Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Street Corner Soul: songs of love and lust and hopes and dreams

Since I started living by myself, I've got really bad about sending myself to sleep: there's always another pretty thing to look at on the internet, something to tidy away, another chapter to read. Sometimes the bleary eyes and dark circles the next day are well worth it, as with the case of Street Corner Soul.


It's a four part series on early doo-wop bands narrated by the mighty Ronnie Spector, which 6 Music put out at midnight each night last week (though I think it was on Radio 2 before then). Please be quick and catch it on iPlayer.


Utterly fascinating stuff, these songs from the 1940s and 50s have remained with us thanks to their use on films (thanks Dirty Dancing), TV shows and countless covers, though the names of the bands that originally sang them have largely slipped out of public knowledge. And what names they have! The Flamingos, The Zodiacs, The Cadillacs...


The stories behind the songs are no less evocative, with descriptions of how Alan Freed's groundbreaking radio show use to blare out of windows in a scorching New York summer. Or Ronnie herself coming face-to-face with her teen idol Frankie Lymon (of 'Why Do Fools Fall in Love?' fame) only to discover he stank of booze. There's also more than a fair share of tragedy and heartbreak that goes on too.


There's no playlists given on the 6 Music site so I had a go at compiling my own on Spotify here. Let me know any important omissions and mistakes. And enjoy. As Ronnie says, these bands were singing songs of "love and lust and hopes and dreams". What more could you possibly want?

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Prints charming

If you follow me in Pinterest, you'll know how much I enjoy a good pattern on a dress. Woodland creatures, beasts from the sea and even the Eastenders map: the shops are overflowing with them at the moment. Here's just a few of my favourites, going from the left:

So why, in the midst of all this frock frivolity, is the thing I'm craving most for my wardrobe this Autumn is this?

Perhaps this Autumnal style crisis is to be a regular thing? I blame The (otherwise excellent) Gentlewoman for making me feel like I should dress like a grown-up. I'm going to lock myself in a room with a copy of Lula until I'm back to my old self and feel like wearing cacti and perfume bottles across my chest once more...

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Last-Year Reads: Magic Names of Fashion by Ernestine Carter

Sometimes, with the huge volumes of superlatives and glossy pictures surrounding the world of fashion, you just want someone to tell it as it as. That's the joy of Ernestine Carter's Magic Names of Fashion. Published in 1980, Carter's authoritative and intelligent writing make it a joy to read 32 years later.

 Carter started her career in MoMA in the late 1920s, before moving to London with her British husband. She became fashion editor for Harper's Bazaar in 1946 and went on to write for the Observer. By 1968 she was associate editor for The Sunday Times and was responsible for establishing the position of fashion within the paper, as well as supporting Britain's emerging designers in the 60s. Magic Names of Fashion utilizes her extensive fashion knowledge, comprising neat extended profiles of important fashion designers, editors and publishers, starting with Beau Brummell and running through to Yves Saint Laurent. It's a great primer into each of the names, welding descriptions of their personality with their creations.

The book is unillustrated, except for witty illustrations by Maureen Bourke at the start of each profile, such as the Schiaparelli example above. This means you're left with Carter's descriptive power to pinpoint the magic quality of each designer. Thankfully, this is something she seems to hone in on with a killer instinct: Chanel is "an extraordinary woman who raised egocentricity to an art", while Pucci's "special achievement was to change the look of women under the sun". Her profiles extend to the fashion media too. There's a fascinating section on Edna Woolman Chase editorship at Vogue and Carmel Snow's at Harper's Bazaar and what they each did to change the face of each magazine.

But what makes these names magic? In the introduction she argues that "such personalities much be so positive, so individual, so incorrigibly original that their imprint is immediately recognisable and indelibly stamped not only on clothing but on the taste and style of living of their time." It's this logic which leads to the inclusion - alongside names of masters like Dior, Balenciaga and Worth - of Laura Ashley. Laura Ashley, who to contemporary eyes, seems to rely on a very conservative, almost regressive look, begins to sound fresh again through the words of Carter, if not also timely for 2012: "Women were beginning to be sick of the decadent pastiches of the Thirties, the Art Deco tat, the second-hand clothes look. They were ready for the clean country look of a more innocent past. Laura Ashley was the answer."

