Wednesday, 13 April 2016

A Little St Michael Magic

Today’s the day. The launch of Archive by Alexa: the M&S archives opened up for Alexa Chung to plunder and renew. I must admit, when I first heard the news, I experienced a strange mix of thrill and frustration. Why? St Michael (aka vintage M&S, the name spanning from 1928 to 2000) has always felt slightly like my thing. A fusty, durable, quietly brilliant clothing line I’ve been collecting for years: nestling alongside Jaeger and Laura Ashley to form a very British vintage trio. Not a secret, exactly. Plenty of people will give a wise, knowing nod on mention of St Michael: the kind of nod that indicates they get it, and there's probably a similar inner squeak when sighting that distinctive black, white and red label when trawling charity shops or vintage markets.

I’ve been collecting it since I was 14: velvet blazers (in black and plum), a black and white kilt I wear every winter, the odd hat, big jumpers (I have the same one in four different shades: navy, raspberry, mustard, and white), several brightly patterned mini-dresses, culottes (again, in four different colour-ways: green, cream, terracotta, and floral), trousers, a pretty shirt or two... An endless array has wormed its way into my wardrobe. Some has left again: being too small, or just not quite right anymore. Other things are being added all the time.

I love it all the more because the designs veer between the very gorgeous, and the intensely, excruciatingly of their time (there’s a hell of a lot of synthetic eighties-does-fifties tea dresses knocking around). Some things I pick up with glee and carry home. Plenty of others I’ll happily leave to subside into their piecrust collared dodgy glory. But it’s always exciting to spot – to know that my second hand instincts are fine-tuned enough to sniff out St Michael at twenty paces. 

So given all this, I’m ambivalent over Archive by Alexa. I love, love, love M&S’s design history – and my head tells me “the more the merrier” when it comes to celebrating all those gorgeous shapes and patterns. There are some incredibly delectable looking garments on offer, which will be worn and enjoyed by many. Also, I can’t imagine how much fun it was to explore such rich pickings and have the privilege to update some of them (if I’m honest, maybe I’m just a tad envious).

Yet there’s still a little tug to my heart: the petulant, toddler-like desire to go, “no. I found it first. I don’t wanna share.” It’s the style equivalent of being impelled to mention that you knew a band before they got big. Silly and frivolous, yes, but oh so very human.

Still, perhaps I can subside into the smug pleasure of having my own small archive. It’s limited, but perfectly formed. I wear those big jumpers all the time, because they’re the comfiest things I own. My seventies striped mini is brought out every summer. The velvet blazers go with everything from ball-gowns to black trousers. That lime green and blue striped bikini spent a lot of last summer being worn to swim in the river. And just a few weeks ago, I located my latest addition: a shin-length, long-sleeved, high collared white dress with blue polka dots. I bought it from a vintage market for £3. And you know what? I’m wearing it right now.

Pictured above are a handful of images drawn from the last six years of blog archives, all featuring some St Michael magic of one variety or another. From top to bottom: St Michael plum velvet blazer, St Michael cream culottes on two different shoots, St Michael embellished black hat, St Michael striped two-piece, St Michael black velvet blazer, St Michael geometric print mini-dress worn first by me (with straightened hair) and then by a friend - Emma, for photos I took of her many years back. 

The blog has been rather quiet of late, and possibly will continue to be for the next month or so. I have my final year exams coming up, so have had my head down revising medieval dream visions and the like. More regular style witterings will be resumed soon. In the meantime though, go and have a read of this piece I wrote for ThandieKay on the women who inspire me most

Friday, 25 March 2016

Getting the Gucci Look (for 30p)

When did ‘get the look’ become such a ubiquitous phrase? The kind that no fash mag worth its salt would be complete without: budget versions of high-end designs presented neatly with price tags alongside. The original? £600. The near-copy? £45. Somehow through the proximity of the two amounts, the latter always looks that much more reasonable (even if actually £45 is a lot for a synthetic shirt with uneven seams).

