Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Last-Year Travels: Charleston Literary Festival

As deftly demonstrated by Virginia Nicholson’s book Among the Bohemians, many of the aspects we consider part of contemporary life, whether it is informal dining, the way we educate our children or seeing the decoration of our homes as a reflection of our personalities, is thanks to the pioneering examples of the ‘bohemians’ of the early twentieth century. This lifestyle is encapsulated in Charleston, the Sussex home of the artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister, and a destination for many of the Bloomsbury set.

Back then, the house welcomed the likes of J.M. Keynes and E.M. Forster, but now, thankfully, it is preserved for the hoi polloi and you don’t need to be terribly clever or witty or vaguely bohemian to be allowed entry, simply to be able to pay the necessary fee.

No photos are allowed within the house but its decoration still looks startling today. In the dining room, the dark walls with sponged silver details were still too much for some of the visitors in our group (I rather liked them), while throughout the house, baths and bookcases alike had been further artistically enhanced with bright colours. Sometimes this was done using very unsophisticated daubs; sometimes to build a scene of such finesse that would hang pride of place in a gallery, if it weren’t still attached to a bed. All of those various pieces were a reminder that the artists weren’t creating these pieces to sell: they were simply creating for themselves and the way they wanted to live. Around the house were examples of the immensely desirable textiles Grant designed for the Omega workshops, and ceramic tea sets he had designed for Harrods, prompts that revealed that even the commercial had a place in bohemia.

We were told how cold the house was to live in and, as rain hurled down and lighting flashed outside, it was noticeable how dark it could be too, isolated here in the heart of the Sussex countryside. The twist is that they could only afford to choose to live this Spartan existence thanks to the money of Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell’s husband, who, with the onset of the Second World War, eventually moved into the house too. They were also supported in living their ideals by a host of servants, cooking, cleaning and maintaining the apparent beautiful abandon of the garden.

Charleston had been on my to-visit list probably since I first learnt about it as a student. The reason for finally making the non-so-testing pilgrimage was its literary festival. It’s a suitably inspiring setting for such a festival, and it was fun to speculate on the number of bohemian great and great-great grandchildren and nieces and nephews were in the audience. Rachel Cooke was speaking about Her Brilliant Career (which I reviewed back here), along with Ben Watt, discussing his beautiful book about his parents, Romany and Tom (and also on my list of books I’ve read this year), chaired by the historian David Kynaston, author of several impressive – in weight as well as content – books about Britain in the 1940s and 50s.

I had found reading Her Brilliant Career unexpectedly inspiring, and had pressed it on friends, hoping they would discover that aspect too. I was pleased to here this was part of Cooke’s intention in writing the book, to show younger generations what bold, determined and sometimes difficult women could achieve. It felt good to be reintroduced to this dynamic collection of women. Along with Ben Watt’s family story, it was a reminder just what a powerful influence the war was. It seems stupid to say something so obvious, but for these young people coming of age around the war, it proved to be a huge catalyst to push them to look for something different in their lives, whether a career, a family or simply escape.

I was reminded of this post during the questions. Cooke wrote her book as a researcher, someone who was born long after the fifties was over, looking to challenge some of the lazy assumptions about the decade that exist today. Because her findings didn’t always match up with the experiences of the audience, many of whom had lived through the decade, her conclusions were pulled part and shouted down (a rebuttal in itself of the idea that the 1950s produced a generation of meek and mild housewives). As one woman rhapsodized about the difference a grammar school education had given to her and her friends, Kynaston had to gently remind her that this experience was still only open to a tiny minority of the population. Judging by the reactions of this audience, passions run high when your own personal history is challenged by ‘History’, as it is written down in newspapers and books. I wonder how the original bohemians would find the many interpretations of their history that exist today, not least in the hundreds of visitors that come and troop around their home each year.

Friday, 16 May 2014

What is British Style?

The Union Jack gets a 60s makeover. Via

In Bettina Ballard’s In My Fashion, I encountered an unfamiliar woman. It was the “English woman of fashion”, who “when she is right, she is very very right, outshining anyone at a country race meeting or pouring tea in impeccable tweeds before the fire in a country house … there is no woman in the world who can wear a ball dress and a tiara with her distinction.” Who was this woman? Certainly no one I recognise today. And, if she was doing it very very right, who, by implication, was doing it very very wrong? Do tweeds and a ball gown really define the “English woman of fashion”?

