Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Power Of Dressing Up









This weekend I wore more sequins than I’ve done in months. From a glittering turquoise playsuit that made me look like a (rather leggy) mermaid to a sequined gold and black bra with teeny-tiny shiny hot-pants to match, through to this Marilyn-esque sparkling number with a slit up one side definitely verging on the obscene, it was 48 hours of spangled mayhem. Around me were eight other brilliant women, all similarly attired. Where were we: some fancy party? A club?

Nope. Just a pretty little house on the Welsh coast with austere portraits of old women in the living room, shelves full of books with faded spines, and driftwood sculptures everywhere. This house backed onto the beach. A quick hop over the wall and we were standing on pebbles. Both days as the sun set, the skies were soaked with pink and orange - our very own, live Turner painting. All of us had made our way there from various parts of the country, ready to celebrate our friend Flo’s birthday - to dance, cook, read, play scrabble, drink gin in the sunshine, and, most importantly, to dress up.

Oh, the dressing up! Alongside all those sequins there were wigs, hats, lashings of eyeliner, boob tubes, and enough faux fur to start a small fake animal convention. And with each costume change, I felt slightly altered too. I lounged around in my long gown. I danced energetically in grey palazzo pants and a silver space-age bikini top. Many of the items we’d brought with us migrated between various people over the course of the two nights. It was fascinating: seeing how different the same dress could look on three different figures, accompanied by three different attitudes. No, more than fascinating. Freeing.

In fact, being in the company of a bunch of women who were equally dynamic and interesting, each of us with our own, particular strengths, abilities, and body shapes, was fucking fantastic. A tonic. A delight. A state of affairs good for both body and soul. Well, maybe more for soul. My liver wasn’t very happy with me come Saturday morning… When we all left again on Sunday though I felt lighter on my toes: fizzing at having being surrounded by great people with a similar love for the ridiculous and the decadent (and the ability to cook a bloody good curry, too).

I’ve been thinking these last few days (ok, that’s a lie, for the last few months, really. No, scrap that too. For the last few years) about the pure, raucous pleasure found in dressing up. We do it so naturally as children, transforming ourselves into witches, pirates, royals and orphans with no more than a quick costume change and a healthy dose of imagination. At that age, every garment is full of stretching possibility.

As we grow up these transformations still exist, but they’re often subtler: varied facets of ourselves developed (and clad) as we switch between work, friends, partying, dating, long walks, late nights, holidays, festivals, bedrooms. Often these categories come with their own, slightly tweaked sartorial characters – our ‘work’ selves existing independent from our ‘breezy summer weekend’ or ‘dressed to kill and ready for cocktails’ or ‘suit-clad for a poetry reading’ selves (ok, those three are just me). All are different ways of manipulating image, and playing around with how others perceive us.

But I’ll forever and always remain a fan of out and out dressing up: of raiding wardrobes/ boxes/ rails/ shelves/ vanity cases/ wherever else you keep your finery, and shimmying on something fabulous just because you can. Because it’s fun. Because we could all do with a few more of those genuine flashes of joy that come with having on the silliest and most wonderful of get-ups.

See, dressing up is a powerful force – one that can be radical and limitless, as well as just being an opportunity for some silly fun. It can be political. It can be full of pleasure. Whether it’s a weekend in sequins; a session of running rampant in the wardrobe with a good friend; assembling a seventies-inspired outfit for a blog post complete with a new maxi-dress and some tumbling hills behind; or an evening spent in your room just by yourself, dancing around in your underwear to the loudest possible music while trying on combination after combination of clothes – well, the potential is endless.

I bought this dress from the Beyond Retro in Brighton last month. I saw it on a hanger, didn’t try it on, then ended up dashing back the next day just before my train because it was playing on my mind so! The suede coat is from a car-boot sale, and the heeled boots are vintage. Now that the weather’s a bit better, I’ve been really getting back into the fun of dressing up for the blog too.

On a separate note, a quick reminder that I’m appearing alongside my incredibly well-dressed mum at Oxford Literary Festival this Saturday at 2pm to talk books, mothers and daughters, and whether writing runs in the family. If you're a concession, you can use the code StHilChil as well. Hope to see some of you there! 


