Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Spring racing fashion

Today is Melbourne Cup Day. Yesterday I did an interview about Cup Day, fashion, gender and consumerism with Lourdes García Larqué for 3CR Community Radio – it was broadcast on today's Breakfast program (I'll post the link once I know what it is). Since then, I've been thinking some more about the issues we discussed.

I find it hard to get excited about spring racing fashion because I believe racing is a cruel pastime with troubling inbuilt class politics. For me it's like enjoying the Duchess of Cambridge's fashion choices when she represents a system of inherited privilege that locks up much of the UK's wealth in the hands of a family whose only purpose in life is political symbolism.

Marieke Hardy wrote an opinion piece for The Drum back in 2010 calling the Melbourne Cup "a truly revolting spectacle". Hardy's anti-cruelty sentiments are laudable. There's really no excuse to celebrate the use of animals for entertainment and the miserable treatment that goes with this. I mean, Black Beauty, written to 'humanise' horses so readers could empathise with their lives as chattels, was first published in 1877.

But I was startled by – and uncomfortable with – Hardy's repeated, contemptuous references to racegoers' dress and behaviour. They dress "like a complete twat with scant regard to the weather forecast", with "streaky fake tan or idiotic, impractical headwear". And these "freezing cold idiot women toppling over in muddy, undignified heaps, the natty prats in matching comedy waistcoats blearily waving cans of Bundy about", will find themselves "eventually teetering home covered in a fine spray of puke and semen".

Wow. Apart from the language, we can tell this is about setting up boundaries between Us and Them because the magic word 'bogans' also comes out!

Hardy makes an unpleasant slippage here between class and cruelty, implying that finding racing cruel requires the same cultural capital as 'dressing well'. This seems odd considering that racing is 'the sport of kings' and is just as popular with toffs in the Birdcage, Members and corporate marquees as with the stumbling general-admission masses in their dishevelled apparel.

We go to the races seeking something glamorous, special, out of the ordinary… but too often, as Hardy ably sketches, we're instead put back in our class boxes and told we're dressing and behaving 'wrongly'. Tomorrow we'll see the traditional 'aftermath' photographs of people sprawled on the racecourse amid abandoned rubbish; of people throwing up; of women walking barefoot, having removed their high heels, and women huddled in their male companions' jackets, having not brought their own.

These are the shaming photos. Men's clothing is frowned upon as incompetently chosen: their suits, ties, shoes, hats and sunglasses are deemed 'loud', 'ill-fitting' and 'inappropriate'. Women are basically slut-shamed for dresses that are too short, too low-cut or that flip up in gusts of wind, and for dressing for vanity rather than practicality.

Janice Breen Burns, the former Age fashion editor, warned in 2006 that racewear is very different to fashion: "It's not as sexy, for one thing. It's neater, more controlled. Things match, knees are covered. Cleavage is a no-no."

Even last year, she tutted retrospectively about the dress of youthful racegoers: "poppets in string-strapped, knicker-flasher frocklets…had flooded out of the sparkly nightclubs and year-12 formals and on to trackside lawns." Still, JBB did concede that Fashions on the Field has since evolved.

In 2011 the Sydney Morning Herald's Luke Malone described spring racing season as "Schoolies for grown-ups": "The end result of a day sipping sparkling wine and sinking beers in the often sweltering heat sees men walking around with their flies undone and women with high heels in hand as if it were 2am after a night out in Kings Cross."

Malone's article is interesting because, while it also presents racegoers as infantilised consumer dupes, Malone suggests a certain festive permissiveness. As his anonymous friend says: "A couple of years back at Melbourne Cup I saw a pair getting hot and heavy right by the track - complete with hands-under-clothes action. There were easily 30 people watching and laughing yet it didn't seem all that inappropriate at the time. Everyone is always in good spirits. You never normally see people get that drunk without a fistfight breaking out."

