Thursday, 28 May 2015

Creative Collaborations

A few weeks ago I found myself crouching, somewhat precariously, on a branch many metres above the ground. I was wearing a silver ballgown, naturally. (What else does one wear to scale fallen trees?) We’d caught the last gasps of sunset. I was calm and elated and shaking slightly in the chilly breeze. Over the river the odd jogger and couple were reduced to blobs of colour. I was more focused on the lens below, smoothing my shivers into static poses.

It was sitting up there, grass below and sky above, that I had a moment of utter joy: joy in modeling, in collaborating, in doing vaguely ridiculous things to secure a good photo. Joy in how incongruous I was, but also how natural it felt to be scrabbling for footholds whilst ensuring the thirties bias-cut fabric sat just right. Joy in the adrenaline hit of wind, skin, fabric and a great(ish) height.

To me that enclosed moment points to all the best aspects of shoots. They are first and foremost a collaboration. One in front of the camera, one behind, both working together to produce something exciting. (Obviously there are also those shoots involving a whole team. Different dynamic, just as interesting). More than that though, there’s a sense of working together for the sake of adventure. Take a rough idea, a location, a hastily assembled set of clothes, perhaps throw in a set of interesting weather conditions, and you’ve got some proper fun.

That interlude of perching, standing, lying down and scrambling around also reminded me of the spontaneity I had as a young teen – where, on a weekend, I’d shove some items in a rucksack and head outdoors with a friend and a camera. I had the time to be imaginative and silly, to jump across streams in very impractical heels or hang out in bluebell woods. I dressed up in vintage swimsuits to traverse fields of flowers, skulked among trees at twilight, and jumped across waves wearing chiffon. Those last three were all thanks to Flo, back when we lived in close proximity and had the hours to spare.

During adolescence I sometimes took the pictures, sometimes was in them. Now it errs more towards the latter (though I hope the balance isn’t permanently skewed), and even that is a rare treat now. Although something similar is achieved in most shoots with one of my parents wielding the camera, they’re usually done in quick succession during the holidays – a morning of sun yielding three different outfits to sustain my blog over several weeks. Wonderful in their own way, but less immersive.

What I guess I adore most is the play: playing outdoors, playing dress up, playing with imaginative concepts, playing at being someone else. More sophisticated storylines, maybe. Definitely a better application of red lipstick than I could achieve aged five. But similar principles.

Models are often denigrated, as though their role involves nothing more than standing around and pouting. That’s definitely the case on occasion, but if the shoot is dynamic, it will require skill - plus a willingness to be open and experiment and respond to what’s in front of you.

These are the types of creative collaboration I want to return to more – working on things like this where it’s two-way, whether that’s professionally or just for the thrill of hanging out in the park in ridiculous garments. That reciprocity between subject and photographer can be exhilarating. You may get so cold your fingers go numb. You may have to put up with people slowing to stare or comment as they wander past. But these are minor inconveniences – and besides, at times I really quite enjoy causing a stir.

I'm wearing a thirties dress that belonged to a relative of mine's-friend's-mother, named Moonyeen (see the first outing on the blog, complete with scoliosis scar, here). These photos were taken by the fabulous Paulina Choh. We first got talking after she spotted me leaping around while a friend took a snap of me for Instagram (I am vaguely shameless about these things) - and she recognised me from my blog! It's the biggest/ oddest/ best thrill whenever this happens, and I'm so pleased in this instance that it led to such an exciting creative opportunity. Watch this space for more from her... 

Thursday, 21 May 2015

A Birthday Note

Keeping this quick, sweet and to the point as the afternoon is short and the sunshine plentiful. I turned twenty today. Kind of exciting, really. It’ll take a little bit of getting used to, this whole business of no longer being able to refer to myself as a teenager. But my, how marvelous too…

When I was younger, I spent plenty of time daydreaming about my twenties – seeing that as a highpoint of the future, floating somewhere beyond school and challenging friend groups and exams. Funny to be finally alighting here. But despite those years spent being frustrated by the limitations of adolescence, I still packed in so much that I remain proud of: from the most thrilling opportunities to the biggest difficulties I managed to move through (no matter how painful).

