Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Pace of Feet and Breath

Cast your eye over any charity shop bookshelf and there will be an inevitable stack of self-help titles. Paperbacks full of hyperbole and proclaimed potential.  Some wrinkled with age and others retaining never-been-touched pages, they are indicative of the ongoing obsession with happiness.

I’m uneasy with the word 'happy', particularly when used to describe aspiration: "Oh if only I did this or that, or stopped that and this, then, just then, I would definitely be happy." It becomes an unattainable benchmark. Happiness is a wonderful, sometimes deliriously lovely state. But it is transitory. We are happy and we are unhappy. Both are natural. We experience peaks and troughs, with neutral bits in between. One cannot be in a constant state of uplifted jubilation. Plus, we wouldn't be able to appreciate it if it were the norm.

For me, that’s where the term 'content' comes in. To be contented feels like a more realistic aim. It acknowledges both rough and smooth. It suggests a certain stability or satisfaction. It admits that bits of life can be crap and really challenging, but that much of it has been unbelievably fortunate. I am so grateful for the family I landed in and friends I’ve found. 'Counting your blessings' is another one of those concepts that sounds more self-help-yoga-and-low-fat-yoghurt than it actually is. But sometimes in the whirl and twist of each day, it’s easy to lose sight of how privileged certain aspects really are.

Contentedness is also the feeling that washes over me when I’m out walking by myself. The pace of feet and breath, the space around me, the sounds of trees creaking and the far-off hum of an occasional car. Whether the route takes in lakes or long roads, there’s a kind of sustained absorption in it – a rhythm that takes me not just over the landscape but right through it; “really with it, and in it” as Cathy cries in Wuthering Heights. Sometimes my head is busy, the outdoors air not only smarting my cheeks but sparking ideas too. One runs into another and solutions emerge, plots unfold, projects spring up out of the dark. At other times the thoughts rise and fall again without properly registering. They are as light as dried leaves, lifted this way and that by the breeze. Often it is just enough to stand watching dusk beckon light away, the odd bird beating past.

It’s a grounding sensation. During my first month at Oxford, the orange and copper lined paths of Christchurch Meadows weren’t an escape, but a return – a half hour snatch of something substantial, almost serene. Both mind-clearing and mind-replenishing, an echo of the countryside in the middle of an ever-busy city. 

I think that beautiful Lucy Feng- in my photos above - has a quality of serenity about her that proved fitting to illustrate these observations. The story behind my styling and photography here was to contradict the rule that 'blue and green should never be seen' by placing the two in close proximity. An array of velvets, satin and sixties shoes were duly lugged on and off a train to reach her house. This took place on the same summery day as the fantastical series of photos she took of me. 
She is currently doing a fashion foundation course at Central St Martins - you can see her blog (jam-packed with incredible photography and artwork) here

Also, Image Magazine Ireland  did a lovely feature on my blog the other day. Many thanks to Jeanne de Sutun for that. 

Thursday, 16 January 2014

As Time Goes By - The Changing Nature of Blogging










I began blogging when I was fourteen, prompted by several friends. The first, Lettice, introduced me to Style Bubble and Sea of Shoes. We’d spend our maths lessons eagerly seeking updates and discussing outfit posts; our useless teacher’s inability to set work leading to thrice-weekly slots of internet surfing rather than graph plotting or algebra. Luckily he moved on, and the following term we returned to our equations. The interest in style blogs remained though. I made my own in June 2009, using photos taken by Flo to kick-start it.

My sapling interest in style was growing. I’d signed to a model agency the previous year, and my stack of second hand Vogues piled ever taller. I began by buying them from charity shops for 20p apiece, selecting the choicest photos to adorn my door and pin-boards before discarding the rest. Then I started reading them. Names of designers became familiar. I switched to getting new copies, an occasional treat supplemented by an Elle Collections or, (having gone beyond Mizz and Shout) Sugar magazine. The presence of all these publications was fitting, the realm of teen ‘cringes’ and ‘true life’ stories facing off adult articles on catwalks, work and artsy things. 

It was a strange time of innocence, excitement and unhappiness. I was miserable at school and struggled socially, but found myself enthralled by the worlds of books, style, vintage clothing, film and photography. I discovered Beyond Retro, watched the Red Shoes and My Fair Lady, read The Bell Jar, listened to Marina and the Diamonds and tried to teach myself the rudiments of fashion illustration and design (usually faltering before I reached the sewing machine).

At home I experimented with my mum’s fifties skirts and vintage jackets, snaffling up items where I could. She used to have two clear plastic boxes hidden in the back of a cupboard, each filled with tissue paper and pieces she’d kept since her teens and twenties. They’re still there now, but hugely depleted. Much of the former contents now rest in my room, most of it stolen away in the first year or so of blogging.
It was the playful freedom that I loved best. With a blog I had reason to put together fantastical outfits to tramp around forests and (occasionally) jump into rivers. It gave me the impetus to buy seventies orange dresses and vintage Jaeger blazers. I could trawl eBay and jumble sales with heightened zeal. My dressing up box grew, and so did my confidence.

