Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Ninth Wave

I saw Kate Bush perform a week ago today, accompanied by my parents. It was an evening of pure spectacle – an entire, self-enclosed world of narratives - by turns joyful, by turns dark. A world peopled by birds, puppets, fish people, dancers, astronomers, family members – and, to re-purpose a T.S Eliot quote, “at the still point of the turning world”, Kate. Yet, really, she wasn’t that still. The stage was hers to dance upon and spin over and be hauled around. But, being the one we’d all ultimately come to see (and hear), there was of course a heady sense of the performance hinging on her presence – although she was quick to remind everyone (quite rightly) of the extraordinary work of the ensemble around her, from band members and backing dancers to all those hidden behind the curtains.

The first glimpse of her was ever so exciting, with whoops and cheers booming loud. The whoops were repeated on the opening chords of various songs in that thrilling instance of recognition as Running Up That Hill or Cloudbusting began. Applause became the stitching, with each song – so well known and adored by the audience – seamed together with our clapping hands.

I could spend pages discussing the minutiae of the show: the different stories enacted, the extraordinary combination of music and visuals, the striking set designs and lighting, the privilege of spending a few hours immersed in the inventions of a particularly dynamic imagination. But even attempting to condense down the scope of it to a few hundred words feels wrong.

What struck me particularly though is how, while everyone seated in the Hammersmith Apollo was seeing the same show, we were all viewing it with different eyes. Maybe some saw Kate perform on her original tour in 1979. Maybe some had particular connections with one album or another. Maybe some, like me, had discovered her afresh via a combination of family vinyls, CDs and Youtube videos.  All of us, in one way or another, were projecting our own image of ‘Kate Bush’ onto that stage – one based on, but not the same as that woman standing in front of us. She’s been mythologized and written about and discussed to the point that her public status can almost be seen in separation to whoever she may be in her private life.

This awareness of varied perspectives and projections held a particular weight for me that evening for two reasons. The first is that Hounds of Love has a continuing place of resonance for me, being one of three albums I listened to repeatedly while I spent a week in hospital recovering from spinal surgery. It became so charged that there were certain songs, such as Hello Earth, that I then found too unsettling to listen to for months afterwards.

The second, more immediate reason was that we had found out the day before the performance that my grandad was gravely ill. A very rapid decline following an illness assumed to be temporary meant that my mum was suddenly facing the loss of her sole remaining parent. He had lived in a residential care home for the last few years, leading a quiet, contained, relatively content life.

This news meant that the themes of the show suddenly took on an extra layer of poignancy. The Ninth Wave sequence – drawn from the second half of Hounds of Love – explores ideas of sinking, surfacing, drowning, movement, loss, love, letting go. A more perfect metaphor for what was happening within our family would be hard to find. Mum wept through the opening song, while I held her hand as it drew to a close. The entire sequence of billowing silk waves, helicopter lights, icy encounters and a single, flashing beacon was as beautiful as it was devastating.

It wasn’t merely about pathos. The absolute celebration of life and living was just as important. Kate Bush still strikes me as being an artist whose work is underpinned by heart and humanity in a way that few others achieve. But as the night drew to a close, following the exuberance and (occasional slight) menace of a Sky of Honey, our family returned once more to thoughts of grandad. The penultimate song, played by Kate on the piano, was Among Angels. It finishes:  

“I can see angels around you.
 They shimmer like mirrors in Summer.
There’s someone who’s loved you forever but you don’t know it
You might feel it and just not show it.”

My grandad was of the generation that didn’t display or verbalize emotion, but he was a good, kind, thoughtful, sensitive man who showed in all his actions that he loved my mum and us, fiercely. So, as he lay, warm and cared-for, in a bed miles and miles away from that show, we sat in the dark at the Apollo and marveled at how the songs on stage could have such an unexpected, personal connection to us that night. 

In the following days after we’d returned home, when mum was spending her time sitting with him; talking/ reading/ singing to him, she recalled another, much earlier, Kate Bush song – Breathing. The chorus is a series of cries of “out, in, out, in.” That was the rhythm of his room in those last few days, his breath the background sound. Finally that out, in, out faded slowly to silence on Friday. He died on a day where a sky of honey stretched above the hills.

In one of those weeks full of seeming coincidences and moments of concordance, Sunday began with the sea (in these photos) and six days later, Friday ended with sky. 
We'd chosen the watery location as a deliberate reference to the content of the show (knowing that The Ninth Wave would figure) - and what a perfect choice. However, there was a slight clash of time-period references, with the vintage 70s dress from eBay much more Wuthering Heights than Hounds of Love. 

Friday, 26 September 2014

A Dialogue on Shearling Jackets

Question: What’s a style staple?

Answer: A term meant to imply qualities like timelessness or longevity, but actually another commercialized phrase often used to encourage consumers to buy whatever’s been marched down the catwalk several months previously.

