Sunday, 29 September 2013

Liquid Gold

As summer's last breaths filter through the streets, they stir the first dry leaves. The scales have tipped in autumn's favour; sunshine now seen between bursts of rain. I like moments of transition. The air, although chilly, is laced with change. September is always unpredictable, occasionally the home of a heatwave but usually ushering in wind and damp pavements.

One of the best aspects of this changeability is the light. A single afternoon might see grumbling clouds, spells of sunshine and a sky that moves from grey to blue and back again. Layers must be put on and taken off. But it's worth it for the sight of a tree shedding raindrops after a shower, each one a pewter splash.

Good light is one of those things not always acknowledged. A scene might be considered beautiful, but we rarely unpick what makes it so. Often it's the intensity or tone or slant of light. That’s what makes October mists rising from a lake at 7am so captivating, or the blue cool of 10pm twilight in June.

We characterise light in all sorts of ways: dull, flat, grey, soft, hard, bright, golden, silver. It's like a fabric of endless variation, encompassing all from silk whispers to velvet thickness. Some of these shades suit photography, others a blustery walk. Some just make you want to draw the curtains and stay inside.  

A lack, or absence of light, often associated with childhood fears or gruesome goings-on, is likewise intriguing. It can be a time of transgression and adventure – moonlit strolls through eerie fields or staying up until the first seedlings of dawn. Living rurally, a clear sky means that stars will be canopied above our house. Many times I've run out in the garden with a cup of tea, several jumpers shrugged on, just to sit, be still and look up. It's the sense of my own insignificance I love the most. That recognition that I'm the smallest of specks in a vast universe. A speck who doesn't matter that much. A speck with a mug warming my hands and ideas fizzing in my head.

Interesting that so many poets have evoked the sun, moon, stars; using them to represent grandeur, intense feeling, contrast, flux or whatever else they wish to project onto these forms already heavy with others' interpretations. But now they tend to be seen as hackneyed images - soppy, stereotyped, unoriginal. If too many cooks spoil the broth, then too many poets spoil the symbol.

Such images are not merely the preserve of verse either. Light (and dark) are meshed into everyday description. Characters are shady, smiles are bright, dispositions sunny and moods black - all are cliches that trip eagerly. However, it's easy to refer to moods and emotions in the language of light; just as easy as wanting to race uphill and catch the last of the low sun spilling across a barley field before it's harvested.

A match between golden light, golden crops and golden fabric with this silk Chloe dress - previously featured here. It was a 16th birthday present from my 'fairy' godmother. The liquid drape of material makes it a treasured item. The trilby is vintage Christy's while the high heeled brogues are second hand Carvela. The blazer in the last shot was borrowed from my younger brother (having been bought from a jumble sale by my mum many years ago before being appropriated by him) . 

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Shining Armour: Reflecting on 'Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel'

Back-to-school sentiment is fading now, but it was a strong presence for several weeks – new emails scattering inboxes like dried leaves, notebooks and ink pens idolised, pupils shrugging on uniforms once more. When I left secondary school just over two years ago it was a day of elated relief. The cutting up of my hated school jumper into ribbons was gleeful. And yet I found myself thinking about it all over again this summer, particularly remembering the transition from primary to secondary school. That ‘between’ age where you’re half-aware, half-innocent. Memories of that time were spurred by going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August, where, among many performances, I saw the astonishing show Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel.

More of an extended series of monologues with set pieces peppering the talk, it charts performance artist Bryony Kimmings’ relationship with her nine year old niece Taylor. Funny and troubling, it takes a frank look at the kind of world Taylor is growing up in; one where tweens’ role models suggest that fame and frothy lifestyles are the be all and end all of aspiration. As the two discuss their own lives, Taylor gives a list of questions ranging from playground concerns to wanting to know why Chris Brown attacked Rihanna. The small-scale social and massive-scale societal collide.

Much of the show is concerned with Bryony’s horror at seeing things afresh through Taylor’s eyes. She wishes she could protect her niece from the sights she might stumble across on the internet, where porn and violence are only a click or two away. They dance in tandem to Jessie J, the provocative routine ever more uncomfortable as we see girl and woman act it out side by side.

It’s full of allusions – fairytale settings transitioning into shining armour for battle. But what are they fighting? A set of values suggesting that money and fame are the key to happiness; that the appearance of a woman in the public eye is fair game for comment and criticism; that looking good is more important than working hard to achieve something; that pink dresses and princesses are the height of femininity. Though Bryony can’t just swish a sword and safeguard Taylor. She has to let her niece navigate her own course.

But, as aunts go, Bryony is pretty damn cool. Alongside the statistics and points made, there’s something else. A concept. Or rather, a character. Catherine Bennett – pop star and paleontologist. Through donning a blond wig and dusting on blue eyeshadow, Bryony Kimmings steps into the (flat and rather practical) shoes of Bennett. She provides younger girls with an alternative role model whose interests err towards dinosaurs, cycling, tuna pasta and books. Bennett loves parties and 80s music. Her boyfriend is a proofreader and best friend a midwife. When she’s not dusting off skeletons, she sings. All these details have been decided by Taylor, who is Catherine Bennett’s manager.