Monday, 20 March 2017

These Shoes Were Made for Walking










Recently, my favourite pair of boots fell apart. I have only myself to blame. Having bought them second hand, I lived in them for months – occasionally substituting in other pairs, but mainly assuming these black leather beauties would see me all the way through autumn and winter and back into the sunshine. They were tough boots, solid boots, boots easily relied on for supporting a good stomp. And stomp I did. I stomped and stomped – up hills, along rivers, weaving time and again across London - until the leather cracked beyond repair and suddenly my toes were on show (there’s nothing quite like a green sock poking out the end of a thick-soled boot to make you feel like you’re an impoverished orphan in a bad TV adaptation of a Dickens novel).

See, once upon a time these boots would have been all stiff and shiny: waiting in a shop for the right foot to mold to. They wouldn’t have had creases in the surface like laughter lines, or slightly fraying elastic on the right ankle. But by the time I got them, they’d already been gently broken in. I then wore them until they were a pliable second skin. They were perfect. Not the showiest of footwear, but understated and stoic enough to allow me to bound around on foot all day without feeling impeded. They offered an ease, a certain flexibility, the luxury of not having to feel slowed down in any way. I’m sad to see them go.

See, much as I’m happy to change my style of dress radically day to day – from androgynous shirts and tartan trousers to floaty seventies style nymph and back again - I’m not such a shape-shifter when it comes to shoes. In an ideal world I’d have one of those disgustingly aspirational closets you see in old rom-coms, with a whole wall just for footwear. There’d be every colour, every style. I’d have loafers and thigh high heels (still on my dream to-buy list) and more beautiful flats than I knew what to do with. There’d be Derbies and Oxfords and platforms and wedges and sandals and even, maybe, just maybe, some trainers I actually enjoyed wearing (stranger things have happened). Leather, velvet, suede, plastic, canvas – I’d own it all.  

But in this world, I daily rotate between the same, few trusty pairs of boots and brogues - the clincher being that I have to know I wouldn’t find them frustrating if I wanted to spontaneously walk for several miles. It’s the one item of clothing where comfort trounces everything. Of course I own my fair share of silly, wonderful flats, and pretty heels that allow me to tower above everyone’s heads, but they only really come out for shoots (or end up being hastily changed into just outside a venue). If it’s for anything other than looking glam for a short amount of time though, then it’s pragmatism or bust. Give me a pair of shoes I can’t pound a pavement in at high speed, and I end up miserable.   

In fact, I was keenly reminded of this last week when I made the mistake of wearing a new pair of men’s brogues for a two-day London trip. Gorgeous? Yes. Making me feel just the right, suave amount of Katharine Hepburn/ Marlene Dietrich/ Vita Sackville-West if she’d ever worn brogues and a short silver slip? (I mean, unlikely, I know). Of course. A wise choice for an afternoon wandering from Euston all the way to Bermondsey, with plenty of pit-stops along the way? Oh god no. I’m not being melodramatic when I say that first thing the next morning I had to limp my way to Oxford Street to find something – anything – that would leave my toes less lacerated.

All of that aside though, I still adore footwear that verges on the decadent and the downright ridiculous: these pink bowed confections being a case in point. They actually tick most of my criteria anyway, being surprising sturdy and comfortable, despite looking like they’re made from candy-floss, prom dress off-cuts, and a five year old’s sketch of what a shoe should look like. And though I might not be able to stomp in them with the same force as some battered old leather boots, at the very least, they suit larking around a hill-top with some wild ponies for company.

My lovely photographer friend Dvora gave me these shoes last summer. They were originally from ASOS. Everything else is second-hand: this frothy shirt being vintage Liberty. And I realized it’s rather appropriate that I’m clutching some Plath books as props here (as you do), given that tomorrow evening I’m chairing an event at Waterstones Gower Street with Greta Bellamacina, Sabrina Mahfouz, Deanna Rodger, and Hollie Mcnish. We’ll be talking poetry, politics, gender, and plenty else. Come along!

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

What Does International Women's Day Have to Do With Your Wardrobe?


