Friday, 25 January 2013

Meeting and Greeting







I imagine my friendships as a spider’s web. Strands reach out in different directions; some towards college, others towards London or other parts of the country. A few have to stretch across oceans and bypass countries or continents to reach bloggers in America or Australia. Occasionally the horizontal skeins join one friend to another as lives overlap, often in unexpected ways. For me, the existence of this disparate collection of individuals and social spheres is a continual source of pleasure.
I’m always looking to add further threads to the web. Each unfurls the possibility of something new – another person to talk to, work with, enjoy the company of. They arise in a number of ways. The most obvious is mutual acquaintances, either introduced in person or recommended by a friend. A few were lucky chance encounters on residential courses or during events. Many have been found through London Fashion Week, with several street style photographers and other individuals met across the cobbles. Recently I’ve had the privilege to meet two bloggers slightly younger than me in separate cities, after long strings of emails. In both instances it was delight to move from computer screen to face-to-face encounter.
Such a diverse range of social interactions proves the irrelevance of age. Exchanges take place with people from fourteen to sixty-plus and carry a common theme – curiosity about and interest in other human beings. There’s a phrase that encapsulates this for me, taken from E.M Forster’s ‘Howards End’: “Only connect.” I most value the friendships that cut through the shallows and allow for this sense of connection – of conversation and debate, shared interests and contrasting opinions.
Talk between old friends has a different context than that of new acquaintances. One is characterized by ease and familiarity, the other often revolves around discovery. To find such new encounters, sometimes you have to take a plunge – be the brave one by igniting conversation with the person sitting next to you.
Then there are the other approaches demanded by pursuits such as street style photography. I experienced a nervous flutter on waylaying well-dressed individuals for Oxfam at Hay Festival last summer. Despite brandishing my camera, it still took a deep breath of courage to ask if I could photograph the passersby whose shoes, layers or smiling eyes caught my attention.
With photographer Fred however, I was in front of the camera for the images above. I met him after someone I know mentioned several times that he would “have to” get us to do some work together. I followed it up and several weeks later we met on a freezing afternoon at the top of Primrose Hill. I had little idea what he looked like, trusting instead that he would recognize me. His camera was a good indicator though. We chatted between shots, me taking very gentle steps in the green Office heels as we crisscrossed paths and chose suitable benches. A quick removal of the coat to reveal the sixties dress beneath was chilly enough to require a warm pot of tea afterwards. We discussed aspirations, inspirations, respective A' Levels and Cindy Sherman. As I walked back through the ever-darkening afternoon I paid special interest to the people around me: the dog walkers, the families, the joggers, the tourists, the couples, the lone strollers. Each undoubtedly had their own web of threads spinning out their daily encounters. 

You can see more of Fred's work here
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Sunday, 20 January 2013

