Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Let's Talk About Tax

As the months rolled by the revelations tumbled in: Starbucks, Amazon, Google UK, Facebook. Some of the largest and most powerful companies in the world had avoided, through cloudily legitimate means, paying significant chunks of their UK corporation tax – collectively contributing only £30m over four years despite profits of £3.1bn in Britain. 

I’ll admit straight away that my understanding of the processes used to avoid tax is hazy. I don’t feel I can talk with authority on the financial ins and outs. However, despite my economic ignorance, what I do feel licensed to discuss is the ethical quagmire this leaves me, as a consumer, facing.

It’s not a new problem. I took the decision to stop buying clothes in Topshop after finding out about the now infamous £1.2bn cheque Philip Green (CEO of Arcadia Group) gave to his Monaco-based wife in 2005. There is no income tax in Monaco; meaning Green avoided paying an estimated £285m to the British government – a figure that could hypothetically fund 20,000 NHS nurses’ wages. To me that single statistic sums up the immorality of that action. The concept of one individual owning that much wealth, more wealth than can ever be spent, seems deeply wrong. This is a man who thinks nothing of throwing a £6 million birthday celebration (for himself) or buying a £32 million yacht. A few less millions wouldn’t have dented either Philip Green’s wallet or his lifestyle.

Of course, I’m opening myself up here to accusations of naivety, idealism or a failure to understand the way that the world is. I’m fully aware that there will always be a scale of wealth in which some are richer than others. I have no problem with that, or with the entrepreneurial concept of starting a business, building it up and earning a fantastic wage from it. What I cannot stand though is the unwillingness of certain companies and individuals to pay a sum to the country they are living or trading in, so that those who are not as well off as themselves can be supported. With privilege should come awareness and acknowledgment of being fortunate in comparison to others. Avoiding tax is a demonstration of selfishness, of retreating inwards and not giving a damn about others. Taxes are used for public good and public necessities. For example, mundane as it is, the upkeep of roads is only made possible through taxes. Many companies whose branded vans are seen throughout the country could not trade without these roads. But they still feed, vampire-like, off infrastructures they do not help to support.

Also, in the UK taxes fund healthcare, education, the police and other public services. Call me a liberal lefty, but to me these are the cornerstones of society – public goods that are absolutely vital. But in the UK we are now living in a time where libraries are being closed, where the budget for the NHS has been reduced, where cuts are slicing into the most vulnerable first. And yet some global companies continue to duck and dive around the taxman – legally, but not morally, in the clear.

To return to my own personal conundrum though, the query is this: are my values strong enough for me to resist shopping in and thus supporting these businesses? To not buy books online? To throw away the Mac I am typing on? There are also other issues aside from finance, such as Amazon’s throttling of independent bookshops or Apple’s appalling working conditions on construction lines. Despite being aware of all of this though, my response as a consumer is tricky. In an ideal world I would only support ethical businesses, but living rurally and having a minimal budget means that the ease of online ordering is seductive – particularly for second hand items on eBay (who paid just £1.2m on £800m of sales in 2010.) Also, it vastly reduces the number of products that can be bought.

As mentioned before though, I don’t give my money to Topshop (or any other member of the Arcadia group), but this is easy as my main hunting ground for clothes are charity shops, vintage and independent businesses and markets. I’m using Topshop as an example because my blog is primarily known for its fashion content. I know that to speak against a brand with such huge sway in the industry is not the done thing, but I'm not judging anyone who buys or enjoys their clothes – I'm only expressing my personal opinion. I can also appreciate the support that Topshop has extended to new designers through NewGen, particularly in a time when corporate funding is one of the only ways fledgling brands can fly. But this good work doesn’t negate or blank out the fact that Philip Green, despite huge earnings, avoided paying the fully taxable amount. It was money sorely missed, now desperately needed. With these companies it's not a few thousand lost here and there, but massive sums – bigger than most of us could comprehend owning – that should be invested in the country, not sitting in some business bank account.

I don’t know where this leaves me. Writing this piece won’t convince any business to pay their tax or any government minister to shut the loopholes that allow this to happen. But it feels important to state, even if I know that as an individual my power only extends to what I buy.

Statistics and facts taken from The Guardian, The Telegraph and UK Uncut.

