Licentiate Column 27/09/12: In Praise of Pockets

Helmut Newton’s iconic photo of the YSL Le Smoking tuxedo. Would this be half as cool if the model didn’t have her hands planted louchely in her pockets? I think not. From French Vogue, 1975.

I had a singularly unpleasant experience today. It started like any other Autumn day, with the promise of another sinus headache hanging in the air, drifting dangerously close to my nose and eye socket. I got dressed; black and white sweater, black pencil skirt. I sat down at my computer, popped my headphones in and started the day’s work.

So far, so innocuous. I stood up to go and get a glass of water and had the feeling that someone had pulled, sharply, at my earlobes. My iPod had fallen out, dragging at my headphones like an obscure new trend in body jewellery. I picked the offending device up. But I had nowhere to put it. Nowhere. I did not have one pocket on my person.

There’s a phenomenon called ‘White Girl Problems’, in which people moan about trivial, fluffy roadbumps that are a consequence of asset-rich, racially privileged lifestyles. Having nowhere to put your 160G iPod Classic (save, perhaps, in your bra) is one of them. The sublime horror of not having a receptacle for all the stuff you need to walk into the kitchen for a glass of water is not a typical concern of female sweatshop workers in Pakistan or the children who sift through dumps for broken computer circuit boards in Central Africa. It is one of those little problems that reminds us of how lucky we really are.

Women are conditioned to carry their lives about with them. On a typical day I will carry around a battered black leather sac containing the following: wallet, bulging coin purse, umbrella, passport, two books, a notebook, a pen, about twelve million bus, train and Luas tickets, concealer, mascara, lipstick and a small pharmacy of over the counter remedies. And a pocket mirror. And keys. And, for some reason, things that I definitely don’t remember buying, like antacids, nail art pens and an assortment of plastic lighters in every colour of the rainbow.

We didn’t always have the option of pockets. Up to the nineteenth century, women wore external packet/handbag hybrids, which would be attached to the belt and were easily liberated by pickpockets and cutpurses (a ‘cutpurse’ is an excellent insult to fling at someone if you want to bewilder them briefly in order to run away, just so you know).

It wasn’t until Chanel that pockets became cool. It could only be done by the woman who made jersey (then popular as material for men’s underwear), tweed (for stuffy sportwear types) and androgyny (which until the twenties was a sign of serious sexual transgression) into the stuff that couture dreams are made of. Chanel made pocket on jackets and dresses to liberate women from the tyranny of handbags, but not, unfortunately, from the tyranny of being perpetually trendy.

A well-placed pocket is more than just function; it can transform a look. It’s ot just a key holder, it’s also a place to put your hands while you’re being all nonchalant and stuff. Putting your hands in your packets says ‘Look at me, I’m so cool that I don’t need to carry my life with me at all times’. It also says, ‘I’m so cool, I don’t have time to worry about bag-related shoulder or back injuries’. Think about it.

The Reading List; The ‘Vogue On…’ Designer Series

The Vogue On… Designer series has been debuted this month by the good folks at Quadrille Publishing with a bumper crop of revered designers. Alexander McQueen, Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel (of course) have been given the Vogue treatment in four not-quite-pocket-sized, accessibly slim volumes.

It’s hard not to notice the proliferation of Vogue-themed books that are starting to dominate this winter’s output of fashion books. We have this series to contend with, the release of Vogue: The Editor’s Eye with Abrams, Grace: A Life by Vogue’s popular creatice director Grace Coddington with Harper Collins and the updated version of In Vogue: A History with Rizzoli. Vogue literally has a book in every good publishing house.

Quadrille are a publishing house better known for their beautifully presented cookery books – all of which are rich, aspirational snapshots of a distinctly culinary lifestyle. They are also the publishers of one of my favourite fashion books, Celia Birtwell, which is a very sweet, visually appealing travel through a life not totally untouched by scandal – a scandal that is almost totally ignored (and with good reason – the book isn’t a biography). It’s with that in mind that I read the Vogue On… series. I have no expectations of hearing about Coco Chanel’s anti-Semitism, McQueen’s demons or the cultural implications of Dior forcing corsets on a generation of women who were finally beginning to liberate themselves. It’s all about the clothes – the designer’s lives are told through their body of work.

The books are beautifully presented, with half slipcovers revealing full-scale covers of fashion plates and portraits of the designers previously seen in Vogue. Almost every illustration and photograph came originally from the magazine. The writers of each book are also Vogue alumni, with varying results.

