Friday, 30 August 2013


The ‘New Feminine’ silhouette seems to spring back into the spotlight every other season. It is defined by the allegedly 'classic' female figure – small waist balanced out against a fuller bust and hips. Hourglass. Christian Dior’s 50s New Look. Curves. Whichever terms and associations it’s dressed up in, the shape underpinning it is the same. It is one that, according to various publications, will: “[cause] many eyes to pop”, “[set] pulses racing” and “be admired by men.” (All quotes are real, from sources remaining unnamed). Interesting that all three assertions claim the hourglass figure to be titillating. It’s a shape often allied with extreme femininity and/ or sexuality, all Mad Men or Marilyn Monroe.

The actual hourglass is a prevalent symbol in itself, with the sands slipping away representing time passing or running out. However, it is the distinctive outer shape of the hourglass that is held up as an ideal, including being associated with fertility (in the often quoted and much disputed attraction of a 0.7 hip-to-waist ratio) and physical attraction. But even if there is some kind of primal explanation, this fails to hold sway in contemporary society. Now it is an inevitable part of the commodification, media coverage and relentless judgment of the female body that one shape will be held up as being better than another. Pronouncements are made and pseudo-science rolled out. Conflicts are set up between skinny and curvy or thin and fat, as though there are only two slots that women fit into.

In these pictures my waist is smaller than usual, aided underneath the floral dress by a vintage Warner’s Original Merry Widow 'cinch bra' from the fifties. I initially thought it was a corset, but was corrected by some judicious research into lingerie terms and a closer look at the label. Retailing back then at $12.50, it was bought by my paternal grandma in America. It looks like this. Several of the original adverts can still be seen, such as this one in the Milwaukee Journal claiming: “It has become a part of every smart gal’s wardrobe… and with this year’s corseted look it’s a must!” Make of that what you will. Extraordinary though that some key words, several clicks and a link or two allowed me to place the hand-me-down item that sits in my wardrobe within its historical context.

Black nylon lace, with two rows of hooks and eyes like teeth, it was produced as part of a franchise for the film ‘The Merry Widow’ starring Lana Turner. First came a corset, based on one worn in the film, then the cinch bra (also named the strapless corselette by some). The whole explanation can be read here, but my favourite detail lies in Turner’s response to the Warner’s corset: I am telling you, the merry widow was designed by a man. A woman would never do that to another woman.”
This design may be slightly more forgiving, but it remains difficult to wear. I was hugely relieved when the back was unhooked and I was free of its grasp; enjoying the shape it gave me, but resenting the constrictions it placed on movement and comfort.

On a truthful level I can state that I am totally happy with my body as it is. And yet, it remains the case that I found a frisson of pleasure in manipulating my figure as I did here. The artifice of it appealed, as did the slightly changed appearance. Perhaps this is partly to do with my general love of moving between visual identities. But it is also an intriguing paradox. I am unsettled to admit that I found satisfaction in the semblance of a smaller waist, as this goes against my general beliefs about shape. Yet very occasionally, I wish that my figure were closer to the hourglass ideal – that my ribcage was more compact and my torso slimmer. That’s when I feel the weight of cultural conditioning sitting tight on my shoulders. Objectively easy to flap it away, harder to pull out the claws dug in a little too deep.

The dress worn here was handmade by one of my maternal great-grandmas in the 50s and was first worn on the blog four years ago in 2009, and then again in 2011. It now fits perfectly, with or without a corset beneath. The cummerbund belt was from a charity shop, as were the shoes. Vintage necklace belonged to another great grandmother. The only other addition was Chanel red lipstick.  