Of course, much of the high street makes its money from encouraging you to get ‘the look’. Fashion’s whirling, flashing rounds of trends rely on people wanting to emulate a particular item or set of references for six or so months before moving on. One season: everything seventies. Another: flat shoes (seriously? Who thinks of flat shoes as moving ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the zone of popularity? No one. No one whatsoever. Not even fashion editors who write about it). Stretch it further and you get companies like MissGuided and Boohoo, whose success primarily relies on being able to copy whatever Kim K has been seen in very quickly, very cheaply, with just enough design difference to not infringe copyright.

Not all of this is bad, of course (beyond all the obvious stuff about the ethics of production). Why should only those with plentiful bank accounts have access to bang-up-to-date designs, especially if they absolutely love them – rather than feeling impelled towards them because they’re current and hot and all sorts of other words implying fleeting desirability?

It’s also not entirely new. My grandma once told me about paying a seamstress to make a replica of that feted Mondrian dress by YSL. Sadly, it’s one of the few items of hers I haven’t inherited (she gave it to her mother later in life, and it eventually ended up being donated to a costume department of a theatre in the States). I guess the difference was that, back then, you had to make a very active decision on what you wished to emulate – and then do it yourself, or find someone else capable of whipping up your budget dreams.

It can also be great fun. I used to spend a lot of time trying to work out how to do charity shop versions of Christopher Kane and Burberry. I still take pride, on occasion, in whipping up a version of something from the catwalk, usually for less than 20 quid.   

Given all of that, here’s my latest offering: a skirt that, at a glance, could perhaps just pass muster as Gucci. You know the one: the metallic pleats seen on everyone from Alexa Chung to endless fashion bloggers. Its provenance? My childhood dressing up box. Its price? 30p, I believe. My mum originally bought it from a jumble sale. As a kid it became a pleated cloak, a pirate’s skirt, a hoard of gold all of its own. I wore it for serious dressing up duties. It has also figured on this blog once before, worn to temporarily transform me into an autumn queen surrounded by windfall apples.

It was also my mum who pointed out its almost mirror-similarity to Alessandro Michele’s AW15 design. Near-identical. Though mine, admittedly, has a very crudely elasticated waist (literally a piece of elastic tacked to the inside and reinforced with safety pins). Every time I’ve worn it though, I’ve felt wonderful: striding around in all my shiny, swooping brilliance. It’s also garnered a fair few compliments from strangers (that ultimate litmus test of how excellent/ audacious something is). So I guess I have Gucci to thank. Without that gold lame skirt shimmering its way along a runway, I might have left this languishing in the dressing up box for a whole lot longer…

The particular styling here was chosen to replicate Alexa’s look (seen here): complete with a rainbow-patterned jumper and some black shoes, both from charity shops. I should have braved it with bare legs, but my mum took these pictures a few months ago when it was still awfully freezing…

I’ve been rather quiet this month. I had a dissertation to hand in, and various other projects that took up time. However, I’ve been busy scattering words elsewhere. In the last few weeks I’ve had this published on Broadly about the subversive history of women using thread as ink, and this on Collectively celebrating the ace young women making the online world their oyster.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Odd One Out

“You remind me of Alice.”

It was a thoughtful remark coming at the conclusion of a long chat with a wonderful tutor about all sorts of things: spinal surgery, publishing, clothes choices, Virginia Woolf. I still love how Alice is the kind of name that requires little context, no extra words needed to identify who’s being referenced. There’s only the one, wandering (and wondering) her way through a strange land.

I also love how, during this particular conversation, Alice became a sort of shorthand for oddness and inquisitiveness, as well as some pretty rapid shifts in size... I mean, as I take great, great pleasure in telling people I’ve just met, I did once grow 2.5 inches in five-ish hours. Thanks spinal surgery! (Spoiler alert: Alice does actually figure in my book. I’ve long thought about what an apt analogy she is for physical metamorphosis).

Rapid growth and shrinkage aside, I want to pick up on this idea of Alice symbolizing a kind of oddness. Alongside that delicious vision of blue-skirted curiosity (though as any Alice aficionado would point out, such imagery is largely Disney-influenced), she also represents a distinct sense of what, for lack of something more succinct, I’m going to call out-of-place-ness. I’ve been lingering on the idea of place a lot recently: about how we fit in, stand out, take up space, stand apart, feel comfortable in our surroundings, or visibly, uncomfortably stick out.