Telling Stories








If this hand-knitted dress were the main character in a novel, the opening chapter might detail it being carefully wrapped in starry paper – opened the following day. Then there would be a flashback to the night some three weeks previously when a woman with red hair sat at her computer, screen illuminating her face as she placed her bid. The action would be suspended so that the author might make some ever-so-meaningful point about the beginning of a new story.
Put simply, my mum bought it second hand on eBay, as a Christmas present.
We love to give things narratives. A piece of costume jewellery from a market stall had a previous life while a battered sideboard was obviously either unloved or much loved in its former existence. Inanimate objects are personified. Their use and experiences are discussed. Trunks, dresses, tins, clocks, vinyl records, hats, cushions, books – on and on goes the list. ‘Second hand’ signifies a previous owner. Items are brought into the home and cleared out again; a tidal pattern of emerging and retreating. As objects move from one set of hands to another, they take on (or rather we give them) extra resonance.
There are two types of stories – the known and the unknown. Actual stories attach themselves to embroidered coats bought on a trip to the Winter Olympics or skirts made from a lace wedding train. Family heirlooms are a tangible connection to the past. My mum has kept a single button from her late mother’s ‘goat coat’ (a rather smelly anorak worn to feed the reeking billygoat on the smallholding where they once lived) because it symbolizes a significant time and place in her childhood. That button has become a link to her mother in that particular moment. Similarly, an athletics vest worn by my late paternal grandfather at Stanford was kept as a memento of his aspirations and achievements. These objects act a little like grappling hooks, with the long rope of history and heritage trailing behind them.
Unknown stories manifest themselves in items whose origin remains mysterious. Here indulgence is speculative. A name in the flyleaf of a poetry collection or an old snapshot with anonymous subjects gives a small sliver of insight. Both inspire fictitious possibilities. A narrative can be created for the girl who inked her initials or the group of friends shielding their eyes from the sun in the photo. Similarly, one can conjure the ghostly figure that once inhabited a vintage skirt or pair of Fifties' heels. It is a process of fabrication.
Why do we do this? Mainly to anchor ourselves, to inhabit our surroundings and give our own daily stories meaning. It is a means of both mooring and securing. The majority of us build a cocoon of the material and solid. Whether bought or received, designed for adornment or practical use, the ‘stuff’ we own both defines us and gives us access to other lives beyond ours.
Even items bought new are brushed by others’ fingers. Everything has a creator – whether it’s the craftsperson who made a cupboard or a poorly paid worker piecing together sections of a cheap t-shirt. For of course, sometimes the chronicles are unpleasant, such as a ‘blood diamond’ - so named having been mined in a warzone, with the sale being used to fund violence and corruption. These stories, the relation to suffering, the slave labour or the carbon footprint produced, are the ones less regularly told. 

The photos were taken by my dad while on a walk with family and friends (all pictured in the last shot!)  I'm wearing an original sixties hand-knitted dress from eBay, Joules wellies, a second hand polo neck and faux fur coat & a vintage hat. 
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Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Alive











Each day is bracketed on either side by bed. What the hours in between hold should be the reason why we emerge in the morning, and hopefully return contented in the evening. These two different times of day share a common ground. They’re transition points between being asleep and awake, between retreating and going out to face the world. And, for me, they’re the points at which I tend to consider what I want from life.
Interviewers sometimes ask their subjects “What gets you out of bed in the morning?”, or alternately “What’s the last thing you think of before you go to sleep?” They are not the same question, but for me, both would yield answers referring to satisfaction. I get out of bed because I’m enthused about what the day could be spent doing. I like to go back to bed feeling that the day has been well used. One bookend is composed of hope, the other of fulfilment.
At least, in theory. Those are the best possible days – the ones that have been stuffed full of creating, experiences or good conversation. They are the things I appreciate the most. Drawing, writing or taking photos; seeing friends, meeting people, going to parties, travelling or discovering new places; reading, watching films, seeing exhibitions or visiting museums; completing essays, researching a topic or debating; cooking or spending time with my family. These activities, among others, are what I like to embroider my weeks with.
Of course these are balanced up with commitments to college and daily routines. There are always going to be train journeys to make and exams to revise for. I’m fortunate in that I love learning and am always looking to expand my understanding and thinking. The prospect of studying English Literature at Oxford come October (I found out on Friday!) is absolutely delicious. But the other bits, the practicalities and responsibilities, are useful – if not always enjoyable.
This focus on enjoyment has become more important recently.  Last year I was obsessed with achievement. I measured my self-worth in grades and success. It was corrosive. Aiming to be the best invariably ends in unhappiness, for perfection is unreachable. Such high standards, imposed on me by myself, became stressful. Not reaching my own lofty targets was a form of failure, I thought.
That changed, thank god. The self-motivation and desire to do well hasn’t melted. If anything, it’s stronger. But now the focus is not on achievement, but on contentment - working hard, having fun and being alive to both complexity and wonder. For me it is not about passing time, but possessing it. Making it worth it. We often talk about ‘spending’ time – and if so, I want mine invested well.

