Thursday, 28 August 2014

More fun than a fleece

I am the princess of impracticalities when it comes to clothes. Well, nearly… That may be slightly too bold a statement. Yet I have had eye-rolls at my decision to wear cropped jumpers on freezing nights, sighs at my inability to find an umbrella or put on a raincoat when it’s tipping it down, exasperated questions of “but whyyyy?” when I’ve insisted on taking long walks in ludicrously short skirts or cycling in maxi skirts. I tend to smile, shrug my shoulders and acknowledge just how silly it is.

I do know my limits. The cold makes me grumpy, so I love cozying up in plenty of cardigans and layers. I’m currently embracing Edge of Love-esque cable knits and floral skirts, as I tend to do on the approach of each autumn. I’m better than I was too. So much time now spent in front of a computer screen means that items like tight belts or restrictive skirts are out of the question for the working day. I’m typing this in a massive blue jumper and patterned trousers so ridiculously comfortable I feel like I’m still in my pyjamas (you can see the combination here - although the shoes were just for the snap).

I’m also more likely (read always) to be found clomping around in flat boots or brogues than tottering along in vertiginous heels like the ones pictured above. I like to be able to walk with purpose and to dance and run for things when I’m late, rather than being reduced to a sedate swagger.

Heels can feel amazing and glamorous for events or shoots - and I have been known to climb over five-bar gates and tiptoe across fields in five-inch stilettos in the name of this blog. They’re also ace for the very, very occasional evening out – particularly as there’s something rather satisfying in being among the tallest in the room (they put me at well over 6 foot). Any longer than that though, and I start wistfully dreaming about loafers.

It’s just that, there are other times when I do prioritize aesthetic above other, more mundane elements, like whether I’ll be drenched or shivering or windswept or get bike oil all over a new wraparound full skirt (although, actually, I really learnt my lesson with that one and now tie up and tuck all long stuff as near as possible to my knickers to avoid similar embarrassment/ clothes carnage when cycling). Unsurprisingly, I like the way an outfit looks – and will occasionally focus on the overall appearance, to the detriment of pragmatism.

This was fully embodied last Friday when I was at a music festival. I’d chosen to wear a black jumpsuit (a very nice one at that, which will end up on here at some point). It looked fantastic – particularly when accessorized with a liquid-eyeliner-twirly-moustache - but required some gymnast-like wriggling every time I braved one of the grim toilets. The ability to remove layers, half undress and attempt to make sure nothing touches the scarily unpleasant floor of a portaloo is quite the skillset.

Plenty of other people were in one-pieces, so I wasn’t alone in my contortions. Playsuits and jumpsuits are only practical in that you can fling them on and go, but it does always amuse me to see them on lists of festival must-haves (although I find any list of ‘must-haves’ a bit ridiculous). Great as they may be for hours of shimmying and shaking, they’re still stupidly impractical otherwise. Sometimes though, frivolous as it may be, the impractical can be the best of fun. Despite the downsides, I did enjoy jumping around in my jumpsuit that afternoon. 

If an outfit is actually impacting on the quality of an activity because you’re so bloody freezing or miserable, then it’s not so great… No-one could ever describe leather pencil skirts or tiny velvet shorts or silk slips or feathered hats or sequined dresses or flimsy evening coats as sensible or ‘everyday’. But why limit yourself on when and where you wear them? It’s so much more fun than a fleece.

I bought this playsuit - seemingly carefully disguised to look like an indecently short jacket from the front - from a vintage shop recently. It's faded all up one side, but I don't mind. It's beautifully constructed. The heeled sandals are second hand from eBay (and were only put on for the shoot, as per usual), and the hat pictured in one shot is vintage. Adding to the general theme of impracticality, my prop is an old camera that no longer works. Well, sometimes things just look too pretty… 

Monday, 18 August 2014

Some Words on Second Hand

I’ve reached the point where I feel that certain things are a given on this blog – number one being that, no matter what the outfit, it’s likely that at least part of it will have been sourced from a charity shop, vintage shop/market, or family member. It’s easy to get complacent, to forget that such a second hand approach is still considered by some a tad unconventional.

Occasionally I wander into a high street store – sometimes because I need practical things like underwear (I’m yet to find a good ethical manufacturer of bras, and, well, M&S ones are pretty), sometimes out of idle curiosity. I like to see if I feel like I’m missing out, if the clothes are so delectable that I’d drop certain principles just to own a particular dress. It hasn’t happened yet. A lot of the time I’m just mildly surprised to remember that, unlike the sifting and sorting of a charity shop, in a high street store it’s all laid out neatly – multiple sizes, particular designs, trends that filter in and out. I’m now so used to the combing process, of running my fingers along rails and snatching up intriguing looking fabrics, clucking at prices and being disappointed when the vintage treasure I thought I’d laid my hands on turns out to be Primark. (Clothes snob, me?)

