Wednesday, 24 June 2015

'Vintage Style', and Other Minor Sartorial Conundrums

There’s been something of a recent pattern in my charity shop visits – an interesting, retro-looking fabric glimpsed, a hand reached out to disentangle the item from the surrounding coat-hangers, and then the moment of disappointment. It’s the moment of realizing that this is no hidden vintage gem, but an irritatingly good high street reproduction. The pattern or shape may resemble anything from a 60s baby-doll dress to a fifties fitted skirt, yet hold it up to light and the differences in fabric and construction quality become visible.

Maybe this is snobby of me. In fact, I know it probably is. I am a clothes snob (although only in relation to what I choose to wear myself, rather than in judging others). If I’m going for vintage, I don’t want pale imitations, but the real deal – proper seams, darts and all. Good fabrics. Possible backstories and previous lives. That’s not to say I’m overly selective with the labels sewn into the necks of the clothes I buy in charity shops. I can and do purchase plenty of second hand high street garments – although they don’t exactly dominate my wardrobe.

Yet the high street’s rather creeping embrace of vintage designs is something I find as fascinating as it is frustrating. It's been inevitable. Whatever appears on the catwalk eventually filters down to chain stores. The last few years have been a hotbed of references to each previous decade. About once every year and a half the sixties is trumpeted as “being back”, the nineties has been doing its damn best to infiltrate all areas of life with crop tops, mini-backpacks and pastel colours a-plenty, while the seventies seem to have returned in full suede-y, denim-y force.

It’s natural to raid the past for inspiration. I have no problem with referencing 30s high glamour or 70s louche layers – the 20th Century (in particular) is awash with all sorts of silhouettes, colour palettes and textiles ripe to use for inspiration. It would be incredibly sad if no-one plundered the archives or used pictures from the past to influence their designs – especially because at various points, it seems, designers actually knew how to cut clothes for a range of different figures and body types. Lots of modern day brands could learn from that. Plus, looking backwards is something creatives (across a range of industries) have always done, and will always do. 

So I still can’t quite put my finger on why the high street’s facsimiles of vintage designs occasionally rankle. I think it’s maybe because the end result is that ‘vintage style’ becomes just another trend – another search term on eBay, another possible look among the pick’n’mix selection of other keywords like grunge, hipster, normcore, boyfriend, girly or festival-chic (am sure you can easily think of other even more nauseating terms). It often seems to be a market response to the resurgence of vintage, rather than genuine celebration of a particular decade – which in turn means you have to be extra-careful when perusing the labels in vintage shops, for occasionally the odd thing from Topshop slips through.

There are other strands to this, many linking back to my self-acknowledged snobbery. Do I react more strongly if the label is high street rather than high end? Does my response change if I genuinely like the garment - especially if it seems like an inventive update of or homage to something classic? Am I merely perpetuating an attitude of exclusivism or style elitism? Am I being a hypocrite, as I definitely own a number of high street twists on vintage designs? Am I basically a tad irritated by something that doesn’t really matter at all? Probably 'yes' to every question. 

I do wonder though if it’s partly to do with that first fleeting instance of being disappointed that something which felt special to me – a particular style of a vintage top, shirt, or tea dress – has then become ubiquitous when one brand or another decided to make it their ‘look’ of the season, before discarding again. Suddenly certain sartorial decisions fit a trend, rather than looking like they were actively selected. But maybe my attitude should be ‘the more, the merrier’, rather than a whole lot of muttering and wittering here. And even in writing this, I'm aware of all the shades and nuances and alternative arguments I haven't even touched on... More consideration needed. 

These photos were taken by the lovely Monica several months back when we were in Bologna. I'm wearing a bona-fide fifties dress (and eighties belt), but accompanied by modern ASOS shoes. 