Things kind of feel normal right now, albeit with slightly more in the way of presents, picnics-for- breakfast and promises of cava than usual. Any excuse for celebration and slight decadence, that’s me - birthday or no birthday. But there are still emails to send, deadlines to hit, work to do. I’ve been running around and working hard and jumping between Oxford and London for the last week, too occupied with other things to give today much thought.

For that reason, I didn’t really attribute any significance to the age change until I sat down to put up a blog post. Maybe that’s because we often construct significance for ourselves, shaping these kinds of markers and moments to be as big or as small as we want. Maybe it’s also that I rarely wish to define myself by my number of years, preferring to dwell on experiences and people and achievements and memories instead.

I am a little exhilarated at the thought of the decade ahead though. I don’t know what it’ll contain, but I hope it will be interesting – if not always easy. Regardless, so long as it involves creativity, curiosity, great company, glasses of wine, the odd kiss, and a healthy dose of the unexpected, I’ll be content.

Thought some summery images were especially apt for today. I'm wearing a vintage dress, some pretty delectable Orla Kiely for Clarks t-bar Bibi shoes, vintage accessories and my much-loved suede jacket from a jumble sale. 

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Fashion and Intelligence

Why can’t a smart woman love fashion? This is a question Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie posed a while back. I quoted the question (and part of her very articulate answer) last May, when writing this piece on style and intelligence. Pretty much exactly a year later, it’s been on my mind again. Why can’t a smart woman love fashion – and, moreover, why can’t a woman love viewing fashion as something highly smart?

Of course, these are hypothetical questions. A smart woman can love fashion. Of course she can. A woman can also love viewing fashion as something smart. What we’re really asking is this: why is it that some interests are swiftly judged as lacking substance? Or maybe, why does an interest in personal style suggest that this person must be less academic, less thoughtful, less worth taking seriously?

I think these questions ricocheted again recently because my interest in style is becoming ever more rigorous. Alongside the sheer joy in a good jumpsuit and lots of red lipstick (my outfit for today), I adore analysis and discussion. If a literary critic takes a scalpel to a text, maybe the appropriate instrument for the study of fashion would be a pair of sewing scissors. No wishy-washy statements about ‘personal expression’ here. More everything from cultural contexts to the impact of voracious consumer demand to the interests, anxieties and moments of a particular age cut and stitched into material.

Maybe those questions are also partly the natural result of moving between a lot of different worlds: blogging, writing, fashion, books, academia, small village, large cities. Each has its own rules, and, significantly, its own value system. In fashion blogging I’m perhaps slightly unusual in my desire to treat clothing as something to be examined - rather than merely put on, with two lines of text beneath noting where my dress was from. In more academic circles, I regularly feel like I know nothing, like I have so much left to read and consume and get my head around. In other contexts I’m somewhere on a scale between the two. One day I feel I have to water down how I articulate things, the next that I’m lacking so much, grasping at concepts and conversations still beyond me. Another consequence in particular circles is the (very) occasional need to justify myself – as though ‘fashion’ requires extra validation as an intellectual interest in a way that, say, art history doesn’t.

I’ve been doing my homework though. Over the last six months I’ve read Amber Jane Butchart’s book Nautical Chic and realized how much I adore fashion history – all that mapping of the relationship between style and a world always in flux. I also discovered Vestoj via my wonderful friend Olivia Aylmer, and spent an evening entranced by the dazzling mix of precision and celebration. I bought Women in Clothes as a present to myself and was reminded how significant stories of style are. I’ve eyed up both Worn Stories and Worn journal (same name, separate entities, both fabulous).

I’ve spent too much time procrastinating on StyleLikeU, where body, self-image, clothing and perception are continually interrogated. There’ve been late night rambles through the BBC iPlayer Art of Fashion archives, covering everything from a 1997 doc on Alexander McQueen to a brief juxtaposition between different generations of models (clue: the 70s looked like a hell of a lot more fun than the 50s. Also more fun than today.)  

