Friday, 28 October 2016

Skin Deep

Last week, in a burst of very exciting news, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was announced as the new face of Boots No.7. Before I write anything else, I suggest you go watch the video here. In the clip, she re-treads the ground of her Elle essay (which I seem to link to at least twice a year), pointing out that, “our culture teaches us that to be taken seriously, women should not care too much about appearance.” Adichie has no time for that. None whatsoever. What she instead stresses is the magical capacity of make-up to make her “walk ever so slightly taller.” She celebrates “the face I choose to show the world, and what I choose to say.” In a scant number of sentences she delivers a powerful message – one that positions an interest in beauty as something active, autonomous and playful.

As adverts go, this is both joyous and canny: highlighting the ways in which deep thought and surface appearance can happily co-exist. It hails this most articulate of writers for both the dexterity of her words, and her appreciation for a bloody good lipstick. Even better, it revels in the words, actions and appearance of a hugely powerful, accomplished woman – a woman whose skin colour is not always best represented in beauty advertising. There’s nothing patronizing here. No shame, no language of inadequacy and improvement. Just the potentially boundless fun to be found in a full make-up bag.

Add to this the fact that other women included in the campaign launch, like Sali Hughes (whose book Pretty Iconic is tip-top of my to-buy list – read this gorgeous excerpt on cosmetics and sensory memory here), Gemma Cairney (sunshine in human form – listen to her chat about green glittery dresses on Dawn O’Porter’s podcast here), and Louise O’Neill (a damn sharp, damn brilliant writer – take a nose at her columns here), all have a similar ethos: copious brains AND an interest in beauty. That’s what we need to see more of, in ads and elsewhere. Beauty advertising, very rightfully, is often critiqued for being reductive – promoting a hugely limited ideal, and reliant on the suggestion of make-up as a corrective rather than something inventive. The more ways we counteract that, the better.

I thought of the campaign again this morning over breakfast while listening to the PanDolly podcast: presented by the ever-excellent Pandora Sykes (ST Style wardrobe mistress, Instagram aficionado and super-smart blogger) and Dolly Alderton (all-round fab journalist with a dating column in the ST Style, and a newsletter called The Dolly Mail). In this episode, they touched upon advertising, discussing the relationship between feminism and the commercial world. It’s a tricksy one, but they both have some great points about the ways in which we can utilize the sales of clothes and cosmetics to promote more inclusive, encouraging messages – rather than constantly making women feel insufficient.

I think there’s a huge difference between companies being ‘feminist’ in name, and feminist in action (a single empowering slogan doesn’t wipe out most brands’ reliance on slender, white-skinned, glossy-haired youth as its ultimate ideal), but those who do actively try to change the conversation, as with No.7, deserve applause. Given the ubiquity of imagery, promoted products, beauty ideals and a hundred-and-one suggested ways to change ourselves via fitspo, green juice and clean eating (also go read this), anything within that realm which challenges the status quo is always welcome.

This morning I also read the latest installment in Ella Risbridger’s column for The Pool. Ostensibly, it’s a lipstick column: each piece framed by the particular shade she’s been wearing that week. In practice, it is a powerfully honest set of meditations on hospitals, hope, fear, getting through the day, and being a carer for her partner (referred to here as the Tall Man) as he experiences ongoing treatment for lymphoma. It’s possibly the only beauty column I’ve ever cried at. She is warm, thoughtful, and gut-hittingly candid as she documents the huge challenges and small joys of each week.

Her newest piece is full of liberal praise for a blue Nars number. She writes about its transformative powers with glee: “I was, in the six hours and twenty minutes in which my lips were blue, perfectly content: content with my own body, content with my own face, and my place in the world. I felt invincible. I felt extraordinary. I felt like I could fly.” Lipstick has always been an emboldening tool; a thing she describes elsewhere as “part armour, part warpaint.” Here it is also a form of ownership, a bright blue mark of reclamation.

There are so many meanings to cosmetics. They can be anchors, paint-boxes, disguises, mood-boosters, spot-coverers, mask-makers, rituals, a means of metamorphosis. They do not always yield satisfaction (and should by no means be an expectation) but when wielded with a sense of agency, they can be both bewitching and comforting. Whether it's an author looking and speaking luminously in an ad campaign, or a carefully weighted column in praise of blue lips during a difficult time, these are powerful moments: moments worth dwelling on and celebrating. 

The purple shade of lippy I’m wearing in these images is from Revlon. It’s perfectly autumnal. I went in search of something all juicy and dark after seeing a friend who looked so damn good with her berry-coloured lips. Here it felt especially appropriate against the storm light: bright sunshine and grey cloud behind, with my vintage dress and coat in the foreground. Certainly an embodiment of the way I love to do beauty – teetering around in massive heels, make-up reapplied half-way through a hike with my dad so that we could squeeze in a blog shoot on the hill's brow. 

