Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Elementary, my dear Watson

Sherlock Holmes often wore an "ear-flapped travelling cap". That’s right - there was never any specific mention of the iconic accessory we most associate with his character. That particular head-gear was first dreamt up by illustrator Sidney Paget - who took this description to mean a deerstalker hat. Thus it was that a hat, alongside the memorable images of cape, pipe and magnifying glass came to be linked with only one literary character. Indeed, not only is it not necessary to have read anything by Arthur Conan Doyle to recognise Sherlock Holmes, his appearance is so familiar that one needs only to look at the silhouette on the tiles at Baker Street tube station to know whose profile it is.
Sherlock Holmes is often regarded as one of the most recognisable literary figures of the late 19th Century, with only the occasional curiously named Dickensian character to contest his fame. In fact, his renown spreads far enough that one knows who he is, regardless of whether or not they have read any of the stories. I for one have never indulged in ‘A Study in Scarlett’ or ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ – although the complete works is looking immensely tempting in my local Waterstones. And yet, despite my ignorance in most things Holmes-ish, I still know plenty about his appearance and attire.
There seem to be certain books, authors/poets and characters that transcend their pages to take on a life of their own. What they come to represent is something beyond the original work. Someone who is a “bit Brideshead” could be thought of as part of the privileged aristocracy, an Oxford-ian or aesthete perhaps, or simply a religious noble with a little too much appreciation of champagne. Furthermore, ‘Byronic’ and ‘Heathcliff-like’ seem to have become rather interchangeable when it comes to descriptions of dark and brooding types. Such phrases, among countless others, are indicative of one of the ways that literature has infused day-to-day life.

Similarly, we often rely on books to inspire us. A fashion shoot somewhere wild could be deemed as having a ‘Wuthering Heights’ feel, while anything even vaguely whimsical is assigned an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ comparison – regardless of whether or not blue dresses and Cheshire Cats are involved. Although the same books can be peddled over and over again, becoming more repetitive than the adverts one sees on the London Underground, there is a certain joy in using words and descriptions as a creative stimulus. And so here I am taking my style credentials from Sherlock Holmes, complete with a second hand (charity shopped) deerstalker hat and vintage leather gloves. Not sure what he would have made of the Laura Ashley velvet shorts though - even if they were cleverly customised from some too-short trousers. The jumper is vintage Jaeger, the shoes were a present (they’re Office), the tights are from Next and all other accessories are vintage.

Oh, and the title? I’m afraid to say that Sherlock Holmes never uttered those words – it’s actually “exactly, my dear Watson”. It’s like a glorified version of Chinese Whispers.

Do you have any other literary or film inspirations and references you use? I would love to hear about them. 

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Swan Lake

We have a set routine on Saturday mornings at home. Family members stumble downstairs in various states of sleepiness, in hope of finding my dad serving up breakfast and coffee. Then my parents and I fight over who reads which part of the paper, while my brother stays out of things by burrowing into a Beano. Today, despite being Christmas Eve, was no exception – although there was a little more discussion over who got to look at the TV schedule first. As my mum wisely pointed out while I circled listings in a purple felt tip: “It’s not Christmas until the Nutcracker is on”.
Ballet, Doctor Who and Absolutely Fabulous all make for extremely festive viewing (that and the perennial favourite ‘A Muppet Christmas Carol’!) – thus making it the only time of year I really take notice of the TV. To pirouette back to that first mention though, there is nothing more cheering than immersing oneself in watching The Nutcracker (with a score by Tchaikovsky). The sequences remind me of a pastel kaleidoscope, with the spinning fabric of the skirts and the imaginative wonderland sets.  See the Foolish Aesthete for a fascinating analysis, alongside an interesting photo edited by Jill.

