Thursday, 20 November 2014

Second Hand First




 




My current room is bedecked with dresses – five of them strung across one wall, doing an excellent job of simultaneously providing decoration and hiding chipped paint marks. All but one are second hand, bought from an array of vintage stalls, charity shops and other clothes troves I’ve visited in the last few years. My wardrobe is also packed tight with skirts, shirts and jumpers that possibly had previous owners (and other stories) before I plucked them up from some pile or rail. This term the colours are all darkly jeweled - jades, deep blues, reds, pinks – with lots of black and grey thrown into the mix. There are velvets, silks, leather jackets, thick wools and the odd fancy hat. 

This little assembly of items is typical of my wider wardrobe. A small selection of it was bought new (think People Tree, ASOS Africa and the occasional foray into an independent designer or sustainable brand), but the rest has passed through other hands, other houses, other heritages first. I’d say about 80% of my clothing is second hand, whether it’s been bought by me, sneaked away from my mum, passed down from previous generations or received as gifts. 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last few days, as the textiles charity TRAID have deemed this week to be one of going ‘Second Hand First’. They’re trying to encourage more people to think about the environmental impact of what they buy - and to source a percentage of their wardrobe second hand (you can even sign a pledge if you’re feeling ambitious). Obviously this is no challenge for me, as charity shops and vintage stalls are my natural hunting ground. But it’s good to be reminded of the thrill every now and then – the pleasure of sifting through fifties tea-dresses, the satisfaction of finding something you know you’ll wear time and time again. You can read more about the aims and actions of TRAID here

To commemorate the occasion, I’ve put together a little bunch of images from the last five and a half years, charting some of the many, many outfits comprised of nearly all second hand clothes (although I realised in the process of choosing photos that I could have used just about any past post to illustrate the ethos). I also still own every item re-shown  - including the floor length, red satin evening coat that belonged originally to one of my great grandmothers, given to me in 2009 by my Babi (Grandma). I won’t elaborate any more here, as my main thoughts on the subject were expressed in this recent piece ‘Some Words on Second Hand.’ Which I ended thus:

“It’s more about a slow-burn pleasure, having the privilege to keep on building a little emporium of second hand delights. Some pieces will come and go, while others – hopefully – will remain stashed away until I’m old. Who knows what clothes there are left to discover… Slightly superficial? Well, yes. But a joy to consider? Absolutely.”

TRAID are making this week all about that joy. I’ll be joining them as I stomp around Oxford in various outfits cobbled together from items owned by others first - hopefully adding in my own tales to the ones created when they were worn before.

In other news, I recently did an interview with Fashiola, which you can read here

Sunday, 16 November 2014

My Grandmother - Violet Book Issue 2




My grandma is something of a marvel - a whirl of tales and anecdotes and curiosity and unwavering  affection. I've chronicled some of her various escapades and fabulous clothes on this blog over the years, ranging from her coat bought at the winter Olympics to her re-purposed wedding dress to her Balenciaga cocktail dress bought in an NY thrift store for $20 (apologies for the layout of photos in this early one - my strong point is not blog design) to paying homage to her in her modelling days

Her life is one of incredible experiences and devastating events. There are lines I can roll out when talking to others, like: "her family escaped Czechoslovakia in 1948 disguised as ski tourists" or "yeah, she appeared in Doctor Who as Empress of the Earth" or "she found love again in her later years and moved to Alaska." They are huge stories condensed down, giving the bare bones outline of times so much more complicated and sprawling than one could summarise in a single sentence. I enjoy that heritage though - the rich seam of words and episodes to draw on. 

So imagine my delight when I was asked if I would interview her for the second issue of Violet magazine - out at the moment. Finally I had the chance to thread together all these instances, filling out narratives I already knew and adding in others I hadn't heard before. Several conversations and 6000 words later, I had our dialogue - a document not only of her memories, but also her outlook, her way of approaching a life that has been filled with love and loss in equal measure. You can read about everything from her parents' courtship to how she secured a place at RADA to Hollywood's warped view of body size to the Open University degrees she completed in her fifties. There are also some fabulous photos from her large archive of snaps and newspaper articles (this one is my absolute favourite - I can empathise somewhat). It was a privilege beyond description to be involved with producing this, and the interview now rests among the pieces of work of which I'm most proud.

The accompanying portraits were shot by wonderful photographer Susannah Baker-Smith - they absolutely capture my Babi's (Grandma's) animation and I treasure the image of us together. Styling was by the lovely Kristina Golightly. Apologies for slightly awful photo resolution. Snaps from my phone are practical, but not necessarily the most pretty. Guess it means you'll have the buy the mag to see everything in its full glory... The rest of it is amazing too, ranging from in-depth interviews with Alexa Chung to Zoe Kazan's stage diary to a feature on the (lack of) ethics when it comes to fur. 

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

A Performance: Oscar Wilde








Some days, I really, really wish Oscar Wilde had been around to see Twitter. I think he would have loved it. All those slick bon mots, those 140 character slices of wit, the pithy commentary on news and popular culture. Sounds like just his kind of medium.

I think he would have enjoyed it for reasons beyond his sharp observational humour too. Wilde was among the first in the 1890s to fully popularize the idea of commodifying the self – of turning one’s own identity or appearance into a brand that could be sold or used to promote something. His personality (or rather, I should say, various personas) proved integral to audience reception of his plays. He was, in a sense, a performance himself.

