Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Power Of Dressing Up

This weekend I wore more sequins than I’ve done in months. From a glittering turquoise playsuit that made me look like a (rather leggy) mermaid to a sequined gold and black bra with teeny-tiny shiny hot-pants to match, through to this Marilyn-esque sparkling number with a slit up one side definitely verging on the obscene, it was 48 hours of spangled mayhem. Around me were eight other brilliant women, all similarly attired. Where were we: some fancy party? A club?

Nope. Just a pretty little house on the Welsh coast with austere portraits of old women in the living room, shelves full of books with faded spines, and driftwood sculptures everywhere. This house backed onto the beach. A quick hop over the wall and we were standing on pebbles. Both days as the sun set, the skies were soaked with pink and orange - our very own, live Turner painting. All of us had made our way there from various parts of the country, ready to celebrate our friend Flo’s birthday - to dance, cook, read, play scrabble, drink gin in the sunshine, and, most importantly, to dress up.

Oh, the dressing up! Alongside all those sequins there were wigs, hats, lashings of eyeliner, boob tubes, and enough faux fur to start a small fake animal convention. And with each costume change, I felt slightly altered too. I lounged around in my long gown. I danced energetically in grey palazzo pants and a silver space-age bikini top. Many of the items we’d brought with us migrated between various people over the course of the two nights. It was fascinating: seeing how different the same dress could look on three different figures, accompanied by three different attitudes. No, more than fascinating. Freeing.

In fact, being in the company of a bunch of women who were equally dynamic and interesting, each of us with our own, particular strengths, abilities, and body shapes, was fucking fantastic. A tonic. A delight. A state of affairs good for both body and soul. Well, maybe more for soul. My liver wasn’t very happy with me come Saturday morning… When we all left again on Sunday though I felt lighter on my toes: fizzing at having being surrounded by great people with a similar love for the ridiculous and the decadent (and the ability to cook a bloody good curry, too).

I’ve been thinking these last few days (ok, that’s a lie, for the last few months, really. No, scrap that too. For the last few years) about the pure, raucous pleasure found in dressing up. We do it so naturally as children, transforming ourselves into witches, pirates, royals and orphans with no more than a quick costume change and a healthy dose of imagination. At that age, every garment is full of stretching possibility.

As we grow up these transformations still exist, but they’re often subtler: varied facets of ourselves developed (and clad) as we switch between work, friends, partying, dating, long walks, late nights, holidays, festivals, bedrooms. Often these categories come with their own, slightly tweaked sartorial characters – our ‘work’ selves existing independent from our ‘breezy summer weekend’ or ‘dressed to kill and ready for cocktails’ or ‘suit-clad for a poetry reading’ selves (ok, those three are just me). All are different ways of manipulating image, and playing around with how others perceive us.

But I’ll forever and always remain a fan of out and out dressing up: of raiding wardrobes/ boxes/ rails/ shelves/ vanity cases/ wherever else you keep your finery, and shimmying on something fabulous just because you can. Because it’s fun. Because we could all do with a few more of those genuine flashes of joy that come with having on the silliest and most wonderful of get-ups.

See, dressing up is a powerful force – one that can be radical and limitless, as well as just being an opportunity for some silly fun. It can be political. It can be full of pleasure. Whether it’s a weekend in sequins; a session of running rampant in the wardrobe with a good friend; assembling a seventies-inspired outfit for a blog post complete with a new maxi-dress and some tumbling hills behind; or an evening spent in your room just by yourself, dancing around in your underwear to the loudest possible music while trying on combination after combination of clothes – well, the potential is endless.

I bought this dress from the Beyond Retro in Brighton last month. I saw it on a hanger, didn’t try it on, then ended up dashing back the next day just before my train because it was playing on my mind so! The suede coat is from a car-boot sale, and the heeled boots are vintage. Now that the weather’s a bit better, I’ve been really getting back into the fun of dressing up for the blog too.

On a separate note, a quick reminder that I’m appearing alongside my incredibly well-dressed mum at Oxford Literary Festival this Saturday at 2pm to talk books, mothers and daughters, and whether writing runs in the family. If you're a concession, you can use the code StHilChil as well. Hope to see some of you there! 


Monday, 20 March 2017

These Shoes Were Made for Walking

Recently, my favourite pair of boots fell apart. I have only myself to blame. Having bought them second hand, I lived in them for months – occasionally substituting in other pairs, but mainly assuming these black leather beauties would see me all the way through autumn and winter and back into the sunshine. They were tough boots, solid boots, boots easily relied on for supporting a good stomp. And stomp I did. I stomped and stomped – up hills, along rivers, weaving time and again across London - until the leather cracked beyond repair and suddenly my toes were on show (there’s nothing quite like a green sock poking out the end of a thick-soled boot to make you feel like you’re an impoverished orphan in a bad TV adaptation of a Dickens novel).

See, once upon a time these boots would have been all stiff and shiny: waiting in a shop for the right foot to mold to. They wouldn’t have had creases in the surface like laughter lines, or slightly fraying elastic on the right ankle. But by the time I got them, they’d already been gently broken in. I then wore them until they were a pliable second skin. They were perfect. Not the showiest of footwear, but understated and stoic enough to allow me to bound around on foot all day without feeling impeded. They offered an ease, a certain flexibility, the luxury of not having to feel slowed down in any way. I’m sad to see them go.

See, much as I’m happy to change my style of dress radically day to day – from androgynous shirts and tartan trousers to floaty seventies style nymph and back again - I’m not such a shape-shifter when it comes to shoes. In an ideal world I’d have one of those disgustingly aspirational closets you see in old rom-coms, with a whole wall just for footwear. There’d be every colour, every style. I’d have loafers and thigh high heels (still on my dream to-buy list) and more beautiful flats than I knew what to do with. There’d be Derbies and Oxfords and platforms and wedges and sandals and even, maybe, just maybe, some trainers I actually enjoyed wearing (stranger things have happened). Leather, velvet, suede, plastic, canvas – I’d own it all.  

