Monday, 25 January 2016

Deranged Poetesses, and Other Tales

What does a 'deranged poetess' look like to you? Would she have an unkempt mass of long, frizzy hair? Ink-stained fingers and pens tucked behind each ear? Long flounced skirts that rustle with every step? A wardrobe of velvet, lace and satin mottled with age? A neck looped around with hundreds of pendants? A black cat at her ankles and an owl circling her head? Bits of crumpled paper spilling from her pockets – leaving a trail of crossed-out lines behind her as she walks? (Actually, scratch the walking. Surely a deranged poetess could only glide...)

I wish. Apparently though, it’s the label you get saddled with if you dare to criticize the way a man wrote about a female poet. Yeah, that’s right. Because you know, all those silly, mad women with their words and voices and ability to exercise an opinion! More than that, women who dare to write poetry themselves, and celebrate others who do so! But, being female and deranged and all, they get that special ‘ess’ added on the end, just to make sure that people wouldn’t confuse them with, you know, one of the serious male poets. (If anyone feels the need to criticize my interpretation by the way, don’t worry! It’s tongue-in-cheek, just like the ‘deranged poetess’ label! God, why is everything taken so seriously?!)

If you want to read more about the whole saga, check this out here. What the story essentially distils down to is Sarah Howe, this year’s brilliant recipient of the TS Eliot Prize for poetry, being criticized in various publications in the wake of her win. The essence of the critique? She must have won it because she was female, because she was Anglo-Chinese, because she was under 35, or because she was (in the Private Eye’s charming phrasing) “presentable.” To be honest, the Private Eye column – which you can read here – is by far the most frustrating. The implicit message is that a woman could never win on merit alone. Surely there must be extenuating factors? Reasons to explain away the hideous anomaly of recognizing the talent of someone other than an old, white man?  

The ‘deranged poetess’ label though comes from the writer of another profile for a broadsheet newspaper – which, in itself, I’m not that interested in talking about. Instead I’m fascinated by how far its echoes reverberated. The phrase appeared in a throwaway tweet defending the profile. Soon after, #derangedpoetess began trending. Some of the tweets were sharp and witty, pointing out what a great name it’d make for a poetry collective. Plenty were angry. Hashtags like this become a flashpoint, a catalyst, something tapping into deep-seated frustration that stretches far and wide. In this case, it’s about the literary world’s continuing problem with women. To be brilliant, young AND female is, apparently, too much. The youth bit in particular. Such excess must be tempered with a heavy focus on appearance, perhaps, or the ins and outs of personal life (see Jonathan Bate’s treatment of Sylvia Plath in his new Ted Hughes biography – skewered by Janet Malcolm here). Personal lives can be fascinating, by the way, but there’s a time and a place and a way of approaching that should compliment that creator’s work, rather than undermining it.

Essentially, in the face of huge numbers of utterly fantastic female academics, poets, essayists, novelists, thinkers, playwrights etc etc etc, there are still a fair number of petulant men who wish to maintain the status quo. That’s what struck me about the Private Eye piece. It sounded like petulance hastily masked with scorn. How dare anyone other than the usual formula be recognized! How dare the normal balances of power be ever-so-slightly tipped!

The few poems of Howe’s that I’ve read so far sound alive, full of revelry in the potential of words, their sound and shape and vivid texture. (FYI, if you’re a certain type of male literary critic, you can dismiss this as “florid”). So much of the time I find contemporary poetry oddly stiff and clinical. This was a delight by comparison.

Before this all kicked off, I had a conversation on the phone with my mum about what a great surprise of a win it was. I first heard about it through listening to Howe talk on an excellent Guardian Books Podcast, also featuring Emmy the Great – both discussing their creative processes, their heritage, and the differences between poetry and lyrics. I’d listened idly whilst cooking dinner, noting the name and relishing what I’d heard, but not necessarily inclined to follow it up. A few days later I saw the hashtag, followed up the story, and wondered whether to laugh or cry. In the end I opted for another phone-call with my mum. Now I’m much more likely to buy Howe's winning collection: 'A Loop of Jade'. Maybe that’s one great thing to take from this.

This whole storm also, aptly, re-stoked my fire for poetry – both reading, and writing. There’s so much to delve into, so much to think about and distil down into the rhythm of a line. I want to carry on crafting and learning and doing more in the way of performance poetry. In the meantime, I like the idea of joining this flock of deranged poetesses – perhaps in a red lace dress, with a grey wool cloak and the wind whipping through my curls. Maybe even with two or three white, wild ponies in the background... That’d definitely be how a deranged poetess presents herself, right?