I researched the history of kilts, nationalism, punk and feminism for an upcoming project. I worked on an essay on the use of costume in 16th century city comedy, and began thinking about possible dissertation topics - mulling over some kind of intersection between literature and clothing. I rediscovered Elizabeth Wilson’s work, added Roland Barthes’ The Language of Fashion to my five page ‘to read’ list, went to exhibitions, wrote lots, and realized just how much I know about all things 20th century style. 

I’ve also thought, written and talked about a hell of a lot of things that have nothing to do with anything sartorial. Of course. Any kind of cerebral life requires plenty of slipping, sliding and skipping between various areas. It would get deathly dull otherwise. But regardless, I’m all the more determined to combat any kind of rhetoric that says, “clothes are frivolous and inane. Why not focus on something brow-furrowingly, spectacle-wearingly serious, rather than bits of fabric strung together?”

That particular tone of derision ignores any possibility of charting clothing as symbolic, as aspirational, as conformist, as subversive, as an embodiment of power, as a refusal of standards, as a hundred and one different things to potentially unpick. There are so many threads to pursue (Sorry. One day I’ll stop using fabric imagery this consistently – well, perhaps, perhaps not).

For the record, I also think fashion can be stupid, offensive, unthinking, rapacious, boring, and status-ridden. But it can likewise be wonderful, playful, witty, confidence-enhancing, fun, elegant, and, above all, smart. It’s all in that ‘can’. Depends on how you engage with it, and whether we’re talking fashion as an industry, an art, a mode of self-presentation, a destructive capitalist force, or something else entirely. And besides, those stupid, offensive, unthinking (etc) elements are often just as worthy of scrutiny. Treating fashion intelligently means criticizing it as much as you revel in it.

To return to the inimitable Chimamanda though, sometimes it's just about “taking pleasure in clothes” too. Pleasure has a different formula for everyone – whether it includes food, sex, socialising, solo walks, music, a good coffee, binge-watching Netflix, travelling, staying in bed, reading, conversation, going to the cinema, lying in the sunshine with just the birdsong for company, or thousands of other possibilities. To me, what I wear each day is among those pleasures, as is giving clothing a lot of thought. 

I don’t know where all this will lead. Hopefully somewhere exciting. There’s a lot left to learn along the way; so much to read and watch and look at and consider and respond to and, of course, plenty to lust over, buy and wear. Plenty to blog about too. I'm not sure where to head to next - the library, the wardrobe, or a word document. What a thrilling choice to have. 

As with a yellow-themed outfit and books last year, now onto orange. Maybe eventually I'll manage all the colours in the rainbow! Wearing all vintage with ASOS shoes. My dad shot these over the Christmas holidays, back when the days were cold and polo necks were oh-so-necessary. 

Thank you also for the amazing, overwhelming response to my post on the General Election. I genuinely hope we can fight hard over the next five years, as and when necessary, and also work on those personal acts of kindness/ empathy/ practical help/ creative response/ whatever else... 

Friday, 8 May 2015

A Few Thoughts on the General Election

* Fashion witterings temporarily suspended. Return to regular order will commence soon. Also, contains swearing. I’d say sorry, but I’m not. *

If you’re living in Britain, then this morning will have been… interesting. Depending on your political beliefs/ moral compass/ general awareness of individuals other than yourself, then it may have been the kind of day where crawling back under the covers seemed the safest option. Yesterday’s tentative mood of optimism has curdled. The Conservatives have a majority.

My thoughts are still spinning a little too much to form anything particularly coherent. Plenty of communication with family members and friends has been couched in that universal language of dismay: swearing. Many more ‘fucks’ than David Cameron gives about the NHS. 

