Thursday, 31 December 2015

Hope is the Thing With Feathers

I’m sitting in the family living room, a glass of prosecco by my side, laptop on my knees, and my dad muttering grumpily behind as he clatters around the kitchen. The fire is lit. The sofa is cosy. I’m tired, but in that satisfied ‘I’ve-filled-my-hours-to-their-absolute-best’ kind of way.

This morning I was standing at the top of a huge, blustery hill with views stretching thirty miles away beneath me: fields, valleys, green dips and curves, patches of rain. Intermittent flashes of sun between the grey, too. The second of three locations used for blog shoots, much of the day has been taken up in dashing between the car and the chilly outside world. Three spectacular sweeps of landscape. Three rounds of my fingers reaching freezing point. Three rounds of “well you didn’t bollocking say to stand there, did you?” (My dad and I swear as much as we collaborate when it comes to photos). Only one moment of climbing a slippery, muddy five-bar gate in 70s heeled go-go boots though – in pursuit of the pictures above.

Plenty of laughter and bickering all the way through, as well as the sheer elation of tumbling back into the warmth after we were done. A 31st of December full of mulled wine, muddied stilettos, raging winds, and a small herd of wild ponies trotting past us.

I feel contented right now, full with the riches of today. Lucky, too. Of course this is meant to be a time for taking stock of the last twelve months. As I wrote exactly a year ago, “It seems natural. A kind of drawing of breath, giving space to process what's been happening. We like to slice our experiences up into these increments, marking the passing of each year with simultaneous retrospection and promises to be better, do more, improve this, and cut back on that in the months ahead.”

Well, today I’ve been drawing breaths, but mainly through relishing what was around me. Relishing the absolute privilege of love, safety and the ability to be creative – to dress up in ridiculous clothes, hang out with my family, and call it a day well spent. That shouldn’t be a privilege. But at the moment, it feels like one.

Taking stock of a previous year is interesting, because two things clash. What do I process, personally, from 2015? And what do I process globally? With the former, I can readily acknowledge that this last year has been among the most intense of the last twenty: for better, and for worse. A year full of things I could hardly envisage on the cusp of last January. Marvelous new people (SO many of them) and unprecedented opportunity aplenty, with a good dose of golden memories on the side. Lots of not-so-great bits too. It’s important to acknowledge the light and the heavy. Both are equally valid. Both have threaded this merry-go-round of twelve months together.

With the latter though, I’m aware of how precarious things have been worldwide. They always have been precarious. Probably always will be, too. But both home and abroad, the measure of bad news has been relentlessly appalling. We all know it. We know that it feels overwhelming and frightening. All we can do is to respond on an individual level – do what we can, where we can. Individual actions are, we hope, cumulative. Added together, they expand and inflate.

‘Hope’, by the way, is a word I’ve thought about a lot recently. It’s a good word. A strong word. A settling word. A word at the heart of a beautiful project put together by my friend Flo Morrissey (I contributed a poem called ‘Starlings’, which you can hear here). I obviously have my personal hopes for 2016: a motley collection of aspirations, excitements, causes for celebration, and the odd dash of nervousness about all that I’m keen to work for and see happen. Things are on the horizon - the publication of my book, for one. The finishing of my degree, for another.

There are also lots of larger hopes extending outward; hopes where the control lies in the hands of others. For those we can only lobby, raise our voices, donate where possible (whether time or other resources), and refuse to sit back and be passive. ‘Hope’ is a proactive word. It requires doing. And it’s a word I’ll be raising several glasses to this New Year’s Eve.

The rain has been unremitting these last few weeks. Today we were lucky enough to catch several small windows of brightness - something that's sadly scant right now. Sending plenty of thoughts to those affected by the extensive flooding, especially in parts of the North of England and in Scotland. Totally devastating and, as George Monbiot pointed out, partly a result of years of short-sighted, government-directed land-management as well as the protection and drainage of wealthy landowners' upland grouse and game shooting playgrounds at the expense of the towns, villages and cities down stream... 

During this dash along a country lane, I chose the wonderfully impractical combination of a 60s handmade vintage dress (a Christmas present from my fabulous mum) and my very trusty, much battered and muddied vintage boots. The post's title is a line from an Emily Dickinson poem, which felt especially appropriate thematically - and rather timely too - as I read the gorgeous and moving 'Grief is the Thing with Feathers' by Max Porter, in a single sitting this morning. 

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

On Celebrating Others

What qualities do you admire most in other people? Wit and intelligence? Empathy? Self-awareness? A good sense of humour? That simple-but-crucial thing of ‘being kind’? They’re definitely all on my list – along with an array of other possibilities (being a fan of floaty sleeves and general dressing up helps, but it’s not crucial). There’s something else though… A quality, or rather an ability, that I’ve only begun to properly appreciate in recent years: the capacity to celebrate other people.