Coat - liberated from my Mum's wardrobe - a 1940's WW2/Post WW2 "Utility" coat, with Utility label intact. The construction is extraordinary, as seen from behind in the last image.
Dress - featured numerous times here and elsewhere over the last 6 years - vintage, from a 'pound' basket at a vintage fair when I was in my mid teens. The mended rips have re-opened and extended, but it's a stayer.
Ridiculous heels - charity shop. They gather dust on a shelf, apart from the occasional foray in a backpack, to be whipped out for 10 mins before practical footwear resumes.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Words Galore

This has been the best kind of weekend: mellow, satisfying, and full of ideas. A weekend of coffee taken back to bed with a good book, as well as plentiful cooking, and long walks through landscape that would sit well in Wuthering Heights. I’ve had the company of my own thoughts, ideas brewing and bubbling, and the deliciousness of a Saturday night in with Nat King Cole’s voice on the record player, Katharine Hepburn’s arch tones entertaining me in her autobiography, and a glass (or two) of red wine to smooth it all out. I’ve also probably spent one too many hours on Instagram. Ah well. They’ve been fun. To top it off, I spent this evening with family friends, eating crispy potatoes and perfectly roasted chicken. We laughed and chatted and made sure that leftovers were minimal.

I’m sated, in every sense of the word. I’m also knackered: the good kind of knackered that comes from tired muscles and a mind that’s been given a proper runaround. I’ve been dashing all over the place recently. I’ve talked at Trinity College Dublin's Philosophical Society about beauty standards, gone back to Oxford for a poetry reading, as well as graduation (!!), done a shoot or two, and had many, many meetings. New things are afoot. Good things. Things I can’t wait to explore and feel my way into further.

So this last week has been the first chance in a while to properly settle into some kind of rhythm. I’m not sure exactly what it is yet, but it feels good. It’s a rhythm giving room for that burnished, crisp, autumnal thrill of new projects, as well as some space to just dawdle and learn and be (plus, finally doing all my invoices. Oops.)

The first of those new projects was properly kick-started on Saturday, when I decided to join all the other good people with newsletters. Mine is a tinyletter called Rosalind Reads, and - of course! - it’s all about books. You can sign up for it here if you fancy a weekly(ish) reading list, arranged by theme. Expect selections of books in areas from clothes to walking to illness. The first one – Telling Tales - went out yesterday. This feels like a very natural step, and a very fertile one too. I can’t wait to get stuck in.

Alongside the various ways in which I’m looking forward, if we’re talking all things words, I also want to pause here to glance back over my shoulder too. The jump from student to freelance writer has been pretty seamless. I have the time – the time! the time! such sweet time! – to pursue things I’d been pondering on and letting percolate for months and months. Some of these are journalistic. Others are longer form. But while those are in progress, I wanted to collate together the work I completed over the last few months.  

Some are very personal pieces, including this set of reflections for The Debrief on the bittersweet summer after university, and this essay for Buzzfeed on scoliosis, puberty, and curves in all the wrong places. Both were a joy to work on (with brilliant editors too).

In print, you can currently find my words in Suitcase, where I explored one of my favourite activities: wild swimming. And in the latest issue of Violet I interviewed the brilliant director and screenwriter Sarah Kernochan about Hollywood, sexism, and what it was like to be the first woman to wear a tux to the Oscars.

I’ve also (unsurprisingly) spent a lot of time writing about all things teenage. Alongside the For Books’ Sake piece looking at representations of young women in fiction, I also had the best fun writing this for the ever-ace ThandieKay in praise of free make-up samples and the power of playing with your appearance during adolescence. I talked about my teen style icons for Into The Fold, praised Hermione and smart women for Mugglenet, discussed the art of self-confidence on Howling Reviews, and dismissed any suggestion of there being a ‘universal’ teen experience for Maximum Pop.

Perhaps my absolute favourite though was this piece for Refinery29. It’s called A Brief History of Men Moaning About Women’s Clothes, and oh the fun I had! It contains modernist misogynists, medieval preachers, and kings pissed off at red lipstick. Also, it featured on Man Repeller, which basically made my month. As with the work I’ve done for Broadly, this is the kind of writing I absolutely relish. Getting my teeth into an idea like this, with plenty of research required (me? Missing uni? Well, maybe only a little) and the chance to analyse clothes and culture - well, it’s the dream. I hope there’s plenty more of that ahead.

These images were taken by my dad In Oxford the weekend before I handed in my dissertation, back in March. It was a rather fraught 48 hours, but I got there – and spent the rest of the day after hand-in elated and bone-tired, lying in bed by myself drinking buck’s fizz and watching Endeavour. About as perfect as it gets. That whole year is already receding into the distance astonishingly quickly. 

