Licentiate Column 28/03/13: Dress Like a Teacher

It's not quite as easy as this anymore...Pic via US National Archives

It’s not quite as easy as this anymore…
Pic via US National Archives

I have just returned from a lovely lunch with a lovely bunch of primary school teachers. Primary school teachers (along with librarians) are the real backbone of this country, because they encourage people to read – and if no-one in the future reads, then I can kiss my job goodbye, probably in an inappropriately lingering way. It also helps that members of my immediate family work in both a library and a school (Mom, can you get those fines wiped off my card? No? Never mind then).

These three teachers are celebrating the start of Easter holidays with a slap up lunch in a suburban roasthouse/pub.  We all know the kind; pub/eatery hybrids that are products of the boom years and have had to pull their socks up fairly sharpish in order to preserve some business.  It was very pleasant.  Instead of cutting corners, more money appears to have been pumped into the food and decor.  It was also very busy.

The saying is cliched and overwritten, but true.  You’ve got to spend money to make money.

There’s a comparison to be made with wise investment in restaurants and wise investment in the future of Ireland by not totally screwing the teachers over with poorly thought out wage agreements.  However, this is a fashion column, so we’ll talk about their wardrobes instead.

Dress codes are hard to interpret at the best of times, especially when you need to preserve a sense of order, mold young minds and wear fabric that can easily be washed free of snot, puke and the crumby remnants of the annual fundraising bake sale.

My lunch companions, it appears, had got their own formula down pat.  No-make up make up, no hanging jewellery that could cause an injury, natural, swishy hair that came straight off the old Herbal Essences ads, simple and colourful statement pieces and, surprisingly, the odd pair of jeans (which are apparently a no-no, but anything goes on non-uniform days).

Through careful observation – and by observation, I mean rooting through my primary school teacher sister’s wardrobe – a person can easily see that the teacher’s lifesaver garment is the cardigan.  It’s as authoritarian as a blazer, but you can easily move your arms.  When you are a teacher, movement is essential for emphasis, attention-getting and dodging the odd flying object.  When a job involves commanding respect as well as deflecting pencils and paint, a blazer or suit jacket will be of no use to you. Teaching is a surprisingly physical occupation.

Not that the teachers and I talked about clothes, though.  Nor did we talk about children, for that matter – the contents of that conversation must remain private.
When I said I had to go home to write this, I was asked what I was going to write about.  I didn’t know.

“You can write it about me”, one said jokingly.

“Maybe I will”, I thought.  Teachers don’t get enough good press.

Licentiate Column 14/02/12: Splat into Spring

Miranda knows the score.

Guess what, everyone? It is now spring. Yes, really.

This is the point where the weather changes from rain, floods, bitter cold and the ever-present prevailing winds to rain, floods, bitter cold, prevailing winds and fifteen minutes of sunshine every second day. It’s not so much a silver lining as an aluminium foil lining, but we’ll take what we can get.

Fashion week is starting in London and the whole industry is going about its biannual process of renewal. Which trends do we dump? Which do we adopt? It hardly seems to matter when the weather rarely changes.

Last year was an unusually temperate one in Britain and Ireland. Hot and cold spells were harsh but fleeting – the rest of the time our isles were cloaked in a grey fug, temperature solidified somewhere in the teens. It’s this strange circumstance that has had far-reaching consequences in places we wouldn’t normally bother looking, like in our local high street stores.

Every spring, the same trends are trotted out by merit of their association to the season, usually pastels and floral prints. This fact is so widely known that when Meryl Streep (as caricature-scary magazine editor Miranda Priestly in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’) sarcastically drawled “Florals? For Spring? Groundbreaking”, a million lovers of a frankly not-great film chuckled knowingly.

Something has happened this year. No florals. No pastels. The ground is not barren but it has lost its fecund quality. We have prints, but they are geometric and abstracted. Pastels are more likely to be worn on the nails and no other part of the body. Everything is a little bit off-kilter, a little more jarring and apocalyptic. I like it. It shows that there’s still an element of chaos in the world no matter how hard we try to mould it to our liking.

Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter trends exist for a several reasons. 1) To make people feel hopelessly inadequate about being up to date so they’ll buy more clothes, making retailers and suppliers more money. 2) Because, in Winter it is (supposed to be) cold and in Summer is is warm (or so I have heard) and people need two sets of wardrobes for two sets of weather systems.

The third reason is the most common-sense, but the least obvious. Spring trends emerge even when we don’t particularly want or need them because human beings can’t live without progress. We always have to feel like we’re heading towards something. Spring is the time we slough off our insulating winter shells and emerge, if not as butterflies, then as moths with the best of intentions.

The best approach to Spring trends is to tread carefully. Only buy what you need, and don’t feel obligated to bare your legs just because it’s almost March. Spring into Spring by all means, but don’t push yourself – it’s far too easy to Splat into Spring instead.

Licentiate Column 08/11/12: Christmas and Glitter and Sparkles, Oh My!

Last year’s Christmas Boots ad. Hopefully they’ll top it this year by with a combi gift box/snowball fight set to a bangin’ dubstep remix of ‘Here Comes The Girls’.

Hey girlfriend! Christmas party season is just around the corner and… um, sorry, I think I might have had a bit of a brainstorm there. All the Boots ads have got to me. Looking at the Brown Thomas Christmas window displays has flash-frozen my brain. The scent of the Plasti-Kote trees in Woodies have given me leave of my senses, like a modern shaman on a voyage of hallucinogenic, sequin-studded discovery.

I look down at a piece I’m supposed to be writing and I realise that it has somehow turned from five hundred words on fashion to a festive gift guide. You want, inexplicably, to buy fashion books for everyone in your family? Then I’ve got the list for you, friend. I don’t care if all Uncle Kevin knows is home brew and rearing greyhounds, he’s just going to love the new Carine Roitfeld fashion book. Tres chic!

It is far, far too early to think about the Christmas season. It seems as if it’s timed to coincide with the weather; when it gets incredibly dark and grey we think of hurling ourselves into a bath filled with spangles and all the inventive things we could do with leftover turkey, only a handful of which actually involve eating it.

Over the past few years, I have talked about how to dress for Christmas parties, how to dress for Christmas Day, how to dress for New Year’s Eve. The truth is that there is only one crucial difference between Christmas dressing and everyday dressing, regardless of occasion. That difference is this – more glitter.

The next two months shall henceforth be known as The Spangling (also an excellent name for a horror movie/Rob Schneider vehicle). Drifts of discarded tinsel and hexagonal foil shapes will shore up outside The Savoy each weekend. Eyelids will droop languorously with the weight of all the sparkly stuff.

I will be among these soiled, droopy doves. If there is a season in which one can look like Coco the Clown in Studio 54, it is Christmas – who am I to argue with that? It is much too cold to go out baring legs and breasts; a woman has to manufacture her own personal glamour somehow – that somehow is sparkle.

Without sparkle, clubs and parties would be full of wannabe Captain Oates’, men and women not wearing enough clothes and solemnly intoning, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’ whenever a cheeky fag is in order. We will then find them frozen solid, Silk Cut Silvers glued to their frozen lips, or perhaps not at all (probably because they’ve got sick of the cold and went to get a Burger King before hailing a taxi home).

I salute these brave, glamourous people. if it was not for the people who celebrated Christmas too early, what would we have? A gloomy, grey few months without any sparkle.

Licentiate Column 01/11/12: Baby, It’s Cold Outside

What I think I look like in pajamas. The reality is more heffalumpish. Pic by Nina Leen for LIFE

Are you cold? I’m cold. I’m bloody freezing. My toes have turned to icy nubs that jolt me awake in chilly shock whenever I shift about in my sleep. Two hot water bottles and the occasional hot port have no alleviating effect. The fuzzy pink Penney’s pajamas I discovered in the airing cupboard make me a little warmer, not that that’s any consolation to the people in hot countries who slave away (in some cases literally) to make us our cut-price winter warmers.

