Friday, 4 September 2015

Sketches and Repeated Stories

A little while back I spent a weekend sorting out my old room at home. It was an intensely satisfying (if arduous) process – books being moved from one shelf to another, magazines stacked into boxes, arts materials carefully arranged to be accessible. I tidied out a suitcase’s worth of clippings and images ripped from magazines, and ordered all my notebooks. It was wonderful.  

In the midst of this sifting and shifting, I found something lodged under a pile of vintage Vogues – a large, slightly tatty notebook. It was spiral bound with a faded brown cover. Inside it were sketches - some very special sketches, in fact, that I’d forgotten about. This notebook had belonged to my Great-Aunt Eva (my paternal grandma’s sister), and the drawings inside – all elegant lines and gorgeous designs – had been done in Dublin when she was about 18. The previous year she had fled Czechoslovakia (as it then was) with the rest of her family – the Communist coup d’etat meaning that it was no longer safe for my great-grandfather to remain in the country; his life was in danger. They skied over the border disguised as tourists. Their escape was not a choice. It was a necessity.

Ireland was one of the countries that, thankfully, would take them in. They arrived there with very little (having to share my grandma’s school knickers between all three women, for example) but were thrifty and ingenious and quickly established a social life. Eva enrolled on a design course at one of the design houses, which is where these sketches were produced, and she also modeled for them. It seemed like, despite the trauma of losing a home, country, community, business and all personal belongings in one fell swoop, this family had a chance to establish a new life for themselves. There was possibility. Then Eva was diagnosed with leukemia. She was afforded passage into England to be treated at the Essex Children’s Hospital, but nothing could be done. She died the following year, aged 19 – younger than I am now.

These sketches are one of very few belongings of hers that have been passed down to me. These, and a set of rings – one hers, and one my grandma’s – which are small, gold bows (pictured below). I find it entirely extraordinary that this young woman, a woman I never met, still lives on in the hand-drawn, inked outlines of dresses and coats and underwear that now sit in my room. They’re bloody great designs too.

I have been thinking a lot about her, and my grandma, and their family in recent weeks. They were political refugees – the kinds of people that the Daily Mail would be likely to froth at the mouth over today (especially because, shock horror, they were foreigners that came over to this country and used our precious health services for their dying daughter!!) The kinds of people who, if it happened to them now, might also face vitriol from many people - because apparently if you are desperate enough to leave your home country and all you hold dear, to face extreme danger in the escape, to crave the standard of safety and personal security that we take as prerequisite, then you are a ‘parasite’ or a ‘scrounger’ or a ‘swarm.’ Not a human being searching to regain your sense of humanity or to secure the safety of your family. Not an individual who has seen traumatizing, terrifying things. No – a ‘pest’, something dehumanized and reduced to the mass of your body and the space you take up.

Of course what I’m referring to here is the current ongoing refugee crisis, partly centered in Calais but also spread across the rest of Europe and beyond. Much like a growing number of publications, I refuse to call it a migrant crisis. People do not cheerfully just decide to up sticks and leave a country for better opportunities elsewhere if that country is torn apart by war. Ongoing events in various countries have led to the biggest movement of people since WWII. That in itself is appalling. You know what else is appalling? The lack of empathy in so many quarters – not least the bile-filled tabloids who have the audacity to do an about-turn only at the point where there are (entirely devastating) pictures of a dead child to publish.

As various people have pointed out though, empathy is easy on an individual basis. Case in point - Cecil the Lion got waaaaay more sympathy and outpouring of anger than the many, many black men and women who have been killed by the police in America this year. How messed up and back to front is that? It’s the same principle with the refugee crisis. It’s easy to feel the galling punch of a single individual’s loss and fear. Harder to extend that to thousands upon thousands of losses and fears. That was why it was easy to talk about my Great-Aunt Eva just now. Her story is personal. I know enough details to flesh it out and turn it into a compelling story. There is a dramatic narrative arc, a singular tragedy, a set of events both extraordinary and devastating in the retelling. But they were just one family who fled their country during the 1940s. Countless others did too – all with their own heritages and experiences and perspectives as well. All equally valid. Same as today. 