But I’ve realized that it’s the 'unknown' element I continue to revel in most. I love the hunt. I like the feeling of some small achievement, however frivolous, in bringing home a gorgeous green felt fedora or a Chanel-esque knitted cardigan. Who knows what’s to be found beyond the doors of Oxfam, The Red Cross, British Heart Foundation, Age UK and the many, many others scattered across towns and cities? They’re like little beacons, their signs snagging my attention – cries of “just one more” as mum and I dive among the racks while my dad and brother sigh in exasperation.

And so my wardrobe, in tidal shifts, accumulates new chiffon skirts and geometric print shifts and white linen trousers – more and more wire hangers jammed in, laden with things I had no idea I’d want to wear until I saw them labeled with a £5.99 price in Cancer Research. Maxis, long cotton shirts, tailored shorts, the occasional ball gown.

Of course sacrifices must be made too. This summer I’ve slowly sorted out the contents of my room, jettisoning about six suitcases’ worth of clothes along the way – not that you can tell from the amount of stuff left in there. They’re now all neatly stored away, waiting for the moment (if it ever comes) when I have enough free time to sell them on. As my body has moved from skinny young adolescent to something with a little more flesh on the bone, certain items no longer suit. But that’s exciting – bringing the possibility for new acquisitions to accentuate other areas.

I mulled over much of this recently whilst back in Oxford with a friend, trawling my old favourites on Cowley Road – standing in Helen & Douglas House (a fab charity shop) holding things up and muttering, “but I don’t need it, do I?” The thing is, there’s never a question of ‘need’ now. It’s more about a slow-burn pleasure, having the privilege to keep on building a little emporium of second hand delights. Some pieces will come and go, while others – hopefully – will remain stashed away until I’m old. Who knows what clothes there are left to discover… Slightly superficial? Well, yes. But a joy to consider? Absolutely. 

These photos were taken in Oxford last term by my friend Dina of She Loves Mixtapes - who is particularly on point at the moment with her pithy writing and ace clothing choices. All the principle parts of this outfit were assembled from Oxford's finest charity shops, with special mention going to the Russell & Bromley men's Chelsea Boots - bought for £20 and stomped around in repeatedly for the last few months (and, very occasionally, as below, proving helpful in securing the silliest of poses). 



Sunday, 10 August 2014

Ways to Frame

I’m currently staying at my grandma’s, meaning full access to her voluminous shelves. There are tomes on photography, art, sculpture… You name the form, she’ll have several publications on it. When I was younger I’d spend hours flicking through the heavy texts devoted to Surrealism and Art Deco – primarily attracted because I found the creations intriguing or, quite a lot of the time, beautiful.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when reading this fabulous Guardian column by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett taking issue with Jake Chapman’s comments that children shouldn’t be taken to galleries because they can’t understand what they are seeing. She finished with this resounding statement:

“Art teaches us what it means to be human, and children should be allowed to get in on that, lest they end up a generation of robotic culture secretaries who believe that art is a luxury for the chattering classes, not, in fact, for everyone. And, above all: a necessity.”

She also made the point that an interest in art is seen in various circles as something pretentious within Britain – a meaningless preserve of the privileged few, rather than something that should be accessible (and hopefully enriching) to all.

I’ve been interested for a long time in what is framed as ‘elite’, and think it’s an incredibly complex thing requiring rigorous analysis of everything from cultural values to class stereotypes to educational opportunities to the realities of and privileges (or lack thereof) accorded by one’s socio-economic background.

But beneath all that, there’s a rather simple notion I hold on to (and one Cosslett touches on). Art enhances the way you see the world, regardless of how much you know or can contextualize it. Any learning on top of that is a bonus, a means of adding layers to that first gut response.

Galleries and museums, like libraries, are vital, and should be doing more to get young people from all backgrounds to experience the reward of connecting with and responding to someone else’s work – be it a photo, a sketch, a poem, a book. These are the creations that challenge us, that entertain, amuse, inspire, provoke thought…

I’m aware that I’m immensely fortunate to have been brought up in a family where creativity was, and is, a constant – both in consuming the work of others, and in being encouraged in our own imaginative endeavours. I spent large parts of childhood constructing junk sculptures from the box of ‘making things’ kept under the stairs (think egg boxes, pipe-cleaners and broken CDs), splodging paint around, scribbling stories, making clothes for my Barbies from fabric scraps (you can see the result, rediscovered recently, here). I was also taken to exhibitions and National Trust properties and had more ‘Art Attack’ books than strictly necessary. 

I will always be grateful for the joy all of that gave me. I now love nothing better than an afternoon collaging, or spent wandering around marveling at the glitz and craft in The Wallace Collection, or – as in the case of the last few days – exploring my grandma’s shelves.