Question: Wait, so basically ‘a classic must-have’ dressed up in different words?

Answer: All too often, yes. Sometimes you will be advised to ‘update’ your ‘style staple’ according to how it’s been re-worked by designers. Take exhibit number one. The leather jacket. This is usually an item claimed to be a ‘fashion necessity’ - something that ‘your wardrobe really can’t be without.’ However, there will be permutations according to the trends on offer. This leathery ‘staple’ can take a variety of forms: the biker jacket, the buttery soft jacket, the long jacket tied at the waist, the sexy jacket, the boyfriend jacket, the tailored jacket, the retro nineties jacket, the zip-up jacket, the aviator jacket, the jacket covered in buttons (each more expensive than a decent meal). Then we have the humble shearling jacket, beloved every several years and sniffed at when not currently on sale. Like 70s maxi-dresses and 80s power shoulders, it will flare bright for an instance and then subside into the murky depths of a coat-rack.

Question: But what if I love shearling, and to me it’s a staple year after year – even if the industry aren’t too keen at a particular moment on big fluffy collars and outer layers that will keep me cosy?

Answer: Well then wear it! If you like it, and it looks great and makes you feel good, then go ahead – knock yourself out. Parade that fleecy bundle of warmth with pride. Who am I to stop you?

Question: Yet if I do that, doesn’t it make a whole mockery of the idea of trends? Won’t fashionistas look at me, aghast, with carefully manicured eyebrows raised and voices lowered to a muted grumble of “what on earth is she wearing? Doesn’t she know that Burberry did shearling in 2010 and we’re not quite at the point of rehabilitating it back into the mainstream ‘must-have’ lists?”

Answer: Actually, no. Little secret. Have you seen the latest Burberry campaigns for AW14? They’ve got shearling coats with floral patterns and everything – all belted and pretty. Cara Delevingne and Suki Waterhouse are doing some grade-A hair flicking in the ads. Then Prada did big, colourful shiny ones. They also turned up in various forms at Coach, Topshop Unique, Isabel Marant and a few others.

Question: Wait, so my plan to launch into a carefully orchestrated, very articulate tirade about being able to wear whatever the hell I want has been scuppered? You mean that this sartorial decision, which I thought was going all off-beat and individual in showing my complete disregard for what’s hot and what’s not, is actually going to look very carefully timed with what can now be bought in various high end stores? That all my protestations about another sprinkling of leaves on the lawn not requiring a new statement coat will be overshadowed by me looking like I was keeping this jacket hidden away for the next time shearling graced the list of top ten trends? And I only had to wait four years!?

Answer: Yeah, sorry about that…

I did indeed dig this jacket back out, having said to my mum, "Oooh, I really want a good leather jacket this Autumn" - her answer being, "but you already have one?" It's second hand Escada, bought from a charity shop five years ago. Mum helped me to turn it into a gorgeous shearling number in 2010 with the help of an old sheepskin baby blanket (my dad's!) that had already had a second life as a seat cover, before beginning to fray at the edges. It was then salvaged to shape into this collar . You can also see the life of the jacket pre-fluffy collar here in 2009

In this post I'm wearing it with a charity shop silk dress, vintage jewellery (necklace from a jumble sale) and second hand, velvet heels from eBay - that of course are only ever worn to stand or sit in (walking being ridiculously impossible).   

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Man Who Turned Into a Sofa

We have a bit of a motto in our family: “shit happens, and then you write about it.” It was devised in response to an intense two years of challenges (chiefly the combination of my spinal surgery and, twelve months on, my dad’s severe depression). Later, we joked about how such experiences become the foundation for stories, poems, articles... We dredge the dark stuff for material. There was (and is) a kind of compulsion to take all the crap and trauma, and shape it, trim it to fit into words. I guess that’s one of the things writers do – and I’ve grown up watching how my parents work.

I’ve been fortunate to live in a household built on books: lining the shelves, talked about over the table, written in order to pay the bills. It’s been an invaluable education – in appreciating the craft of a good sentence; in working as bloody hard as possible and then still needing to re-write multiple times; in editing and polishing and paring back; in knowing that publishing is a brutal industry that you can’t enter with any preconceptions. I’ve had a grounding in observing relentless (often unsuccessful) pitching and pragmatic approaches – although I’ve gone on to apply it in areas and industries my folks had no knowledge or experience of, or interest in. They’ve always written primarily for child/ young audiences, and neither of them has gone near fashion or journalism or essays/ opinion pieces. My own writing, so far, has been entirely separate from my parents.

