Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Man Who Turned Into a Sofa

We have a bit of a motto in our family: “shit happens, and then you write about it.” It was devised in response to an intense two years of challenges (chiefly the combination of my spinal surgery and, twelve months on, my dad’s severe depression). Later, we joked about how such experiences become the foundation for stories, poems, articles... We dredge the dark stuff for material. There was (and is) a kind of compulsion to take all the crap and trauma, and shape it, trim it to fit into words. I guess that’s one of the things writers do – and I’ve grown up watching how my parents work.

I’ve been fortunate to live in a household built on books: lining the shelves, talked about over the table, written in order to pay the bills. It’s been an invaluable education – in appreciating the craft of a good sentence; in working as bloody hard as possible and then still needing to re-write multiple times; in editing and polishing and paring back; in knowing that publishing is a brutal industry that you can’t enter with any preconceptions. I’ve had a grounding in observing relentless (often unsuccessful) pitching and pragmatic approaches – although I’ve gone on to apply it in areas and industries my folks had no knowledge or experience of, or interest in. They’ve always written primarily for child/ young audiences, and neither of them has gone near fashion or journalism or essays/ opinion pieces. My own writing, so far, has been entirely separate from my parents.

Well, apart from this instance: we have collaboratively written a radio play that’s being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 tomorrow on September 17th at 2.15pm, titled ‘The Man who Turned into a Sofa.’ It’s a three-way piece, although remains essentially my mum’s project. A series of interwoven autobiographical monologues reflecting on dad’s depressive illness from our various perspectives, we all contributed initial written material that my mum then shaped and structured into a cohesive narrative. She’s done a stunning job (although I would say that). There are four voices – the man who is ill, his wife, his daughter, and the sofa that he sits on week in and week out, afraid to leave. Each of us also performed our own part, with actor Lorcan Cranitch providing the voice of the sofa. The music was composed by Will Goodchild and it was produced by Tim Dee.

Something we’ve discussed a lot as a family is the ripple effect of depression. Although there is a single individual at the centre, the one not sure how s/he will manage to make it through each day, those around the edge also bear the weight of that illness. Suddenly the person you love is altered, made strange. If the episode of illness is lengthy, then it’s like adjusting to a temporary bereavement – one where a cut-out image, an outward semblance of that person remains, but everything else recognisable is gone.

There’s a small irony in the fact that on the day my parents met, some 24 years ago, my flamboyant father walked into the school my mum was teaching at wearing a suit made out of colourful sofa/upholstery fabric: his performance garb. He charmed the pupils and my mum alike. I have a photo of him in this outfit in one of my many scrapbooks. When I was about 14, I captioned it with, “Let me just slip into something a little more comfortable – oh, I already have: a sofa!”

Little did I know what a prescient (and sad) statement that would prove to be. He was unable to leave the sanctuary of our sofa in the living room for months after he returned from hospital. It was the unlikely lynch-pin of our days, both integral and oppressive. Following his long, slow recovery, when my mum began piecing together a patchwork of monologues for a play, she realized that there were more than the three central characters – she needed to write an additional voice. And there it sat, constant, both set and player: “All seeing. All hearing. I wear grey wool with the felted feel of old school blazers.”

Now that wool is welcoming to all again – covered in cushions and rugs and the detritus of each day. What was once a place of refuge for my dad and absence for us, has been long re-claimed.  I’m sitting on that very sofa to write this.

I thought it would be appropriate to dress in the colours of the sofa - grey (with red accessories). The cape (from a charity shop at a festival some years ago) is made from almost exactly the same fabric as the sofa.
"Greyness" is also a word used by some to describe aspects of depression, as though colour has been leached.  Everything else I'm wearing is second hand/ vintage. My mum and I even managed to find a location yesterday that vaguely resembled some kind of blasted heath. 

Once the show has been broadcast, I will add in an iPlayer link to the play for those who can access it. 

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Re-creations (Charity Fashion Live)

                           Simone Rocha AW 14/15                                              My re-creation

I have a fluctuating relationship with London Fashion Week. I began attending when I was 15, the landscape of Somerset House an altogether different terrain with a handful of street style snappers and a press lounge that welcomed bloggers. All of this has changed, for various - and very understandable - reasons. Blogging, press, social media, the industry. All these areas (and each in relation to the others) have been shifting and re-moulding what is valued; where the focus lies. 

I am drawn back - dropping in to the odd show, catching up with old faces, meeting new ones. But as each six months rolls by, season on season, I’ve been a little less involved. That's not to say that there aren't designers who make my heart sing (and my potential purse strings tremble) - but I’m happy to remain at more of a remove than previously.