It’s a very telling one, that. Willingness to nod to the achievements/ news/ work/ general character of someone else is pretty much always a good sign. Hugely enthusiastic too? All the better. It’s the ones who are continually bitter that you have to watch out for (which isn’t a dig at strong opinions or critical stances, by the way – that's a whole other important category…) What I’m really talking about here is the sheer joy of recognizing the people who get a kick out of supporting others – being vocal where praise is due, or lending an ear, a hand, a word or two of encouragement. It’s the opposite of pulling rank, or aiming a well-placed put-down, or generally assembling a ‘me vs. them’ mentality.

If you wanted to use a vaguely long-winded analogy involving a ladder (and frankly, who doesn’t want to do that?), we’re talking here about the people who help others to climb, or reach back down from wherever they are to offer help – rather than jealously guarding each rung in turn, and pulling the ladder up behind them.

As well as appreciating that capacity for celebration, I’m also profoundly grateful for it. We often talk about having that one teacher who pushes you in the right direction – perhaps commenting favourably at just the right point, or giving you the book that suddenly makes sense of something that was previously murky. But the ones who’ve been crucial to me are actually an amazing bunch of (mostly) women who, at one point or another, gave a nod that I was doing well and should continue to work at it. People like my 'fairy' godmother Soma, who once bought me a vintage Chanel dress, and has offered up so much encouragement over the years – as well as challenging and pushing my thinking.  

There are so, so many others, many tracing back to my first few times of attending London Fashion Week. There I encountered photographers like Dvora, Vanessa and Jennifer who all took me seriously as a 15/ 16 year old – boosting my confidence when clothes and blogging were a means to escape the confines of rural life. I also met and talked with the amazing Caryn Franklin. She listened to my thoughts, and subsequently let me write this for All Walks – my first foray into investigating my early experiences of modeling. It was also one of my first proper forays into the power that writing has to connect, spread, and generally yield up intriguing conversations. As a result of that piece I met Erin O’Connor (who is grace and generosity personified) and Kay Montano (who has since let me sleep on her sofa many a-time, and always provides good wine and great conversation). Through Kay I was introduced to the utterly extraordinary photographer Susannah Baker-Smith, who I’ve now worked with on all sorts of occasions. All these women are linked by their glorious aptitude for scooping up and celebrating others.

Celebration, of course, takes many a form. Listing them all here would be not only tricky but tedious too. It has found some interesting new footing online though. Despite the very necessary dialogues we need to continue about the vitriol that seethes easily when people are hidden behind screens, it’s also crucial to acknowledge the nice pockets of the internet… And there are lots. Lots of small, well-formed pockets where genuine praise outweighs anything else. From the early days of the blogging community, through the remarkable individuals shouting about each other’s work on social media, there’s the odd, glittering space where mutual approval presides. People like Louise, Angela, Emma, Daisy, Anna, Lally, Mel, Bella, Vix, Izzy, Rebecca, Tara, FloFlo (another one!), Rosianna, SinĂ©ad, and a ton of others, are particularly good at it… And they're just the first handful of names plucked up. There are so many more, 

Essentially, we should celebrate those who celebrate others. Doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge jealousy or frustration along the way. In fact, it can even be about wielding those feelings productively – applauding the stuff that is SO fantastic that you’re horribly envious, and then working out what you can do in response, that is yours to own.

It’s also about continual interest in what’s going on around you – championing the good and the great. Doesn’t matter if it’s tweeting an article you loved, offering your time/ help to someone, reveling in the thrill of new conversations with interesting people, or simply congratulating a friend who made progress that they’re proud of. In all cases, the principle is the same: it’s one of looking beyond yourself, and getting bloody excited by all that everyone else has to offer.

I began thinking about this after being featured on the wonderful Olivia's blog. Head over to read my thoughts on work, writing, favourite books, and (but of course!) Kate Bush. Liv is someone else who is especially good at championing others - she is warm, enthusiastic, always engaging to talk with, and as beautiful inside as she is out. Also, incidentally, someone else I first met at LFW. It was a pleasure to be interviewed and photographed by her. She kindly let me repost those images here. Everything I'm wearing is second hand, other than the boots, which were from Jack Wills. 

Friday, 4 December 2015

I Wrote a Book

When’s the right moment to grab an opportunity? Always? Only when it’s right?  Perhaps depending on how much else you’ve got going on? This is a question I’ve asked myself a fair few times since beginning university. The reason for asking? For the last two years, I’ve been balancing my degree with something a little more unusual – a book deal.

I’ve referenced it in hints and whispers here (and elsewhere), keeping it ticking along in the background while continuing with the merry-go-round of essay deadlines, blog posts, journalism elsewhere, and that general thing of trying to maintain a life... But now, finally, it’s something I get to shout about here: on the platform that was instrumental in helping to kick-start it all. And that is thrilling indeed.

