Licentiate Column 31/05/12: So Much For Bodycon

At the time of writing, Cork is enduring something of a heatwave. People are wearing shorts, men with bad, homemade Bic-blue tattoos are walking around topless, couples are nauseating everyone else with their tandem park-bench-PDA and sharing-the-same-ice-cream activities and bass-bangin’ tunes are blaring out of the open windows of ancient hatchbacks everywhere.

Yesterday morning I sat outside to have my breakfast. Within ten minutes a cherry-red burn had taken over my face, leaving only a sunglasses imprint untouched. I looked like the Lesser Spotted Grumpy Red Panda. Summer is in the air, finally.

Summer means all of these things; advanced stages of friskiness, extremely annoyed pale people, crap dance music and, predictably, less clothes. Much less.

Maybe this week it’s different and we’re pulling on the parkas and doing a Captain Oates on our way to the bathroom, but from where I am right now, it’s very sunny. It must be the extreme changeability of the weather that makes Irish people so wholeheartedly embrace clothes in smaller doses once the sun decides to pay us a brief visit.

Possibly the most depressing thing about summer dressing is bodycon. Bodycon clothing is tight; very tight. It is also small; very, very small. Bodycon has been around for a few years now in its modern incarnation. Herve Leger, the inventor of the bandage dress and thus someone for whom a special place in Hell has been reserved (probably not) has seen his label acquired and relaunched in 2007 by Max Azria, who is the man indirectly responsible for all those self-esteem crushing pictures of Kim Kardashian and Girls Aloud.

Bodycon isn’t inherently dislikeable as a trend. It’s young, it’s fun, it’s vibrant, it’s daring, it’s cliche. The name, however, leaves something to be desired. ‘Bodycon’ comes from ‘body-conscious’, which is a fairly laboured irony when you consider that the most body-conscious people are the ones who would look ridiculous in skintight, Lilliputian dresses.

Bodycon is about perfection. It doesn’t require your body to be the best version of itself that it can be – you have to be uniformly, homogeneously perfect. Bodycon is not for athletic women or skinny straight-up-and-down women. It’s for curvy (yet perturbingly toned) women. You must be soft, but your arms must also be yoga-fied within an inch of their lives. Curves where there should be, no bumps where there shouldn’t. Perfect, glossy hair and a blemish free body add extra bonus points. An ability to deflect the barbs of sour-grapes suffering fashion writers is also an advantage.

There is one caveat. If you’re under 21, then all bets are off. When a trend depends on perfection, then youth is the ultimate prettifier. More potent than a vat of Clarins Flash Beauty Balm, you can be young and any shape and still get away with bodycon. Skin is still elastic and healthy, cellulite is non-existent, nothing has drooped. The perfect storm.

Perhaps the worst thing about bodycon is that it makes everyone look the same – rows and rows of girls in small vest dresses. It makes summer vastly more complicated. Who wants to indulge in a park-bench-PDA if you’re never exactly sure who you’re kissing?

Felt

I draw a lot on my family for inspiration, my grandmother in particular.  I don’t really know why.  I suppose she was just an inspiring kind of person.  She was really nice and generous and funny and stylish.  She taught me the fine art of thrifting.  She was also totally bonkers (something which has definitely been passed down through the generations).  I loved her a lot and I still think about her very often.  I’m not going to stop writing about her anytime soon.  Maybe never.

Recently, Rhona Nolan of Rose Tinted Uncertainty asked me to contribute an article towards her final year project at college called ‘Imitation of Man’.  Naturally, I thought of my slacks-wearing Nan.  I think it may be one of the best things I’ve ever written.  I am immensely proud of it and I love the layout, which is inspired by the text.  You can read the rest of Felt Magazine here.  Go on, click it.  I’ll wait here.

