Thursday, 27 August 2015

Golden Days

I’m not sure what I noticed first – the coppery tint to all the fields, the hay bales, or the rain. Probably the rain, to be honest. We’re currently sitting on the cusp of that part-magical, part-melancholy tipping point between summer and autumn. The kind of point where thick cardigans are pulled out again, and talk about the lack of sunshine becomes commonplace.

I kind of love it though. Despite the dip in temperatures and possibility of grey days ahead, there’s a thrill to it as well. Call it all the clichés: back to school sentiment, the whiff of new beginnings, another seasonal shift full of possibility. However it’s labeled, there’s a sense of opportunity - somewhere among the slightly colder mornings and shorter days. Fresh starts – just as the leaves are readying themselves to embark on that final, glorious, colourful change.

It’s a feeling that lends itself to optimism – to the beginning of new projects and completion of longstanding plans. It also ushers in a certain amount of nostalgia too. I’m already aware of a sensation of loss on recalling the heat of late June/ early July where plenty of days involved river swimming, barbecues, and drinking wine outside late into the evening. I want the warmth and the thrill of skinny-dipping at midnight under a full moon. And yet I also want the warmth of big jumpers and thrill of crisp, bright mornings full of mist. But maybe that’s because it’s always easy to crave the season that’s not currently being experienced – especially when it can be condensed down to a few picturesque scenes and memories. 

There are plenty of adventures ahead though - things to write and schemes to work on, as well as a hefty amount of reading to complete. In the meantime though, I’ll be celebrating the end of summer by dancing through these last few days of August. This is being hastily written in between shoving every glittery dress I own (and the odd practical layer) into a rucksack, ready to head off to Shambala festival later today. I’m being sent by CAT boots, and will be striding around for the whole weekend in these metallic beauties – my feet shimmering through the night. Besides, as someone who usually chooses impracticality above all else, there’s something ever so satisfying in making pragmatic footwear choices that still look bloody fabulous.

Thanks to CAT for sending me off to Shambala. I'm wearing their Colorado ankle boots, here styled with a second hand, charity shopped slip dress and vintage velvet blazer. I half-froze while doing these photos - my mum and I dashing between the snug car and windy, chilly hillside - but the views were beyond magnificent. 

Monday, 24 August 2015

Kilts and Things

I bought my first kilt when I was thirteen. It was from a charity shop, naturally. This was the point where tartan and pleats were still plentiful – every pattern and colour hidden in among long, floral maxis and denim minis. I had little notion of the significance of the kilt as a specific design then, just claiming it as part of my general ‘granny chic’ ensemble (and indeed, my great-grandma had her fair share of kilts too). Over the years, the vast collection I assembled got whittled down – waistlines grew too small, or skirt lengths too cumbersome. Now I have a small but select group of three: one in black and white, one bright yellow, and one entirely magnificent in red, cream and green stretching to the floor. The former two I tend to wear all through the winter. The latter is just for special occasions.

As my interest in fashion history grew, the silhouette of the kilt took on new resonances. It made me think of punk and Vivienne Westwood, of Alexander McQueen, of Clueless and nineties teens, of Scottish heritage (I am ashamed to say that this was the last thing to come to mind). I still didn’t think of ‘the kilt’ as a standalone item in my own wardrobe though – it was just rammed in among a rag-tag mix of other tartan things, and other thick, wool garments. I was careless with mine, and also a tad sacrilegious. I still have a habit of wearing them back to front, because I prefer the flare of the pleats to the flat of the fabric. Bad, bad me…

Then I saw this delectable item from Le Kilt. It was gorgeous beyond belief. If you had a Rosalind Jana tick-box, it covered an awful lot of points: longstanding design heritage with a twist? Tick.  Strong cultural tradition that’s respected? Tick. Skilled craftsmanship? Tick. Knee-quiveringly beautiful shape and appearance? Tick. A mention of a grandma somewhere in there? Tick.

