Saturday, 30 November 2013

Colouring In

The other day someone asked if I had a favourite colour.
“Blue,” I said.
 “What shade of blue?”
“I don’t know. The whole spectrum.”
“Hmm, most people like something specific – like dark blue.”
“Well I like everything from navy to duck-egg. Why limit yourself ?” My answer was apparently rather amusing.
It’s interesting that we use colour as one of the ways to categorise people. It features in a long list of questions on favourites - animals, music, books, cities, food and whatever else takes the interrogator’s fancy. These quick-fire queries are exercised to establish certain tastes and interests. But how much do they actually give away? What if I'd answered red or green or lilac? Would it have conveyed a radically different message? Had I been asked at another point, my answer might have been different. Today my mustard-coloured jumper means that I’m feeling the warm favour of yellow. Tomorrow it might be something else.
I find the psychology of colour fascinating: the ways in which it is used to associate, mark out, denote, symbolize; the manner in which our perception of colour is as much a product of culture as it is personal taste; how we use and manipulate colour to be anything from ornamental to political. Colour belongs to any number of realms from room d├ęcor to national flags to company logos. It can mean serious business. Brands and advertisers carefully target their audiences with specific shades or combinations. You can even take a course at LCF on ‘Colour Psychology for Branding and Communication’.
Recently debate has focused on the gendered implication of colour, particularly for children. Look down any toy aisle or along any rail of clothes and note the differences. Sweet pink and lilac contrasts with rough-and-tumble blue or orange. One is pretty where the other is practical. Toolkits can only be presented to girls if cast in purple-toned plastic. Luckily campaigns such as Let Toys be Toys are busy challenging the stereotypes, yet it remains a disquieting instance of the ways in which colour can reinforce societal norms.
Colour brings with it all sorts of other predictable connotations. Red links to anger and lust, green to jealousy or the environment. Black has an extraordinary number of different overtones - gothic, sexy, smart, business-like, funereal, beatnik.
When pondering colour my thoughts immediately swung to clothing. Although there are still strong links between shade and mood or character, be it the slight hint of vamp in a red dress or earth-loving hippy chic of a long, green skirt, often it can instead be dependent on aesthetic. The choice to combine an electric blue pencil skirt with a beanie hat and heels in matching tones is a decision to stand out. In the realms of the wardrobe, the psychology of colour applies more to the careful creation of a visual appearance. It is part of the myriad number of choices available to construct our daily image. 

These photos were taken several months ago when the weather was still warm enough for bare legs. Everything I'm wearing is second hand charity-shopped, with the shoes bought on eBay and dyed bright blue by my ingenious mum. The matching Chanel nail polish added the perfect accent. 

I wanted to say a huge, huge thank you to all those who took the time to vote for me in the Hospital Club 100 award. I'm completely delighted to say that I made the final ten for the writing and publishing category! (And 10 x 10 categories makes up the '100' of the Hospital Club 100). Massive appreciation to all you amazing people who made it happen, and to the Hospital Club and Guardian Culture Pros for putting it together. You can see me and my lovely friend Alex here and my award here. I also featured in The Guardian when it was announced last week. I was particularly thrilled that All Walks Beyond the Catwalk made the final 10 in the Fashion category too. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013


Fantasy is an intriguing term, particularly when used in a fashion context. We throw it around with little thought, letting it stick onto anything that might be seen as vaguely imaginative or elevated beyond ‘normal’ life. Sometimes it’s exactly the right word to use; capturing the heady delight of being transported through photography, catwalk shows, an innovative dress design or madcap use of make-up.  
Yet often it is not used to describe the fantastical, but the aspirational. Here it becomes slightly more questionable, not referring to any kind of creativity, but to an assumption based on consumer ideals. Fantasy is embodied in the expensive handbag or easily recognized logo. It partners itself with status, the two proclaiming their love for each other in all sorts of adverts. Together they suggest that all should dream about being able to afford more stuff. Pretty stuff. Pricy stuff.
I regularly wish I could fly into vintage shops and sweep out again with only the coat-hangers clacking behind me, or buy hand-made G:Lab brogues from Liberty (thanks en brogue) or waltz down Savile Row and get myself a suit fitted to my exact measurements. I’d love to know what it feels like to slip into the artistry of Haute Couture or wear impractical-but-beautiful Manolo Blahniks. I am awake to the seductive charms of style with a side order of money-no-object. 
Yet still I feel uneasy by the way in which ‘fantasy’ becomes all too easily something dictated, rather than freely chosen. A case in point is the strange relationship between fantasy and appearance. Question many fashion industry leaders on their continuing use of young, slender, for the most part Caucasian models, and they will respond with the justification of fantasy. They say that the fashion world works in the realms of the exciting and dreamy, whipping up scrumptious visions to whet the style-conscious appetite. Again, partly true. Yet a dubious message underlies this defence. It broadcasts a singular fantasy based on notions of youth, shape and ethnicity. It suggests that the prevailing mode of fantasy has already been chosen, and thus cannot be changed. No room for alternative fantasies, thank you very much.
The whole idea of fantasy is to uplift, engage or challenge the one viewing, reading, watching, responding. In fashion it’s an expression with largely positive associations. Yet for many this imposed idea of fantasy is anything but. It becomes exclusive and judgmental, much the equivalent of the ‘popular group’ at secondary school whose opinions set the tone for who is allowed ‘in’ and who pushed ‘out’.
Calling for greater representation in fashion is often framed by squirm-inducing phrases like ‘real women’ - see my response here - suggesting not only a hierarchy of ‘real’ to ‘not real’ (i.e. models and other women in the public eye), but also a need for fashion to pull itself back down to earth. Although a little grounding never goes amiss, it strikes me that in effect we should be asking for the opposite: more diversity in the fantasies that we are presented with. Beauty with wrinkles, beauty with big hips, beauty with short legs or extra-long ones, beauty in every colour of skin and style of hair. The fashion industry will never shake itself free of fantasy, and nor should it. But that doesn’t exempt it from continuing to perpetuate a 'fantasy' dreamt up by a few, then fed to the many as ideal.

