Friday, September 12, 2014

What We Wear

Much of this morning has been spent sitting in the sunny room at the top of my parent's house. This was my bedroom for most of the time that I lived here. It sits at the front of the house so that you can watch the street throughout the day. This was one of my favourite things about the room when I was 12 and strange and used to stand at the window with the curtains closed and monitor the street in the evenings through a little gap. Just keeping an eye on everything like some bizarre, unelected member of a neighbourhood watch committee. Evidently this viewpoint still acts in the room's favour, although the relationship between a desk and a view is always a tricky one; is a front-facing window crucial for feeling connected to what is going on outside as you work or just a distraction from what must be done? I always like the view but drift off easily watching home-deliveries arrive from the supermarket and children shoot along the pavement on micro scooters.

Either way, the light pours in and the desk sits right in the middle of the room like a declaration of intent. No pushing to the wall here, it's right in the centre so that when you walk in it you feel you've been called into somebody's office. My Mum has three piles of CDs stacked up on the surface; an assortment of classical concertos and irresistible pop; Crash Test Dummies and Scissor Sisters and the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack alongside Mozart, The Beach Boys and Catatonia. There's a baby pink ashtray which suggests that this office might be the home of an alcoholic publisher, though clearly a drinks bar in the corner would be the olive in the martini.

I've spent much of this week at home surveying the bookshelves, which is one of the great things that comes with returning. Poking things saying "this is new" and admiring the more grown-up furniture that has been acquired since leaving. My Mum always watches my trips home as an owner might their dog after taking it off its lead, scurrying about the park sniffing the trunks of trees. I gradually work my way around the house collecting the reference books I'd forgotten, or left behind, or never found reason to read in the first place. On my bedside table a pile too impossibly large to work my way through always outstays each visit.

'Cheap Chic', a wonderful personal-style reference guide is top of this pile, and has added fuel to my current re-enthusiasm for clothes and style. The sort of apathy-free enthusiasm I had when I started this blog 8 years ago. Written by Caterine Milinaire and Carol Troy, and published in 1975, Cheap Chic preludes my other go-to style book The Cheap Date Guide to Style and is arguably superior. It blends personal style features on college students, photojournalists, actors and painters with long chapters dedicated to sportwear, jersey, and how to shop for clothes in markets around the world. The preoccupation with personal style shuns any element of exclusivity, which is always my major beef when it comes to mainstream glossy publications and fashion magazines. I find the presence of class, status and money on the pages of Vogue overwhelmingly off-putting, but with a book like Cheap Chic I can enjoy an image of Cher alongside a student wearing an ugly pair of boots with aplomb and feel entirely comfortable. It's all about choice; there's no whiff of frantic selling to the reader. Here it's self-expression, experimentation, frugality and investment; and the sort of investment that's actually attainable.

Some of my favourite extracts:

"In London, the painter Duggie Fields and about twenty of thirty friends put on their own "jumble sales" by hiring a church hall and bringing things to sell. "The rental goes to the church charities, and what we make we keep for ourselves. We advertise the sale in the local papers, list it in Time Out magazine, and design posters to put in neighbourhood shops. Hundreds of people come. It's fun, and it's a good way to get rid of your old stuff and get new from your friends. It's good recycling, and at the same time you can make $100 in an afternoon just for cleaning out your closet. The clothes are all piled up- our first jumble sale was chaos- and as soon as the doors open, people run in, grabbing. It's like being in a chicken coop. But it's a nice afternoon, and it's fun to see who turns up. I even see people stealing. They know I know they haven't paid, but I'm not going to say a thing... things gotta go! I only buy clothes in stores if I need something I can't find here. They're not necessarily fashionable stores. My favourite is called 'Sex' in the World's End...  bits of furs, porno embroidered T-shirts, and humorous clothes. My idea of wearing clothes is to make myself smile. I like this in others to. I don't think clothes should be serious.""