Coco Chanel

It’s incredibly hard to say something new about Coco Chanel that hasn’t already been said before – unless it’s to praise or denounce her. This book chooses to do the former. While Chanel’s activities as an Axis spy are up for debate and might have no place in this book, the omission of her attempt to wrest power from her Jewish partners, the Wertheiemers, through exploitation of anti-semitic laws is far too wrapped up in her legacy and her work not to be dealt with. Chanel was an incredibly complicated person, as women put under intense scrutiny usually reveal themselves to be. There is an imbalance between dark and light here, so the Chanel we read about is a little lopsided; a frivolous aesthete instead of a ruthless businesswoman. Illustration-wise, there is much that we haven’t seen from Vogue’s archives and this book is worth buying on pictures alone – sketches by Beaton and Berard, dresses from the Twenties, reams of colourful costume jewellery and some salient but not overused snippets of wisdom from the woman herself.

Alexander McQueen

I gave this book to my mother (who is, admittedly, not a huge McQueen fan) to flick through and she had the bulk of the book finished in twenty minutes. “It’s very accessible, isn’t it?’ she said to me on handing it back. And it is accessible; an accessibility that (joyfully) directly contravenes the drama and violence of McQueen’s work. Written by Chloe Fox, Vogue on Alexander McQueen is a easy, pleasant, well paced read. The photographs are a great mix of the social, catwalk and editorial and build up a great picture of one man’s singular working life. McQueen fans aren’t going to encounter anything that they haven’t seen before, but this is a great place to start – a lovely addition to any bookshelf.

Elsa Schiaparelli

My incredibly biased favourite in terms of photographs and illustrations, Vogue on Schiaparelli is chock-a-block full of beautiful, masterly fashion plates from the golden age of art at Vogue. Schiaparelli’s Surrealist leanings were tailor-made for full-colour, semi-abstract drawings and the book is full of them. Schiaparelli herself was a bit of an elusive figure, often left in the shadow of her couture nemesis Chanel. While we follow her life and work the enigmatic Schiaparelli who emerges from the pages of this book is strangely bloodless and monotone in contrast with the vibrancy of her work.  What does emerge from the work, though, is a picture of a woman only now starting to get her due.  Again, well worth buying for the photos and illustrations alone.

Christian Dior

We all know about the label, but delve into your fashion knowledge and you may find that you know close to nothing about the man – not surprising considering that Dior’s career at his eponymous house would last only a decade.  I there’s one word that sums up this volume, it’s ‘elegant’ – all clean lines, arched brows, long swan-like necks, the quizzical expressions of Lisa Fonssagrieves and the perfectly composed black and white photographs of Avedon.  The story of Dior’s career is dealt with in a breezy, pacy style in an easy read.  Accessibility, again, is the watchword.

The Vogue On… Designers series is published by Quadrille and is out now.

Licentiate Column 20/09/12: Fashion Weeks – A Hobby or an Industry?

On publication of this week’s column, we will be approximately halfway through Fashion Month. Editors, stylists, buyers and celebrities go from New York to London to Milan to Paris, watching fashion shows and attempting to distill the essence of the next season. This happens twice a year, in September and February.

Oh, you didn’t notice? That’s fine. All that means it that the world hasn’t stopped turning for those who didn’t go. Life carries on. Who’d have thunk it?

The four fashion weeks are industry events. They are essentially the most glamourous trade fairs in the world. Traditionally a closed shop, the proliferation of fashion bloggers and street style photographers has now changed the way that anyone who has use of the internet sees the fashion world.

Fashion editors have become fetishised and idolised, thanks in no small part to documentary The September Issue, which explored the inner working of Vogue at the Conde Nast offices in Manhattan. It can be seen as deserved praise, considering the dedication and vision of people who give decades of toil (it’s not coal mining by any stretch of the imagination, but it is hard work) in what used to be an editorially faceless industry.

It’s breakout star, creative director Grace Coddington, is set to publish her memoirs in November while the hardest-working street style photographer going, Bill Cunningham, was also made the subject of an empathetic and touching documentary. The recently released The Eye Has To Travel re-examines the work of sixties Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, who had hopefully now had her place in the creative pantheon sealed.
It is good and right to admire people at the top of their professions – they work hard, they are talented, pragmatic, creative and routinely outrageous (in the fashion industry even staid ordinariness can be considered outrageous).

Street style is a completely different game. It is what it means; stylish people, found on the street. The very ethos of street style denoted its outsider status. That is, until blogging happened and street style came to Fashion Weeks around the globe.

Being a street style star used to mean that you had your own clothes and that you wore them in a way unique to you. Now, many popular bloggers are being paid by designers to wear their goods at shows. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. By becoming celebrities, bloggers become about as relevant as their more famous counterparts: They show up, they get their photo taken, they get paid, they go home. The joy has been sucked out of dressing up.

