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: 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

photo (2)

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 14/11/13: It’s the Emergency Outfit


– 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 10/10/13:Big Bad Branding


Kids love the darndest things. They love selfies, they love Molly and they love Alexander Wang. I’m far too much of a snob (or too terrified of criticism) to post selfies and I don’t know who or what Molly is but I’m sure one of my friends will tell me eventually (I hear that Miley Cyrus loves dancing with her).

Alexander Wang, though. That’s a different proposition altogether.

Alexander Wang is by far the coolest designer out there – and by ‘cool’ I mean ‘very, very popular’. His clothes are easy to wear and for the most part, easy to produce. He has invented or popularised several major trends, is in his second season as designer for legendary fashion house Balenciaga and is a major contributor to the global takeover of the ‘leggings as trousers’ look. From this we can at least glean that while Alexander Wang is incredibly talented, productive and well able to tap into the zeitgeist, he is not Fashion Infallible.

Alexander Wang’s most recent collection for his eponymous label was roundly hailed as a tour de force – yet again. The clothes fit his usual remit; slouchy sportswear with unexpected details in tones of black, white and grey. The most striking of his pieces was a white sweatshirt bearing the Parental Advisory logo. It was an interesting addition. Now that CDs have disappeared, surely the Parental Advisory logo should have disappeared too?

Without delving too deeply into the possibilities, the Parental Advisory logo worn on a woman’s chest is at best, a heavy-handed nod to truly awful, cliched logo t-shirts and 90’s ladette-style coy double entendres. At worst, it’s the micro-trend that’s going to annoy the bejaysus out of people like me – that is, people who are very easily annoyed – for at least four months.

This collection was presented about three weeks ago. Already, I have spotted three or four lost-looking waifs bearing the Advisory logo on their very PG selves.
There’s no way that I could possibly guarantee this, but I absolutely, 100% guarantee that at least fifty such designer copycat sweatshop sweatshirts are winging their way from China to Cork at this very second. It’s cool, it’s fresh, it’s young. It’s whatever word of the moment that you want it to be.

However, one has to examine the mechanisms of a youth culture where a twenty-six year old (that me then) can remember the trend quite vividly the first time around. Does anyone else remember Limp Bizkit and balding frontman Fred Durst’s predilection for red baseball caps and t-shirt bearing a very familiar logo? Nu-metal was the subculture that spawned the trends of today.

As a fashion statement, nu-metal clothing needs to be popped on a compost heap and literally recycled, not shorn of a few details and repackaged as a brand new trend. Youth culture (and come to think of it, Alexander Wang’s designs) tend to look forward, not back. Hindsight is 20/20 – and logos are embarrassing on par to leggings worn as trousers.

Licentiate Column 12/09/13: Risky Business

– The offending skirt in question, from Topshop.

I have a few tabs open on my very outdated internet browser as I type this. One is Facebook, the other is a line to a very popular online shopping site. I am looking at an a-line skirt. The a-line is the most sensible and flattering of all the skirts. It suits almost everyone – short ladies such as myself should probably wear mini lengths though. It is seldom considered an advantage when your skirt makes your legs look like chess pieces – and not particularly important chess pieces at that.

The only thing is this: The skirt is holographic. Properly holographic, like tinfoil with a rainbow running through it. It’s the wet, rigid plasticky material that Nineties kids will fondly remember as being the material for some seriously shiny pencil cases. At best, I would look like a castoff from the original series of Star Trek.

And yet, there it is and here I am and there is my mother kindly offering to buy me something nice before I pick up sticks and move to London, probably forever.

I might as well get the skirt. It’ll only be the second biggest risk that I’ll have taken that week, the first getting on a hastily-scheduled Ryanair flight to Luton. It could be a bad decision, but it’s so inviting. It looks so different and new and good. I’m talking about the skirt, that is.

Fashion and style are two very different things. Style is what you wear. It’s judged as good or bad by other people and you can choose to believe any opinion you want – but they’re probably all valid. Fashion is commerce. It is made up of trends that keep the business generating gigantic wads of cash and even more gigantic piles of clothes that are usually made in Third World countries in not very nice factories and workshops.

