Monday, 26 March 2012

Nature of Dust

I love listening to the stories of my parents’ pasts. Each tale is intriguing – rubbing another smudge off the time before they were ‘my’ parents and I was ‘their’ child. Their adventures, losses and previous relationships all existed before my brother or I were even whispers.
With my mum the memories ring with eclectic characters and a rapid succession of different homes. My dad talks of climbing trees in London parks and sneaking out to gigs on school nights. He saw The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Buzzcocks, The Human League and many other bands that I classify as great ‘late seventies and early eighties music’ – whereas he merely sees them as the artists of his teenage years. What is personal memory to him is intangible history to me. And yet it is history that I listen to regularly.
I’m afraid that my own recollections will prove to be woefully short on live music (although amply replaced with LFW-attending and book reading), for several reasons. My rural location, and lack of transport, is one of the most problematic. Another is a general love for singers who are either dead or who no longer tour, which rather limits my chances of recounting thrilling experiences of live performance. Perhaps I'm slightly over-exaggerating, as I have been to the Big Chill twice, but I'm still something of a recluse in comparison to my peers when it comes to seeking out and travelling to see favourite bands.

A rare exception to the rule happened recently. I went to see Laura Marling at Birmingham Symphony Hall with my friend Ellen. The journey there was supposedly straightforward: train - walk - arrive at destination. But it was a plan that was skewed not only by a late train and an unreliable map, but also by leaving through the wrong exit! My usual instinct for direction was lost (as were we) as we wandered through the shopping centre, out onto the street and declared our disorientation. When we finally arrived at the Hall, the lights outside glittered like something from a Fitzgerald novel, and we had just enough time to climb the stairs and stealthily eat cookies before the lights dimmed and the support acts tuned up.
The first was Pete Roe. He had a low key, Nick Drake-y kind of feeling. The second, Timber Timbre, was (as described by Ellen): “The kind of bluesy music I’d listen to while lying on my bedroom floor on a rainy afternoon”.
Then, of course Laura Marling herself. Her music is articulate, moving and exhilarating. Each of her three albums has a different signature – almost a taste, or something to be visualised. That distinctive feel made itself known throughout the evening’s numbers. She was by turns rousing, and thoughtful – accompanied for two thirds of her set by an equally talented five-piece band. There was a particular moment of magic when she harmonized with her co-performers, and flecks of light were scattered like dust. ‘Magic’ is an over-used word, but completely apt here. I felt engrossed in every note that she sang, mirroring the lyrics in my head and crossing my fingers that each song wouldn’t be the last. Favourites – Alpha Shallows, Salinas, Sophia – echoed out through the rows and rows of red seating like scalloped hems. Live music is special precisely because it catches the audience in a net, keeping them enthralled. Marling’s voice was the silver thread that meshed us together.

Like many of my favourite singers, there is a strangely wild quality to some of Marling’s songs. You can take a girl out of the countryside and sit her down in Birmingham, but you can’t stop her from bringing the rural with her to the city. The outfit pictured is (aside from the heels) a recreation of what I wore there, with the focal point being the very delicious Nadinoo Bird shirt - which you may remember having seen me wear for the 'Sound of the Woods' Nadinoo video. Each winged illustration is labeled and carefully coloured, so that I feel like I’m wearing the ‘Observer Book of Birds’ whenever I put it on – which is often. The patchwork shorts were from a charity shop, and the jacket was also sourced second hand. Many thanks to Nadia for the shirt, and to Laura Marling for a night of music that will always remain memorable. 

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Gothic dreams are spun with this - Corrie Nielsen