"I go to exercise class twice a week. I spend my money there and on having my hair streaked. And I've done the Royal Canadian Air Force exercises ten minutes every morning since 1962. I save money on cabs by doing everything on my bike or on foot; and year round I play tennis and ski. I'd love to be one of those great beauties, but, to make the best of myself, I have to radiate what I can get from inside: health. I think your mental attitude is based on your physical well-being." Helen Gaillet, New York photojournalist.

"My clothes are fun. They're just a collection that's evolved over the last six years, one thing here and one thing there. And it pleases me. That's what clothes are for, aside from protecting you from the rain and giant armadillos, you know... I don't shop. If the moment is right, I know it. If the thing, the money and I are all together, that's my cue... There's no one thing in my closet that I love- everything is my favourite. I never get up and think, 'I don't have a thing to wear!' It's just a matter of what I feel like mixing. The basic secret of having a style us confidence- you exude it, and people assume that what you wear if not only fashionable, but way-the-hell-ahead-of-them chic. It's a savvy you have about your clothes, and with savvy you can get away with anything." Nancy Crow, lives in New York, works in a publishing house.

As well as enjoying a good nose through Cheap Chic this week I've taken enormous pleasure from Women in Clothes. This is the collaborative project and book edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton made up of essays and insights about how women dress and feel about style and clothes and the many other personal implications that stem from those things. The book is the result of personal style surveys from over 639 women and is utterly fascinating. Women in Clothes isn't yet available to buy in the UK but I've been scrolling through the accompanying Twitter feed and returned surveys. It's cathartic to read some of these thoughts, especially when they tap into the conflicts many of us encounter when it comes to clothes, consumerism and often, feminism. For example, wanting to look brilliant, and wanting to buy clothes that will help to articulate an image I have in my head, and wanting to buy the right things but also trying to avoid overconsumption for environmental and economic reasons. I also find the question of sexiness when it comes to personal style endlessly fascinating, because I always see sexiness and confidence as going hand in hand. But at the same time there are so many complicated feelings that come with dressing sexily; many of them being linked to unwanted attention and all of those horrible feelings that remind me of being shouted at by men from white vans at the age of 12 and having my own sexuality flagged up by other people in public rather than by myself, in private. But I like the variety of the responses that come with questions about attractiveness and what they means to different people. I sometimes feel most attractive when I've just got home from somewhere; maybe the cinema or drinks with friends and my hair has that end-of-day goodness and my skin has a nice flush to it after enthusiastic conversation over a glass of wine and I'm wearing a skirt that swishes well. Sometimes on those nights I'll look in the mirror as I'm washing my face and feel good and happy and sexy and think I wish it was the start of the night now and I could go out feeling like this. But the fact that it's a glow from a well-spent evening is what makes it good.

I used to put so much value on fashion, and I think that's why I found it necessary to change this blog as I got older and my feelings about fashion changed. I used to feel obliged to obsess over cuts and fabrics and draping, fashion houses, matching a detail to a designer and being able to recall a season according to a motif. But at the heart of that fascination was always people. For me, it always comes back to people, which is why, now, I find the idea of style so much more appealing than fashion. The two are linked, of course, but now I find there's something quite boring about Fashion Week. I like occasionally checking in to see what the collections look like, but the carnival that surrounds it, of stylists and industry-people being photographed wearing ubiquitous, shiny head-to-toe looks doesn't do it for me. These aren't the people that interest me because it just all feels a bit too easy. Where's the conflict? It's like they just picked something immediately from a rack but there wasn't anything thoughtful about the process. I'm far more interested in reading about how people navigate dressing for work, people who don't themselves work in the fashion industry. This following little exchange via the Women in Clothes Twitter feed was bang on the money (and incidentally, I really want to find some of these socks. How brilliant would it be, to wear a middle finger around your ankle and have nobody know?)

And this has to be one of my favourite tidbits from the book, and seems a good place to leave these meanderings:

How important is all this? "I hate it when people say they don't care about clothes, because it's a lie. It's like when writers say they don't care about plot. Lie. We are always asking for something when we get dressed. Asking to be loved, to be fucked, to be admired, to be left alone, to make people laugh, to scare people, to look wealthy, to say I'm poor, I love myself. It's the quiet poem in the waiting room, on the subway, in the movie of our lives. It's a big fucking deal." Leopoldine Core.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Kathryn Maple

Five pretty special paintings and drawings by Kathryn Maple, who recently won The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition for her drawing of Fat Boy's Diner in London.  