 



In 1908, the International Ladies’ Garments Workers’ Union went on strike. More than 15,000 people participated. Many were immigrants – including one of the main organisers Clara Lemlich, who was only 23. They marched through New York, demanding better pay, better rights, better working conditions. A few years later, to commemorate their actions, International Working Women’s Day came into existence. From that point onward, it became a day both symbolic and pragmatic: fostered and upheld by the women’s labour movement not just in the United States, but globally too.

International Women’s Day has been a date I’ve long been aware of/ participated in, but when I woke up this morning, I didn’t know its specific, very significant heritage. But then, as I was scrolling through Facebook earlier – drinking coffee, trying not to get overwhelmed at my to-do list, procrastinating from doing any of it by said scrolling – I saw a post flagging this point of origin. I immediately fell into a vortex of reading, astounded that I’d never before thought to seek out any kind of in-depth account of today’s heritage. I read about its socialist foundations, its status as a national holiday in various countries, the ways in which we should commemorate and continue to push its legacy, its ideals, its emphasis on groups of women who’ve been systematically marginalized.

This is important. It’s important to remember this rich and often bitterly difficult history: a working women’s history, a history of striking (especially this year), a history of women challenging the established status quo. It’s important that this day gives room for the most joyous celebrations of women, as well as space to dwell on everything we still need to change and dismantle (which, as Vicky Spratt sagely points out here, involves A BLOODY MASSIVE AMOUNT of work left to do). It’s also important, I think, on a fashion blog to nod towards the fact that the genesis of this day involved garment workers. At a time when we still need to be having urgent, loud, complex conversations about who makes our clothes – and at what cost – this is crucial.

Yesterday, I had an essay published on Broadly on the history of deadly dressing. Though the more eye-catching examples include poisoned ball-gowns and crinolines catching fire, the majority of those harmed at the hands of clothes over the last few centuries have been – yep, you can see where this is going – those in the trade of making them. I thought about this again while reading up on that first strike. The history of fashion is also a history not just of gender, but of class, of badly treated workers and unregulated industry, of greed, money, prejudice, and exploitation. Of course it is also a history of extraordinary designs and innovations. I appreciate that (and quite obviously spend plenty of time dwelling on changing waistlines, hemlines and exquisite, ridiculous dresses over the centuries). 

Today seems like a good day though to think on the hands responsible for those garments, as well all those feet that have marched, the voices that have been put to use, the bodies and minds that deserved better. Many of the things those women wanted in 1908 are still denied to huge swathes of the global populace of garment workers: the majority of them female. I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here, beyond acknowledging the complexities and contradictions that come with loving clothes and hating the conditions under which most of them continue to be produced. I don’t have any answers. I just know that we need to do more, pay attention, act to shift things as and where we can, no matter how small (a principle that goes for any of the seemingly huge and insurmountable issues that surround IWD, whether we’re talking about healthcare, bodily autonomy, the wage gap, rape culture, domestic violence, education, the environment, you name it). In the meantime, it’s a good day to salute those garment workers who marched 109 years ago. They kick-started a hell of a lot.

Oh, and happy International Women's Day! Hope you've spent yours well. 


Given that today is also A Day Without a Woman (which you can read more about here), I thought it appropriate to pull out all the images from my archives where I was dressed in red.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Light Among the Shadows






Today, for the first time this year, I sat with my window open – looking out at the garden, and over to the hills beyond. The air felt different. Something had lifted. Or maybe it had quickened. There were pink cyclamen scattered along the edge of the fence, and wood-pigeons fussing somewhere out of sight. It wasn’t especially sunny. Not one of those brilliant days where you end up swept clean by the light. Just, well, more hospitable. Full of warmer potential. Later I went for a grey and gorgeous walk with two old friends, skirting down paths and breathing in the smell of moss and mud. The woods were full of growth beneath the leaf-mulch.

None of it was like the glaring majesty of the morning pictured here: these photos taken back in Autumn, during another dawn where I joined my dad at the top of the hills to stare down at the world waking up (for previous early morning forays, see this blog post). There’s something unique to that sweep of gold. It’s brief: a spectacle reserved for the few fortunate enough to be up in time to witness it. Now I’m already dreaming of the days getting longer again, of the chance for more sunrise starts that don’t involve chattering teeth and uncomfortably cold toes, of bare legs and warm skin. Today, somewhere right on the tip of my tongue, I got a small taste of that. Not much of it. But enough.