One of the things I’ve occasionally struggled with whilst studying English Literature is my desire to interject with comments like: “Oh, but that’s so relevant to social media today!” or, “wow, so basically this writer kick-started the idea of people as brands – he’d have adored taking selfies!” My desire to yank people and themes from the past into contemporary culture is fine for general conversation, but it’s not quite what’s expected in a tutorial.

Yet the concept of offering yourself – your lifestyle, your aesthetic, your opinions, your image – up for public consumption is what the internet’s all about. Ok, no, that’s a gross generalisation. Let’s rephrase. It’s a phenomenon found in various corners online, with public platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and blogs allowing the individual to present a polished, publishable version of themselves. And it doesn’t just ‘allow’ it – but encourage. We’re expected to repackage certain aspects of our life online. Our meals. Our faces. Our response to TV shows or breaking news. For some this repackaging can be commercially successful. To many it’s just a bit of fun – albeit a fun that requires you to be continually updating another identity online. 

To a certain degree, for all of us who engage with social media, it does remain a bit of a performance. Like Wilde’s multifaceted presentation of himself and his works, what we put up online isn’t untruthful or non-genuine – but it is just a version, a single perception, a small window into an individual’s existence where we don’t know just what’s being concealed or revealed or fabricated or elaborated. And that’s fine. It would be weird to have an online representation that completely matched the messy, sprawling, complex personality of each person. More than that – it would be impossible.

What fascinates me though, is how little we acknowledge this continual process of selection and construction. We may nod every now and then to the fact that we’re assembling ourselves online in every self-portrait snap in the mirror or snappy tweet. But we rarely extend that awareness to others. Although we can recognise which bits of our life we’re amplifying or highlighting, and which bits we’re leaving in the shadows, we tend to take what others put online as some kind of whole.

I wonder what Wilde would have made of it all. Alongside embracing it, would he have passed comment on it? Might he have become something of a performance artist on Instagram? Amassed thousands of followers to promote new works? Let the world know about his new clothing purchases? Played with the medium, showed up its artifice, indulged in instability and ambiguity, written essays and dialogues about social media? Who knows. It’s fun to imagine it though…

So here I'm kind of performing a part, as I always do on this blog, my outfit, landscape and props suggesting a particular character, aesthetic or scene. Obviously this is something of a homage to the man himself, my emulation of Wilde achieved with plenty of second hand velvet, a shirt and some loafers from a charity shop, vintage accessories, a stack of books and heaps of kirby grips to tuck and pin my hair up in place. 
(PS Thus what might look like a hair cut is not. Just another assembled element of visual image).

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Heroes






I’ve done many things when modeling – walked slowly across busy streets heaving with traffic, attempting to look breezy whilst avoiding being run over; spent hours tottering around studios in heels, feet slowly cramping into agony while I’m encouraged to “just look natural”; posed in parks, on pavements and once in a Parisian apartment. Yet pulling on shiny silver leggings with underwear on top to wander around Camden was a first. Back in the heat of July I played at being a superhero for a day, putting my best (heeled boot clad) foot forward for Who Made Your Pants.

WMYP are an ethical co-operative that provide jobs and training to refugee women in Southampton. For a full explanation of their ethos, see this feature I wrote on them last year. In fact, it was that post – me styling a blue lacy number with thick black tights and jazz-style shoes – that prompted Becky (the founder) to get in touch to ask if I’d be interested in working with them.

The brief for the briefs (hah, hah, hah, never heard that one before) was to investigate new ways of advertising knickers – chiefly through doing something other than implying that underwear is solely worn for sexy purposes. They are – and can be - immensely sexy if you want them to be, but a lot of the time pants are also just useful bits of fabric arranged to make going about the day a bit more comfortable/ less draughty.

So this was an exercise in exploring other possible representations – looking at qualities like strength, power, activity, pragmatism (well, maybe not the last unless ‘pragmatism’ for you includes shiny fabric and capes). So I gamely jumped up and down a lot, strode around, hid in a phone-box and pretended I could stop trucks by the mere power of thought - all the while aware of the stares and iPhones whipped out by passersby. Who knows what platforms my image turned up on that day. Rather wonderfully though, two small girls posed for a picture with me after they had urged their mum to approach, to ask if I was a superhero. 

All in all, it was a full-on combination of fun, teamwork and collaboration – my darling friend Florence Fox taking the photos, the two of us working together on our first professional brief. There's nothing quite so satisfying as that mix of playful ideas and producing images you're truly proud of, for a company with such an admirable ethos. It was a whirlwind day of posing and cameras and suitcases crammed full of exciting fabrics and spangly things. And of course, really great knickers.

You can see other images from the day on WMYP's pinterest board

Now, Becky has been nominated for this pretty prestigious Social Entrepreneur of the Year award. The winner gets a £10,000 boost to their social enterprise. This would be immensely valuable to WMYP, especially as brilliant Becky (and all the others) work so tirelessly on keeping the initiative going. Voting closes at midday on October 31st, so if anyone wants to cast a vote before that point, then that'd be more than wonderful. Go, go, go! 

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

Impromptu







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.