A lot of people don’t aspire to be famous personal style bloggers because they’re stylish – they want to have their picture taken. They want validation and a moderate level of fame. They want to be adored. This is unfortunate for them, because the majority of personal style bloggers didn’t start out with this aim. They’re at fashion week to see the clothes, not to be seen for the clothes they’re wearing.

If you want to see some real street and fashion week style (plebs as well as fashion figures) by talented photographers, feel free to check out the following – thesartorialist.com, stylebubble.co.uk, stitchesfabricandsoul.com, streetpeeper.com, jakandjil.com and stylesightings.com.

Diet Coke Fashion Friday: Five Reasons To Love J.W. Anderson

1.  He’s really, really ridiculously good looking,  Like, Zoolander good looking.  In real life?  Even better looking.  Handsome and talented and hardworking?  Life is just not fair sometimes.

Photo by Sebastian Kim for Interview Magazine

2.  He knows all the cool people.  Anderson used to date Rufus Wainwright and was discovered working in Brown Thomas Dublin by none other than Manuela Pavesi, Miuccia Prada’s right hand woman and an all-around enigmatic, creative force herself.  Anderson isn’t afraid to draw inspiration from his co-workers either – Pavesi collects maid’s outfits and Anderson has included a surprisingly classic but on-trend very maid’s uniform in his new collection for Topshop, which launches online and in shops tomorrow.  I’m thinking about pairing mine with one of those white doily headdresses.  Maybe not.

From the J.W Anderson x Topshop lookbook

3.  He blogs.  Over at the J.W Anderson Tumblr, you can find the usual products shots, magazine tear-outs and catwalk photos, but amongst those are photos and gifs that inspire him.  It’s a great thing to see a designer who is so secure in his talent and ideas that he’s willing to share it with everyone by plastering it all over the internet.  And on the flip side, who doesn’t love finding the Tumblr of a person they admire?

From J.W Anderson’s Tumblr

4.  His designs are for everyone.  It might have something to do with his training in menswear, but Anderson doesn’t specialize in bodycon or intimidating, boob-baring cutouts (although if that’s your thing, more power to you) – he’s more into super-flattering, slick, expensive-looking tailoring.  With his new Topshop collaboration, which drops tomorrow, he’s borrowed heavily from his mainline collections.  The hundred-strong array of clothes, sweets, stationary and art prints are made up of classic staples like the trench coat and tailored trousers, to the arguably bizarre quilted paisley skirt suits combos.  The collection is built for layering, which makes the pieces ideal for integration into an already hardworking wardrobe.

Layer it up for an ‘insane homicidal clown’ vibe or tone it down for a more mainstream look. Rollerskates optional (but highly recommended).

5.  The best bit?  The J.W Anderson x Topshop collaboration is coming to Ireland tomorrow – and if you’re in Cork City, you can check out the collection, try on a paisley concoction or just greedily paw the clothes in real life in Brown Thomas on Patrick Street. Prices for the pieces will range from €45.99 to €197.99. If you’re not in Cork, you can see the collection in BT2 Grafton Street and Dundrum. And if you’re not in either of those places, it can be obsessed over on the Topshop website.

Licentiate Column – Bumper Baby Edition!

This is the way to do it, ladies (source)

Part One – Pregnant? Pop On A Nice Linen Suit!

Pregnancy can mean many things to many people. It’s a life-affirming (and life-giving) experience, an inconvenient result of a birth-control glitch, a terrifying and bewildering meander through a vagina that has been given such a drastic refurbishment that Kevin McCloud wants to film the third trimester and subsequent birth for Grand Designs. It could be none of those things. It might even be all three.

Pregnancy is great, because it usually results in the miracle of birth, but it can also be downright uncomfortable, inconvenient and unpleasant. There is no way that I can be emphatic enough in print, so perhaps imagine me saying this sipping a cosmo in a Manhattan bar or at the kitchen table, wearing an apron, swinging around a flour-covered rolling pin for emphasis – it’s ok to feel this way. It’s perfectly normal.

It’s ok to not like being pregnant. A pregnant family member is happy that she’s having a baby, but tells me that she hates the physical discomfort of being pregnant. She just hates it. That’s just as healthy as loving it (though, obviously, not as much fun).

There are lots of reasons to hate being pregnant, the general upheaval and need for intense spurts of concentration and organisation while a little person does a jog on your bladder notwithstanding. One of the most asked questions I get, style-wise, is ‘how do I dress for my pregnancy without, y’know, looking like I live in a baby bubble?’