'Rolling Hills in Pignano'
'Stilted Life'

'Give me water and I will grow'

'Rooftops over Shoreditch'

'Rising up'

Saturday, September 06, 2014

The Weekend List: No. 8

This latest edition of The Weekend List has been put together on the 9.07 Manchester to Bristol train service. I got onto the train and found myself, as I often do, with a reservation on one of those seats that has a big, white chunk of plastic wall where the window should be. Instead of a pane for watching Manchester make way to Cheshire and great heffers in fields and deep deep green there is large sticker locating the nearest fire extinguisher. This really is one of my pet hates in life. The regularity with which this happens is so often that it's almost funny. Almost. I wonder if it's an occurrence designed to make me a more patient person, somebody with less pet hates. My love of train journeys and of the view from the window always triumphs though, along with my irritation.

Onto more positive notes. This week I have been mostly listening to Sharon Van Etten's album 'Are We There'. I particularly like the jarring way she delivers the lyric "I washed your dishes but I shit in your bathroom" in the middle of the Every Time The Sun Comes Up, such a gentle and meandering song that the mention of shitting in a bathroom is quite unexpected and all the better for it. This week I also tried navigating the best way of spending lunchtimes so that you can get out of the office, and move around and rest your mind without having to spend money. I always find it easy to linger at my desk reading articles online as I eat and I'm trying to get out of that habit. Yesterday I walked the short distance to the train station and spent the hour sitting on a bench people-watching and reading. The day before I went to the library and at the start of the week I took my book and sat in the grounds of the Manchester Cathedral. I'm still working through Olivia Laing's book Echo Spring slowly, slowly.

Now I have a week off and will be spending it in Bristol with family and catching up with my Granny. My Granny who has long been chronicled on this blog as a very important part of my life. Collage-influencer, Sex in The City-introducer (I can still hear her helpless guffawing as we both watched one of Samantha's particularly graphic upside-down sex scenes with her gym instructor. I love that we watched this together) fantastic writer of letters and advise-giver. A cheerleader, except in thick-rimmed glasses and knee high boots. Granny is unwell and it looks like this will be our last chapter of gallivanting together. I'm hoping we can spend the week together, eating food that's good for the soul, and maybe guffawing more about sex, if I can find get my hands on a copy of Scotty Bowers's memoir Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars which I read about in Sadie Stein's Paris Review column and sounds fantastic. A tome dedicated to who was shagging who in the Golden Age of Hollywood.

For now, here are some tasty reads and listens for the weekend. Have a good one.


"Success is when you can buy any book you want without looking at the price and you never have to be around assholes." John Waters on fans, shocking parents and pushing limits. 

"She was strong yet humble, serious yet hilarious, both teacher and student, and in my mind, the physical embodiment of life itself." Danielle Pender on Deborah Sussman.

This sublime canal boat in Little Venice, London. Who would have thought it possible to fit in so many modernist chairs, jukeboxes and vintage shoes? *Tongue hangs out*

An interview with Omar Sosa and Nacho Alegre, editors of Apartamento magazine.


"I like the idea of an aesthetic and a style as not just something that applies to clothes, but something that's consistent throughout all your choices." Sheila Heti interview in Rookie.

A big pink coat and trainers. A good 'throw this on, it's the weekend' outfit via Canned Fashion.


Breakfasts in literature. "If somebody is having toast and marmalade this morning, it is a safe guess that they had it yesterday and that they will have it tomorrow as well. For this reason, breakfast is the ideal barometer of normalcy, the meal that tells us who a person really is."

A love letter to the $1 ice-cream sandwich.


The Map That Made New York  

Groovy downloadable mixes from Manchester

Dance to this! Ask Me After Midnight by Glowing Palms

And some extra snacks

Too lazy to be ambitious.