I have few fixed expectations when watching catwalk shows. I haven't seen many, but enough to know in advance that there are two definites – the venue will be hot, and the music very, very loud. Beyond that the experience is unpredictable. One assumes that the formula (as described by Antoni & Alison – a topic for another post) of ‘Models walking up and down in dresses’ will be fulfilled, but the nature of the clothes is unknown. That's the truly exciting part - anything could emerge from the wings.
London Fashion Week shows (and the events in her sister cities) require immediate, snap judgements – many of the people sitting in the front couple of rows will be primed to compose reports or easily quotable phrases in their heads (or on a tablet), so that the gap between the show and resulting coverage can be as small as possible. Some brands go as far as to tweet outfits as they emerge, in a bid for instantaneous exposure. Like many though, I do wonder where the logical end point of this ever-faster race is. The attention paid to fashion month is so extensive that when the clothes become available for sale six months on, they are already old news – you might be able to finally wear them, but those in the public eye will be already sporting pieces from the next collection, thus confusing the six month time lag between the show and the shops. As a blogger I feel that I should report on the shows I saw in the month after LFW, and yet wouldn’t it be more appropriate to do this when the clothes are available for purchase? I’m not sure if there is a definitive ‘right’ answer, and so for now I shall focus on what I appreciate the most – the designs themselves.
I hand write notes during shows. Thus, the routine I find myself in is one whereby when the lights fade, I'm still scrabbling around in my bag for a working pen, with notebook clutched in the other hand. I then scrawl quick observations, ideas, comparisons and favourite looks as the models walk past. A sample of these bullet points for Corrie Nielsen A/W 2012 was as follows:
  • ·      “Gothic, elegant, TARTAN, v. Alexander McQueen
  • ·      Draped, flimsy fabric, like cobwebs
  • ·      What Miss Havisham would have looked like if she moved to Scotland and took up hunting
  • ·      Scottish widow – too obvious to mention?
  • ·      THE CAPE
  • ·      Veils, boxy shapes, wrapped up like tissue paper”
The notes are a compressed concertina that can then be stretched out in an article for my blog or elsewhere. However, it’s hard not to cover page after page with exclamations and literature-based allusions (it brought to mind Angela Carter) when the show is as good as Corrie Nielsen's. Her designs are consistently brilliant, from the couture-cut shapes to the draped finale in which the model appeared to be wearing a satin counterpane - nipped, tucked and artfully shaped around her shoulders. It was dramatic, had a defined narrative and sent my thoughts off the Highlands quicker than you can say tartan.

 Photo: Christopher Daidey (Huffington post) 

Photos: Wonderland magazine

The following short poem was assembled from the images I found were still sweeping through my imagination while I sat on the train, heading home...

Corrie Nielsen A/W 2012

Gothic dreams are spun with this:
Moors and marsh and grey-sky mist.
Peaty tarns and crumbled bridges
Are stitched and seamed in kilted ridges.

A girl steps forward, dressed in threads -
a spider wove, in whites and reds.
A tartan tree with crimson lips,
she moves between the hills and dips.

Feathers cling to lacquered hair,
skirts take flight in cloud-hung air.
A thunderstorm of tulle and capes:
this twilight calls for lavish drapes.  

Rosalind Jana

The outfit I am wearing above is a complete homage to Nielsen's wondrous designs. It was assembled using a 70s tartan skirt and a black slip from a jumble sale (for the collective sum of 40p!), with a white scarf draped and tied in place using a vintage black sash. The black hat is also vintage, from a local market stall, and the shoes were from a charity shop. (The whole outfit cost less than £10). 

Sunday, 11 March 2012

A green thought in a green shade

The landscape is glorious, isn’t it? Inspiring, even. It has been captured by lenses and written about in books, with a whole genre: pastoral, dedicated to it. Analysis surrounds the compulsion of the artist to re-create every detail  – from the majestic to the obscure – in different, creative forms. 
In the words of Margaret Drabble: “The desire to turn landscape into art seems a natural one, though it is hard to say precisely why painters and writers should labour to reproduce in paint or words what each of us can see with our own eyes. But we all see differently, and the writer’s work is a record both of himself and of the age in which he lives, as well as the particular places he describes.”
The idea of vision and, more importantly, how we perceive the world in which we live is one that has been nagging me for some time. It is apparently the duty of the artist and author to attempt to tell the truth, but the idea of deftly sculpting something realistic is daunting. It is perhaps the reason why so many like to merely imagine themselves as a writer – the ‘perfect’ novel remaining safe and intangible in their mind, rather than precarious and tasking on the page. The process of writing is often compared to birth, with Virginia Woolf observing the challenge of trying to produce an idea “entire... as it was conceived”.

Similarly, it's a struggle to evoke the subtleties of the light on the fields, or a hush between the trunks, without falling into one of two traps – cliché or over-extended description. Clichés are like the fruit most easily picked from the tree, requiring little more than a nudge to fall into the hand. They are accessible, lazy and creep in when we’re not thinking. How many times have we heard “swaying grass” or “glittering lake”? These reduce the landscape to flat statements, reinforcing what the reader already recognizes, rather than suggesting something new or exciting. At the other end of the scale, there are lines after lines of description – perhaps perfect on their own, but overwhelming when read en masse. To return to the tree metaphor, these branches are so heavy with fruit that they could do with pruning and cutting back. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, where rich imagery increases the effect of the story. Nevertheless, the author must do more than just place pretty pictures in the head – they should observe, collect and arrange the real world in a suitable form. There's a process of selection, from the choice of characters and setting, through to the themes and structure.

