The Last Licentiate Column (For Now)

The view of the Lee from my old flat on North Main Street. Sigh. I wonder where that jacket is?

The view of the Lee from my old flat on North Main Street. Sigh. I wonder where that jacket is?

Alright Stevie G, you’re taking the piss. Just when I sat down to write this, my very last column, the veteran broadcaster, DJ and general nurturer of Cork’s creative talent, tells us that he’s leaving us. I didn’t have any thunder to steal, but if I did, I’d be rummaging through Stevie’s record bag trying to find it.

Cork has changed, lads, I can see it from all the way over here in London. It’s not the way it was when I first started writing for this fine paper in 2009. We were deep in the throes of a recession, the novelty only starting to wear off. Off in the distance was the cultural revitalising of a truly brilliant city; one I was immensely proud to call my home for more than six years. While Cork is perhaps better known in recent years for the flood of musical talent pouring out of The Pavilion, you can’t deny the creative output in other areas; film, art and, lest we forget, fashion.

When the Cork Independent’s editor Deirdre first suggested that I write a fashion column, I had my doubts. I knew that I loved clothes, but the problem was that I didn’t know very much about trends and definitely didn’t care about adhering to them. I still highly suspect that she only gave me the column to stop my aunt, confusingly also called Deirdre, from mentioning her fab writer niece every ten seconds in conversation. To both Deirdres, I will always be grateful. You gave me my first real leg up into the world of journalism. Without both of you, I don’t know where I’d be. Working on a building site in New South Wales, probably.

The Cork Independent is pretty unusual, in that it’s a free sheet that isn’t total crap. I was allowed to talk about pretty much anything I wanted, which is almost unheard of in print these days, doubly so for a writer with relatively little writing experience. I was allowed to be an honest voice, even if that honest voice was only talking about a nice hat that the writer saw on a woman on North Main Street.

I have been writing this column for four years, more or less. I have changed as the city changed and, while there is no way that I could outgrow such a unique place, there were unique opportunities presented to me as I learned more about my chosen subject and (hopefully) became a better writer. I would have been a fool not to pick them up. So, pick them up I did. I left. I moved to London, where I’m now doing stuff that I would never have thought of back in the days when staring at a blank screen, wondering how to talk about pink, was a weekly ritual.

I love Cork, I do. I still get sad when I think that I can’t just walk down the road and call into Miss Daisy Blue (still one of my favourite vintage shops ever) or order an Eggs Benedict at Liberty Grill. Sometimes I get so maudlin I even get nostalgic over avoiding the unsuitable boys I kissed, now almost a decade ago (!) in the Brog.

We change though, we get older. Cities change like people. Sometimes, the city you loved isn’t the city that exists anymore. It’s time to give up my corner of the newspaper, and by extension Cork itself. Thank you all for reading. It’s been quite a trip.

Licentiate Column 06/02/14: Couture Comedown

photo by Lea Colombo for Dazed and Confused

photo by Lea Colombo for Dazed and Confused

Couture – what does it mean, really? On a surface level, most of us know what couture is; really really expensive clothes for people with more private jets than sense. Couture shows are populated with the super-duper-uber rich, people who sneeze into hankies made of the real Turin Shroud, people who watched ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ and had several painful pangs of nostalgia.  Truly, those were the good old days. That was when all the real excess happened.

Couture has always been about exclusivity; it’s difficult to manufacture, can take thousands of hours to produce and is incredibly costly. It’s not totally out of the ordinary to see a couture wedding dress with over a quarter of a million little pieces of fabric meticulously attached. It is, however, very unusual to see more than a few produced. Like I said, it’s exclusive.

People get jaded very quickly.  What do we, the public, care for exclusivity? We could never afford these fripperies.  You could easily buy a house in today’s property market (outside of Dublin, at least) for the price of a particularly well-embellished couture gown. Why bother? That much excess verges on overstuffed, overindulged, flabby stupidity.

This season, the team behind Maison Martin Margiela’s Artisanal line have added a new layer – history. History is the new exclusivity and history, in this case, will not repeat itself. The MMM team armed themselves with what must have been epic amount of guts and searched the world for vintage materials with some sort of artistic or historical significance.

