Art, Fashion, Inspiration, Subculture, The Reading List

Nonconformist Fashion Tips, with a Personal Introduction

Hi everyone.  Hi there.

For a little while back there, I fell out of love with blogging.  What happened was this:  I applied for (and got into) the MA in Fashion course at Central Saint Martins, which I had been working towards for… Hmm.  About two years.  That two years was punctuated with a lot of frustration, hard work and heartbreak in both my personal and professional life.  A lot.

One thing kept me going when I split up with my long-term boyfriend, quit a job that was not quite what it advertised itself to be and moved back in with my parents in a small town that was, and is, slowly dying due mostly to drugs and emigration.  It was the thought of getting out, moving to London and doing my dream course that stopped me from melting into a big fat puddle of self-pity, Ovaltine and Take A Break magazines.

In May, I found out that I was moving to London.  I had the course.

In May, I lost the urge to work altogether.  Everything seemed entirely pointless.

So, from May to September, I had what can tastefully be termed a lost summer.  I made so many brilliant new friends, who I miss immensely now that I’ve moved over, had some brand new experiences and learned a lot of valuable things (not least how to throw a successful club night, but that’s a different post altogether).

I stopped blogging.  In fact, I stopped writing altogether bar what was required of me for work.  My attention span was shot.  I barely read more than ten pages at a time.  I finished approximately zero books over the summer.  I did however, for the first time in almost twenty years, get a tan – the evidence of which is still fading around my shoulders.

Over the course of a few months, I became a different person. I joined a band of amazing artists and renegades and explored the Irish countryside – and if you’re imagining this through a Sofia Coppola-ish, slightly twee filter, that’s EXACTLY how it was.  It was the very best summer of my life, though not untouched by spots of drama.

But here I am.  I live in London now, a city so rich with people and ideas and beautiful things that I feel that my brain might burst if I don’t type everything out through my fingers.  At the very least, I can start writing posts again, instead of just putting up my weekly Cork Independent columns.

This isn’t a particularly personal blog.  But this is a personal post.  Being personal makes me uncomfortable – slightly ironic as in real life I have a definite tendency to overshare.  The short version is this – I’m back to blog another day.

Ahem.

And now for something completely different.

London is full of nonconformists.  In fact, it’s so full of nonconformists that they all sort of blend into each other.  A massive nonconforming mass. I love it. I fall in love on the Tube at least twice a day.

London style is such that this 1968 gem, How to be a Nonconformist, by Elissa Jane Karg, still holds some very relevant fashion tips, not least the one about not wearing socks.

You can see the rest of this book over on Brainpickings.

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Fashion, The Reading List

The Reading List: Diana Vreeland, Empress of Style

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Diana Vreeland: Empress of Fashion is the first full-length biography of the legendary Vogue editor and self-mythologiser where words and facts take precedence over pictures and unverified if exciting anecdotes.  How did Diana Vreeland go from a well to-do housewife to one of the most powerful people in fashion?  And how did her remarkable mind and creative disregard for beauty over truth develop?  This book, by biographer Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, attempts to answer those questions.

Vreeland, ‘the High Druidess of fashion, the Supreme Pontiff, Perpetual Curate and Archpresbyter of elegance, the Vicaress of style’ did not start out in life commanding the religious reverence that the previous quote implies, but instead had a difficult childhood, forever in the shadow of a beautiful younger sister and treated badly by a capricious, adventurous mother who (as these things often go no matter how much pink hair dye we put on) Diana resembled more in personality and outlook the older she became.

This book counters the obvious beautiful lies that Diana told as she invented herself.  Diana was born in Paris, but did not grow up there as she had claimed.  However, a more outlandish tale, that of Buffalo Bill teaching Diana and her sister to ride horses, may actually be true.  Mackenzie Stuart assesses Diana’s claims on its individual merits, not treating each one with scepticism but with a calm researcher’s eye.

This book is heavy on the fascinating details of Diana’s career, especially on how she came to win her jobs as editor of American Vogue and at the Costume Institute.  Grace Mirabella, Diana’s successor at Vogue, appears as a conflicted figure in the text but there is still a little meat missing from the controversial and quite sad story of how Diana came to fall from Grace at Vogue.

