Sunday, 19 October 2014

Assembling Yourself

My usual approach to getting ready to go out is slap-dash at best. No matter whether it’s for a quick scoot around the local charity shops or an evening drinking cocktails. I usually have a maximum of about ten minutes in which I’ll drag a comb through my hair, scrabble around frantically for make-up (often muttering, “Where’s my bloody eyeliner? Which of these five handbags is it rattling around in?!”), pause for a minute in front of the mirror with my lipstick and then manage a spritz of perfume before I run around trying to find shoes. That is, of course, if I even have time to do any of this in the house. I’m also adept at the art of completing the whole rigmarole once I’m on a train, or alternatively, I don't bother at all. 

I’ve pretty much always followed this pattern. At my school prom in year 11 (aged 16), where most girls had given over the entire day to extensive preparations, I had the barest of minimums time-wise. My mum curled my hair with tongs (back at the point before my then-straighter-hair turned naturally corkscrewed), drove me to a drama class which I'd refused to miss and returned me home with all of about 15 minutes to spare before we had to leave again. Nearly half of this was spent attempting to wriggle into a very tiny, fitted black sequined dress. In fact, so tiny that I had to tear and cut the lining to ease it on. It had long sleeves and, were I not the height I am, would have been floor-length. It was also backless, requiring quite a lot of double-sided tape to keep the shape in place (hi there scoliosis-affected wonky shoulder blades!) I managed some red lipstick, a flick of black liquid eyeliner and a wave of the mascara wand before we had to go.

All of this said, I do still enjoy the ritual of preparing myself for an event. These instances may be very few and far between, but there’s something special in having half an hour or, about once a year it seems, an hour free to play around and move at a sedate pace. It’s a chance for good music (James Brown and Ella Fitzgerald being two favourite choices right now); a fair bit of dancing around in underwear; the chance to appraise the contents of a wardrobe in a leisurely manner whilst seeking the right dress (if not already chosen); the motions of smoothing and outlining and smudging and blotting and brushing. There’s a contented, excited feel to it all. It’s an allotted space of time to assemble yourself for whatever is ahead – to luxuriate in a moment or two of calm before the whirl. 

Here I'm wearing a second hand, silk Monsoon dress, ridiculously vertiginous heels (also second hand) from eBay and vintage necklaces. I loved the softness of all those greens. 
I'll be posting about it separately soon, but issue 2 of Violet magazine has just been released, complete with an interview I did with my Czech grandma! 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014


A little spontaneity never goes amiss. In fact, nothing like a day seemingly stale – productive in a lacklustre way, with too many interludes on twitter – then lightened by an on-the-spot decision to go out and do something.

On this particular evening, about a month ago (when I was still back at home before returning to university), the ‘something’ was relatively simple: a drive and stroll in the early evening light. I’d spent the afternoon moping around feeling a bit under the weather and generally sorry for myself. So after umming and aahing over dinner, I agreed to go out – only stopping to grab a pair of socks and the nearest cardigan. As dad drove, the slant of the sun grew ever more spectacular – the car winding its way higher into the hills, the golden wash of grass and valley beneath.

I had on what I’d been wearing for a day of work – no make-up, and (I have a feeling) with my hair still un-brushed. There’d been no suggestion of anything other than a walk, and, possibly for dad, some wildlife photography. But I couldn’t help myself: “daaaad, look at the flowers, they match my dress – just one shot!” Well, one shot – and then another, and another, and another…

At first, I’d been hesitant. Here I had nothing to hand – not even a belt to shape up the saggy dress, or a stray eyeliner hidden in a pocket. Nothing. Just the surroundings and the sunshine and some very messy curls. But it felt liberating – all the more freeing for the lack of care or perfectionism. Yes, I had spots on my chin. Yes, this was an outfit more practical than planned. Yes, my throat was killing and my chest hurting for some unknown reason (I’d woken up with it that morning) – but here I was, swept afresh by the breeze, standing and smiling on a road that felt almost abandoned.

There’s a difference, as there always is, between the experience at the time and the photos that then appear on my blog. The latter captures something of the former, but only a condensed moment or two – something shaped and framed for a specific purpose, and a specific platform.