Right now though, we need to be extending that empathy far and wide. Despite the often overwhelming feelings that currently hit on opening a newspaper or checking Twitter, there are lots of practical ways we can help. This list from The Independent is a brilliant place to start, and kind of covers everything from great charities to grassroots groups asking for donations and goods they will be taking to Calais and elsewhere. Also have a read of this piece in The Pool talking about what Dawn O'Porter has been doing (and how you can get involved), sign this petition and this one, and then have a read of this poem by Warsan Shire. As she says there, in a line now picked up by many different news outlets, 'you have to understand/ that no one puts their children in a boat/ unless the water is safer than the land.' 

 (My grandma and her sister's rings - Eva's was the one with the extra stones edged along each side of the bow)

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Dancing the Weekend Away

My legs are softly aching and although I’ve had two showers and one bath, there are still specks of glitter around my eyebrows. As you may be able to guess, Shambala was a rip-roaring success. There were sequins aplenty, lashings of red lipstick, an increasing amount of mud, and a succession of outfits in various shades of gold  - all to match my Colorado CAT boots, obviously…

I took along my friend Kath (pictured below in all her fabulous feathered finery) – both of us lugging a series of heavy bags and suitcases on and off three different trains and one marvelous red double decker bus. At Birmingham, a woman stopped Kath to say, “I just have to ask – where are you going? Where have you been? You seem to have your whole life on your back.” To be fair, the various things dangling from her rucksack did include an enamel jug and a brightly coloured rag rug. We are the kinds of friends who pack ample amounts of pre-ground coffee (plus wine, whisky and all the ingredients required for a kind of elderflower collins/ mojito hybrid), but forget the basic necessities like torches or loo roll.

When we finally got onsite, there was a minor disaster too – one of our tent poles snapping as we assembled our little home for the next four days. Luckily it wasn’t fatal, but did mean that our tent stayed bent at a rather amusingly wonky angle all weekend. It listed to one side like it was slightly drunk. But it did what it needed to - kept us warm and dry and gave us somewhere to sleep. We made scrambled eggs there in the morning, drank our coffee, did our make-up and had afternoon naps with increasing regularity as the previous night’s antics caught up with us.  

I’m fascinated by how festivals function. If you take a step back and think about it at any great length, the whole situation is kind of bizarre – thousands of people all spending three or four nights together in a succession of fields, often wearing the most outlandish and fabulous outfits. In fact, Shambala is the kind of event where you look kind of out of place if you’re not wearing something intensely shiny/ embellished/ layered/ ridiculous. Spend five minutes people-watching and you’ll see several brilliant fancy dress inventions (think everything from mermaids to cosmic order police), the odd wedding gown, huge amounts of body paint, several guys in frilly dresses, someone with a liquid eyeliner moustache, and endless teenagers in brightly patterned jumpsuits. 

It’s also one of the few spaces where your job, status and financial situation are all entirely irrelevant. They might be mentioned in passing, but the usual boundaries of day-to-day life – the things we use to anchor and define ourselves – tend to be lifted. It’s the perfect modern day embodiment of Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque.

In a piece for Ceasefire magazine, Andrew Robinson writes that the carnivalesque ‘is a kind of life shaped according to a pattern of play. It is usually marked by displays of excess and grotesqueness. It is a type of performance, but this performance is communal, with no boundary between performers and audience. It creates a situation in which diverse voices are heard and interact, breaking down conventions and enabling genuine dialogue.’ Later he notes that ‘it is a brief moment in which life escapes its official furrows and enacts utopian freedom... Its defining feature is festivity – life lived as festive.’ To me, that seems very close to the environment created by music festivals – full of play and performance and crumbled conventions. Shambala especially. This was my third year there, and it’s got better with each new visit.