‘Trend’ isn’t a great word. The correct word is probably ‘risk’, for every trend you follow there is an inherent risk that you’ll look ridiculous and somehow outside of yourself.

Some risks will pay off. Maybe I’ll buy the holographic skirt and, distracted by the sun’s reflection off the material, someone in London will be so dazzled by my appearance that s/he will offer me my dream job, or at the very least, a sizeable Amazon voucher. Maybe, because of the skirt, someone will see something outgoing and visionary in me that I couldn’t previously express and I’ll make a new friend. Maybe it’ll just look kinda cool. Or maybe i’ll just look like a retro Sixties throwback on a detour from the Vulcan planet. Who know? It’s hard to calculate the risk involved.

I left my beloved Cork for a job before. That job did not work out. But I took the risk and accepted the consequences. Now, I take another risk. I take risks every day, and so do you. It might be as small as buying a skirt, it might be as life changing as moving country. Either way, I wish you luck, and I hope that you wish me luck too.

Licentiate Column 29/08/13: The Night of the Short Shorts

– Courtney Stodden, age 19. Courtney, I salute you as a sartorial inspiration to teens everywhere. I really do. Pic via a website called ‘Hawt Celebs’ – yes, really.

There’s a lot to be said for female permissiveness these days. Actually, wait, there’s a lot to be said ABOUT female permissiveness these days, the loudest bleatings often coming from men and women who still think that society at large is the boss of the female body and not the female herself. Similarly, parents can and will police what their children wear, with varying degrees of success.

I’m from Tralee, a fact that I don’t shout about in this column because a) It’s not Cork and b) It’s really not Cork. Everyone knows the Rose of Tralee. It is the original version of Father Ted’s Lovely Girls competition, except with drinking on the street, a blanket bar exemption and an overpriced, oversubscribed funfair in a carpark.

I’m an old hand at the Rose and don’t really partake in the festivities anymore. Still, I like to wander around the town and indulge in a spot of people watching. Observing people opens your mind to a lot of new ideas. One walk around the funfair and all I came away thinking was, “How the hell do all those teenage girls get through the parental barrier and out the door in those shorts?’

Hot pants. Proper bum-baring, arse-out, hello-world-this-is-my derriere short shorts. All the kids are wearing them. I’ve never felt so out of touch in my life, except maybe for the time I tried to engage a friend’s daughter in a conversation about my favourite member of One Direction (It’s Liam, by the way. So underrated).

I felt a little disconcerted and not a little bit scandalised, in a sort of conservative, reactionary Daily Mail sort of a way. They’re so young! Why aren’t they gambolling through verdant green fields instead, like sheep?

It’s hard to be a teenager. Your brain goes all fuzzy and you can’t do what you want and the slow dawning realisation that no-one truly understands you makes choosing what to wear a matter of little consequence. You wear something because your friends are wearing it, despite how uncomfortable it might make other people feel.

But really, it’s not the fault of these girls that we feel so uncomfortable. It’s our own fault. We’re so, so uncomfortable as a society with the notion of young women wearing provocative clothes and maybe, just maybe (deep breath) becoming sexually active (employ the smelling salts) that we push logic to the back of our minds and say that they’re scandalous, they’re slutty, they’re going to get themselves into big trouble if they go out dressed like that.

That’s ridiculous, really. Women don’t get into trouble because of their clothes, except in practical situations – you wouldn’t wear a bikini to work in a coal mine. Young women are especially vulnerable to criticisms so, in the future, if you see a child of yours going out the door dressed like THAT, maybe just tell her that she’ll get a cold in her kidneys.

Licentiate Column 04/07/13: Why Fashion is Not as Embarrassing as Vomiting at Mass


– eep! Via Getty images

I think that even the most ardent and unswerving fans of fashion will agree that it can get a bit weird sometimes.
From streakers on the Dolce and Gabbana catwalk (unfortunately, a rather cynical and calculated gambit to draw attention towards a German fashion blog) to the apparent ease with which we consumers can wear cheap clothes made, hopefully not literally, out of the blood, sweat and tears of sweatshop-bound children, it’s an industry chock full of uneasy dichotomies. Maybe that’s why so many people working in it look so anxious and thin. Maybe.