Her analysis of then-contemporary fashion is also spot on. 'Star Spangled Fashion' puts Calvin Klein - though by then a millionaire still not at the height of his late 80s/90s fame - alongside the Bonnie Cashin and Claire McCardell as proponents of "America's unique contribution to fashion": "careless ease."

Though the book end with a note about the "confused state of the world and fashion", you finish the book feeling anything but confusion. It's written with such clarity and authority it makes you wish there was a similar survey available to so deftly guide you through the different fashion names clamouring for attention today.

Buy this from Last-Year Girl Books on Etsy

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Last-Year Buy: Kinder Shoes from Topshop

What I'm stomping around in this Autumn: Kinder shoes from Topshop. I keep describing them as my school shoes, although I think I'd have collapsed with over-excitement if I had actually been allowed to wear patent shoes to school. When you're a grown-up you get to wear patent whenever you want which, I've found out since buying these shoes, is quite a lot.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Last-Year Shops: By Retro, Istanbul

I spend a lot of time in second-hand stores. More so than ever recently because I've been working on an exciting soon-to-be revealed new project. I thought I'd try and write about some of my favourite stores, or the more unusual ones, as a new series as this kind of information can be surprisingly frustrating to pin down even in the days of t'internet.

Second-hand or 'vintage' stores divide people into different types of shoppers: do you like everything to be shifted through before it hits the shop floor, and only the best items displayed? Or do you prefer a rummage, searching through piles of stuff to pull out a dusty number which requires some repairs but then will be perfect? Do you care what era the item came from, or anything about where it was made? Or is it enough for it to look nice? I'm probably a mixture of all of the above.

(Don't worry I will get to the ceramic bunny wearing sunglasses at the top of the post.)

My first shop By Retro in Istanbul is a slightly odd example but I'll start here as it made me really question what I liked about second-hand stores. It made me realise that my favourite kind of second-hand store are the ones where I can picture myself wearing things. That sounds a ridiculous revelation, I know, as everyone likes shops where they find stuff they want to wear. I'll try and elaborate. We were walking down one of Istanbul's main shopping streets on holiday when I spotted the sign to By Retro. It said it was the world's (THE WORLD'S!) second biggest vintage store.* The heart palpitations started along with the mental calculations of how much I could justify spending, as I pictured row upon row of delicious cotton dresses, exquisite sixties shifts and 70s numbers to float about in till the end of my days.

Inside, it was undeniably large. It took a fair while to walk around and look through but ultimately I left feeling disappointed. Turkish fashion - especially historically - is different to my taste and to the kind of British and American vintage I'm so used to seeing. As a whole, the selection of clothes available were a really interesting rebalance to the Paris/London/New York dress history we're told over and over again. As a predominantly Muslim country, things are more modestly cut and, while I don't think of myself as a skimpy kind of dresser, it looks like I am by Turkish standards. If I'd wanted a long woollen winter coat, I would have been spoilt for choice while Libertines fans would have been in raptures over the military jackets. To be honest, I'd have a great time dressing for Abigail's Party here. The only things I really could picture from here in my wardrobe were the accessories: shoes, bags and - my only purchase - the sunglasses pictured at the top of my post. The lenses seem extra dark by British standards - probably because the sun can be extra bright in Turkey. I like to imagine them on a 70s woman, glamorous in a scarf and lots of gold jewellery, enjoying her cigarette.

The cigarette bit is probably inspired by the staff at By Retro who were all puffing away, despite the fact they were in a basement stuffed full of polyester and other highly flammable materials. That's possibly another reason why I didn't linger as long as I might have hoped. But, in the world of vintage, it made me realise how important my own cultural background is to how I see clothes, in thinking about what I might want to wear and also in imagining the back stories for the clothes as I look at them: I could picture the lady wearing the sunglasses so I bought them, while almost everything else failed to spark my imagination as it fell outside of my frame of references. Perhaps I'm not so open-minded about clothes as I like to think I am.

This was the first time I've visited a dedicated vintage store outside of the UK, USA or western Europe, so I wondered if any of you had similar experiences?

The rest of this series will be about shops where you'd want to buy lots of things, promise...

