Friday, 14 February 2014

Homage to Isabella Blow

By the time we got to the Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! exhibition at Somerset House, we were already a little worn out. Travel, wandering around Borough Market and various coffee stops delayed our arrival until mid-afternoon. We dropped off our bags, bought our tickets and walked past the velvet curtains. They were aptly theatrical, hiding the stages and whirled fantasy of fashion-as-performance beyond.

The late Isabella Blow – innovator, nurturer and lover of exquisite clothing. Stylist. Member of the aristocracy. Wearer of pink lipstick. Avant-garde icon. Promoter of young designers bursting with talent. There are so many ways to describe her. Each is just a part of the fabulous, startling whole, capturing one of the many sparkling facets of a woman unafraid to embrace the unconventional.

Thus the beautifully curated exhibition’s focus on clothes as costume is fitting, with each mannequin suggesting a new persona – be it in the power of a well-tailored suit with a flick in its skirt or the whimsy in an elaborate silver dress with paillette layers scattering light-ripples. Lace gowns and antlers, feathers everywhere, intricately embroidered coats. It is not merely glorified dressing up on display, but the glorious combination of imagination, craftsmanship and playfulness.

The words used to describe an exhibition – display, on show, curation, installation – are all curiously appropriate for Blow’s general approach to fashion. This is clothing as a display of colour and character, as a show of exuberance, a curation of particular designers and concepts, a once walking-living-moving installation of the self expressed through style.

Part of the excitement in being a visitor and observer also lies in the proximity to the clothes and hats. Very few are displayed behind glass, meaning that you can move in near enough to see every detail from every angle: stitches, seams, sequins, even the occasional moth hole. Philip Treacy’s hats are even more incredible when scrutinized up close. A ship made of feathers, an enchanted castle, squiggles, swirls and circles turned into the most divine headwear. The face beneath is transformed, manipulated, made strange.

One of the few creations behind a shiny surface is a decayed, rusty dress from Hussein Chayalan’s graduate collection. It’s like an inversion of the Snow White fairytale. Rather than the glass box preserving and keeping intact the youthful figure within, here it encloses a dress defined by its entropy. I’m fascinated by this particular collection in general, with Chayalan’s use of fabric as a kind of wearable memento mori both unsettling and beautiful.

But then that balance between unsettling and beautiful can summarise much of what is to be seen here. The visual splendor of the installations depicting underwater seascapes; the keepsakes and scraps from Blow’s life (her lipstick, her scribbled notes, letters from editors); the continuous looped interviews and catwalk shows that flicker on screens between the mannequins. It is not merely a body of work on show, but also a life embodied.

Moreover, there is an overwhelming pathos in the knowledge that the exhibition’s two main subjects, Blow herself, and Alexander McQueen (excluding Treacy and the others shown such as Chayalan and John Galliano) had both committed suicide. The incredible verve and innovation that characterises the exhibition has a bittersweet undertone. There’s synthesis of dark and light here, both in the designs shown and the lives hinted at in what was left behind. 

This outfit was my small homage to Blow's continual use of clothes as performance. The vintage 50s headpiece came from my paternal grandma (as did the belt and envelope clutch - thanks Babi). It was so windy that it kept trying to take flight from my head. The black velvet dress was found during my incredible Brick Lane trip, whilst the shoes are an old eBay purchase. The smaller-than-usual waist was accomplished through the combination of spanx and an uncomfortably tight notch on the belt. Sliding in and out of the car while trussed up in tight velvet was quite the achievement. 

The exhibition has been mounted by a partnership comprising Somerset House, Central St Martins and The Isabella Blow Foundation. 
Take a look at the Isabella Blow Foundation website for more information (which incidentally has a picture of the lovely Alexia Wight modelling one of Blow's dresses on its homepage). The foundation supports up-and-coming designers, whilst also seeking to raise awareness of depression and other mental health issues. 

Friday, 7 February 2014

Oxford: Cafes, Coffee and Cocktails

Several weeks into my second term, Oxford is now a blending of the familiar with the ongoing possibility of the new. Favourite spaces to frequent have been established; others await discovery. There are plenty of enticing locations and activities I could write about, including cinemas, theatres, parks (mostly flooded right now) and the best cobbled streets to wander along on starlit nights. However, right now my attention is drawn towards a purely liquid theme as I’m busy planning where to take a visiting friend this weekend. Thus, The following lovely places form stops on an imagined tour in search of my two preferred beverages – coffee and cocktails. 


I am a haunter of cafes, though the number of loyalty cards in my purse illustrates my flighty movements between establishments. The combination of caffeine and background chatter somehow works to ease into the ideal essay-writing state, while hours spent with hands warmed by mugs, and minds warmed by conversation are always relished. 

Quarter Horse Coffee on Cowley Road works well for lazy mornings skipping through books or for late-afternoon frantic typing as deadlines approach. Their strong, smooth flat whites aid both reading and writing, but it’s hard to limit oneself to just the one. Their tables attract plenty of laptop-bearing students, as well as newspaper-wielding workers and friends catching up over brownies and coffee.

Truck Store (also in Cowley) is a record shop with a row of chairs and tables squeezed down one side. With good coffee, great music and mismatched crockery, it has a delightfully ramshackle feel. It works equally well as a retreat from spattering rain or a prime destination on sunny Sundays. The only downside is trying not to get distracted by the proximity to all that vinyl. Nick Drake’s albums are proving particularly tricky to resist. The cafe part of the store is technically called the Keen Bean coffee club
(For a similar feel, also see Brew on the North Parade - a wonderfully compact space complete with its own record player.)

The Missing Bean has a much-justified reputation for killer coffee. I first visited during interviews, and have returned many times since in a much more relaxed state. Being central, small and very popular, it fills up quickly – the steamed up windows indicating the number of people within. They also do great bagels and sandwiches for those too peckish for cake.