To put it in much simpler terms, today it felt like Spring.  

After a few weeks of wanting to hibernate, my mind has been whirring at full pelt again too. It’s still getting thrown off-kilter by everything that is so currently, distinctly abnormal in the world – getting snarled up, as it should, in how to respond to that. But I’ve felt other things slotting into place alongside. New-growing ideas. Stuff to take forward, moments to relish, plans to make, maps to unfurl at the edges. Plenty to celebrate and investigate, too: not least the active, imaginative output of so many people and initiatives right now.

Chief among the things to currently celebrate – and support – is this really ace anthology being put together by Rife Magazine. It’s edited by Nikesh Shukla: aka, the brains behind the fantastic essay collection The Good Immigrant, which really should be required reading now and forever. Stop reading this blog post and go order yourself a copy if you haven’t encountered it already. This new anthology will bring together twenty stories by young people about what it means to live in Britain today. Timely, huh?

Even more thrillingly my voice is going to be among them - and I can tell you that I’m going to be writing a veeeery personal essay. Mine will be appearing alongside some other people I massively respect, including Liv Little (ed-in-chief of the fabulous, fabulous gal-dem) and June Eric-Udorie (a wonderful writer, who’s also currently fundraising for BAME girls from low-income families to go to a screening of Hidden Figures. After buying The Good Immigrant, you could also throw some money towards her scheme here. Yes, I’m being bossy on my blog today, and I’m not even done yet…)

I want to highlight this for several reasons, beyond me being bloody excited to be a part of it. The main one is that the book will be coming out via Unbound (with a scheduled release date for early next year). For those unfamiliar with the format, Unbound allows books to be fully funded in advance by their prospective readers. You can pledge to support it here. Doing so will not only see twenty young people paid and given a platform for their words, but will also act as a resounding affirmation of the significance found in listening to this generation’s myriad voices, perspectives and experiences. I can promise that it’ll be an entertaining and enlightening read too. 

The second is that there’s still an open call for submissions from writers under the age of 24, which you can read more about here.

The third is that, once again, I take solace in the fact that this book will reflect just a fraction of all the young people currently speaking with honesty, empathy, wit, and anger; the young people putting politics into action, creating beautiful things, standing up to injustice, enabling change, and generally getting shit done. It’s always worth holding onto that, especially at the moment.

As I sat at my laptop this evening, thinking about this anthology, and these photos taken months ago, both suddenly reminded me of something else: this transcript of a speech Ali Smith gave in praise of the marvelous John Berger. I found it yesterday. It’s worth reading in full. More than that, it’s worth saving and returning to multiple times, dipping into the riches again and again. At the end Smith says this:

“in appreciation of him, I am and will be verbal: I see. I see in multiple ways. I veer towards that light in all the darknesses, real, historic, contemporary. And because of it, I will see. More, I will look. I will connect. I will co-respond. I will always know the life of dialogue. I will know the value of mystery, of not knowing. I will open. I will shout at the walls and the frontiers to break open. I will keep my nose open for the power-shit. If I despair, it’ll be with hope. I will attempt to pay, at all times, not just attention, but creative attention. I will love. And I will pass on, both to the past and the future, what generosity and gifts and sight and insight have been passed on to me, with love.”

This is a time of needing light – both symbolic and, sometimes, actual (for we all could do with the odd spell of sunshine to work its mood-quickening magic). A time of needing to see in multiple ways. To be generous, and receptive, and yes, always, to love. Occasionally, I think, to just sit by a window and stare out at the new flowers, relishing that new warmth in the air too.  

Sunday, 5 February 2017

A Time for Poetry







(Photos by the brilliant Fabio Paleari of all the New River Press poets)

1)

It was getting near to dusk, and Paris was all soft blue-grey air and gold lights. I was wandering along the Seine (as you do when you’re intent on fulfilling every cliché) with one of my most brilliant, articulate friends. We’d met earlier in the day for coffee, and I caused an impressive ruckus by walking straight into the glass door of the café with my full cup in hand. It went everywhere. After the spillage had been mopped and my bruised ego was allayed, we got more coffee, sat, chatted for a while, then walked. He knows the city well. This was only my third visit. I followed him as we wove down streets until we hit the river. It was heart-soaringly gorgeous. Finally, after strolling and sitting on the stone lip of the walkway for ages, freezing but happy, watching the water pass and talking about art, relationships, politics, work, it was time to leave for Shakespeare & Company.

