Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Questioning


Who 


Made 


Your Clothes? 

Before reading this, you might take a moment to look down at your clothes. What are you wearing today? Of course, many fellow bloggers may be following Bella of Citizen Rosebud in having made a pledge to ‘Shop Secondhand First’, or could be wearing vintage, hand-made, up-cycled or hand-me-down. But what about any ‘new’ items? Where are they from? Does the label state which country they were produced in – let alone who might have stitched the seams? These are the kind of questions currently being encouraged by the ‘Who Made Your Clothes?’ initiative, part of the Fashion Revolution day taking place tomorrow, April 24th – the one year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse.

This global event is, as far as I know, the biggest push yet towards raising awareness of fashion industry ethics. Coverage already stretches from Vogue to The Guardian, while individuals including Caryn Franklin, VV Brown, Melanie Rickey, Mary Portas and many others have lent their support.

The questions posed by ‘Who Made Your Clothes?’ aren’t new –  ‘Who Made Your Pants?’ (see my post on Becky and her business here) have been asking this question since 2008, and then answering with labels on their gorgeous knickers that detail exactly who pieced and stitched them together. But it’s great to see  “Who Made…?” being taken up as a wider slogan. It neatly captures the difficulty faced by consumers who want to find out anything about the conditions in which their clothes were made, from factory standards to worker treatment. The most one might get from a label is a country – ‘Bangladesh’, quite possibly, or any of the other countries Western mega-brands rely on to give them fast turnarounds and low-cost labour. How to find out more? It’s nigh on impossible with long, tangled strings of supply chains and middle managers and audits that often don’t tell us very much.

This is why the Fashion Revolution team are asking for as many people as possible to contact the brands they love best – to tweet, email, facebook – and to ask ‘who made my clothes?’ Who made those beloved bargain items? Who sewed the beading onto that collar? Whose hands hemmed this skirt? Whose fingers added those buttons? They are also encouraging individuals to wear a favourite item inside out so that the label is on show. Alongside an active social media presence on the day, there are a variety of exciting talks, events, second hand bonanzas and other great things going on.

Let’s hope it proves to be the cue needed to continue and to consolidate a very serious dialogue. Change has to come from both ends, from buyers and brands alike. Consumers have to prove that we care enough to be vocal about how our clothes are made. Labels and brands have a responsibility to listen, and to implement change where they can – change with lasting impact, rather than the introduction of ethics policies with less substance than a polyester crop top.

Sustainable style is something I’ve written and spoken about many times previously. There’s a lot more to say, and plenty of amazing people currently saying it. A lot of very valuable articles and commentaries have come out of the initiative, ranging from Tansy Hoskins' critical analysis to Bethan Holt's piece for The Debrief (in which I'm quoted). 

Below is a brief list of links to various pieces of writing of my own and features from the last few years. 

My Blog:


Articles and Features elsewhere:


On Thurs 24th April I’ll be supporting and cheering on the Fashion Revolution initiatives, while also thinking about the families of all those who lost their lives in Rana Plaza 12 months ago.


This is the poem I wrote last year in the aftermath of the Dhaka tragedy.
                   





Happy Fashion Revolution day. Let’s make it an inquisitive one.


 Well, I certainly know who made my top - this People Tree top came with a little label detailing its manufacture when I bought it last year. I had fun styling the cartoon faces with a vintage silk blouse, second hand (charity shop) trousers and a belt stolen from my mum - who bought it from a charity shop. And I should mention that, although hidden beneath other layers, I was rather appropriately wearing a pair of black lace knickers by Who Made Your Pants. 

Friday, 11 April 2014

Wuthering Heights









The Kate Bush frenzy was quite an experience. Three of us, all on different laptops, shouting out updates: “it’s loading, it’s loading!”, “bugger, the site’s frozen”, “the 17th has gone – which others could we do?”, “hold, on – I can see available ones - yes, yes, I think I...YES.”
That final sentence is a shortened version of my screeching as I managed to secure tickets for my parents and me. We were immensely fortunate. Twitter (that general arbiter of public consensus) was divided between celebrations and lamentations.

It was quite incredible to see the explosion surrounding that first announcement. Suddenly everyone was a Kate Bush fan – with one or two in between the cacophony cleverly saying, “Oh, well I don’t really get the fuss.” She made headlines; old pictures dusted off to appear in print once more. Columns were filed and set-list predictions made. The brilliant 'Never Underdressed' even devoted a feature to her most memorable fashion choices.

Dismissing the scummy ticket touts, it would be interesting to know the varying motives behind those who rushed to secure concert places: nostalgia for the time when she was a fresh young thing? Final fulfilment for missing out on the1979 tour? An avid love for all things Kate? A younger generation - myself included - with our second hand vinyl and Hounds of Love on repeat in iTunes, keen to hear her live? Dare I say, for some, merely the desire to be able to say that they’ve seen her in the flesh – that they were there?