On a purely sartorial level, Catherine Bennett’s swing skirts, crisp shirts and glittery jumpers are brilliant, while the dinosaur bone necklace has more than a hint of Tatty Devine about it. She’d definitely get street-style-snapped at London Fashion Week.

Pop music was chosen as the medium for the message because it’s accessible. Nine year olds are already listening to Katy Perry, so why not Catherine Bennett? Her songs are about friendship, what the future will look like, how difficult it is to get motivated and being “alive and well in the Animal Kingdom”.  Each one is accompanied by a surreal music video.

Kimmings wants Bennett to be a superstar. Not for the recognition or money (they’re all charity tracks), but because it would be bloody wonderful to have a role model out there showing girls that they can be smart, driven and individual, all the while wearing a polo-neck and working in a museum. 

Considering some of the dross that goes viral, it would be great to balance it out with something a little more positive. So idle away some minutes on Youtube, show Kimmings' stuff to others – particularly if they’re the target age – and, if you can get there, go see the show at the Soho Theatre in London this October. It's brilliant. You might cry. At the very least, next time you see a tweet involving either the words Miley or Twerking, why not turn to Catherine Bennett instead? 

Image from the Soho Theatre website (can't find a photographer credit)

I assembled my 'armour' in homage to Bryony and Taylor, who appear resplendent in chain mail and silver boots during the show. However, mine would do little to protect me in any real skirmish, unless I was planning to dazzle the opponent's eyes with my sparkly leggings (50p from a charity shop several years ago). The shirt, tank top and gloves are vintage, while the belt and boots were my mum's (also bought second hand). The faux-gauntlets were rescued from our dressing up box. It was such fun striding and jumping around the country lanes dressed like this. 


Thursday, 19 September 2013

Who shall I be today?

Who shall I be today? It’s a question that many individuals and those considered as style icons have cited when describing the process of dressing. Assuming a character is an accepted way of choosing what to wear. It acknowledges that we have fluid appearances, and that we can change the way we're perceived at the drop (or donning) of a hat.

For me, sometimes that question refers back to a specific person. Do I want to reference Katharine Hepburn, maybe, or Kate Bush? Often though, it links more to a particular theme, era or idea. This might be Victorian heroines, the exuberance of Singin’ in the Rain or a snatched line from a fairy tale. Who do I feel like today? Is it going to be slick androgyny in a dinner jacket or an ode to autumn in tweed and leather boots?

Much of this takes place at a barely registered level. Often it's a process of pulling something from the wardrobe and seeing what can be added; what colours or layers or accessories to include. But part of the pleasure can be in matching outfits to the day’s activity. In the pictures above, I chose what felt appropriate for a day spent doing research for an essay on the Brontes. Thus I wore an idealised version of 'artful student' meets 'school governess', executed in dusky shades like faded pages. The concept wasn’t anywhere near that clear-cut when I put it on – more of a case of “I need something to layer under the dress to keep me warm. What colours go with brown? Ooh, heels and olive socks is deliciously a bit Burberry circa SS09 when I still got excited by trends...” (there’s a fair bit of fashion wittering that goes on in my head). But the day's activities ahead most certainly influenced my choice.

I do this a lot. Packing for three days by the chilly Welsh seaside involved a suitcase full of practical shorts, striped shirts and knitted cardigans. Boy scout with an Edge of Love inspired twist. I enjoy the challenge of giving myself a theme and working within its limits. If I'm going to be spending time in the V&A, I dress accordingly. If it’s a day slobbing at home then I may as well do it with panache (pink and white candy striped trousers with a silk jersey shirt and raspberry coloured jumper).

Maybe I give too much thought to clothes, but then they are a subtle form of language – one in which we can assemble an endless variety of sentences. A chiffon skirt and lace cami-top conveys a very different meaning to leather shorts and cropped mohair jumper. And in much the same way that one can privately relish the sound of a word or refrain, so getting dressed can be at its most gratifying when it is just for oneself. 

It was apples a-plenty to match the Paul Costelloe shirt and vintage Laura Ashley dress (both from charity shops). All jewellery belonged to my late maternal grandma. I felt rather like a character let loose from some folklore tale. Talking of which, below is a snap of the article I wrote for issue 4 of Lionheart magazine. The theme was 'Shape', and so I explored the history, shaping narrative technique and modern significance of fairytales. The whole publication is more gorgeous than ever, bursting with photography, whimsy and thoughtful pieces, so I urge UK readers to seek out a copy. 


Sunday, 15 September 2013


A brief interlude from fashion here. This poem was written following some rather unsavoury news on UK education secretary Michael Gove's latest move. His spokesman gave a very sniffy response to this letter written to The Telegraph calling for a later starting age for the formal education of young children, to ensure time for "physical, social, emotional and cognitive development."
My parents home-schooled me until the age of six and a half. This meant that I had plenty of time to play, think, make, experiment and explore. I value those years of experience beyond measure. Thus I wanted to write something combatting the notion that one must be completing hard sums by the age of five in order to be self-motivated and academically, creatively or vocationally successful later in life.

