Thursday, 23 February 2012

On Beauty

Beauty is a quality almost as subjective as political preference. It is celebrated by some, criticized by others and judged by many. It also gains considerable coverage in the national press, with columns devoted to quantifying and analyzing what it means.
An opinion is one of the best things to formulate and then own – it belongs exclusively to the individual. No one can take it away or change it, but merely argue an alternative view. However, it sometimes bears remembering that an opinion is just the viewpoint of one, single person. That writer or speaker filters everything according to her or his perception – including the notion of beauty.
Physically speaking, beauty is often linked with a symmetry of features, or a certain ratio between the waist and hips. The word itself is a starting flag, signaling thoughts of models, actors and muses. It suggests not only an appearance unlike the norm, but also some kind of special status.

We increasingly live in a society driven by the visual. Our days are filled with images, whether on the pages of a magazine or through idle clicks across the internet. A select few of these photos may be considered to be pleasing or beautiful as an art form – perhaps a portrait taken by Irving Penn, or a magnificent flight of fancy assembled by Tim Walker. However, the relentless exposure to snaps of other individuals invites us to become judges of appearance, whether we want to or not. 

The media, particularly magazines devoted to celebrity gossip feed voraciously on a process of belittling. It's present in the faux-worried headlines about weight loss or subsequent gain; in the red circles high-lighting sweat patches and cellulite; in the picture shows of “fashion do’s and don’ts”. This intends to point up that those with extraordinary looks or a successful career in the public eye are just human, and yet any evidence of their similarities to you or I is something to judge. Their small realities apparently deserve ridicule. Is it a primal, tribal desire to elevate our sense of self at the expense of others? Such media features are the equivalent of a sugar rush following a greasy doughnut – initially satisfying, plugging some hole that isn’t quite a hunger (more a want), but leaving an unpleasant queasiness.

I saw an exhibition of Norman Parkinson’s photos in Bristol recently. If you're in the area then it's well worth setting aside a morning to enjoy the docks with their latticework of cranes, and then soak up the exuberance of Parkinson’s images at the M Shed. While slowly padding from one print to another, I had two separate streams running through my head. The first was just a variation on the theme of “Beautiful! Beautiful! I want to take photos like this! Beautiful! I feel inspired!” The second was an inner commentary not only on the varying ages and sizes of some of the models, but also on their tangible real-ness. They were undoubtedly beautiful, and yet in a more attainable manner. Figures and teeth weren’t always uniform, but to my eye at least, that merely increased the effect of their appearance.

An argument has emerged in recent years – the rallying call for the ‘real woman’. This epitome of what a woman should be is apparently neither too large nor thin, too tall nor small, neither too flat-chested nor well-endowed. In short, this ‘real woman’ is as much of a mythical ideal as a young, super-slender model (the topic of modeling is one I intend to return to in another post). Such a process of valuing one type of look above another is as damaging as unrealistic, photo-shopped advertising. Some women have hips. Others don’t. I have recently made the transition from latter to former. Both hip measurements are as real as each other. To suggest otherwise infers that there is only one perfect way to appear, and if a woman is a natural UK size six, then she is likely to be denigrated by some as a mere figment – perhaps constructed from gossamer and air, tied with string. This approach, in which either Christina Hendricks’ incredible curves are celebrated over Erin O’Conor’s tall grace, or vice versa, reduces both aforementioned women to their dress sizes, rather than celebrating them for their achievements, their skills, and yes, their beauty. Both occupy different ideals of beauty and neither is more valid than the other. Besides, they are both as real as the next woman. The real ‘Real Woman’ is every female, irrespective of shape, size, height, colour or appearance.  

Current ideals also suggest that beauty is ephemeral – a fleeting quality to be enjoyed while it lasts. I beg to differ. The fulfilling concept of internal beauty lasts for life, and furthermore, one can look incredible at any age. Admittedly it's not the kind of beauty that yields modeling contracts (unless we’re talking about the amazing Daphne Selfe), but is perhaps better encapsulated in the adjective “extraordinary”. It's the beauty that fascinates a portrait photographer - present in the expressions, in the eyes, in the animation, the dignity and in the lines that fall across the face like shadows of past experiences.
I hope as I age to inhabit my face in all its stages, and never to fall foul of the myth that only youth is beautiful. The human face is extraordinary in all its forms and manifestations, and thus deserves to be celebrated.

