Saturday, 28 April 2012

Memento Mori

Literature makes great use of seasons as the ultimate metaphor for the cycle of human existence. Winter is full of cold decay, while spring offers the chance for renewal. The seasons reel around and around, so marking the passing of the years.
These photos above were taken last year, when the scent of early summer hung in the fields. I needed photos of a dress I had made for a GCSE art project, to present alongside the creation itself. (Nearly a year on I've now finished my AS level in Fine Art). Time has not so much taken flight, as hopped and skipped in seven league boots through the months. Days have been measured in train journeys, homework, blog posts. They are also measured in photos – the camera charting subtle changes in my appearance throughout the year. It's hard to define exactly what is different, but it's a definite that ‘something’ has been altered.
I'm also sure that my mum doesn't look quite the same as she did last summer when she modeled for me, but because I see her every day, the alterations have been too small for me to register. It's only when comparing photos from ‘then’ and ‘now’ that transitions can be noted. But in terms of change, it's  the snapshots of my brother that are the most telling, He's at the age where he looks different every month as he grows taller and his hair hangs longer. This has been matched by his increasing willingness to engage in conversation and discussion. He asks perceptive questions about articles I've been reading, and is more than happy to hear my monologues on German history (all in the name of revision!) For, of course, ageing at any stage is not merely external – but is matched by an internal process of ripening, growing and extending both knowledge and the ability to think.

This dress that I made for my art project focused on the visible concepts of ageing and decay in the natural world. One usually leads to another, whether in the shift from a ripe peach through to a wrinkled husk, or from smooth skin to the lines that scrunch themselves across the face. It is an entirely natural process. The trees bud, blossom and drop leaves six months later, while our hair fades as the decades stack up. My primary inspirations for the project were a series of photos by Sally Mann, and a collection by designer Hussein Chayalan.
Mann, best known for her loving portraits of her family as they grew up, has an extraordinary sensitivity towards the human face in all its many variations. Her black and white portraits capture the vitality of life, while also acknowledging the presence of death. I was particularly interested in the way in which she picked up on the textures and marks that make each individual’s skin personal.
Hussein Chayalan, like Mann, is unafraid to explore the subversive. He has designed furniture that can also be worn, envelope dresses that could be folded up and sent, and, in a collection that inspired my own project, a set of garments made using fabric that had been buried in his garden for nine months. These pieces, shown on graduation, signaled the start of a long and highly innovative career that still continues. I loved the thought of the fabric waiting under the ground like entropic treasure, slowly discolouring among the roots and bugs. The addition of iron filings sped up the natural process of decay. The ground is both a place of life – a surface that potato leaves and flower heads spring from – and of death. Like the seasons, it is a symbol of renewal as cycles continue. Chayalan’s use of fabrics  recovered from the soil somehow reversed the normal lifespan of a garment, letting it fall apart before it had even been made.

The work of these two artists became the stimulus for my final piece: a dress that charted the course of changing and ageing. The photos were transferred onto the silk in a painstaking, highly irritating process involving the pasting, sticking and rubbing away of each image. I am never doing that again. The monochrome portraits – ones that I had previously taken of family and friends – ranged in the ages of the subjects from two to ninety-two. My rough plan was to represent the transition between child and great-grandmother, with the young faces at the top of the dress, graduating down to the oldest at the hem. I then set to work artificially ‘decaying’ parts of the skirt. The bodice, and the petal-like middle section emerged unscathed, but the lower sections of silk were subjected to scissors, paint and flames. I frayed the fabric with a boot brush, hacked away at holes and dripped rust coloured ink in large puddles. As with the faces, I wanted the material itself to display the passing of time. Smooth smiles change as lines and creases are added.

I used my absolutely gorgeous mum as a model for two reasons. Not only is she an expressive and captivating force in front of the camera, but the dress features a photo of her on it, meaning there was a lovely double effect in her appearing on the garment she was wearing. The way the light caught her hair leads to inevitable Pre-Raphaelite comparisons, but I think they're apt. She’s beautiful. 

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Good Day Sunshine: Lazzari

Sixties: 'Bardot at the Beach' with a sweet Lazzari lace bodice dress, plus a vintage Laura Ashley hat, cream wedges from a market, a vintage silk sash, a lace top from a charity shop and a vintage brooch and bag.