These are the kinds of images that we often see at Melbourne Cup time; of all the days in Melbourne's spring racing carnival, it's the most carnivalesque. Because the Cup is a public holiday and is said to belong to 'everyone' – it's "the race that stops a nation" – many people feel they can dress and behave in ways that ridicule and upend traditional hierarchies and morals… including those of gender and taste. You'll see people dressed in drag, as animals, in parodies of traditional racewear and in matching outfits.

I'd suggest that perhaps these marquee race meetings offer 'ordinary' people opportunities to be carnivalesque by temporarily dressing as our 'betters', borrowing the dress and habits of the 1%. It's not just about the clothes, but also about betting, eating fancy foods such as chicken sandwiches and smoked salmon, and drinking champagne.

There aren't many similar events like these, for which to plan and enjoy wearing elaborate clothes and to consume conspicuously – especially for people who've left university and its cycle of balls and 21sts. Even at weddings, people rarely wear hats any more, and the evangelical churches that are now popular with churchgoers (as 'traditional' churchgoing declines) encourage attendees to wear casual clothes rather than 'Sunday best'.

Looking through The Age's photo gallery of today's event (photos by Eddie Jim, Justin McManus, Wayne Taylor and Angela Wylie), I was struck by the way that racewear has developed its own logics, separate from the dictates that made it so shocking in 1965 when Jean Shrimpton wore a short dress with no hat, gloves or stockings.

Look at this doll! Doesn't she look young and gorgeous? There's something festive and joyous about the bright colours chosen by some younger racegoers.

This is Joanna Stanes on her way to the Cup. I like her bold lipstick compared to the subdued colours and textures of her hat. She looks both romantic and modern. I also like that she's wearing a hat rather than a fascinator.

This is a rather ladylike, vintage-inspired look (and a stunning photo by Justin McManus). The popularity of Mad Men and the general interest in mid-20th-century culture has driven a return to these styles. I've also noticed that brides in my social circle who favour a vintage aesthetic tend to prefer fascinator-style veils to traditional wedding veils.

The demureness and prescriptiveness of much midcentury fashion dovetails with our cultural associations of racewear with 'correctness' and 'classiness'. Usually I loathe the term 'classy' as one of those words that actually connotes its exact opposite, but here it's appropriate because people are often striving for a certain class fantasy of being wealthy and privileged.

I also noticed several different strands of women's racewear emerging. You can see these two sartorial approaches here: an edgier style in terms of colour and silhouette, compared to the classic racewear on the right. We can't see their faces, but I assume the woman on the left to be younger than the woman on the right.

I like that these two girls seem to be matching each other's outfits. Perhaps their hemlines are 'inappropriate' but they look so happy!

Deborah and John Quinn demonstrate a fun way to dress up when you're older. Deborah is a well-known millinery collector; she's in her element here. They have opted for traditional 'rules', but don't look fusty and conservative. I especially love the way that Deborah's sunglasses and gloves match John's buttonhole and waistcoat – which are the traditional yellow of Melbourne Cup Day.

By contrast, these are quite old-fashioned racegoers; their outfits are quite fussy and froufrou. I love the centre lady's pillbox hat; I wonder if it's her own vintage '60s number.

This is a good example of what many younger racegoers now consider appropriate: they're wearing flowers in their hair rather than hats; their skirts are very short (what Janice Breen Burns would call a 'frocklet'); and the fabrics are quite slinky and diaphanous in a way we associate with cocktail wear rather than daywear.

Like many celebrity racegoers and Fashions on the Field entrants who are professionally dressed by stylists, Lauren Phillips is wearing what we could call 'contemporary conservative': a sculptural but minimalist hat and a well-fitting, tailored dress that doesn't show too much skin.

Contemporary conservative (or 'contemporary corporate') is a style of racewear that doesn't really take risks: it's not exuberant like a lot of young people's racewear. You see it a lot in photos taken at the corporate marquees, and on models, invited guests and others who are at the races in a professional or promotional capacity.

Despite the boldness of its hats, it's not very whimsical or individual. When you see a number of different celebrities dressed this way, you notice the sameyness, even down to the position and angle of the hats.