Everything I'm wearing is vintage - all bought second-hand. Another shoot done over Christmas in a pocket of sunshine. Talking about women and poets, by the way, my friend Izzy has written a poetry collection called (somewhat aptly for today's theme) The Voices of Women - just published - and you should definitely take a look at her blog post all about it here

Monday, 18 January 2016

The Magical Power of The Clothes You Just Can't Get Rid Of

I’ve slipped into a strange ritual whenever I go home for the holidays. I enter my bedroom and spend about half an hour joyfully reacquainting myself with all the books and clothes I’ve missed for the last few months. I revel in the space. I make elaborate plans for creative schemes. Then I feel an itch. A rather small but ever so insistent one. It’s the itch to sift and clear and get rid of stuff. This has happened several times now. By the evening, that recently immaculate carpet will be a sprawl of junk, boxes, bags, and whatever I’ve decided needs to be sorted that time. First I did my bookshelves and paperwork. Next time it was arts materials and magazines (I now have a HUGE vanity case stuffed with clippings and pages ripped from old issues of Harper’s Bazaar).

Over Christmas I faced down the most unwieldy challenge of them all: my clothes. And by clothes, I don’t just mean a handful of items being set aside for a charity shop. I mean a thorough decluttering of everything from vintage dresses to much-too-tiny gloves to broken jewellery that hadn’t seen the light of day since I was 15. I’ve done this before, getting rid of things bit by bit. But this was by far the most comprehensive purge. If it didn’t fit, was never worn, or wasn’t stunningly extraordinary enough to hold onto for the sheer merit of one-of-a-kind design, then it was going. I’ve already alluded to the growing number of suitcases stacked with treasures to sell on at some point (probably next summer, when my degree is done). Well, I added at least another two or three cases’ worth this time. It was ruthless. It was wildly gratifying.

Not gratifying in a Marie Kondo ‘the right way of tidying will change your life, your mindset, your future and make your hair glossier into the bargain’ kind of way though. I am such a huge lover of stuff: the stories, the satisfaction, the tactility, the material pleasure of junk. It’s more to do with streamlining that junk – and making it (slightly) easier to close my wardrobe door.

I hit a few stumbling points though. Having set out those loose parameters, I kept unearthing items that, despite being highly uncomfortable and hardly ever worn, just had to stay. I couldn’t bear to part with them. Case in point: this fifties tweed wool hacking jacket above. It is exquisitely cut, immediately makes me feel like some kind of delightful parody of ‘rural dressing’, and, to top it all off, has the best turquoise satin lining you ever did see. The downside? That tweed is bloody itchy. (Even with a layer underneath). The moment I slip it on, I’m pulling at the collar like a fidgety child. Despite fitting in all the right places, I can feel my irritation levels rising rapidly in the first few minutes of wearing. Yet every time I’ve pulled it off my coat rack and thought about parting ways, I’ve been impelled to return it. Look at my colour, my shape, my wonderfully retro label, it whispers – or would, if clothes had the capacity for speech. (I reckon this jacket would have a seductive and sassy tone). Back it goes, happily nestling once more among the yellow cape, two satin evening coats, and a small army of blazers – all of which get worn. Promise.

Second case in point: these vintage velvet trousers. Again, a great fit. But the high, tight waistband scuppers all plans of airily floating around in black velvet and a silk white shirt. I’m too busy making a scrunched face at everything suddenly being much too constricted for my liking (can you tell yet that I don’t like uncomfortable things?) Yet, as with the jacket, it's impossible to throw them onto the pile of ‘clothes to go’. Neither is one of a kind. Neither has any great narratives attached, or memories that mean they're worth holding onto for sentimental reasons. They’re nicely designed, but not gasp-inducing. Both should, for practical reasons, be jettisoned. Yet they have this strange, inexplicable staying power. They demand to remain in my room. 

I’m kind of glad though. Much as I enjoy the odd bout of ruthless elimination, I’m pleased that some things have proved themselves exceptions to any kind of rule. Maybe I’ll hold onto these two items for years. Maybe they will, finally, have to leave during the next round of sorting. But either way, they’re staying put for now – and they made a fine pairing for a blustery, ankle-chilling, pond-side shoot in the winter sun. 