Now how to explain the so-tenuous- it’s-almost-invisible link between the photos and the subject matter of the post? Two reasons. Firstly, the fifties swimsuit is handmade – no high street brand has brushed its hands across the ruched elastic. But secondly, and this is meant fully tongue in cheek, it’s a well known advertising cliché that adding a female in a swimsuit supposedly sells a product. Nothing for sale here though, just images of a summer May afternoon, 'swimming' in a field crop of flowers - photos taken by the fantastic Flo. 

Friday, 23 November 2012


The poster went up on my wall at age twelve or thirteen. The black and white close-up was the last piece in my carefully assembled bedroom – Audrey Hepburn’s eyes looking out over a purple bed and a pink inflatable chair. I wonder how many Audreys have graced similar walls, how many thousands of beehives and cigarette holders there are displayed across the world?
The poster has been gone a while now, rolled up and donated to a charity shop. My lilac walls were re-painted in cream, and what was once a minimal space has steadily cluttered with mirrors, jewellery, clothes, stacks of books, old cameras, magazines, arts' materials and sheets of paper. That portrait blue-tacked above my radiator no longer felt like an expression of my identity, but an image of the conformity embraced by my peers. We loved Audrey Hepburn, along with VW camper vans, surfer labels, pinboards, candles and fairy lights. It was one of several repeated motifs, having little to do with the woman herself and much more to do with our tentative attempts to define ourselves – as a group.
Unfortunately, this appropriation of her image meant that for several years thereafter I felt that she was somehow a cliché – a predictable choice to cite as a style icon or inspirational person, and that I had to choose individuals personal to me, rather than globally adored figures. I’m happy to admit now that this was snobbery, but will add that even if I wasn’t publicly waxing lyrical about her, I was still watching her films and gasping at the gorgeous outfits. However, she – or at least what she stood for – largely avoided mention.
I recently received a beautiful photography book called ‘Audrey: The 60s’ from Aurum Press. The range of film stills and photo shoots  - some of which were new to me - provoked a re-evaluation of my feelings about Hepburn.  I began to unpick the knotted set of references and assumptions surrounding the actress, trying to tease out my personal appreciation of her from the more tricky cultural significance she holds.
That poster I owned of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly is similar to the Warhol silk print of Marilyn Monroe – so ubiquitous as to have lost nearly all sense of original meaning. The magazine quizzes and press releases asking whether one is an ‘Audrey’ or a ‘Marilyn’ typify this, the inference being: do you want to be slender or curvy; graceful or bubbly; beautiful or a sex symbol? These two actresses are often reduced to a 2D set of attributes placed in opposition to each other. There’s no middle ground, no acknowledgment of the lives behind the name. The reality is that Audrey’s slight stature was the result of malnutrition during WWII, while Marilyn’s high IQ did little to stop her being typecast as a ‘dumb blonde.’ I have read accounts of both stars' lives (and indeed that word does seem appropriate – for similar to the stars of the night sky, the light they cast continues long after death) and respect their achievements hugely. But to take them in as a whole – their work, their lives, their image – requires more than a cursory mention.
With Hepburn (as with Monroe) image plays a huge part. That little black dress, those pearls, the sparkling jewel in her hair: they have come to represent something almost entirely divorced from the film character and the actress. The portrait is a cultural, recognizable symbol in the same way that the Rolling Stones lips are. And like that particular logo, it is sometimes bought or sported by those who have little idea of or interest in the original source – in this case, the glorious film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  For of course, the film is indeed glorious. Dodgy racial stereotyping aside, it is an infectious and rather haunting work demonstrating Hepburn’s versatility. Unlike the demure princess of Roman Holiday or intelligent bookshop employee in Funny Face, her character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was irresponsible, glamorous, complicated and willing to “visit the powder room” to earn money. It’s almost ironic that Hepburn is most famed for a role quite unlike many of her others, although it perhaps signaled the start of her divergence into more complex characters. I have yet to see ‘Wait until Dark’ and ‘Two for the Road’ and savour the thought of curling up to watch each of them. Several years on, my appreciation of Audrey Hepburn is more than a poster on a wall. It is a deep admiration for the adversity she faced, the humility she demonstrated and the elegance she displayed. To lapse into praise is easy, for so much has already been written about her that words fly with ease; adjectives such as ‘modest’ and ‘charming’. They're the kinds of words that are meant honestly, but like the Breakfast at Tiffany’s portrait, have become dulled by repetition.