Part of the thrill of the entire thing rests in Kate Bush’s complete refusal of celebrity. We know little about her, beyond those mesmerizing songs. She was, and is, primarily a visual and vocal presence. Accessible through photographs, music videos and albums (as well as the occasional interview or documentary), our perception is informed by the clarity of her art and image, rather than her personal life. ‘Kate Bush’ as an entity is composed from that Wuthering Heights dance; those heavily outlined eyes in Army Dreamers; an array of outfits from leotards to long dresses; the kaleidoscope effect; soft focus videos later replaced with unfolding narratives – all topped off with a fuzz of big hair, outlandish facial expressions and a swooping voice.

We can chart her progress from ethereal sprite to sensual woman as the albums go by. Yet perhaps to label her as such, to suggest a clear movement from one to the other, is to limit her. Her videos yield multiple personas: of witch, warrior, schoolboy, theatre luvvie, woodland princess, dancer, explorer, bank robber, spurned wife, queen. And those are just a handful of the more easily recognisable characters. Try adjectives instead: witchy, weird, sensuous, playful, strong, fragile, feminine, androgynous, confident, athletic, otherworldly. All fit.

It’s that constant innovation and intelligence I adore. The keen creativity. The theatricality and continual reinvention. The songs that reach the nerves. Her voice has accompanied hours of dancing, jogging, fashion shoots, essay writing, surgery recovery, train journeys, sketching and evenings fuelled by friends, wine and conversation. She’s also one of the few artists I return to again and again for inspiration – be it for her fantastical dress sense, her sharp work ethic, her bold videos, unashamed individuality or just a bloody wonderful album.

When I was five, I’d raid the dressing up trunk and then spin around the living room to 'The Red Shoes'. Some thirteen years later, I’m now raiding my own wardrobe and spinning from place to place. And come September I’ll be raiding my most outrageous finery and spinning off to the Hammersmith Apollo. Who knows what we’ll see and hear there – but I’m sure it will be spectacular. 

Need I explain the outfit? My homage to the (in)famous Kate Bush Wuthering Heights video (blurry still image below) was completed with a seventies dress from a vintage shop in Edinburgh, second hand accessories and shoes from Marks & Spencer. I managed to raise eyebrows from passing cars and had great fun leaping around the chilly, windy field. You can see a previous Kate Bush inspired shoot that I photographed with the gorgeous Evangeline Ling here


Monday, 31 March 2014

Velvety










Velvet is a fabric unlike many others. Some hold a special affection for its luxury, screeching, “I looooooove velvet!” when a particularly choice plum blazer or blue dress is mentioned. You rarely hear people saying, “Oh my, I am the biggest fan of linen!” or “Yes, I collect items made of nylon – can’t get enough.” Cotton and wool are too ubiquitous to merit specific attention, while things like lurex or crimplene attract a pretty niche fan-base. Silk, satin and tweed might provoke similar excitement, comparable in their sense of extravagance, but velvet still rules the roost.

It’s a conversation starter. When wearing my black velvet trousers or red velvet mini-dress, I’ve had compliments aplenty. Several people have informed me that they collect velvet clothing, and they spontaneously reel off lists of what they own. It’s also a tactile fabric, one of the few aside from feathers or faux-fur where it’s acceptable to ask, “Could I just stroke that?” 

A fabric of extremes, it's a texture adored by some, loathed by others. Counterbalancing the appreciation brigade are those who can’t stand the look or touch of it. It’s one of the more common materials to have a phobia of: that strange, slippery-soft feel being repulsive to a few.

I used to be ambivalent towards velvet. It reminded me of my dimly remembered, late maternal grandmother, revisiting a sort of adolescence as she walked around the local town in long skirts and bare feet in 1999; of photos of my parents in their new age phase during the the early nineties. Velvet was the preserve of patchwork trousers and crystal healing, associated with clothes sold on the kind of stalls found at fetes and fairs where other wares included incense, plastic bangles, felted hats and belly button studs.

I discovered its merits later. My mum had some fabulous vintage items squirreled away, including an emerald-green velvet two-piece suit, found when she was a student. Probably sixties in origin, the matching skirt and jacket were a cut above casual evening wear. Other items came to light, more discovered in charity shops and markets: a black fifties gown with a velvet bodice and taffeta skirt, an eighties Monsoon short, green velvet dress with long sleeves and a sweetheart neckline, a bright blue velvet top, various long skirts in shades of mauve and turquoise. It’s a versatile fabric that finds itself shaped into all sorts of accessories from hats and bags to shoes, gloves and scarves. When the quality is good (especially silk based) then it’s gratifyingly lavish.

Even the adjective ‘velvety’ is interesting. It suggests opulence in one context, softness in another. Voices are depicted as velvety, as are smooth lakes and dusky evenings. It can be suggestive, sexy, evocative or (often) clichéd. Restaurant critics use it to describe food; travel writers to convey views. Compare it with: silken hair, satin seas, corduroy fields or skin like old leather. They're all recognizable similes and metaphors, both the visual and cultural significance of certain fabrics lending themselves to imagery we're all too familiar with. 