Truth-bombshell from Durga Chew-Bose

Herb Lester's round up of Old New York.

This wonderful Tumblr, From There. 

Striking photographs of women tanning themselves.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Hack it off

Sometimes there's a great joy in paying somebody for a service which will be done very well. Taking a watch, for example, to be mended rather than leaving it to accumulate dust in one of those miscellaneous saucers which sit on shelves and contain safety pins and coins and other broken oddities. I guess if I was the sort of person who took clothing for alterations, then that too. There's joy too in going to the hairdressers on a Saturday once every few weeks. Having somebody swaddle you in a black gown and giving yourself up to that strangely intimate yet delicious ritual of having your scalp scratched and hair washed by a stranger. You can enjoy a complimentary coffee and one of those strange malty biscuits which only ever come with complimentary coffees and you can leaf through the magazines you're too cynical to spend your own money on and give in to convention and discuss holidays as you watch somebody snip snip snip away and then walk out, after handing over some money and really feel sorted. I think that so often it's that feeling of sortedness that you're paying for.

All of the above is true, but a little DIY should never be knocked, and sometimes just feels better for the soul. I've spent much of the past fortnight doing a lot of standing in front of the mirror and knocking my hair behind my shoulders to visualise a shorter length. We all do that when we're thinking about a haircut, don't we? Contort lengths from the front into fake fringe. Or pulling a ponytail loose to test a bob and realising that you just look like Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men. To hack or not to hack?

In the end, I just decided to do it myself at home, which I haven't done since I got a 'proper job' last year and felt that being one of those people who has their hair foiled every 6-8 weeks is the right sort of person to employ. I was listening to Solange, no doubt it had something to do with Solange. You can't sing with gusto to an EP called 'True" without actually being true, and, you know, reassessing the financial implications of bi-monthly hair snipping. It's so damned rewarding to just grab the waste paper basket, twist locks and hack with a pair of scissors from the kitchen. Snip snip. Shit! Snip snip snip. Cutting your hair at home feels super good if you're a fan of instant gratification, feel you can conquer a straight line, or don't mind either way. Swish swish swish. You walk differently when you have a haircut you like and which cost you £0. Bounce bounce bounce, down the street- that saved haircut money just bought a cosy little caffeine kick and a trip to the cinema. Imagine yourself at the cinema, one of those up-close shots of your beaming face with light moving across, echoing the face of the universal cinema-goers reflected back to us from various screens. Your beaming face and that free blunt haircut. Money for popcorn or tear-jerking catharsis on a Sunday afternoon. Real joy.

Paying for a 'service' is something I still yo-yo over. It seems like the right thing to do, the adult thing to do. But then I come back to thinking about the relationship between full time work and consumption and expenditures and just feel incredibly tired. I subscribe to the thinking that it's very convenient to keep people wanting more, consuming more, working more. And why is spending a great sum of money associated with glossiness and good upkeep? I always tell myself that if I came into a comfy sum of money I would buy myself a killer Saville Row suit, but then I think of my Great Aunty Megan who wore the killer suits that she had made herself 40 years previously. Has paying for frequent haircuts over the past year been worth it? Would I have looked scruffier at the office if I snipped my hair at home, or would I have been able to afford a couple more trips away at the weekend instead? (NB, Carrie Bradshaw; you have enriched my life in many ways but I wish you hadn't dulled the impact of a good rhetorical question.) Maybe looking scruffier at the office wouldn't matter so much if it bought me the chance to do more wonderful things at the weekend, to take a train to London and gently glide through the waters at the Hampstead Heath Ponds, buy a friend a bottle of wine to say 'I'm thinking of you' and pop some red tulips into the shopping basket at the last minute, just before the sound of "Till Number 3 please". I think I'll always quite enjoy exploring where to practice frugality and where it might be worth spending more. (HELLO sleeping at Stansted Airport before that early-morning Ryanair flight.) For now though, there's quite a nice smugness to doing it yourself. Hack hack hack, instant gratification.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Birthday Suits (or, feeling okay about nakedness)

Photographer Lucy Hilmer has taken a photograph of herself wearing nothing but a pair of comfy white cotton pants and some socks and moccasins on every one of her birthdays since 1974. This series- the aptly named Birthday Suits- is wonderful, chronicling the changes which in life are usually so subtle, but much clearer when captured in staggered succession.