I was performing there that evening with the New River Press: the utterly brilliant independent press that published my debut collection Branch and Vein earlier in the year. I’d been excited for weeks. Of all the bookshops to speak in, this is pretty much as special as it gets. By the time it came to the performances, every corner of the shop was taken up. There were people spilling out of the door and squished in the alcoves beyond the stage. It felt so safe, so charged, so full with the thrill of shared words and a warm audience. I sat and listened to others, reveling all over again in their poems, then stood up and did mine. I sailed through them, enjoying the chance to play once again with cadence and timing, giving voice to my work while wearing a blue velvet jacket, naturally. When I sat down again, my adrenaline levels surged. (You can see a video from the evening here. I begin at around the 14.40 mark). 

Our performance took place on the night of the election. We read, celebrated, went for drinks and dinner, and finally all stumbled off back to bed at our hotel. I immediately checked Twitter, and felt jittery. There was nothing definitive at that point, but it was uncomfortably close. I put the phone down and pulled the duvet over my head. Over the next eight hours I kept on waking up, dozing, checking, wishing I hadn’t checked, and lapsing between anxious sleeplessness and weirdly lucid dreams. In the cold truth of morning I had no appetite. I’d been planning to walk around Paris by myself for much of the day (taking a cue from Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse), but instead I just wanted familiarity. I caught the metro and went to see the same friend I’d hung out with the day before. We drank more coffee. We talked more urgently.

It’s weird to recall now, this strange, strange 24 hours that were half heavenly, half-nausea inducing. Nothing can tarnish the gold of that evening: from the company to the audience to the poems to Sylvia Whitman being possibly the most luminescent human being ever. It reinforced to me everything that I love about poetry: reading it, writing it, listening to it spoken aloud. It made me want to go away and toy and tinker with my verse for days, pursuing new ideas and crafting old half-finished stuff. But there are shadows at the edge of the memories too. They've got darker in these last few weeks. 






(Photos by Mazzy Mae-Green for Autre magazine)

2)

I was pink-cheeked and flustered, having dashed my way through central London to get there on time. As is so often the case at the moment, I had a massive backpack with me: overnight kit and a change of clothes squeezed carefully into as scant space as possible. I also had on the most beautiful blue feather print Burberry dress. It made me feel like a very glam, un-camera shy Virginia Woolf (and oh god was I terrified of sweating into it). Over the top I had on a camel trench coat with buttons like big, black circles of liquorice. Both had been borrowed for the evening. In them, I could stand a little taller.

I had come to Thomas's café next to Burberry’s flagship store for a literary salon hosted by Greta Bellamacina: one half of the duo behind the New River Press, along with her partner Robert Montgomery. I feel immensely grateful to be friends with the two of them. They’re such forceful, shining, tireless artists: each producing fantastic work of their own, while also doing a damn good job of championing so many others. Knowing them for nearly the last year has been a dream. I can’t thank them enough for their support, and their general presence in my life. Sometimes I still look at my beautifully designed book and want to squeal all over again (SHAMELESS PROMO ALERT: you can buy it here. Please do. I’ll be very, very grateful. It has poems in there about everything from ghosts to greenhouses, via way of abandoned hotels, PMQ’s, family stories, iced over lakes, sex, tarot cards, and train journeys. Oh, and you can see more with another reading of mine here. If you need any further convincing, it's been rated by AnOther magazine, and GQ too.)

The salon consisted of a number of people performing their own work, and others reading aloud their favourite poems. I devised a poem specifically for the evening’s theme of ‘Great Britain’. Ever the lapsed student, I ended up working on it right until the moment I had to leave for the event. It was about Brexit and autumn and bad news and village halls and city streets on a Saturday night. It felt impossible to write about much else. Recently, it’s been hard to think of much else either.