* is this true? I haven't been able to verify it. And, if it is, what's the world's biggest? And what's your favourite? 

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Last-Year Buy: Fish and Chips plate

These plates, which I wrote about over at Domestic Sluttery, are completely to blame for this new gluttonous addition to my collection of ceramics. I'm salivating at the very thought of haddock and chips, bread and butter and mushy peas.

I found this at one of West Norwood's Emmaus charity shops, a fantastic source of second-hand fripperies. Also purchased was a copy of Kurt Vonnegut's Galapagos, though sadly not a replacement for the decanter which had been the motivating force behind this particular charity shop crawl. Who knew a mis-aimed dart had the force to smash a glass decanter?

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Holiday reading

Aside from good food and new sights, one of my favourite things about holidays is the opportunity to read. I mean reading in huge chunks and not coming up for air, the way you devoured books as a kid.

All the beautiful scenery and lots of games of travel scrabble meant I only got through four (!) books this holiday. Picked slightly randomly the stories which dealt with things like relationship break-downs, depression, car crashes and domestic abuse perhaps weren't all ideal 'holiday' reading (something of a tradition of mine - I read the Jean Rhys biography while on a beach in Crete), but all come recommended. Maybe don't read them back-to-back though.

Girl Reading by Katie Ward ended up in my luggage thanks to it being the Domestic Sluttery book club book. You can read more about it over there but basically it's a series of short stories, each based around a different painting or photograph of a girl reading. The final story then attempts to draw them all together but, probably purposefully, leaves more questions unanswered than it solves. My interest in the book really varied story to story - I loved the Victorian spiritualists while all the contemporary references in the Shoreditch story made me want to gag a little.

Not pictured is Manhattan, When I Was Young, a biography by Mary Cantwell. Cantwell worked for Mademoiselle in New York in the 50s. It's less about this apparently dream lifestyle and more about her depression and the breakdown of her marriage. Beautiful and heartbreaking, she uses the apartments and the houses which she lived in to structure the story, capturing a now lost Manhattan. Her and her contemporaries are adorably in thrall to the glamour and excitement of Paris, and one of the episodes sees her and her husband, a book editor, flying over to meet with Alice B. Toklas.

Toklas and Gertrude Stein also appeared in my next book, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, the fictional account of Ernest Hemingway's first wife Hadley. If you've any interest at all in that period, it's completely fascinating and it made me want to go back to A Moveable Feast again to read Hemingway's original account of the episodes used to form The Paris Wife. His extreme masculine pigheaded self-righteousness made me want to throw the book across the room on quite a few occasions. Urgh.

Finally, The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles took me back to New York, this time in the 1930s. The story of Katey Kontent, a young flapper, it's something of a flit through jazz age society that's striving towards some greater point. Quite often unbelievable, frequently hilarious and never anything less than engrossing, I read it in its entirety on the plane home. London looked even greyer and duller by comparison by the time I finally looked up from the page.

And now I'm stumped for what to read next. I want something absorbing to get me through the rainy days and ever-longer evenings. Any suggestions?

Friday, 5 October 2012

Last-Year Travels: Turkey

I took a holiday: from this place, from work, from the rain. Needless to say, it was really nice. We  went to Turkey and travelled around for a couple of weeks going from Istanbul to the crazy lunar landscapes of Cappadocia, to the backpacker beach at Olympus and back up to the Istanbul again. 

Almost every view we saw, whether city or sea or landscape, seemed to be stunning. It's taking me a while to fall back in love with London's vistas again. 

I went up in my first ever hot air balloon over Goreme. Once I'd got the Half Man, Half Biscuit lyrics out of my head and got over my fear of heights, it was amazing. It's really gentle and not scary at all, even for scaredy cats like me. 

The colours in the Rose Valley were exquisite: my crappy camera does not do them justice. Beautiful, rippled, ice cream-like mountains. 

A little turtle. We saw these every time we went down to the beach at Olympus, nesting amidst the old ruins. We saw one of its big brothers too, on a day we went out on a boat, he was sticking his wise old head out of the sea. 

And Turkish tea, taken at every opportunity we could.

It all feels like another lifetime ago already. 
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