We took the ‘life lived as festive’ message very seriously too. All weekend we ate and drank and explored. The absolute highlight came on Saturday – we took part in the cosmic chaos themed carnival (I dressed as a space goddess), marveled at all of the witty, brilliant costumes, and then ran off to the spa. There we jumped between the sauna, the hot-tubs and the hammocks as the sun slowly set – sipping cocktails and watching clouds illuminated in pink and orange. And when we were feeling thoroughly rejuvenated, we danced.

In fact, we danced and danced and danced, finally wandering away from the music at 6am in search of chai – which we drank looking over the lake as the sky slowly lightened. Then we ate crumpets and stumbled into our sleeping bags. There’s an absolute euphoria to be found in boogying for hours on end – the kind where you keep on wondering whether you can carry on going, with toes hurting and back aching (at least, if you’re me) but still carried forward by the music and the energy of everyone else around you. A crowd full of sweaty, sparkly, jubilant people with arms and legs flailing.

In the past two days I’ve sat down, done admin, made appointments, responded to emails, caught up on article deadlines and begun planning for what September will hold. I’m glad I had that last gasp of jubilant freedom though. To return to that quote above, it certainly was ‘a brief moment in which life escapes its official furrows’ – and oh, it was a glorious moment.

Big thanks to CAT footwear for sending me as part of their Cat Festival Diaries campaign. I can indeed confirm that their boots are bloody brilliant for endless dancing in - especially with the added shimmer factor. In fact, my feet are feeling fine after the weekend. It's my shoulders that have borne the brunt of the physical activity - they're killing now (probably good for them to get all that exercise though). On that note, I recently talked to the excellent Nell Frizzell for a piece on back pain for The Debrief. 

(Kath looking fabulous)

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Golden Days

I’m not sure what I noticed first – the coppery tint to all the fields, the hay bales, or the rain. Probably the rain, to be honest. We’re currently sitting on the cusp of that part-magical, part-melancholy tipping point between summer and autumn. The kind of point where thick cardigans are pulled out again, and talk about the lack of sunshine becomes commonplace.

I sort of love it though. Despite the dip in temperatures and possibility of grey days ahead, there’s a thrill to it as well. Call it all the clichés: back to school sentiment, the whiff of new beginnings, another seasonal shift full of possibility. However it’s labeled, there’s a sense of opportunity - somewhere among the slightly colder mornings and shorter days. Fresh starts – just as the leaves are readying themselves to embark on that final, glorious, colourful change.

It’s a feeling that lends itself to optimism – to the beginning of new projects and completion of longstanding plans. It also ushers in a certain amount of nostalgia too. I’m already aware of a sensation of loss on recalling the heat of late June/ early July where plenty of days involved river swimming, barbecues, and drinking wine outside late into the evening. I want the warmth and the thrill of skinny-dipping at midnight under a full moon. And yet I also want the warmth of big jumpers and thrill of crisp, bright mornings full of mist. But maybe that’s because it’s always easy to crave the season that’s not currently being experienced – especially when it can be condensed down to a few picturesque scenes and memories. 

There are plenty of adventures ahead though - things to write and schemes to work on, as well as a hefty amount of reading to complete. In the meantime though, I’ll be celebrating the end of summer by dancing through these last few days of August. This is being hastily written in between shoving every glittery dress I own (and the odd practical layer) into a rucksack, ready to head off to Shambala festival later today. I’m being sent by CAT boots, and will be striding around for the whole weekend in these metallic beauties – my feet shimmering through the night. Besides, as someone who usually chooses impracticality above all else, there’s something ever so satisfying in making pragmatic footwear choices that still look bloody fabulous.

Thanks to CAT for sending me off to Shambala. I'm wearing their Colorado ankle boots, here styled with a second hand, charity shopped slip dress and vintage velvet blazer. I half-froze while doing these photos - my mum and I dashing between the snug car and windy, chilly hillside - but the views were beyond magnificent. 