Contemporary: A vintage suede pea coat, a vintage Christie's trilby, my grandma's belt and bag, Office velvet heels. 

Sixties: 'Jackie O among the Blossom' in a Lazzari lace shift dress, adding vintage shoes, my great-grandma's gloves and grandma's pill box hat and sunglasses. The bag is Russell & Bromley from a market.

Contemporary: A crochet cardigan from a charity shop, Office sandals and a vintage faux-leather file.

Sixties: 'College Student' wearing a denim Lazzari mini-dress, a vintage blouse and boots, my great-grandma's silk scarf and my grandma's cameo necklace.  

Contemporary: The addition of a fifties skirt, a woven leather belt from a charity shop, Carvela heeled brogues and a vintage satchel bag - a present from my mum. 

Very, very occasionally I arrive home from college to find an exciting looking cardboard parcel or package. This one was a small, rectangular box, with teal polka-dotted tissue paper crackling inside. When the onion-layers were peeled back, three dresses lay, folded and enticing. It's rare for me to respond to offers to style clothes that can be sent to me, as I like to retain a sense of self on my blog: my own specific taste. However, if the designer’s aesthetic matches my own, and I would conceivably consider buying and wearing the brand (if money were no issue), then I view things differently. Lazzari is one such brand – focussing on good fabrics, vintage silhouettes and beautiful garments inspired by various eras.

Lazzari’s dresses are part of that newly emerged trend: the classic shape reinterpreted for the modern consumer. Here, hints of sixties' camping holidays and Brigitte Bardot’s femininity have been taken and twisted into something new. The results are deeply appealing, from the production values (all made in Italy) to the design and materials (quality cotton fabrics). They allow the wearer to feel some kind of touch or whisper of the decade associated with The Beatles and knee high boots – not a facsimile, but an updated version. The concept of using previous decades as inspiration for design is not revolutionary but has become more prevalent in recent years. In a process that conceivably started in the seventies with re-workings of Edwardian day dresses and other styles, the conclusion can be found in countless magazine articles on the ‘new’ Great Gatsby or the ‘updated’ Dior New Look. We now regularly look to the past to inform present clothing choices and designs.

T.S Eliot, on the subject of literature, once said that, “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”, and furthermore that, “The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique… the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.” Eliot’s clever rhetoric suggests that when ‘stealing’ from previous generations there must still be a slant of originality applied to any resulting work. The same argument can be applied to designers working today. The best collections that associate themselves with the past are not simple copies, but original pieces that nod towards the rich design heritage – combining elements of the old with the very contemporary. In this way, the designer adds her or his creative stamp to what went before.

Interestingly though, we are not now defined by the style of our eras in the way that previous generations were. Everything moves too fast, and is too fleeting. New trends are born every six months or so, emerging onto the street with blinking eyes and wobbling legs. But by the time they have become solid and steady, they are replaced by another set of looks. This can be viewed in one of two ways. One can lament the loss of any kind of cohesive look – the kind of uniformity that makes every frame in Mad Men such a visual joy. There are no items of clothing, such as the sixties' mini-skirt or the seventies' trouser suit, that we can take up and champion as being revolutionary. On the flipside, this emphasis on individuality is worthy of praise – of the ‘democratisation’ of fashion. All it takes is a good eye and a keen lust for anything from vintage markets, charity shops and jumble sales, or independent designers, or even high-end brands. Countless options for dressing and self-expression are open.

When writing fiction, ‘register’ is all important – the way the authorial voice and characters’ dialogue fits the situation. In daily life, few speak like Lady Macbeth while buying vegetables from a market, and most would think twice before swearing in front of the Queen. Similarly, the clothes we wear have a distinctive ‘register’ – they demonstrate not only something of our personalities, but are usually appropriate to the day’s activities. Much as the idea is strangely hilarious, I don't wear fifties' bikinis and heels to college. I dress perhaps slightly more outlandishly than my peers, but still within some kind of confined structure of what is deemed acceptable. The emperor may have convinced his subjects that his new lack of clothes was not only appropriate, but also innovative, but I doubt that the same argument would convince many today. I thought of ‘register’ while eyeing up the contents of my dressing up box and wardrobe while deciding how to style Lazzari’s delicious dresses. My final decision – one sixties influenced archetype, and then a more modern version, gave flight to thoughts of the way we contextualize our clothes.  