So, the basics. My book is called 'Notes on Being Teenage'. It’s being published in June 2016 with Hachette Children’s Books (Wayland imprint). It has a GREAT cover - not because it has my face on it…but because I love the design.  It’s going to be an actual, tangible thing that will appear in shops - rather than an endless series of documents and PDFs and emails. To say "I’m so excited" is to somewhat underplay my sense of enthusiasm.

The clue is in the title, by the way. It’s primarily aimed at young women aged 14+. Inside there are eight chapters, covering everything from body image to mental health to social media. Want thoughts on charity shop tips? Selfies? Consent? Difficult friendships – and wonderful ones? Feminism? Writing? Online communities? Family stories? How the fashion industry needs to stop peddling such a limited version of ‘fantasy’? Asserting your right to look (and be) fabulous? All that, and waaaaaay more.

There’s plenty of personal stuff in there too: from watching my dad experience depression, through to worrying about the possibility of remaining single forever and ever ad infinitum. But alongside the autobiographical, there are the voices of so many other young women. In the course of writing this book, I spoke to nearly fifty teens and twenty-somethings. Each with their own backgrounds, opinions, perspectives, and ways of seeing the world. Many are quoted. All of them influenced what I was writing about. ALSO, I talked to successful individuals from a variety of industries. There are Q&A’s with amazing people including Kate Nash, Louise O’Neill, Eleanor Hardwick, and Rosianna Halse Rojas. It has been a labour of love, but such a worthwhile and satisfying one too.

Earlier today, the cover was officially announced by Maximum Pop Books (see the feature here). On there, I wrote this about the book:

“Basically, the entire publication is one big, sprawling set of ideas, essays, lists, interview, stories, bits of advice, and a whole load of notes on what it means to be teenage… I wrote it because I think that young women are brilliant - because I think their voices and concerns and ambitions should be taken seriously. I also wrote it because I wish I’d had something a few years ago that didn’t patronize me, or package up my experience of being teenage into a number of bullet-pointed ‘Issues’ with a capital ‘I’.”

There are plenty of other reasons for writing it too. You’ll be hearing more about some of them in the coming months. For now though, I’m taking a moment to revel in a mix of relief, pride, and anticipation (a little nervousness too, admittedly). I have spent so much time inside this book, reading and thinking and talking with people and writing and revising and editing and polishing, that to get to this point feels utterly magnificent.

I don’t go in for easy ‘inspirational’ sentiment, so I’m not going to say that writing a book was “always what I’ve wanted” or a “dream come true.” I will say this, though. I love writing. I think words are the most wonderful, pliant, exhilarating medium – much as they can be frustrating, at points. To get to write something like this has been a privilege. I’ve had this blog since I was 14, and have been doing journalism on and off since I was 16. I have been given some extraordinary opportunities along the way, and worked bloody hard for others. A mix of luck and graft, if you will. At 20, I can see just how much there is left ahead to learn and work on. There’s an awful lot of possibility ahead. This book feels like the first, wonderful step along the way, and oh I can’t wait to share it.

You can preorder Notes on Being Teenage here, and I'm sure I'll be tweeting plenty about it too. 

The cover was shot by the brilliant HarleyMoon Kemp, with Lulu Plews doing an EXCELLENT job on make-up. Huge thanks to everyone at Hachette, especially my editors, and a special big thank you to Diana Beaumont at UTA - I feel so lucky to have such a wonderful, warm, smart literary agent. 

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Telling Stories

I grew up in a story-heavy household. Greek myths rubbed shoulders with the Brothers Grimm. Margaret Mahy sat on the shelves next to Enid Blyton. On the landing we had collections of folklore from around the world: Czech, Japanese, German, Australian, Welsh (all translated or retold, of course. I speak nothing else beyond very, very bad GCSE French). I mainly remember them in snatches now, the odd character or detail. What remains is that sense of being immersed in numerous worlds – falling into the pages and inhabiting whatever landscape was present, be it forest, castle, bustling city or an early 20th Century England filled with plummy accents and dastardly criminals.

A little later on, I discovered Alan Garner – first via The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (set in Cheshire), then The Owl Service (set in a remote Welsh valley). I’ve since filled in the gaps with Thursbitch, The Stone Book Quartet, Red Shift, and his excellent set of essays The Voice that Thunders. Garner’s sense of place informs everything. The landscape is not merely interwoven with the story. It is the story. He draws on some of the eeriest mythology and imagery you’ll find in children’s literature (well, if you count it as children’s literature, which it’s really not. Go read him now, regardless of your age). He writes with bite and earth. Each sentence is perfectly weighted, each book unnerving and wonderful - somehow both ancient and timeless.