Thursday, 22 August 2013


Things move, things change. Landmarks are knocked down and rebuilt. People move from one shade of being to another, subtly altering as time is measured out in weeks and months.
The building in the background of a few of these photos is no longer standing. It’s been demolished. Without realizing, we caught it on the cusp of its demise. It needed updating; in time something newer and more functional will stand in its place. Interesting how I have only just realized in the process of writing this what a constant sight it’s been over the years. I used to climb the imposing evergreen tree next to it (before all the lower branches were cut off to deter us) and run around the adjacent car park – which was nearly always empty. I did some of the ‘rite of passage’ childhood things you’re meant to remember, like learning to ride a bike. I tried and failed to roller skate; grazed my knees on tarmac; had better luck whizzing around on a scooter.
As the local village hall, it hosted everything from playgroups to film nights. I joined the disco-dancing club aged seven and wore some hideously spangled synthetic fibres (while making up routines to even more hideous music). I’ve watched others perform on the very basic, rather scuffed little stage, and hidden behind the red velvet curtains myself.
All gone now. To say it with that kind of finality though is to attach sentiment I don’t mean or feel. It was a great place that provided a warm share of memories. But it wasn’t particularly special. I’m sure its replacement will serve the community better.
It’s easy when describing a bulldozed building to add in extra layers of symbolic value. Maybe that’s because demolition is a good metaphor. We see the solid destroyed. Walls buckle, roofs collapse, the skeletal structures beneath are revealed. There’s a drama in that rising dust. Following this is metamorphosis, with new scaffolding rising from the flat ground. The jigsaw is pulled apart and replaced with a new picture.
I’m not being pulled apart, but things are certainly changing. In a month and a half I get to exchange hills for spires. I’ll be leaving home to begin my degree at Oxford. I got my A-Level results at the end of last week, and my place was confirmed. Now that I’ve navigated the whirl of paperwork, I have packing, reading and essay writing to do. The ventures ahead are both thrilling and daunting. It’s a big transition, so naturally there is some trepidation. I’m going to be packing up (a fraction of) my clothes and moving into unknown territory. Looks like pretty fantastic unknown territory to explore though.

The dress I’m wearing evokes (to me) the best of Kate Bush. I love a voluminous sleeve and a skirt fit for swishing. My mum, who is something of a silent blog reader (particularly enjoying the +40 set including Bella, Mel and Desiree), bought this seventies beauty for my birthday from Vix of Vintage Vixen – a veritable Queen of retro and second hand. When Vix isn’t dancing all night at festivals or nabbing Ossie Clark maxi-dresses from her local charity shop, she runs the Kinky Melon boutique. If you don’t already know them, I urge you to check out both her blog and online boutique. All other accessories are vintage, mostly family inherited, and the shoes are second hand. 

Monday, 19 August 2013

Return from the Wilderness

A variety of colours, outfits and locations as I ambled around Wilderness 

Last weekend was one of spectatorship and spectacle. I was enjoying the wonders of Wilderness festival with my friend Flo, courtesy of Hunter boots. Perhaps our time there is best described through a series of snapshots, or short recollected reels of footage. There was the cold lake full of swimmers, all of us held by the green expanse and occasional clumps of weeds. The life-drawing tent, hushed apart from the scrape of charcoal as we sketched limbs and outlines. A valley filled with masked revelers at midnight.  The ‘village hall’ decked out with bunting and scrabble boards. Stalls devoted to the flash and flicker of sequins. Flags in the breeze. Burnt orange sunsets. Art instillations. Large crowds. Queues for coffee. Plenty of tutus, feathers, glitter and other magnificent costumes (the atmosphere of a music festival does seem a little like the modern day version of Bakhtin’s writing on Carnivalesque).  

Then there was the food. It was a rare treat to forgo pre-festival plans on how to make pasta and salad stretch across three days. Instead, thanks to Hunter we could indulge. We had stone baked pizzas with oil dripping everywhere, a chunk of blue cheese with chutney and crackers for our second lunch, crumpets with smoked salmon as a decadent 1am snack. I booked a Sunday feast in the St John dining tent, meaning my first taste of snails (a little like garlicky leaf mulch in a good way) and a mouth-watering roast. In between these highlights there were brownies, breakfast muffins and breadsticks with olives. But perhaps the highpoint was taking our boxes of J Sheekey fish and chips and rowing across the lake. We sat in the soft bronze light of early evening, fingers greasy as we ate. Occasionally one of us would grab an oar to steer us out of the way of a looming bank or other boat.