When I was at secondary school I spent plenty of time feeling like the odd one out. I worried that I was too tall, too interested in learning, too exasperated by the flashing, shrieking carousel of social games and shifts in hierarchy. Curious phrase isn't it? To be ‘odd’ is to automatically be ‘out’ – to stand on the edges of things, looking in. It reminds me of Woolf writing in her diary about those who “secrete an envelope which connects them and protects them from others, like myself, who am outside the envelope, foreign bodies.” Ironically she was talking about clothes – somewhere I’ve (nearly-ish) always felt at home. As I wrote earlier today for World Book Day’s Teenfest though, “in my teens I located the way I liked to dress pretty easily. Building up the attitude to match took longer.” That was where I struggled, torn between my own joy in vintage dresses, versus the ‘oddness’ I might be labeled with for openly wearing what I wanted.

Basically, Alice was the odd one out because she was a girl exploring a land of mad hatters and talking flowers (and, in the follow-up, strangely porous mirrors). I fell oddly outside of the expected rites of passage for teenagers, keen to go my own way – and certainly doing so online, and elsewhere – but still feeling the weight of ‘fitting in’ too. It took several years to let that dissolve, giving me room to acquire proper confidence in my own independence.

Maybe I’m projecting all sorts of things onto Alice that, actually, have little to do with her. Alice is kind of perfect for projection though. I saw the beautiful exhibition in the British Library recently, idling around the gorgeous illustrations and editions before dipping into the manuscripts room to pay homage to Jane Austen and Angela Carter. Alice appears in so many guises and formats and appearances, continually in flux, reinterpreted afresh for each new age.

Alice has featured on this blog before too (see here and here, indeed my blog header is still a cropped image taken from that very 2010 shoot, complete with crochet apron), and I’ve grappled with what she represents several times. At the heart of it all, I remain compelled by the image of a young woman exploring a world so utterly surreal. I find this world of ours surreal (increasingly so, in some ways), but, for now, I’ve found my place within it. These days I think the most important bit of Alice isn’t the oddness, necessarily. Instead it’s the sense of wonder.

Given that it’s World Book Day, I’m making like my primary school self and presenting a rough approximation of me dressed up as a favourite character. No prizes for guessing who! This Alice is self-determined and sprightly, complete with trusty wellies to scale windy hills (and by windy, I really mean ear-biting, hair-whipping, finger-numbing blasts that we worried might make us airborne). The photos were taken over the Christmas holidays by my dad, and the dress was bought for a few pounds from a charity shop years ago. The belt was my grandma’s.  

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Silk Slips

Do you know why silk slips are called ‘slips’? The answer is surprisingly obvious, stemming from the ability to literally slip these undergarments on and off with ease. Well, I’ve been slipping in and out of thoughts about all things slinky and silky recently, mainly thanks to writing this rather personal essay for Refinery29 on slips, sexiness, and our changing relationships with clothes (and the bodies beneath them!) over time. The piece sprung from thinking about the fashion industry’s carousel-like obsession with reviving ‘underwear-as-outwear’ every few years – a trend that, as you’ll read there, I hugely took to in my mid-teens. Any very long-term readers may even recall the odd outfit post brimming with lace, pink silk, and vintage thermal vests… See here, herehere and here for a handful of examples.

It was an absolute pleasure to work on that essay, and I’m also pretty bloody thrilled because Refinery29 is a brilliant, smart site full of writing I admire. Side note: I recalled the other day that I actually first made an appearance there several years ago, snapped at LFW in my mermaid skirt with tassels like seaweed. Look how long my hair was!

Also, in a twist of good timing, here are some rather more up-to-date images of me in a series of silk slips that I slunk in and out of whilst shooting Pippa Small’s latest jewellery catalogue. The photos were taken by the wonderful, wonderful photographer Susannah Baker-Smith, who I’ve written about before here. This time it was more of the same: lots of time spent sitting, draped in dazzling jewels, working out the best arrangements of hands, hair and face in each portrait. After a day in slips, it felt almost strange to shrug back on my tights and boots and thick winter coat.

And on that note, I think it’s time to do the reverse and don my ridiculous dusky mauve Italian silk vintage dressing gown, make dinner, pour myself a glass of wine, and retreat into the evening with a good book (like the cliché I am).