Diana’s personal life, especially that with her two sons, is not examined in great depth, though her relationship with husband Reed (who appears in the book as a bit of a well-dressed enigma) is given more space on paper.  The two sons do not appear as voices in the book – it’s a shame because, as the documentary The Eye Has to Travel shows, both have a great deal of interesting and often painful things to say about their mother.

The book is well-written, accessible, entertaining and nicely-paced.  With a life as unsure and clouded with half-truths as Diana Vreeland’s, the temptation to insert your own take on her life must be immense.  However, this biography does justice to the great lady’s legacy.

Diana Vreeland: Empress of Fashion is published by Thames and Hudson and is out in hardback now.

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Fashion, Film, The Reading List

The Reading List: Katharine Hepburn – Rebel Chic

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I’ve read a few bummer style books recently, so I was relieved to find that Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic was, like the woman herself, just delightful – a breath of fresh air during a brisk walk through the professional and personal costumes of a legendary actress and bona fide tomboyish style icon.
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It’s an all-angles approach that permeates this deceptively small book – essays cover Hepburn’s attitude to clothing, her tomboy style (with reference to the blog of the same name), how she was active in the design of her stage and film costumes and an exploration of her relationships with various costume designers.

The pictures selected for the book are divided quite evenly between off-duty Hepburn and her more polished onscreen characters. The latter third of the book is devoted to her costumes, many of which she kept after filming had ended. Hepburn even recycled costumes – wearing a dress from the 1939 stage version of The Philadelphia Story some thirty five years later in The Glass Menagerie (it only had to be let out by two inches, fact fans).
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Katherine Hepburn’s personal style has been the subject of urban myth, which this book busts, but quite gently. The essays are informative but not speculative. It’s not a biography – there are no references to scandalous affairs or scurrilous rumours – it’s just about clothing as pure self expression. Whether to conceal or reveal, Hepburn was adept at using her clothes to convey a message. This book is evidence of that.

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Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Style is published by Skira Rizzoli and is out now.

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Fashion, The Reading List

Snoopy Around The World

In the course of developing this little website, I’ve also developed an increasingly soft spot for pop culture in all its forms, especially if it’s tied in with fashion in any way.  On seeing these photos on the AnOther website, my soft spot immediately became as squishy and vulnerable as an overripe avocado.

So far, I’ve blogged about the curious case of the Theatre de la Mode fashion dolls, the out-there wackiness of a Disney fashion editorial (Alber Elbaz as a distant cousin of Donald Duck, anyone?) and the unashamed kitschiness of Barbie in the best of 80’s designers.  This is up there. It’s one of the hits.  One of the good ones.

This is Snoopy and his sister Belle, dressed by different designers as they travel around the world.  Taken from the book ‘Snoopy Around the World: Dressed by Fashion Designers’ – Snoopy isn’t one for obscure titles, we can see – it’s cute and weird and of course I immediately bought a second-hand copy from Amazon.

Can the constant buying of books be defined as a substance addiction?

Photos by Alberto Rizzo.  You can see more over on the AnOther website.

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Inspiration, Photography, Subculture

The Reading List: Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom…

… Pinup Photography’s Golden Era.

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The gentle art of pinup photography has been interpreted in a few different ways, first as enjoyable smut, then as kitsch, finally as a postfeminist emancipation proclamation. Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom aims to be all three as well as a fairly enjoyable look back at the career of a very modern woman – both as subject and photographer, usually at the same time.

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Pinup fans will know Bunny Yeager as the woman who partnered with the legendarily versatile, befringed model Bettie Page in the short-lived, but very productive series of pictures that made both their professional reputations. As well as a jobbing photographer, Yeager herself was a model. She would often take self portraits in the pinup style. You can see her looking demure in a bikini, auburn pigtails on each shoulder. A few years later she’s buxom and brazen in black negligee, platinum blonde hair solidifying the contrast. Her ability to transform herself for the camera is remarkable. It’s not hard to agree with the theory that Cindy Sherman was influenced by Yeager’s self portraits.  Here’s a fun fact – Yeager reportedly took those famous photographs of Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in Dr.No. No better woman for the job.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABunny Yeager has had a greater impact on the world at large than just nude photographs (of which there are absolute truckloads in this book).  In the forward, Dita von Teese hit the pro-sex nail on the head when she says “By her (Bunny’s) actions, she is challenging what it actually means to be feminist, to let the last taboos about sexuality and nudity go and at the same time to be in control of it all.  This is what it means to be truly liberated”.

