Licentiate Column 21/12/11: Nostalgia

Is it just me or was Christmas better, y’know, back then? When Coke ads were more sleigh bells and less Bedingfield? When they still showed the Kellogg’s ad? When they still showed the Budweiser horses in the context of television and not a depressing, flaccid three-ring circus on a soggy afternoon?

Nostalgia is the soundtrack of our lives. We look backwards through a kaleidoscope; the moments we choose to focus on reflect off each other. They become distorted but wonderful, become one collective, prismatic, memorable whole.

I have always thought that fashion was an important factor in how a person latches on to and creates a memory. Some of the process is visual. A person’s style can literally mean the difference between being remembered or forgotten.

My thoughts were, I hope, validated by the release of ‘Nostalgia in Vogue’, a coffee-table tome. It is a collection of American Vogue’s ‘Nostalgia’ essays, in which a person of note talks about a particular picture or article in any issue of Vogue that helped to shape the way that person sees the past.

It can easily be dismissed as fluff, but to do so would be a disservice to ourselves. Fashion and style is all tied-up in a person’s self image. It’s hard-wired into us (not as much as sleeping or eating, but it’s definitely on a par with say, that switch that goes off in your brain when your favourite song is played on the radio).

Even literary heavyweights such as Joan Didion and Margaret Atwood have contributed to the book. Musician Patti Smith revealed that she would often try to emulate the graceful, dramatically silhouetted models of the pre-Vreeland era, turning her hats just so and fantasising about a different world in New York – a world that she would later come to inhabit and reinvent.

Anjelica Huston talks candidly about a double portrait of herself and her mother; Huston awkwardly post-pubescent but charismatic, her mother an older, reassured mirror. A few years later, after her mother had died, Huston became a model and did a shoot in the Connemara wilds, her ancestral home. It is preserved in paper for Huston, who now admits that she can’t go back there. It would be too changed from what she remembers.

The book is incredibly diverse. From it’s pages spill inspiration, disappointment, elation, heartbreak, despair, anticipation, achievement. Birth, marriage, divorce – all through the lens of Avedon, Ritts, Newton..

It’s odd that a magazine feature should be so backward-looking when fashion is all about what lies ahead of us. We find out what we’ll be wearing this Autumn every February and even that will change several times with the passing of every month. But, because of bi-annual industry reinvention, there is an astonishing body of work to look back and reflect on. It needs to be reflected on.

The Reading List: Nostalgia in Vogue

Where do I start?

Nostalgia in Vogue, a compendium of essays written for American Vogue and edited by Eve McSweeney is, by a hair, my favourite fashion book this year. If every there was a book tailored to my personal taste (long essays, personal introspection, nostalgia, vintage and magazines), then this is it. When it arrived in the post, I spent four hours reading it and poring over the pictures. Then, when I had finished, I turned back to the first page and started again.

Published by Rizzoli and featuring work from the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, Patti Smith, Angelica Huston, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, this is a sumptuous publication not just because of it’s physical quality and weightiness, but also because of the strength and depth of the essays within. It is brain candy.

Delving through the Vogue archive from 1931 (Artist T.J Wilcox explores the allure of the effervescent It Girl Adele Astaire) to 2007 (Phyllis Posnick remembers Irving Penn’s body of work, accompanied by some incredible images), the essays are as varied as you might expect, running the full range of emotions, rage and despair, happiness and fond recollections, lost love and artistic inspiration.

As each essay writer chooses the pictures that accompany their nostalgic trip, the breadth and variety is almost imperceptibly wide and most likely, not something that most European readers would expect of American Vogue (we’re still under the influence of The September Issue). But it is there. The scope is massive. Anyone who reads this book will most likely find themselves personally identifying with an essay, or two, or three. Personal attachment isn’t something we’ve come to associate with fashion, nor is looking backwards through rose-tinted glasses. It’s just not done. Yet, it is done here, in the world’s foremost fashion bible no less.

It makes perfect sense that this book was released now, in this current economic climate. Nostalgia does great business in times of crisis and this book is an excellent example of such. Nostalgia is vital. It reminds us that bad things will eventually pass and rain falls on the great and the good as well as the rest of us. Except Richard Avedon won’t be around to document it.

Licentiate Column 15/12/11: Chanel, An Intimate Life Review

Coco Chanel always held the reins tightly on her public image. Towards the end of her life, she commissioned highly-engaged Hussard writer Michel Deon to follow her every move, absorb her acerbic bon mots and process her essence into a book. The manuscript was never published. Chanel had given Deon the version of her life that she had wanted told, but even that was far too truthful and by association, painful.