Accessories, like the words that frame a description, give an immediate sense of ‘place’. I might wear the buttery yellow lace shift dress with a cardigan and Chelsea boots to college, but perhaps save the sixties pill box hat for home. The finishing details - the gloves, the necklaces, the shoes, the coats – are intrinsic to the ‘register’ of an outfit. Thus the white wedges, and Laura Ashley child’s sun-hat gave the blue dress an airy feel of sunny sixties' innocence, while the vintage leather pea-coat, trilby and Office velvet heels felt altogether more adult. Much of my dressing revolves around this process of characterization. Perhaps it comes of having a mother who is a former drama teacher, and a grandma who was once a successful West End actor. The joy of the ‘theatrical’ seems to be genetic.

Huge thanks to Lazzari for the dresses – they'll have many differently styled outings this spring and summer. Their timelessness means I'll be wearing them for years to come too.
Take a look at the delicious lookbook here. It's something of a visual feast.


Sunday, 15 April 2012

These Ancient Minutes

There's something so fascinating - and yet poignant - about crumbling, abandoned cottages. I'm not thinking of modern homes that have been left temporarily empty, but the kind of former dwellings found dotted throughout the Welsh hills – built of local stone and slate, with fallen roofs and only half the walls remaining. They are an enigmatic feature of the landscape; the colours melting into the woods and valleys; the moss furred across steps and boulders alike. However, they are not just a part of the surroundings – much as they look like they might have sprung up from the grass. They are ‘man made’ creations, even though the men who created them have since withered away like curled leaves. These places were once homes, filled with fire, food, family. They would have been inhabited by hill sheep farmers - meaning plenty of sheep, with chickens scratching around too. The roof with missing sections like bite-marks could have saved the inhabitants from storms and April showers. The ground under my boots was once stepped on by other feet. I'll never know exactly what happened in these cottages, or who lived there, and so I can imagine anything.

The two cottage ruins pictured are family favourites to explore when visiting the Welsh coast. They sit just off a road that tapers to a waterfall with natural swimming spots and a rocky plateau for picnics. We hopped out of the car on the way back, and my brother climbed through gaps, scampered around and discovered an incredible stone wheel propped up inside one building. He soon grew impatient waiting, and complained that we were taking too many photos – but it was hard to stop when every frame and angle caught something new. I repeatedly asked my dad (chief photographer of the afternoon) whether he had caught the beam stretching from one wall to the other, or the window frame with a view of gorse beyond. The whole place might have been corroded, broken and dilapidated, but ultimately it was beautiful.

‘Beautiful’ is a strange word though. It's often associated with the fresh, the youthful, the vibrantly alive – everything which an abandoned home is not. But ruins such as these are beautiful in the same way as a skeleton leaf: both are delicate remnants of the past. Maybe that's why photography movements such as ‘Urbex’ (urban exploration) are so popular. Places where people like us once lived or worked or stayed are immensely compelling. Stately homes and castles are popular tourist spots (I’m an avid National Trust fan myself), but they are much more managed and domestic – someone has already researched the history and preserved the contents. The truly ‘abandoned’ interiors (admittedly ones where usually the only way to access them is to break in) are more tantalising. They are wilder, and present a challenge. We must discover them for ourselves. Deserted factories and closed down tube stations are the imprints of previous years that are still left somewhere, hidden beyond locked doors and collapsed tunnel-ways. I like to think of them as ‘pockets of the past’ – ones that represent a very personal history of those who went before.

In the instance of this tiny former settlement, my family and I were merely observers – playing ‘tourist’ while exploring the ruins and taking photos – and could separate ourselves from the decay that such places represent. Who knows what happened to the community there? There is no plaque detailing the history of inhabitants, or the reasons that the walls are now filled with birdsong rather than voices. The cottages half-remain. The place itself occupies some kind of limbo between what was, and what now is; a space between past and present.
I clambered among the rubbish left behind by landowners and previous visitors: the rusting farm machinery, barbed wire, the plastic bags, the cans and broken beer bottles. That’s just sediment though, the scummy surface. It's the rocks that built the house that matter. Their tumbling is a form of entropy, but they are also a symbol of the brilliance of human endeavour and resilience.

Everything I'm wearing (including the boots) came from various charity shops – ranging from much-visited local ones to far-flung Oxfams in London. The skirt is ‘See by Chloe’, which was bought recently for £7. The only exception is the belt which was my grandma's - from her girl guide's uniform.