But in this world, I daily rotate between the same, few trusty pairs of boots and brogues - the clincher being that I have to know I wouldn’t find them frustrating if I wanted to spontaneously walk for several miles. It’s the one item of clothing where comfort trounces everything. Of course I own my fair share of silly, wonderful flats, and pretty heels that allow me to tower above everyone’s heads, but they only really come out for shoots (or end up being hastily changed into just outside a venue). If it’s for anything other than looking glam for a short amount of time though, then it’s pragmatism or bust. Give me a pair of shoes I can’t pound a pavement in at high speed, and I end up miserable.   

In fact, I was keenly reminded of this last week when I made the mistake of wearing a new pair of men’s brogues for a two-day London trip. Gorgeous? Yes. Making me feel just the right, suave amount of Katharine Hepburn/ Marlene Dietrich/ Vita Sackville-West if she’d ever worn brogues and a short silver slip? (I mean, unlikely, I know). Of course. A wise choice for an afternoon wandering from Euston all the way to Bermondsey, with plenty of pit-stops along the way? Oh god no. I’m not being melodramatic when I say that first thing the next morning I had to limp my way to Oxford Street to find something – anything – that would leave my toes less lacerated.

All of that aside though, I still adore footwear that verges on the decadent and the downright ridiculous: these pink bowed confections being a case in point. They actually tick most of my criteria anyway, being surprising sturdy and comfortable, despite looking like they’re made from candy-floss, prom dress off-cuts, and a five year old’s sketch of what a shoe should look like. And though I might not be able to stomp in them with the same force as some battered old leather boots, at the very least, they suit larking around a hill-top with some wild ponies for company.

My lovely photographer friend Dvora gave me these shoes last summer. They were originally from ASOS. Everything else is second-hand: this frothy shirt being vintage Liberty. And I realized it’s rather appropriate that I’m clutching some Plath books as props here (as you do), given that tomorrow evening I’m chairing an event at Waterstones Gower Street with Greta Bellamacina, Sabrina Mahfouz, Deanna Rodger, and Hollie Mcnish. We’ll be talking poetry, politics, gender, and plenty else. Come along!

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

What Does International Women's Day Have to Do With Your Wardrobe?


In 1908, the International Ladies’ Garments Workers’ Union went on strike. More than 15,000 people participated. Many were immigrants – including one of the main organisers Clara Lemlich, who was only 23. They marched through New York, demanding better pay, better rights, better working conditions. A few years later, to commemorate their actions, International Working Women’s Day came into existence. From that point onward, it became a day both symbolic and pragmatic: fostered and upheld by the women’s labour movement not just in the United States, but globally too.

International Women’s Day has been a date I’ve long been aware of/ participated in, but when I woke up this morning, I didn’t know its specific, very significant heritage. But then, as I was scrolling through Facebook earlier – drinking coffee, trying not to get overwhelmed at my to-do list, procrastinating from doing any of it by said scrolling – I saw a post flagging this point of origin. I immediately fell into a vortex of reading, astounded that I’d never before thought to seek out any kind of in-depth account of today’s heritage. I read about its socialist foundations, its status as a national holiday in various countries, the ways in which we should commemorate and continue to push its legacy, its ideals, its emphasis on groups of women who’ve been systematically marginalized.

This is important. It’s important to remember this rich and often bitterly difficult history: a working women’s history, a history of striking (especially this year), a history of women challenging the established status quo. It’s important that this day gives room for the most joyous celebrations of women, as well as space to dwell on everything we still need to change and dismantle (which, as Vicky Spratt sagely points out here, involves A BLOODY MASSIVE AMOUNT of work left to do). It’s also important, I think, on a fashion blog to nod towards the fact that the genesis of this day involved garment workers. At a time when we still need to be having urgent, loud, complex conversations about who makes our clothes – and at what cost – this is crucial.

Yesterday, I had an essay published on Broadly on the history of deadly dressing. Though the more eye-catching examples include poisoned ball-gowns and crinolines catching fire, the majority of those harmed at the hands of clothes over the last few centuries have been – yep, you can see where this is going – those in the trade of making them. I thought about this again while reading up on that first strike. The history of fashion is also a history not just of gender, but of class, of badly treated workers and unregulated industry, of greed, money, prejudice, and exploitation. Of course it is also a history of extraordinary designs and innovations. I appreciate that (and quite obviously spend plenty of time dwelling on changing waistlines, hemlines and exquisite, ridiculous dresses over the centuries). 

Today seems like a good day though to think on the hands responsible for those garments, as well all those feet that have marched, the voices that have been put to use, the bodies and minds that deserved better. Many of the things those women wanted in 1908 are still denied to huge swathes of the global populace of garment workers: the majority of them female. I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here, beyond acknowledging the complexities and contradictions that come with loving clothes and hating the conditions under which most of them continue to be produced. I don’t have any answers. I just know that we need to do more, pay attention, act to shift things as and where we can, no matter how small (a principle that goes for any of the seemingly huge and insurmountable issues that surround IWD, whether we’re talking about healthcare, bodily autonomy, the wage gap, rape culture, domestic violence, education, the environment, you name it). In the meantime, it’s a good day to salute those garment workers who marched 109 years ago. They kick-started a hell of a lot.

Oh, and happy International Women's Day! Hope you've spent yours well. 

Given that today is also A Day Without a Woman (which you can read more about here), I thought it appropriate to pull out all the images from my archives where I was dressed in red.
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