Yet, this time, there’s a difference. Come Saturday Sept 13th, I’ll be taking part in a shoot with a twist. Titled ‘Charity Fashion Live’, it’s going to be located in my most favourite of venues – a charity shop (a Red Cross, to be specific). Emma of Back of the Wardrobe will be conjuring up a second hand styling storm – emulating outfits from the shows held that day, using just what she can find on the rails. The fab photographer Claire Pepper (who I’ve worked with previously on this Charlotte Taylor shoot) will be there to capture these spontaneous creations on camera, while Darren O’Mahoney will be producing a film. It’ll be a day of snap decisions and social media, with all the looks broadcast online in as quick a turnaround as can be managed. Afterwards the outfits will be auctioned on eBay in aid of The British Red Cross.

I’m one of two models for the day. Although it’s usual to have no idea in advance how one might be dressed on a shoot, it’s a little more unusual for the rest of the team to be equally in the dark… The element of unpredictability makes it a hugely exciting prospect though. It weaves together so many of my interests, from second hand sustainability to innovative creation. The ethos chimes strongly with my own, relying on promotion of the longevity of clothing – and the creative possibilities to be found on a budget.

In preparation, I had a little go myself, with help from my mum – choosing a look from Simone Rocha’s AW14/15 collection: see image above left (photo credit Vogue.co.uk). My DIY version is composed from a long tartan skirt (bought from a charity jumble sale) that was turned upside down and transformed into a strapless dress with the help of ribbon and belts. It was ribbon-tied just above the bust with enough fabric from the hem pulled over to form the ruffles cascading over the top. Then it was belted with a cummerbund (you can see the detail behind). The open zip even forms a slit at the back! All the accessories were sourced in charity shops over the years too. Although I might not be able to get away with it on the catwalk, it seemed curiously appropriate for striding around country lanes.

Interestingly, I’ve actually used this skirt before for some other recreations of my own, including this homage to Corrie Nielsen several years back. It’s amazing how often the contents of my own wardrobe/ dressing up box can yield items suddenly deemed ever so ‘on trend’ or ‘of the moment’.  

You can follow the fun on Saturday on Twitter - with @Backofwardrobe using the hashtag #charityfashionlive. I'm sure it will be making plenty of appearances on my twitter too, which you can follow at @RosalindJana. Images below are from previous years. I can't wait to see what happens.. 

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Student Style for Vogue

I can't believe that this time last year I was nervously packing suitcases, trying to enjoy the last few weeks of the holiday and contemplating the books not yet ticked off my reading list. The first year of university has whizzed past, the second looming up ahead.

So it's more than apt timing for something I wrote on student style to have appeared on Vogue.co.uk. You can read the piece, titled 'Student Style: The University of Fashion Life' here. What I assumed would be a straightforward set of observations on outfits slowly became more of a meditation on identity, transitions and the role clothes can play in establishing yourself - or providing some much-needed armour.  

Alongside the writing, I was asked to document some of the outfits of students in Oxford - which I did, enjoying the chance to really focus on whose wardrobe choices I admired most. However, in the end these images weren't actually used, so I'm putting them up here as an addition to the article. Those pictured above are a mixture of friends, acquaintances and one or two individuals I ran up to on the street to ask if I could take a quick snap. Thanks to all of them for giving me their time. 

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Silk Dresses and Wild Swims

On the June weekend that I finished my first year of university I hopped on the train to Bristol. The Sunday afternoon found me at a quarry-turned-swimming-spot called Henleaze - gaining access via a friend of a friend (the waiting list for joining as a member stretches for years). The initial hit of cold as I slipped into the water was a jolting thrill. Once the shock ebbed, contentment rose; I took stroke after stroke out into the middle. With each stretch of arms and flick of legs I sluiced off the term just passed - rinsing away the exams, the late nights, the intensity. It was a glorious gateway into summer.

I've had several similarly satisfying swims since. In an early summer blessed with the shock of actual sunshine, this meant many forays out and about for further toe-numbing plunges. My dad is the one with the insatiable love for the chill of rivers and lakes. I don't dare Welsh waterfalls in January, but I am more than happy to join in when the days are longer and the temperatures not quite as unforgiving.

Unlike him, I prefer a proper swim rather than a short, sharp dip with added noise on the side. Once I'm in, I don't want to get out. I'll happily kick my way up and down (if there's enough depth to the river), turning on my back to half float, half paddle with my legs crossed at the ankle and my hands to propel. It's a unique pleasure, with nothing to dwell on other than the feel of water and the eye-level view of all that's around.