I’ve been thinking about Garner again, on two counts. First, I’m currently writing about one of his essays for some coursework (picking his images and observations apart is a laborious joy). Second, last month I went to a talk in Oxford titled Spectral Landscapes: Explorations of the “English Eerie”. There his TV episode To Kill a King was discussed, alongside a variety of other things: archeology, poetry, rituals, folk horror, films. With the latter, we saw three short pieces by Adam Scovell – small, self-enclosed narratives filmed on Super8, brimming with shaking reeds and mysterious shadows. The theme of the evening was a sense of unease and of Otherness’ specifically located in the English landscape. It was marvelous - full of flickering points and embers of ideas to consider further.  

When I left, I cycled home in the cold, poured myself a large glass of wine, stuck on PJ Harvey, and began scribbling copious notes. I’m not quite sure why the event had this effect. Perhaps because it articulated lots of the things I want to read and write more about: psycho-geography, the aesthetics of decay, the complex relationship between literature and place. Perhaps because it linked to all sorts of creative projects I can’t wait to explore when I have the time. Mainly though, I think, because it tapped into some type of nostalgia: Robert Scovell’s beautiful adaptation of Robert Macfarlane’s Holloway filmed in a different part of the country to the one I grew up in, but still recalling the thrill of the area where I grew up. I too trekked up little gulley-ways and splashed along river-soaked furrows hidden behind hedges. The sounds of shivering leaves and cooing wood pigeons and the dripping of rain from trees are all intensely familiar. Nothing makes me feel calmer than the fall of late afternoon light on woods (well, quite a lot does – but it certainly does help…)

There was another link too: this blog. Despite there being a distinct lack of unease or spookiness here, I've always enjoyed dressing up in eerie, unusual, vaguely spectacular ways: donning a white 50s lace wedding dress to haunt a crumbling cottage; pretending to be both Snow White and Rose Red; hanging out under weeping willows in a black ball-gown with voluminous sleeves; emulating Kate Bush (regularly); standing on a rugged hilltop in long grey skirt and long grey cloak; getting chilly in a 70s synthetic wedding dress (notice a theme?) at twilight; spending time at Orford Ness under a glooming sky; wearing green satin next to a tumbledown farmer’s shed with a corrugated roof; adding a home-made crown of ferns for some impromptu photos next to a Welsh waterfall (in fact, the photos are broadly split between English and Welsh surroundings). All of them are about momentarily fantastical stories: the stories of places I was in, the stories I played at inhabiting with particular clothes and poses for half an hour or so. All of them are stories about and in the landscape too: full of spindly trees and green brooks and piles of rocks that once formed the boundary lines of a home.

All of this has its own distinct form of selective nostalgia attached, too. It’s easy in retrospect to forget the biting cold that accompanied the poses, the flinches at wind hitting bare skin, the absolute relief of throwing back on a jumper, coat and boots at the end (something I wrote about here). What remains afterwards is the image. Me, in a variety of costumes in a variety of places over the last six or so years: my face changing shape, legs lengthening, body shifting from lines to curves, hair getting incrementally shorter and curlier, style changing subtly. Nervous, elfin girl through to confident young woman. Teenager unhappy at school through to student looking towards the end of her degree. Some things remain though: I'm still someone who bloody loves a good costume, a good character, a good narrative, a good excuse to pose at the top of a hill in ridiculous heels and a vintage ball-gown. Long may that continue…

This vintage dress (temporarily stolen from my mum) is the most ridiculous, glorious thing ever. The sleeves alone could be written about at length. I shot this when I was back home last month. I'm already looking enviously at that carpet of yellow leaves - so bright by comparison with the current grey of November. Here I opted for sensible boots rather than impractical heels. All the better to stomp and swirl around in. 

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Moments of Pleasure

I’ve been thinking about pleasure a lot recently.* Joy too. All the kinds of feelings that leave a sense of deep-seated satisfaction in their wake - electric thrill or quiet contentment settling somewhere down in the middle of your ribcage. It doesn’t need to be dynamic. Could be as simple as the self-enclosed delight of some small action, an immersive moment, a well-made choice, an hour or two spent in the company of someone else.

Recently my specific moments of pleasure have included too many martinis on a Tuesday evening (oops…), a night of dancing until 3am in sequin hot pants, a walk along the river admiring a sky as grey as silk and smoke. The knowledge that my writing is being honed incrementally, with each new thing I work on. Taking deep breaths about thrilling stuff ahead that now requires planning. Composing and snapping a bloody good selfie (Rachel Symes just wrote an essay/ opus/ great set of reflections on this. Read it). All of them about an appetite for celebrating the good, the significant, and the immediate.

I’ve also had several conversations in the last fortnight about clothes and pleasure (well, it had to circle back around to style/fashion somewhere…) Conversations with women who felt guilty for deriving so much fun from what they wore. Conversations analyzing the ins and outs of why this, above other forms of gratification, gets singled out for attack. Conversations about the sheer excellence of knowing you look good, embodying that knowledge in the shade of your lipstick and the way you hold yourself.