Licentiate Column 24/05/12: In Praise of Style Mavericks

There’s always that one person who can make any insane combination of clothes look relevant and unique and totally cool, without having to rely on their looks or their figure to make it so.  Consider Alexa Chung.  If she was five foot nothing and a size fourteen, those little-girl dungarees would look less gamine and more elephantine.
Or Gwen Stefani.  Would she still look so stylish if she wasn’t a carbon copy of Jean Harlow?  Would the mid-nineties bindi-and-braces look, paired with pink and blue hair, really have become such a style statement?
We are led not just by style, but how a person looks.  The true style maverick, the person who cares so much about aesthetics that she ironically doesn’t care about trends, considers beauty a bit of a crutch, a smokescreen to the true look a person is trying to convey.  How are we supposed to appreciate who a person really is when her looks are getting in the way?
More useful to her is being jolie laide – the beautiful ugly.  A large Roman nose, protruding eyes, even a unibrow, becomes your unique selling point.  Anyone can be pretty.  It’s better to be striking.  You look like a frog?  You’re a lucky, lucky woman.
As for clothing, the style maverick lives in her own bubble,  Her choices are a reflection of the little world that she has built for herself.  They are  a reflection of her tastes and interests, and if her tastes and interests include bowling, Japanese art and WWE Wrestling, then her outfits will reflect that and damn the consequences.
Along with ‘panties’, no other word will set my teeth on edge and make me shudder with primal disgust than ‘fashionista’.. It’s a stupid word that doesn’t really mean anything – the tagging on of ‘ista’ at the end of fashion makes me want to hop back in time to early ‘00s New York and slap the wag who invented the world with a nice, slimy, cold mackerel.
However, I found myself reading a book called ‘Fashionista’ today.  It refined stylish women by their sartorial tendencies; the rebels, the artists, the modernists and so on.  There was no space for the maverick.  The closest type was the eccentric group, who included Bjork, Anna Piaggi, Grace Jones, Isabella Blow and Diana Vreeland, all of whom I admire but are style anathema to many others.
Not everyone is going to love Bjork’s infamous Swan dress or the fact the she routinely performs with hundreds of crystals glued to her face.  Isabella Blow deliberately wore so much lipstick that it would smear on her teeth and Grace Jones transformed herself into an intimidatingly sexual, bald Disco Amazonian with the help of her unique wardrobe.
Not everyone will like the maverick’s style.  She’s no Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn. She doesn’t fit conveniently into the categories that we manufacture to define women; tomboy, classic, trendy, bohemian.  She could be all and none of the above.  The only thing that mavericks have in common with each other is that they are different.  In a world that grows increasingly smaller and more homogenous – how great is that?

The Reading List: Mary McFadden…

… A Lifetime of Design, Collecting and Adventure’ by Mary McFadden.

Part biography, part lush retrospective, part travelogue, Mary McFadden has assembled the disparate sections of her life and woven them all together into a thoroughly beguiling book.  Not particularly well-known in Europe, McFadden is the fashion designer who pretty much invented the Bohemian Traveller look (and here we all thought that Sienna Miller was the first to wear it).  She is also an avid art collector and all-around aesthete.

The book is chock-full of the source materials that McFadden took from exotic places such as India, Mexico and Zimbabwe and later used in her collections.  Her collections defied the decrying call of cultural appropriation, possibly because of the loving and knowing way that McFadden uses the ideas and traditions of other cultures in her work.  She did not bastardise, she recontextualised – often with beautiful results.

The book is expertly laid out and, like McFadden herself, boldly jumps from one contrasting subject to the next without so much as a tremor of adjustment.  The pictures are a story of a lifetime; here a collage of family members, there a shot of a young McFadden, resplendant in a wax fabric dress, in a South African village.  Ancient Aztec masks of hammered gold are placed alongside McFadden’s Fortuny-esque pleated frocks from the 80’s.

As a retrospective, this book is a rare exception.  Rare, because the writer is also the subject but also because the subject is so unique.  We don’t see much of McFadden’s personality in this book, except for her obvious wanderlust and the pleasure she takes out of the creative process.  She listens only to herself and manufactures her own image – something that is both distinctive and unique.

Mary McFadden: A Lifetime of Design, Collecting and Adventure‘ is published by Rizzoli and is out now.

Licentiate Column 17/05/12: Olympic Spirit

Fashion and Sport – the two don’t really mix, do they?  The marriage of fashion and sport reminds me of an uncomfortable photo op taken with a now-forgotten (by me) ladies soccer team, all looking very uncomfortable in floor length ballgowns.  Their admirably toned arms splayed out as symbols of toned superiority and forced jocularity, the gowns hanging on them a little less well than on your typically svelte-going-on-emaciated supermodel.

They were meaty, muscular women – due to hours of rigorous training they were physically no more typical of an average woman than a model would be.

Conversely, the sportswear trend, which involved models wearing impractical jersey and neoprene nothings with vertiginous heels, has become inexplicably popular.  Athletes wearing couture and models in training gear – never the twain shall meet.