I think swimming outdoors (or to give its current label 'wild swimming' - one I object to on the grounds that it's actually much more natural than a swimming pool - but understand from a perspective of needing to name the activity concisely) is one of those things where the anticipation and the experience can be very different. It's so easy to say, "oh, not today. I don't want to get changed, get my hair wet, get cold...more excuses etc..." But whenever it's fully committed to, it is always magnificent.

It's also an activity harder to put into words than it first seems. There's a limited vocabulary - only so many synonyms for 'water', 'rivers' and 'swimming' that won't make you sound like a pretentious sixth-former trying to sound soulful ('glistening liquid' anyone? Or 'shimmering expanse like satin'?) One ends up reaching for ever more abstract similes and metaphors to convey the experience. A rare few are master crafters of this delicate art. Roger Deakin's Waterlog is so sensuous in its imagery, so alive in the feelings described - the act of slipping in and out of currents and waves and muddy waters becomes not only ritualistic, but also tangible: a mixture of sight and sensation.

One of my favourite proper swims took place back in July, in the river seen in these photos. With a huge bridge behind and a taut stretch of water in front, it was oh so easy to drift my way along absorbed in the sky and grassy bank. Less pleasant was the sharp shelving of the riverbed, meaning I bashed into a huge rock that left an impressively large lump. But it was an ideal day, composed of reading outside, swimming, food and bookshops. Just what holidays are meant to allow for, and just what I'll recall with pleasure when I'm wearing woolly coats once more. 

Everything I'm wearing is, surprise surprise, second hand. I bought the silk dress in a charity shop, thinking it was the perfect 'summer must-have' for swishing around in. I wasn't wrong. These photos were taken by my dad - and you can see me swimming, sans sunglasses (but keeping the lipstick), below. 

Thursday, 28 August 2014

More fun than a fleece

I am the princess of impracticalities when it comes to clothes. Well, nearly… That may be slightly too bold a statement. Yet I have had eye-rolls at my decision to wear cropped jumpers on freezing nights, sighs at my inability to find an umbrella or put on a raincoat when it’s tipping it down, exasperated questions of “but whyyyy?” when I’ve insisted on taking long walks in ludicrously short skirts or cycling in maxi skirts. I tend to smile, shrug my shoulders and acknowledge just how silly it is.

I do know my limits. The cold makes me grumpy, so I love cozying up in plenty of cardigans and layers. I’m currently embracing Edge of Love-esque cable knits and floral skirts, as I tend to do on the approach of each autumn. I’m better than I was too. So much time now spent in front of a computer screen means that items like tight belts or restrictive skirts are out of the question for the working day. I’m typing this in a massive blue jumper and patterned trousers so ridiculously comfortable I feel like I’m still in my pyjamas (you can see the combination here - although the shoes were just for the snap).

I’m also more likely (read always) to be found clomping around in flat boots or brogues than tottering along in vertiginous heels like the ones pictured above. I like to be able to walk with purpose and to dance and run for things when I’m late, rather than being reduced to a sedate swagger.

Heels can feel amazing and glamorous for events or shoots - and I have been known to climb over five-bar gates and tiptoe across fields in five-inch stilettos in the name of this blog. They’re also ace for the very, very occasional evening out – particularly as there’s something rather satisfying in being among the tallest in the room (they put me at well over 6 foot). Any longer than that though, and I start wistfully dreaming about loafers.

It’s just that, there are other times when I do prioritize aesthetic above other, more mundane elements, like whether I’ll be drenched or shivering or windswept or get bike oil all over a new wraparound full skirt (although, actually, I really learnt my lesson with that one and now tie up and tuck all long stuff as near as possible to my knickers to avoid similar embarrassment/ clothes carnage when cycling). Unsurprisingly, I like the way an outfit looks – and will occasionally focus on the overall appearance, to the detriment of pragmatism.

This was fully embodied last Friday when I was at a music festival. I’d chosen to wear a black jumpsuit (a very nice one at that, which will end up on here at some point). It looked fantastic – particularly when accessorized with a liquid-eyeliner-twirly-moustache - but required some gymnast-like wriggling every time I braved one of the grim toilets. The ability to remove layers, half undress and attempt to make sure nothing touches the scarily unpleasant floor of a portaloo is quite the skillset.

