Tuesday, 28 July 2015

I Capture the Castle

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.”

It’s years since I’ve read the book in its entirety, but that opening has lodged itself somewhere in my brain – as brightly imprinted as the dye Topaz uses to turn all of the Mortmain family’s clothes various shades of green. I’m talking, of course, of I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith’s magnificent novel published in 1949. Set in a rambling, crumbling, ever-so-ramshackle castle in Suffolk, it follows the fortunes of Cassandra (17) and Rose (21), their father (a once-successful novelist), their stepmother Topaz (an artist’s model with a propensity for wandering around the countryside wearing nothing but her boots), and younger (rather precocious) brother Thomas. They’re broke. There are leaks everywhere. And two rather intriguing American brothers have just moved in nearby…

It was just one among the many books I read in my early teens – a glorious period where I gobbled anything and everything on our shelves. Adult classics, teen chick lit, fantasy, thrillers (I made my way through every single one of the Alex Rider series), new proof copies that my dad brought back from events by the boxful, old tattered books that had belonged to my mum. There was little differentiation between genre or status, an almost delightful lack of snobbery. I just read and read and read.

It’s odd now to return to some of those books. Many feel incredibly cringey or dated. A few are appallingly written. Plenty are perfectly entertaining, but I have no need to reread them. A select few are gem-like. These ones are as wonderful as on first encounter. Perhaps more so – a few more years of aging allowing access to layers or depths that were previously closed off. I Capture the Castle is definitely in that category. I picked it up again recently after watching the film version on a whim. I’d all but forgotten the plot, marvelling afresh at the story (and the clothes, but we’ll get on to that soon…)

I wish I could say I’ve had the chance to reread the entire thing since. Sadly not. I’ve just dipped in and out. Full immersion will happen at some point. But in all the parts I’ve skimmed there’s a perfectly pitched balance of wit, charm and self-consciousness. Cassandra’s voice – for of course the entire story is mediated through her pen as she makes each journal entry – is sometimes na├»ve, sometimes insightful, never twee, and often wonderfully dry. It’s a story about marriage and money, status, idealized romance (well, idealism full-stop), sibling relationships, growing up, and writing. And housing it all, the castle – complete with a moat. The castle that we can all simultaneously wish we lived in, and recognize as being totally unsuitable for family life.

It’s a dominating presence in the film too – each scene gorgeous, even when it’s raining and everyone is grumpy and there are holes in the ceiling. Candlelight and artfully disheveled 30s costumes help. Every single bias cut and knitted jumper and set of stockings is glorious. Rose (played by Rose Byrne), all big eyes and even bigger red hair, is kitted out in wide-legged trousers, berets, gorgeous little dresses, and one rather amusingly froufrou ball-gown. Cassandra (played by Romola Garai) is magnificently gauche – with a straight bob, loose dresses, baggy cardigans, mary-janes, and a journal often in hand. Topaz (played by Tara Fitzgerald) prefers a complete lack of clothes, but still has a great line in all things floaty and layered. The entire thing is a visual delight.

It’s that delight I wanted to reflect here, complete with my own castle (well, ok, obviously not mine) to play around with. I decided to pay homage to all that green dye with this pistachio coloured cardigan, and a vintage dress that somehow just bridges the gap between nightie and acceptable daywear. Plus, I had the most important accessory – a notebook. However, unlike Cassandra, mine isn’t a detailed account of each day. Instead it’s a scattered mix of lists, ideas, jottings and the odd poem. And I’ve never written anything in it whilst perching in the kitchen sink – more’s the shame…


Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Woman in Clothes

“I guess, and correct me if I’m wrong, clothes are important to you because of your work?”

The question came up when I was chatting with a friend the other evening. I’d surfaced for a little while from some rather frantic late-night typing and note making, and the talk had turned to what we valued.

“No, not really. Work comes into it, but it’s more about the clothes themselves. About dressing up, knowing I look damn good and deriving confidence from that. About playing around with the image I project, or assembling a persona from what I’ve got on. About looking at the narrative of a garment. Obviously it helps with the blogging and everything, but my work came from the clothes - not the other way round.”

Well, I replied with something along those lines. Possibly not quite as articulate (my brain was feeling a little frazzled after a full day in front of a screen). There were so many other things I could have said beyond that though: acknowledging pure pleasure in wearing a good dress; enjoyment in intelligent analysis of style; the cultural, social and historical role of clothes; that miraculous ability to shape how others perceive you on a daily basis; the room for craftsmanship and verve and serious flights of imagination. A hundred and one different reasons to adore or be intrigued by the contents of a wardrobe.

“I hadn’t really though of it like that. I just have clothes I wear because I need clothes, and nice clothes reserved for occasions.”