Somehow, they managed to wangle yards of culturally priceless interior fabrics from the archive of legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. What did they do with this fabric?  Dear reader, I shall tell you.  They wove it into t-shirts. A Twenties-era tapestry inspired by the Tahitian paintings of Paul Gauguin was made into a heavy opera coat. Scarves stripped from a 1930s brothel were sewn into skirts.

In an era where modern technology is in danger of making couture techniques of sewing and embellishment obsolete, this is the new exclusive; the heavy weight of history. It’s desirable, but in an incredibly high-minded way.  Of course, you could replicate that tapestry, but it won’t have the same story. It won’t bear the marks of the passage of time. You can mimic the Frank Lloyd Wright fabric, but it won’t really come from the man himself anymore. It would just be a facsimile; bland and boring.

The modern couture collection is high-minded in its desirability.You could also argue that it is eco-friendly, an able evolution in a couture industry that was barely limping along a few years ago. However, the question remains – is this sort of shenanigan recycling, or just desecration?

Licentiate Column 23/01/14: Breasts, Beauty and Wearing a Cure

Better living through chemistry

Wearable technology is really the new buzz-phrase that will seriously affect women in 2014 over all trends. not just because it can make life a little easier, but because one day it could  well save them.

The development of new, wearable technology may be a reprieve for the thousands of breast cancer sufferers who, due to side effects, cannot take the potentially life-saving drug Tamoxifen. A new study, undertaken by Central Saint Martins student Sarah da Costa, suggests that wearing clothing impregnated with the drug may be a viable alternative to taking the drug orally.

Tamoxifen, which has been roundly hailed as a miracle cure, is a hormone treatment that effectively binds itself to cancer cells and prevents further tumour growth. It also leads to a host of unwelcome side effects ranging from menopause-like symptoms such as hot flushes and the cessation of periods to an advanced risk of endometrial cancer. Like it or not, breasts have become a sign of an essential part of womanhood. We obsess over size and shape, we pop them on a shelf and we strap them fast to our ribs when a trip to the gym is involved. The irony of a life (and breast) saving drug that also mimics the menopause is that it may make a women feel like less of one while essentially saving her.

What if, instead of taking the drug, you could just wear it? Da Costa has been heavily involved in research of biopolymers, naturally occurring molecules that could easily facilitate absorption of medication through the skin. She hopes that, through technological development of these biopolymers, that Tamoxifen could be embedded in a bra and administered on a constant low-dose basis, which would attack tumours at source and lessen the unwanted side-effects.

Da Costa’s prototype of the Tamoxifen bra insert looks a little like the prosaic ‘chicken fillet’, a rubbery, clear gel pad that sits inside the bra cup. However, the unintended cosmetic effects are incidental – the drug inserts are slim, flexible and virtually unnoticeable when worn.

Whether the technology can be practically applied is a totally different matter.  It’s not yet know how effective this could be, if at all. Still, it’s nice to dream of a better world. A world where you can wear your medicine, where being gravely ill doesn’t automatically mean death.

Fashion trades so much on physical beauty, which, as a short, slightly dumpy woman, can get me down. We need to trade in our definition of beauty for a new one. Just to be alive is to be beautiful. To feel the heartbeat of a loved one when you hug them, to feel the cold on a winter evening and know it’s not just the temperature, but the blood coursing through our veins; it is a beautiful miracle.

Clothing doesn’t have to just make you conventionally beautiful. When (and I truly hope that day does come) garments helps the sick to stay alive, fashion will be truly beautiful.

Licentiate Column 09/01/14: New Year, New Nothin’

We all turn to self-examination when the New Year rolls around. Photo of Lena Horne by Teenie Harris

We all turn to self-examination when the New Year rolls around. Photo of Lena Horne by Teenie Harris

It’s the second of January as I write this. It might not be the second of January as you read it.  A few days always elapse between thinking something up, committing it to paper and watching the (sometimes not very well considered) thoughts as they are processed and printed.

Maybe, just maybe, the world will blow up between thinking and printing and no-one will ever get to read this.  Why, I could say whatever I wanted! Um, Kim Kardashian is a waste of space.  I can’t afford to pay my broadband bill. I’m absolutely terrified of the future and what it holds due mostly to lingering anxiety and an inability to trust people – even the nice people who buy me Kinder Eggs on a whim.