For instance, here are model Jennifer Hawkins, sass&bide designers Heidi Middleton and Sarah-Jane Clarke and football WAG Rebecca Judd at the Melbourne Cup in 2011.

And here are Hawko and Juddy at last year's Oaks Day, flanking Kris Smith, who I believe is best known for having once dated Dannii Minogue.

Friday, November 01, 2013

What's wrong with wearing dead people's clothes?

Recently I was at Savers and bought a cardigan that had a name label in it. I Googled the name, and the lady whose cardie it was had died in August. This made me investigate the stigma of 'dead people' that still clings to second-hand clothing. I've written a little feature for Junkee about it:
November 1 is a day for commemorating the dead. Christians call it All Saints Day; in Mexico and Latin America, it’s Dia de los Muertos. It’s odd that, while we’re happy to watch scary movies, dress up as corpses and admire carnivalesque skeletons, we’re more squeamish about real-life dead people… and their clothes.

I’ve shopped at op-shops since my early teens, and people have often teased me that I was wearing ‘dead people’s clothes’. The second-hand clothing industry has only recently emerged as ‘vintage’ from unsavory associations with poverty, disease… and death.
Head to Junkee to read the rest.

But in the meantime, please enjoy my #cardieselfie.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Reliving my teenage years

I've been wallowing in a sort of second adolescence lately. It's mainly been driven by the young adult films I've been watching and books I've been reading, which I've written about at Junkee and the Wheeler Centre. In my Wheeler Centre essay, I write:
Has my brain actually regressed to a high-school level? I don’t know what’s wrong with me; last week I was walking down the street and, in some kind of awful adolescent fugue, I found myself in Dangerfield. (As I write, I’m wearing a Dangerfield hoodie with little stars on it.) Much as Clary learns to see through supernatural glamours and understand the language of runes, the overwrought lyrics of ridiculous emo bands are beginning to make sense to me. Yesterday I had a house inspection and, as I showed off my freshly tidied bedroom, I felt like shouting at my real estate agent, ‘YOU’RE NOT MY REAL MUM!’
The really terrifying thing about stepping into Dangerfield was just how much of the merchandise resembled the stuff I used to buy at Dangerfield 20 years ago. The 1990s are well and truly back in fashion, a realisation that hits me afresh every time I see a young chick walking down the street in painfully high-waisted jeans.

In a way, this is a depressing turn of events, because it underlines that I am old and irrelevant; this is the first time my own personal past has been reinvented for a new generation. (The '80s didn't really count, because I was just a kid, whereas the '90s were when I first asserted my own taste and became interested in fashion.)

But I am oddly exhilarated as well, because the great thing about this is that I get to relive my salad days (usually a pathetic pursuit) while actually being fashionable. Of course, younger people probably look at me and still think I'm pathetic, but WHATEVER, I think I'm awesome.

As I write in Out of Shape:
I was heading to a 1990s-themed house party, dressed like one of MC Hammer’s backing dancers in bike shorts and a tank top under a brightly coloured floral chiffon shirt, with chunky gold jewellery and my actual 1995-vintage Doc Martens (they were my school shoes!). Writing this book must be emboldening me, because the last time I went out in public dressed like this, I was in Year 7 and hadn’t so much hit puberty as gently patted it a few times.
That party was in January this year, but I have actually got loads of wear from the chunky gold necklace I bought for my costume. And it wasn't vintage; it was new from el-cheapo costume jewellery chain Lovisa, but I bought it thinking, "What would Salt 'N Pepa wear?"

Look at their mask-like makeup! Actually, revisiting my clumsy teenage makeup techniques was one of the loveliest things about that costume party. I took so many selfies! Here's a glamorous one: #nofilter #justmybathroomlighting

And here I am with the use of the flash, looking much more like my dorky teenage self:

Now, technically I was aiming for an early '90s hip-hop look, but d'you know who I actually looked more like? Collette! The completely incompetent but touchingly enthusiastic Aussie dance-pop princess of 'Ring My Bell' and 'All I Wanna Do Is Dance' fame.

