Monday, 6 June 2016

Notes on Being Teenage book launch

I’m still finding it somewhat strange to think that my book comes out in a matter of days – June 9th, to be precise. All this time spent thinking and talking about it (let alone actually writing it!) and suddenly it’s going to be out in the world, doing its own thing: independent of me and my many, many hours spent hunched over a laptop. Of course, it already exists in various formats. Proofs have already winged their way outwards, and places like Hay and Birmingham’s Foyles have been giving customers a sneak preview.

This is a quick post, as much of my time right now is being spent bashing away at my keyboard (well, that and a few golden hours whiled away sunning and swimming and reading). Lots of brilliant things will be emerging in the near future, and I’ll be doing a big round up of all the various articles and other fabulous things I’m currently working on.

For now though, if you’re in Oxford this coming Saturday, please do join me for the launch of Notes on Being Teenage at Blackwell’s. It’s from 4pm to 6.30pm, and open to all. There’ll be drinks, nibbles and lots of celebrations. It would be wonderful to see a few lovely faces there.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Life Ahead

Oxford is green and gorgeous and full of flowers. The Botanical Gardens are ablaze with colour. Portmeadow looks bejewelled: bursting with buttercups. All those sandstone buildings caught by the evening light. The air is full of potential (and, admittedly, the odd downpour too). For me, it’s also newly full of freedom. On Friday I finished my exams: twelve hours’ worth of bending over a desk, scribbling and scribbling, completed. Hundreds of years of English literature studied. Degree done. Life waiting ahead.

I also turned 21 at the weekend: filling my time with conversation, coffee, cocktails, food, books, joyous company. The good stuff. The stuff to be grateful for. It left me so immensely thankful for this city and the people within it. I’ve found such riches here. It hasn’t always been an easy space to inhabit (my parents can confirm just how many times I’ve rung them in tears), but it has offered golden experiences.

People keep asking what it all feels like to be standing at this point, on the edge of these beginnings and endings, and I’ve repeated the same adjectives: exciting, thrilling, sweet. But they’re all perfectly apt. It’s exciting to have done so much, worked so hard, and suddenly to relish the completion; the release. It’s thrilling to look towards all the projects I can finally begin (and there are myriads). It’s sweet to spend an afternoon lying out in the sun with a book and no responsibilities, no expectations, no linger of guilt that I should be doing something else. Elating. Brilliant. Wonderful. Fucking fantastic.

I’m still tired too, and expect to be knocked sideways by the odd wave of exhaustion for a while to come. It’s been quite a year. Quite a three years. Ups and downs (and lots of unexpected left turns) aplenty. Just as it should be. Nothing bland about it, that’s for sure.

For the first time in my life I’m facing the prospect of taking all the things I’ve squeezed in around academic life – the writing, the modelling, the blogging, the other work – and giving them my full focus. My book also comes out on June 9th. It’s going to be taking me to some brilliant places this summer (more on all of this soon.) A loose idea I assembled and brought with me to university; a fully-fledged publication as I leave.

Putting together ‘Notes on Being Teenage’ taught me a lot, as did all the articles and interviews I worked on elsewhere. From being Junior Editor on Violet (see issue five for my interview with the smart, sharp Sarah Kernochan where we discussed storytelling and Hollywood sexism) to essays for places like Broadly, Refinery29 and The Coven, I’ve been given the room to think, research and do a hell of a lot of drafting and crafting.

In a few months, I also have a poetry collection launching. ‘Branch and Vein’ will be published by New River Press: an exciting new venture from two great poets, Greta Bellamacina and Robert Montgomery. Limited edition proofs are already available (see here for more info), with the full print run to come in September. There are poems in there about bodies, distances, family stories, landscapes, and an abandoned hotel. This still feels vaguely surreal and mindboggling. It happened relatively swiftly, and I’m astounded that I was asked to be one of the poets they’re launching with. Honoured too. I respect Greta and Robert immensely, and to play some part in their creative vision is a privilege indeed. There’s a gorgeous write-up of the poetry press on AnOther here.

I use the word ‘adventures’ a lot, but that is definitely what my time at university has offered. Adventuring in countless forms. Creative, personal, intellectual. I have a few months left to adventure and live in Oxford, before moving on elsewhere. But for now, I’m just revelling in it being today.