Deon, now in his nineties and living in Galway, summarily burned the manuscript. He saw no point in releasing it after her death. Why resurrect a ghost?

It’s a question that many Chanel biographers have tried (and failed) to answer. Was she a Nazi spy? A drug addict? Gay? Who was the real Chanel? What secrets did she hold close – what misdeeds does she still hide?

Lisa Chaney addresses these issues in her new biography, ‘Chanel: An Intimate Life’, just one in a slew of Chanel bios that are doing the rounds. They run the gamut of the laudatory (Justine Picardie’s ‘Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life’ includes many exclusive drawings by Karl Lagerfeld while ‘Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel, Nazi Agent’ by Hal Vaughan might as well posthumously shave Chanel’s head and daub a few mud swastikas here and there for dramatic effect).

There’s a Chanel out there for everyone. You want Chanel the genius? Go for Picardie. Chanel the collaborator? Vaughan’s effort should do the trick. Chanel the woman? No such book will ever exist – but Chaney’s effort may well be the closest we get to her. Your want a real biography? Go to the biographer.

The overall tone of the book is very placid and even-keeled. Chaney does not romanticise her subject’s upbringing or postulate too romantically on what is already a very romantic story. A young girl dumped in an orphanage, becomes first a courtesan (of sorts), a PR savvy milliner and, transformed by insurmountable heartbreak, evolves into a couturier with razor-sharp instinct and intuitive business acumen.

The picture built up of Chanel is not entirely pleasant. The latter half of her life includes almost certain Nazi collaboration (and definite ‘horizontal collaboration’), underhanded business tactics from all sides and the eventual degradation of a strong-willed woman into a ratchety, lonely one. Chaney remains analytical in her approach, filling it with as many first-hand accounts and definite documents as she can. Perhaps because of this, Chanel becomes more of a human being to the reader towards the end of her life – which is sad because we never really get to see Chanel the dynamo, the seductress, the inspiration in her entirety – very few people who are still alive can recollect her in this way.

A slight note of apologism creeps into the books when dealing with Chanel’s World War II years. Biographers betray the sympathy they hold for their subjects by not judging events through that events historical context. Chaney does do that, but wishes to define it further by what Chanel may have felt. This is something unproven and thus unjustifiable – much like the woman herself.

Festive Outfit Post. I went there. Again.

I thought it was high time for another festive outfit post and where better than the Brown Thomas Christmas windows? Almost anywhere else would have been better, as it turns out – not because of the windows, which were spectacular as usual but because of the drunk homeless person who took it upon himself to be the after-hours custodian.

Thanks you for that shower of abuse, homeless man.  I was not aware that, as a woman, I am inherently worthless and that I am somehow managing to siphon off MILLIONS from the good folks at Brown Thomas by taking photos of their lovely Christmas windows.  The hat may have made me look like a burglar but burglars tend not to wear conspicuously fluffy, leopard print coats.  I sincerely hope that you find somewhere nice to sleep and that you make an active decision to stop drinking lighter fluid in the near future.*

Outfit photos by the lovely Margaret – Christmas window photos by me.

Coat, necklace – vintage, hat, gloves – Penneys, shirt, tee – Topman, jeans – Warehouse, Boots – H&M

*How weird would it be if he was reading this? If you are, my real message is ‘Chill out, homeless man. Pick your battles maybe?  Sorry I didn’t catch your name but you were slurring a lot*

Licentiate Column 08/12/11

Christmas shopping, eh? Does anyone ever enjoy it? The thrill of going into a shop on Christmas Eve, carefully selecting boxes of socks for forgotten cousins and Kris Kindle work mates, all before enduring several elbows to the face and negotiating a queue for the tills that brings to mind the lunchline in a Gulag.

Worry not, because here’s a super-handy guide to making it through the Christmas mire without bruised arms and pulled hair and (hopefully) with lots of gracious smiles for all the lovely presents you’re about to give.

1. Make a list of several possibilities for each person. Do you hate her? If yes, buy her a box of socks. If you really hate her, buy an incredibly passive-aggressive present. One year, my Gran bought a tub of glutinous ‘bust-firming cream’ for my mother, who ever so thoughtfully gave it to me the next year. Thanks a bunch, mom. Keep passing on that torch.

2. There is no shame in buying a person a voucher. Incredibly useful is the One 4 All voucher, which covers bars, hotels and restaurants as well as many shops. It covers literally hundreds of places, so it’s ideal for the person who has everything but really wants a cocktail in Captain Americas after a heavy session in TK Maxx. This has been a paid endorsement for the An Post One 4 All voucher (TM) (it hasn’t). Book tokens have also gained a sort of vintage, quaint cachet, so if you’re the kind of hipster who wants to give an ironic voucher for an incredibly convoluted reason, then this is your best bet.

