Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Hanging on the Telephone

I’ve got a little tin of 1p and 2p coins sitting on my bedside table. They haven’t been touched for several years, a throwback from when they used to be saved rather than lost in the bottom of handbags. I was first influenced by my great-grandma’s habit of collecting all her small change for my brother and me to sort out and hand in at the bank, receiving a few fat pound coins for our efforts. Now it’s a small, dusty, largely neglected collection. Maybe these brown and bronze discs are casualties of the global move towards electronic money. Or maybe I’m just extraordinarily lucky that I’m not in a position where every single penny must count.

The 2p coins also symbolize a generational shift. Take a step back to the seventies and they were currency for communication. My mum held onto every one she could find, for use in the local phone box. 10p’s worth was enough for a proper conversation. She’d arrange with her best friend for both to convene in phone boxes at the same time so that one might ring the other. At a point when the only household phone would be in the living room or hall, these small red booths provided a chance to chat privately. Coins became tokens, required for the kind of exchange that now seems unbelievably archaic.

Quizzing anyone of a different age on their past is like dipping into a museum. Details are illuminated, but still hidden behind the glass of another’s memory.  “And then, of course, the pips would go” is a logical sentence to my mum – but one requiring explanation for the daughter used to a smartphone. “Oh, when the money ran out, a series of fast beeps would sound,” she adds. “You could just about talk over them. If you had no money left then you’d have to say goodbye quickly before the line went dead. If you did have more then you had to feed in the next coin in before you were cut off.”

Compare this with packages of minutes, megabytes and texts today. The transition from physical locations to portable devices is quite extraordinary, and far removed from my mum’s teenage years where a small ledger and stopwatch sat next to the home phone. The time and type of each call had to be recorded. As she says, “You were charged by the minute. You’d watch carefully until it got to 45 seconds so that you had just enough time to say goodbye and hang up before it hit the next minute. We noted whether it was local or long distance. Long distance cost more.” Her mother (my late grandma) would work out how much had been spent each week, so that she might have the right amount ready to pay at the Post Office when the phone bill was delivered. So woe betide anyone who forgot to use the stopwatch. The only similarity you might find now is in parents discovering that their teenage child has drastically gone over the number of texts or downloads allocated monthly, yielding a large surplus charge. But it’s a poor comparison. We have possibilities at our fingertips quite alien to the 20th Century.

Smart phones are (arguably) a good safety net to encourage independence, the knowledge that others are only a phone call away allowing adventures further afield. There are maps for navigating cities, texts for spur-of-the-moment trips otherwise impossible and Google for finding out just how good the nearest cafe's flat white is. But it’s easy to get a little too complacent about how much time this phone can spend in one's hand. It’s a tool for contact, work, emails, entertainment, news, music and heavy doses of procrastination. Some of us, myself included, struggle to turn off the phone even at home, hooked in to updates and new messages. If one is plugged into the ever-shifting, ever-rolling surge of social media, it can feel odd or even daunting to pull free. But in that oddness there’s liberation. The modern reliance on being able to contact others (or be contacted) at all times can be exhilarating, but also exhausting and needlessly time-consuming.

It’s easy to idealize the past, envy my mum growing up at a time where she cycled the long journey to school by herself at an early age; took off with teenage friends for impromptu picnics without telling anyone, and only talked with others through the post box, phone box or face to face. It’s unsurprising that the value of vintage clothes and objects is still rising, emblematic of a kind of collective nostalgia for times we didn’t live through. But if presented with the choice, I’d still prefer to be a young adult now. A little more current inventiveness, openness and spontaneity wouldn’t go amiss of course; a little less emphasis on online status. But perhaps it’s a question of harnessing and actively choosing how to use our unprecedented communication opportunities, rather than passively consuming.

Many of those phone boxes are now outdated. Some still function, but the spider-webs woven across corners and doorways demonstrate the lack of use. In the countryside they are red beacons of a previous age; last chance possibilities for the desperate driver whose phone has died; objects appreciated for aesthetic rather than pragmatic reasons. I hope that they remain though. These fading boxes, once bright crimson, dot the hills near home. They are monuments to past modes of communication, ivy creeping over the glass.