Blogging was a much smaller world back then. Of course I was experiencing it at a different age with different aspirations. It was my hobby, done for the love of interesting clothing and newfound connections with like-minded people. The sense of community and creative opportunity was still fresh. There were fewer of us, the fashion industry still in the early stages of picking up on the power of bloggers. But there was Tavi, Jane, Rumi, Susie, Karla – the first wave of success surged.
Blogging has changed in the last four and a half years. Of course. Like any modern medium it’s undergoing a kind of continued metamorphosis, in step with lives rapidly altered by technology. The internet is almost unrecognizable from what it was in my early teens. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse now.

My first LFW was in February 2011. The comparison between that and February 2013 (my last full season) is pretty astonishing. In the former the street style movement was well established but limited. In the latter it was a cacophony of cameras, shutter-clicks, photographers and bright outfits. Somerset House had become a realm of tweeting, live-streaming, instant updates, guest lists on iPads, Vine catwalk clips, instagram snaps. iPhones had replaced Blackberries and the front row was awash with smartphone flashes.

In line with this super-charged, super-speedy approach to fashion, the role of blogging has shifted too. Its increased commerciality (such as advertising)  is something I occasionally benefit from - a fair reward, I feel, for the input of time and hard work. But, for me at least, it’s an added bonus to the main creative focus. It’s still the thought of delicious sixties' mini-dresses and swing coats that drives me. The writing has also become more integral as my aspirations swung from the sketched lines of clothing designs to typed lines of text.

Many of the blogs I used to read have vanished altogether. Lives change and move on. Some remain. Perhaps I’m bothered by a spectre wearing rose-tinted spectacles, but I recall a crisp novelty that has since dwindled. When I started it was less about quantifiable numbers – page-views, Twitter followers, Facebook likes – and more about the thrill of doing something imaginative.

Now, the homegrown democracy that encouraged me, fed by the idea that anyone could start a blog, regardless of age, looks or geographical location, has been replaced with a homogeneity of sorts. Not in all the blogs themselves, of course (see for example Mel, Vix, Desiree and Bella for a fabulous set of women with even more fabulous wardrobes), but in the types of blogs that are celebrated. Where once there were outsiders, now the media direct readers towards a formula already approved by the fashion industry – trend-led, brand-focused, model-proportioned, slickly-photographed individuals.

Some have been given unprecedented opportunity through their blogging, achieving well-deserved recognition in the process. Others are doing it for the fun of the communities and connections they’ve made, or the passion they’ve sustained. I guess I blog because I still get excited about dressing up and running around fields and writing essays. I blog because it’s the most brilliant platform to combine words and images, because it gives me a reason to think up photography projects and unpack ideas. But sometimes I have to remind myself that that is where the true joy lies – not in the number of people who click a post, but in the act of creation. 

These reflections were spurred by the fact that this is my 300th blog post. Over those four and a half years a huge number of clothes, locations and words have skittered across its pages. The images above are a handful of my favourites from beginning to end (it was such fun returning to the archives and remembering various exploits and outfits). It's quite extraordinary to have a visual document of how I've grown and changed in that time period. 

Thanks to each and every lovely reader, commenter and casual passer-by. You're all the best. 

Thursday, 9 January 2014

The Kilt Returns

Kilts are back. Don’t question me, darling. They’ve returned. I mean, they were out of season for a whole year or so! They had to be rehabilitated. Who doesn’t want a slice of tartan goodness as the chilly months roll on? Totally on trend. I’m sure I can find some catwalk image or another to confirm how absolutely-utterly-and-completely they’re back on the fashion radar. If anyone questions, just cite McQueen. McQueen! Never goes out of style. Well, I mean, they are back. I think they must have gone somewhere for a while. Maybe back to Scotland for a little holiday, a break from the continual exposure and features extolling the virtues of pleats and plaid. But, wait, bear with me. Kilts are both timeless and season-less and yet also bang on trend right now? The paradox, the headache. Someone fetch me my kale and chia seed smoothie. Actually, I need a break! I’ll return in six months.

The phrase ‘X, Y or Z is back’ is one I find infinitely amusing. It’s just another example of ‘fash-speak’, the continual renewal and re-packaging of concepts that last surfaced six months ago. The proliferation of RTW collections, resort collections, haute couture and all the other stuff in-between means that it’s possible to cite almost anything as being ‘back’. For example, it seems that ‘sex’ returns at least every two years (as if it ever went away?). Sexy is thus allegedly brought back the minute a bra, transparent shirt or leather skirt makes it onto the runway, like it had been hiding somewhere in the meantime.
For me, my kilts come back every year at the point where I open the door to be greeted with a blast of wind and a low enough temperature to require several pairs of tights. They are pulled out from the depths of my wardrobe and hung in a more prominent position. I used to have more of them, buying one after another in charity shops, between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. Most of them resembled items that far-reaching previous generations of my family might have worn, but then I did wholeheartedly embrace ‘granny chic’ when that was still an acceptable phrase (and phase). Now it’s been reduced to a capsule collection of kilts – a full length one in red, green and white from a jumble sale (seen here), a knee-length blue and cream one and a St Michael black and white short one from a charity shop. This yellow and black one worn here is its twin, found in Oxford in one of Cowley’s incredible charity shops for the grand total of £6. Same size, same pattern, same origin. St Michael – it’s the best.
I’m naughty, in that I often wear my kilts the wrong way around. Practically blasphemy, I know. Yet I prefer to have the pleats at the front. I think it gives a better shape. I even have one imposter that doesn’t have pleats at all. Although it hangs among the kilts, it’s actually just a long, red, tartan skirt. Corrie Nielsen meets Vivienne Westwood, as found here.
See, they never go away. 