3. Shop early. Through intense scrutiny by shopping at all times of the week (oh, the things we do for research) I’ve determined that the quietest time to shop is on a Wednesday morning. Sundays can be particularly deceiving. Because everyone thinks that the shops will be quiet, Sundays in a large chain store will eventually devolve into a massive free-for-all to the soundtrack of a million crying toddlers. The toddlers have the right idea. Hit a shop up bright and early and you’ll be in a calm environment where shop assistants will be able to help you efficiently without steam coming out of their ears. Plus, you’ll get the very best bargains and can peruse rails of beautifully neat dresses with no problems.

4.Stocking fillers are tricky. The aforementioned socks are only a good idea if the gifted has said ‘You know what I need? Some socks. Not just any socks, no – I need a box of socks, preferably tied up with a fancy ribbon’. If you’re really stuck, a nice pair of gloves, a scarf or a pair of cufflinks will do just as well for your homogenous present needs.

5. You definitely know the kind of woman who always has a cupboard of spare presents for ‘just in case’ situations. She has a coin purse and a shopper with wheels. She is probably your great aunt. Take a leaf out of her book. Great aunts are the Wise Ones. If you’re in a bind, it helps to have a spare gift or two lying around. For women and men, coffee table-books are an excellent cover all – cooking, fashion (but of course) and photography being the two most likely culprits. This is where the great aunts fall down – one year I was given the APPENDIX of an encyclopedia, the other volumes being passed out to unsuspecting cousins a la Joey from Friends. One cousin instantly became an authority on sloths, synesthesia and Edith Stein – which made the family New Year’s party just that little bit more interesting.

The Reading List: Print and Pattern 2

Print and Pattern 2: Bowie Style is the second compendium of modern graphic designer by blogger Bowie Style. Having not read the previous instalment, I can’t tell if this instalment is carrying on a tradition of inveretate girliness, but it does a pretty good job at it all the same.

Girly is the only accurate word.  While ‘feminine’ conjures up a smidge of knowing sensuality, the offerings, with few exceptions, are in the realm of the girly girl; birds, rabbits, bears, nature, swirls, flowers, feathers, butterflies and balloons.

It’s no bad thing either.  While some books which aim to promote emerging creative talent can be a little – how can I say this – crap, the prints produced are summarily professional.  Slick and shiny thanks in no small part to the quality of production (Laurence King, the publishers, are known for the attention to detail of their editions).

Usefully, each designer showcased is given a small paragraph and, a novel touch, a contact email address is often included.  This book is not art for arts sake, but also for work’s sake – it’s obvious by the inclusion of repetitious textile-oriented patterns and not just standalone print that this book is an advertisement as well as a compendium.  Sometimes, the patterns can veer off into Orla Kiely territory, but the exceptions to the rule are arresting in either their brashness or subtlety.

If you’re a graphic design student, this book is for you – it’s full of potential contacts as well as great examples of work.  If you’re just a lover of beautiful things, this may not enthrall you quite as much.  However, it is still a very useful, much appreciated read.

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Print and Pattern 2: Bowie Style is out now.

More Top Ten: Fashion Books

Last week, I wrote a top ten of fashion books for people who want to start up a fashion library. This week, here’s a list of books for people who want something a little different with their daily dose of sartorial inspiration.

1. The Meaning of Sunglasses by Hadley Freeman. Hadley Freeman writes a weekly fashion advice column for The Guardian and her advice is never anything but hilarious honest and sometimes uncorruptibly vitriolic. She’s the most level headed woman in fashion and her A-Z of all things supposedly stylish is similarly tongue-in-cheek and brain-proddingly smart.

2. Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon by James Sullivan. So committed to the idea of the blue jeans is this book that the text is all a shade of brilliant indigo – a fun novelty at first but can be a bit sore on the eyes. Otherwise, this book tells you everything you never knew about jeans, from humble miner’s pants to J Brand-esque cultural icon.

3. Style Wars by Peter York. LONG out of print, this late 70’s/early 80’s era book is a collection of York’s fashion essays previously published in the likes of Harpers and Queens. Covering Sloane Rangers, Punks and so much more, this is a snapshot of Early Thatcher Britain in terms of the people, subculture and what everyone wore (not that different from today, actually).

4. The Language of Clothes by Alison Lurie. ANOTHER out of print book (sorry – but you can get this for pennies on Amazon) but it’s a good ‘un. The Language of Clothes is all about the meaning of clothes, what they symbolise and what everything means – but all written in a really no-nonsense, no-piffle, no-jargon manner.