A particularly memorable one involved chatting with a friend about the detailed choices we make when getting dressed each morning. These decisions work on an almost innate level - that process of balancing up shapes, colours, patterns and proportions happening about an inch below conscious thought. “This skirt is high-waisted, therefore I want a cropped, tightly fitted jumper with it…” “I love this dress, but it’s slightly low-key and muted – I’ll ramp up the power with some outrageously fancy necklace.” “Polo necks will go with everything and make me feel sassy.” “If I choose this velvet top, I can wear my velvet DMs to compliment it.” Writing out those passing thoughts in full sentences doesn’t quite capture the process. Same principles, but most of my decisions (at least) aren’t really articulated to myself while I’m doing them. I’m too busy rifling through my drawers in search of a particular pair of checked wool trousers that I just know will sit perfectly alongside a baggy white silk shirt.

I am more and more fascinated by the ways we buy and wear clothes. I feel like I’ve been finessing my own outfits recently, choosing combinations that confer extra confidence. I am assured in my knowledge that a blue vintage velvet jacket does magic things – lifting a difficult day, improving it by a notable margin. Playing with your appearance is a way to enact transformation, spectacle, boldness, invisibility, quiet satisfaction.. So many directions. So many possibilities. 

I ended up considering all of this with a little more care when perusing my wardrobe ahead of this shoot with (photos by the wonderful Sara Reverberi). You can see the full set of images, and my interview, here. I wanted to choose four outfits that looked good – but more importantly, felt good, affirming the subtle strength to be found in bold sartorial choices.

*I started thinking about/ working on this blog post before the appalling events of last Friday, and that has obviously thrown into relief many different thoughts on pleasure – especially, in the aftermath, as an act of defiance for the people of Paris. I'd also already chosen the title of this post. It's from a Kate Bush song, which (sadly apt for now) includes these beautiful lyrics: 

"Just being alive
It can really hurt
And these moments given
Are a gift from time
Just let us try
To give these moments back
To those we love
To those who will survive"

Friday, 6 November 2015

All Things Ophelia

A family friend of ours used to skip school and hightail it from her home in the suburbs to central London. Her destination? The National Portrait Gallery. Or, more specifically, Millais’ portrait of Ophelia. She’d sit there for hours staring at the gown, the flowers, the face we all know to be Elizabeth Siddal’s. This was years ago now. The anecdote has a delightful grandeur to it – a sense of unwavering adolescent purpose.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about it recently. The other day I had something published on Broadly (which I’m thrilled about, as I love their articles!) discussing the cultural history of Ophelia. There’s a lot about Millais in there. Also plenty on art history, mental health, gender, sexuality, photography, and the modern phenomenon of young women re-envisioning that famous death scene. It’s a long story, and a fascinating one too – stretching from the 17th Century stage to Victorian asylums to 90s self-help books about teenagers to present day Tumblr and Pinterest.

Back over the summer these ideas were still vague and wispy, but definitely in the air - as evidenced by the shoot pictured. To me, this was something of a subversion of the Ophelia trope. I wanted to wear a ballgown in a river, but to be very much alive and kicking (and swimming!) throughout. Last time I did an Ophelia inspired shoot, I was 14. You can see it here. This felt like a pretty thrilling update – one much more vivid, confident and assertive. Just as chilly as before though... 

It's wonderfully circular really - thinking about Ophelia, doing these photos, then having the chance to research her image and iconography with a proper sense of depth, and now, finally, bringing it all together. 

The dress was from a jumble sale, last seen on this blog sported by the glorious Flo (as a mermaid, obviously). All jewellery is vintage. I've also been posting lots of the visual references I looked at for the piece over on my Instagram


Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Taking Up Space

The phrase ‘taking up space’ has ricocheted in popularity recently. We talk about how, as women, we shouldn’t say “sorry” all the time, or lament the phenomenon of man-spreading (one too many times now I’ve ended up on the tube with my legs clamped tightly together while the guy next to me commanded a small cavern between his knees).

Yet sometimes I wonder if I’ve used that phrase without quite knowing what I wanted to get at. What does it mean to ‘take up space’ beyond literally sitting or standing somewhere, thus ‘taking up’ some small portion of the world? Is it just about planting down your feet and being wherever you are, job done?

Well, yes, pretty much – but only if those feet are planted down with a sense of ease in being there. Some people walk through the world as though they’re entitled to everything it has to offer. Plenty don’t though, feeling like their presence is a burden – or is judged according to harsher criteria. Too loud? Too unladylike? Too talkative? Too quiet? Too fat? Too outlandishly dressed? Too presumptuous? Who does she think she is? Obviously it’s not always gendered, but women are often taught to be more apologetic, to take up less space, to be grateful for any kind of attention.