Aside from the incessant need to mention dressing up boxes in every other post, I am sure that my determination to maintain an appreciation for ballet would suit my six-year-old self. Like many, when I was younger I nurtured the idea of becoming a ballet dancer – although I must admit that this daydream was influenced primarily by the pretty tutus. Nevertheless, I did my Grade 1 ballet exam and received a stamped certificate with a slanted signature. This exam largely involved ‘graceful’ running from one side of the studio to the other, and the occasional pliĆ© in front of the mirrors. However, ambitions swung around as easily as a revolving door, and so on being told I would be “too tall” ever to be a professional dancer, I declared instead that I would make wedding dresses (noticing any kind of froth and frippery theme here?) When young it's simple to skip from one aspiration to another, as easily as hopping over puddles.
Having recently watched a documentary on the working lives of those individuals who choose dance as a career path, I was left both full of admiration and rather glad that I was not one of them! The level of rigour and the expectations that come with the career would be beyond me. If there's any industry that expects perfection, it is ballet. And yet, I am still utterly enthralled when watching the work. Perhaps it lies in appreciating the strength and capability of the human body – to think that it could perform all those jetes and spins! Athleticism and elegance are combined, and the effect is jubilant.

Therefore, it might not come as a surprise that one of my favourite films is ‘The Red Shoes’ – with its title aptly suggesting the profusion of colour, (better than any Christmas tree) in each shot. It's perfect Christmas viewing, and worth buying for the costumes alone. The protagonist, played by the magnificent Moira Shearer, is captivating as she dances her way through a ten minute condensed sequence of the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name. Andersen was adept at portraying the darker side of dancing, with destructive potential also suggested in another of his stories: ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’ – in which the soldier and his paper ballerina are engulfed by flames. However, I’m hoping that the only fires seen this weekend are the ones warming houses filled with festivity, community and appreciation. Plus, it's the only time of year when it is perhaps permissible to dress up as an actual sugar plum fairy!

I must admit that the outfit link is as tenuous as they come – I nicknamed this shoot with my friend Flo ‘Swan Lake’ as - well - the photos were taken next to a lake that has many resident swans. I'm speaking from bias, but isn't her photography fantastic? I could argue that my white and black lace dresses are redolent of Odette and Odile, but that might just be reading into things a little too much. 
If you are celebrating Christmas tomorrow, then I hope you have a warmly wonderful day with family and friends.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Wintery Sunday

Whenever I put on the jacket pictured, I am immediately transported to my only brief trip to Paris in early 2010. As detailed below, it was bought on a very wintery Sunday. 

My mum and I arrived late on a Friday evening, puffing out spirals into the freezing night as we waited for a taxi.  As the car then sped around the city, we played ‘spot the landmark’ – pointing to the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower, lit up like golden velvet.
The next day I was up early for a modelling assignment for an Italian magazine known as D Mag. One of the strangest things about modelling is that you never know quite where you are going to end up – a blessing or a curse, depending on the outcome. That time I was more than lucky. The shoot took place in the top floor apartment of what looked like an otherwise deserted building. Our initial qualms were abandoned once we saw the interior. It was like stepping into a perfect replica of the seventies, from the sliding door revealing shelves and shelves of vinyl records to the cream sofa I was asked to recline on in a cheesecloth skirt. The owner, (a doctor if my memory is correct), had rented it out to the team for the day.
 I count the hours spent there as being one of the highlights of my very short-lived modelling career.  It was my first big, ‘proper’ job – I was a nervous fourteen year old surrounded by a number of people who were constantly adjusting my appearance and discussing it in a wonderful mixture of languages. I did have one reason to be worried though. I had been diagnosed with scoliosis some months previously, and the physical effects on my torso were already noticeable. When styled in a striped swimming costume and long, clingy skirt, my mum and I silently wondered whether the photographer saw my lopsided-barrel ribs. However, if the team did notice anything amiss, then they gracefully didn’t let on. I attempted to use my rudimentary school-learnt French (taught purely to pass exams) at lunch. I smiled gleefully as the Italian stylist chose each garment. Almost flirtatiously I would flutter my eyes at the Stella McCartney skirts and Chanel boots, like a girl waiting for a dance partner to choose her. It was my first glimpse of the way those clothes looked and felt in ‘real life’ – my previous perception was a purely visual one, influenced by the images from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. I softened up as the day progressed, and left having thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience – and hoping that I had done my job well.