Gentle reader, I have no idea. I do however, have baby-bearing friends and family with wildly conflicting opinions, so you can take their word as Gospel. They have my stamp of approval and several gold stars for effort.

My Mother. My mother worked through all of her pregnancies and, when I asked her what she wore, the answer was ‘a nice linen suit’. Clearly, what you should take away from this is that my mother is impossibly high-maintenance when it comes to gestation, because not only was she pregnant and working full-time, but she also had to worry about sweat stains and the most wrinkle-prone fabric known to womankind. So, don’t listen to her.

My Best Friend. Because my best friend is some kind of super-spy, she didn’t reveal to the world that she was pregnant until almost seven months along. This, she accomplished with floaty, diaphanous tops, low v-necks, skinny jeans and surreptitiously sipping lucozade at the pub and pretending that there was vodka in it. This method involves downright denial of your pregnancy. So, don’t listen to her either.

Facebook friends. I put a call out on Facebook and got one piece of excellent advice from a fellow blogger. Adapt to survive. Buy bump bands for your jeans, then progress to maternity skinny jeans. Wear what you normally wear; as long as it covers your bump comfortably, you should be fine. Maybe you should listen to this person (her name is Sinead, for future reference). Unfortunately, this advice may not be relevant if you struggle to pull on your socks, never mind a pair of pants.

What this wildly conflicting advice teaches me is that there is no one way to dress for pregnancy. Like the experience itself, it’s different for every person. Do what’s right for you – even if what’s right is an impossibly uncrinkled linen suit.

Mummy Tummy is the least of Michelle Duggar’s problems – sorry, blessings. Isn’t that right Michelle?

Part Two: I Was NOT Informed About Mummy Tummy. NOT COOL.

There are some things that the general public are just not told about pregnancy and labour. As a childless person, I am all too easily shocked by the perfectly natural occurrences that are par for the course. I almost choked on my tea and vanilla slice when a friend informed me blithely (and foolishly, for she was about to get sprayed with crumbs) that a baby can poop inside its mother if distressed during labour. It is, apparently, very common.

The image was too much for me – yet I and most of the pub-going population are totally desensitised to the sight of men urinating and brawling in the street. Go figure. For people who have yet to experience pregnancy, it’s a fog populated with obstacles made up mostly of misconceptions and ignorance.

Take for example, the body after labour. Many women assume, post labour, that the woman’s pregnancy belly will magically deflate. It won’t be the same, of course, but it will go down. Right? Wrong. Pregnancy tum isn’t so much like a balloon with no air but more like an air mattress with a pinprick leak; it’s not as firm, but it still holds it shape. Flattening it totally takes concerted effort.

So, what do you wear when you’re back from the hospital, baba in tow, looking almost exactly like you did when you went in a few days earlier? Pajamas are totally acceptable. You want to wear that onesie? You have everyone’s blessing.

It is a moment of divine horror that every new mother dreads; giving birth, then meeting a friend a few days later, only to have him or her ask when you’re due. It is not unlike the moment of utter, crushing disappointment I experienced in the optician’s last week when someone confused my mother and I. Someone thought that I was my mother’s mother. Therefore, someone thought that I was my own grandmother. It is a sublime irony that that moment took place in Specsavers.

For the first time in months, you may wish to hide your bump. Elastic shapewear can be incredibly helpful in that regard. It will change with your body as your bump goes down. It is also useful if you overindulge on all that red wine, shellfish and unpasteurised cheese that you’ve been missing out on for the past few months.

Feel free to play with proportions. Waisted belts and pencil skirts will give the illusion of an hourglass shape. Big shoulders make excellent pillows for tired newborns and will help to balance you out.

Everything from the breasts up should be emphasised if you want to play down your stomach. Your cleavage is going to be utterly bananas – take advantage of that with low cut tops. Slouchy burnout tees from Zara, ASOS or Alexander Wang will look good, be easy to clean and will show a hint of cleavage without popping it on a shelf for everyone to gawk at (although if that’s what you like, that’s cool too).

When mummy tummy is at it’s worst (directly after giving birth) you’ll probably be at your most disinterested when it comes to this sort of thing – and that’s totally ok. Great, even. Remember, every new mother is beautiful. And pajamas are always a viable option.

I fully support your right as a mother to dress like Shauna Sand. No, I really do.

Part Three:  This Is The REST Of Your Life, Yo

So, the battle is over, but the war has just begun. You’ve gone through pregnancy, you’ve given birth and enough time has passed for you to begin to regain some sense of equilibrium. Maybe you’re back at work. Maybe you’re on an extended maternity leave. Maybe you’re not at work at all – well, work that results in a paycheque every month.