That was until the sponsorship behemoth that is The Olympic Games hoved into view.  This month’s issue of British Vogue is all about British Pride and Olympic hopefuls.  The cover girl is Kate Moss, who might conceivably do a push-up if a lit cigarette was dangling within mouth’s reach, like the donkey with a carrot on a stick.  With severe red lips and an ash blonde, marcelled ‘do, she is draped in a Grecian studded tunic, the likes of which have not been seen on the sportsfield since the German cheerleaders at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The contents are full of the unabashed patriotic articles that are anathema to most Irish people.  As a half-Brit, half-Irish woman (a heritage almost as politically confusing as half-Israeli/half-Palestinian or half-Obama/half-Osama), I can understand where all this fervent partiotism is coming from.  I can also understand why Irish people aren’t as fervent in their national hero-worship and celebration.  It’s discomfiting.  We’re all worried about money and the economy and the inner workings of the Dail.  What have we to be proud of if the spine of the country has degraded so horribly?

As Alexandra Schulman, editor of British Vogue, says in her monthly editorial that ‘fashion is an inspiring and creative force’.  Why don’t we successfully marry fashion with sport together?  Professional athletes are inspirations.  Sport is about testing the limits and boundaries of human achievement.  Sport and fashion are, to an extent, all about the body; how it can be pushed and moulded, how we can amaze others and create lasting memories from the visual feats of others.

Irish style and sport are in the ascendant – why don’t we use the two as example of Irish pride?  Stella MacCartney designed the Team GB Uniform.  Who has designed ours?  We could get Philip Treacy in to do some jazzy, irreverent hats. Simone Rocha can cover swimwear, J.W Anderson track and field.  Joanne Hynes, Natalie Coleman, John Rocha, Paraic Sweeney, Eilis Boyle, Paul Costello… we’ll find a place for them somewhere.  This is a real opportunity to show proper Olympic spirit.  We may not win a lot of medals, but we’ll definitely be well-represented.

Not quite a secret

‘I think I’ll write a post about my new bracelet’, I said to my mother.

‘You can’t’.

My grandmother owned the bracelet.  It’s large, silver, chunky.  The links look industrial-sized on my wrist.  Not her style at all.  Both she and my grandfather have been dead for years.

‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘I’ve put pictures of her in her bloody bikini up on the blog before’.

‘Your Auntie Maureen reads the blog.  You can’t tell the story.  She wouldn’t like it’.

I think that she’s wrong.  Nan would get a secret kick out of being the subject of an intrigue.  She’d like being a muse.  But I won’t tell the story.

Instead, I’ll just tell you that this bracelet is my favourite birthday present.  It belonged to a US Soldier stationed in Germany in the early ’50s.  He gave it to my grandmother and my grandmother kept it until she died, fifty-five years later.  And I will always keep it with me.

Licentiate Column 10/05/12: Tomboys Forever

Tomboys are vastly, miserably underrated. In a world where more credence is put on celebrities in bikinis and the best way to conceal the decidedly unfeminine flaws of body hair and non-fruity smells, the woman who goes au naturel, has sun-bleached hair, (a smattering of which lives nowhere near her head) or is more into Fred Perry than florals gets the raw deal.

Reading ‘Tomboy Style: Beyond the Boundaries of Fashion’, a new book by LA Times scribe Lizzie Garrett Mettler, I was reminded of just how important and influential the tomboy really is.

Eschewing traditional notions of femininity doesn’t necessarily make you less of a woman. Everyone has a bit of tomboy in them (men included). When I asked friends on Facebook, their favourite (stylish) boyish ladies included Diane Keaton, Gwen Stefani, Katherine Hepburn, Helle Nice, Chloe Sevigny and Tilda Swinton. To that end, I’d add a young Jodie Foster, Alexa Chung, Angelina Jolie and Kristy from the Babysitters Club.. A very diverse bunch of women.

So, in honour of the tomboy, I’ve compiled a list of my favourites, real and fictional.

1. Dr Dana Scully. As the cynical half of the Mulder/Scully pairing in The X-Files, Scully is always dressed in fairly severe tailoring with a simple pageboy haircut. After a few episodes, I got so used to seeing Scully in a trouser suit that I was actually a little disappointed whenever she appeared wearing a pencil skirt. They can’t be good for running around abandoned warehouses with guns. Although Scully for some reason gets kidnapped at least three times a year and has to be rescued by Mulder, she always has to save Mulder from certain death and pick up the pieces in the series finale – but not in a housewife-ish way.