This yellow kilt's origin is covered above. I've stolen the black vintage mohair jumper from my mum (hopefully permanently), though it originally belonged to my late great grandma. The black sixties wool coat was one of my first ever vintage purchases from a local market. It was the best £20 a thirteen year old could spend. Chelsea boots from a charity shop. 

In other news, the lovely Kay Montano featured a poem I wrote for her birthday in a wonderful ThandieKay post on the importance of celebrating others. There's a great story about Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald that she relates.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Jewelled Recollections

It was a hot day. Hard to imagine now in the depths of wind and rain. That kind of heat that begins bouncing back up from the tarmac by midday. I arrived halfway through the morning, at a point where the shadows thrown down by the office blocks around Liverpool Street station were still cool. I walked the now familiar stretch of road where glass and steel transition into the less imposing buildings of Shoreditch; suits and briefcases replaced with crop tops and John Lennon-style round sunglasses.

We were meeting in a sandwich shop. As ever, only the most glamorous locations to prep for a fashion shoot… Having my make-up done in the corner of the café, the window table arrayed with brushes, palettes and bottles of foundation, was certainly an experience. More exciting still was seeing the next table briefly transformed into a jeweller’s counter of necklaces, bracelets and rings – laid out in boxes and bags or resting on rolls of fabric. A menagerie of animals from bees to lions, honeycomb hexagons alongside beads and tassels. Many reminded me of a more understated version of what Wallis Simpson might have worn. All the creations of Bill Skinner, a British jewelry brand embracing the whimsical and fantastical. We’d gathered to shoot the new collection, with Jonathan Daniel Pryce (of 100 Beards/ GarconJon fame) as photographer.

Doing the lookbook outside had its memorable moments. Shooting on the streets meant many dashes into cafes to ask if I could quickly change outfits in the loos. Then there was the weather. Trench coats and trousers in a heat-wave required a concerted effort to look cool and breezy where the natural response might be hot and bothered. Always worth it for the image. Modelling requires all sorts of strange things in order to get that ‘natural’ shot – constant striding up and down pavements in precarious heels, or assistants looking in two directions for traffic for me to cross the multi-laned main road back and forth, back and forth, darting away as taxis came around the corner. Then there’s the added intrigue created for the pedestrians around. Take one camera, several people holding bags and one tall girl having her lips re-done, and you’ll inevitably turn heads. When I was younger this kind of attention was unsettling. The model, as well as being the focus of the shot, is also the one who hooks in passersby’s eyes. Now, more than anything, it’s amusing. 

It helps perhaps that I’m quite used to surprising people in my native hills, having wandered around country lanes in newspaper dresses and haunted tumbledown cottages in Havisham-style outfits (all in the name of interesting photos). In a place where a red cape is unusual enough, these more extreme costumes tend to startle unsuspecting hikers, dog-walkers and families driving past. By comparison, in London – a city teeming with photo-shoots and street style snappers – it merely creates a small ripple of interest.

With locations ranging from Columbia Road (odd to see it stripped of flower stalls) to Shoreditch Church, I played at being a girl about town – sitting dreamily on steps in my floral vintage dress, posing by columns in a jumpsuit. All the while my wrists, neck and fingers were adorned with various pieces. Wild horses galloped across a bracelet and a march hare leapt over my hand. I clutched a newspaper-wrapped bouquet of blooms, pretended to hail a bus, leant against doorways.

I enjoy wriggling into the semblance of someone else, inhabiting a particular attitude or story for a few hours. When we finished I ran into another café, changed back into my shorts and shirt, and sloped off to the nearest Overground station – the cool depths of the Hampstead Heath ponds were waiting. I could slough off the skin of this imagined character and step into a swimming costume. The only remaining sign of the morning’s activity was my full face of make-up. I breast-stroked my way to the other side, past ducks and trees, keeping my chin up to avoid splashing my heavily ringed eyes. Where normally to be completely fresh-faced is to stand out, at the ladies' pond I was suddenly the complete and utter anomaly. 

Photographer: Jonathan Daniel Pryce
Hair and make-up: Jodie Hyams 

You can currently see me on the Bill Skinner website, as well as in an extended range of images in this blog post and these behind the scenes snaps.

Hope you've all had a wonderful festive season, and a very happy new year. 2014 is shaping up to be both busy and exciting. 
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