British debutantes on their way to a ball, 1953. Via

Dior agrees with Ballard. He writes, “British women know perfectly how to dress for sport and holidays. For these occasions the world has to learn from them.” And there is similar again, in The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Good Taste, in an essay by Marjorie Beckett: “No one looks better in sports or country clothes. It is not just a matter of good British woollens and first-class tailoring; we choose instinctively the right accessories. Safe in the lap of tradition, we have no doubts about the right walking shoes, sensible stay-ons, the muted colours of shooting tweed…” This was written in 1958, four years after Dior’s quote and two years before Ballard’s but there is an element that still rings true today: that British women are most comfortable with fashion when they know what is expected of them. As the German journalist Karl Silex wrote in 1933, “The Englishwoman never, as long as she lives, gets rid of the idea of uniform in her clothes.” But us poor English woman – at our very best appropriate, never reaching the dizzy heights of chic! It’s hard not to feel insulted by Anne Scott-James’ assertion that “The English, alas, hate fashion” or Pierre Balmain’s statement that “What I love about English women is that they do not really care for clothes.”

Luella's take on traditional English style, via

Is this actually a sly compliment from Balmain? After all, his chief mannequin, the British model Bronwen Pugh, was praised for her “habit of slightly disarranging her hair as she entered the salon, giving herself a nonchalant air that is a sign of supreme English elegance”. There are several British writers seem to suggest this deliberate imperfection is actually an essential component of any ‘British style’. Hardy Amies writes, “Just as our great country houses always look lived in and not museums, so our ladies refuse to look like fashion plates”, while Cecil Beaton notes that English women “appreciate something with a patina on it,” as well as our love of picking out clothes “that suggest a mood and create an atmosphere”. Perhaps it’s because we are so aware of the codes of dressing, we have the most fun when we are trying to subvert them. Luella Bartley, who devoted an entire book to dissecting English style, made her name as a designer by reinventing the most British of items, ranging from the ball gown to the hacking jacket.

Teddy boy and girl photographed by Ken Russell, 1955. Via (also do read the article for some great quotes)

But these ‘essential’ items of British style are all also associated with the upper class. I doubt that in the fifties the average woman had a ball gown or a set of country tweeds hanging in her wardrobe. Karl Silex notes that it takes “an enormous amount of petty cash” to be well dressed in England. “It is all too expensive for the office girl.” Another great strand of British style is our great street style, the tribes of Teddy Boys, Mods, Punks and Northern Soulers who band together with the attention of standing out. This is a British tradition every much as dressing for Ascot. On a visit to a pub in Wapping in the 1930s, Schiaparelli remarked that the “simplicity and inventiveness of what used to be called in England the ‘lower working classes’ was inspiring.”

Who’s left out of this picture? According to Mary Tuck in The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Good Taste, it’s the aspiring “Class Bs”, “the only main English social group not to have developed an individual style of their own; probably because these Daily Telegraph reading, Surrey-dwelling climbers so intensely wish to be Class A that they cultivate the Class A look with assiduous and successful care.”

When tradition meets a bit of inventive subversion, it can create a powerfully unique look. At its best, according to Luella Bartley, it “is totally natural, fiercely individual and girlishly contrary.” All very fun for us British woman, getting dressed in the morning. For fashion as a business, however, you can see the problems in exporting this style. If our style is, whether we like it or not, built around class, how do you sell it to people outside that system? Anarchic fashion that, in Alexander McQueen’s words, “refuses to bow to commerce”?

Biba's take on tweeds, 1960s, via

Ballard hints in her book that the answer might lie in ready-to-wear. And, of course, a few years later, the youthful energy of sixties British street style made a global impact. However, with popularity, comes the terror of over-commercialisation (would an American designer, for example, share this same dread, I wonder?). Kennedy Fraser feared the triumph of the bland when she mourned the death of Big Biba in 1977; the street came up with Punk. Luella wrote of her fear that British fashion is losing its edge in the twenty-first century: I’m struggling to find a convincing counter-argument.

Vivienne Westwood ball gown, at 'Fashion for the Brave', 2010

‘Style’ is now disseminated so rapidly, it can be almost impossible to tell if a photographed comes from New York, London, Paris, Helsinki or Melbourne. Does this help us be braver with our style, to step away from our uniforms, or does it make us blander? In a recent issue of British Vogue, in an article about the appeal of British models abroad, the photographer Tim Walker stated, “Because we are an island, a punk nation, we are constantly challenging accepted notions of beauty.” It’s this punk spirit, which I find most invigorating about British style, whether reading about a Teddy Girl, or designers such as Lucile who insisted on doing things their own way. And, while I don’t know how we can maintain it, I know the world would be a duller place if we lost it.