2. Beryl Markham. Author, racehorse trainer, aviatrix, Beryl Markham is perhaps the most obscure of the female flying aces of the 1930’s, most likely because she didn’t die a premature death by plane. As a peripheral member of the notorious Kenyan Happy Valley set, Markham was divorced three times and caused many scandals. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west, a feat made more remarkable by the fact that her map flew out of the cockpit window almost immediately after taking off. She spent most of her life in trousers and spent the majority of her childhood living in a mud hut. Ernest Hemingway thought that she was ‘a high-grade bitch’, which, for me, is a ringing endorsement.

3. Patti Smith. It says a lot when you’re in a relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and he’s the girliest one. Unlike the tomboys listed above, I don’t think that I have ever seen a picture of Patti Smith wearing a dress. The very fabric of my reality would rip if I ever did. Smith is the epitome of the stylish tomboy, forever artfully ruffled, stylishly-clad, a woman and an androgyne. As an artist, a writer and a musician, Patti Smith is one of the few women of substance to actively, almost enthusiastically age. She doesn’t wear make-up or style her hair, but she remains beautiful because she is always genuinely, authentically herself – part of that is being a tomboy.

Underwater Love

You could easily be fooled into thinking that photography from a certain decade will always look the same – rough and ready Utility women in the 1940’s, elegant, poised women in the 1950’s. We’ll probably look back on 2010-19 as the Instagram Decade.  Sometimes there will be an exception.

Photos by Loomis Dean for Time Magazine,

A sure sign I need to streamline my wardrobe

It was my and my sister’s birthday on Friday, so we all came together for a weekend of food (lots of it. Lots and lots) and the odd burst of hysterical laughter. I came into my room one evening to find my sisters wearing the most ridiculous stuff that they could find in my closet. Not pictured are the cowboy boots and leopard print stilettos.

I still love my pleather trousers, though. And I will never stop buying outlandish things, never wearing them and stuffing them into my wardrobe until my sisters decide to play dress-up. Never.  And as long as they decide to play dress-up with my stuff, I’ll be around to put pictures of them on the internet. Oh yes.

The Reading List: Tomboy Style

‘Tomboy Style: Beyond the Boundaries of Fashion‘ is the hotly-anticipated new book from Tomboy Style blogger Lizzie Garrett Mettler.  I love the Tomboy Style blog.  If I was an overweight kid (as opposed to a slightly overweight adult), then that blog would be a massive slab of Black Forest Gateau. Anyone who looks at fashion in a non-conformist, pro-feminist or anti-Kardashian-fox-fur-eyelashes-glam way should check it out or add it to their reader.

: Osa Johnson / © Martin and Oja Johnson Safari Museum

However, the book is a slightly different prospect.  It lacks the peripheral features that Garrett Mettler puts online.  The book has no interviews with contemporary tomboys, no outfit ideas or inspiration boards and lacks the essays on the tomboy life that are now slowly creeping into the blog.  This is probably more indicative of the nature of blogging, where even if the subject matter is rigidly defined, they way you explore that subject matter doesn’t have to be.

Instead, we are treated to what first made the blog popular; pictures of tomboys, past and present, arranged by what type of tomboy they are – the Prep, the Adventuress, the Sophisticate, the Rebel, and so on.  They aren’t your average ‘Scout from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird” tomboy types either – they come from all walks of life, proving that women are much more complicated than their perceived feminine traits.

Susan Ford – 1976/ © Gerald R. Ford Presidental Library

This books is high on style, which is great, and somewhat low on substance, which is a shame because what little of Garrett Mettler’s writing we read in the book is highly engaging, entertaining and very intriguing.  The layout and selection of pictures is great – just the right mix of the obscure and the well-known – while interesting little anecdotes accompany many of the photos.

The book suffers a tiny bit from overcomplication and a need to characterize the various tomboys into types.  Alice Dellal is a Girl Next Door?  Really?  Why can’t she just be a tomboy who defies being put into a category?  Part of the point of being a tomboy is the refusal to be stuffed into a rigid feminine box.  It’s just a small niggle, but a relevant one nonetheless.

Ali McGraw – 1971 / © William Claxton – Demont Photo Management

This book is a great resource for those who want to inject a bit more androgyny and fun into their wardrobe, as well as photography and vintage lovers.  If you like this book, you’ll love the blog.  If the blog is any indication of what Lizzie Garrett Mettler can do, then ‘Tomboy 2′ will be a whopper.

Tomboy Style: Beyond the Boundaries of Fashion is published by Rizzoli and is out now.