But what hasn’t dulled is the possibility of being dazzled by the rich archive of imagery left behind. There are so many photographs and shoots worth diving back through. The selection found in ‘Audrey: The 60s’ both refreshed and kindled my imagination. Hepburn’s face was soulful and expressive, whether it was framed by the elaborate constructions of hair in ‘My Fair Lady’ or the cropped fringe in ‘How to Steal a Million.’ This celebratory coffee table book, with the satisfying size of the images and sumptuous colour co-ordination of the spreads, is a testament to that mesmerising beauty. Turning the thick pages is a luxurious experience; discovering previously unpublished photos a delight. Although I initially found the accompanying quotes (from friends, photographers and Hepburn herself)  almost intrusive, they build up and iterate the fullness of Audrey Hepburn’s skill, charisma and integrity. 

The outfit is quite self-explanatory, although my emulation of Holly Golightly was completed using an entirely second hand set of materials: original 60s dress from my paternal grandmother, shoes from charity shop and the gloves, pearls and jewellery all vintage from family members. I had to make do with a paint brush in place of the cigarette holder, but I love the black line like a swoop of ink. Thank you to the effervescent and ever-fabulous Flo for taking the photos. Exciting news about a joint photography venture of ours coming soon... 

A taste of the images in the book to whet the appetite, taken from the website. Thank you to Aurum for the copy: 


Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Dressing Up - Fashion and Feminism

The words ‘fashion’ and ‘feminism’ may share the same initial letter, but according to some they are just too opposite ever to be reconciled. With all due respect, that’s rubbish. They might be on different sides of the coin, but there is (or at least should be) nothing stopping a feminist from being interested in and engaged with fashion. As I've mentioned before, I define myself as a liberal feminist – believing primarily in equality between the genders. For me feminism is about challenging various archaic expectations and assumptions. It’s what I like to refer to as a choice and a voice (for a more extended definition, please see my piece How to be a Woman). I’m also a great fashion lover. It can be a strong means of empowerment – not only a confidence enhancer, but also a way of defining personality and revelling in display. Writers from Colette to Angela Carter have picked up on the ability of costume to conceal and reveal, rightly noting that what we wear and why is a fascinating topic of discussion.  
However, traditional feminist rhetoric has often painted fashion merely as a way of controlling women. See how the slavish masses follow trends! Watch them spend squillions on handbags! Look at the frivolity they are mindlessly trapped in! In among the hyperbole there are some sparks of truth. There are morally questionable areas of the industry that do not easily sit with those interested in equality, body image and women’s self worth. But the more positive aspects bear evaluation too. Alice Blackhurst has spent the last few years researching the intersection of fashion and feminism in France, and she very kindly agreed to furnish me with some incisive observations and opinions on the links between the two.

When talking about fashion, it is assumed that only one of two views can be adopted. Either the industry can do no wrong and people who don’t like it should just leave it alone; or alternately fashion is at the root of many modern evils – including (but not limited to) anorexia, rampant capitalism, cruelty to animals, fear of aging, human rights abuses and general vapidity. What is needed somewhere between these two starkly contrasting judgments is a little nuance. The psychological impact of advertising and editorials, particularly in the wake of Photoshop’s popularity, should not be brushed under the rug. Neither should the glorification of youth and skinniness over all other forms of beauty (see Mirror, Mirror). These are very real and serious issues that do deserve more attention.  Nonetheless, an awareness of these problems should not stop anyone from loving other elements of fashion or enjoying dressing each day. As Alice notes: “Whilst the fashion world is far from perfect, current responses intent on combatting the ‘unrealistic’ fashion image feel a little patronising.  Presuming that women are hysterically sensitive to what they are shown in the media, it suggests our inability to appreciate fashion shoots’… vision and to turn the page, fully aware that what we have been party to is fantasy.”