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Treasure, Trinkets and the Occasional Diamond

When I think of jewellery, I think of family: of the big green, glittery necklace passed down to me from my paternal grandmother; the strings of faux-pearls and dangling pendants from my late maternal great-grandma; the various brooches from distant cousins and Great-Aunts: all cameos and flowers and sparkly paste echoes of diamonds; the rings from my late maternal grandma. The latter remain especially significant, having been the ones my mum’s mum had made for her - after the end of a particularly awful relationship, she took jewellery from that period to be melted down and the stones re-set in newly designed beautiful silver rings. I wear them all the time now, the loops and whorls of metal contrasting with moonstones and turquoise. I have other rings too, like the two gold bows, one of which belonged to my Great-Aunt Eva – who died of leukemia aged nineteen (read more here). I relish these stories, as I do with all family garments and cast-offs.

I’ve always viewed jewellery as a part of dress-up, to a certain extent – badges and lengths of beads infiltrating childhood play from an early age. My brother and I used to play something called ‘the treasure game’, involving a motley array of trinkets, often broken or rescued from being discarded. We’d pretend to be pirates divvying up our wares, carefully choosing them, one at a time, from a pile in the middle until we each had our stash. Then the bargains began. Was that iridescent bracelet with the broken clasp worth giving up in exchange for a mother of pearl pendant and a hat-pin? What would it take to secure the single mushroom-sized, multi-coloured clip-on earring with its red, purple, green and blue stones?

At secondary school I went through a big Claire’s Accessories phase – buying the kinds of cheap stuff that left your skin green beneath the metal. The goody bags were the best, an unknown pic n’mix delight of possibilities for a fiver – no idea what you’d find when you dug into the plastic. It was all about the small details then – the ear studs you could get away with in school that somehow might still convey some tiny aspect of personality, along with a carefully chosen bag (mine was a Roxy backpack).

I’ve since taken my ‘treasure game’ a little more seriously though, securing plenty of the desirable jewellery, some of it from that early 'pirate' hoard. I mainly wear necklaces and rings (though am planning to get my ears re-pierced soon so that all sorts of marvelous things can then dangle from them once more). Currently I have a line of cocktail glasses in my room, all spilling over with my spoils, nothing new among them other than a charm bracelet from my mum (charms choicely including books, a coffee cup and a champagne bucket) and a few beautiful Bill Skinner items that I got in return for some modeling. Even the old stuff that didn’t belong to family members is also second-hand. One of my most-complimented pendants, usually worn on a silver torc, was from the local charity shop for 50p. Bar one or two precious things (including a very special locket) the collection is not worth much - but imbued with so many resonances and stories and places. 

Usually I’m content with this set-up, eyeing up my vaguely rag-tag assembly of chains, beads and stones, plucking things up according to colour and the day’s/ outfit’s mood. But then I got to wear Pippa Small’s jewellery for an afternoon during this set of portraits, and I felt like a magpie – entirely entranced by all those ammolites and opals and diamonds and tourmalines and amethysts and rubies and so many other stones that are so very satisfying to name. I sat as Susannah Baker-Smith chose each new combination, content to lounge in the afternoon light as my skin was adorned with all these turquoises and golds and greys and rainbow-scattered shades. Some of them seemed to transform when on, while others seemed to transform me. We worked carefully with angles and poses (jewellery is surprisingly tricky to photograph), Susannah moving around and directing my limbs, me holding my breath while I waited for the shutter-click. The shoot was a small, suspended interlude in an otherwise frantic week.

That afternoon also reminded me of the possibilities of modern craftsmanship (especially apt for Pippa – read all about her ethical projects and work with communities here) as well as the sheer, aesthetic pleasure of wearing truly gorgeous jewellery. It does something to you. Not sure exactly what, but it's quietly special. And although it's beyond my price range for now, a girl can idly dream…

Susannah is a marvellous photographer and even more marvellous friend. It always feels like a vague honour to work with her - as I have done twice before. I feel like she captures something of me that's very natural and relaxed. And you can see Pippa's website here.

