Saturday, 29 December 2012

Tradition




Photos by the incredibly talented Jason of Citizen Couture

I’m a quarter Czech – East/Central European blood inherited from my father’s side of the family. At this time of year the roots become, if not stronger, then just a little more apparent. In a synthesis between English and Czech tradition, my family hold celebrations on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Preparations for the former include the making of Czech cookies (crumbly chocolate hazelnut biscuits with orange zest for one set, and vanilla moons for another), cooking fish soup, making potato salad and frying schnitzel. These dishes are our modified version of Czech cuisine. There are stories of previous generations with carp swimming in their baths in the lead up to the event – but we just make do with shop-bought haddock. Similarly, the schnitzel is technically Austrian, but feels just European (and delicious) enough to suffice.
All four of us dress up. This year I wore a vintage black dress with a velvet bodice and taffeta skirt that my mum had bought at a jumble sale when she was my age, offset with a vintage red belt from my Babi (you can see it on my Facebook page here). We set the table with candles, enjoy the meal and then head upstairs to peer from darkened windows to ‘spot’ the brightest star in the sky – even if it’s cloudy. Although my brother is now old enough to have unraveled the make-believe, we continue with the habit of one person staying downstairs to ‘clear the table’. A mysterious small bell is heard below and we descend for presents and further festivities.
This ritual has taken place for seventeen years, beginning before I could walk. It has shifted now from something excitedly anticipated for days to a more practical occasion – one in which I can help with the cooking, but also the clearing up. Christmas in general has lost that month-long aura of glitter that it used to have; replaced with a deeper appreciation for several days of family, friendship and very good food.
The sense of heritage is particularly strong on Christmas Eve though. It is a night when we share some of the actions played out by ancestors. During the rest of the year, my Czech encounters are limited mainly to my Babi’s (Grandma's) stories, and my own reading of Eastern/Central European literature. Knowledge of the language extends only to greetings, cheering another’s health, or insulting them with some raucous swearing. We haven't yet visited the Czech Republic, despite my desire to explore Prague.
Of course, the other form of access to my family heritage is found in my wardrobe. My Babi - whose clothes are so often scattered across this blog - has been a rich source of dresses, coats, bags, belts and hats in the past few years.
Her life has been equally measured out in tragedy and joy. In 1948 her family fled persecution in Czechoslovakia – my great-grandfather’s life in danger. They skied over the border disguised as tourists.  As glamorous or dashing as that sounds, the reality was one of great hardship and subsequent suffering. Her mother, father and sister escaped with only the clothes on their backs and possessions in their pockets. My grandmother, who was at boarding school in Switzerland at the time, suddenly had to share the contents of her term-time clothes trunk with mother and sister. This meant only several pairs of knickers, one chemise and a limited number of garments between them. It wasn’t so much starting again from scratch, but starting again from stitch. To go from that state of loss through to amassing thrift-store-found couture and tailored coats with real Chanel buttons is the classic tale of rags to riches. But those relative riches were still hard won, never easily gained.
One of the riches recently given to me is this coat – a blue sheepskin beauty with Hungarian hand embroidery. My Babi’s husband (my late grandfather) bought it for his adored wife on impulse when they went to Innsbruck, Austria for the Winter Olympic Games in 1964. Little did she know then that within four years she would face the untimely death of her husband. But neither did she know that also in Innsbruck at exactly the same time, watching the Olympics was her far-in-the-future partner – a man that she would not meet for another nearly three decades. This stroke of serendipity, recognised only in hindsight, was enhanced when they later realized that a relative of this then young man was working at the shop where this coat was purchased. So it represents a bridge between old and new, past and present, taking on a new layer of resonance in being passed on to me.
It felt a suitably warm and bright piece to wear for meeting Jason of Citizen Couture. I was forty-five minutes late for the visit to Somerset House to see both him and the delightful Vanessa, but the time- lag proved fortuitous. I arrived just as the golden curls of late afternoon sun had reached the sandstone. We moved around to the back, escaping the crowds at the ice rink, before heading down to the embankment beneath. The red door - perfectly matching the details of the coat - was discovered under the bridge. It was a very enjoyable afternoon of camera snapping and socialising. I paired the coat with a blue vintage dress, grey heeled vintage boots from eBay and a saddle bag also passed on to me by my Babi.  This outing, the first time of wearing it, signaled a new beginning for this special coat – continuing the pattern of renewal and refreshment that my grandma has practised for her whole life.

It seems an appropriate point to add that I hope everyone has a very happy new year full of festivities and cheer. I’m dizzily excited about what 2013 holds and am hugely grateful to all who have read, commented, emailed or otherwise interacted with this blog and with me in the past year. And finally on the theme of ‘renewal’, I wrote an article recently for Young Mindsabout watching my dad go through extremely debilitating clinical depression. 