Another set of photos taken a shockingly long time ago - perhaps last September? However, today I'm thinking about the allure of the fabric as I'm wearing one of my favourite blue velvet dresses. All clothes pictured are second hand - assembled from various charity shops, family members and vintage markets. As a result, I'm linking this in to Bella's #SECONDHANDFIRST  post - you can read more on it here.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Adapting











Photos: Jacob Sacks-Jones/ Tinite Photography/ tinite.com

I caught the train back last Sunday. One of those spring afternoons where the temperature  is on the brink of hinting at summer – nudging you in the ribs as everyone bares more skin than seen in months. All the typical Oxford clichés were out: full, pink blossom trees; buildings with warm stone shaded gold; river filled with punts. Already there had been a thinning, with the first wave of students leaving the day before. Boxes had been packed and cars loaded up, buses or trains taken by some, plane tickets checked for others. Not quite a complete dispersal. Plenty remained – exams to revise for, jobs to do, work to complete, for a (lucky) few a city to enjoy for a while without continual, impending deadlines.
I didn’t want to depart. I did, but I didn’t. There were things to look forward to at home: improved sleep, good meals, more head space,  fewer distractions, big hills to climb, friends to visit, adventures with my family. But what about all the adventures I was leaving? I didn’t want to make the transition from city to village, from close proximity to cafes to a car journey to reach the nearest small town, from social life to solitary wanderings.

Now I’ve been back for a week, the sedate routine I’ve returned to feels fitting - natural. It’s like slipping into a pair of well-worn shoes, the leather so soft they mould to your feet immediately; they may not have been put on for months, but there they are, just the same, ready for use once more. This particular half of my life is one that exists on a more expansive scale: more clothes to choose in my wardrobe, more books to browse from endless shelves, more space both in my room and beyond the front door, more food in the fridge, more time for writing, creating, talking, working, walking, and, as always, procrastinating. Yet at the same time it’s smaller. In this split existence, divided between two homes and two modes of being, this is the quieter half. No constant shifts from library to late night cocktails and vigorous dancing. No nagging feeling that every hour of the day should be spent doing something. No writing essays up until two minutes before the deadline. No sense that a night in is a night wasted. There’s still plenty to do right now – I’m balancing numerous projects ranging from academic to professional to creative – but it takes place at an altered pace, in a very different space.

When I'm in Oxford, I can’t imagine being here at home. But when I’m here, Oxford feels far-removed. The evening I got back, I sat down to family dinner, climbed into bed and slotted back in where I’d left off. Of course, it’s not quite the same. Wherever we go, we bring with us the accumulation of what went before. Each time I return home, it’s with a newly tuned perspective and set of experiences – in the same way that each fresh term at university will be informed by what happened in the holidays preceding it. I get to inhabit two lives in tandem. They blur of course, smudging into each other so that the separations aren’t always clear. But I’m happy with that.

For we are creatures of adaptation. Most of us are chameleons. We might not change our colours according to the background shade of our environment (tempting thought), but we can slide between different places, people and pastimes with relative ease. It’s done all the time on a small scale as we flit from one type of interaction to another, altering everything from behaviour to topics of conversation to language used, adjusted between encounters. The situation or type of relationship informs any number of choices we barely think about consciously. What register is used? What responses are given?  Body language? How much of ourselves do we reveal, how much do we conceal? Are we open or protective? Giggling as rude jokes are cracked, or business-like as serious things are discussed? A single day can require all these facets and more. They’re all part and parcel of the same person, but from slightly different angles according to context. None of us have just that one mirror image that captures and characterizes us – for the whole is made up of these multiple, ever-changing, always-expanding reflections. 

These shots are by the very skilled photographer and student Jacob Sacks-Jones (see more of his work on his website Tinite Photography). They were taken for The Oxford Student (one of the university newspapers). It was a rather glorious morning as Alys and I raided the bulging rails of The Ballroom Emporium at the bottom end of Cowley Road, seeking out appropriate items to style. The choice was pretty overwhelming. The shop is divided into two parts - one selling vintage, and the other selling and hiring ball gowns. Our eventual theme was a juxtaposition of masculine and feminine, lighter fabrics offset with heavier coats and, for the final outfit, blue velvet britches. That one did feel vaguely Robinson Crusoe, I must admit. The gold and silver shoes are mine (ASOS). 
The location being on the roundabout, we got our fair share of intrigued pedestrians and bus passengers staring out the window as they swooped past - and even a fleeting cameo from a builder who jumped into one of the frames. 

In other news, I wrote a piece on spinal surgery and my ongoing ambivalence towards the appearance of my back for beauty website ThandieKay - a brilliant platform set up by actress Thandie Newton and make-up artist Kay Montano. 
Also, my friend Flo very deservedly won a Dulux/Guardian competition photography category, with the winning images drawn from her rich, colourful archive of our collaborative shoots. You can see the announcement and photographs here - they will soon be published in the Guardian Weekend too. Rather fittingly, one is from the photo-shoot in the post below this.