It’s not just reduced price tags, sample sales and enforced jollity that makes people go a bit mad with clothes shopping over Christmas and New Year. It’s also about the fear of change, the attempt to buy insurance for a future that may not yet exist.  Here we are, in the first week of the New Year, looking out on to a sea of endless possibilities. Maybe the possibilities aren’t endless.  Maybe there are only a few.  A puddle of possibilities.

Either way, you will probably feel the urge to buy a rake of new workout gear, but maybe not a new gym membership.  Maybe you, like I, will buy all your new clothes in a size too small, and still forget to buy a gym membership. Those two options rarely pay off.

There, however, are two options that are much more likely to bear fruit. The first is to buy clothes for a job you don’t yet have. It’s quite simple.  If you already own a Ghostbusters shellsuit, you’re much more likely to get a ride in Ecto-1. If you look the part, you just might get the part.

Working in fashion, there is an expectation to buy clothes that make you stand out. Often, these clothes can be quite expensive. You don’t have to do this, of course, but it’s a supremely stylish, single-minded and probably incredibly tall and slim person who refuses to literally buy in to this way of thinking.

The second option is to buy clothes for the relationship you don’t yet have. This is a tricky one. Not everyone differentiates between dressing as a single person or dressing as a person in a happy relationship – clothes can only do so much.

A lot of people do differentiate between these two. Some people devalue themselves, considering themselves only worthy of nice things (including clothes) when they’re feeling loved. Nice clothes for a nice relationship.

When I recommend that you buy clothes for a relationship you may not have, I’m really recommending that you do that for the most important relationship you’ll ever have; the relationship, romantic or otherwise, that you have with yourself.

At the New Year, it’s easy to think that you are in need of a physical and mental overhaul. Realistically, you probably don’t. Love yourself and treat yourself. In this case, having something nice to wear is a necessary New Year evil.

Licentiate Column: Christmas Jumper Hangover

Is it Christmas yet? The festive season has taken an unexpected turn and all my reserves of jolly have broken in my bag, making the bottom soggier than a reject cake from the Great British Bake Off. Less ho, ho, ho. More boo hoo hoo. This former lover of bedecked halls is having yet another allergic reaction to the Christmas Jumper.

I’ve written about the Christmas Jumper and my hard-to-place distaste for them before. Predictably, that column was written last Christmas and not during a particularly blazing day in July, though that would give me another reason not to like them.  Woolly knits don’t go down well at the beach.  You’ll be all hot and itchy and sand will get stuck in the wool, scratching the living daylights out of you.  We’re just so lucky that the existence of a warm summer isn’t usually a problem for Irish residents.  Truly, we are blessed as a nation. Truly, truly blessed.

Last year I went for a few drinks with some colleagues at a women’s website. It might be the fact that we’re all screeching, hardcore, dungaree-wearing, card-carrying feminists (read this sentence with a touch of irony, if you will) but the men out en masse in the festive jumpers were bothering us, in many senses of the word.

I went home that night, drunk and angry, with a sore bottom from most definitely unwanted pinches. I hated Christmas jumpers.  Hated them. They were evil. They made the people in them do terrible, terrible things.  Christmas Jumpers were sexism in a garment.  I had cracked it!

The resulting column was terrifically angry. It was also very, very wrong. If men in jumpers acted like drunken festive idiots, then surely it was the jumpers that made them so, right? If my argument was correct, it could also be argued that wearing a nice pair of running shoes makes the wearer an Olympic athlete.

I am fantastically ashamed of my old argument, and even more so now that Christmas Jumpers are getting such a bad rep. I still don’t like them, but I no longer think that they are endemic and an indicator of everything that is wrong with Christmas excess. I just think that they are kinda crap.

Correlation does not necessarily equal causation. I needed to wake up and see that the Christmas Jumper wasn’t the disease. It was only a symptom.  The real disease is the craziness that people go through when festivities and free booze are forced upon them.

Don’t get me wrong; I still hate Christmas Jumpers with a deep and abiding passion.  At least now I know that, like my hatred of flying, this particular dislike is almost totally illogical. It might make me feel uncomfortable, but I know it won’t kill me.