The height of Collette's fame was the year I was in year 7, and I actually possessed a pair of shiny bike shorts in a terrifying neon pink that I actually used to wear out in public. I would also like to draw attention to Collette's shoes and socks versus mine:

You might be going, "Ho ho Mel, that was a costume party! You'd never wear that stuff on a normal day!" Well, my friend, you'd be wrong. Behold my outfit last Saturday:

I wish I could actually photograph my outfits normally rather than at these zany angles. But anyway. You can't see it in the photo, but I'm wearing a necklace of bright pink plastic beads, and my denim jacket is just peeping into frame. Both the beads and the jacket are from op-shops, but I got the stretch minidress and the leggings maybe two years ago from Cotton On.

I felt very cool in this outfit! About as cool as I would have felt wearing the same outfit in 1991. And when I went strutting down the street, I passed lots of much younger women who were wearing roughly similar outfits. I felt like saying to them, "This is my time, bitches! That's my adolescence you're wearing!"

As a postscript, recently I went away for the weekend with a group of friends and in the house where we were staying, we found a stack of old Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair magazines from the late '80s through to the late '90s. It was a lot of fun to read about some hot new bands from Seattle, and Brad Pitt's edgy new film Fight Club.

But one of the most eye-opening things was that I got my friend to read out the top 10 songs from an old magazine and I had them all in my iTunes. This isn't just because I've hung onto my old CDs (100% Hits – Volume 2; Yo!…Let's Go!Now Generation: The Best of the Indie Stuff). I've also actively sought out songs that I remember from my days sitting beside the radio during the chart countdown and taping all the songs I liked.

Nostalgia is an ongoing project for me, but only now is my interest in the past overlapping with my own personal past.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

To the museum!

I love museum shows of all sorts, but particularly those dedicated to fashion and clothing. A while ago the US-based Lizzie Bramlett, one of my favourite vintage bloggers, decided to compile an exhibition calendar.

Nicole Jenkins at Circa Vintage is very good at telling her readers about upcoming vintage-related events, but I had a quick look around online and couldn't find anywhere that listed all the exhibitions in one place. So I've created my own exhibition calendar for Australia. I actually set this up a while ago but forgot to actually tell anyone I'd done it. Duhh…

You can find it in the top menu and I'll update it whenever I come across a new exhibition. The shows are arranged by state, and within that by closing date, so you don't miss something before it finishes.

You'll notice, first of all, that Victoria is over-represented. That's because I live in Melbourne and it's easier to keep tabs on events in my home city. But I'd like to remedy that, so if you live elsewhere in Australia and hear of any forthcoming fashion, costume or clothing-related exhibitions, please email me.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The futurist idiom in film costume

Screen costume is a pet topic of mine, as you may have gathered from my recent public talks. We get so many of our ideas of masculinity and femininity, glamour and power, how clothes should and shouldn't fit, from the movies and from TV.

Partly we want to extend the pleasure we find onscreen, and our identification with characters, by emulating the looks of our favourite stories. But screen costumes also reflect their historical, political, social and technological contexts, and contain rich intertexts drawn from our understandings of fashion history.

Recently I saw the new Neill Blomkamp film Elysium, starring Matt Damon. I really enjoyed it at the time – the visuals are amazing – but on reflection its script was pretty thin and its themes very didactic. (It's a critique of inequitable wealth distribution, harsh immigration policies and the moribund US healthcare system.) One thing that troubled me immediately was this:

Matt Damon lives in the year 2154. Why is he wearing a T-shirt and jeans (and sneakers, which you can't see in this still)? This made me think about how other films have represented 'the future'. I've written a feature for Junkee about it, showing how both classic and recent films use costume to convey their 'futuristicity', but as a taster, here are the strands of futurism I identify:

Uniformed Futurism – symbolising the wearer's allegiance to an organisation, uniforms can signify utopian collectivism and freedom from markers of inequality, or a totalitarian regime imposing its will on the public.