So here I am, as it is with every post, showcasing an outfit and appearance, a visual identity. I’m a little less groomed this time – but no more or less real. It’s how I spend roughly half my days, depending on what I’m doing. Sometimes I’ll dress to the nines for a morning spent writing in my room – or spend a day without even dragging a comb over my head (they are rare though...)
Yet it feels like all of this gains another context on a blog ostensibly devoted to style and culture. 

Does appearing without make-up and other accoutrements become a more political choice, contradicting the usual ‘perfection’ often expected of style bloggers?

To me, it’s just another way of looking. It lacks the accentuation or playfulness of red lipstick, mascara and the like – the potential to flatter or highlight certain aspects with colour, kohl and powder. Instead it’s another angle, another mode of presentation – albeit one with less effort involved.

But I don’t feel any real ‘liberation’ in it. It’s no sacrifice. It doesn’t feel brave, or that I’m saying anything particularly beyond the fact that I’m comfortable enough in my own skin (most of the time) to put this up.

But maybe it’s easy for me to say that? I sit (and fit) relatively close to various societally constructed ideals when it comes to appearance. My skin is mostly pretty clear, my features – apparently – noticeable. I’m happy to play dress up when I want, but also to go out and about with a face unadorned. Perhaps that’s a privilege afforded to me. But it certainly shouldn’t be one based on how near or far you rest from the bizarre cultural tally of what constitutes ‘beautiful’ or ‘acceptable’ – but just how you view yourself.

All items worn here are second hand, amassed from various charity shops. The cardigan is vintage Jaeger. 
In other news, it was Day of the Girl on Saturday October 11th and I wrote something for All Walks Beyond the Catwalk on young women, violence and damaging fashion imagery - you can read it here

Sunday, 5 October 2014

On Paris

Ah, Paris. The city of a thousand clichés. The city where actually mentioning all the clichés is, in itself, kind of clichéd. All I need do now is throw in some vaguely self-conscious, somewhat deprecating references to Amelie and the Eiffel Tower and we can all be done with this and go home. Well, except, that wouldn’t be terribly interesting – either for me writing, or anyone reading. So, let's begin again.

Over the summer, I went to Paris for three nights. I’m not a huge traveller (at the moment – although I’ve promised myself this will be rectified), particularly as work in a variety of forms often keeps me more UK-bound than I’d like during holidays. I flit in a triangle between London, Oxford and the hills all the time, but rarely make it further afield. So this was exciting. It was something I’d been saying I would do for a while, but wasn’t sure I’d actually manage to organise. Thankfully I did.

I stayed with my beautiful (and extremely well-dressed) friend Mina, whose mother lives there. My one and only previous trip to Paris had been at 14 for a modelling job (see here), carefully chaperoned by my mum. This time, with a hell of a lot more independence, Mina and I indulged in a mix of the touristy and the offbeat, alternating between sitting outside the Notre Dame at midnight and sifting through some excellent thrift stores in East Paris.

Part of my reluctance to write about the trip was due to that very touristy nature of our various exploits. Who wants to hear about visiting Shakespeare & Company, or wandering along the Seine at midnight? These are stories that have been told over and over. Old news. And yet, as recognisable (and predictable) as some of these activities may be, it in no way diminishes the intensity of those first glimpses, those marvelous experiences.

Yes, every individual with a sniff of a love for literature ends up at Shakespeare & Co – but it doesn’t stop the gasp of “wow” on first seeing that tiny space crammed high with books, each corner packed full with more volumes than you’d think possible. It doesn’t stop the vague wistfulness of wishing that you could work there too. 

And yes, going to the Pere Lachaise cemetery is not a revolutionary idea – but it doesn’t lessen the incredible curiosity it provokes; the compulsion to want to see as much as possible. After two hours spent climbing stairs, tramping along walkways and skirting graves and chapels so elaborate they resembled twisting streets and villages dedicated to the dead, we found Oscar Wilde’s grave. Another typical sight? Tick. In fact, we were almost a little disappointed – perhaps hoping for something more - until an elderly man with long, flyaway hair clutching a folder and a handful of Gertrude Stein leaflets approached us purposefully. He grabbed my arm, pointed at my lipstick and proceeded to tell me, my friend and a small assembled group all about the women who came here to kiss the grave (he also indulged in some less salubrious details about why Jacob Epstein’s statue was missing its penis, but we’ll leave that for another time…) It was unexpected, but it felt oddly appropriate to encounter such an eccentric character at that point, in that location – fitting, in many ways.