In other news, I wrote something for Yahoo Beauty on Oxford, outside perceptions, and going my own way. You can read it here


Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Why Living in the Moment is a Trite Phrase for an Important Thing

The week before last I went to Hay-on-Wye, dropping in for an afternoon interlude at the literary festival. It was much too short an immersion, time only for a coffee, some book browsing, a single event, and a smattering of aimless wandering. The town was a-buzz; pavements crowded and queues everywhere. There’s something intriguing in observing a place you know well - briefly transformed, quiet streets suddenly full of racket.

I also had chance to meet the completely wonderful Louise O’Neill, author of Only Ever Yours (see my review here). We sat down for a quick talk, ranging over areas from Instagram to books to beauty standards. We both commented on how we already felt like we knew each other – Twitter providing a platform for conversation long before any face-to-face chats. She’s about the fifth amazing woman I’ve met through social media within the last month. The modern world is wonderful, isn’t it? Weird and odd and great, all at the same time.

I left Hay that evening feeling so utterly content. It did what so many exciting things do, whether it’s an event, a lecture, a two-way conversation, or a collection of poems. I relish anything that heightens my enthusiasm – reinvigorating and stimulating an idea, perhaps, or an ongoing piece of work, or a thought still buzzing with potential. There’s a sense that one could go and do anything: write something, create/make/ work and craft, or think and learn. We need those touchstone moments. They’re not so much grounding as elevating, a necessary form of uplift occasionally required when things are feeling bogged down. Hay also felt like a temporary shrugging off of responsibility, real life ebbing for half a day.

When have I had similar feelings since? At a barbecue in the park where we waited to watch the sun set over the buttercups. While drinking cold white wine in the burning heat, sitting on a sofa in a friend’s garden. During the weekend just gone, full of books, conversation, and bouts of slipping in and out of the river in my bikini - stretching and kicking and breathing (and avoiding the odd boat). Each morning as I make breakfast, brew coffee and spend half an hour reading Women in Clothes. An equal mix of social encounters and solitude.

Various things have been a struggle recently, requiring me to acknowledge my own vulnerabilities and limitations. But when anything feels less manageable, I always try to bring myself back into these small, significant experiences and ways of treating myself well. They are what remain important.

So much of the time we focus on work and achievement, forgetting the necessity of all the good stuff - of friends, family, lovers, food, long phone calls, whisky, a coffee in a café, reading a book because it’s enriching, writing something for oneself because it’s stimulating and full of possibility, listening to someone who needs an open ear.

Of going for a day trip, taking a walk, dancing until knees ache, listening to fantastic music, having fizzy conversations that make you dizzily content, sleeping in when the sun is reaching through the curtains, getting up early and cycling through near-empty streets, beginning a new project just because you can.

Of wearing a damn good outfit and several layers of red lipstick, buying things you don’t need at car boot sales because they’re simply too pretty, trawling charity shops all afternoon, talking to strangers on occasion, or enjoying your lonesomeness at others.  

Then there’s the pursuing of thrilling opportunities and new quests and intellectual challenges – perhaps pursuing in the knowledge that it will not necessarily be easy, but will certainly be satisfying in the end. You just have to recognize that as you work through things from hour to hour, day to day, some of those hours and days will be glorious and glittering, while others may prove really quite tough. I guess it has to be a specific kind of pursuing too, one tempered by the recognition that you are not solely the worth of your GCSE grades, your A-level results, your university degree, your inbox, your income, your work-life, your online image, your looks, your desirability, your status.

You can absolutely and utterly be bloody proud of any of those things, if you so wish. I am, with various things on that list. But for years some of those achievements were the only way I defined my worth – becoming a singular measure, rather than a set of contributing factors to an overall sense of self. Hopefully the equilibrium is a little more balanced now.

I spent this evening cooking a curry for myself, drinking red wine, and working out what I needed to complete before the end of the week. I took it moment by moment. Now I’m off to dig my nose into a book before bed. It’s taking time, but I’m getting there with each little anchor back in the present, each instance that lifts the day.

While in Hay I wore the most fabulous vintage tartan shorts I'd picked up the previous day in a charity shop for £4 - here combined with a second hand polo neck, a cardigan that belonged to my great grandma, and shoes from a charity shop. The notebook was bought on the day, and has now become the place for all my poetry scribblings and general notes. 