The reason for the expanse of her collection is an Open University degree she completed later in life. Having finished formal education in her teens when her family fled Czechoslovakia, but retaining a love of learning throughout her adult years, she went on to study Art History in her fifties. The books on Egon Schiele, Paul Klee, David Hockney, Rembrandt, Miro, Picasso, The Pre-Raphaelites, Matisse and many others are testament to her continual drive to be expanding and thinking and responding.

A particular favourite I’ve located this time is Josef Sudek – a Czech photographer with an intense style both melancholy and dreamy. By turns menacing and fantastical, his monochrome still-lifes, portraits and cityscapes are somehow hard to shake from the head. The outlines, the light, the textures - they tend to linger after snapping shut the cover.

I want to do what my grandma still does – to never get stale, or stop caring or stop learning. The acquisition of knowledge is such an exciting prospect. I want to keep the curiosity that first stirred five year old me – the sometimes inexplicable ‘feeling’ provoked – whilst also sharpening up my thinking, adding in those extra layers of understanding, discovering new ways to frame what I see. 

I love the Mondrian-esque design of the top, bought in a charity shop. The lace skirt is also second hand charity shopped. The velvet DM's were second hand from eBay and the books were pulled from my own shelves. 

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Scar Tissue

It was nearing the end of a long day. After the running around, the hop from one tube stop to another, a lull. A conversation over tea. Like many long chats that I love, it was a twist and turn affair - skeins of ideas unravelled, held up to the light, woven into other topics.

I share many interests with Tara - the girl I was talking to - our rambles taking in feminism, Twitter, books, school, identity; the kind of discussion where the edges of the cafe blur, beyond the shared sphere of words. She has an extraordinary mind, a set of perspectives that both inform and challenge my own.

Something else too - a common experience we both know. Spinal surgery. Now even the phrase feels old, well-worn with use. It's part of a familiar narrative: "When I was fifteen, I had spinal surgery..." So begins the tale. Hers starts at an even younger age.

Unless you have had a major operation, it's difficult to understand what it feels like. You can empathise from the outside, but it's something you can only imagine, rather than recall. The intense pain. The potentially life-changing decision to make at an age before you can vote or buy alcohol. The drastic shift from an active body to one that must be looked after by others. These details and more were ones the two of us could share, comparing our respective times in hospital, the feelings beyond articulation - "ineffable", she called them.

Often a memory is accessed in that strange suspended state where details can be described without emotional connection to the event. They can be relayed dispassionately, part of a story now finished or a past state with ends now neatly tied up. 

But this time, in the cafe, there was a flashback intensity of how it felt. The sensation of metal in my back; the hurt so deep I could not own it; the way in which each step was an effort. It was like a being a doll, newly put together and not quite in control - a doll who might topple if she did not have others' hands to support her.

I stopped, yanked back into that awareness of a skin not yet mine.

What does this moment amount to? A recollection, a visceral instant. A sudden jolt back into being out of control. I could recall the wallpaper, the smell of antiseptic hand gel, the heavy, heavy, heavy set of shoulders I could not escape.

I laughed - and said, "Oh wow, that was intense". It wasn't that the cafe disappeared or diminished, but that something overlaid the scene and was then pulled away again. We carried on talking, comparing details like how long we'd had morphine for and how we were suddenly intensely envious of anyone who could walk about without thinking of each step.

What's the point of relaying this all here? Partly because my preferred mode of communication is words - both spoken and written. But also, I think, a response to the way in which the last year has forced me to accept something. Or at least made me aware that I must accept something, even if I'm not quite willing yet. It's as simple as this: my spine is with me for life. Scoliosis is with me for life. It is much improved - straighter (than it was) and fused - but its echoes remain.

The other ways it continues to manifest itself are less obvious. It's in the way I see my torso and feel dissatisfied with its wonky edges, its way of disturbing the line of clothes. It's in the knowledge that I do need to do physio and yoga - yet the suggestion that I must once again take responsibility for my body makes me want to cry. Irrational, perhaps, but for rational reasons.

I still say that I "had" scoliosis - it makes it safe, controllable, a thing of the past now resolved. It's easier that way. But I know that it is still mine to own, no matter how much I want to relinquish possession of that word.

The good thing though? At 19 I'm now allowing myself to acknowledge just how bad it was - to say "yeah it was awful and one of the most major events of my life." It wasn't just something I 'got through'. I got through it, but it took time and pain.

I'm oh so lucky with everything else too - lucky the operation was a success, lucky I had the right health care, lucky that I can still lead a normal life. But recognising that luck doesn't mean that I have to shrink down the impact altogether and pretend it didn't affect me - that I was strong, survived, moved on. I did, and I have, but I have my scar tissues - and not all of them are skin. 

I made these casts from plaster of paris (using a mannequin with ridiculously tiny measurements) for my GCSE art exam several years ago. You can read the symbolism for yourself in the two forms. I felt they were particularly appropriate to use here, accessorised with two charity shopped vintage dresses from my dressing up box... 
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