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Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Lists and Wishes








There’s something rather satisfying about taking an imagined version of a chic geography teacher from the 1950s as style inspiration. All it requires is a knee length skirt, lashings of warm wool, a pair of high-heeled brogues and a token linen-bound book to assemble an outfit full of studious goodness.
In keeping with the devised character behind these photos, a well-ordered list felt appropriate. This blue jumper-clad figure would have a keen appreciation for bullet points or numbers; a love for precisely laid out inventories. So here is a festive holiday activities' wish list for the weeks ahead... 

  • ·      Collect old magazines or newspapers before gathering scissors, glue and a large notebook to spend the afternoon scrap-booking.
  • ·      Don a furry hat and long coat to swish around corners and along streets in the drizzle.
  • ·      Carefully choose second hand books for friends and write personal inscriptions on the title page.
  • ·      Discover a parent's or relative’s vinyl record collection, preferably whilst reclining in front of a fire.
  • ·      Invite friends for an evening of films and themed dressing up (cocktails optional).
  • ·      Learn a poem well enough to recite by heart.
  • ·      Complete a long, blustery walk while dressed in Wuthering Heights or Tess of the D’Urbervilles inspired attire.
  • ·      Spend a day getting as lost as possible in a museum or gallery. Unexpected exhibits and objects are often delightfully startling.
  • ·      An afternoon of blankets and books: take it in turn to read out poems and prose excerpts to friends whilst snug under a duvet. Alternately, see how many people can be squashed on a single sofa to speak the various parts in a play.
  • ·      For the very brave – anyone willing to plunge (briefly) into a countryside river or lake for that buzzing adrenaline rush?
  • ·      Construct an indoor den with blankets, elastic bands, laundry racks and towels (younger sibling optional).
  • ·      Tackle an epic novel or text, one chapter at a time.
  • ·      Find new friends. Break boundaries by being the one to begin a conversation. 
  • ·      Make like Andrew Logan through taking a mundane object, smothering it in tiling grout/ adhesive and studding it with bits of broken mirror, sequins, beads, tiny ornaments and glitter.
  • ·      Have a (silk) pyjama day complete with red lipstick and heels. No better way to lounge around browsing newspapers and eating brunch.


I felt the spirit of Diana Vreeland and her ‘Why Don’t You’ column peering over my shoulder in the last few, and was tempted to spiral down into recommendations of evening gowns for the weekly shop or theming each room according to a different century. For now the balance remains tipped towards the more practical, if fun, end of the scale. As with my previous set of suggestions here, I’d be intrigued by other people’s additions, ideas or variations. 

My skirt is second hand Brora, the high heeled brogues are Carvela, the jumper was from a charity shop (as was both the brooch and belt), the gloves were my great grandma's and the book was plucked from our shelves. 
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Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Tatty Patchwork








There are certain authors whose impact can be felt long after the book has been closed, put back on the shelf and left some years behind in the past. Margaret Mahy is one such writer for me - a New Zealander whose work was imaginative, playful and ever so rambunctious. Stories with titles such as ‘The Blood and Thunder Adventure on Hurricane Peak’ or ‘Raging Robots and Unruly Uncles’ swung between the surreal and the sublimely exciting. My family cherished her. Both my brother and I grew up listening to Mahy’s glittering tales on cassette. We still have these tapes somewhere. A few of her books remain among our general collection, but others have been lost or passed on to friends with younger children.
I could say that I stumbled across Mahy, but that isn’t true. She was handed to me. My parents were the ones responsible for finding this extraordinary set of stories and passing them on to their daughter. I adored this woman’s complete willingness to dive into the realms of whimsy or fantasy – sending pirates on mixed up voyages across 1001 islands, or assembling an outer-space circus, complete with a troupe of acrobats. Nothing was too outlandish or silly to be excluded. A lonely boy stole birthdays; the devil entered into pacts with the corner grocer; thieves were foiled through the adept use of chewing gum.
These kinds of narratives feed the young imagination. They are rich - reveling in all that is out of the ordinary. Like Geraldine McCaughrean and Eva Ibbotsen, Mahy’s output never flagged when it came to being inventive and rather mesmerizing. The space between the real and the imagined was rubbed out and re-drawn. In the world of these texts there was nothing more natural than transformations, acts of sorcery, disguise and mischief.

We often use children’s books as a point of reference, a shared past that can be quoted and remembered collectively. However, it’s harder with someone like Mahy. I’m not sure whether any of my friends know of her. She is adored in New Zealand but little known here. This relative obscurity in comparison to Maurice Sendak, Enid Blyton or J.M Barrie is both unfortunate and beneficial. It means I can't mention the stories in that rapturous way reserved for communal reminiscing – for recalling characters and storylines known to all. But the counterbalance is in knowing that her work is somehow more personal to our family. A more individual sense of discovery and delight remains.  