What else did my trip include? Wonderful food, wine sipped outside in the dwindling light, a hidden cocktail bar, a museum we managed to get quite lost in, plenty of coffee (including in The Used Book café), catching up with another friend over piscines of champagne, more wonderful food, returning to the Notre Dame to sketch in the midday heat… An assembly of instances I will remember fondly. But beneath them all was the pleasure of being somewhere new with a good friend, our conversations threaded through all that we did – several days of adventure and intellectual discussion. And for me, that’s as good as it gets.

This second-hand navy shift dress with lace inserts was one of the best souvenirs of the holiday, found in a particularly delectable thrift store for 15 euros. Here I wore it with my mum's black translucent slip underneath (purposefully longer) and a favourite suede jacket picked up at a jumble sale - I think it was 50p? The chelsea boots are now established old favourites - they're second hand men's Russell & Bromley. The bag was from a charity shop. Evening summer light while driving high up through the hills of home to see friends: serendipitous.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Ninth Wave

I saw Kate Bush perform a week ago today, accompanied by my parents. It was an evening of pure spectacle – an entire, self-enclosed world of narratives - by turns joyful, by turns dark. A world peopled by birds, puppets, fish people, dancers, astronomers, family members – and, to re-purpose a T.S Eliot quote, “at the still point of the turning world”, Kate. Yet, really, she wasn’t that still. The stage was hers to dance upon and spin over and be hauled around. But, being the one we’d all ultimately come to see (and hear), there was of course a heady sense of the performance hinging on her presence – although she was quick to remind everyone (quite rightly) of the extraordinary work of the ensemble around her, from band members and backing dancers to all those hidden behind the curtains.

The first glimpse of her was ever so exciting, with whoops and cheers booming loud. The whoops were repeated on the opening chords of various songs in that thrilling instance of recognition as Running Up That Hill or Cloudbusting began. Applause became the stitching, with each song – so well known and adored by the audience – seamed together with our clapping hands.

I could spend pages discussing the minutiae of the show: the different stories enacted, the extraordinary combination of music and visuals, the striking set designs and lighting, the privilege of spending a few hours immersed in the inventions of a particularly dynamic imagination. But even attempting to condense down the scope of it to a few hundred words feels wrong.

What struck me particularly though is how, while everyone seated in the Hammersmith Apollo was seeing the same show, we were all viewing it with different eyes. Maybe some saw Kate perform on her original tour in 1979. Maybe some had particular connections with one album or another. Maybe some, like me, had discovered her afresh via a combination of family vinyls, CDs and Youtube videos.  All of us, in one way or another, were projecting our own image of ‘Kate Bush’ onto that stage – one based on, but not the same as that woman standing in front of us. She’s been mythologized and written about and discussed to the point that her public status can almost be seen in separation to whoever she may be in her private life.

This awareness of varied perspectives and projections held a particular weight for me that evening for two reasons. The first is that Hounds of Love has a continuing place of resonance for me, being one of three albums I listened to repeatedly while I spent a week in hospital recovering from spinal surgery. It became so charged that there were certain songs, such as Hello Earth, that I then found too unsettling to listen to for months afterwards.

The second, more immediate reason was that we had found out the day before the performance that my grandad was gravely ill. A very rapid decline following an illness assumed to be temporary meant that my mum was suddenly facing the loss of her sole remaining parent. He had lived in a residential care home for the last few years, leading a quiet, contained, relatively content life.

This news meant that the themes of the show suddenly took on an extra layer of poignancy. The Ninth Wave sequence – drawn from the second half of Hounds of Love – explores ideas of sinking, surfacing, drowning, movement, loss, love, letting go. A more perfect metaphor for what was happening within our family would be hard to find. Mum wept through the opening song, while I held her hand as it drew to a close. The entire sequence of billowing silk waves, helicopter lights, icy encounters and a single, flashing beacon was as beautiful as it was devastating.