I have taken to working in bed. The pajamas stay. I lump on brightly coloured shawls, hats and jewellery – the jewellery is a smokescreen to make me believe that I am making some kind of effort. It’s like aspirin – I don’t know quite how it works, but it really does. I look like a person who has gone on a gap year to Peru and decided that the locals know where it’s at, wardrobe-wise.

I think that this is perfectly acceptable. I still get my work done, I get to stay warm and no-one sees me looking like an ersatz bag lady/Olsen twin. It’s not my priority to look nice, or even presentable, when I’m at home by myself – the priority is to be cozy or, as a friend of mine who lives in Copenhagen says, hygge. ‘Hygge’ is a great word. It may even be a cozier word than ‘cozy’.

When I step outside the house, though, I am less ‘hygge’ than ‘hyggledy piggeldy’. I have yet to master the gentle art of layering that comes so easily to tall, sylphette women and less to to shortish, vaguely lumpish ones with, y’know, curves n’stuff.

Still, we shall struggle valiantly on, trying to strike that balance between beguiling and well-swaddled. Until the average person’s social life revolves around wearing pjs and never, ever going outside, we will have to spend our time socialising, running errands and attempting to have some semblance of a romantic life wrapped in several layers of fuzzy fibres, making a person look like a less jolly Sta Puft man.

It’s not a lot to ask to want to look both presentable and be warm during the wintertime. Here are a few tips.

1) Take care of your bod. Your face is the one part of your body that will repeatedly be exposed – and the elements we are exposed to are harsh ones. Take your multivitamins, change to a richer moisturiser as the weather will dry out your skin and invest in a few hot oil treatments for your hair. A healthy, glowy person wrapped in a soiled blanket will look better than an unhealthy sniffling one in Burberry.

2) Embrace technology. More specifically, embrace the new generation of thermal underwear, which adds no bulk but is still soft, breathable and snuggly warm. Best of all – it’s available in most high-street stores.

3) Proportions are key. Wearing a lot on top? Keep it slim on the bottom. Skinny jeans (with thermal leggings underneath) tucked into mid-heeled ankle boots will nicely balance out whatever millefeuille duvet-like concoctions we can come up with.

The Seeberger Brothers and Real Street Style

Elegance: The Seeberger Brothers and the Birth of Fashion Photography is one of those books that I’ve wanted forever but couldn’t really afford.  It is out of print and second hand copies cost fifty euros and upwards.  The steep sort of upwards.

With photographs as good as these, the prohibitive price tag may be justified.  Caution – this is a very image-heavy post.  To find out more about the Seeberger brothers, click here.

Images via here, here, here and here

Licentiate column 18/10/12: The Merits of the Mom Jumper

There is no kind of comfort quite like the kind you find when, on a cold day, you slip on a jumper that has spent a few minutes warming up on the radiator. It is a kind of comfort only surpassed when it’s rainy outside and said radiator is now hosting a clean pair of flannel pajamas.

It is also a kind of comfort that we’ll have to get used to this winter because it’ll be a cold one, by golly. The average temperature is shaping up to be five or six degrees every day. Come December, that will be even lower. It is definitely time to unpack the winter woolens and banish any tights below forty dernier from whence they came.

Knitwear buying can be a tricky process. There is only one type of body shape that looks good in any kind of sweater, no matter what shape or how scratchy or fluffy the wool. That is the straight up-and-down, modelly type. These women can rejoice in being able to put on an Aran jumper three sizes too big and still look great. We will not begrudge them, because skinny people need extra warmth what with having less insulating body fat than the rest of us, and all.

Especially meritorious for the woman with the in-and-out body shape is the Mom jumper. It’s not necessarily a jumper that mothers wear (mine favours a potato sack-textured Fairisle that she knitted herself) but rather a jumper that gives you the warming, maternal caress that you need on a cold winter’s day. Your jumper loves you. Your jumper will take care of you. It will not judge you if you accidentally slop tomato sauce on it. It does not care about your sexual orientation and will not spoil Downton Abbey for you if you haven’t got around to watching that episode yet.