Alongside the ridiculous delight that comes with getting to read your work for one of the brands you’ve loved since you were a teenager (I credit Christopher Bailey’s rain-drenched SS09 collection with really kick-starting my interest in design), it was also just a pleasure to let everyone else’s words wash over me. We need more evenings full of poetry. They’re soul-lifting stuff. I also finally got to meet both Rae Morris and Scarlett Sabet: two immensely talented women I’d chatted with online, but never met in the flesh. They both outdid me in the long, curly haired stakes too. Together we did look slightly like a trio of Pre-Raphaelites… 



(Photos via Getty Images/ Tatler)

3)

I was sitting with a friend on Greek Street drinking tea. The lights flickered, flared, flickered again, and then the entire street went dark. We sat there for a minute or two, wondering what to do. Our phone signal had dipped too. In those first few moments, I panicked. It’s amazing how much you take for granted in a city. You assume that your pavements will be illuminated, that everything runs according to order, that you can pretty much always pay for things if you have a debit card with you, and ring people if your phone is charged. Having that thrown was disconcerting.

Once we established that it was a Soho-wide power-cut, it was more intriguing. The mood shifted. I was due to do another reading that evening, and worried it might be cancelled. But in the end, that power-cut provided all the magic needed. Our venue, The Society Club, assured us that it would be lit by candles. As I approached it, weaving my way down the dark street by the torch on my iPhone, passing clusters of people doing similar, I saw the windows ahead. They were radiant and fogged up with all the bodies inside. A beacon in the murk. I entered, and everything/ everyone looked like a Caravaggio painting (or an Artemisia Gentileschi one, but given how violent her portraits are, perhaps the former is a better comparison). I was wearing a pink satin blazer and a Lacroix shirt stitched all over with words. It felt perfect for the occasion: decadent enough for the task of reading aloud by the glow of a flame.

The lights came back on half-way through Rob’s performance. We were all slightly disappointed. There’d eventually been something thrilling in everything being a little off-kilter. Without the street lamps, we’d been able to stand right in the heart of London and see stars up above the office blocks.





4.)

In these last few weeks of hellish news, I’ve found it harder to write: to just continue with pitching articles, chasing up projects, plotting out ideas, scribbling poems, dashing off blog posts, dipping into the various fictional worlds I’m currently trying to construct. Many of us have. It’s strange to have to carry on with ‘normal’ things when much feels so hugely abnormal, to have to switch between work and fearful helplessness at the actions of those in power on both sides of the ocean. I don’t have much to add beyond that. Pretty much everything has already been said by people wiser and better equipped to do so than me.

All I can stress yet again is that we have to stay angry. We have to keep on listening to those most affected and marginalized. We have to keep on contacting our representatives (see Rosianna’s very helpful video here). We have to lend our voices, our time, our money, our energy, our empathy, our hands, our commitment, and, sometimes, our humour (what a time for protest signs) to those values we hold dearest – as well as, crucially, knowing when to switch off, look away from the news for a little while, and just sleep, or take joy in the things and the people around us. Joy is vital. It is energizing. It is a form of resistance - and it is yours to keep and nurture and hold close.

This is also, I think, a very good time for us to read and celebrate poetry too: to pick up Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, enjoy the Poetry Foundation's collation of poems of protest, resistance and empowerment, scroll through this Black History Month poetry account (especially this thread on LGBTQ+ poets), look at Kaveh Akbar’s beautiful list of works by poets from those countries affected by that heinous (and illegal) ban, and then go in search of those whose words provide solace and strength specifically to you. I’ve found poetry a very soothing thing these last few weeks. I’ve picked up Irina Ratushinskaya again, as well as U.A. Fanthorpe, Elizabeth Jennings, Helen Mort, and Greta Stoddart. I’ve made myself a huge list of poets to buy (Sabrina Mahfouz, James Baldwin, Marilyn Hacker, Andrew Macmillan) and reorganized my own shelves for easier access.

All forms of literature are humanizing. They’re a way of being pulled into a specific voice or setting or way of viewing the world. Poetry is especially good at elevating us into other, new spaces or, conversely, articulating the recognizable feelings we need worded most. Right now, we need art. We need sparks and flickers of hope. We need work that is tender, or emboldening, or powerful. We need some beauty to cut through the clamour at times, and add fire to it at others. And oh do we need lots of it, going forward. 

Who are you reading at the moment? Who should I add to my list? I want to know.