In the same way that we romanticize the past, I think there is also a certain amount of idealisation extended to the landscape in literature. Folk tales and myths favour rural settings – filling them with imaginary highwaymen, goblins, gypsies, knights, enchantresses and fairies. They are places of magic and mystery, where anything could lurk beyond the next corner of the lane. Of course, the reality is more one of tractors and crops – the countryside is a working community, much like anywhere else. And yet, even the practices of farming have been re-imagined in the novel. Pastoral, as mentioned above, busied itself with shepherd boys and milk maids for many, many years. These archetypal characters were entirely fictional – many of the hardships of cultivating land and animals hidden beneath the perceived idyll of the hills. And it is, in part, an idyll. Where else could I return from college, put on wellies, and be standing in a field within three minutes? Petty worries are put aside when staring up at the sky - a concave roof pinned at the edges – or when watching the sun disappear behind trees.
Much like a city, the countryside is a place full of contradictions and juxtapositions. Decay of indigenous communities happens alongside the stunning views of villages; teenagers sit on bikes at bus shelters, scrawling graffiti while a photographer admires the church down the road; milk quotas make work hard for farmers while the enthusiast cultivates an organic vegetable patch. Like life, it is a jumble of differences. Maybe it is important to celebrate both the realities and fantasies linked with any place; acknowledging the negative while celebrating the best and most brilliant parts.

The photos above are of my very beautiful friend Lettice, who allowed me to style and snap my camera at her over the Christmas holidays. We spent the day padding around a nearby wood – seemingly conforming to the idea of a picturesque landscape - with bags, clothes and her ukulele in tow. The clothes are all mine, apart from the purple draped dress and floral skirt, which are hers (as is the elephant necklace – an item of jewellery that belonged to her late aunt, which she always wears). 

The title is from Andrew Marvell's 'The Garden'. 

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Charlotte Taylor - Jamaica Inn

The first thing to mention is the owl. He was real; his name was Alfie, and he was my co-model for the latest Charlotte Taylor A/W 2012 lookbook. He also nipped me (it didn’t hurt), but it’s very easy to forgive any creature that is happy enough to sit on my hand in front of a team of eleven and flap his wings for the camera. His presence also made the two days spent in London one of the most memorable modeling experiences I have had - and one I was very honoured to be asked to do. 

I have now known Charlotte Taylor and appreciated her wonderful designs for several seasons. Charlotte’s brand is instantly recognisable through her use of prints – intricate and boldly patterned fabrics that alter every six months to reflect the theme of her collection, as well as her exquisitely cut pieces.
This particular theme for Autumn/Winter is Cornwall – from the purple cabbages to the miners’ lanterns – all based on an inspiration-gathering trip that Charlotte made with her father. I found out about this backstory after using a London A-Z to navigate my way through the chilly streets of Dalston to the designated studio. I arrived early and, once everyone had thawed a little, Charlotte ran through the all-important ‘mood’ that stitched the collection together. It was altogether darker than previous seasons – with storm clouds, bare floorboards and a velvet chair that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the imposing house of Manderley.
For of course, the collection instantly calls to mind the writing of Daphne du Maurier – an author who immortalized the landscape of Cornwall in books such as Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek and Jamaica Inn, the last of which is also the title and stimulus for Charlotte’s collection. As she talked through how she envisaged the lookbook, I resolved to combine the romanticism of Dona St Columb with the gothic threat of Rebecca. The images in my head were ones of walking on cliffs in the rain or exploring rooms filled with drapes and echoes. The clothes, theme and inspiration appeared to be conspiring to out-do each other in the “This is Roz’s idea of perfect” category. It’s steeped in the rural; cut with the classic and tinged around the edges with literature.  

This collection calls to mind the wind shrieking through Bodmin Moor, or the sun dipping below the thin line of the horizon as waves shush and crash. These clothes suggest stories – the owl prints to be worn in moonlight, or the banjo dress to be donned while listening to a live band in a crumbling, atmospheric pub (or Inn). Much like the books of Daphne du Maurier, they mix together an irrepressible charm with a hint of chaos beneath the surface.

There is a sense of pace and adventure that runs throughout Du Maurier’s books – as well as an eye for carefully built suspense. They are the kind of novels that one subsides into for an afternoon, consuming chapter after chapter, unwittingly becoming emotionally involved in the fate of the characters. For me, the experience of reading Daphne Du Maurier inevitably links to thoughts of how the story could be expressed through other art forms – they are cinematic; photographic; evocative and lavishly visual. So they are rich in source material, and lend themselves well to the narrative of a collection - as demonstrated so beautifully here by Charlotte Taylor.

When reading ‘Frenchman’s Creek’ recently, I was intrigued by author Julie Myerson’s introduction – not least because I have met and talked with Myerson (she was a judge on the Vogue Talent Contest). Julie Myerson herself had a sporadic correspondence with Daphne Du Maurier. The idea of exchanging strings of letters and postcards has a dusting of magic about it. I think it is the appeal of making contact with someone who is respected for his or her achievements – being given the thrilling chance to communicate with a greatly admired creative mind. Similarly, there is something to be taken from grasping at every chance that makes itself known – embracing the possibility to work with highly imaginative and skilled designers, photographers, hair & make-up artists and stylists.