About a week after I first wobbled on sight of that beauty (incidentally, I think it may be the same one Pandora Sykes gloriously styled in the Sunday Times Style last weekend), I had an email from Katharine, who I was already working with, about a new venture she was setting up. It was called La Coterie. The aim? To provide intelligent, creative fashion content – and spark up conversations. Her reason for asking me to take part? To chat at length about Le Kilt with two other women I highly admire: Kay Montano (make-up maestro, co-founer of ThandieKay, and someone I feel entirely privileged to call a friend) and Navaz Batliwalla (fashion blogger extraordinaire behind the fabulous Disneyrollergirl). I readily said yes, and then began doing my research – looking up everything from the history of the kilt to the story behind the AW15 ‘She Said Boom’ collection (clue: it’s to do with a Toronto based post-punk band called Fifth Column, who you should definitely Google). You can see the resulting dialogue between the three of us here. I also got to wear a fabulous little blue number from Le Kilt for filming, and was reluctant to relinquish it when we were done.

Taking part reinforced something I already recognized – I bloody love conversation. Getting to unspool thoughts and bounce around ideas and follow threads of possibility? It’s the most intensely satisfying experience, whether it’s about fashion and feminism (as it was here), or just a series of musings with a friend over coffee. Long live words. Oh, and I guess, long live kilts. They’re ever so wonderful…

One of my second hand kilts has here been styled (for once, the right way around) with a silk pyjama top, a vintage suede waistcoat from a charity shop, and some men's loafers. 

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Asking For It: A Review

CONTENT NOTE: Contains discussion of sexual assault and victim blaming.

What does the length of that skirt pictured above say about me? Barely covering my bum, the leather pleats skim the top of my thighs and leave nearly all my flesh on show. In some quarters there are various words that might be used to describe it, especially when combined with heels and a skimpy top (and perhaps even more so if I was on a night out): indecent, provocative, suggestive. In fact, could wearing it somehow make me more liable to any misfortune that befell me? Is it a skirt that’s somehow short enough to imply that I’m ‘asking for it’?

Bollocks it is. It’s just a skirt. A pretty teeny-tiny mini as they go, for sure, but still just a length of fabric cut in a particular style with a particular set of dimensions. You can read lots of different messages from it (not least that I quite like letting my legs roam free) but there’s one very distinct thing it categorically does not and never will indicate – consent. There is not a single thing stitched into the seams or cut into the shape that says, “yes, I am seeking out trouble – it is my fault if anything bad happens to me. I should know better than to incite other people’s appalling assumptions or actions.”

Rather terrifyingly though, all sorts of people do seem to assume that a skirt like this might say just that – and, by following such a line of logic, some people also believe that in the case of sexual assault it's appropriate to ask questions about the outfit worn by a survivor. So many other questions too, especially when we’re talking about women… Not just was she wearing a short skirt or showing her cleavage, but how many people had she slept with before? Was she 'easy'? Was she by herself? Had she not taken the precaution of X, Y or Z? Had she been flirting? Was she drunk or high? Did she make a stupid decision? Could she be lying? Is she looking for attention? Isn’t she just ruining the lives of some young, promising guys?

Louise O’Neill’s book Asking for It challenges all of those acidic assumptions head on. It’s one of the most harrowing - yet entirely brilliant and utterly thought-provoking - books for young adults/teenagers that I’ve read in a very long time. I stayed up until 2am, racing through page after page. O’Neill has form. Her first book Only Ever Yours skewered and sharply satirized our modern obsession with appearance and skinniness (see my review for All Walks Beyond the Catwalk). But the world painted here is no dystopia, but current day Ireland – set in a small town full of classrooms and friendship politics and parties and smartphones. A world where Emma O’Donovan wakes up one morning with no memory of the previous night, only to find that the awful events have been plastered across social media. In fact, it is a kind of dystopia - but one that is all too horribly recognisable and current. This is a book that is as lyrical as it is disturbing – especially in the second half, charting the shattering impact of this incident on Emma, and the ripple effect beyond her. 

Emma is not the kind of character you immediately fall in love with. She is continually preoccupied with her own status, her beauty, her ability to attract the boys around her. Descriptions of her outfits are also rife throughout the book, as is Emma’s obsession with her appearance. On the night of the party, she gives details of her new dress: ‘It’s black, cut down the naval, and very, very short.’ All but one of her friends’ dresses are too. It’s standard, almost expected – a constant visual vying with each other. But although that dress may be calculated to draw attention, it does not make Emma accountable. Nothing could do that. Nothing whatsoever. And yet nearly everyone else around her seems to think that it's not just acceptable, but funny, to label her as a ‘slut’ – that she was 'asking for it', that she had it coming, that she deserves revulsion and mockery rather than empathy.