This post was inspired by a visit to the Bath Fashion Museum last summer with family friends, where we had the chance to try on corsets and crinolines. The idea of corseting caused me to reflect on the role that fashion plays in deeming what is beautiful and what is not – and how much we have bent to the whims of appearance over the years (and how often those whims change). I could hardly breathe in my corsetry!

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Importance of Wearing Clothes - the Fru-Gal Challenge

The minute the ‘Red Carpet’ rolls out in an article then the expectation will be one of lavish dresses – their hems sweeping the scarlet surface as cameras pop and flash. Each ensemble is praised, belittled and analysed by the media, as galleries of who-wore-what-best spring up like clumps of snowdrops across the internet. The merry-go-round season of BAFTAs and Oscars allows for more than a little dressing up – with some indulging in the ruffles and labels, while others foam that such a thing might be allowed or even enjoyed!

However, what image does ‘Green Carpet’ evoke? Aside from colour blindness, it is the brilliant initiative of Livia Firth – (married to Colin Firth) an eco-extraordinaire. The premise of her ‘Green Carpet Challenge’ is deceptively simple and rather canny. Every time she emerges to attend this awards ceremony or that premiere, she is clad in something sustainable – whether it is a bespoke Paul Smith ethical tailored tuxedo or a creation whipped up by Orsola de Castro. Where better to promote this very green offshoot of the industry than somewhere surrounded by cameras, lenses and rapid shutter speeds - guaranteeing coverage? Livia’s statement is visual – promoting something she is passionate about in every picture that is published. She also blogs for Vogue about her experiences, and has embarked on a campaign to encourage design houses to dwell a little more on the impact of the clothes they produce. She is integrating ethical with the mainstream, which is perhaps the only way to initiate change – or at least to widen the audience. She is also Creative Director of the excellent website Eco-Age, where I recently completed the Fru-Gal challenge – spending five days wearing nothing but vintage, second hand and ethical clothes. It wasn’t a hard challenge for me, as that is my usual source of dressing anyway. The results can be seen in the pictures threaded throughout this post (for the sources of the clothes please see the wonderful website itself).

The clothes we wear can be a declaration of sorts. Even those who claim to be ‘above’ fashion (as though this is some kind of cloudy moral high plateau where only those in the baggiest of fleeces are allowed) still have to make some kind of a decision as to what to wear each morning – their choice to resolutely stand with their back to the industry being as much a statement as the latest Mulberry bag. Like it or not, we do not wander through life naked. Uniforms denote jobs, schools and clubs. Teenagers adopt mohair jumpers and messy hair to assert individuality. Evening gowns give us the chance to play at peacocks - but unlike birds, who are stuck with one type of plumage, we have countless, colourful opportunities.

Clothes can make us tribal; clothes can set us apart; clothes are part of the impression we give of ourselves to those around us. According to Carlyle in Sartor Resartus (as quoted in Lawrence Langner’s ‘The Importance of Wearing Clothes’) “Man’s earthly interests are hooked and buttoned together and held up by clothes.” This fascinating (although very dated) book charts the significance that clothes hold for all of us. Langner summed it up as follows: “clothes came to play an important role in the progress of civilization and all its cultural aspects; religion, government, sexual habits, social conduct and behavior, the performing and visual arts, and most other branches of human endeavour”. 

For Livia Firth, the branch of human endeavour is the sustainable fashion sector. Their presence can be felt at London Fashion Week in the Estethica exhibition, while Oxfam have organized the Good Fashion Show to further promote their admirable aims. I will be blogging for Oxfam from LFW, and have been writing for them for several months. You can read my pieces here. To steal a line from my last article for them - "alongside harnessing the multitude of resources of the past through charity shops, it is likewise important to buy from sustainable brands and producers so as to ensure a socially and environmentally sounder future."


Thursday, 9 February 2012

Taffeta - a photo story

This is another in my occasional series of photo stories completed with the gorgeous Ellen, who has previously dressed up as characters that include a zombie and a rather inebriated member of the aristocracy....