It's been a busy time. I recently wrote this for Collectively, looking at where we're at with conversations about diversity, beauty, and the fashion industry - as well as a love letter to my all-time favourite vintage Jaeger dress. Oh, and I forgot to mention that last month I was included on the Metro's top five upcoming social talents. I'm glad that all my procrastinating on Instagram has its uses! (If you like selfies, old Hollywood stars, carefully posed shots of books, and the odd shot of Oxford, you may find something there to enjoy...) 

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Longing for Summer

“Throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads.”

Virginia Woolf wrote this in a love letter to Vita Sackville-West in 1927. Given that it’s Valentine’s Day, it would be easy to focus on the ‘love letter’ aspect – and, if there’s anything that would make ideal solo V-day reading in bed with a cup of coffee, it’s probably their communications. I mean, when better (hmm, or perhaps when worse, depending on circumstance) to think about Vita’s missive where she wrote, “I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that.” To go one step further, one could reach for Orlando - that dazzling, outrageously wonderful book that’s part paean to Vita, part romp through bodies, clothes, centuries, and historical figures. To return to this specific letter though, when I first read it I was struck by their relationship, but perhaps more so by how much I craved an evening like the one described by Woolf (tempestuous affair optional added extra).  

It encompasses so many things I adore: food, stretching evenings, wine, conversation, good company, a sense of potential extending ever further outward. I want those millions and myriads, the delirious freedom of abandoning everything for dinner and tipsy talk.

I think it struck me keenly because recently I’ve been longing for summer. I’ve never experienced it with quite this bittersweet urgency before. Probably because I’d never before had a summer quite like the last one, so sweetly full of hot afternoons, wine at sunset looking over the fields, long swims in the river, skinny-dipping at midnight, 7am walks to the canal with dew still on the grass, sitting in my room in the twilight with the windows open and a record playing, bare legs, warm skin, the satisfaction of having nothing urgent to do. A time full with brilliant people and places.

Lots of hours spent outside reading too. I can still distinctly recall carrying a stool out into the scrappy yard of last year's student house in Oxford, plonking it down among the weeds, and then discovering wild strawberries to eat by the handful while I sat and flicked through my book. Back at my family home among the hills I had one of the best/ most pretentious (you can choose) evenings, involving a stack of poetry books and enough candles and lanterns to let me scrutinize the pages outside in the dark. When it began pouring, I took shelter under our tree house: relishing the sudden smell of sharp, green, rain-damped grass.

In all actuality, the parts I’m describing distill down to a few weeks and events that are easy to string together to assemble a whole. They’re selective snippets: speckles of glitter. It was also a summer of uncertainty, change, and a lot of self-revelation. Easy to gloss in retrospect (isn’t that always the case?) But perhaps I value those memories all the more because they did take place in the context of this strange, brilliant, odd, unsure time. They’re that little bit more luminous for it.

It’s very easy to idealise times and seasons not presently in front of you (something I wrote about a while ago). Especially easy to crave summer when stepping outside the front door currently requires thick tights, gloves, and a bulky coat. Even easier, in the face of looming exams, to sink back into thinking about days that were free to be structured as pleased. But the next one will roll around soon enough, with another set of possibilities and surprises (and I have a feeling that this particular summer is going to be FULL of them). If they involve invitations to “dine on the river”, well, then all the better..

In the meantime though, I have plenty to keep me occupied. I might not be able to float around parks wearing tiny shorts, but I can relish all the thinking, reading, writing, boundary pushing and flickers of new creative projects presently on the go. The last month has (surprise, surprise!) been brimming with Virginia Woolf, dissertation writing, and the odd night of escaping to London to dance. Maybe this time, in its own way, will become another pocket of recollection I’ll look back on fondly. In fact, I’m sure of it.

Talking of next summer – I saw a proof copy of Notes on Being Teenage for the first time the other day! You can see me looking ever-so-gleeful with it here. Lots of the summer is going to be taken up with all sorts of exciting things surrounding that. I can’t wait. 
Photos above were taken in Sweden last year, during our family summer holiday. Everything I’m wearing is second hand. Some more combinations of saunas-and-cold-lakes soon wouldn’t go amiss, either.