This shoot took place last summer with the lovely Laura Alice Hart. We ran around Oxford with wonderful stylist Holly Rebecca, while Tracey Cahoon did great things to my hair. It captured a very specific point in my life between the crux of second year and third year. Things were changing and shifting all around me. One of the images appeared on Untitled mag too.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Dressing Like Prince (A Guest Post)

Whenever I think of my fabulous fairy-godmother Soma, I picture her clothes. Always immaculate, ever-so-glamorous, and perfectly her. She is queen of velvet, sequins and perfectly cut Ghost dresses. Over the years, she's added many riches (and a relish for champagne) to my life. There have been good outfits, great company, rigorous conversations, and the odd, joyous evening of martinis and dancing - not to mention some key moments of holding out a hand to my family when times felt dark. When news of Prince's death emerged, she was the first person I thought of. We mourned Bowie together earlier this year with a decadent night in Soho, and I knew that Prince was her other lodestar - another brilliant, convention-defying creator with an extraordinary wardrobe and energetic, honest lyrics. Given that I am deep in my final fortnight of university, with exams roaring towards me scarily quickly, it seemed fitting to give some space here for Soma's voice - alongside her visual homage to Prince, in full, purpled glory. She has deeply influenced my understanding and celebration of dressing up, and here, in turn, is someone who did that for her. I hope you enjoy her guest post.. 

Kinda, sorta my best friend: why I dress like Prince

When I was 9 or 10, playing truant and reading Shakespeare in the bushes, Prince burst onto television screens and into my heart with ‘When Doves Cry’.  The song was accompanied by a video of a creature, in silks, frills and eye-liner, vrooming out of suburbia on a purple motorbike, his lover riding pillion, heading for woods, water, sunlight.

In ‘When Doves Cry’, a voice combining man, woman and beast sings of lovers flying from a pattern of inherited family abuse.  The city - funk, clubbing, the motorbike - is fused with Nature.  The lovers become birds, the percussive phrasing beating like wings.  “Maybe you’re just like my mother/She’s never satisfied/Why do we scream at each other/This is what it sounds like/When the Doves Cry.”  The song grasps at a tentative, tortured freedom that comes not from destroying the past but from recognising one’s roots and absolving them. 

I knew the set-up only too well: the needy mother, the hot-tempered father and the desire for a bond with a friend against the hostile “world so cold”.  With a chorus that repeats like a Greek tragedy, a virtuoso guitar tethered to a funk beat, disco keyboards punctuated by Prince’s screaming dove, ‘When Doves Cry’ has a push-pull effect.  It had me half out of the bushes but also burrowing deeper into their smoke and rustle. 

Like most of Prince’s music, ‘When Doves Cry’ blurs funk, rock and cabaret.  His clothes did the same.  Silk, velvet, cut-away, crop and lace, accessorized with satin heels, he glowed like a girl while retaining the swagger of double-breasted jackets, heavy cuffs, trench coats.   In 2016, it was psychedelic Nehru jackets and 60s tunics.  He married edge with softness, sleaze with regality.  Now living in the Welsh Marches, I pursue impractical ruffles, embroidery and slink: a sartorial twinning of power and romance.

It’s an index of how we conform our bodies to market rules that Prince’s height is mentioned so often, as if greatness in a petite male frame does not add up.  Prince embraced his body (often literally).  Performing ‘American Woman’ alongside statuesque Lenny Kravitz, Prince, swiveling in a skintight, blue catsuit, is electrifying.  It’s like watching an eel outswim a whale.  Prince plays with physical limits.  He’s the only commercially successful male pop artist with a female alter ego, Camille.  On ‘Sign O’ The Times,’ his ‘dance twin’, Cat, poses as Prince in a mini skirt – a visual merging of male and female.   He made her carry a heavy mirror to recreate his muscular arms. 

Prince found freedom – the freedom to relate, to forgive, to become one – by escaping name, form, gender.  He preferred to collaborate with women.  3rdeyegirl, his last band, sport tassels, braids and big guitars.  In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 2014, Prince said, “We’re in the feminine aspect now… men have gone as far as they can, right?”

Some people will tell you that Prince is ‘rude’.  Prince addresses this himself irresistibly in ‘Controversy’.  Prince is not simply ‘about’ sex; he is about emotional honesty.  “Some people call me rude/I wish we all were nude/I wish there was no black and white/I wish there were no rules.”  In the longer version, he then chants the Lord’s Prayer while you sweat on the dance-floor.  ‘Controversy’ was the first Prince vinyl I loaned to Rosalind.  She was leaving our shared green hills for Oxford.  I was just recovering from being disabled by pregnancy and starting to go clubbing again.  It’s the best funk anthem to individuality, within a framework of loving others.  

Prince made it okay to be me.  I met my idol and shared a stage with him - but that’s another story (you can read it here).  For the rest of my life, and his – when I sang ‘Adore’ for him in a local church on a pagan site after his death – I dressed like him.  His style, like his music, is elaborate, vulnerable and bold.  In, ‘When you were mine,’ Prince tells an ex-girlfriend he can’t quit, ‘You were kinda, sorta my best friend … I used to let you wear all my clothes.’  Prince, I’m always going to wear you.

It was a pleasure and privilege to have Soma write this for me, as it is to know her generally. And I'll be back, soonish! The sweetness of freedom is tantalisingly close. In the meantime, I hope you're all doing some damn fabulous dressing up too. If you want to keep up with what I'm up to (ahem, doing to procrastinate), I'm on Instagram more regularly at the moment. 

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.