What's both fantastic and scary is how powerfully O’Neill's book echoes and embodies many of the conversations currently happening about rape culture. It reflects and brings to life everything from victim blaming to social media shaming to consent, law, gender, the media, and how narratives are constructed around both attackers and survivor.  There are hints of the Steubenville case, and others of its kind. This is not an easy read, by any means. Yet it is a necessary one. I hope huge numbers of people, especially young people, pick it up and then talk and talk and talk about it. 

Let’s return to clothing for a minute though, and unpack it a little further. This may seem like a heavy topic in general for a fashion blog, but in some ways it’s the perfect forum. I write about clothes constantly: about their messages, their meanings, their possibilities, their multifaceted functions.

But let’s be clear on this. There is no correlation between the particular arrangement of fabric on your skin (and the amount of skin it shows), and any sense of responsibility – whether we’re talking catcalls, lewd comments, groping, or rape. It’s not your fault if you are wearing a bodycon dress, a skirt short as a belt, a translucent shirt that shows your bra or hot-pants and a crop top. It is just as much not your fault as if you were wearing a demure pink twinset with pearls, a drab shapeless dress, a baggy hoodie and jogging bottoms, or jeans and the biggest, bobbly jumper. Doesn’t matter if you’re covered head to toe or just in a g-string (although I’d argue against the latter on the grounds of comfort, if nothing else).

How you choose to clothe yourself can be many, many things, but it is not an invitation, not an advance, not a request – and never, ever a justification.

Everything I’m wearing here is second hand, and you know what? I felt bloody fabulous in it.

Asking for It comes out with Quercus on September 3rd. It was a privilege to read it ahead of publication, and I have a feeling it’s going to be absolutely huge – and generate lots of much-needed conversations. I'd also suggest Sanne's video and Rosianna's too for very insightful observations on the book and on rape culture. 

Monday, 3 August 2015

Taking Chances

Some clothes are love at first sight – or near enough. Or whatever love at first sight feels like. Quite honestly, I’ve only experienced it with objects, sartorial and otherwise. Maybe this says something about the state of my love life thus far. Or perhaps I’m just more impetuous with my clothes (which, you know, makes sense. You don’t have to limit yourself when it comes to outfits…)

Other clothes though are subtler choices - ones made on the off chance that it might just prove fruitful. They’re more like ooh-maybe-it-might-work-but-I’m-not-quite-sure type affairs (probably quite a tad more accurate if we’re continuing with the whole relationships analogy, which of course I am). Often they’re bought on the encouragement of another, or because they’re ridiculously cheap, or because it’s a good combination of good day, good time, good garment.

Sometimes these decisions reveal themselves to be the folly they are the next day when you’re staring at a bright pink pinafore dress and wondering where exactly your discernment wandered off to. That’s ok though – that’s what eBay is for. And besides, it’s worth it for every time those unsure decisions prove themselves to be absolutely and exactly and utterly RIGHT.

Take this dress. It was fifteen euros from a second hand shop in Paris last summer. I’d picked up and put down several other things, but kept gravitating back towards this. It seemed a bit plain though. What merited it coming home with me? It was just a navy shift with some lace on it. And yet, and yet - perhaps it was the ideal shade of navy, the ideal placing of lace, the ideal fall of the hemline. And besides, my purse was still feeling a little heavy…

The upshot is that I’ve had it in Oxford with me all year, and worn it innumerable times. It goes with everything: grey Jaeger blazers, purple tights and velvet DMs; suede jackets and brown boots; turquoise socks and bright pink heels. You name it, somehow it’ll work. Well, maybe that’s a claim too far. But it’s about as versatile as it gets for me, and there’s a pleasure in dreaming up new combinations to play around with. Here it’s pictured with a yellow shirt that’s worn with similar regularity, to the point that it ended up with (now fixed) rips at the collar and sleeves.

It’s funny how this stuff works. I’ve had plenty of items I was convinced I’d wear until they were rags on my back that only get the odd outing. Others I nearly didn’t buy that get pulled out with increasing regularity. What makes the difference? What transports something from the ‘occasional’ pile to the ‘slip on whenever necessary’ one?