It wasn’t merely about pathos. The absolute celebration of life and living was just as important. Kate Bush still strikes me as being an artist whose work is underpinned by heart and humanity in a way that few others achieve. But as the night drew to a close, following the exuberance and (occasional slight) menace of a Sky of Honey, our family returned once more to thoughts of grandad. The penultimate song, played by Kate on the piano, was Among Angels. It finishes:  

“I can see angels around you.
 They shimmer like mirrors in Summer.
There’s someone who’s loved you forever but you don’t know it
You might feel it and just not show it.”

My grandad was of the generation that didn’t display or verbalize emotion, but he was a good, kind, thoughtful, sensitive man who showed in all his actions that he loved my mum and us, fiercely. So, as he lay, warm and cared-for, in a bed miles and miles away from that show, we sat in the dark at the Apollo and marveled at how the songs on stage could have such an unexpected, personal connection to us that night. 

In the following days after we’d returned home, when mum was spending her time sitting with him; talking/ reading/ singing to him, she recalled another, much earlier, Kate Bush song – Breathing. The chorus is a series of cries of “out, in, out, in.” That was the rhythm of his room in those last few days, his breath the background sound. Finally that out, in, out faded slowly to silence on Friday. He died on a day where a sky of honey stretched above the hills.

In one of those weeks full of seeming coincidences and moments of concordance, Sunday began with the sea (in these photos) and six days later, Friday ended with sky. 
We'd chosen the watery location as a deliberate reference to the content of the show (knowing that The Ninth Wave would figure) - and what a perfect choice. However, there was a slight clash of time-period references, with the vintage 70s dress from eBay much more Wuthering Heights than Hounds of Love. 

Friday, 26 September 2014

A Dialogue on Shearling Jackets

Question: What’s a style staple?

Answer: A term meant to imply qualities like timelessness or longevity, but actually another commercialized phrase often used to encourage consumers to buy whatever’s been marched down the catwalk several months previously.

Question: Wait, so basically ‘a classic must-have’ dressed up in different words?

Answer: All too often, yes. Sometimes you will be advised to ‘update’ your ‘style staple’ according to how it’s been re-worked by designers. Take exhibit number one. The leather jacket. This is usually an item claimed to be a ‘fashion necessity’ - something that ‘your wardrobe really can’t be without.’ However, there will be permutations according to the trends on offer. This leathery ‘staple’ can take a variety of forms: the biker jacket, the buttery soft jacket, the long jacket tied at the waist, the sexy jacket, the boyfriend jacket, the tailored jacket, the retro nineties jacket, the zip-up jacket, the aviator jacket, the jacket covered in buttons (each more expensive than a decent meal). Then we have the humble shearling jacket, beloved every several years and sniffed at when not currently on sale. Like 70s maxi-dresses and 80s power shoulders, it will flare bright for an instance and then subside into the murky depths of a coat-rack.

Question: But what if I love shearling, and to me it’s a staple year after year – even if the industry aren’t too keen at a particular moment on big fluffy collars and outer layers that will keep me cosy?

Answer: Well then wear it! If you like it, and it looks great and makes you feel good, then go ahead – knock yourself out. Parade that fleecy bundle of warmth with pride. Who am I to stop you?

Question: Yet if I do that, doesn’t it make a whole mockery of the idea of trends? Won’t fashionistas look at me, aghast, with carefully manicured eyebrows raised and voices lowered to a muted grumble of “what on earth is she wearing? Doesn’t she know that Burberry did shearling in 2010 and we’re not quite at the point of rehabilitating it back into the mainstream ‘must-have’ lists?”

Answer: Actually, no. Little secret. Have you seen the latest Burberry campaigns for AW14? They’ve got shearling coats with floral patterns and everything – all belted and pretty. Cara Delevingne and Suki Waterhouse are doing some grade-A hair flicking in the ads. Then Prada did big, colourful shiny ones. They also turned up in various forms at Coach, Topshop Unique, Isabel Marant and a few others.