Monday, 24 August 2015

Kilts and Things

I bought my first kilt when I was thirteen. It was from a charity shop, naturally. This was the point where tartan and pleats were still plentiful – every pattern and colour hidden in among long, floral maxis and denim minis. I had little notion of the significance of the kilt as a specific design then, just claiming it as part of my general ‘granny chic’ ensemble (and indeed, my great-grandma had her fair share of kilts too). Over the years, the vast collection I assembled got whittled down – waistlines grew too small, or skirt lengths too cumbersome. Now I have a small but select group of three: one in black and white, one bright yellow, and one entirely magnificent in red, cream and green stretching to the floor. The former two I tend to wear all through the winter. The latter is just for special occasions.

As my interest in fashion history grew, the silhouette of the kilt took on new resonances. It made me think of punk and Vivienne Westwood, of Alexander McQueen, of Clueless and nineties teens, of Scottish heritage (I am ashamed to say that this was the last thing to come to mind). I still didn’t think of ‘the kilt’ as a standalone item in my own wardrobe though – it was just rammed in among a rag-tag mix of other tartan things, and other thick, wool garments. I was careless with mine, and also a tad sacrilegious. I still have a habit of wearing them back to front, because I prefer the flare of the pleats to the flat of the fabric. Bad, bad me…

Then I saw this delectable item from Le Kilt. It was gorgeous beyond belief. If you had a Rosalind Jana tick-box, it covered an awful lot of points: longstanding design heritage with a twist? Tick.  Strong cultural tradition that’s respected? Tick. Skilled craftsmanship? Tick. Knee-quiveringly beautiful shape and appearance? Tick. A mention of a grandma somewhere in there? Tick.

About a week after I first wobbled on sight of that beauty (incidentally, I think it may be the same one Pandora Sykes gloriously styled in the Sunday Times Style last weekend), I had an email from Katharine, who I was already working with, about a new venture she was setting up. It was called La Coterie. The aim? To provide intelligent, creative fashion content – and spark up conversations. Her reason for asking me to take part? To chat at length about Le Kilt with two other women I highly admire: Kay Montano (make-up maestro, co-founder of ThandieKay, and someone I feel entirely privileged to call a friend) and Navaz Batliwalla (fashion blogger extraordinaire behind the fabulous Disneyrollergirl). I readily said yes, and then began doing my research – looking up everything from the history of the kilt to the story behind the AW15 ‘She Said Boom’ collection (clue: it’s to do with a Toronto based post-punk band called Fifth Column, who you should definitely Google). You can see the resulting dialogue between the three of us here. I also got to wear a fabulous little blue number from Le Kilt for filming, and was reluctant to relinquish it when we were done.

Taking part reinforced something I already recognized – I bloody love conversation. Getting to unspool thoughts and bounce around ideas and follow threads of possibility? It’s the most intensely satisfying experience, whether it’s about fashion and feminism (as it was here), or just a series of musings with a friend over coffee. Long live words. Oh, and I guess, long live kilts. They’re ever so wonderful…

One of my second hand kilts has here been styled (for once, the right way around) with a silk pyjama top, a vintage suede waistcoat from a charity shop, and some men's loafers. 

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Asking For It: A Review

CONTENT NOTE: Contains discussion of sexual assault and victim blaming.

What does the length of that skirt pictured above say about me? Barely covering my bum, the leather pleats skim the top of my thighs and leave nearly all my flesh on show. In some quarters there are various words that might be used to describe it, especially when combined with heels and a skimpy top (and perhaps even more so if I was on a night out): indecent, provocative, suggestive. In fact, could wearing it somehow make me more liable to any misfortune that befell me? Is it a skirt that’s somehow short enough to imply that I’m ‘asking for it’?