I’ve realized though that it’s very easy when you’re surrounded by like-minded people to be lulled into thinking that Conservative rhetoric isn't taken seriously: a lexicon of hard workers and shirkers, brighter futures, tightened belts, dangerous immigrants, getting the economy back on track, blaming the most marginalized for EVERYTHING. All those shiny, hollow words constructing a clear set of divides between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. But it is taken seriously – and there’s a huge amount of business and press interest balancing on it. Murdoch wanted the Tories to stay. Bankers wanted the Tories to stay. Weirdly, a lot of other people did too.

But lord is their rhetoric is scary - reliant on fear, on value judgments, on a weird kind of “we know best” paternalism. It divides up the country into the deserving and the undeserving, and all it takes to move from the former to the latter is losing your job.

A lot of what the Conservatives will do over the next five years won't necessarily affect me personally (other than things relating to housing, wages, arts, the environment, healthcare  - oops ok, maybe it will). Yet I am fortunate enough, at the moment, to have a family who are pretty stable both emotionally and financially. I’m aware of how huge a privilege that is. But I still give a fuck. Two fucks. All the fucks.

Because that's what you're meant to do as a human being – look beyond yourself. You care about more than your own immediate, limited circumstances. I’m pissed off about how it’s going to affect my ability to rent anything other than cardboard box size rooms. But I’m more pissed off for those who are caring for disabled children, or who are reliant on benefits, or who need access to a food bank, or whose jobs suddenly look much more precarious, or can’t get anywhere near their chosen career because they don't have the support or contacts. I’m pissed off about cuts left, right and center – it’s easy to see a service as non-vital if you don't need it yourself. 

I was talking this over earlier with my wonderful friend Katharine Sian. As she said to me, “I grew up with my unemployed, single parent mum in Cardiff. We were extremely lucky because my father and grandfather had managed to buy us a small semi-detached house but this doesn't mean we didn't struggle from time to time to make ends meet. Benefits should exist to ensure that everyone has a good quality of life, even amid struggles. However, under austerity it is evident that they are failing.”

She’s directly involved in a lot of activism as a result. “In April 2013 I was lucky enough to meet a disabled activist in Cardiff who was at the first protest against the Bedroom Tax. Linda Philips spoke powerfully to the crowd saying that we should "use our own small whispers of individual voices in crescendo to a scream of national outrage until its volume is actually heard within Westminster itself". She spent the following years paying bedroom tax on the spare bedroom used by her carer and eventually died under austerity, sooner than she should have done.”

That’s the ugly face of our previous coalition – now one that’s no longer even going to be tempered by the Lib Dems. People died. Suicide rates rose. And instead of getting angry about that, the public has been fed a narrative of prejudice and othering by the press. Blame it on anyone from anywhere else. God forbid the responsibility should nestle in Westminster, or all those big corporations exploiting tax loopholes. Profit over people. Business as usual (and indeed, Foxtons' shares are drastically up). 

There are a few silver lights. Caroline Lucas as Green MP for Brighton Pavilion – brilliantly articulate and clear-sighted. Stella Creasy remaining in Walthamstow. (I love her. Please can her and Caroline sort out this mess?) A slight increase in female MPs. Nigel Farage losing in South Thanet. But these are counteracted by some pretty terrifying results – not least the number of votes given to UKIP.

In the wake of this, the most natural feeling is one of overwhelming frustration. What can we, as individuals, do – other than run away/ hide under those bedcovers? There are an awful lot of people who are really, really angry right now. We need to harness that – translate it into action, in whatever way is best. The image below (first posted here) is a distillation of what I want to work on myself. As my dad said to me on the phone a few hours ago, “all you can really do in response is be a good person – do your bit, fight injustice, take part in your community.” I want to use all this disappointment and fury productively and proactively; mark it as a moment to galvanize change. 


Tuesday, 5 May 2015

My Grandma, President of the Earth

My grandma appeared in Doctor Who once. She played President of the Earth. It’s the kind of fact that gets people talking - easy to flourish at the right moment. She appeared in the 1973 Frontier in Space sequence, back when Jon Pertwee was racketing around in the Tardis with Katy Manning (Jo) at his side.