If only I could say the same for everything else I hate.

Licentiate Column 05/12/13: Hello, My Name is Paul Smith

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Paul Smith doesn’t want the journalists reviewing his new exhibition, ‘Hello, My Name is Paul Smith,’ to get cold feet – so much so that he brings multiple pairs of socks to distribute at the press preview. He also has designer notebooks for the unprepared writer. It doesn’t matter that no-one is even slightly unprepared for Smith’s kaleidoscopic, cluttered, not-quite-a-retrospective at the Design Museum in London. He runs out of notebooks within minutes.

The aura of approachability surrounding legendary British designer Paul Smith has very little to do with his fashion empire and almost everything to do with his attitude towards it. This is hardly unexpected when you discover that his heroes are his wife Pauline (who taught him how to design clothes and remains a source of support and inspiration after several decades together) and his local road sweeper (who, presumably, has done neither of these things).  Wisely, Smith has chosen to dedicate the exhibition to Pauline.

One enters the exhibition, as in life, by passing through a small pink box. This is where it all starts. At three metres by three metres, it is the size of Smith’s first shop. It contains only a mirror and a small case containing a few pictures, advertisements and sketches, with captions handwritten by Smith himself. Dominating the case is a photograph of Smith’s Afghan hound, Homer, who had a layered, flicked-out haircut and an aquiline profile not unlike his owner’s in that period.  The caption reads, “He was my first manager (1970). I was his assistant!”

‘Hello, My Name is Paul Smith’ is drawn from Paul Smith’s archives, but it’s not so much a reflection on the man as it is a celebration of a hugely successful global brand.  Smith’s success, it can be argued, it just as dependent on his personality as it is on his eye for detail or unwavering dedication to structured tailoring. A sense of humour both simple and sophisticated is also vital. It can be seen in his approach to brand collaborations – amongst the striped teapots and bottles of mineral water, a boxed bottle of Paul Smith HP brown sauce (also striped, in varying shades of brown) is put proudly on display.

It is a feat of organised chaos. We see a recreation of Smith’s cluttered office and workrooms, a wall is plastered, seemingly arbitrarily, with buttons. More walls are lined floor to ceiling with personal photographs, fan letters (One from Japan reads, “I like your cloth design, spilit (sic) and your face. I love you”) and award-winning, tongue-in-cheek advertisements.

It makes you wonder.  Specifically, it makes you wonder when such a broad retrospective will happen to an Irish designer. Just this week, both Simone Rocha and J.W Anderson won highly sought-after gongs at the British Fashion Awards.  In thirty years, will we be wandering through a reconstruction of the Rocha office? Will Anderson’s already numerous collaborations take pride of place in some hallowed hall? Will the cult of personality surrounding Smith be replicated in Irish form?

Let’s hope so.

Licentiate Column 28/11/13: Christmas Party Dress Guilt

HELLO,  stock photo for 'guilt'!

HELLO, stock photo for ‘guilt’!

So, here we are again.  Together we stand on the cusp of Christmas party season, facing bravely into the bitter wind that is trying to find the perfect party dress in a world that is jaded and blind to our sequin-wearing ways.

One of the things that pains me most at the moment is Party Dress Guilt, in which you go to find the perfect shiny/sparkly attire and find yourself buying nothing because it just so happens that clothes cost money, and money is something that you feel you should be spending on something more worthwhile than clothes.  Like the electricity bill. Or gin.

It doesn’t really matter whether you’re rich or poor, whether the party dress is Penneys or Proenza. The festive season has always had the tendency to remind the more neurotic people amongst us that the time period from early December to January is based on spending money on the Worst Thing Ever.  Fun.

You go home, and you don’t buy the dress, and still you feel bad for even thinking about buying the dress, because there are people suffering in other places.  Your best friend lost her job, your brother’s dole was cut, you’ve lost your medical card and there’s a new government levy on wine.  It doesn’t matter that you give money to charity.  It doesn’t matter that you can easily afford the dress (or in my case, a sequinned, on-sale pair of Topshop jeans), what matters is the frivolity.  Frivolity is bad.  Enjoying yourself?  BAD.