Motherhood is a job. Like all low-paying jobs, you’ll have to wear a uniform that you don’t particularly love and would never normally dream of wearing outside the house. Function takes precedence over fashion. This is a point that was personally hammered home yesterday when I went to hold my best friend’s son, a feat only achieved after I scraped back my hair and took off my sunglasses and necklace (granted, the necklace was a particularly pointy, threatening-looking spike and crystal creation).

Through research, interviews and observation of pregnant women and mothers for this series of columns, I’ve come to two conclusions. 1) I never, ever want to have children because 2) it requires a level of self-sacrifice and commitment that renders every outside decision that doesn’t impact on a child almost totally irrelevant. Why care about wardrobe dilemmas when you have a child to look after?

The answer is this; women sacrifice almost everything to be mothers, but they don’t have to sacrifice themselves. Clothing helps people to assert their identities. If you’re a mother who feels bad about wanting to dress as you did pre-pregnancy, I am begging you, please don’t beat yourself up. You’re still you. You have every right to be you. Sacrifice is OK. Subjugation is not.

Now that you’re on the road to mom-hood, how do you assimilate the new need for practicality into your wardrobe without becoming a cliche?

1) Don’t be a Mumsnet Mum. Mumsnet is great for advice, support and information. If, however, you are the type of competitive person who wants to be a better mum than everyone else instead of the best mum that you’re capable of being, then don’t go there. Your wardrobe will quickly fill up with organic, unbleached cotton tops, vegan burlap sacks and other deeply unattractive things that you’ll never wear because (surprise, surprise) you secretly hate them.

2) Don’t be deliberately downtrodden. Motherhood can be overwhelming and it’s OK not to look your best. On the flipside, there is no correlation between looking nice and being a selfish mother. If you look tired, that’s to be expected. If you look made-up, it does not necessarily compute that you’re using your precious infant nurturing time to slick on some lipstick. If you have the time and the want to get a blowdry, do it. Don’t deprive yourself just because you think that someone might judge you badly for it – these sanctimonious people are obviously morons.

3) It’s OK, nay amazing, to be you. Life does not stop when you have a baby. If you still want to get that tattoo sleeve or buy that minidress, do it. You don’t necessarily have to start wearing breathable cotton tops – just buy a large array of detergents. You can still wear studs if that’s your thing – just don’t wear them around your neck. Burlap is only good for holding large sacks of vegetables – you may feel like that, but you’re not. And white was always very overrated anyway.

Folkster

I’m not going to lie, one of my high fashion points this year was when Blanaid Hennessey, all around Very Stylish Person and co-owner of Kilkenny’s Shutterbug, asked if she could take a picture of the outfit I was planning to wear at Forbidden Fruit in June. Of course, I got spontaneous food poisoning and couldn’t do it, but the sense of validation in my outfit choice sustained me through the tough times.

I’m loving the lookbook images taken by Eoin Hennessey and Ciúin Tracy for Blanaid’s newest online venture, Folkster. The shop stocks the cream of the Shutterbug stock along with a boggling array of Jeffrey Campbell shoes, with more contemporary brands to follow. According to Blanaid, the a folkster is ‘like a hipster/hippy hybrid – a sort of friendly, floaty fashion lover!’ That, I can get on board with.

The dreamy, unearthly effects in these photographs remind me a little of Richard Mosse’s infra-red film photos of The Congo (well worth a click, but not for the light-hearted). Weirdly, Mosse, who represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale this year, has family in Kilkenny – is there a connection there somewhere?


Skinheads and Subculture

My teeny tiny mind had been blown.

Skinheads in Life Magazine, late 1960’s. Photo by Terry Spencer

I’ve been doing a lot of reading up on youth subculture lately for workzzzzzz… Oh, sorry, did you fall asleep there?  A lot of people find this stuff boring, but I do not.  Subculture and style is my long-held, unashamedly nerdy passion.  I thought that I knew pretty much everything about the timeline of British subcultures.  But I was wrong.

If you’ve watched Shane Meadows’ amazing This Is England, This Is England ’86 and This Is England ’88, you might be a little bit in love with skinhead style. Woody and Lol for life, yo.  I (and I suspect, a lot of other people) thought that is was an offshoot of punk – but the skinhead movement actually started in the Sixties.  Skins were Hippy antagonisers.  Mind. Blown.

If you’ve got a spare ten minutes, give this video a watch.  By punk figure and subcultural anthropologist Don Letts, this is a breeze through the surprisingly diverse origins of the skinhead.  And it’s very stylish too.