The reader may agree or disagree with this sentiment.  However, it is difficult for the reader to spot anything unsavoury about Yeager’s work – all her subjects are ridiculously fresh and healthy looking, whether sunbathing or riding horses or monkeying around (in some cases literally; Yeager loved using animals in pictures).  No-one is inflicting or in pain.  No-one is uncomfortably contorted. In fact, no-one is engaging in anything particularly sexual.  It is all very innocent.

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The photographs, which are split into categories (cheesecake, self-portraits, photo stories and so on) are accompanied with either analysis by Petra Mason or excerpts from the many photography books that Yeager published in her lifetime. Carefully chosen, these snippets are all about women celebrating and not subjecting themselves.  It’s interesting that, over the fifty to sixty years since these photos were taken, pinups have gone from fodder for titillation to a legitimate (if not highbrow) art form. Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom reflects that change, as it is a book primarily written by women for women – although like-minded men will certainly enjoy it too.

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Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom by Petra Mason is published by Rizzoli and is out now.

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Fashion, Inspiration, Photography, Subculture, The Reading List

The Reading List: Where Were You?

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Oh, gosh.

Where to start?

‘Where Were You?’ is a book that charts the evolution of Irish street style from the Fifties until the turn of the century. Meticulously compiled over the past four years by the ever-diligent Garry O’Neill, this heavy book is a true rendering of what street style used to be, before Photoshop and shopping online made everyone look so bloody homogenous.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the book was funded by crowd sourcing website Fundit, it’s incredibly well-put together. The layout is good. It’s almost all pictures with very little text. The sprinkling of words that you do read add some historical contact, but that’s pretty much it. It doesn’t really matter though – the real meat is in the photographs of the (mostly) stylish Hibernians. Who knew that we Irish were stylish? It’s a little-known fact that we should probably shout about a bit more.

This review, like the book itself, is less about the blather and more about the pictures. As a chronicle of style and subculture, it has yet to be topped – although I would love to see someone try.

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NOTE – The vast majority of books on this website are review books sent to me by publishers. Not the case here – I bought this copy of ‘Where Were You?’ myself. I’m just so blatantly gushy because I love it and I think that all streetstyle/subculture gawkers should buy a copy. And, if you don’t have the money to buy a copy, you should definitely check out the Facebook page. It is published by Hi Tone Books in a limited run and is out now.

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Fashion, Photography

Edith Wharton in Vogue

These pictures are a few months old (and therefore ancient in fashion/internet terms) but I still want to share this Annie Leibovitz spread for American Vogue.  Styled by Grace Coddington, Natalia Vodianova is novelist Edith Wharton on her Massachusetts estate, The Mount.  Flanking her is novelist Jeffrey Eugenides as Henry James, Boardwalk Empire actor Jack Huston as her mercurial lover William Morton Fullerton and an interesting cast of supporting characters including Elijah Wood as her chauffeur (!) and James Corden as Teddy Roosevelt (!?!).

The editorial is rather static and dreamy and Old World-ish, and there are cameos from American men of letters like Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz (no women, unfortunately).  It’s also accompanied by a rather lovely piece by Colm Toibin, which you can read here.  I suppose the only bone to pick is that Wharton was supposed to be about 45 at this time, while Vodianova is… not.  Kristen McMenamy might have made a better Wharton or, as one of the original commenters suggested, perhaps a female novelist would have been best.

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Art, Fashion, The Reading List

The Reading List: Masters of Fashion Illustration

Antonio Lopez

For those who missed out on buying the hardback edition of David Downton’s Masters of Fashion Illustration, fear not – Laurence King have just released a paperback edition that is ever bit as well-appointed as its predecessor.