My dress is from Stockholm's Beyond Retro, and the boots are second hand. I'd forgotten about these photos until the other day when I pulled this greyish-blue beauty of a coat back out of storage. I bought it from my all time favourite place for vintage in Oxford: Charlie's stall at the Gloucester Green market (he is the most excellent man - the ritual of visiting his stall is worth a whole blog post of its own). I ummed and aahed over it at first, and he, fabulously, told me to take it home, give it a test run, and give him the money the week after if I wanted to keep it. By the time I'd walked home enveloped in fluff, I knew it had to be mine. It’s ridiculously warm, ridiculously joyous, with the bonus of making me feel like a stately teddy bear with a blue rinse. The weather is now cold enough to shrug it on once more. I think it'll be perfect for some of those long, rambling walks.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Walking, Wandering, Striding, and Stomping

I went out at just before 5pm, weaving my way through concrete until I finally hit grass. Grass became woods became ferns became hills and sky – so much sky, stretching gloriously wide and gloriously blue. The wind juddered at my ears. I climbed the final stretch, red-cheeked and out of breath, heaving myself onto a rock to stare at the town I’d just climbed out of. We over-use the phrase “on top of the world”, but here it was apt: capturing what it feels like to stand, elevated above everything, aware of scaling this huge mound of rock and earth that, from down there in the valley, seems boundlessly large; to know that to anyone in that valley glancing out of their window up at the hill, right now you’re a tiny dot – a match-stick speck on this spine of green.

Two days later and I was in London, weaving my way through the streets as I moved from Holborn to the Tate Modern to Embankment on foot over the course of several hours (later to skip on to Tower Bridge for an event with Red magazine and then on to see friends in Arsenal via tube: it was quite the day). I lingered in the LRB Bookshop, dawdled along Drury Lane, poked my nose through the door of vintage shops, and paced my way over Blackfriars Bridge. By evening my blistered toes were impressive, but it had been worth it.

On another recent trip I saw Clissold Park for the first time in bright Sunday sunshine, elated to be exactly where I was, observing and walking and reveling in all the people going about their weekend business. To repurpose Woolf, it embodied what I loved; life; London; this moment of late September. I carried on to have coffee with my friend Rosie. Together we spent an hour in Abney Park cemetery, scrutinizing the ivy-clad gravestones, before moving on to London Fields - chatting all the way about bodies, identity and fashion blogging. It was perfect, made all the better by London having her best clothes on: streets decked out in sunshine and the odd orange leaf.

As you may be able to tell, I like feeling out places on foot. It’s how I move best: connecting up things through motion, through that very simple action of putting one boot in front of the other (for it is, nearly always, a boot). If I can walk around a city, I will. I want to nose down side-alleys and duck into bookshops and work out where the streets connect. I’m slightly uneasy until I’ve got a vague understanding of the space.

This last month I’ve not only paced my way through London, but also Brighton, Oxford and Dublin: two well-known cities, two new. Each yielded up their own offerings: clothes rails, book stalls, racks of fabric, glimpses of living rooms, shop windows, beautiful buildings (and ugly ones), crowds shifting and ebbing. I’ve also spent time rambling around the much more sparsely populated countryside. Pavements and ferns. Streets and narrow, stony paths. Buildings lit up at night and trees with the slant of sunset on them. I love them all equally. Very different environments, but all experienced with the same set of principles: curiosity in the new, comfort in the familiar, and joy in the very simple process of being able to just stride and observe.

This last month I’ve also thought a lot about walking: mainly thanks to reading Lauren Elkin’s marvelous, marvelous book Flâneuse. It’s a delicious read, charting the history and implications of women walking around cities. Elkin lingers somewhere between memoir and cultural criticism, interlacing her own wanderings with thoughts on Virginia Woolf, George Sand, Sophie Calle, and plenty of other interesting figures. Most crucially, she wrestles back the narrative of urban exploration from the men: talking with wit and insight about the ways in which women have moved through space, marked it, made it theirs and, sometimes, been rejected by it (for indeed, who among us hasn’t felt that surge of panic while out by ourselves late at night; suddenly, frustratingly aware that it’s easier for men to stride around without thought after dark?)

Flâneuse is a glittering account of female street haunters, lingerers, ramblers, stompers, and marchers; an examination of looking and being looked at; a meditation on being lost, for better and worse (on that note – also go and read Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City similarly dazzling prose/ thoughts/ analysis); a celebration of being inquisitive and open to whatever lies beyond the next corner; and a manifesto for pulling on your shoes and just having a good old nose around. As she writes, the flâneuse is "a figure to to be reckoned with, and inspired by, all on her own. She voyages out and goes where she's not supposed to; she forces us to confront the ways in which words like home and belonging are used against women. She is a determined, resourceful individual keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk."

Since reading it, I’ve made more of an effort to walk consciously – to not just gallop along listening to music (as much as I love having my own personal soundtrack), but to properly listen, and properly look. It feels different. It feels richer. I’ve been more willing to idle and move around without the little blue dot on google maps tagging along, to just enjoy the scenery and snatches of life caught in passing: or in the case of the hills, to enjoy the total and utter solitude for a brief while. As I said, I’ve been putting one boot in front of another. And sometimes – as shown here – my feet have been clad in gold.   

These gold boots are by CAT. They sent them to me more than a year ago, and I wear them with astonishing regularity. They've taken me through mud, grass, and Edinburgh streets. The dress is a brilliant vintage number my mum bought online and then (begrudgingly) gave to me. Maybe this would have been better illustrated with images of me wandering around a city - but, well, it wouldn't be a proper blog post without some gorse and heather in there. 
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