I’m sure that I hardly need to retell the macabre story of Lady Sienna Taffeta – nicknamed ‘Snow White’ by the tabloids as they dusted the fingerprints off every detail of her life, right down to the white dress she was wearing on the day she was ‘lost’ in the woods. But perhaps it bears mentioning that the reason for that vividly recounted incident started with a photo. A small, black and white over-exposed snap in the Royal Mirror of a girl with delicate features and a starburst tiara, with the caption: “Is this the fairest of them all?”  The hollow question triggered indescribable, psychotic rage in Sienna’s stepmother Queen Frustra. Rage so great that the tabloids circled like seagulls around the sordid transactions that followed: the hiring of a swift dispatch; the shocking survival and the dramatic rescue. The pages shimmered with hyperbole. The Royal Mirror vied with ‘Oi!’ and ‘Good Day!’ to offer dizzying fees for exclusive photos of the eagerly anticipated wedding with the charming hero – a young prince who combined his royal duties with modeling and DJing at exclusive events. Then the shock - the sudden severing of the fairytale. Ms. Taffeta (it was reported) had run away!  She had disappeared from the arched eyebrow of the media with only a suitcase and a pair of buttoned boots.

If Sienna had wanted to ‘tell all’, then the truth would have been brutal:
“Prince was just in the right place at the right time. He stumbled across that silly glass coffin of mine. Quite literally. Fell into it. That kiss was purely accidental. In return he expects absolute adoration.” She could picture the trajectory - just a photogenic face that could rest on his shoulder and stroke his fringe when he suffered from chronic self-doubt.

Two events fuelled the escape. The first was an unflattering image of Sienna in a bikini on a front page, complete with an editorial of gleeful concern about her ‘already fluctuating weight’. The second was meeting Prince’s parents, in an enforced weekend of photo opportunities. She measured her way through the first evening, counting each breath and blink steadily. She smiled whilst mentally packing a trunk. However, in the skittering chaos of her small window of opportunity (and an even smaller window to fit through), she made a mistake. Instead of the practical necessities – soft knitted jumpers, oilskins, sensible boots – several train rides later she found herself pulling out pastel dresses and purple gloves with dismay. No comforting copies of Angela Carter or Carol Ann Duffy among the puddle of lace and froth. No cooking pot or grille pinched from the over-staffed kitchen of her almost-parents-in-law (that possibility sent a spasm through her gut). No newly sharpened Swiss Army pen-knife.

At least these woods were as well known to her as a sister – the temperaments of the wind and the characteristics of each tree being predictable, safe. It was nice to fend for herself without the hassle of seven small, irascible men to cook and clean for. That time had been so far from independent she had been almost grateful for the rather deadly after effects of that sickly, lipstick-red apple cocktail. Now she could pull her grey cloak around her neck, and listen to the unexpected echoes of birds. It would be easy enough to make a den, weaving the branched walls with leaves and bracken. The luggage would be unpacked, perhaps hung on whittled hooks, and stored in stony corners.

It was a brittle winter – the trees wet green in the mornings as light coloured the sky. Water was fetched from the nearby stream, where Sienna would check her traps. Her diet was mainly composed of pheasants, turnips and winter beets scavenged from the fields around. Fruit was a luxury of summer, to be anticipated. Gradually she stopped tensing her shoulders and snapping her head at the hacking cough of faraway tractors. She pottered, layering all her clothes to keep warm, looking after the fire pit – supplying handfuls of twigs that sparked and crackled in the heat. Her purple tinted hair stuck out from under the floral fascinator; she curled her toes in the mud-crusted boots. 

Somewhere, a prince was slouching on a throne – yellow velvet, with gold tassels. Tapping his manicured nails, he gave curt one-liners to the journalists lining up to ask him about his latest perfume – ‘Heartbreak’ – and sent them scurrying through the large doors. Sixty miles away, Sienna ducked out of her shelter’s hidden entrance. The air was as crisp as a paper bag, and ready to fold itself around whatever she decided to do. She might listen to the squeak of her steps in snow, while drinking coffee (the only small luxury that had successfully survived her flight from Mansion Avenues). She could sink down into the iced grass and think about the book she had rescued from a train station rubbish bin. Or she could visit her favourite tree - a dependable green fir that she could sit on and survey her domain. It truly was majestic. 