I was reminded of a project put together for the BBC titled ‘Women Who Spit’ – a series of poems by female performers on subjects from mirrors and bodies to the power of writing. I suggest you all go watch/ listen/ fall into a slight reverie over the words and ideas assembled there. Vanessa Kisuule’s contribution is titled ‘Take Up Space.’ She quickly instructs her listener, ‘don’t wait for permission or approval.’ As she ranges around London in the video, her poem ranges around from dancing to eating to speaking. It is a poem about being joyful and doing things because you want to, without shame. She gloriously advocates living and sweating and not giving a damn.

Taking up space is about the way you walk into a room, or anywhere else, believing that you have a right to be there. It’s about knowing that your voice is a valid one (though it’s worth remembering that sometimes the right thing to do is listen – rather than speak over others). It’s about taking pride in being whatever size you are, sticking two fingers up at a culture which suggests that there’s an ideal amount to weigh - and thus a literal amount of (usually slender) space to occupy. It’s about having pleasure in being who you are, rather than lamenting all that you think you might lack.

It’s also about continuing to make an absolute ruckus about the ways in which women’s ability to take up space is still limited: from the lack of female politicians, CEOs, scientists etc etc (see this ELLE video if you want to get riled at the lack of women in high places) to fear of walking home alone late at night to trolling of women in online spaces to distressing rates of harassment on public transport. On that last point, we also need to talk about how ‘taking up space’ isn’t just about gender, but race too. Take Siana Bangura’s recent experience being horrendously racially abused on a train, with the rest of the carriage staying silent. When she spoke up, someone told her to “stop making a scene.”

We, as a society, need to raise a fucking scene about the fact that things like that are still happening. We need to change our spaces, as well as take them up.

To return to the ‘taking up’ bit though, whilst writing this I began to list words that might be useful: bold, defiant, unrepentant, brave, daring, direct, assertive, self-assured, secure, not-taking-any-bullshit (definitely a single word). They all describe a state of existing without apology for that existence. I like that. It’s a state we should all have a right to experience.

How do I personally take up space? I make sure to stride. I weave in and out of crowds, practically bounding along the pavements. I go to events by myself and (try to) assume people will think the best of me rather than the worst. I also get nervous – but these days I remind myself that it’s not a failing. Mostly though, I relish having a sense of presence: of dressing with joy, wearing red lipstick, speaking back, standing tall, living well, and proving with the way I hold myself that I’m at ease with who I am.

This first appeared as an essay on the ace Emma Gannon's blog here. The photos were taken in Sweden over the summer, and I'm now craving sunshine and lakes to swim in.. My dress was from one of the branches of Beyond Retro in Stockholm - someone described it last month as having all the power of a "visual espresso." I (temporarily) stole the shoes from my mum. 

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Being Inquisitive

We expect children to be full of openness, to revel in asking questions. Most parents will talk with a mixture of joy and exhaustion about those endless rounds of “but whyyyy?” We also assume that this will drop away with time as the world falls into place and loses the sheen of novelty. But that doesn’t mean the seeking of answers needs to stop. That desire to remain ever curious (and ever questioning) is a state of being I always want to aspire towards. Some of my favourite people are in their seventies or eighties, and still talking with glee about adventures they’ve just had or new books on their shelves. They know that there’s always more to probe at, always further perspectives to investigate…  Really though, I admire anyone of any age who is continually interested in expanding what they know. They're the kinds of individuals who make me want to do more, and learn more. 

In fact, I’ve realized recently just how much I love that simultaneous sense of being inquisitive AND acquisitive. I’m usually ticking and fizzing when I’m thinking about new things, learning obscure facts, and generally getting excited about all that’s fallen into my path in the course of a week. Could be a good conversation, a long article I’ve read on Buzzfeed, or a crowd-sourced list recommending amazing female writers (see all the answers beneath). Maybe a film. I saw Pan’s Labyrinth recently, and it’s been hiding in the back of my head for weeks now. Perhaps a play, a gig, a museum visit... I know it’s worked some sort of magic when I feel like I might explode if I don’t tell someone very soon all about it – whether I want to sing its praises or critique it with some bite.  

It's also why I’ll never make a great academic. As someone pointed out to me last week, an overwhelming, wide-ranging type of enthusiasm doesn’t always lend itself to strict study. It does, however, contribute towards some sense of eager pleasure in whatever the day ahead holds.

To give all of those observations some solid grounding, here’s a quick list of a few of the things I’ve read/ listened to/ looked at/ learned about in the last ten days: RuPaul on performativity of gender (and everything else in general); Neil Gaiman on fairtyales; Chimamamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith discussing race, writing and beauty; Sally Mann on photography; Oliver Sacks on hallucinations; (ok, those five are all from the NYPL podcast which I’ve been listening to over breakfast most mornings).