Turl Street Kitchen is like a glorified (and glorious) living room. With a fireplace downstairs and an array of sink-in-and-never-escape sofas upstairs, it’s a place where whole afternoons pass by without realising. Their lunch and dinner menus change daily, and - continuing the theme of a home-from-home - are full of soup, salads and hearty meals from slow-cooked pork and red cabbage to a rolling selection of (rather divine) fish dishes. Oh, and did I mention the cocktails? They’re also a not-for-profit business, with all proceeds supporting the hub upstairs – which houses a huge variety of charities, organisations and social justice groups.

Cocktail Bars

Oxford is well-known for its pubs, but although I know and enjoy a few, so far my explorations have been more cocktail-oriented. Plenty of Mojitos, Brambles, Espresso Martinis, and the occasional Raspberry Collins have been sampled, with many others left to try. 

Freud in Jericho is a beautiful space with dangerously enticing drinks. This deconsecrated Church, with its high ceilings and stained glass windows adds a pleasing dose of grandeur to an evening. They also host a number of entertaining events from electro-swing nights to panel talks. The Moscow Mules come highly recommended, particularly when experienced at 1am with a good friend in tow.

The Mad Hatter, with its velvet sofas, menus pasted inside old books and bartenders decked out in a fine array of millinery, makes for a playful hour or two. Cocktails are a little pricey, but taste all the better when drunk during their weekly jazz nights.

The House Bar is hidden down a little side alley off the high street. A delicious array of choices, it’s considerably cheaper during the happy hour – or in the company of an Oxford Union member. Stay downstairs for a typical leather seats and barstools experience, or seek out the games room on the floor above. Still planning a cocktail-fueled (probably intensely competitive) Monopoly game there at some point.

The Grand CafĂ© has a fun and fabulous art deco style interior, complete with huge mirrors and metallic ornaments. A great place to people-watch, but a quick warning – there seems to be no rhyme or reason to when it’s open or closed. Twice now we’ve arrived after checking opening times on the website, only to find dark windows and a locked door.

It was very satisfying to realise that this post actually brings together all three components of my blog title – Clothes, Cameras and Coffee. The clothes here are comprised of a second hand cardigan and vintage Jaeger jumper, a leather skirt from the Oxford vintage fair, boots appropriated from my mum and family-owned accessories. The camera part was provided in photos taken by the lovely Dina from She Loves Mixtapes. And the coffee? Was very much enjoyed.  

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Brick Lane - Old Clothes Fitted Anew

Brick Lane is one of those streets in London more likely to have been heard of than others. Whether it’s Monica Ali’s novel, or the history of the East End, or (perhaps now the most likely reason) its reputation as retro-central, it’s something of a hotspot for hipsters and tourists alike. I first visited at thirteen, tempted by talk of vintage shop Beyond Retro. I returned with a grey shirt with white frills at the neck and a mint green sixties, shaped tunic dress. This tunic once hung loose where it now fits tight. Years pass, bodies change and the wardrobe grows ever larger. 

I still love to brave the Sunday crowds every so often, pushing through hoards of faux fur in winter and skater skirts in summer. Mulled wine is sold when it’s cold, cool drinks in the warmth of June. All year round it’s an intriguing clash of flea markets, food stalls, buskers, vintage shops and cafes. It’s a place often planned in advance to visit, but the occasional impromptu trip – the spur of the moment suggestion to head East – can be more exciting. It’s a place to look around, listen to passing snippets of conversation, run fingers over glittery skirts. At lunch time the queue outside the Beigel Bake shop stretches down the street. The pavements always heave at the weekend, while the shops are as squeezed as goldfish in a puddle. Sadly, the gems are harder to find now. One has to battle through stacks of ‘ironic’ jumpers and eighties-does-fifties synthetic tea dresses to sniff out the more extraordinary items.

Yet somehow my mum and I had a large dose of luck on our last visit just after Christmas. We’d forgotten that sales were in full swing in other places than the high street, and so marveled on discovering the half-price rails and labels with ever-lower prices crossed out several times and re-written in red. Where usually a trip might yield one or two choice second hand items, we returned home dragging bags spilling with spoils. Among them was a zip-up black velvet cat-suit, a blue sequined red carpet worthy sheath dress with a split up one side, a fifties red and black dress with full pleated swing skirt and cats-eye sunglasses to match. There was an inordinate amount of black velvet, stretching from daytime trousers to the evening glamour of a cocktail dress. It was a joy to have the leisure of several hours to explore, pick out clothes, try them on. Where usually London requires careful monitoring of time, full of glances at the watch before the next meeting or event, we had the whole afternoon to wander.

Nearly all the items bought need to be altered – a seam pulled in here, a hemline rectified there. One of the pairs of trousers has already been cut down to shorts, and the sleeves removed from a dress to refashion it, while a purple velvet midi-dress is destined to be a mini. Old clothes fitted anew. 

The black velvet trousers were found at Rokit during this mega vintage spree. Here they're worn with a vintage St Michael velvet blazer, second hand Paul Costelloe shirt, ASOS shoes (they make me feel like Ginger Rogers) and family-inherited jewellery. I had to nimbly avoid all mud and puddles while shooting these photos. 

This outfit is actually a variation on one that I wore to the awards ceremony of the Hippocrates Poetry Prize last year, where I was completely thrilled to pick up my prize for winning the Young Poets category for a poem on spinal surgery (you can see the press release here and poem on the NAWE website). Entry has been extended for their 2014 prize, so if you're aged 14-18 and fancy writing and submitting a poem on a medical theme then you have eight days left before the deadline on the 10th of February. You can see more details on the £500 prize here.  
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