Sunday, 5 February 2012


Serendipity is rare – that’s what makes it special. It’s the moment when you bump into someone you know from a different country - in the middle of London, or find out that a girl from your school knows a blogger friend of yours who lives several hundred miles away. Perhaps serendipity is mostly characterised by place or distance, and the coincidence of personal connections. However, it can also arrive in an email…

This specific email was one from a singer I had taken photos of at the Big Chill in 2010. Her name was Beth Jeans Houghton. I had noticed her glance at me as I raised my camera – standing between two professional, male photographers who were competing with the length of their lenses. The resulting portrait was posted on my blog here (she has knack for always looking extraordinary). I had circled Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny in the festival leaflet as sounding interesting – I knew nothing about their music before I watched the set. It was good though, really good. I was impressed. This was an unexpected highlight that led to downloading of their EP a few days later and I listened to it repeatedly during August and the autumn months. At some point over those summer holidays a rather intriguing message arrived in my inbox.
Are you the girl with the camera in front of the stage during our set at Big Chill?” 
I replied that yes, yes I was! It emerged that a friend of hers had sent her a link to my blog, thinking that she may like it, and Beth then saw my mention of her. We’ve stayed in sporadic contact ever since, ranging across subjects from my surgery and GCSE’s to her tours and various features. It’s the nearest I’ve ever crept to having an occasional pen friend. We’ve never met in person, although I’m just waiting for a tour date to come near enough for that to change.
Somewhere along the way she sent me a demo of her album. The album that comes out tomorrow –  that has been among the most played on my iPod for the last year and a bit. It’s called “Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose” and Beth’s voice simply soars among the tracks. I have already seen favourable reviews in NME and the Guardian, and am certain that a deluge of critical acclaim will follow.

(photo by me)

The first thing that struck me about the album is how cohesive it is. The songs float and fit smoothly together from start to end - even though individually they're very different. They evoke a sense of escapism, like snapshots or a collection of small narratives. I’m not a music journalist (tried and failed to learn four different instruments) – I can’t tell you what musical techniques she and the band are using, or give an entirely critical opinion. Furthermore, sounds, like smells, often evoke specific memories. This means that my experience of listening to the album will be distinctly different to that of someone playing it for the first time. I received the CD, with a lovely little typed note in December 2010 when I was spending the majority of my time lying on our grey sofa in the living room, following spinal surgery. My back was still heavy and stiff; the purple seam of a raw scar newly sewn. It began snowing that first afternoon of listening, and it fitted perfectly – flakes outside; spangly, beautiful music spiraling in the warm. 
Whilst playing it, I was also in the process of reading Owen Sheers’ ‘Resistance’ – a stunning, tangled book about an alternate WWII and the impact on a group of isolated women in the Welsh hills. I am yet to see the film, and I don’t know if it was the influence of the book, or simply Beth’s talent, but the songs on the album appeared to encapsulate a real wildness. They make me want to ride horses and run down hills in the wind. Or at least, take photos of her doing that!
 I think my favourite track might be ‘Barely Skinny Bone Tree’. It is incredibly atmospheric and shivery – a truly haunting song. However, others that induce that sense of exhilaration are Humble Digs, Atlas, Night Swimmer and Veins. You can listen to Lilliput here. They are in turn rousing or dreamy - her voice rising and falling like a skylark, accompanied by a multitude of instruments.

The album glitters – and so as a homage, does the outfit I am wearing here. I wanted to try to capture a little of the theatricality of Beth’s - and The Hooves of Destiny's - music, whilst retaining the more untamed element (easy enough living where I do!) So it was on with a metallic sixties zig-zag robe I bought in a vintage shop a little while ago. I felt that gold hotpants (ranking among the best Christmas present received this year!) were also highly appropriate, especially when paired with a purple silk pyjama top. The belt was my grandma's, the array of rings are vintage (many from family) and the shoes are from Next - the heels were appropriately muddy by the time we finished. 

Although I already own an early copy of the album, I am so much looking forward to buying the vinyl after tomorrow's release.  
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