The villanelle is a tightly structured poem that requires strict, repeated rhymes and refrains. Squeezing anger into a difficult form felt apt. I could respond to Mr Gove and his colleagues through the very medium his spokesman mentioned - poetry. Testing pupils on their academic capabilities from a very young age will not enthuse and excite individuals to become poets. If they do find that they love the craft of poetry, it will probably be in spite of a rigid curriculum, not because of it. Teaching children how to pass tests encourages conformity, not independent thinking and creativity.

In the extended quote from Gove's spokesman, the 127 people who signed the letter were deemed to "represent the powerful and misguided lobby responsible for the devaluation of exams and a culture of low expectations in state schools." My brother is currently at the same state school I attended. Due to the timings of curriculum changes over the next few years, he will either be among the last to sit the current GCSEs or among the first to sit Michael Gove's updated GCSEs. If the former, then his achievements will be devalued regardless of what grades he gets, due to Gove's constant insistence that the current system is flawed, easy and dumbed down. If the latter, then he will essentially be a guinea pig. Between a rock and a hard place. He's just one of thousands in a similar position.

For Mr Gove's department to deflect blame elsewhere should be shocking. But then again, it is characteristic of a man who has continually ignored comments and criticisms from those who have the years of study and the direct, practical experience of teaching and of approaches to learning that he so sorely lacks.

Outfit postings and odes to vintage will be resumed shortly. 

Friday, 6 September 2013


At the moment I’m in a phase of reading that can only be described as promiscuous. I keep dashing from one novel to another, absorbing a few pages here and another lot there. I blame my reading list. I have one of those contrary natures that much prefers self-motivated activity to required work. It’s totally irrational. I love George Eliot and the Brontes (apart from the Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which is feeling the wrong side of wordy). It’s just that the minute I’m meant to be immersed in all things Victorian, my tastes change tack and begin hankering after 20th Century Czech short stories and modern poetry. However, I’m tempering these tendencies with the knowledge that I have decades of reading ahead of me. I don't need to be acquainted with the contents of every single book on my shelves right now. Some will just have to wait.

I can’t be alone though in my desire to accumulate books, even when I know that there will be little time to enjoy them in the near future. But the act of acquisition is easier than the commitment of reading. One is quick where the other is concerted. Perhaps it parallels the difference between having an idea and executing it; the stage of dizzy possibility is easy. Plucking at all the potential and turning it into something solid requires both craft and graft. Buying a book or brainstorming ideas is safe because there is no margin for failure. Yet the true satisfaction lies in producing something that takes time, or in climbing up through some 900 pages to view a novel’s breathtaking summit.
Perhaps part of my difficulty this summer holiday has been in the constant tug between creating (writing, photography, drawing, scrap-books) and receiving (reading, reading and more reading, with a few films thrown in). I'm slowly working out how to give both sides equal attention.

Luckily, the two can also be combined. I have something new and exciting in my possession. It’s pictured up above. Looks like a novel, yes? Jude the Obscure, to be precise, bound in red with beautiful detail on the front. I’ve read it before, totally absorbed in Thomas Hardy’s (typically) tragic tale of Jude Fawley’s attempts at academia. The version held up here though only has snippets of the story. An odd page here and there – the contents or occasional beginning of a chapter. That’s because the cover no longer wraps around a narrative. It’s been transformed into a notebook. A ripe glut of blank pages wait to be filled, while brown remnants of the original remain for inspiration. It allows both reading and writing – a collaboration (at least for my purposes) between creating and receiving.

It was handmade by Florence Fox, who crops up on my blog almost as regularly as mentions of vintage clothes. Alongside her stellar photography, shown in the shots above, she has recently set up a business focusing on literary stationary. Notebooks from Adam Bede to Richmal Compton’s William the Pirate can be found in her Etsy shop. Many of them have names in the title, giving them the potential to be very personal gifts. She’ll also seek out specific books or authors if asked nicely. Many of the illustrations carefully cut from these books are also turned into greetings cards or standalone pieces of art. Additionally, for the truly word-hungry there are Scrabble scorebooks “made from scratch.” They’re bound in green, providing a very gorgeous means of keeping track of who won which Scrabble game - dangerously desirable for those with competitive natures (I’m among them, and it’s only my brother who will play Scrabble with me now).
Flo gave me this notebook for my birthday. I’m saving it for when I start studying again in October, so that the new pages are used up during a time of new experiences. 

It is a difficult time for young adults. Many of us now know that employment prospects are shaky and a degree is no guarantee of a job. Flo is two years older than me and is self-employed, rather than at university. She has been using all her self-motivated talents and creative fervour to forge a different route. It’s not an easy option. The young crafters and grafters like her merit supporting right now. And besides, why wouldn’t one want a delicious one-off notebook that would look just as at home on a vintage shelf as in the stationary section of an independent store? 

She has also created a code giving Clothes, Cameras and Coffee readers 10% off purchases until 2014. Just type in CCC2013 when prompted. 

The outfit is a mix-and-match of items dredged up from various charity shops, with shirt, shorts and wool blazer all second hand. The colour combination was partly inspired by Burberry's last LCM show titled 'Writers and Painters'. 

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