Fashion is one of those things that people just get into, like a tick burrowing industriously towards the spinal cord of your obsessions. Once you’re in, you’re in. You’re committed, you’re absorbed and you’re only vaguely aware that such an obsession is a foolish choice.

You can love fashion like a fairweather fan of football or music – pick a favourite team and stick to it, only get a sense of the big leagues and know nothing about the rising stars. Or, you could become impossibly embroiled in all the small subgenres of fashion, wanting to know more and more, realising all the time that what you know is never, ever enough. I had such a moment the other day when, moaning about a not great zombie flick starring a man whos name rhymes with Schmad Schmidt, a friend revealed that he had several hundred similar filmson a hard drive. How many had I seen in my entire life, maybe fifty or sixty? I was but a zombie dilettante. And I really love zombie films too. It was such a personal disappointment.

As personal disappointments go, it wasn’t on a par with vomiting in Mass, but it was ever-so-slightly rattling.
People are snobs. One of the great things about an obsession (and this includes a fashion obsession) is that it’s the glue in the bonding experience with like-minded people. However, it only works if you’re on the same level of knowledge as your peers. One misstep, one admission of doubt, can make you feel inferior and insecure – and that’s without delving into the bottomless abyss of the fashion and body image debate.

Obsession is both isolating and inclusive – it’s no different with fashion. But without obsession, there is no fashion, no art, no music – at least, nothing good anyway. The urge to collect and compile tidbits of information, to squirrel trivia away like a, eh, squirrel at a pub quiz is but one small part of human nature.

An obsessive nature can be useful. Obviously it’s not useful when it comes to things like washing your hands, or doing everything in even numbers, but it’s vital with your work and interests. In fashion, it’s no different – except maybe it’s a little more stylish.

Licentiate Column 23/05/13: Alligators in the Canaries


It is a rather balmy 22 degrees in Mogan, Gran Canaria and I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty hot where I am – conveniently and blessedly, I actually am in Mogan at the moment. The sun is shining, my shoulders have gone a stingy shade of emerging candy floss pink and I’m typing this column out on an iPhone, hoping that I’ll catch the autocorrect function when it substitutes the word ‘aunt’ for a different word mid-column.

I have been wearing the same t-shirt dress for three days (Christopher Kane for Topshop’s alligator design in case you’re curious). It’s pretty good. Great, in fact. I haven’t been on a sun holiday in almost five years.

In my family, I am known for being the lightest packer. One swimsuit, two dresses, a few t-shirts, a pair of shorts, a toothbrush, sunblock and six books compliment whatever I wore on the plane. The rest is incidental. Going on holidays is an opportunity to get away from everything, so it’s easy to make the choice to get away from clothes, which occupy a worrying amount of my daily thoughts. It’s also an opportunity to get away from the physical stuff – the sheer volume of the absolute shit we accumulate on a daily basis.

People buy multiples of the same types of clothes all the time. I have many, many grey Topman t-shirts. They fit really well. I also have rails of beautiful vintage dresses that I almost never wear. They are just too pretty and nice and impractical. It’s fashion, but for display purposes only.

Chatting with an ex online (there’s free wireless here and I get bored easily, OK?), he told me that his fairly extensive vintage football jersey collection was another example of such a ‘display only’ mindset. Clearly, these clothes, the jerseys and dresses, are meant to be worn. But we mean to keep them locked away, with the motivation of exclusivity or nostalgia. We love them. We are attached to them and we in return imagine that they are attached to us, becoming a part of our identities on the rare occasion that we put them on.

People buy multiples for two reasons. 1). The love of the item. 2). Because it suits them. My best friend has many floral a-line dresses because they look good on her and many many pairs of impractical shoes because she loves shoes. She doesn’t think these shoes constitute a ‘collection’ but they do, oh they do. Beyond the pleasure/pain of wearing them, she no doubt gets pleasure from just looking at them or having them on display in her room.

How attached are we to our clothes, really? Recently, an opportunity arose for me to sell my vintage collection – not just the dresses, everything. If you knew that your collection would go to a place where it would actually be worn as well as loved – as it was meant to be in the first place – would you let go? I’ve deferred for the moment, but the money would be helpful – and at least now on holidays I know I can live easily with a diminished wardrobe.