Friday, 5 June 2015

Denim and Velvet

I’m not a jeans girl. I’m a miniskirt and thick tights girl. I’m a shorts-and-bare-legs-even-though-it’s-grey-and-cloudy girl. I’m a maxi-dress girl. I’m a black velvet trousers rolled up at the ankle girl. I’m not a denim aficionado. I couldn't wax lyrical about the best places to find skinnies or tell you what type of Levi’s I love. I am instead the kind of girl (or should that be woman now?) who wears jeans so infrequently that people tend to comment on it whenever I do.

But maybe, just maybe, that’s less about taste and more about height. Being an inch or so off six foot, finding jeans that both fit and flatter can be something of a (hyperbolic and frivolous) nightmare. The pairs I do own are all second-hand, usually plucked up because they’re noticeably longer in the leg.

If you’re anything above about 5’8”, and even bother to look at the trousers rail, your eyes will be firmly stuck on the hems, searching for any that protrude below the others. Usually this is followed by disappointment in the fitting room when either you can’t pull them past your thighs, or the waistline is so voluminous that they immediately slip back down to your knees. Occasionally, very, very occasionally, you might get lucky. This has happened to me perhaps three times in the last two years. Admittedly that’s also because I’m more likely to be found shimmying my way into cotton sun-frocks than skinny jeans. Regardless, there was a genuine thrill in these acquisitions. Perhaps it’s all about scarcity – the harder it is to find something, the more they’re appreciated when located.

I feel like I need to clarify that opening statement further. I’m not a jeans girl, but I do enjoy wearing them. It’s just a sporadic pleasure rather than integral part of my wardrobe. There’s a kind of easy power to be found in jeans, whether we’re talking tight, high-waisted ones worn with a vintage yellow button-up halter-top (my best friend and I have decided we want to revive and occasionally embody the phrase “fifties sexpot”), green jeans with a fancy evening coat, or these seventies-esque flared beauties pictured above which work so well with prints, waistcoats and curly hair. I feel like I can stride in jeans. I can do practical things. I can jump about and cycle and climb trees  - all activities that, in my usual skirts/dresses, mean I inadvertently end up flashing unsuspecting strangers.

Maybe it’s more about conformity then? As someone who, more than she’d like to admit, kind of hates looking like other people, perhaps I find jeans just a bit too ubiquitous. I’m not big on ‘staples’ or ‘must-haves’ or ‘basics’ (unless that ‘basic’ is a sixties shift). The last time jeans were a proper staple for me was aged thirteen or fourteen, when I wore my grey pair until they were more holes than denim – see evidence of them in better days here and here. In the former I claimed, somewhat hyperbolically, that “I couldn’t live without skinny jeans.” Well, six years on I’m still surviving… 

Like any item though, I guess it’s what you do with it. Jeans can and do look brilliant in all sorts of circumstances – whether accompanied by a tailored silk shirt or the comfiest of comfy jumpers. They can be as pragmatic or as dressed up as required. To me they now just require some sort of special ‘something’ to give oomph to the outfit – crushed blue velvet perhaps, or an interesting neckline, or a sharply cut blazer.

So, I began this post by saying I’m not a jeans girl - though mostly due to a desire to wear other things, rather than any kind of denim vendetta. Yet still… sitting down to write this has kind of reinvigorated my interest. I suddenly remembered these Tommy Hilfiger jeans I nicked from my mum, and these ridiculous Jean-Paul Gaultier patterned ones that I still swing between viewing as marvelous and vaguely monstrous. Thus I’ll add to that opening sentence one last time – I’m not a jeans girl, but I may yet become one...

These second-hand jeans are here worn with a mix of vintage things from various charity shops - this shirt is a particular favourite of mine, while the velvet waistcoat was one of those 'whim' buys that proved incredibly satisfying. My trusty old Russell & Bromley men's boots proved great for stomping around the woods while my dad took photos. 
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