These photos were taken last summer by Florence Fox. I need to find some new adjectives beyond 'fabulous' to describe her, but that one is particularly fitting. I'm wearing my maternal grandfather's 'dinner' trousers and waistcoat, with a second hand shirt, vintage silk top hat and men's brogues (that give me awful blisters). 
A few months ago the top photo was one of four winning images for Flo in the Guardian's 'Camera Club Dulux competition' - see the feature here, and the online version of the Weekend magazine write-up here

And talking of competitions, it was such a delight to be a part of the first ever green carpet catwalk event at the Observer Ethical Awards 2014. I modelled a delectable Katie Jones knit number. You can see a picture of me and the other models on Vogue's Green Style Blog

Congratulations to sustainable shoe design winners Beyond Skin (with their designs strutted down the carpet by the ever-so-charming stylist Grace Woodward). I also had the pleasure of meeting Mak Gilchrist, whose motto is: "trailblazing fashion model once considered 'difficult', now championed as 'ethical'", as well as model and (very) funny writer Rebecca Pearson, whose words have appeared online in places including The Vagenda and Sabotage Times.   

Monday, 16 June 2014

The Company of Wolves

“Who’s your favourite author?” is one of those questions that, on first ask, seems like a good idea. An easy icebreaker surely, a quick way of chivvying along conversation until it gathers momentum… Well, sometimes it works. It can be just the nudge needed to prompt in-depth chat. Yet it can also be met with a string of oh’s and umm’s and ah’s and let me think’s. The open-endedness occasionally leads to a kind of blank space where answers should be; the mental bookshelf where writers and texts are usually stacked is suddenly empty.

There are tons of authors I love: Virginia Woolf, Laurie Lee, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Thomas Hardy, Jeanette Winterson, Oscar Wilde, Alan Garner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Helen Oyeyemi are just a few. Which one is ‘favourite’ will depend on the day, the mood, the last thing I read. But now in that first-flash instant answer there’s one I tend to reach for above the others – Angela Carter. It’s not that I value her work more than any other. She holds no favoured position at the top of some bullet point list. It just happens that her name is the one that floats up naturally: a ready-made response when on the spot.

So, why Carter? Let’s start with the style of writing. It can only really be captured in a rag-tag selection of adjectives: ‘crackling’ and ‘ornate’ and ‘dynamic’ and ‘sharp’ and ‘sumptuous’ and ‘bawdy’ and ‘disturbing’ and ‘inventive’. Sometimes it’s too rich, dripping with description after description until it’s heavy and hard to navigate. But mostly it’s a kind of playful delight – a space to revel in language and image.

Then there’s the fact that so many of the themes she explores and subverts – image, appearance, gender, sexuality, performance, the body, history, looking and being looked at – are ones I’m naturally interested in. Whether shaking up conventional male and female roles in The Bloody Chamber, suggesting that it matters little whether spectacular winged woman Fevvers is ‘genuine’ or ‘artificial’ in Nights at the Circus, raiding every Shakespeare play possible in Wise Children or writing with rich wit about fashion in her essays, her work remains always entertaining and provocative. There are fairytales and fantasies, mirrors and puppets and pretty dresses, circuses and Russian railways, twins and lovers  and marriage and family feuds.

Her books are also multi-layered. It’s almost impossible to write about her fiction without lapsing into academic speak: “inversion of the subject-object divide”, or ways in which “the female body itself becomes the site of a performance of femininity.”( Blame the fact that my exams begin the day after tomorrow). However, while her books always offer the challenge of a complex text to be unraveled, I think I cite her as favourite for a more simple reason: reading for sheer pleasure. 

I felt that this rather magnificent vintage 70s dress (bought from eBay by my mum) was appropriately Angela Carter-esque - complete with fairytale references, outlandish detail and some rather ominous looking trees across the skirt. Roses are a recurring motif in Carter's texts, so I thought I'd pay homage with some dried ones pinned in my hair. The jewellery is a mixture of second hand, vintage and Bill Skinner. 

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Absolutely Fabulous

Sweetie, sweetie, SWEETIE DARLING! Come here, closer. Let me tell you a little secret. Just a little one. Tip-top exclusive darling. See what I’m wearing, yah? Lacroix, darling, Lacroix. Second hand, not that anyone need know. I told the fashion editor of ‘Here! There! Then!’ that it was from Harrods. The look on her face – well, it would have been a look but with the amount of botox she’s had it was more a flicker of eyelashes. And the jacket, yah? 100% absolute genuine bona fide vintage. 90s is SO the new now. Betty Barclay, dontcha know? Had to fight it out with some silly little supermodel with legs up to her hairline at an exclusive boutique event in Shoreditch (I was top of the guest list, natch) – she wanted to donate it to a charity for orphans or something equally worthy. I mean charity is what I DO! Me just wearing it – that’s charitable to all those around me who get to witness this fabulous ensemble. It nearly came to blows, but on realizing that I’m a woman who doesn’t yield easily when there’s a multicoloured quilted mess to fight for, she backed down. So I obvs headed off for lunch to promenade the outfit – there’ll be a feature on the Mail’s Sidebar of Shame by the end of the afternoon.