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Monday, 12 May 2014

Monday Detail: The Hawaiian Shirt

3. The Hawaiian Shirt

Hawaiian shirts, 2014, from Saint Laurent and Sandro

Take a look at the men’s casual shirts section on Mr Porter and you’ll see it’s been livened up a bit, thanks to some Hawaiian-style prints from brands including Saint Laurent, Sandro, AMI and Beams Plus. Junya Watanabe is at it too, as is Prada.

Why the Hawaiian shirt and why now? Some attribute it to the embracing of the style by discerning hipsters (and Hedi Slimane is therefore continuing the finest YSL tradition of elevating streetwear). I personally like to attribute it to Don and Megan Draper’s Hawaiian sojourn at the start of season six of Mad Men.

One of the best collector’s guides to Hawaiian shirts appears in Harriet Love’s 1982 Vintage Chic book, where she gives a brief history of the style before dispensing advice on finding the finest 1940s and 50s Hawaiian designs (silk or rayon, shorter than a regular shirt, carved coconut buttons) or the best of the American brands (mother-of-pearl buttons and perfectly matched patch pockets).

It’s also a reminder that even vintage is subject to trends – Hawaiian shirts must have been going through a revival at the time of writing, given the space she devotes to them. The prices are interesting to note too: from $85 for collectible shirt: over $100 for a silk shirt (despite this journalist’s insistence that a rayon shirt is somehow more genuine), and a forties Hawaiian shirt up to $140 (as comparison, she prices a 1950s Dior dress at $100). A 1950s rayon shirt, shown above, with a print very similar to one described in the book, recently sold on eBay for $310.88.

Alfred Shaheen, one of the designers attributed to popularising the Hawaiian shirt, also made womenswear using his company's hand-printed fabric. Prada used Hawaiian motifs in its 2014 Resort collection too. And Hawaiian-influenced women’s designs can also be bought for a lot less from the likes of River Island and ASOS. I like the kimono styling on the ASOS top – a reminder of the Japanese influence on Hawaiian shirts – and the cute pattern on this Traffic People dress.

How to wear an Hawaiian shirt today? Well, here are a few suggestions from Harriet Love (but I’m guessing a 1930s dangly fruit necklace won’t be quite so inexpensive anymore):
  • Hawaiian shirts are versatile and can be worn summer and winter, by men and women. 
  • Pair them with jeans, with white cotton shorts, or with anything linen in summer. 
  • Wear them all winter under a solid-color Shetland pullover, with the collar out. 
  • To contrast styles, to soften a conservative look, Asher Jason sometimes wears his red-blue-yellow-white palm tree and flower Hawaiian under his navy Cerutti suit, with a blue knitted tie and, for the fun of it, a yellow and blue printed  Roy Rogers cowboy handkerchief tucked in the jacket pocket. 
  • Wear a Hawaiian open to the waist over a pretty camisole with a simple white Edwardian petticoat. 
  • Try a fitted white-piqué vest over your shirt, wear it with navy or white pants or Bermuda shorts. 
  • Accessorize Hawaiian shirts inexpensively with thirties Deco jewellery. Examples: a red carved bangle bracelet ... a dangly fruit necklace ... colourful dress clips worn at the neck. 
  • Wear a soft solid-color or dungaree jacket over a Hawaiian shirt the soft, floppy collar falls nicely over the lapel. 
Or you could simply take a look through this gallery of famous Hawaiian shirt wearers for inspiration.

Previous Monday Details:
1. The Collar
2. The Boater

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Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Best of British Pathe: How To Model

As you might know, as from last month, British Pathe made their archive of over 85,000 films dating from the 1920s to the 70s available through YouTube. Some films date from even earlier - this film shows Paul Poiret arriving via plane into Britain with two of his mannequins in 1919. Needless to say, it's extremely easy to lose yourself hours simply searching through films.

Inspired by Teenage's edit of Teen-related highlights,  I've been trawling through to find the best fashion films. This selection relates to modelling and charm schools.

Britain's first charm school was founded by former model Lucie Clayton in 1928. 'Mannequins In The Making' dates from ten years later, although whether it's filmed in the UK or the States or both I'm not sure. Anyway, it's the earliest example I've found and includes several of the model school cliches: girls exercising in leotards, girls walking with books on their head, a way with a fan. In 1938, apparently the mantra was "You can't sell a gown with a frown". How modelling has changed!