Sunday offered the chance to explore the city – my mum and I taking in the sights at high speed. We walked to the Sacre Coeur, and later took a rattling metro train to the Notre Dame. The two grand churches were bookends, with ‘Les Marches Aux Puce’ (the flea markets) sandwiched between in the afternoon. We made our way through stalls selling CDs and the men touting fake Louis Vuitton bags to the ‘vintage quarter’. We knew we were near when the surrounding shops started displaying antique furniture, giving prominence to items that I didn’t know I desired until I saw them: crystal doorknobs, individual sparkling droplets from chandeliers, ornate keys covered in curlicues, feather fans.
We trod along alleyways and cut through passages, slowly losing ourselves in the catacomb of clothing. Places selling leather jackets sat alongside cave-like rooms that one had to stoop in to examine vintage satin hats and snakeskin shoes. Recognisable names (and less recognisable price tags) fluttered by – Madame Gres, Chanel, Alaia and a green fur Dior.
There was a lot of fur, most of it sported by the elegant, elderly French women. It was a freezing February day, the coldest in years (according to the conversations we overheard), and these women looked smug and warm. Some of the pelts were accessorised with the glowing red tip of a cigarette, or bright lipstick bleeding into the tributaries of their lips.
I found the cropped, blue jacket pictured in a stall located at the top of a set of stairs. The rails of Bell Boys’ jackets and delicious looking dresses were riffled through having just enjoyed a hand-warming crepe.  I sprung at the snatch of blue boiled wool and military style buttons visible among the heaving coat hangers. It was one of several in varying sizes and styles, with some kind of insignia stamped on the brown, slightly faded lining. I would love to know whose uniform this was; what they did and where.
This piece of clothing now serves as a souvenir, not only from Paris, but also from modelling. It hangs in my room alongside a Charlotte Taylor top as a memory of a dizzy and fleeting immersion in an industry that was both tantalising and curious.

We later dashed to catch a glimpse of the Louvre in the melting sun, before leaving for the airport. It was too quick an introduction, but I’m sure I will be re-acquainted when the time is right. 

The dress was from a favourite charity shop of mine, as was the hat and the chelsea boots. The turquoise necklace belonged to my mum (I put it on the circular torque) and the scarf in the first shot belonged to a family member. 

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Grey Day

The current colour du jour for the weather is a rather classic charcoal grey, with cloud banks adding some eye-catching texture to the flat light.
Basically, it’s miserable.
Overblown descriptions aside, the three simplest adjectives are: cold, wet and horrid.
My home for the day is a large red armchair next to the well-stocked fire. If I’m extra-chilly I can swing my legs over the grille to warm my toes like some 19th century fictional character. However, today I resemble a mad professor in a lime green cardigan - the hours have been spent scattering our carpet with history timelines, revision notes and piles of books. I have only retreated from my warm lair to make cups of tea, eat meals and fetch further materials. Oh, and I managed to snatch a brisk stroll across the fields at twilight.
Nevertheless, the small slivers of daylight seen today reminded me of icicles – such a novelty that it felt justifiable to reach out and grab at them (or rather, hurriedly put on wellies and dash outside in the hope of fresh air). Yet the minute such effort was made, the light melted and disappeared behind another layer of rain. These last few weeks of the year feel ripe for hibernation – a fortnight of unbroken sleep would improve my mood no end. At the very least things should be restricted to only the most gentle of activities: drawn out games of scrabble perhaps, or some light baking and heavy reading. A further week of college and commuting must be waded through first.

So, how to conquer the grey feelings that all too often accompany the grey daylight? I like to think of it in terms of inverse proportion – the duller the day, the brighter the clothes. And this vintage Betty Barclay jumper, reminiscent of the famous YSL ‘Mondrian’ dress, is the brightest of them all. The black velvet shorts were customised from a pair of rather nasty jogging bottoms. I wore a variation on the pictured outfit to college recently, replacing the high heeled Mary-Janes (a gift) with long black boots and adding an M&S reversible black cape for warmth. A friend told me that I resembled a French art lover – surely the best possible response? When the jumper was donned again for the photos at the seaside last weekend, the day was not so much morose as downright temperamental. The wind was bitterness personified – colder than Scrooge. My brother sat miserably on a rock while my dad attempted to shield the camera lens from rain drops and sea spray. Finally, we admitted defeat, zipped up our rain coats and trudged back. Unsurprisingly, we were the only people on the beach.