Well, apart from this instance: we have collaboratively written a radio play that was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Weds September 17th at 2.15pm, titled ‘The Man who Turned into a Sofa.’ It’s a three-way piece, although remains essentially my mum’s project. A series of interwoven autobiographical monologues reflecting on dad’s depressive illness from our various perspectives, we all contributed initial written material that my mum then shaped and structured into a cohesive narrative. She’s done a stunning job (although I would say that). There are four voices – the man who is ill, his wife, his daughter, and the sofa that he sits on week in and week out, afraid to leave. Each of us also performed our own part, with actor Lorcan Cranitch providing the voice of the sofa. The music was composed by Will Goodchild and it was produced by Tim Dee.

Something we’ve discussed a lot as a family is the ripple effect of depression. Although there is a single individual at the centre, the one not sure how s/he will manage to make it through each day, those around the edge also bear the weight of that illness. Suddenly the person you love is altered, made strange. If the episode of illness is lengthy, then it’s like adjusting to a temporary bereavement – one where a cut-out image, an outward semblance of that person remains, but everything else recognisable is gone.

There’s a small irony in the fact that on the day my parents met, some 24 years ago, my flamboyant father walked into the school my mum was teaching at wearing a suit made out of colourful sofa/upholstery fabric: his performance garb. He charmed the pupils and my mum alike. I have a photo of him in this outfit in one of my many scrapbooks. When I was about 14, I captioned it with, “Let me just slip into something a little more comfortable – oh, I already have: a sofa!”

Little did I know what a prescient (and sad) statement that would prove to be. He was unable to leave the sanctuary of our sofa in the living room for months after he returned from hospital. It was the unlikely lynch-pin of our days, both integral and oppressive. Following his long, slow recovery, when my mum began piecing together a patchwork of monologues for a play, she realized that there were more than the three central characters – she needed to write an additional voice. And there it sat, constant, both set and player: “All seeing. All hearing. I wear grey wool with the felted feel of old school blazers.”

Now that wool is welcoming to all again – covered in cushions and rugs and the detritus of each day. What was once a place of refuge for my dad and of absence for us, has been long re-claimed.  I’m sitting on that very sofa to write this.

I thought it would be appropriate to dress in the colours of the sofa - grey (with red accessories). The cape (from a charity shop at a festival some years ago) is made from almost exactly the same fabric as the sofa.
"Greyness" is also a word used by some to describe aspects of depression, as though colour has been leached.  
Everything else I'm wearing is second hand/ vintage. My mum and I even managed to find a location yesterday that vaguely resembled some kind of blasted heath. 

Here is the link to the radio play on iPlayer. It's available to listen to until Wednesday 24th September. 

You can also read a review of it in The Spectator here, where it was described as "so powerful, so economical, so completely honest, each of the characters laying themselves bare, without pretence or excuse".  


Thursday, 11 September 2014

Re-creations (Charity Fashion Live)

                           Simone Rocha AW 14/15                                              My re-creation

I have a fluctuating relationship with London Fashion Week. I began attending when I was 15, the landscape of Somerset House an altogether different terrain with a handful of street style snappers and a press lounge that welcomed bloggers. All of this has changed, for various - and very understandable - reasons. Blogging, press, social media, the industry. All these areas (and each in relation to the others) have been shifting and re-moulding what is valued; where the focus lies. 

I am drawn back - dropping in to the odd show, catching up with old faces, meeting new ones. But as each six months rolls by, season on season, I’ve been a little less involved. That's not to say that there aren't designers who make my heart sing (and my potential purse strings tremble) - but I’m happy to remain at more of a remove than previously.

Yet, this time, there’s a difference. Come Saturday Sept 13th, I’ll be taking part in a shoot with a twist. Titled ‘Charity Fashion Live’, it’s going to be located in my most favourite of venues – a charity shop (a Red Cross, to be specific). Emma of Back of the Wardrobe will be conjuring up a second hand styling storm – emulating outfits from the shows held that day, using just what she can find on the rails. The fab photographer Claire Pepper (who I’ve worked with previously on this Charlotte Taylor shoot) will be there to capture these spontaneous creations on camera, while Darren O’Mahoney will be producing a film. It’ll be a day of snap decisions and social media, with all the looks broadcast online in as quick a turnaround as can be managed. Afterwards the outfits will be auctioned on eBay in aid of The British Red Cross.

I’m one of two models for the day. Although it’s usual to have no idea in advance how one might be dressed on a shoot, it’s a little more unusual for the rest of the team to be equally in the dark… The element of unpredictability makes it a hugely exciting prospect though. It weaves together so many of my interests, from second hand sustainability to innovative creation. The ethos chimes strongly with my own, relying on promotion of the longevity of clothing – and the creative possibilities to be found on a budget.

In preparation, I had a little go myself, with help from my mum – choosing a look from Simone Rocha’s AW14/15 collection: see image above left (photo credit Vogue.co.uk). My DIY version is composed from a long tartan skirt (bought from a charity jumble sale) that was turned upside down and transformed into a strapless dress with the help of ribbon and belts. It was ribbon-tied just above the bust with enough fabric from the hem pulled over to form the ruffles cascading over the top. Then it was belted with a cummerbund (you can see the detail behind). The open zip even forms a slit at the back! All the accessories were sourced in charity shops over the years too. Although I might not be able to get away with it on the catwalk, it seemed curiously appropriate for striding around country lanes.