The title is part of a line taken from one of Dylan Thomas' poems. 

Monday, 9 April 2012

Ethical evolution

Photos: The lovely Vanessa Jackman, who in addition to having a great eye, is one of the nicest street style photographers out there. 

Photos: The divine Dvora of Fashionistable who equals Vanessa in both talent and genuine warmth. 

In the same way that many of the ethical designers I most admire use recycled fabrics in their designs, so this post is a patchwork of the old and new – taking elements of articles I have already written for Oxfam and embroidering them with new skeins of ideas.

To recap briefly, on behalf of Oxfam I covered the ethical exhibition that LFW hosts every season – better known as ‘Estethica’. I like to think of this collection of designers, ranging from the well- established to the newly formed, as being similar to a tree. The main trunk does not change from year to year: attached to a deep-rooted eco-aware ethos. But the branches that spring from this trunk yield slightly different fruit each season. The colours, materials and ideas are renewed every six months or so, and prove to be rich pickings for the press and buyers who click their heels through the halls. It is an exhibition that has ‘sustainable’ sliding through its veins like green sap.

Although I initially talked about a range of designers on the Oxfam blog (and they all deserve admiration for their commitment to sustainability), there were three who completely stood out for me:

Junky Styling displayed a collection that tipped its well-cut collar to classic military and navy shapes. The official theme was ‘Well Dressed Weekend’; composed of a Venn Diagram between blankets and suits, with enough pieces to last for a well dressed month. The rails held the kind of coats that I would love to don for a windy walk (or at least for a blustery photo shoot). Living rurally, I have a habit of attributing anything vaguely warm and woollen looking to Wuthering Heights and Thomas Hardy territory. But then my favourite place to be is between the hills and the finely sourced fabrics.
Henrietta Ludgate’s clothes had a similarly stormy feel. The idea of a hurricane, leaving a ragged train of chaos and shadows behind it, inspired the highly architectural dresses that combined her trademark tubing with smoky colours and well-cut shapes. A collaboration with jeweller Euan McWhirter resulted in Swarovski crystals strung across the fronts in ropes of silver. These are the kind of dresses to wear in a cobweb-clothed mansion as the storm howls through open windows.  
Elemental themes also permeated Ada Zanditon, with the title ‘Simia Mineralis’ referring to the insatiable desire of the human race for technology. The designer was engaging and passionate when talking about the consequence of human consumption on the world that we all inhabit. Dangerous mining takes place every day to source the minerals needed for the latest phone or laptop. This destructive practice was interpreted through clothes with rich patterns that, close up, suggested geological shapes and structures. I was told me that all the pre-collection pieces were named after Shakespearian heroines - but unfortunately there was no ‘Rosalind’ on the rails. You can see the video that is one part ladylike, one part gothic here
 To work on and promote a sustainable label is hard – bringing additional challenges and ultimately (one hopes) rewards. But it’s not enough to be merely ‘eco friendly’ – that term is not one to hide behind or use as a defence. The clothes themselves have to be equally as appealing as those presented in the main venues at LFW. These labels must be defined by design, as well as their credentials. As news spirals about the impact of the fashion industry, it becomes all the more important to support and sustain any area that promotes a more holistic approach to production, from the workers creating the clothes through to the dyes used. And yet, to ensure success, what is required is a mainstream appeal and a widespread knowledge of why we should buy ethically. Personally, I would hope one day to see the ‘Estethica’ collection being integrated into the main fashion arena, rather than being separated out.

'Ethical' also brings its own issues, from the perception of the term to the price of the garments; the latter  often being cited as a hindrance. One has to make a conscious choice to spend a little more for something of quality and credentials, and although no bad thing, we (and I include myself here) have an attitude of spending the minimum amount for the maximum gain. This is essentially why the ‘high street’ is so popular – the clothes are cheap, there is plenty of variety, and it is very accessible. This starkly contrasts with previous decades where, as my grandma was telling me recently, “If you wanted shorts for the summer, you didn’t go out and just buy them. You made them.” I’m not suggesting that we all return to our sewing machines and seamstresses (delightful as that sounds as an ideology), but that a little re-adjustment of values might be needed. It is worth the extra expense for a hand-crafted item – such as this mustard and black Goodone jumpsuit that I saved up for, bought and recently wore to LFW, as pictured above (worn with a silk, polka dot vintage Betty Barclay blouse, black Mary Janes by Office, charity shopped belt and vintage 70s bag). It goes back to the tradition of really valuing clothes, rather than treating them as disposable.