I never really understood Catholic guilt until my first financially independent Christmas. You feel absolutely terrible for buying a crushed velvet minidress with a ridiculously low cost-per-wear when you’ve only budgeted ten euro for family gifts. Maybe you settle, and buy something cheap and cheerful and wearable.  Then, you are subtly shamed when the family member with the good job buys you a present at five times your budget. Christmas is a minefield littered with good intentions and expensive eyeshadow palettes.

We feel like this for a good reason.  We should feel a bit guilty.  Christmas and the New Year is the time period for conspicuous consumption. Whether that consumption takes the form of food or clothing or slightly more illicit substances, it doesn’t really matter.  It all boils down to money anyway.  At least the clothes consumption won’t give you a heart attack, but ask me that again when I get my next credit card bill.

On the flip side, we need to slough some of the guilt off.  If, like me, you’re feeling guilty despite not actually buying anything, a reality check might be in order.  Can you afford it?  Good for you.  Maybe you should buy what you want without feeling bad. Your money is yours. However you decide to spread it around , at least make sure that this Christmas it’s money well spent.

 

Licentiate Column 21/11/13: Lived-in.

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Isabella in the mirror. Photo by Rebecca Lewis.

The Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore exhibition opened this week at Somerset House in London and a few days ago I had the opportunity to go down, check it out and make a total tit of myself in front of a room full of journalists.

For those not in the know, Isabella Blow was the stylist who effectively discovered Alexander McQueen and Ireland’s own Philip Treacy, amongst others. She nurtured these designers, becoming a patron, a friend and a source of moral support. She was known as an eccentric, a visionary and a hat lover in possession of one of the world’s finest wardrobes. I say was because, in 2007, Isabella Blow killed herself by drinking Paraquat weedkiller – a terrible, painful death that is terrible and painful to think about.

I cried. Exiting the exhibition, I cried. Isabella Blow’s legacy was her wardrobe. It made me think of all the little bits and pieces I own that once belonged to people I loved, people I can’t talk to ever again.

A lot of my jewellery once belonged to my grandmothers. I have a 1950s US military ID bracelet that a visiting soldier gave to my maternal grandmother as a token of his affection. A Christian Dior necklace that a Texan gave to my paternal grandmother late in her life when she decided, almost on a whim, to spend some time in America after the death of my grandfather. Rings and bracelets. Rosary beads. For some reason, both had slightly different insect-shaped brooches in amber and crystals.

It’s a terribly morbid question to ask, but what will you leave behind? Isabella Blow left her clothes. She also left an immense amount of love and several books worth of memories, most of which are happy, all of which are remarkable at least in some small way.

My grandmother’s (and now my) ID bracelet is covered in dings and scratches. It was well-worn before it was put in a drawer for the best part of fifty years. Isabella Blow’s clothes are well-worn too. Hems are slightly muddy, heels are broken, delicate satin shoes are stained with water and puddly remnants. Clothes are a sign that a person has lived. Wearing out clothes is a sign that you are living properly. You are living a life filled with activity instead of passivity, not sitting around waiting to be noticed or admired.

There may be a mathematical equation here – the speed at which you wear out your clothes may be directly proportionate to the speed at which you accumulate experience and memories. Whether this holds water or not, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is living well, giving life everything you have and not being afraid to wear a massive hat when the occasion calls for it.

Licentiate Column 14/11/13: It’s the Emergency Outfit

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– A variation on the Emergency Outfit consisting mainly of a huge fun fur coat.

There is no internet in my house, it’s deadline day and I still don’t know what I’m going to write about.

Technically that’s not true. I did know that I was going to at least start off by stating that I had nothing to write about, but now I’ve done that and I’m left with very little to work with. It’s panic stations. Code Orange. And I’ve just found out that there’s no milk in the fridge. Better make it a Code Red.

We all have Code Red days, which usually kick in with the judicious application of a snooze button or the removal of one small element – like a ruptured internet connection or a forgotten ATM card.

Some women may not admit to this, but whole days have been ruined by just forgetting to put on a bra before going to work. It’s a very fragile structure. One wobble can essentially remove the support system (and we’re not just talking about the bra thing here).

Cue the Emergency Outfit. Emergency outfits are comprised almost entirely of functional clothing, with one optional or non-functional piece. The functional clothing gets you out of the house, keeps you moving, keeps you sane. The non-functional piece at best gives you a needed confidence boost and at worst reminds you that you’re a human being so maybe you should refrain from anxiously gnawing your fist in public. It’s not good for you. And it’s sore.