The other day a memory floated up for no discernable reason. I love the way that the idle mind does this - sometimes halting at a specific moment, making it fresh again. This particular image was of me and a friend aged 16, just after we’d completed our GCSE exams. We decided that the best possible way to celebrate was to have a day of wearing silk pyjamas and watching Absolutely Fabulous. We carefully saved up between us for a half bottle of Bollinger champagne (“A little Bolly darling?”) and eked it out over several episodes. It was as about extravagant as we could imagine, a silly touch of opulence needed to commemorate leaving our poorly-behaved, not-much-liked secondary school.

There’s been plenty of re-watching of episodes since (and a little more champagne drinking). There are so many quotable moments and lines. “Sweetie darling” is so much a part of the fabric of the everyday that my mum and I drop it into conversation with each other all the time without thinking. It’s amusing as my mum will sometimes talk of playing Saffy to her own mother’s Eddie-style tendencies. 
The other line that comes up every now and then is “Lacroix! Lacroix!” The dress pictured above is an actual Lacroix item (though from some kind of diffusion or collaborative line) – bought in a charity shop after a slightly excited squeak on seeing the label. In my head it’s a name inextricably woven up in the image of Eddie simpering “People will think, wow, it’s a Lacroix” – neatly capturing the worst fringes of consumerism and status in just seven words.  

Perhaps part of the irony is that some 20 years on, although still farcical, Ab Fab seems closer to catching elements of fashion and celebrity culture than ever before. The choice of trends may have changed (although the current 90s renaissance means that Eddie’s attire may soon be the height of cool), but the ridiculous-ness remains relevant. The inanities endure – be it in the continuing delight in all sorts of buzzwords briefly picked up and dropped again (totes, amaze, adorbs etc); the fact that the pronouncement made by the beauty editor at the magazine Patsy works at, that “skin… is in!” isn’t that far from the headlines in certain publications; or the ways in which the two main characters’ attempts to remain young seem tame in comparison to the more extreme treatments one can now buy anywhere.

There are other continuities. If there ever were an Ab Fab character who’d get stopped so often at LFW that she’d never make it to her destination, it would be Bubble. In fact, I’m surprised that no-one has made a Tumblr to document her outfits (see some of the best moments here). Some of her outfits err very closely to the whole na├»ve, girly 90s aesthetic that’s springing back up. Then there’s the hair twisted up in ribbons, those stripy shorts and tape measure around her shoulders, pink tutus, dogs in bags, dodgy headwear, military jackets, fringed cowboy ensembles, and that general ability to layer up frills, flounces, smocks, shirts and spots like there’s no tomorrow (and no shame).

Yet could Ab Fab exist with the same relevance and hilarity in the same way today? It seems that the revived episodes last year couldn’t quite match up. I wonder if that’s partly because we’re beyond satirizing, too busy turning ourselves into parodies without need for someone else to mock? It’s not enough to say, “Hah, Twitter and manufactured controversy; hah, Instagrammed pictures of meals; hah, silly advertising hashtags; hah, Made in Chelsea; hah, selfies; hah, Cosmo headlines; hah, ‘micro-pearl dermal abrasion therapy with super-active Mongolian yak protein and diamond moisturizing particles with some gold-coated kale and chia seed rejuvenating facial scrub on the side’ (or whatever else is “scientifically proven” to make one look ten years younger); hah, Facebook witticisms, hah, hah, hah.” 

We poke fun at these things already. Pointing out that people do silly things on social media won’t cut the bill. So, maybe it's time for a new comedy with bite – something functioning on the edge of absurdity as it sends up the silliest parts of modern culture. 

All the clothes are second hand or family hand-me-down, while the jewellery is vintage (mostly from family). The bomber jacket is dangerously similar to one that Eddie actually wears - pictured below. The shopping bags were sourced from various locations (the only thing I've ever been able to afford to buy in Selfridges is the odd magazine or two) and of course, what I really needed was a Harvey Nichols bag. The champagne half-bottle usually sits on my windowsill with a candle in it. 

(Image from this rather delightful feature on BBC America titled 'How to Dress Like Edina From Absolutely Fabulous')

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