Yet, alongside the opportunities for bright clothes-wearing, there are other advantages to this weather. Lucy wouldn’t have found her Narnia without a grey day to while away. Similarly, no childhood classic is complete without a rainy afternoon providing the opportunity for hide and seek. Ideally, said story should also include a grand house big enough to run amok in and well-stocked dressing up box. Now there is something I can lay claim to -  my wardrobe (ie an extended dressing up box) is never knowingly under-stocked. And the clothes within it are useful tools for combatting seasonal melancholia in the dark evenings. Plus, if all else fails, then there are always pink silk pyjamas to fall back on.

What brightens up a dull day for you? Suggestions, memories and well-tested methods are all appreciated. 

Monday, 5 December 2011

Strange Phenomena

I discovered Kate Bush’s music when I was about six – or rather, I was in the room when my mum put on ‘The Red Shoes’ CD to play. There was no musical epiphany, no obsession (at that point), or deep connection to the music. I just knew that ‘Lily’ and ‘Rubberband Girl’ were two of the best songs in the world to dance to wildly.
Ironically, that is now the album of hers I play least. Perhaps as a result of obsessive listening to the point of over-saturation when I was younger, to hear it now is akin to putting on a well-worn, overly familiar coat. There is a certain comfort to it, but nothing particularly new or exciting.  However, the thrilling ‘Hounds of Love’ and the languorous ‘Aerial’ joined it on my iPod early last year – both CDs unearthed from the darkest recesses of my parents' CD drawers, (filled with music ranging from Punk to Jazz). That was when I had the moment of realization – the woman is a genius.
I can now sing along to roughly eighty songs of hers (including 'Strange Phenomena' - this post's title), with '50 Words for Snow' being the latest addition. This new album typifies ‘slow-burn’ – perhaps ironic for a set of distinctly chilly songs. It takes several listens for the meanings and melodies to thaw, at which point the icy beauty hits. Hearing the tracks is like a mixture of sending spirals of breath up into the costume jewellery stars, lying in a snow drift at twilight and sweeping down a steep hill in a red plastic sledge. It almost makes winter desirable, despite my current feeling that the short days and cold should stick around for a maximum of three weeks and no more.

However, a favourite form of procrastination (among the many up my silk shirt sleeves) on these dark nights is obsessive watching of her music videos, from Cloud Busting to Army Dreamers. Each film is like a short narrative in itself. She is perhaps the best example of what it can mean to be an artist: original, intelligent and outrageous.
She is also fascinating in her approach to the creation and publicizing of her music.  Her first, and only, tour was in 1979. It is a rare and lucky day when one can read or listen to an interview with her, and she by and large avoids the public eye. Thus we are left to judge her music objectively, without any back-story splashed across tabloid pages to manipulate our opinions. This is especially fascinating in the wake of the ongoing Leveson inquiry, with the questions it has raised about press accountability and the role of the ‘celebrity’. With Kate Bush, one gets the distinct impression that all she cares about is her music – her writing, singing and recording. Long may it continue.

There is a very wild quality to many of Kate Bush’s songs, and this was the basis I used as inspiration for this shoot with my completely stunning friend Evangeline from Storm Models. She and her family typify the words wonderful and welcoming - and I'm sure that she will go far as a professional model. I thought her long hair and extraordinary look called to mind the musical maven herself. When I told her about the thought process behind my suitcase bulging with red lace and seventies nylon, Evangeline laughed and revealed that her party trick when she was younger was to put on ‘Wuthering Heights’ and cajole guests and visitors into watching her perform it. She was obviously born to fling herself dramatically against trees in the autumn light!

The vintage (rather fragile) red lace dress was bought from eBay, and the 60s red velvet one belonged to my mum - as did the orange hat. I pulled out the green velvet skirt from my dressing up box, and all other accessories are vintage. The shoes and coat are Evangeline's. Doesn't she look gorgeous?
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