His response made total sense. It also made me realize that I have very little distinction between the two, and that the way I think about clothes doesn't always chime with how others view them. For starters, I rarely divide off functional from ‘dressed up’, unless I’m wearing wellies – and even then it’ll usually be with, say, a leather mini-skirt and impractical cardigan. I may wear flats all the time (my height + a bike + general dislike of things that impede striding), and I may plump for vaguely comfortable items (belts and me do not get on), but beyond that, every day is a day for nice clothes – regardless of occasion. Even if I’m not leaving the house. Even if I’m feeling shit – in fact, especially when I’m feeling shit. The powers of a killer outfit on days when it’s all too much are vastly underrated.

I used to say that I’d rather over-dress than under-dress, but I don’t think I necessarily measure my outfits in terms of 'dressiness' now. Much as I do love the occasional bout of incongruity, it’s more what feels right, what works, what aligns with my mood that day. Could be as simple as a shift dress or as fussy as matching my socks to my shirt collar and bag. As low-key as jeans, or high maintenance as this Chloe dress – with a suggestion of liquid gold in every movement.

That snippet of conversation above took up no more than around four minutes before we skipped on to other subjects, the brief mention of clothes strung in among talk of literary theory and summer plans. But I thought about it again the next morning while reading Women in Clothes (I’ve got into the daily routine of reading a portion over breakfast and coffee, savouring each page in turn.) It’s essentially an ethnographic study of women’s relationship to clothing, in all its many permutations. There are survey answers, interviews, written pieces, lists, snippets of conversation, diary entries, photo-series, old snapshots and illustrations. Together they build up an illuminating whole, a kind of shape tailored with innumerable tiny darts and stitches (sorry, was that image inevitable?) 

Along the way it covers every conceivable angle you could apply to clothes: sexuality, gender, confidence, aesthetics, body image, shopping, identity, uniforms, joy in a good outfit, factory production, hand-crafting, family stories, disguises, transformations, the balance of envy and admiration, attraction, intimacy, mistakes, and marvelous encounters. Lots beyond that too.

I think what I value most about this book though, above the delight in some serious sartorial stimulation each day, is the validity it gives to so many experiences – to story after story detailing different relationships with clothes. There is room for every approach, every way of dressing. It also quite amply proves the significant role that clothes have in shaping the way we see ourselves and how others see us.

It still feels like a slight revelation whenever I open its pages. It talks about clothes in a language I understand – one that isn’t couched in fash-mag hyperbole or 'hot new thing' speak. Instead it brings everything down, quite literally, to the fabric of everyday life. Just as it should be. Just as I love it most.

I was thinking about dressing up, dressing down, and everything in between when I rediscovered this Chloe dress (a wonderful birthday present) - previously worn on the blog here and, for the first time, here (in the latter I'm wearing the same shoes as above. Now there's versatility for you!) This time it had the addition of an incredibly sumptuous vintage velvet coat that my mum bought. I had an awful lot of fun strutting around a windy hill-top in it... 

Also, talking of clothes and stories, the tale of my grandma's Doctor Who dress went up on Worn Stories recently. 

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Witchy Vibes

Type ‘witchy vibes’ into google, and about 143,000 results come up. Admittedly some of them seem to be related to a racehorse of that moniker (what a name). However, a fair few are also devoted to the specific ‘vibes’ associated with all things pagan, magical and vaguely subversive: whether it’s hazy-grained images of tarot cards on Tumblr, or cackling girls dressed in floaty fabrics. I still find it a kind of funny phrase though. Why do those two words nestle alongside each other so often? Why is it 'vibes' rather than 'looks' or 'aesthetic' or anything else similar? 

Especially when it comes to fashion too, ‘the witch’ seems a kind of popular figurehead who pops up (or should that be swoops in?) every few seasons. I still recall with a particular clarity Luella’s AW08 collection, with crimped hair aplenty and the odd pointy hat in sight. It stuck out to me hugely, perhaps tapping in to my own childhood inclinations – harking back to a point where every Halloween I faithfully dressed as an ever-more elaborate witch, with swathes of lace and plenty of purple lipstick. I’d cast spells, hang fake spiders' webs everywhere and go trick-or-treating with friends.

Of course the fashion version of ‘the witch’ is often little more than shorthand for velvet, tulle, dark satin, and the odd scrawled symbol (one which the designer may or, as is often the case, may not have researched to any great length). Perhaps some crazy hair too. The odd nod to Kate Bush. Black layers. All the black layers. Maybe a Gothic outdoor location, all crumbling stones and windswept scenery. The witch is transformed into something sexy and gorgeous and usually all slender and young – perhaps vaguely threatening, but only within certain boundaries. More often than not, this is a conventionally attractive incarnation of the witch. No warts or straggly grey locks here. Arguably little of the outspokenness and independence that originally made ‘the witch’ such a figure of mistrust throughout much of history.  