Six years later, and the methods have changed very little. Girls exercising? Check. Books on head? Check. Way with a fan? Yes, indeed. The most interesting thing about this film is I'm almost certain it features Lucie Clayton herself (as pictured at the top of this post). Oh, and note the weird scarf around the face trick so they don't ruin their hair while changing. 

We're definitely at Lucie Clayton for this 1950 film, featuring more young gals exercising and perfecting techniques such as the court curtesy. The voiceover patronises with aplomb too, concluding with the killer "And we thought it was only men who worked".

This 1955 film takes place at John Wills' Fulham school. We may be in colour now, but still we get the obligatory exercise scene. Things have moved on a little however, the fan is replaced by an umbrella and the girls are also taught to pose for photographs.

American model schools are no less cliched it seems, although they get to go to school in swimsuits and frolic on the beach instead. This 1948 film was made in Miami, and here's another from Florida dating to the same year.

We're back at Lucie Clayton in Mayfair to learn a new lesson in 1958: specmanship. The designer Ronald Paterson has come to show them how to wear some of the latest models in spectacles. And, if you can stop watching the weird and wonderful frames for a moment, look at the elegant glove and pearl-wearing audience. It's hard to imagine Jean Shrimpton attending the school just two years later.

Do you remember Cherry Marshall? We go inside her Mayfair school in 1964. Beware, the sexist voiceover is back, as are the books on heads. There are some bonuses however: amid the hideous make-up lesson, you can glimpse contouring done sixties style. And at about 2.34 you can see a young Grace Coddington - one of Cherry Marshall's most famous models.

Finally, to readdress the balance a bit, let's finish up by observing some German male models in training in 1965. Although my German isn't really up to scratch, I definitely heard the words "sex appeal", not something I think I'd necessarily associate with the footage. But I'm pleased to report that these men also get to study the vital art of walking with an umbrella, and with a book on their head.

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Monday, 5 May 2014

Monday Detail: The Boater

2. The Boater

"A straw hat with a straight brim and ribbon band; originally worn with blazer and flannels while boating." Janey Ironside, A Fashion Dictionary, 1968

English picnickers, c.1900

Even today, when very few people decide to wear a hat without a sense of deliberateness, the boater is one of the most costume-y of hats. It can be associated with school uniforms, theatre productions, gondoliers, sailors, barbershop quartets, seaside promenades, Anne of Green Gables and, yes, boating.

Edwardian lady golfers. Via

While its origins seem to be slightly muddled, with some tracing it to Venice, some linking it to sailing boats, or – as Janey Ironside does above – to jolly leisure pursuits, there’s no escaping how popular the boater was in the second half of the nineteenth century. Straw hats were worn by men and women of all social classes, and school children too, generally as summer wear. In the United Kingdom, Luton ‘the boater borough’, became a boom town from 1840 to 1900 because of the popularity of its straws. And the town’s fortunes also declined as hat wearing became less popular throughout the twentieth century (although this British Pathé film shows the construction of a straw boater in the town in 1952).

Boaters by Missoni, Topshop and River Island

The boater is back in fashion again, albeit in a much lesser way. Celine included an interpretation with an exaggerated crown in its Pre-Autumn 2013 collection, while Missoni have created a version with one of their signature knits as a trim. High street versions are also available from places including River Island and Topshop. However, it’s hard to work out how to wear a boater without looking like you are about to burst into a show tune at any moment. Harriet Love’s advice from 1982 that, “they look modern on women when worn with a sailor-style shirt, with a pleated skirt or shorts" today seems horribly dressing-up box. Perhaps it's better to leave the nautical theme well alone and instead wear the boater with a glorious dress that can live up to this particular hat's promise of summer larks and lazy days. An outfit suitable for a public holiday, such as today.

Hardy Amies said this about the boater in 1964: "There have been several attempts to revive the popularity of this hard straw hat; all without success. It is better left to elegant fishmongers, and Harrovians."You have been warned.

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Friday, 2 May 2014

My vintage fashion books in Mollie Makes!

I have a piece about my collection of fashion books in the latest issue of Mollie Makes, with a selection of my favourites, old and new, pictured. There's lots to inspire in this issue of the magazine: a placket DIY from Tilly Walnes of Tilly and the Buttons, a glimpse inside the gorgeous home of Will Taylor of Bright Bazaar and a make your own book clutch bag tutorial.