Maybe it’s partly comfort – it just feels good. Perhaps it’s about cut, and knowing that something will instantly flatter your body. Could be about the combination of everything else you own. As great as a garment is, if it doesn’t go with anything else (and yes, I’m bemused to say this does actually happen to me, despite my wardrobe’s best attempts to dominate the room through sheer volume), then it’ll stay folded in a drawer. Or maybe it’s just down to that odd-and-brilliant-and-weird thing that just happens with some clothes. It’s not quite magic. Not quite a superpower. Just a quiet aligning of everything, a moment of it all working out and looking subtly fabulous. This dress is definitely in that category. I spent my Euros well.

Everything I'm wearing here actually gets slung on with some serious regularity. I've had the heeled brogues for years, and they've cropped up on the blog many a-time. The shirt was second hand. And the provenance of the dress? Well, that's been covered already. 

In other news, I've had two articles published recently. First, this piece for Into the Fold discussing modelling and self-image. Second, this piece for Yahoo chatting about my curly hair, my mum, frizz, and the excellent website ThandieKay

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

I Capture the Castle

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.”

It’s years since I’ve read the book in its entirety, but that opening has lodged itself somewhere in my brain – as brightly imprinted as the dye Topaz uses to turn all of the Mortmain family’s clothes various shades of green. I’m talking, of course, of I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith’s magnificent novel published in 1949. Set in a rambling, crumbling, ever-so-ramshackle castle in Suffolk, it follows the fortunes of Cassandra (17) and Rose (21), their father (a once-successful novelist), their stepmother Topaz (an artist’s model with a propensity for wandering around the countryside wearing nothing but her boots), and younger (rather precocious) brother Thomas. They’re broke. There are leaks everywhere. And two rather intriguing American brothers have just moved in nearby…

It was just one among the many books I read in my early teens – a glorious period where I gobbled anything and everything on our shelves. Adult classics, teen chick lit, fantasy, thrillers (I made my way through every single one of the Alex Rider series), new proof copies that my dad brought back from events by the boxful, old tattered books that had belonged to my mum. There was little differentiation between genre or status, an almost delightful lack of snobbery. I just read and read and read.

It’s odd now to return to some of those books. Many feel incredibly cringey or dated. A few are appallingly written. Plenty are perfectly entertaining, but I have no need to reread them. A select few are gem-like. These ones are as wonderful as on first encounter. Perhaps more so – a few more years of aging allowing access to layers or depths that were previously closed off. I Capture the Castle is definitely in that category. I picked it up again recently after watching the film version on a whim. I’d all but forgotten the plot, marvelling afresh at the story (and the clothes, but we’ll get on to that soon…)

I wish I could say I’ve had the chance to reread the entire thing since. Sadly not. I’ve just dipped in and out. Full immersion will happen at some point. But in all the parts I’ve skimmed there’s a perfectly pitched balance of wit, charm and self-consciousness. Cassandra’s voice – for of course the entire story is mediated through her pen as she makes each journal entry – is sometimes naïve, sometimes insightful, never twee, and often wonderfully dry. It’s a story about marriage and money, status, idealized romance (well, idealism full-stop), sibling relationships, growing up, and writing. And housing it all, the castle – complete with a moat. The castle that we can all simultaneously wish we lived in, and recognize as being totally unsuitable for family life.

It’s a dominating presence in the film too – each scene gorgeous, even when it’s raining and everyone is grumpy and there are holes in the ceiling. Candlelight and artfully disheveled 30s costumes help. Every single bias cut and knitted jumper and set of stockings is glorious. Rose (played by Rose Byrne), all big eyes and even bigger red hair, is kitted out in wide-legged trousers, berets, gorgeous little dresses, and one rather amusingly froufrou ball-gown. Cassandra (played by Romola Garai) is magnificently gauche – with a straight bob, loose dresses, baggy cardigans, mary-janes, and a journal often in hand. Topaz (played by Tara Fitzgerald) prefers a complete lack of clothes, but still has a great line in all things floaty and layered. The entire thing is a visual delight.

It’s that delight I wanted to reflect here, complete with my own castle (well, ok, obviously not mine) to play around with. I decided to pay homage to all that green dye with this pistachio coloured cardigan, and a vintage dress that somehow just bridges the gap between nightie and acceptable daywear. Plus, I had the most important accessory – a notebook. However, unlike Cassandra, mine isn’t a detailed account of each day. Instead it’s a scattered mix of lists, ideas, jottings and the odd poem. And I’ve never written anything in it whilst perching in the kitchen sink – more’s the shame…

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Woman in Clothes

“I guess, and correct me if I’m wrong, clothes are important to you because of your work?”