These images were shot by the incredibly talented Lucy Feng. I love the rich, painterly feel of them. She
instructed me to bring anything luxurious, floral or metallic that I could lay my hands on. Each outfit is an assortment of second hand things owned by me, and family pieces provided by her. I arrived at her house to find this opulent nook of brocades, scarves and props all set up. What you can't see here is the intricate system of clips and rubber bands holding it all together. You can find a fuller explanation of her inspiration in her blog post. Take a look at the rest of it for some stunningly subversive shoots that definitely re-examine the parameters of fantasy. 

Monday, 4 November 2013


In my family home I have a set of shelves at the end of my bed. They solidly bear the weight of numerous offcuts of vintage fabric, old books, art materials, notebooks, DVDs, boxes and boxes of images and scrapbooks. Bits and bobs. Anything with a bit of visual or decorative possibility. The wonky stacks suggest the potential for severe bruises if something were yanked from the bottom of a pile. Yet I can still extricate my scrapbooks. Most of them are those cheap ones with cartoon covers, usually to be found in bargain aisles. But there are several older relics with musty sugar paper and elaborate fonts.

The skin of each scrapbook may be different, but all lean towards a common purpose – the collection of unlikely images. The pages yield photos of Brigit Bardot, haphazardly sellotaped next to a sixties snapshot from an unknown wedding. The bride is wearing a dress short enough to cause embarrassment in a breeze, and appears to be either sneezing or closing her eyes happily. She and her similarly clad bridesmaid are out of place among the women surrounding them – the long coats and formal hats implying that the mother and aunts of the bride are from a quite different generation. The effect is amusing, made all the more intriguing in the juxtaposition with Bardot.

I like the label ‘scrapbook.’ It suggests the small revelry of scraps and oddments; the ability to take something as transient as a newspaper clipping and give it permanence when it’s sellotaped down next to a postcard from the National Gallery. There are pages ripped from magazines, theatre flyers, letters, leaflets, adverts and labels. A grubby train ticket can be super-imposed on a fashion shoot with a model in an orange dress. The slightly obsessive element lies in this careful process of arranging.  

My method of choice is to put on music or a favourite comedy series, flood my carpet with the collected images and spend time choosing, cutting and sticking. The scrapbooks gradually thicken as Irving Penn is placed alongside a skeleton and some withered roses. This methodical process may result in a sore back, but also in an easily stored visual museum. Where else would a Gustav Klimt face off Sasha Pivarova in Vivienne Westwood? The juxtapositions can be shocking, or strangely complimentary. Decades, mixed-media and individuals become companions on a page.

A few years ago a neighbour in my village lent me three scrapbooks. They had been lovingly put together when she was young; the shapes of teddy bears and dolls meticulously cut out and gummed down. Among the archaic adverts and crayon squiggles, there were extraordinary images – a model’s head surrounded by technicolour flower petals, and photojournalism from world events that are now taught as history in secondary schools. Much like finding an inscription in the front of an old book, it felt like a privilege to catch a glimpse into a personal past, interests and memories laid out between the covers.

We keep flowers by pressing them, and a lepidopterist can preserve a rare butterfly and put it on display. However, we have become so over-loaded with visuals that images are not something to be revered or conserved any more – they are easily discarded and replaced. The first permanent photograph was taken in 1826 (with much history preceding that), and yet now every mobile phone can capture moments and events of our choosing. There are obvious advantages to this, but at the same time it seems that photography is no longer appreciated so much as a professional medium. It's harder to earn money from the profession, with fewer commissions and more vying for each job.

The skills needed to really capture personality in a portrait are hard-won. They involve not only the technical ability and eye for light, composition and colour, but also sensitivity to others’ characters and the ability to put a subject at ease. A natural, authentic photo must be caught under often artificial conditions (if it's a sitting), or unpredictable ones (if out and about). For, as Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, the role of a photographer is to “preserve life in the act of living”. If those photographers preserve life, then we in turn must preserve their photos and the legacy they bear – whether through buying  books of their work or by hiding a little of the essence between the pages of a scrapbook.

The spreads from some of my scrapbooks below seemed to reflect the lazy ease of my vintage silk Laura Ashley shirt dress above - impractical (as usual) for walking but perfect to wander along a weir. Here it is worn with a vintage patent leather belt that belonged to my grandma, and a rather delicious red cardigan from a charity shop. The blue trilby is also second hand. Perhaps it's the recent relocation to a city that means I'm currently craving the sights of rural autumn. 

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