Nevertheless, in return for this pledge of support in buying something, the designers out there must reciprocate by providing well-designed clothes, whether wearable or fanciful. Luckily there are designers who are achieving that, such as Goodone, Orsola de Castro and those mentioned above. More of them like that, please. 

Huge thanks to both Dvora and Vanessa for their wonderful photography skills. You can also find each of their blogs in my sidebar list. I was extremely honoured to have been featured on their respective blogs.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The ritual of an evening dress

There is often a common point of recollection in childhood memories  – particularly the kind found in articles and autobiographies. It is the recalling of a mother or significant female relative dressing up ahead of an evening. The events acquire an almost ritualistic quality with the application of make-up, the choosing of a dress and the brushing and arranging of hair. These memories are usually sensory, filled with the warm scent of perfume or glimpse of a spangled brooch under lamplight. Such small details preserve the scene, made vivid by the author’s words. Edmund de Waal’s book ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’, as well as several pieces in Vogue and the Guardian come to mind.  Reading them makes me  think of occasions watching my mum preparing for a party or night out. Although what  doesn’t often make its way into the nostalgia-soaked moments are the frantic calls of, “Where’s my bloody handbag?” and “Come on, we’re late!” It would, of course break the cosy elegance. I also have photos of my mum at various fancy dress parties: Rapunzel, Cleopatra and a costume based on a variation of my then twelve-year old attire for a ‘Mutton Dressed as Lamb’ themed party (the outfit involved a baker-boy hat and a denim mini skirt)!

Dressing up is definitely a ceremonial process, especially if for an important occasion. At the centre of the preparations there is usually a dress. It may appear vacuous to accord such status to an item of clothing, but I will readily admit that an evening dress has transformative qualities. Unless you are one of the incredible individuals who wear ball gowns to visit the dentist and do the weekly shop, (see the marvelous Desiree from Pull your Sox Up for a master-class) then the experience is one beyond the norms of day-to-day life. It gives the chance for a temporary transformation. In this case the dress is the equivalent of a mask – allowing escapism and a temporary stepping into the (possibly high heeled) shoes of another persona. As humans we may not be able to sprout brightly coloured feathers, but we can slip skins on and off at will – and the evening dress is the best ‘skin’ of all. This decoration of the human form - of accentuating and flattering it - goes right back to primal traditions of animal skins and body paint (these two have arguably been replaced with an antique fur stole and make-up!)

The dress pictured above was worn to a vintage ball that took place in a local stately hall. I was asked to document the evening, and turned up with my camera (complete with a heavy flash) in one hand, and a vintage evening purse in the other. The guests were greeted at the entrance with a glass of champagne, and I slunk among the groups, snapping all the time. It was an incredible sight: coral-tinged ball gowns mixing with chiffon flapper dresses and lace fifties concoctions. It was as though the revellers had emerged from a tangle of decades. But my favourite couple, and the ones who fascinated me most, eschewed traditional glamour in favour of WWII uniforms. They had matching khaki caps – and their buttons caught the light from the chandelier. If one talks of ‘hunting ground’ for photography, then this one was immensely fertile. Every turn of my gaze yielded new sights. What struck me again and again throughout the evening was the intense vitality of everyone I observed and spoke to. An elegant couple – she in sequins, he in a white dinner jacket – swept past my lens, while a mother and daughter later tapped out the Charleston. A floor view would have revealed leopard print heels tango-ing past low, patent t-bars. To see the events through a viewfinder – dividing it up into single photos and snapshots – was to try to squash the exuberance and enjoyment of the evening into a rectangle. Thus, the following images are a handful of single moments, snatched from a fabulous few hours.

My mum bought the vintage satin evening dress for me for Christmas (from a local flea market) because it reminded her of “the Atonement dress”. That particular dress has achieved near mythical status, and so I was thrilled to find this similar emerald green item relaxing under the tree. In homage to a thirties Cecilia type I wore it with faux-pearls and gold t-bar shoes – with my hair pinned with hair clips as it was drying so that it fell in waves. The photos were taken by my dad the following day, as I spent the entire night of the ball behind the camera - and forgot to ask anyone to take a photo of me! 

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