Bollocks it is. It’s just a skirt. A pretty teeny-tiny mini as they go, for sure, but still just a length of fabric cut in a particular style with a particular set of dimensions. You can read lots of different messages from it (not least that I quite like letting my legs roam free) but there’s one very distinct thing it categorically does not and never will indicate – consent. There is not a single thing stitched into the seams or cut into the shape that says, “yes, I am seeking out trouble – it is my fault if anything bad happens to me. I should know better than to incite other people’s appalling assumptions or actions.”

Rather terrifyingly though, all sorts of people do seem to assume that a skirt like this might say just that – and, by following such a line of logic, some people also believe that in the case of sexual assault it's appropriate to ask questions about the outfit worn by a survivor. So many other questions too, especially when we’re talking about women… Not just was she wearing a short skirt or showing her cleavage, but how many people had she slept with before? Was she 'easy'? Was she by herself? Had she not taken the precaution of X, Y or Z? Had she been flirting? Was she drunk or high? Did she make a stupid decision? Could she be lying? Is she looking for attention? Isn’t she just ruining the lives of some young, promising guys?

Louise O’Neill’s book Asking for It challenges all of those acidic assumptions head on. It’s one of the most harrowing - yet entirely brilliant and utterly thought-provoking - books for young adults/teenagers that I’ve read in a very long time. I stayed up until 2am, racing through page after page. O’Neill has form. Her first book Only Ever Yours skewered and sharply satirized our modern obsession with appearance and skinniness (see my review for All Walks Beyond the Catwalk). But the world painted here is no dystopia, but current day Ireland – set in a small town full of classrooms and friendship politics and parties and smartphones. A world where Emma O’Donovan wakes up one morning with no memory of the previous night, only to find that the awful events have been plastered across social media. In fact, it is a kind of dystopia - but one that is all too horribly recognisable and current. This is a book that is as lyrical as it is disturbing – especially in the second half, charting the shattering impact of this incident on Emma, and the ripple effect beyond her. 

Emma is not the kind of character you immediately fall in love with. She is continually preoccupied with her own status, her beauty, her ability to attract the boys around her. Descriptions of her outfits are also rife throughout the book, as is Emma’s obsession with her appearance. On the night of the party, she gives details of her new dress: ‘It’s black, cut down the naval, and very, very short.’ All but one of her friends’ dresses are too. It’s standard, almost expected – a constant visual vying with each other. But although that dress may be calculated to draw attention, it does not make Emma accountable. Nothing could do that. Nothing whatsoever. And yet nearly everyone else around her seems to think that it's not just acceptable, but funny, to label her as a ‘slut’ – that she was 'asking for it', that she had it coming, that she deserves revulsion and mockery rather than empathy.

What's both fantastic and scary is how powerfully O’Neill's book echoes and embodies many of the conversations currently happening about rape culture. It reflects and brings to life everything from victim blaming to social media shaming to consent, law, gender, the media, and how narratives are constructed around both attackers and survivor.  There are hints of the Steubenville case, and others of its kind. This is not an easy read, by any means. Yet it is a necessary one. I hope huge numbers of people, especially young people, pick it up and then talk and talk and talk about it. 

Let’s return to clothing for a minute though, and unpack it a little further. This may seem like a heavy topic in general for a fashion blog, but in some ways it’s the perfect forum. I write about clothes constantly: about their messages, their meanings, their possibilities, their multifaceted functions.

But let’s be clear on this. There is no correlation between the particular arrangement of fabric on your skin (and the amount of skin it shows), and any sense of responsibility – whether we’re talking catcalls, lewd comments, groping, or rape. It’s not your fault if you are wearing a bodycon dress, a skirt short as a belt, a translucent shirt that shows your bra or hot-pants and a crop top. It is just as much not your fault as if you were wearing a demure pink twinset with pearls, a drab shapeless dress, a baggy hoodie and jogging bottoms, or jeans and the biggest, bobbly jumper. Doesn’t matter if you’re covered head to toe or just in a g-string (although I’d argue against the latter on the grounds of comfort, if nothing else).