The photos of the owl print dress and parrot trousers are from early last year when talented designer Charlotte Taylor  sent me some pieces to try on prior to modeling for her A/W 2012 Lookbook (the resulting photos can be seen here). The last three were taken by photographer Vanessa Jackman at the most recent London Fashion Week. Both events typify my continuing desire to take opportunities, seek out new experiences and appreciate the process. Working with skilled photographers and designers is always a pleasure, and there’s plenty of joy to be found in a beautiful silk bird print dress or Charlotte Taylor gramophone print scarf and  cabbage print top...   
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Sunday, 6 January 2013

Fact and Fiction









“You look very Russian.”
It was an apt appraisal. Take one furry hat, place on head and – voila – comparisons to Anna Karenina are inevitable (the velvet helps). The recent film release has also helped to spur the re-emergence of words such as ‘tsar’, ‘cossack’ and ‘oligarch’ into fashion’s lexicon. Like the trends themselves, the vocabulary used by magazines and commentators waxes and wanes – ‘winter brights’ replacing ‘camel’ which replaced ‘seventies’. Each new season heralds another selection of descriptions to dislodge the old ones.
What I find fascinating though is what these words actually mean. Take ‘Russian’ for example. What is being evoked? It seems to me to be a mythic combination of warmth, opulence and wealth. It suggests snowy wastelands and colourful spires, chandeliers and satin, ice crystals and fur. When used within a fashion context, ‘Russian’ has only a shadowy resemblance to what it claims to represent.
This isn’t to play the language police or criticise use of the word. In fact, I wore a Russian themed outfit for a New Year’s Eve fancy dress party, with the largest, fluffiest grey hat I could find. But I'm nonetheless intrigued by the relationship between the way we label style and what those labels represent.
I’m studying Russia in my A2 History course at the moment. The syllabus starts in 1855 with Alexander II ruling.  A large percentage of the population at the time were serfs – quite literally ‘souls’ to be bought, sold and worked by wealthy landowners. The rich image we now conjure of  historical ‘Russians’ is one of St Petersburg society or the opera in Moscow rather than peasants so poor that some wore wooden boots, bare feet insulated only with straw. We tend not to acknowledge that the incredibly privileged minority sat atop a large, poverty-based majority. Of course we don’t. The glitter, the furs, the culture – all of this appears more alluring than the hugely unequal society or economic reality. And yet, such extreme affluence was only possible due to the existence of this class system that favoured a chosen few.
It’s not just exclusive to Russia though. We do it all the time – picking and choosing the bits of history we’d like to be inspired by. I, like many others, love stately homes and costume dramas. The stories attached to these grand buildings and their inhabitants are a source of endless interest. Think of the Elizabethan court, or Marie Antoinette’s lifestyle or opulent Balls in the 20s and 30s. They all intrigue. But why? I suppose the short answer is that we tend to aspire beyond our immediate environment – idolising what we're unlikely to experience ourselves. I certainly do it. But I occasionally catch myself, wondering whether it’s right to celebrate those stories of excess. Lift up the taffeta and one inevitably finds the suffering of others hidden beneath. Of course there are countless books, TV shows and studies that have explored the lives of the supporting networks – the servants, the peasantry, the farmhands – but they tend not to excite in a similar way, despite often being just as interesting. 
Maybe they still need to be acknowledged though, awareness tempering the seduction of luxury. But in using ‘Russian’ as a descriptive term, the concept remains merely another form of escapism. It may once have been rooted in reality, but it has budded fantasy. 

The ever-fabulous Florence Fox took these photos of me in my second hand sourced garb. This is one of the first set of photos posted here from a very exciting new venture between the two of us. We have started up a collaborative blog called 'Renard et Rose'  where we are showcasing our photography projects. Comprised of sneak previews and technical discussions of each shoot, followed shortly after by the resulting photos, it's a platform for us to publish our shared ventures. We have plenty of ideas brewing for the year ahead. You can read more about the project here
  
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