Beyond that, there's an interview with Carrie Brownstein on Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia; Benjamin Britten’s opera of The Turn of the Screw; this piece on why consensual sex "can still be bad"; a blisteringly powerful ongoing diary series from Jenny Diski; plenty of music videos from St Vincent; poetry collections by U.A. Fanthorpe and Seamus Heaney; this from Alanna Massey on why it’s ok to admit that being single can be rubbish; one gallery of images of Kate Bush and one of female muses; Jo Ellison on weight and taking up space; this dress by Elsa Schiaparelli; the film Suffragette; an essay from The Coven on crying and laughter; Rebecca Solnit writing on Virginia Woolf and darkness; and a series of brilliantly amusing/ genuinely informative pieces by JR Thorp for Bustle (we met up last week to chat about writing, clothes with marvelous histories, and cats.)

And that’s just a handful of the stuff memorable enough for me to recall at short notice – the kinds of things I ended up discussing with other people, or spent time pondering alone. It’s also a partial list because it doesn’t include the HUGE amount that’s been going on academically (which is, of course, my main focus at the moment) or the research that’s been required for various articles I’ve been working on. This is really just bonus stuff woven in around the edges of actual responsibilities. 

The thing is, lots of us do this to a certain extent – plenty of time, especially online, spent wandering down little gulleys and side-alleys full of images and ideas. One link leads to another, and suddenly you’re thinking all about Emily Dickinson’s poems scribbled on the backs of envelopes/ Lana Del Rey’s carefully constructed aesthetic/ Iris Apfel’s fabulous clothes. It’s easy to bemoan this wandering as procrastination. Sometimes it is. But usually there’s plenty to be gained in it too.

In some ways, I wonder whether the newsletter is becoming a new means to collate this type of inquisitive/ acquisitive tendency. It’s a way for people to assemble everything they’ve been taking in (side note: my lovely friend Emma Gannon said some very nice things about me in her last newsletter – go subscribe here). The newsletter offers up a space – almost a scrapbook – for things to be collected, shared, and preserved.

There are people who do this on other platforms too. Roe McDermott’s Twitter feed is always full of interesting articles, while Ana Kinsella’s lists of links (titled 'A Week's Click's) are fantastic for losing a morning to. Visual inspiration is easy to find on Instagram accounts like Kay Montano's and Laura Kitty's. And, you know, there's always plenty on the bookshelves too.. 

Of course, there's never going to be time to follow up on EVERYTHING ALL OF IT NEVER-ENDING. But that's ok. There are decades ahead to learn, research and cast that net of knowledge ever-wider (also plenty of time to choose what to invest your hours in, and what to ignore). I find that entirely wonderful. Plenty left to explore. Plenty left to write about, too... 

I'm wearing all vintage here, I think, other than the boots. This was shot just after we took these photos - you can see the same orange silk dress hidden under all of these layers. The acquisitive part of my nature definitely stretches wardrobe-way too. I regularly count buying a good item of clothing among the day's achievements. 

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

If the Hat Fits








I know many of my relatives through their clothes. I know their dress sizes, the shape of the blouses they chose to wear, the costume jewellery they kept until they died. I know what they valued – whether it was a brightly coloured leather belt or multiple pairs of black, leather gloves all cut slightly differently. I know this because plenty of these garments and accessories have filtered down to me over the years. My room is stuffed full of possessions that belonged to three previous generations of family members. It’s a jumble in there – items from maternal and paternal grandmas, great-aunts and grandfathers (as well as plenty stolen from my mum) hanging together in my wardrobe or folded away in boxes.

For a while, the most prominent things in that room though were the hats. So many hats! They lined the top of my bookshelves, hung on the edge of my mirror, and ranged across every available surface. At one point I even had two pinboards covered in an attractive range of shades: raspberry, cobalt, scarlet, khaki, chocolate, navy, russet, plum, electric blue.

Many of these ones had belonged to one of my maternal great-grannies. They’ve experienced quite the journey. When that great-granny died, my mum donated nearly all of her hats to the local primary school I attended – retaining a few for our own dressing up box. After years of these trilbies and berets (and plenty of other styles of hat I can’t even categorize) being played with by infants, their days of use were nearly at an end. They were bagged up and set aside to send to a local charity shop. As fortune would have it, my mum and I visited the school that day. Mum’s eyes fell on the jumble of colours plonked by the door. When we found out what was happening with them, she asked if we could rescue the lot – and rescue we did. We carried them home, spilled out the contents on the carpet, and inspected our spoils. I took them all.

I can date this amazing discovery back to summer 2009 because I blogged about them shortly afterwards – styling lots of the hats and repurposing the lyrics of Eleanor Farjeon’s ‘Cats Sleep Anywhere’:  

Hats sleep anywhere, any table, any chair.
Top of piano, window-ledge, in the middle, on the edge.
Open drawer, empty shoe, anybody's head will do.
Fitted in a cardboard box, in the cupboard with your frocks.
Anywhere! They don't care! Hats sleep anywhere.