Plenty of other people were in one-pieces, so I wasn’t alone in my contortions. Playsuits and jumpsuits are only practical in that you can fling them on and go, but it does always amuse me to see them on lists of festival must-haves (although I find any list of ‘must-haves’ a bit ridiculous). Great as they may be for hours of shimmying and shaking, they’re still stupidly impractical otherwise. Sometimes though, frivolous as it may be, the impractical can be the best of fun. Despite the downsides, I did enjoy jumping around in my jumpsuit that afternoon. 

If an outfit is actually impacting on the quality of an activity because you’re so bloody freezing or miserable, then it’s not so great… No-one could ever describe leather pencil skirts or tiny velvet shorts or silk slips or feathered hats or sequined dresses or flimsy evening coats as sensible or ‘everyday’. But why limit yourself on when and where you wear them? It’s so much more fun than a fleece.

I bought this playsuit - seemingly carefully disguised to look like an indecently short jacket from the front - from a vintage shop recently. It's faded all up one side, but I don't mind. It's beautifully constructed. The heeled sandals are second hand from eBay (and were only put on for the shoot, as per usual), and the hat pictured in one shot is vintage. Adding to the general theme of impracticality, my prop is an old camera that no longer works. Well, sometimes things just look too pretty… 

Monday, 18 August 2014

Some Words on Second Hand

I’ve reached the point where I feel that certain things are a given on this blog – number one being that, no matter what the outfit, it’s likely that at least part of it will have been sourced from a charity shop, vintage shop/market, or family member. It’s easy to get complacent, to forget that such a second hand approach is still considered by some a tad unconventional.

Occasionally I wander into a high street store – sometimes because I need practical things like underwear (I’m yet to find a good ethical manufacturer of bras, and, well, M&S ones are pretty), sometimes out of idle curiosity. I like to see if I feel like I’m missing out, if the clothes are so delectable that I’d drop certain principles just to own a particular dress. It hasn’t happened yet. A lot of the time I’m just mildly surprised to remember that, unlike the sifting and sorting of a charity shop, in a high street store it’s all laid out neatly – multiple sizes, particular designs, trends that filter in and out. I’m now so used to the combing process, of running my fingers along rails and snatching up intriguing looking fabrics, clucking at prices and being disappointed when the vintage treasure I thought I’d laid my hands on turns out to be Primark. (Clothes snob, me?)

But I’ve realized that it’s the 'unknown' element I continue to revel in most. I love the hunt. I like the feeling of some small achievement, however frivolous, in bringing home a gorgeous green felt fedora or a Chanel-esque knitted cardigan. Who knows what’s to be found beyond the doors of Oxfam, The Red Cross, British Heart Foundation, Age UK and the many, many others scattered across towns and cities? They’re like little beacons, their signs snagging my attention – cries of “just one more” as mum and I dive among the racks while my dad and brother sigh in exasperation.

And so my wardrobe, in tidal shifts, accumulates new chiffon skirts and geometric print shifts and white linen trousers – more and more wire hangers jammed in, laden with things I had no idea I’d want to wear until I saw them labeled with a £5.99 price in Cancer Research. Maxis, long cotton shirts, tailored shorts, the occasional ball gown.

Of course sacrifices must be made too. This summer I’ve slowly sorted out the contents of my room, jettisoning about six suitcases’ worth of clothes along the way – not that you can tell from the amount of stuff left in there. They’re now all neatly stored away, waiting for the moment (if it ever comes) when I have enough free time to sell them on. As my body has moved from skinny young adolescent to something with a little more flesh on the bone, certain items no longer suit. But that’s exciting – bringing the possibility for new acquisitions to accentuate other areas.

I mulled over much of this recently whilst back in Oxford with a friend, trawling my old favourites on Cowley Road – standing in Helen & Douglas House (a fab charity shop) holding things up and muttering, “but I don’t need it, do I?” The thing is, there’s never a question of ‘need’ now. It’s more about a slow-burn pleasure, having the privilege to keep on building a little emporium of second hand delights. Some pieces will come and go, while others – hopefully – will remain stashed away until I’m old. Who knows what clothes there are left to discover… Slightly superficial? Well, yes. But a joy to consider? Absolutely. 

These photos were taken in Oxford last term by my friend Dina of She Loves Mixtapes - who is particularly on point at the moment with her pithy writing and ace clothing choices. All the principle parts of this outfit were assembled from Oxford's finest charity shops, with special mention going to the Russell & Bromley men's Chelsea Boots - bought for £20 and stomped around in repeatedly for the last few months (and, very occasionally, as below, proving helpful in securing the silliest of poses).