If you want a far more comprehensive overview of pop culture, sex appeal, and the threat of ‘the witch’ though, go and read Zoe Coleman’s fabulous article here. It’s enviably good, and pretty much includes everything you’d want to know, moving from the Salem witch trials to Disney villains to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Incidentally, it’s published on a website called The Coven – an ever-so-ace website with the tagline ‘must be the season of the witch.’ All the articles are whip-smart great, their ethos being this:

‘The coven has long been a sacred space for women to do and say thing outside of the norm, and we’re not particularly interested in the norm… We want to look at serious things without being dour and to look at frothy things without being insubstantial; to publish fashion, beauty, travel and food writing as much as criticism or a meaty interview.’

I love any kind of space setting out to be embracing, challenging, funny and thoughtful all at the same time – a space where as you’re browsing you can excitedly agree with one article, disagree with the next, and be jealous you didn't write the third. They’re tip-top. Go have a look. Also talking sexuality and gender, I recently read Margaret Atwood’s NY Timeessay on John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick. As with many of her essays, it’s a great mix of witty and insightful. To give a small taste:

‘Mr. Updike takes ''sisterhood is powerful'' at its word and imagines it literally. What if sisterhood really is powerful? What will the sisters use their ''powers'' for? And what - given human nature, of which Mr. Updike takes not too bright a view - what then? Luckily these witches are only interested in the ''personal,'' rather than the ''political''; otherwise they might have done something unfrivolous, like inventing the hydrogen bomb.’

This been a hop, skip and skim across the first few things that came to mind when I thought of witches – little more than a list of the odd thing recently remembered or stumbled across. There's so much else to explore and think about and comment on. But that’s partly because the history, symbolism and cultural significance of the witch is one of those MASSIVE subjects that takes up book after book. I think I need to go and read a few more of them, maybe appropriately dressed in this ever-so-witchy, wide-sleeved black dress…

These photos were taken by Paulina Choh, who is a whizz with her camera - previously taking these images of me scampering around in a silver dress. The black dress worn here was bought from Oxfam. I snapped it up the minute I saw it. The combination of crocheted bodice and wide sleeves was too delicious, despite its entire impracticality for anything other than photo-shoots. All the jewellery is vintage. 

Friday, 3 July 2015

Tables and Chairs

I like unusual objects in incongruous places. That’s probably why I adore Tim Walker so much – entranced by the beds in the woods, the aeroplanes in stately homes, the tents in libraries. Many fashion photographers play around with these kinds of juxtapositions, making the ordinary slightly more bizarre or brilliant by introducing unlikely clashes of prop and location. Tim Walker just happens to do it with a particularly vivid, striking type of flourish. He’s made it his trademark, encompassing everything from a living room with a stream running through the middle to Lily Cole dangling on a huge fishhook above a river.

That kind of use of location – of making it new and odd – is also what I found so appealing about Punch Drunk’s The Drowned Man. Set over several floors in an abandoned warehouse, each level was transformed into something different: ballrooms, film sets, forests and deserts among them. You could wander between each in turn, stumbling across rooms full of sand and desks and birdcages, or locating the secret passage at the back of the wardrobe. It was my favourite kind of interactive theatre, the audience turned voyeurs as we craned forward to follow a lover’s argument or watched the doctor at work. It was less an unusual juxtaposition, more a suspending of usual boundaries - space made strange.

Perhaps my favourite example of incongruity though isn’t something I ever saw, but only heard about recently. Back when my dad was 25 and living in Bristol, he and a friend decided to do breakfast with a twist. Rather than your average dining table/ kitchen set-up, they took their morning meal to a nearby city centre roundabout - setting up a table and chairs complete with tablecloth, food, teapot and cutlery on this small patch of grey concrete. Both wore dressing gowns and read newspapers. You can see pictorial evidence here. A local radio station got involved, asking whether it was “political?” The police stopped to ask what on earth they were doing. My dad’s answer? “We wanted to cheer up the commuters.” This is what I appreciate most. It was street performance, for sure, but there was no intent beyond the two of them doing it because they could, because they were young and playful and thought it would be funny.

I’ve never managed anything on that scale. I’ve taken tables and bookshelves into fields. I’ve hung dresses in trees. I’ve got friends to wander along with picture-frames over their shoulders. These feel like tame offerings though, usually solitary – surprising only the odd dog walker or enthusiastic hiker. Maybe I need to up my offerings, do things on a grander scale. Or maybe I can just appreciate what others have achieved, and occasionally do my bit by wafting around crumbling Welsh cottages in lace wedding dresses, just for kicks…

Here's me in the slightly more prosaic setting of our garden, wearing all second-hand - including a vintage sixties suede pea-coat I nicked from my mum. I'm now off to go sit out there again with a glass of wine in one hand, and a poetry book in the other. Not really incongruous, but ever so delightful.  
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