I recently saw the Tim Walker exhibition at Somerset House, and wandered from room to room entranced by his imagination. It was a magnificent insight into hundreds of visions and ideas – from dolls to spaceships, stately homes and skeletons – with some very gorgeous clothes involved. Walker transcends reality to provide the purest and most glorious form of escapism. It is quite obvious that his photos are fantasy. Walker is at the more outlandish end of the scale, but we generally accept that fashion shoots do not attempt to portray reality. They are narratives and stories, not photo-journalism. However, this does not provide a ‘get out of jail free’ card to those who claim that the body size of models is beyond scrutiny – particularly if, as a feminist, one is interested in the impact of such a homogenised, super-slender ideal.

And yet, the Internet has increasingly allowed for a wider range of aesthetics and looks to be celebrated. Perhaps the relationship between fashion and feminism bears re-evaluation in the ‘digital age’. Alice observes that current criticism of fashion’s capacity to restrict and suppress women “overlooks… our dizzying ability to curate personalised style profiles online which stand their ground against and alongside the glossies.  As well as the unstoppable influence of street and self-style blogs, the collage aesthetic promoted by sites like Tumblr and Pinterest means that fashion today is as bespoke and customised as the suits and dresses it inspires.” This process of creation and projection has always, for me, been at the heart of my love for style. It covers everything from deciding that pink and turquoise is a delicious combination for an outfit for college, to choosing a drop-dead fabulous green satin dress for a vintage ball. Being able to showcase some of these style decisions online through my blog has been, and continues to be, wonderful. It provides an additional reason for choosing my clothes carefully, and really forces me to focus on the visual power of what I wear. Alice also acknowledges that “Rather than remaining slaves to fashion, we increasingly have the power to engage in an active process of self-fashioning.  We can… choose how we present ourselves to the world, move towards controlling our own self-image.” The Internet has often been referred to as a platform for ‘democratising’ fashion. I’m not sure if this is the right word – for even among blogs there is still a hierarchy, with those featuring high-end clothes and high street finds often finding the widest readerships. However, the spectrum of style has certainly widened, taking in everything from Vintage Vixen’s simply brilliant seventies get-ups to Barbro Anderson’s luxurious layering. When put together, the range of blogs I read encapsulates style in its diversity, rather than in its similarity – with each blogger choosing how to present themselves to their audience.

Alice continues: "As well as encouraging us to tailor our individual tastes and sensibilities, fashion in the context of the Internet encourages communication.” This reminded me of a piece I read by Elizabeth Wilson in the book Chic Thrills in which she observed that “Dress… is the material with which we ‘write’ or ‘draw’ a representation of the body.” By Alice’s definition, clothing can also be used to ‘write’ or ‘draw’ our personalities – communicating aspects of our selves to others. These are ever shifting aspects though, summed up in her claim that “Fashion… at its best would understand ‘identity’ as a work in progress.”

It was Alice’s final point that struck me as the most pertinent. She argues that: “In their mutual concern for new forms, new structures, and new ‘modes’ of expression in society, feminism and fashion might be allies."  But first, she says, we might have to re-define feminism – replacing ‘Feminism’ with a capital F with plural and diverse ‘feminisms’." Feminism encompasses numerous areas requiring different approaches and solutions. It is like a kaleidoscope - multi-faceted. New perspectives emerge all the time, and these must be recognised. That kaleidoscope analogy is appropriate for fashion too. Clothing has varying functions and purposes: to be sensuous, to be practical, to provide a uniform, to be outrageous, to blend in. But for me it's the dressing up, the donning of a costume, that thrills the most. 

Thanks to Alice for the fantastic and thought-provoking quotes. The shoot is one I've been wanting to post since it took place over the summer holidays. The stunning model is my friend Caitlin - who is now  illustrating for Rookie.  She also made a feminist zine a while ago. I thought it appropriate to illustrate a piece on fashion and feminism with a series of images celebrating dressing up and running wild. All clothes are from my wardrobe: a mixture of second hand, vintage, family owned and gifts. I was vaguely inspired by the idea of what Kate Bush might look like were she clad in pastels and rich fabrics.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Singin' in the Rain

No rain - but a vintage umbrella! And water, though it just happened to be in the lakes rather than falling from clouds. My homage to Singin' in the Rain was composed of a vintage, fringed dress recently brought from the fantastic Oxfam branch in Camden, a sash from the dressing up box, shoes from a flea market and a swan brooch from my mum. My hair, thank goodness, was only temporarily bobbed - pinned up at the back to create a 1920s style look. 