My Emergency Outfit is this – one big black jumper for its security blanket-type features and reassuring neutrality. It also needs to be slouchy and thick enough to disguise a no-bra day. One pair of high waisted Topshop skinny jeans. High waist = no muffin top and no fear of the jeans settling somewhere between hips and pudendum while running for the bus. One pair of Adidas trainers in black, in case I actually ever need to run for the bus (and I almost never do). A big, big coat with a monochromatic or animal print pattern – this will scare off predators. The non-essential item is red lipstick. It’s a shot of confidence as well as a physical reminder not to paw at my face lest things go horribly wrong.

That’s the outdoor Emergency Outfit. The indoor emergency outfit usually consists of pyjamas, a hair scrunchie and a sense of impending doom. This is true of all women, except maybe those sultry types who only own nighties. A woman who only wears nighties has her shit together. She has no need for the Emergency Outfit.

Of course, all women are different. One Emergency Outfit may be completely utilitarian, with multiple pockets to carry pens, money, tickets, keys and anything that could conceivably be accidental forgotten. Another outfit may forsake pockets for a well-loved, well-worn bag. The security of the jumper could easily be swapped for the comfort of a huge, blankety scarf. Trainers can be substituted for loafers, especially if you accidentally dropp a huge blob of natural yoghurt on your kicks (I am speaking from bitter experience).

The important thing, of course, is that you’re comfortable. And next time, remember to buy milk the day before.

Licentiate Column 07/11/13: Love the Design, Not the Designer

John Galliano as seen by Richard Avedon

John Galliano as seen by Richard Avedon

Everyone knows about John Galliano – but for the wrong reasons.

You might know that Galliano is a fashion designer. You might even know that he’s such a talented designer that his first collection was bought in its entirety by London boutique Browns (an incredibly rare occurrence).  You might know that his designs were flamboyant and brought a theatrical edge to an industry that was, in the mid-nineties, still overdosing on minimalism and Calvin Klein slip dresses.  You might be aware, even if only in a peripheral sense, that he was one of the greats; he was the man that made Christian Dior great again.

If you don’t know that, you’ll definitely know him as the man who drunkenly told people in a bar in Paris that he loved Hitler and that the forefathers of the people he was spewing anti-semitic bile at would have been ‘gassed’.  It was recorded on video and spread all over the internet.  In it, Galliano is slurring in a very pronounced way.

Perhaps he was unaware that, in France, expressing anti-semitic ideas in public is illegal, as well it should be.  Perhaps, and you could easily theorise that this was the case, he didn’t care.  He was found guilty, lost his job and for the most part, destroyed his reputation.  That was two years ago.

Galliano has steadily been building his way back up the fashion ladder, aided by powerful friends.  His efforts to atone (his words, by the way) have been applauded.  He works quietly with big name designers, without a fuss.  Rumours abound that he is to take a post teaching at one of the big fashion colleges.  This month, British Vogue is featuring a portfolio of his work photographed by the endlessly imaginative Tim Walker.  More than that, even – he is the guest fashion editor for the entire magazine.

So, what’s to be done about Galliano?  Should the public continue to shun him or should they let his designs speak for themselves?  It’s impossible to predict what will happen to any degree of accuracy.  All I can tell you is how I feel about it.

It’s a bit like this.  We are taught to hate the sin and love the sinner (perhaps the only truly useful thing that non-practising Catholics learn in religion class).  We should love the art and hate the sin – and if you must hate the sinner, at least leave his or her creative output out of it.

We need to separate the art from the artists.  Caravaggio killed a man.  Burroughs shot his wife in the head.  How many writers have killed themselves, only to have the shabbiness of their deaths woven and bastardised into a convoluted creative myth?

Even with fashion, there are those whose legacy ensures a blameless record.  Coco Chanel certainly did shady deals with the Nazis.  Her reputation is whitewashed and romanticised almost to blandness – something the woman herself may well have hated.

Don’t forget what Galliano did.  Similarly, don’t forget what else he has done, and will continue to do.  You may be pleasantly surprised.