Question: Wait, so my plan to launch into a carefully orchestrated, very articulate tirade about being able to wear whatever the hell I want has been scuppered? You mean that this sartorial decision, which I thought was going all off-beat and individual in showing my complete disregard for what’s hot and what’s not, is actually going to look very carefully timed with what can now be bought in various high end stores? That all my protestations about another sprinkling of leaves on the lawn not requiring a new statement coat will be overshadowed by me looking like I was keeping this jacket hidden away for the next time shearling graced the list of top ten trends? And I only had to wait four years!?

Answer: Yeah, sorry about that…

I did indeed dig this jacket back out, having said to my mum, "Oooh, I really want a good leather jacket this Autumn" - her answer being, "but you already have one?" It's second hand Escada, bought from a charity shop five years ago. Mum helped me to turn it into a gorgeous shearling number in 2010 with the help of an old sheepskin baby blanket (my dad's!) that had already had a second life as a seat cover, before beginning to fray at the edges. It was then salvaged to shape into this collar . You can also see the life of the jacket pre-fluffy collar here in 2009

In this post I'm wearing it with a charity shop silk dress, vintage jewellery (necklace from a jumble sale) and second hand, velvet heels from eBay - that of course are only ever worn to stand or sit in (walking being ridiculously impossible).   

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Man Who Turned Into a Sofa

We have a bit of a motto in our family: “shit happens, and then you write about it.” It was devised in response to an intense two years of challenges (chiefly the combination of my spinal surgery and, twelve months on, my dad’s severe depression). Later, we joked about how such experiences become the foundation for stories, poems, articles... We dredge the dark stuff for material. There was (and is) a kind of compulsion to take all the crap and trauma, and shape it, trim it to fit into words. I guess that’s one of the things writers do – and I’ve grown up watching how my parents work.

I’ve been fortunate to live in a household built on books: lining the shelves, talked about over the table, written in order to pay the bills. It’s been an invaluable education – in appreciating the craft of a good sentence; in working as bloody hard as possible and then still needing to re-write multiple times; in editing and polishing and paring back; in knowing that publishing is a brutal industry that you can’t enter with any preconceptions. I’ve had a grounding in observing relentless (often unsuccessful) pitching and pragmatic approaches – although I’ve gone on to apply it in areas and industries my folks had no knowledge or experience of, or interest in. They’ve always written primarily for child/ young audiences, and neither of them has gone near fashion or journalism or essays/ opinion pieces. My own writing, so far, has been entirely separate from my parents.

Well, apart from this instance: we have collaboratively written a radio play that was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Weds September 17th at 2.15pm, titled ‘The Man who Turned into a Sofa.’ It’s a three-way piece, although remains essentially my mum’s project. A series of interwoven autobiographical monologues reflecting on dad’s depressive illness from our various perspectives, we all contributed initial written material that my mum then shaped and structured into a cohesive narrative. She’s done a stunning job (although I would say that). There are four voices – the man who is ill, his wife, his daughter, and the sofa that he sits on week in and week out, afraid to leave. Each of us also performed our own part, with actor Lorcan Cranitch providing the voice of the sofa. The music was composed by Will Goodchild and it was produced by Tim Dee.

Something we’ve discussed a lot as a family is the ripple effect of depression. Although there is a single individual at the centre, the one not sure how s/he will manage to make it through each day, those around the edge also bear the weight of that illness. Suddenly the person you love is altered, made strange. If the episode of illness is lengthy, then it’s like adjusting to a temporary bereavement – one where a cut-out image, an outward semblance of that person remains, but everything else recognisable is gone.

There’s a small irony in the fact that on the day my parents met, some 24 years ago, my flamboyant father walked into the school my mum was teaching at wearing a suit made out of colourful sofa/upholstery fabric: his performance garb. He charmed the pupils and my mum alike. I have a photo of him in this outfit in one of my many scrapbooks. When I was about 14, I captioned it with, “Let me just slip into something a little more comfortable – oh, I already have: a sofa!”

Little did I know what a prescient (and sad) statement that would prove to be. He was unable to leave the sanctuary of our sofa in the living room for months after he returned from hospital. It was the unlikely lynch-pin of our days, both integral and oppressive. Following his long, slow recovery, when my mum began piecing together a patchwork of monologues for a play, she realized that there were more than the three central characters – she needed to write an additional voice. And there it sat, constant, both set and player: “All seeing. All hearing. I wear grey wool with the felted feel of old school blazers.”