“I’m singin’ in the rain, just singin’ in the rain, what a glorious feeling, I’m happy again!”
The first time I watched Singin’ in the Rain I was lying in a hospital bed about five days after spinal surgery. For small, sweet moments I was transported – the agony in my back reduced to a dull ache as I focused on the highly intricate movement of feet or the flash of sequins. But other sequences were just blurs of colour as I sank back into my pillow, unable to keep up with the fast paced numbers. Finding the film for the first time during such uncertainty and pain meant that it remains in my head as a completely vivid hour or two. Blame it on the morphine if you will, but to me this cinematic delight remains elevated to technicolour heights of glory: bright costumes, sets and voices ringing through my mind.

I’ve watched it many times since - reveling in the umbrella twirling, puddle splashing and spectacular high kicks. From Cyd Charis’ sensuous solo during ‘Broadway Melody’ to Donald O’Connor’s comedic and extraordinarily performance in ‘Make Em Laugh’, each number demonstrates equal skill and beauty. I jokingly claim that I’m a failed ballet dancer at heart, so maybe this accounts for my fascination, but there’s something very special about witnessing the way that humans manipulate their bodies through dance. Whether the mood is one of elegance, drama or slapstick, the accomplished dancer expresses something almost beyond words. They draw the audience in, each extended limb or curled hand like a comma beckoning our full attention. It’s another form of communication, spoken in movement.

Like any form of art, dance is characterized by a huge amount of hard graft and practice. Each perfect spin is the result of numerous failed attempts – in much the same way that the ideal novel builds upon all that has previously been written. ‘Perseverance’ is certainly a word that could have been extended to the cast of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’. Gene Kelly performed the titular sequence with a high fever over two days, Debbie Reynolds’ feet bled after accomplishing ‘Good Morning’ and Donald O’Connor found himself in hospital on completion of ‘Make Em Laugh’.  But all we witness on screen is the end product, the culmination of many months’ work and perfectionism. We are offered escapism and enjoyment.

If some of those dance sequences took two weeks to film, then I can only imagine how exhausted the performers are at the end of each night of the stage adaptation. I was recently invited to see the version currently playing at the Palace Theatre in the West End, London, taking my friend Merlin. He was a ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ first timer; I was keen to see how the narrative transitioned from screen to stage. Producing a theatrical version of a much loved film makes sense commercially, but can be tricky creatively. How to recapture the original atmosphere without becoming a mere facsimile, a shadow? How to ensure that the actors retain the brilliance of on-screen predecessors without being mirror images? The answer, it seems, is to pay homage while still retaining individuality. Ensemble dances, outfits and the order of events were all tailored to the stage, while filmed sequences momentarily transformed the theatre into a cinema. Katherine Kingsley’s Lina Lamont was pure high camp – all diamante and nasal whining – while the main trio played off each other’s energy to thrilling, glorious effect.

But even though reviews had built up my expectation of the rainstorm sequence, the visual impact of watching 14,000 litres of water pouring over the heads of the performers below was simply jubilant.  Although this water is recycled every night, I noticed a fair few puddles' worth flicked in the audience’s direction (the front few rows of the stalls were furnished with rain capes!)

We left the theatre floating on the afterglow of song and dance and walked along Regents Street, shop windows and streetlamps lighting our way. Those moments after the performance, when the last dregs of colour and spectacle were still clinging to our clothes were really quite wonderful, ones to be celebrated and cherished –  moments of being utterly alive.

It wasn’t raining that night, only a faint mist of drizzle settling across London. A shame really. There’s something very raw about tilting your face up towards the sky as it pours. It’s a liberation –  revelling in getting drenched, in demonstrating (and more importantly, feeling) a sense of recklessness. It’s not so much singing in the rain but dancing in the rain that appeals to me. Perhaps it’s just a childish delight akin to squelching through mud or returning home covered in grass stains, but if so then I’m glad that the euphoria of such an activity is never lost.

Singin' in the Rain is on at the Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London. You can see details on their website here. Big thanks to Frankie at Premier Communications for such a lovely night out. 

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