No explanation required for the main garments here, as I’ve already spent a frivolous amount of time dwelling on them. The shoes are another long-ago-charity-shop purchase that nearly went – but those pointy toes were the saving grace. That, and the quality of the Italian leather. I’m also wearing my mum’s vintage belt and a H&M Conscious blouse.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016


Dressing up boxes have always played a significant role in my life. As a child, they were where I’d head in search of new characters. My mum’s former days as a drama teacher led to rich pickings: everything from bright fabrics to pirate hats to an especially gorgeous turquoise jacket flecked with beads and mirrors that I adored unreservedly. Witch, princess, orphan, whatever... That box gave room for trying personas on for size, playing around with their possibilities, and then folding them away again.

In my teens the basket under my bed became a repository for ridiculous shiny leggings, broken ball-gowns, lacy things, and a fair number of faded vintage frocks. I still have it now – stuffed with more dazzle and cheap decadence than a girl could ever require. Plenty of things that once lived there have migrated through to my actual wardrobe (and vice versa - there’s an ebb and flow between the two). It houses lots of items erring towards the outrageous, the ridiculous, the highly impractical, and the ripped/ badly dyed/ too-small-for-anything-other-than-posing-in-for-photos. It’s a basket stuffed with potential performances.

In light of the sad news of David Bowie's untimely death, I’ve been thinking lots about dressing up boxes. And performance. And characters. And my early teens. All of those things string together to form a glittery little summary of my relationship with Bowie. At secondary school, he was a shared secret with my friend Caitlin. Well, not really a secret. More a thing we felt we both had some kind of ‘in’ on – this weird, brilliant singer from the seventies who none of our peers gave a shit about. (I should point out here we partly discovered him through watching Life on Mars – hey, every generation finds their own access point).

It was a fertile imaginative time. He perched alongside Kate Bush, The Bell Jar, old Audrey Hepburn films, new fashion magazines, and my recently rescued great-grandma’s hats – another constellation point when it came to forming and navigating an identity of my own away from school.

See what I’m doing here, by the way? I’m building a myth. Easy enough to do – re-spin a story, weighting it in a particular way. In this case? Foregrounding Bowie. If I’m entirely honest, I can’t actually recall how much of an individual impact he had on my life at that exact point. I have no tales of everything changing when I first heard his music, or him suddenly making it “ok” to be different (how glorious that he did that for generations though. How utterly glorious! Reading so many accounts of the various ways he galvanised and validated people has been truly special.)

He was significant, undoubtedly, but rather as part of a collage of books, films and music choices that, then, felt excitingly non-mainstream. They were mine (well, mine and, in his case, Caitlin’s). I know they already belonged to many, many others around the world too, as most great things do, but there’s something so fresh and explosive about being 13/ 14 and discovering these cultural lodestars for yourself.

Bowie would probably have approved of any kind of myth-making though. That was what he was all about: stories. It’s the element I love most, after the gorgeous, brilliant music. Not one I really picked up on at first, either. In fact, keen appreciation for his various characters came later, in line with my developing interest in clothes and dress and the outfits we choose to face the world in; it’s an interest that’s still evolving. Bowie’s magic shape-shifting quality, the ability to form and reform and then reform oneself over and again with a wardrobe change and a new creative project… That’s what gets my heart beating now (and my fingers itching for more glam-rock leotards).  

Earlier today, I watched this documentary. It reminded me once more that transformation is such an incredible tool. Present yourself as a rock god, an alien, a visionary, and people will believe it. I love the brio, the conscious artifice of each metamorphosis – often so meticulously designed to provoke effect. That’s the gift I’ve chosen to revel in today. The gift of recognizing that dressing up can be extraordinarily powerful. It allows you to tell stories, remake yourself anew, shift the way you're viewed. Most importantly, it also gives you space to play. It’s not quite the same as being a child running around in a pirate’s hat. But it springs from a similar place of roving imagination. And what a gift that is.

Another form of myth making here in these images – the location being an ancient stone circle that has stood atop a hill since the Bronze Age. Some of the stones are little more than rocks nestled low to the ground. Others stretch upward – odd, lumpy oblongs offering praise to the skies. All of them are dusted with lichen. They’ve attracted their own fair share of myths and folklore over the years. Witches, magic cows, all sorts... It felt only right to add another possible story to them by pulling this dramatic number out of the dressing up box (bought for £3 at a vintage fair in Oxford) to leap around in. I didn’t have a specific ‘character’ in mind, but something alchemic happened with the combination between location and outfit: a sort of just knowing how to pose, where to stand, what to do. An enthralling (if freezing and blustery) half hour of being transformed. 