The premise behind the pictured shoot with my beautiful friend Lucy was a loose adaptation of ‘The Tatty Patchwork Rubbish Dump Dancers.’ Published in 'The Chewing Gum Rescue and other stories', this short tale of Mahy’s charts the fortunes of a grandmother and granddaughter who turn a cave by a rubbish dump into their eclectic home – surviving on wild apples, entertaining hoards of feral cats and sourcing their household items from others’ cast offs. They make “tatty patchwork” clothing on a sewing machine with “crazy stitching” and discover a “tatty patchwork” piano that plays “crazy music.” Beauty resides in flaws and imperfection. The story stirred me so much that at age seven or eight my best friend and I would scatter objects across the garden and then pretend to ‘find’ them. We foraged for watering cans, baskets, rugs and twine to build makeshift dens.

Idealizing the ‘dump’ as a depository from which to scavenge taps into the same desire that makes treasure hunts so popular. It’s the longing to seek and discover, or if you want to make it very primal, to hunt and gather. This story is still one that I return to with a dizzy pleasure. There is joy in the telling, and inspiration in the idea behind it. Like the rest of the tales in the collection, it is a kind of make-believe that one does still believe in and wish to be true.

The clothes may not be tatty, but they are a patchwork mix of layers and second hand dressing up garb. I enjoyed the process of mixing together texture and colour. The stunning Lucy is a very talented artist, photographer, designer and seamstress who I’m sure will make a lasting creative mark on the future. You can also see her modelling in her brother Linden's music video here.
All photos by me.






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Friday, 7 December 2012

Capes for the Cold









The last wheezing breaths of autumn have dispersed – replaced with bitter wind and frosty mornings. Although the days are occasionally golden, the trees are bare. I had the chance to witness some magnificently beautiful weather recently when I visited Oxford – the sandstone and spires glowing in late afternoon light; stars like silver pebbles at night. But these visions were always offset by the cold. Views were admired whilst clad in several cardigans, faux fur and leopard print gloves. Meandering around the city required long boots with socks tucked inside. Moving from outdoors to indoors resulted in the shedding of many layers. Good coffee and conversation provided warmth, but I still ended up outside with bare feet in the snow at 5.30am one morning thanks to a false fire alarm.
This obsession with temperature is ridiculously British. We're characterised to the point of cliché as being a nation resigned to rain, fog and grey clouds. Unfortunately, it's true - not a country known for its balmy nights and perpetual sunshine. Some claim this has made us resourceful in the way we dress, while others assert the exact opposite. What might be seen as an exciting challenge in layering for one person is a step too far for another. For indeed, when it’s pouring, what will be of more use – an anorak, or a pretty but ineffectual brocade coat?
I’m afraid I usually choose the latter. Despite living among the tangled green hills of the rural West Midlands, I’m not the most pragmatic of dressers. I bought proper walking boots for the first time a mere few months ago. I only submit to raincoats if absolutely necessary. I’ll always take the full-length kilt before jeans. I've swung over barbed wire fences in chiffon and had tassels snared by brambles, all due to an unwillingness to match attire to surroundings.
I’m getting better though. Now I get carried away with idealised images of bucolic country-wear – reveling in tweed coats, thick knits and sturdy shoes. At least these are all warm.  
Perhaps what I'm trying to express is the tension faced between ‘form’ and ‘function’. For those more interested in style, then form usually takes precedence. The overall look becomes more important than functional requirement. This is perhaps the only reason that heels continue to be worn  – for they are certainly not a pragmatic choice. They epitomise the aesthetic being prioritised above practicality; they're decorative and fabulous, but hardly suited to long distance walking. Similarly, various clothes cited as being perfect for winter seem to exist in an alternate universe where clouds are banished and streets are never wet.
But perhaps that’s part of the fun – dressing merely to stay cosy and dry would be a much duller experience. At least, that’s what I tell myself. However, the gap between form and function can be bridged through choosing items that are both warm and wonderful. Capes are an ideal example. The history of the cape (and its longer cousin the cloak) is one of synthesis – what was once a practical outer layer worn to protect finery beneath became a form of ornamentation and expression in its own right. For indeed a cape is magnificent. It cuts a dash, allows for swishing around corners and envelops you in a woolly circle of warmth. 
Indeed, when it has yellow panels and a rose-scattered lining like this gorgeous Asuyeta cape I was sent, it becomes a statement. It's a joyful clothing choice; dramatic enough to sate my desire to dress like an Angela Carter character, and warm enough to withstand early morning chilly train platforms. It's the perfect balance. 

Big, big thank you to Erika for the delicious hunter cape. She is the owner and designer of Asuyeta (a Cherokee word meaning 'chosen') and she also makes all the clothes on the website herself, meaning that each is a one-off - an individual echo of the original design. She describes her pieces as "clothes with a soul. No mass-production. No sweat shops... Just unique, beautiful designs." They certainly are. If I wasn't already the lucky owner of this one, I'd definitely want it on my Christmas list. It is styled here with an array of second hand clothes and accessories. 
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