beyond Retro. The chelsea boots are second hand, as is the bag. Photos taken in the University Botanic Garden by the delightful Dina. Jump over to her post Stomp and Circumstance to see some snaps I took of her in the backstreets of Oxford. 

It has also been amazing in the last two months to meet a few people who read my blog. An unexpected delight. 

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Colouring In











The other day someone asked if I had a favourite colour.
“Blue,” I said.
 “What shade of blue?”
“I don’t know. The whole spectrum.”
“Hmm, most people like something specific – like dark blue.”
“Well I like everything from navy to duck-egg. Why limit yourself ?” My answer was apparently rather amusing.
It’s interesting that we use colour as one of the ways to categorise people. It features in a long list of questions on favourites - animals, music, books, cities, food and whatever else takes the interrogator’s fancy. These quick-fire queries are exercised to establish certain tastes and interests. But how much do they actually give away? What if I'd answered red or green or lilac? Would it have conveyed a radically different message? Had I been asked at another point, my answer might have been different. Today my mustard-coloured jumper means that I’m feeling the warm favour of yellow. Tomorrow it might be something else.
I find the psychology of colour fascinating: the ways in which it is used to associate, mark out, denote, symbolize; the manner in which our perception of colour is as much a product of culture as it is personal taste; how we use and manipulate colour to be anything from ornamental to political. Colour belongs to any number of realms from room décor to national flags to company logos. It can mean serious business. Brands and advertisers carefully target their audiences with specific shades or combinations. You can even take a course at LCF on ‘Colour Psychology for Branding and Communication’.
Recently debate has focused on the gendered implication of colour, particularly for children. Look down any toy aisle or along any rail of clothes and note the differences. Sweet pink and lilac contrasts with rough-and-tumble blue or orange. One is pretty where the other is practical. Toolkits can only be presented to girls if cast in purple-toned plastic. Luckily campaigns such as Let Toys be Toys are busy challenging the stereotypes, yet it remains a disquieting instance of the ways in which colour can reinforce societal norms.
Colour brings with it all sorts of other predictable connotations. Red links to anger and lust, green to jealousy or the environment. Black has an extraordinary number of different overtones - gothic, sexy, smart, business-like, funereal, beatnik.
When pondering colour my thoughts immediately swung to clothing. Although there are still strong links between shade and mood or character, be it the slight hint of vamp in a red dress or earth-loving hippy chic of a long, green skirt, often it can instead be dependent on aesthetic. The choice to combine an electric blue pencil skirt with a beanie hat and heels in matching tones is a decision to stand out. In the realms of the wardrobe, the psychology of colour applies more to the careful creation of a visual appearance. It is part of the myriad number of choices available to construct our daily image. 

These photos were taken several months ago when the weather was still warm enough for bare legs. Everything I'm wearing is second hand charity-shopped, with the shoes bought on eBay and dyed bright blue by my ingenious mum. The matching Chanel nail polish added the perfect accent. 

I wanted to say a huge, huge thank you to all those who took the time to vote for me in the Hospital Club 100 award. I'm completely delighted to say that I made the final ten for the writing and publishing category! (And 10 x 10 categories makes up the '100' of the Hospital Club 100). Massive appreciation to all you amazing people who made it happen, and to the Hospital Club and Guardian Culture Pros for putting it together. You can see me and my lovely friend Alex here and my award here. I also featured in The Guardian when it was announced last week. I was particularly thrilled that All Walks Beyond the Catwalk made the final 10 in the Fashion category too. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Fantasy








Fantasy is an intriguing term, particularly when used in a fashion context. We throw it around with little thought, letting it stick onto anything that might be seen as vaguely imaginative or elevated beyond ‘normal’ life. Sometimes it’s exactly the right word to use; capturing the heady delight of being transported through photography, catwalk shows, an innovative dress design or madcap use of make-up.  
Yet often it is not used to describe the fantastical, but the aspirational. Here it becomes slightly more questionable, not referring to any kind of creativity, but to an assumption based on consumer ideals. Fantasy is embodied in the expensive handbag or easily recognized logo. It partners itself with status, the two proclaiming their love for each other in all sorts of adverts. Together they suggest that all should dream about being able to afford more stuff. Pretty stuff. Pricy stuff.
I regularly wish I could fly into vintage shops and sweep out again with only the coat-hangers clacking behind me, or buy hand-made G:Lab brogues from Liberty (thanks en brogue) or waltz down Savile Row and get myself a suit fitted to my exact measurements. I’d love to know what it feels like to slip into the artistry of Haute Couture or wear impractical-but-beautiful Manolo Blahniks. I am awake to the seductive charms of style with a side order of money-no-object. 
Yet still I feel uneasy by the way in which ‘fantasy’ becomes all too easily something dictated, rather than freely chosen. A case in point is the strange relationship between fantasy and appearance. Question many fashion industry leaders on their continuing use of young, slender, for the most part Caucasian models, and they will respond with the justification of fantasy. They say that the fashion world works in the realms of the exciting and dreamy, whipping up scrumptious visions to whet the style-conscious appetite. Again, partly true. Yet a dubious message underlies this defence. It broadcasts a singular fantasy based on notions of youth, shape and ethnicity. It suggests that the prevailing mode of fantasy has already been chosen, and thus cannot be changed. No room for alternative fantasies, thank you very much.
The whole idea of fantasy is to uplift, engage or challenge the one viewing, reading, watching, responding. In fashion it’s an expression with largely positive associations. Yet for many this imposed idea of fantasy is anything but. It becomes exclusive and judgmental, much the equivalent of the ‘popular group’ at secondary school whose opinions set the tone for who is allowed ‘in’ and who pushed ‘out’.
Calling for greater representation in fashion is often framed by squirm-inducing phrases like ‘real women’ - see my response here - suggesting not only a hierarchy of ‘real’ to ‘not real’ (i.e. models and other women in the public eye), but also a need for fashion to pull itself back down to earth. Although a little grounding never goes amiss, it strikes me that in effect we should be asking for the opposite: more diversity in the fantasies that we are presented with. Beauty with wrinkles, beauty with big hips, beauty with short legs or extra-long ones, beauty in every colour of skin and style of hair. The fashion industry will never shake itself free of fantasy, and nor should it. But that doesn’t exempt it from continuing to perpetuate a 'fantasy' dreamt up by a few, then fed to the many as ideal.

These images were shot by the incredibly talented Lucy Feng. I love the rich, painterly feel of them. She
instructed me to bring anything luxurious, floral or metallic that I could lay my hands on. Each outfit is an assortment of second hand things owned by me, and family pieces provided by her. I arrived at her house to find this opulent nook of brocades, scarves and props all set up. What you can't see here is the intricate system of clips and rubber bands holding it all together. You can find a fuller explanation of her inspiration in her blog post. Take a look at the rest of it for some stunningly subversive shoots that definitely re-examine the parameters of fantasy.