If you’re looking for a maternal Mom Jumper, then Boden is a great place to start. The British label started business with a mail order catalogue (how mammy-ish can you get?) and specialises in very simply structured, reassuringly classic, untrendy knitwear. It’s the kind of knitwear that, if you take care of it, could last you for several years in both style and practicality stakes. Most jumpers are updated vintage shapes – the Fifties jumper is especially flattering for hourglass figures.

For a non-mumsy Mom jumper, head to Cos. The knitwear at the H&M-owned high-street chain is considered good enough quality to be sold at Brown Thomas. While Cos stands for Collection of Style, just ‘Cos’ is also appropriate – the patterns are finished with mathematical precision that requires a set of tables.

The knits are good quality too. I have my eye on a sheer black alpaca knit that will go with everything and am already living in a grey marl sweatshirt that has been updated with interwoven metallic thread. Note to self – under no circumstances should I put that one under the radiator. It’s comforting enough already without having to endure second degree burns.

Licentiate Column 11/10/12: Do as the Natives Do

Last week, I went to Malta. It was hot. Ridiculously hot. I got on the plane in Dublin in six degree weather wearing a metallic biker jacket and grey marl sweatshirt flecked with silver thread. I got off to twenty eight degree heat and enough accumulated sweat to power a desalination plant.

My make-up immediately slid off my face on to a puddle on the floor and started mocking me for not knowing that metal is a conductor of heat and polyvinyl fabric is not breathable. I was either extremely dehydrated or in possession of a subconscious that is so self-loathing that even my slap talks back to me. It could be both, but if that’s true, it turns out that my subconscious is easily soothed with a glass of water and a change into a fresh cotton t-shirt.

The native Maltese women are different creatures altogether. The next day, while taking a coffee break in the island’s capital of Valetta, I noticed that it was very easy to distinguish the natives from their tourist counterparts just by clothing alone – although it would have been just as easy to identify the tourists by their (and my) wheezy, sweaty honey-glazed ham exteriors.

The Maltese women I saw out and about had impossibly shiny hair and were wearing some great tailoring – breezy white shirts, and pencil skirts the ended a few inches above the knee. Colours were light, silhouettes were flattering and any perspiration, presumably, was absorbed into nothingness like total magic.

Dressing for a holiday is difficult, especially if you come from a temperate (read: my toes have frostbite) country into a slightly sweltering one. Tourists dress like, well, tourists. To call the way we tourists dress ‘predictable’ would be far too predictable, but why call a spade a gardening implement when ‘spade’ will do just as well? We ARE predictable.

I blame the media. I blame fashion journalists and, to a lesser extent, I blame myself. We think we’re so smart, writing and reading articles on how to dress for certain occasions without ever thinking if the context is really correct. The pictures in the magazines tell us to buy floaty maxi dresses, thong sandals and khaki shorts – which is only really just as well if these are the kind of things that you’d wear anyway.

We shouldn’t be reading articles about what tourists are wearing on holidays, we should be reading articles about what the women who live in our holiday destinations are wearing (especially if what you pack will be weather-dependent). Going to Paris? Make it black and expensive. New York? Have impeccable hair and nails and the rest will follow.
Next time I go to Malta, I will be thinking about dressing like a Maltese woman. Not in a weird, cultural-appropriation, ‘I’m going to wear your traditional embroidered costumes’ way, just in a normal, everyday way.

How many times have you seen a tourist in Ireland struggling to deal with the constant oscillation between rain and sun? Irish people know to always have an umbrella and sunglasses on their person if they’re going to be on the street for more than a few minutes. It a reflex that is the product of years of conditioning. For once, we’re out on top.

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?


Licentiate Column 16/08/12: Clothes Maketh Not The Slut

You can’t go out looking like that. Why not? Well, someone might get the wrong idea. Your dress is too short. Your breasts are heaved out on display. That’s far too tight. Someone might think you’re a slut.