She wasn’t just any President of the Earth either. This ruler held her power with style. As my grandma said of director Paul Bernard, “he had a completely new idea of what a female president would look like: feminine, pampered, nails painted, pearls in her hair.” Sartorially this translated into stiff orange collars, long gloves, patent high heels, and a particularly clingy blue dress (so clingy, in fact, that it was sewn onto her body)… She had her temples massaged and spoke with authority. This was a character who walked with real presence.

It’s been years since I watched it. We had a version on VHS (back when that was a thing people actually used), once sitting down as a family to plow our way through all six episodes. Monsters and moments of peril aplenty. When I think of my grandma in Doctor Who though, it’s stills that come to mind rather than moving images. We have plenty of portraits stowed away – close ups of her looking fabulous and futuristic.

I mentioned above that it’s a fun detail to let slip. It is. Doctor Who is something of a cultural institution. To be related to someone who contributed to that is pretty great. But I’m aware that the full sentence should be this: “my grandma appeared in Doctor Who once: it’s the thing she’s least proud of.” She took it on because she knew the director. She was also a widow with two young children by this point, a little more preoccupied with an ill son at home (my dad) than focusing on a stunning performance. “I think nothing of it,” she commented a few weeks ago when we were discussing it, “it was really just a time filler – a kids' TV show.”

What is she proud of? Playing Anne Frank’s mother onstage in her mid-twenties. Being in the first English production of A View from the Bridge in Liverpool, directed by Sam Wanamaker. Performing Shakespeare across America. Getting into RADA in the first place, her thick Czech accent an issue – but not a barrier.

Then there are the things that aren’t necessarily to do with pride, but provide wonderful embellishment nonetheless. Such stories! She was chased by a toothless lion on the set of a dodgy B-movie filmed in Kenya, and rode a one-eyed rhino for a bet with the crew. She was once trapped in a lift in New York with Salvador Dali, zooming up, down, up, down five times as he wouldn't let her leave and deemed her “the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen” (funny, as he said it to a looooot of other women too). One evening she went drinking with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud in Soho. On another the young woman she was meant to be chaperoning at a party disappeared, only to be discovered in a nearby B&B making use of the ‘bed’ part with a certain very well known bad boy Scottish actor – who apparently grinned at my grandma when she told him off.  

I love all of these details. They make for rich pickings – little delicious morsels of tales. Her life continues to be enlarged in each retelling. It also finds further echoes online. For the first time ever today, I googled ‘Vera Fusek Doctor Who’ and spent a good half hour scrolling through various websites and blogs. I discovered a few images, this profile of her character and, to my complete surprise, a reference to a comic book from 2012, where a character named ‘President Vera Fusek’ appeared alongside the Eleventh Doctor. All of these resonances and references feel intriguing – divided off from the woman I know who is deprecating about that one small part she played more than forty years ago. But you know what? Even if she’s not proud of it, in some small way I am. But maybe that’s because I view it as part of a larger mosaic of anecdotes, experiences and snippets from her life. 

Besides, I’ve got the dress now too (pictured above). It may not make me feel like President of the Earth, but it does encourage a certain sense of power...

Having possession of this dress feels very special indeed - and I wanted to pay tribute to its futuristic beginnings. So here it's styled with ridiculous heels from eBay and plenty of vintage jewellery. Below are a selection of stills of my grandma. Look at those outfits! 


Friday, 1 May 2015

Sails, Stripes and Sartorial History: Nautical Chic

What can fashion tell us? (Beyond the fact that lots of us love pretty dresses). Well, look at the clothes being worn in any particular era and you’ve immediately got access to some of the interests, anxieties and events of that age. Our sartorial choices aren't made in a vacuum – they’re responsive to what’s going on around us. Whether it’s a dazzle camouflage swimsuit emulating the look of WWI warships or Coco Chanel’s beach pyjamas transforming a working man’s uniform into leisure wear, people have often adorned themselves with things pointing to particular moments or preoccupations.