Music became an integral bonus, rather than the sole focus. Sam Lee’s set was short but perfect, utterly suited to the sunny Saturday afternoon. Tom Odell’s stage presence was infectious. Penny Arcade Quartet's four-part acapella group were incredible with their Daft Punk cover and Destiny’s Child/ BeeGees and R Kelly/ Marvin Gaye mash ups. Many of the more extraordinary performances weren’t purely musical. We also saw physical theatre, dance and aerial artistry. Transe Express had an entire band suspended from the struts of a metal ‘petal’ that expanded, contracted and rotated high in the night sky. Seeing bells and drums played in mid-air will be hard to forget. Les Pepones specialised in dizzying acrobatic feats with their performers swinging from one pair of hands to another through the dark evening. The capacity of the human body became wholly compelling as we wondered what flip or stunt might come next.

After days full of activity, Flo and I took pleasure in the ritual of dressing up. The sturdy shorts and shirts of daytime were replaced with sprawling sixties prints, vintage velvet and home-made beaded mask for me - geometric jumpsuits and fringing for her. We assumed our characters and painted our lips. Then the wellies were pulled back on for the hours of dancing ahead. 

Flo looking fabulous, as she always does 

All photos of me are courtesy of Flo's eye for framing, light and a good background. The ones above were taken with her camera, those below the result of a Lomo workshop she attended. You can see more of her work here. Glad to have a visual record of us in our finery. Thanks again to Hunter (you can see some more snippets from the festival on their Instagram.) 


Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Penny a Flower

Wrapping up one’s hair in purple silk and feeling the scratch of several underskirts has a strange effect. It encourages wistful ambling along country lanes; hands brushing hedgerows and mossy stiles. This is possibly accompanied by a strong desire to shout “penny a flower.” However, my mock-cockney accent is worse than Audrey Hepburn's as Eliza Doolittle, and thus I stick to inhabiting the look of a character, rather than giving it voice.
Yet, the flower-girl feel of the clothes here brought to mind a favourite book of mine - Clive Boursnell's selection of photographs capturing Covent Garden market in the sixties. There were barrow boys, porters and violets sold for several pennies apiece, arched windows glowing and apples stacked high. But the 'flower girls' there were dressed much more practically than me. I'm assuming that anything as whimsical as white brogues would have received short shrift. My get-up is rooted in fantasy rather than function.
Clive is my 'honorary' Uncle (in other words, I adopted him into the role). He is a warm, giving person with a rich past and a truly great capacity for portraiture. He recently followed up the initial depictions of working lives with a new book called 'Covent Garden: Then and Now'. Previous traditions and locations are no more. His updated images show gaggles of teenagers with shopping slung across their arms like treasure. The cobbles are crowned by brand names and crowds. As photos of old and new Covent Garden sit side by side, one can see a direct transition from the market as a place of selling and bartering as livelihood, to the market as an economic concept geared towards profit. Or maybe that's me, idealising the past again (it's a habit that's hard to shake).
Vibrant markets do still exist. Take Borough Market. Although laden down with tourists, their iPads held aloft, it retains the element of visual wonder. Huge rolls of cheese stacked like car tyres. Salamis and chorizo fringing the meat stalls with red. Squid, lobsters and prawns displayed alongside the massive head of a monkfish. Piles of fruit, lines of olive oil, rows of spices in pots, squat jugs of sangria, chutney jars, cider barrels, wine bottles, thick chunks of meat. The other four senses have their turn too: smells of bubbling curry; the rough texture of parmesan crushed between tongue and teeth; sounds of stallholders shouting; the tart, musky taste of balsamic glaze with truffle. It is food as a spectacle, albeit one where the audience is packed so tightly that movement may become difficult.
It’s a far remove from my local weekly market. Trading in the same small town hall for years, the crates and tables were recently relocated following a town council decision to renovate the hall and remodel it into an events and wedding venue. What could have spelled interim disaster for the market instead fostered renewal. The site transferred to is larger and busier. Customer trade is up, and the sense of life and community continues. Maybe that's what I enjoy so much about markets. Big or small, they're communal places. Plus, there's some really tasty food.

My outfit is composed of a vintage Betty Barclay dress bought from a vintage stall in Bath, second hand brogues and family inherited accessories.
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