Slut. It’s such a short word, but it’s loaded with centuries of baseless shame, guilt and contravention against pure, virtuous, womanhood (not something we ever asked for, by the way). I personally don’t hate the word, but I do hate the way that women use it against each other. We should be taking it back, using it as a term of endearment and introducing new friends to our parents with, “Mom, Dad, this is my slut Eadaoin”. Not an eyelid should be batted.

A few weeks ago, a man mistook me for a prostitute. I ended up writing a column about it. The Cliffs notes version is this: I was outside my local post office on a Wednesday afternoon, wearing my black jeans with the dried in salsa stains, when a man a man with the beefiest forearms I have ever seen pulled up in a white van and suggested that we go to a b’n’b for a bit of hardcore action. I declined, just in case you were curious.

I’m still perplexed as to why he thought I was a hooker. Was it the grotty trainers? The scraped back bun? The Specsavers granddad-style frames? One of my co-workers theorised that I must have looked like a I really needed the money (thanks a bunch for that vote of confidence, by the way). And here I was worrying if the stain on my trousers made me look a bit slatternly, which is the poor cousin to the slut.

For all my potential punter knew, I could have been a slut. I really could. Maybe he’s ahead of the White Van Man curve. Maybe this man knew what, in our hearts, everyone should really know – what you wear no longer has anything to do with your sex life.

Last week, while out at a themed club night in Cork City with a friend, I spotted a group of girls dressed in tiny tops, hot pants and all the trademarks of a Zoo Magazine Roadshow. One girl was wearing a micro-mini, strapless black dress, stockings and suspenders, a detachable shirt collar and a pair of Playboy bunny ears. She had matching tattoos on the backs of her thighs. All I could think about that outfit was, “Well, THAT’S not the most historically accurate costume for a 1960’s night. Good effort though”.

She was having good, clean fun with her friends. She wasn’t behaving like a slut – no screaming about how much she loves multiple, unsheathed penises, no soliciting men for money, no fervent hope expressed that a sex tape (or some bodily fluids) would soon be leaked. None of the group behaved like that.

She didn’t look like a nun – but why should we care? It’s none of our business. It’s hers and hers alone. Clothes will always be signifiers of self-expression. However, the word ‘slut’ will not always be a bad thing – so maybe we should stop using a person’s wardrobe choices to evaluate who is and isn’t one, ok?

 

The Reading List: DIY Couture

I love sewing, I really do. I have a sewing machine. Using it for an hour or so is the equivalent of a day of yogic breathing, it is just that calming (providing a needle doesn’t snap and jab me in the face). My trouble is that, when it comes to making clothes, my measuring tapes will go the way of my kirby grips and one sock in every pair and disappear into some kind of limbo, never to be seen again.

This is the first thing that I noticed about ‘DIY Couture’ by Rosie Martin. No need for a tape measure, no patterns to cut out, no dreaded toiles. And yet, these are no sad sack dress DIYs; you can make real, wearable clothes with simple variations in almost no time at all. It’s the wave of the future.

After an initial introduction showing you the (very) basic skills you’ll have to master, Martin shows you how to make ten different items, from a simple a-line skirt to more complicated garments.  We can also see eight different variations of each item, which have been helpfully split into collections.  Above is the delightfully whimsical tea picnic collection, but there’s also a clean monochromatic collection, a disco colour-clash collection that wouldn’t look out of place in American Apparel and a classic neutral collection, amongst others.

The layout and design is simple and faultless.  Instructions are clear, concise and amply illustrated – none of this ‘attach section c to subsection a and did we mention you need an serger?  No? Well, tough’ stuff that can so often pop up in so-called step-by-step sewing books.

What’s also great about this book is the room for manoeuvre.  If you’re a creative person who has little to no training and wants to make her own clothes while putting her own creative stamp on things, this is a great place to start.  If you’re an experienced seamstress (and the vast majority of us are not), this book may not be for you.

DIY Couture: Create Your Own Fashion Collection‘ is by Rosie Martin and published by Laurence King.  It is out now.