As ever, there's a selection of vintage books for sale in my Etsy shop: recently updated to include a 1950s Penguin editor of Dior by Dior and Nancy Hall-Duncan's History of Fashion Photography amongst other delights. I'd love for you to go and take a look.

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Thursday, 1 May 2014

Last-Year Reads: In My Fashion by Bettina Ballard

I thought wouldn’t like Bettina Ballard. Her name and reputation as American Vogue's fashion editor in Paris, continually crops up in the pages of twentieth-century fashion books: through the people who knew and admired her, such as Edna Woolman Chase and Carmel Snow, or via the quotes in reference titles that confirm her importance to fashion in this period. For those outside of fashion’s inner circle, she appears both impressive and intimidating. The fact that her autobiography, In My Fashion, published in 1960 is ridiculously hard and expensive to find only seems to confirm this impression.

So, once I managed to obtain a copy that wasn’t the same price as a trip to Paris and started reading, I was really surprised. Ballard is modest, she is charming and, gasp, actually likable. She manages to pull off this feat while revealing Paris and its fashions, mannequins and personalities as it really was. This is a true insider’s account of the fashion world in the first half of the twentieth century.

Bettina Ballard directing a shoot, 1951. Via

However, Ballard is at her most relatable when she is still an outsider in Paris, sent over by American Vogue mainly because she can speak French. She succeeds in capturing the period’s hard, brittle glamour, a time that “was not an era of gentle friendships or simple living” and when styles lived or died according to the whims of “the small egocentric group of women”, such as Baba de Faucigny-Lucinge “about whom fashion revolved”. But Ballard isn’t part of this inner circle and is incredibly lonely. She sustains herself through the love of her work and through the fantasy of what Paris could be – the kind of imaginative thinking that underpins the best fashion magazines – sending intimate gossipy notes back to the New York office about who wore what to parties she was never invited to in the first place.

Over time Ballard is accepted, if not welcomed, by these style leaders and she gradually becomes a little more ‘Vogue’ (for, although she confesses her admiration for both Carmel Snow and Diana Vreeland at Harper’s, Ballard is Vogue through and through). There’s the episode where she wakes up – after the war has been declared and she’s still in Paris – and the first thing she does is scold her personal maid for cleaning her shoes with the wrong kind of brush. Or there’s when she joins the Red Cross in the World War and drags in the above poor maid to pack her footlocker for her.

Bettina Ballard readies models for a fashion shoot, 1951. Via

Post war, Ballard returns back in Paris as soon as possible and is placed to give wonderful first hand accounts of the likes of Dior, Chanel and Balenciaga and what it’s like to work with some of the world’s most famous photographers, from Irving Penn, whose shoots are “psychological struggles for everyone involved”, to Norman Parkinson, with whom taking pictures is “a delight if neither the editor nor the mannequin was averse to being part of a circus side show”. She also captures the pressure of the couture shows where Ballard has to satisfy her editors, the designers and the photographers. Oh yes, and the mannequins, with their gift for creating their own “terrific dramas”, such as naughty Suzy Parker who burnt “Fiona Walter’s dress with a cigarette when Horst discovered Fiona’s tawny Nefereti beauty and preferred it to Suzy’s redheaded Texas beauty.”

It’s fascinating to read Ballard’s recollections of this period back-to-back with Eric Newby’s. She reminds us again just how dismal things were for poor Britain post-war: “The real enemies of the London couture were the English climate, the rationing that lingered on, and the fact that too little paint was available to freshen the fact of London. The press and buyers, spoiled by the beauty and ample food in Italy and by the well fed arrogance of France and Spain, were depressed and a little embarrassed to find England still struggling out from under the war.” Exactly the kind of insight that makes this book so popular with fashion historians.

I was more enamoured by the accounts of life pre-war as, regardless of how glamorous and glitzy her job became, was Ballard. The final chapter, “An Epitaph to Elegance”, mourns the death of dressing-up as a true art. Women are “better dressed than they have ever been – and certainly better informed about fashion” but, she goes on, “there is no mystery to any of this.” Ballard laments that, “women now ask for nothing better than to be led, bullied, dictated to, and given as little freedom of choice as possible.” This was written in the late 1950s, so I wonder how she’d feel today - when more women have greater access to more fashion than ever before, but it’s ridiculously hard to identify the truly influential and individual style setters. How true these words from her closing paragraph still ring when you think of the breathless reporting surrounding each new fashion season: “with no time to lavish on fashion, no place to store it away with loving regrets … we whirl with speed and change through fashion light years that leave little or no impression of elegance in our lives.”

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