Now that wool is welcoming to all again – covered in cushions and rugs and the detritus of each day. What was once a place of refuge for my dad and of absence for us, has been long re-claimed.  I’m sitting on that very sofa to write this.

I thought it would be appropriate to dress in the colours of the sofa - grey (with red accessories). The cape (from a charity shop at a festival some years ago) is made from almost exactly the same fabric as the sofa.
"Greyness" is also a word used by some to describe aspects of depression, as though colour has been leached.  
Everything else I'm wearing is second hand/ vintage. My mum and I even managed to find a location yesterday that vaguely resembled some kind of blasted heath. 

Here is the link to the radio play on iPlayer. It's available to listen to until Wednesday 24th September. 

You can also read a review of it in The Spectator here, where it was described as "so powerful, so economical, so completely honest, each of the characters laying themselves bare, without pretence or excuse".  

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Re-creations (Charity Fashion Live)

                           Simone Rocha AW 14/15                                              My re-creation

I have a fluctuating relationship with London Fashion Week. I began attending when I was 15, the landscape of Somerset House an altogether different terrain with a handful of street style snappers and a press lounge that welcomed bloggers. All of this has changed, for various - and very understandable - reasons. Blogging, press, social media, the industry. All these areas (and each in relation to the others) have been shifting and re-moulding what is valued; where the focus lies. 

I am drawn back - dropping in to the odd show, catching up with old faces, meeting new ones. But as each six months rolls by, season on season, I’ve been a little less involved. That's not to say that there aren't designers who make my heart sing (and my potential purse strings tremble) - but I’m happy to remain at more of a remove than previously.

Yet, this time, there’s a difference. Come Saturday Sept 13th, I’ll be taking part in a shoot with a twist. Titled ‘Charity Fashion Live’, it’s going to be located in my most favourite of venues – a charity shop (a Red Cross, to be specific). Emma of Back of the Wardrobe will be conjuring up a second hand styling storm – emulating outfits from the shows held that day, using just what she can find on the rails. The fab photographer Claire Pepper (who I’ve worked with previously on this Charlotte Taylor shoot) will be there to capture these spontaneous creations on camera, while Darren O’Mahoney will be producing a film. It’ll be a day of snap decisions and social media, with all the looks broadcast online in as quick a turnaround as can be managed. Afterwards the outfits will be auctioned on eBay in aid of The British Red Cross.

I’m one of two models for the day. Although it’s usual to have no idea in advance how one might be dressed on a shoot, it’s a little more unusual for the rest of the team to be equally in the dark… The element of unpredictability makes it a hugely exciting prospect though. It weaves together so many of my interests, from second hand sustainability to innovative creation. The ethos chimes strongly with my own, relying on promotion of the longevity of clothing – and the creative possibilities to be found on a budget.

In preparation, I had a little go myself, with help from my mum – choosing a look from Simone Rocha’s AW14/15 collection: see image above left (photo credit My DIY version is composed from a long tartan skirt (bought from a charity jumble sale) that was turned upside down and transformed into a strapless dress with the help of ribbon and belts. It was ribbon-tied just above the bust with enough fabric from the hem pulled over to form the ruffles cascading over the top. Then it was belted with a cummerbund (you can see the detail behind). The open zip even forms a slit at the back! All the accessories were sourced in charity shops over the years too. Although I might not be able to get away with it on the catwalk, it seemed curiously appropriate for striding around country lanes.

Interestingly, I’ve actually used this skirt before for some other recreations of my own, including this homage to Corrie Nielsen several years back. It’s amazing how often the contents of my own wardrobe/ dressing up box can yield items suddenly deemed ever so ‘on trend’ or ‘of the moment’.  

You can follow the fun on Saturday on Twitter - with @Backofwardrobe using the hashtag #charityfashionlive. I'm sure it will be making plenty of appearances on my twitter too, which you can follow at @RosalindJana. Images below are from previous years. I can't wait to see what happens..