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

A Love Letter to Charity Shops

Some time last year, I had an idea. The kind of idle thought that flutters into your head and stays there long enough to be scribbled down, forgotten about, and unearthed again several weeks later. "Why not do a whole shoot with charity shop clothing?" Even though that's the basic remit of this blog, I wondered what it would be like to do similar in a professional context - working alongside an expert team, and a rail heaving with second-hand wares. I mentioned it in passing to my then-agent Josy Spooner at Models 1 (she's now busy taking time to travel around the world, making me envious with her photos). She said it was a great idea, and suggested she did the styling. Together we cooked up further plans, scheming and assembling and gathering until, finally, one day, we drove down to the photographer Saskia Lawson's studio in a car stuffed full of the most delectable garments you ever did see. Plenty of them ended up on camera, with a whole host of charities lending us the most brilliant clothes. Lauren Alice did wonderful seventies-inspired hair and make-up, and I gallivanted around in coats, beads, layers and ruffles to my heart's content. 

It was an incredibly special project to collaborate on - leaving me thrilled all over again with the creative possibilities to be found in modelling, celebrating beautiful clothes, and participating in the kind of project where you leave utterly exhausted, utterly satisfied, and utterly eager to see the images. On top of all that, there was the privilege of seeing a fledgling idea through to the finish. The final destination for the shoot was Tirade magazine. You can see the full feature here. I also wrote them a little piece in praise of all things second hand. For long-term readers it does tread more-than-familiar ground, but I thought I'd post it here too - mainly because it was very fun ground to re-visit and to think about again. 

Big thanks to the EXCELLENT team of women I worked with on this, and to all the charities who gave us the chance to play around with their clothes - you'll see that they're credited in the images. 

(Something of a) Love Letter to Charity Shops

I fell in love with all things second hand when I began raiding my mum's clothes aged thirteen - stealing away her careful collection of fifties tea-dresses and sixties coats. They were stored right at the back of the wardrobe, and I can still recall the complete excitement of unearthing several plastic boxes filled with satin and lace and wool. Unlike the other stuff I owned, mostly bought on the high street, these garments were imbued with magic: they’d had previous lives, previous stories, previous ways of being worn. Putting them on was transformative. A long, black translucent dress with a nipped in waist and a full skirt made me feel like a witchy ballerina, while skeleton print Jean-Paul Gaultier jeans (found in the local charity shop for mere pennies) were so bold, I wondered if I would ever muster the bravery to wear them outside…

It wasn’t just about the wares I could plunder though. Alongside the rather exciting assembly of items already owned, my mum also introduced me to the art of sifting through charity shops, flea markets and vintage stalls in search of new (or rather, old) prized possessions. I was hooked. I still am. Very little thrills more than finding an original 70s suede coat for 50p at a jumble sale, or unearthing a beautiful cocktail gown in a branch of Mind or the Red Cross that simply must come home. To me, it’s all about the hunt – and the unexpected possibilities. You can go second hand shopping with an agenda, with something specific to seek out, but often the best purchases are the ones you couldn’t have foreseen.

That’s one of the qualities I love best: the chance for stumbling across, well, anything. The most beautiful coat ever – the kind to wear day in and day out all winter. A gorgeous, fitted shirt. Some kind of long, swishy skirt that will provide endless opportunity for dressing up. Maybe just the perfect polo-neck. Who knows? Beyond that though, there are the other advantages: the bargain prices, the sustainability points, the chance to speculate on who owned that item previously (where did it go? What events did it see?), the chance to consume in a different way. It’s a way that requires time and patience, but offers up plenty of reward in return.

I must admit it’s hard to write about charity shops without resorting to metaphors about magpies, or treasure hunting. They’re the perfect analogies for the processes involved: searching, sifting, rummaging, gathering, collecting, accumulating. And, just a like a treasure hunt, sometimes you’ll unearth a massive gem, and sometimes there’ll be nothing at all. Part of the process of shopping second hand is knowing that you may return empty-handed too. Always worth the search though.

Perhaps I’m giving too much credit here, elevating second hand purchases to some kind of lofty level. But they yield an awful lot of pleasure. Why not celebrate that? For this shoot, there was so much joy to be found in sifting through the rails, gasping at the gorgeous wares on offer – all those decades and designs nestling side by side. All of them offered up a character to play at. I switched from sexy to languid to outrageously fabulous, each garment dictating the mood. When modeling, I’m used to being dressed in whatever is deemed ‘on trend’ or ‘next season’. As fun as that is, here I got to enjoy something much closer to the way I actually shop and enjoy getting dressed.

I gain a huge amount of my confidence from what I wear, and some of that confidence is certainly derived from always being open (at least sartorially) to the unusual and the exciting. Much as I appreciate and adore the other types of delights to be found in buying shiny, new, bang-up-to-date things, I think that charity shops will always have my heart.

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