Masters of Fashion Illustration is not a comprehensive history or even a comprehensive list of famous fashion illustrators – Rene Gruau is conspicuous in his absence. However, it doesn’t pretend to be one. The selection of illustrators profiled is entirely up to Downton (one of the best contemporary illustrators living today), who selects his personal favourites as opposed to a line up of the usual suspects. The first illustrator profiled is well-known 19th century social portraitist Giovanni Boldini, which will give you an idea of Downton’s inclination to colour outside of the lines (sorry, bad pun) when it comes to selecting his Masters.

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Not that this is a bad thing, of course. Delve through the book and you’ll see that Downton has impeccable, elegant taste. His selection is a mix of the well-known and relatively obscure – many of the images have been reproduced here for the first time since their original publication. There are some lovely pictures of Andy Warhol’s whimsical, feminine illustrations of shoes and Schiaparelli perfume (why do we always forget that before Warhol was an artist he was an illustrator?) and Bob Peak’s work is the stuff that Mad Men art directors dream of.

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The final part of the book is a 36 page portfolio of Downton’s work, accompanied by an interview conducted by Tony Glenville. The interview isn’t as much about Downton’s career (although he does talk about it) as much as it’s about the selection process for what goes in the book – which is extra interesting, if you’re a publishing nerd like me. Downton’s work is pretty mermerising and masterful – some lines are really Impressionistic but others are so sure and deft that they are almost photoreal – it’s astounding that he doesn’t do his work digitally.

David Downton

If you’re looking for a comprehensive overview of fashion illustration, you may be better off buying 100 Years of Fashion Illustration by Cally Blackman, which is more timeline based. However, if you want to be reintroduced to some old faces and become acquainted with the new master, then this beautifully laid out book is worth buying.

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Masters of Fashion Illustration (paperback) by David Downton is published by Laurence King and is out now.

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Fashion, Photography, The Reading List

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.

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Inspiration, The Reading List

The Reading List: Everything Oz…

…The Wizard Book of Makes & Bakes by Christine Leech and Hannah Read-Baldrey

This is a cute one.  Everything Oz comes to you from the authors of Everything Alice, a themed craft and cookery book all about Alice in Wonderland.  Full disclosure: I have not read Everything Alice… yet.  Everything Oz carries on much in the same vein, with several craft projects and ideas for visually arresting party food inspired by the classic book, films and stage adaptations.

Rainbow cake, anyone?

Some pistachio popcorn, perhaps?  This recipe is the first on my hit list.

Instructions are clear and concise, but you may need some special skills to complete some of the crafts (a knowledge of sewing machines, particular stitches and, oddly, experience with an electric drill will all stand you in good stead).  It’s not all hard stuff though; for every septuple layer rainbow cake there is Emerald City Jelly, for every pair of Ruby Slippers (yes, really) there’s an Emerald hair comb.  While there are some projects which require a lot of effort and time, they don’t seem as if they’d be particularly difficult to do.  If you’re the kind of person who gets an intense payoff from making an incredibly complicated cake, then this is for you.

The layout of this large, colourful, softback book is varied but not cluttered.  A mix of photography, illustrations and snippets of dialogue from the book (a very brief paragraph in Baum and The Wizard of Oz is in the introduction), it’s carefully considered.  The table of contents looks like a Depression-era circus hoarding and the section on Emerald City snacks is delightfully, gleefully green.  It’s immaculately, eye-catchingly laid out – which points to Read-Baldrey’s other career as a props and fashion stylist.

Cute but not cloying, you could complete several of the projects without people necessarily knowing that they were inspired by The Wizard of Oz.  Some of the projects are obviously connected to the books or film (again, the ruby slippers), some not so much (the section on the Oz Apothecary) but that doesn’t really matter – the projects that aren’t obviously Oz more than compensate for it in their cuteness.

The beauty of a good craft book isn’t necessarily its ability to teach a person a new skill – it’s in its ability to inspire people.  This bright and dreamy book makes a not-particularly-crafty person (me) want to have an Emerald City themed party, complete with Tin Man garlands and lanterns – and I think I might do just that.

Everything Oz: The Wizard Book of Makes & Bakes is published by Quadrille and is out now.

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