How you choose to clothe yourself can be many, many things, but it is not an invitation, not an advance, not a request – and never, ever a justification.

Everything I’m wearing here is second hand, and you know what? I felt bloody fabulous in it.

Asking for It comes out with Quercus on September 3rd. It was a privilege to read it ahead of publication, and I have a feeling it’s going to be absolutely huge – and generate lots of much-needed conversations. I'd also suggest Sanne's video and Rosianna's too for very insightful observations on the book and on rape culture. 

Monday, 3 August 2015

Taking Chances

Some clothes are love at first sight – or near enough. Or whatever love at first sight feels like. Quite honestly, I’ve only experienced it with objects, sartorial and otherwise. Maybe this says something about the state of my love life thus far. Or perhaps I’m just more impetuous with my clothes (which, you know, makes sense. You don’t have to limit yourself when it comes to outfits…)

Other clothes though are subtler choices - ones made on the off chance that it might just prove fruitful. They’re more like ooh-maybe-it-might-work-but-I’m-not-quite-sure type affairs (probably quite a tad more accurate if we’re continuing with the whole relationships analogy, which of course I am). Often they’re bought on the encouragement of another, or because they’re ridiculously cheap, or because it’s a good combination of good day, good time, good garment.

Sometimes these decisions reveal themselves to be the folly they are the next day when you’re staring at a bright pink pinafore dress and wondering where exactly your discernment wandered off to. That’s ok though – that’s what eBay is for. And besides, it’s worth it for every time those unsure decisions prove themselves to be absolutely and exactly and utterly RIGHT.

Take this dress. It was fifteen euros from a second hand shop in Paris last summer. I’d picked up and put down several other things, but kept gravitating back towards this. It seemed a bit plain though. What merited it coming home with me? It was just a navy shift with some lace on it. And yet, and yet - perhaps it was the ideal shade of navy, the ideal placing of lace, the ideal fall of the hemline. And besides, my purse was still feeling a little heavy…

The upshot is that I’ve had it in Oxford with me all year, and worn it innumerable times. It goes with everything: grey Jaeger blazers, purple tights and velvet DMs; suede jackets and brown boots; turquoise socks and bright pink heels. You name it, somehow it’ll work. Well, maybe that’s a claim too far. But it’s about as versatile as it gets for me, and there’s a pleasure in dreaming up new combinations to play around with. Here it’s pictured with a yellow shirt that’s worn with similar regularity, to the point that it ended up with (now fixed) rips at the collar and sleeves.

It’s funny how this stuff works. I’ve had plenty of items I was convinced I’d wear until they were rags on my back that only get the odd outing. Others I nearly didn’t buy that get pulled out with increasing regularity. What makes the difference? What transports something from the ‘occasional’ pile to the ‘slip on whenever necessary’ one?

Maybe it’s partly comfort – it just feels good. Perhaps it’s about cut, and knowing that something will instantly flatter your body. Could be about the combination of everything else you own. As great as a garment is, if it doesn’t go with anything else (and yes, I’m bemused to say this does actually happen to me, despite my wardrobe’s best attempts to dominate the room through sheer volume), then it’ll stay folded in a drawer. Or maybe it’s just down to that odd-and-brilliant-and-weird thing that just happens with some clothes. It’s not quite magic. Not quite a superpower. Just a quiet aligning of everything, a moment of it all working out and looking subtly fabulous. This dress is definitely in that category. I spent my Euros well.

Everything I'm wearing here actually gets slung on with some serious regularity. I've had the heeled brogues for years, and they've cropped up on the blog many a-time. The shirt was second hand. And the provenance of the dress? Well, that's been covered already. 

In other news, I've had two articles published recently. First, this piece for Into the Fold discussing modelling and self-image. Second, this piece for Yahoo chatting about my curly hair, my mum, frizz, and the excellent website ThandieKay