Visible changes to Hilmer's face, and body and additions to her family tell of the life lived along the way. Nothing extraordinary; unless, that is, you count standing nearly naked at the roadside in Death Valley as extraordinary, which you just might. This is a body that isn't so dissimilar from my own when starkers, or it could be the process of ageing and perhaps a glimpse of motherhood that make them feel universal. This private view into the life of a stranger felt oddly familiar, like memories of seeing my Mum naked in the bath and how normal and comfortable that felt, even though I would unlikely see it now. Chattering and chattering away on the loo while she floated about in the water, or, when I was really little lathering up a loofah and giving her back a good scrub; really getting to the dead skins cells, to that part of the back that only gets tended to by other people. The part that translates as "can you do my back?" when on the beach.

Either way, these photographs have lodged themselves into my brain and have stayed since. It's because there's something about them that illicit an acceptance of the body.

I've come a good way overcoming body hang-ups in the last 4 years or so. I was never hugely body-conscious as a teenager. My Dad told me from a young age that fat was a horrible word. And my Granny- who supplied me with issues of Vogue from the start- once held an issue up whilst we were basking in the sun of her back garden and pointed at Kate Moss on the cover. "Look! Look at that," she squinted at her waist, "You do know this isn't real, don't you?" I can't remember my Mum saying much about bodies at all. But as soon as I hit 18 and grew hips and stuff and all of those nights during my A-Levels of going to bed and staying up late with a sweet heap of sugary granola for company started to show. There were moments of looking down at my body in the bath and thinking "huh. look at that roll," and for some reason this little niggle developed more by the time I went to university until I found myself having those negative body conversations with girlfriends over beers at the pub. Those conversations in which you sort of jeer each other on, moaning in equal parts about how you both wished you could be better. Resolutions about going to the gym, and self control that doesn't account for pragmatism or fun and only parades as stemming from self respect, and really, it all comes back to comparing yourself to a particular body ideal you feel obliged to follow. All of this instead of viewing a changing body as a cool, womanly thing and tummy wobbles as natural, so natural that the paintings of irresistible sirens in local galleries even have them.

I've found dancing, being naked with nice people and going topless on a beach in Croatia all things that have helped along the way, but I understand that being really confident about your own body when you're in your 20s is still a tricky path to navigate. Not for everybody, but certainly for myself and I know for many others. One of the nice things that comes with this stage of trial and error, comfort and discomfort are the mini revelations that can come along the way. The sort of revelations that women in their thirties and forties maybe don't think about as much as they did in their twenties. But they're the revelations that come with grasping the attractiveness of flaws and variety; of watching older women on the beaches with dimply arses and sprouting hair wading back to shore after an intense butterfly crawl in the clear. Or the lovely surprise of sharing or exploring a new body, and of how wonderful and powerful the female body can be whether it is strengthened through dance or exercise, changed and/or recovered through illness, pregnancy and life changes. They're ideas that all seem fairly obvious when you're feeling in a positive space about yourself, and standing in front of a mirror starkers and thinking "yeah!" but it's easy enough to have hiccups and forget. Usually induced by finding yourself in a changing room with a pair of trousers around your thighs, perhaps. (Or apply appropriate hang-up as applicable) These are the things I wish I had learnt at school, but which I realise I probably couldn't have.

In short, this photo series gives a good nudge in the right direction. Bodies are great, and I just wish I hadn't wasted so much time thinking otherwise, or feeling shy about doing cool stuff with my body, like dancing in PE lessons without shame. I hope these photographs can stay in my head and bamboozle those moments in which I still find myself counting down weeks to specific events based on my ability to lose weight; beaches or men or family events onto which I project a slimmer-chinned version of myself.