Interestingly, I’ve actually used this skirt before for some other recreations of my own, including this homage to Corrie Nielsen several years back. It’s amazing how often the contents of my own wardrobe/ dressing up box can yield items suddenly deemed ever so ‘on trend’ or ‘of the moment’.  

You can follow the fun on Saturday on Twitter - with @Backofwardrobe using the hashtag #charityfashionlive. I'm sure it will be making plenty of appearances on my twitter too, which you can follow at @RosalindJana. Images below are from previous years. I can't wait to see what happens.. 


Saturday, 6 September 2014

Student Style for Vogue

I can't believe that this time last year I was nervously packing suitcases, trying to enjoy the last few weeks of the holiday and contemplating the books not yet ticked off my reading list. The first year of university has whizzed past, the second looming up ahead.

So it's more than apt timing for something I wrote on student style to have appeared on Vogue.co.uk. You can read the piece, titled 'Student Style: The University of Fashion Life' here. What I assumed would be a straightforward set of observations on outfits slowly became more of a meditation on identity, transitions and the role clothes can play in establishing yourself - or providing some much-needed armour.  

Alongside the writing, I was asked to document some of the outfits of students in Oxford - which I did, enjoying the chance to really focus on whose wardrobe choices I admired most. However, in the end these images weren't actually used, so I'm putting them up here as an addition to the article. Those pictured above are a mixture of friends, acquaintances and one or two individuals I ran up to on the street to ask if I could take a quick snap. Thanks to all of them for giving me their time. 

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Silk Dresses and Wild Swims

On the June weekend that I finished my first year of university I hopped on the train to Bristol. The Sunday afternoon found me at a quarry-turned-swimming-spot called Henleaze - gaining access via a friend of a friend (the waiting list for joining as a member stretches for years). The initial hit of cold as I slipped into the water was a jolting thrill. Once the shock ebbed, contentment rose; I took stroke after stroke out into the middle. With each stretch of arms and flick of legs I sluiced off the term just passed - rinsing away the exams, the late nights, the intensity. It was a glorious gateway into summer.

I've had several similarly satisfying swims since. In an early summer blessed with the shock of actual sunshine, this meant many forays out and about for further toe-numbing plunges. My dad is the one with the insatiable love for the chill of rivers and lakes. I don't dare Welsh waterfalls in January, but I am more than happy to join in when the days are longer and the temperatures not quite as unforgiving.

Unlike him, I prefer a proper swim rather than a short, sharp dip with added noise on the side. Once I'm in, I don't want to get out. I'll happily kick my way up and down (if there's enough depth to the river), turning on my back to half float, half paddle with my legs crossed at the ankle and my hands to propel. It's a unique pleasure, with nothing to dwell on other than the feel of water and the eye-level view of all that's around.

I think swimming outdoors (or to give its current label 'wild swimming' - one I object to on the grounds that it's actually much more natural than a swimming pool - but understand from a perspective of needing to name the activity concisely) is one of those things where the anticipation and the experience can be very different. It's so easy to say, "oh, not today. I don't want to get changed, get my hair wet, get cold...more excuses etc..." But whenever it's fully committed to, it is always magnificent.

It's also an activity harder to put into words than it first seems. There's a limited vocabulary - only so many synonyms for 'water', 'rivers' and 'swimming' that won't make you sound like a pretentious sixth-former trying to sound soulful ('glistening liquid' anyone? Or 'shimmering expanse like satin'?) One ends up reaching for ever more abstract similes and metaphors to convey the experience. A rare few are master crafters of this delicate art. Roger Deakin's Waterlog is so sensuous in its imagery, so alive in the feelings described - the act of slipping in and out of currents and waves and muddy waters becomes not only ritualistic, but also tangible: a mixture of sight and sensation.

One of my favourite proper swims took place back in July, in the river seen in these photos. With a huge bridge behind and a taut stretch of water in front, it was oh so easy to drift my way along absorbed in the sky and grassy bank. Less pleasant was the sharp shelving of the riverbed, meaning I bashed into a huge rock that left an impressively large lump. But it was an ideal day, composed of reading outside, swimming, food and bookshops. Just what holidays are meant to allow for, and just what I'll recall with pleasure when I'm wearing woolly coats once more. 

Everything I'm wearing is, surprise surprise, second hand. I bought the silk dress in a charity shop, thinking it was the perfect 'summer must-have' for swishing around in. I wasn't wrong. These photos were taken by my dad - and you can see me swimming, sans sunglasses (but keeping the lipstick), below. 

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