I’d begun the blog earlier that year – searching for an outlet to play around with vintage clothes and conversations about style. At that point, an outfit for my blog didn’t feel complete without lashings of accessories. These were my first fumblings towards assembling a sartorial identity that was all my own – removed from the expectations of school or social groups or what teens were meant to wear. I wore net gloves and big, crystal necklaces and brightly patterned silk scarves. I layered everything and stuck a belt on top. I used the term ‘granny chic’ when it was still considered cool. And I wore a hell of a lot of hats. Alongside the various beautiful, brimmed things inherited from family members, I bought plenty second hand. They were the kinds of hats that on anyone over the age of 20 would resemble pretty tame wedding attire, but on a 14 year old with near-waist-length hair just about worked.

Hats have turned up time and time again over the years on the blog. To give the briefest selection of choices, there was the cream beret with a bow on the front of it to dress up in a Lucy-Pevensie-goes-to-Narnia inspired ensemble (complete with a vintage suitcase and some snow-covered fir trees); a black felt floppy hat to complement my sixties swing coat; a little, knitted green hat to keep my pinned up hair in place alongside a twenties-style flapper dress I made using film negatives; a children’s boater worn with a blue teadress; a seventies leather patchwork sunhat alongside a long, crocheted dress; a soft egg yolk yellow beanie to complement a grey wool dress I made from an old jumper; a bright orange hat atop a bright orange outfit inspired by the colours of Penguin Classics; a grey faux-fur hat (big enough to look like a small animal perched on my head) with a lilac satin princess dress; a red net and velvet fascinator to complete a striped velvet ensemble; feathers pinned to my head when emulating Isabella Blow… the list continues. I even did a Sherlock-inspired shoot with a deerstalker.

They’ve not just been for dressing up either. I have a core group I still wear with huge regularity. There’s one blue trilby in particular that I’d be devastated to lose. And yet, and yet… I’m still surprised to hear friends of mine say, “oh, I have a great hat, but I’d need more confidence to wear it.” Where they were once seen as ubiquitous, being just another addition to an outfit, now they’re considered some kind of statement. Apparently it takes audacity to don anything brilliant or boldly shaped. It seems a shame when there’s such pleasure to be derived from them. Yes, it may require a confident tilt of the head. But you’re much more likely to receive compliments than anything else. People tend to be impressed by a good hat. And all those pre-formed fears you might have about strange comments or people looking at you oddly? They’re mostly false. Besides, if they do stare, let them. You’re probably brightening their dull day. Take it from the girl who recently walked around a city centre wearing a zinging bright orange (very mini) mini-dress with a matching bow tied in her hair. Now that gets people staring.  

Sometimes hats don’t have to be eye-catching though. Sometimes, you know, they do have practical use too. I’ve been eyeing up various beanies and other cosy looking things recently, aware that the chill in the air means it’s time to assess what I can wear for purposes of warmth rather than general flamboyance. Perhaps among them there’ll be one particular hat. It’s black and very, very furry – fitting close to the head. The kind of hat that’s ideal for bitter days when the wind cuts at your ears (even when, as in my case, they’re already hidden under a mound of curly hair). It belonged to Nana.

Nana, by the way (pronounced ‘Na-naa’), was my other maternal great-grandma.

When she died a few years ago I combed her cupboards, partly helping mum to box stuff up, partly searching for treasure. I wasn’t disappointed. Furry hats and collars aplenty, as well as some rather fabulous winter coats.  That sense of intense delight in unexpected acquisitions – new things to add to my outfits without paying a penny – has never faded. 

I wore it endlessly last winter – once on a day when my mum visited me at uni. A few days later she emailed to say that she’d found some pictures of Nana wearing that very same hat at her (i.e. my mum’s) christening. There was my mum, tiny in a white cotton robe, and my great-grandma – furry hat matching her coat perfectly.

Nana was also, obviously, the counterpart to the granny with all the colourful hats. Collectively, they’ve together contributed more to my hat collection than any other family members. The two of them never saw eye to eye, both angry that their respective children had divorced when my mum was a toddler. So much animosity between them, and yet their hats are in the same boxes, jammed together. Sometimes I can’t remember which one of them owned a particular item. I like that though. All that tension and resentment – yet their hats now sit side by side, years later, given new life each time they’re worn.

This was originally written for The Coven - a wonderful website FULL of great, intelligent essays. I've already said nice things about them on my blog here

Reposting it here gave me the chance to trawl through my archives to find favourite outfits featuring hats. Sadly, I couldn't include them all, as it would have been 70+ images. I've stuck to ones from 2009 through to 2013. They're all photos taken when I was still in my teens - from age 14 onwards; still living at home (apart from the last few) and doing shoots after school and on weekends, or stacking them up during the holidays. The very last image is of Nana's hat. 
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