5. Theatre de la Mode – Fashion Dolls: The Survival of the Haute Couture by Edmonde Charles Roux. This is one of my favourite fashion books. Dolls. In. Clothes. If you’re into your visuals then you can read a post I wrote about the Theatre de la Mode, a remarkable episode in the life of French fashion, here.

6. Crosscurrents: Art. Fashion. Design by Tony Lewenhaupt, translated from Swedish. This book puts pictures of then-contemporary models in 20th century dress, next to the furniture and architecture of that time period. The result is a feeling of knowing how movements in design (whether fashion, furniture or art) all moved together and were influenced by each other. Fashion, in the big picture.

7. The Look: Adventures in Pop and Rock Fashion by Paul Gorman. Chockablock with tidbits and insider information, this book charts fashion as it followed music, from Elvis’ early 50’s tailors to Vivienne Westwood with SEX and the Mod’s drainpipe suits. Forewards are contributed by Paul Smith and Malcolm MacLaren, which says it all, really.

8. Madame Gres: Sphinx of Fashion by Patricia Mears. If you admire Gabrielle Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli or Jeanne Lanvin but you’ve never heard of Madame Gres, then you need this book. Madame Gres was, quite simply, the master craftswoman of French couture in the 1930’s. The way she made clothes has never been fully replicated (literally no-one could copy her work because it was so complex and time-consuming) and her life was as mysterious and shadowy as her work. This book is in depth and has many, many lovely pictures – lovely being the mildest laudatory word I can think of.

9. Nostalgia in Vogue, edited by Eve MacSweeney. The newest book on my bookshelf (review coming this week) and soon to be one of the most-flipped through. This book, a compilation of American Vogue’s Nostalgia Column is endlessly fascinating and I can’t wait to post the review.

10. Fashion Today by Colin McDowell. Ever inspiring, full of amazing picture. Just buy it. Or get it from your local library. I’ll wait here.

Licentiate Column 01/12/11: Ow, My Knees

The general consensus is that fashion should be for everyone, ‘Should’ being the operative word.
Short of full-fat Communism, we’re all unable to get the full benefits of the fashion industry without being very rich, very thin, very good-looking, famous, stylish, well-situated, cultured, worldly… the list goes on, and on, and on.
But what if you’re a relatively normal, healthy individual just making the best of what you have? Heels from the high-street, and the odd vintage shops, bolstered with special occasion gifts from loved ones with more money than sense.
And then, what happens when you encounter a small slip-up? Something that makes you re-evaluate what you’re always taken for granted. Just a small, tiny thing. An inconvenience really.
A few weeks ago I suffered such a small setback (which seems big to me, but is barely atom sized when you consider what other people have to deal with). It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but it affects my mobility, my ability to work (writing this column is just one job I have), my pocket and my lifestyle in general.
I have to get physio, I have to lose weight – as someone who isn’t particularly plump, this is a major bugbear – and, grab the Kleenex, I can’t wear heels. For the forseeable future.
It’s such a tiny thing, it really is. But sometimes, it seems like the only thing. I can deal with amendments to my life, with restrictions. But I’m not good with being forbidden from doing something, especially something I tie in so much to my own particular method of self-expression.
It has made me realise how powerful personal style can be and, perhaps, for a second, how foolish I’ve been to tie myself to it tighter than the Gordian Knot.
Everyone has their thing. For my boyfriend, it’s football. While he loves it, I think there will always be a tiny twinge of regret that he wasn’t the next Maradona. How many PRs want to be novelists? How many frustrated musicians are there out there anyway?
That’s not to say I want to be a professional heels-wearer, but as someone working in the healthy, but by no means lucrative Irish fashion industry, every little setback gets magnified. It’s a real strength-sapper. It makes you doubt your own ability to succeed – I think this probably applies to anyone starting their career in such a depressed economy.
I don’t become a better writer by wearing Kirkwoods 24/7. My knowledge doesn’t diminish in flats. Being shorter than everyone else doesn’t make me love fashion even the tiniest bit less. It just makes me feel a little bit left out.
It really should be an even playing field. Fashion should be for everyone. It’s not enough that we don’t have the money, the skin, the height, the power, the kudos; now our bodies conspire even more against us.
So, what do you do? You just keep on going. Keep on going forward. Draw inspiration from what you love. The boyfriend always watches Match of the Day. Unfulfilled writers keep reading books. The amount of illegal songs downloaded is directly proportional to the amount of guitar-strummers – maybe.
And so help me, if I have to be carried into the pub as well as out of it, I WILL wear heels and never regret it.