The question came up when I was chatting with a friend the other evening. I’d surfaced for a little while from some rather frantic late-night typing and note making, and the talk had turned to what we valued.

“No, not really. Work comes into it, but it’s more about the clothes themselves. About dressing up, knowing I look damn good and deriving confidence from that. About playing around with the image I project, or assembling a persona from what I’ve got on. About looking at the narrative of a garment. Obviously it helps with the blogging and everything, but my work came from the clothes - not the other way round.”

Well, I replied with something along those lines. Possibly not quite as articulate (my brain was feeling a little frazzled after a full day in front of a screen). There were so many other things I could have said beyond that though: acknowledging pure pleasure in wearing a good dress; enjoyment in intelligent analysis of style; the cultural, social and historical role of clothes; that miraculous ability to shape how others perceive you on a daily basis; the room for craftsmanship and verve and serious flights of imagination. A hundred and one different reasons to adore or be intrigued by the contents of a wardrobe.

“I hadn’t really though of it like that. I just have clothes I wear because I need clothes, and nice clothes reserved for occasions.”

His response made total sense. It also made me realize that I have very little distinction between the two, and that the way I think about clothes doesn't always chime with how others view them. For starters, I rarely divide off functional from ‘dressed up’, unless I’m wearing wellies – and even then it’ll usually be with, say, a leather mini-skirt and impractical cardigan. I may wear flats all the time (my height + a bike + general dislike of things that impede striding), and I may plump for vaguely comfortable items (belts and me do not get on), but beyond that, every day is a day for nice clothes – regardless of occasion. Even if I’m not leaving the house. Even if I’m feeling shit – in fact, especially when I’m feeling shit. The powers of a killer outfit on days when it’s all too much are vastly underrated.

I used to say that I’d rather over-dress than under-dress, but I don’t think I necessarily measure my outfits in terms of 'dressiness' now. Much as I do love the occasional bout of incongruity, it’s more what feels right, what works, what aligns with my mood that day. Could be as simple as a shift dress or as fussy as matching my socks to my shirt collar and bag. As low-key as jeans, or high maintenance as this Chloe dress – with a suggestion of liquid gold in every movement.

That snippet of conversation above took up no more than around four minutes before we skipped on to other subjects, the brief mention of clothes strung in among talk of literary theory and summer plans. But I thought about it again the next morning while reading Women in Clothes (I’ve got into the daily routine of reading a portion over breakfast and coffee, savouring each page in turn.) It’s essentially an ethnographic study of women’s relationship to clothing, in all its many permutations. There are survey answers, interviews, written pieces, lists, snippets of conversation, diary entries, photo-series, old snapshots and illustrations. Together they build up an illuminating whole, a kind of shape tailored with innumerable tiny darts and stitches (sorry, was that image inevitable?) 

Along the way it covers every conceivable angle you could apply to clothes: sexuality, gender, confidence, aesthetics, body image, shopping, identity, uniforms, joy in a good outfit, factory production, hand-crafting, family stories, disguises, transformations, the balance of envy and admiration, attraction, intimacy, mistakes, and marvelous encounters. Lots beyond that too.

I think what I value most about this book though, above the delight in some serious sartorial stimulation each day, is the validity it gives to so many experiences – to story after story detailing different relationships with clothes. There is room for every approach, every way of dressing. It also quite amply proves the significant role that clothes have in shaping the way we see ourselves and how others see us.

It still feels like a slight revelation whenever I open its pages. It talks about clothes in a language I understand – one that isn’t couched in fash-mag hyperbole or 'hot new thing' speak. Instead it brings everything down, quite literally, to the fabric of everyday life. Just as it should be. Just as I love it most.

I was thinking about dressing up, dressing down, and everything in between when I rediscovered this Chloe dress (a wonderful birthday present) - previously worn on the blog here and, for the first time, here (in the latter I'm wearing the same shoes as above. Now there's versatility for you!) This time it had the addition of an incredibly sumptuous vintage velvet coat that my mum bought. I had an awful lot of fun strutting around a windy hill-top in it... 

Also, talking of clothes and stories, the tale of my grandma's Doctor Who dress went up on Worn Stories recently.