Amber Jane Butchart’s book Nautical Chic pinpoints this meeting of time, place and personal appearance perfectly.  Her study of naval style is located exactly where it should be: at an intersecting point between power, nationhood, aesthetics, cultural change, the odd flight of imagination, and some bloody great outfits. All of those colliding influences and shaping forces point to something neatly summarized by Rosalind Ann Jones and Peter Stallybrass in Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory: ‘Clothing is a worn world: a world of social relations put upon the wearer’s body.’ And if there’s anything that Butchart’s exploration of the worn world of naval chic proves it’s that ‘the story of high fashion on the high seas’ is a smart, multi-faceted narrative – a rich thread to unravel and pull at.

The history of various nautical trends and looks is completely interwoven with what we might term BIG themes like war, the economy, working lives, sexuality, gender, class, and aspiration. Although I knew some basics like the cable knit’s transition from fishermen to fashion statement, or the continuing popularity of sailor shirts, or the status and wealth inherent in American sportswear, these sketchy estimates lacked any of the minutiae or context offered here. I had no idea that epaulettes originated in the French military – but were viewed with some distrust by Lord Nelson. I’d hardly considered the striped top’s transition from pragmatic working wear to catwalk (a transition emphasized time and time again throughout these pages), instead happy to rely on some hazy image of sails and decking brought on by the label ‘Breton top’. And the influence of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise on Jean Paul Gaultier and Marni was a complete revelation…

To me, that’s what the best fashion books do: enlarge and illuminate things one might have been vaguely aware of, giving them so much more solidity – and a backstory too. Before reading, a pea coat was something I mainly saw as a gorgeously cut garment. Now I’ve seen the movement charted from early 18th century navy to 60s YSL reimagining to present status as ‘style classic’. I also have a novel respect for various items peppering my own wardrobe: the navy blue 80s Jaeger blazer, the funny little leather fisherman’s hat I picked up at a flea market, the children’s straw boater, the striped tops, cotton sundresses designed for beach lounging, and a particularly fabulous shell print Liberty two piece. Still on the lookout for my ideal sailor dress though.

However, I might be in luck on that last point, as Amber has teamed up with vintage treasure trove chain Beyond Retro, picking out items from their vast collection with a distinctly naval feel. Oh so appropriate for a vintage chain with an anchor for its logo. Incidentally, the first dress I bought from Beyond Retro, back when I was a skinny fourteen year old – all bony knees and waist-length hair – was a mint green shift, resplendent with naval style gold buckles stretching down the front. But now there’s potential for setting sail (I’m sorry, so sorry) in any number of sartorial directions, with shorts, shirts, skirts and swimsuits a-plenty. It’s an ideal collaboration, not least because the presiding strength of Butchart’s book is not merely in the history – but also the cross-cultural links to contemporary designs. She drew out more of these links in her engaging talk at Beyond Retro last week, shaking out the history of items from Schiaparelli’s trompe l’oeil sailor jumper to Jean-Paul Gaultier’s regular use of Dixie-cup hats  - though, as she pointed out in the spirit of true “fashion geek” observation, one of the muscled men in his Le Male ad is wearing the wrong style hat for that particular striped top…

What’s apparent from Butchart’s book (and her talk) is that past and present are always colliding on the catwalk, but here those intricate relationships are drawn out with dexterity. Mermaid bodices, bell bottoms, thigh high boots, skull insignia, penny loafers, striped wide skirts, knitted jumpers, decadent waistcoats – all these items can be traced back to watery beginnings, whether on the back of a captain, a pirate, or a keen yachtsman. The term ‘naval’ is as equally applicable to Tommy Hilfiger as it is to Vivienne Westwood (an unlikely pairing in the same sentence). It is indeed a wide-ranging ‘world of social relations’, whether those relations are all about rank, status, uniform, subversion, celebration, or imagination; each outfit or garment a material marker of our relationship with the sea, whether somewhere for work or play.  

This was first posted on Thames & Hudson's blog. Head over there for some more stills that I shot of the book. Here I was working with a rough approximation of naval style, using a second hand Laura Ashley jumper, trousers and striped heels from a charity shop, and a vintage children's boater.  
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