The owl is often seen as a symbol of wisdom, which is apt – because Charlotte’s latest array of clothes are not only delicious to admire, but also easy to wear. It’s a very wise collection, both business and design wise, being her boldest and grandest yet.  Thank you to the whole team, and especially to Charlotte for asking me to take part! You can see the whole lookbook here and the gifs we shot here, on very talented photographer Claire Pepper's website (gifs produced by Harriman Steel). 

Design - Charlotte Taylor
Photography - Claire Pepper
Stylist - Hayley Simmons
Make-up - Camilla Hewitt
Hair - David Wadlow
Art Direction - Harriman Steel


Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Appeal of a Tea Dress

I, like many others, have a tendency to idolise the past. For the past is present in the methods of capturing and continuing: burned onto celluloid; cut into the fabric of vintage dresses; recorded onto the grooves of a vinyl record. These visions of decades known only by our grandparents or great grandparents are probably as realistic as the Hollywood films that perpetuate the desire for ‘times gone by’. The fifties may have beckoned forward Dior’s ‘New Look’, but women’s rights and civil liberties were a good ten years away from gaining prominence. Similarly, the landscape in Thomas Hardy’s novels is rich and evocative, but much as I would like to visit the hills and towns he created, I can be thankful for not being born in the times about which he was writing.

However, the allure of something beyond our present existence is appealing. It is unadulterated escapism. Screwball comedies, musicals and films where costumes took prominence over plot are all temporary worlds to skip into for an hour or two. A word often associated with the past is ‘genteel’. A longing of sorts for more mellow years, perhaps? A refuge from the constant, but fleeting, renewal of information pulsing across the internet? A belief, not that the grass is greener, but that life was somehow better? It is easy to regress into something contained – it has happened; unchangeable, irrevocable. It is safe. And furthermore, we can pick and choose parts of the past at will in order to best suit our mood or longing. We can glide over the well-dressed surface, only descending beneath the image if the fancy takes.

(Images of Orla Kiely AW 2012 show courtesy of the beautiful and very intelligent Dina, with whom I had the great pleasure of spending time at LFW)

However, the Orla Kiely presentation at LFW 2012 provided ample inspiration when it came to regressing to snapshots of dance halls and velvet curtains. The theatrical set up - a charming scene on repeat - featured dancing models, a live band and tables with refreshments. It was the equivalent of a British Marie Antoinette – less pastels and satin shoes; more ankle socks and tea dresses. The best aspect was that the models looked genuinely happy. They smiled when they caught your eye. They spun with their partners as the trumpeter played a flourish. They performed the role of nervous debutantes waiting to be chosen for a dance. Overhead, a gold glitter ball threw out flecks of light, and the viewers crowded in two narrow channels on either side of the mini production. I heard tell of cakes earlier in the day, but the catering was pared down to champagne by the time Dina and I immersed ourselves among the dresses and ponytails. The clothes themselves were both sweet and classic, with bows and full skirts scattered across the scene. To use some fashion jargon: the prints were delicate, and the fabrics light, with the retro palette that defines Kiely. To add my own twist, I felt that the girls looked like the grown-up embodiments of an Enid Blyton story – imagine Anne from the Famous Five discovering the delight of gold collars and sweet berry-burgundy dresses with buttons strung down the front, and then sneaking out to go dancing.

Dance halls are now rather monochrome tinted – recognised more as an emblem of the past than an embodiment of the present. They still exist, just. But Saturday night is no longer ruled by the Waltz or even the Argentine Tango – instead replaced by gigs and clubs. However the principle of dancing is still divided between those who practise it as an art, and those who take part for the freedom and abandonment to rhythm. It is a creative form like many others – being both exhilarating to watch or to participate.

It is also perhaps a chance to embody another character, or at least another mood, for a few hours. It starts with the ritual of ‘dressing the part’, whether in a sequinned dress that shivers with movement or a full length green silk gown. Fashion throughout the ages has provided another form of escapism. It always has, and still does, allow the assuming of a persona; the expression of an individual; the chance for rebellion. Clothes and the fashion industry can be highly theatrical, much like the dance hall with its sprung floor and faint smell of beeswax mingling with the perfume of an evening. In the case of Orla Kiely, it was refreshing to watch a presentation that combined that very theatricality with the practicality of a collection - in which the clothes could be observed in motion, as they would naturally be worn.

A photographic shoot also involves an element of fantasy – of carefully choosing, laying out and slipping on a character. The particular persona I whipped up here for the top photos was a purely Orla Kiely inspired creation, with a hint of the previous decades I find so fascinating: with a vintage tea-dress, blouse and accessories, alongside second hand Betty Barclay silver heels and ankle socks (not a natural combination for me). I wanted to spin across the fields in the sunshine. 
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