Retro-Futurism – Fashion is cyclical, not linear; retro-futurism draws on fashion history to put its social and political connotations in fresh contexts.

Couture Futurism – We often imagine the future will look strange to us; couture futurism suggests that extremely avant-garde fabrics, silhouettes and textures might one day come to seem ordinary.

Organic Futurism – These costumes use organic forms, colours and textures to distinguish humanity from technology. Organic futurism can also assign new technological purposes to natural forms and materials.

Grunge Futurism – The assertion of individual style in the absence of state or corporate authority. Putting personal twists on utilitarian clothes through punk-style bricolage, not just wearing a grubby T-shirt and jeans!

Read all about it here.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Sweater girl

Today was the final straw! As I walked to a screening I could feel my underwire protruding from my bra and poking me in the armpit. So, after the film I went straight to Myer, where I first asked one of the floor staff to recommend me some bras, and then asked a bra fitter to finesse the sizing.

Unsurprisingly, given some of the stuff I've been reading online, the staffer recommended balconette-style bras. These have wide, shallow cups and straps that sit on the edge of the shoulders rather than closer to the neck. It means I can choose a cup size that ordinarily would be too large, but would get the extra room in the back.

The bras the staffer recommended fitted me perfectly in the cup, which surprised me because they were D-cups. I have worn a C-cup since my early twenties. However, they were still too tight and flesh-squishing in the back. I was considering wearing them with a bra strap extender, but the bra fitter pooh-poohed this idea.

She was a no-nonsense older lady who reminded me of Miss Blankenship, Bert Cooper's elderly secretary from Mad Men who was assigned to Don because he would never try to seduce her.

"It's a business of sadists and masochists, and you know which one you are."

This is the bra she recommended and that I have bought: Barely There by Berlei. This is their standard T-shirt bra.

It's actually the same style as the bra I was wearing, but I had the older version with daggy wide 'comfort' straps.

Berlei has listened to its customers, who want thin, modern straps that will look okay with singlets, or peeping out from a neckline.

When this style first came out, I recall trying it on and then doing Austin Powers fembot pewpewpew boob-thrusts because the effect was so comically prosthetic. Back then, padded bras were for teenagers with no boobs. Moulded 'T-shirt bras' that provided a Barbie-smooth silhouette and camouflaged nipple show-through were a novel idea.

But of course, they are now the dominant bra construction, and it's difficult to find non-moulded bras. I came to really like the look of a T-shirt bra, and I bought several Berlei Barely Theres because I liked the cleavage they gave me.

Anyway, the floor staffer had given me an 18C and quite liked the look of it, but Miss Blankenship was dissatisfied and got me a 16DD. Yep. Not a D. A double-D. I thought there was no way I would fill out those cups, but I did.

As I noted last year, pop culture associates D-cups and DD-cups with massive, sexpot norgs. To cite just a few songs:

Kanye West: "Girls go wild and pull ya Ds out"
Frank Ocean: "Double-D, big full breasts on my baby"
A$ap Rocky: "Bad bitch, double-D, poppin' E"
Ludacris: "Ludacris fill cups like double-Ds"
3oh!3: "Tight jeans, double-Ds makin' me go (whistle)"

Today I happen to be wearing a tight cream angora sweater, and with my new DDs I feel like Jayne Mansfield or something.

Jayne Mansfield with Dan Dailey in The Wayward Bus (1957).

But I'm still not sure I'm wearing the right size bra. The back is tighter than I'd prefer, although I know it's going to stretch with wear. More worryingly, it sits higher at the armpits than any bra I've previously worn. It's not digging in, exactly, but I'm more aware of it than I feel I should be.

Do you remember how it felt to first wear a bra when you never had before? You were constantly aware of this new, unfamiliar feeling. But gradually, you stopping 'noticing' your bra. It just felt like your clothes. I wonder if I will stop noticing the way this bra fits, or if it will continue to bother me, in which case I can conclude it 'doesn't fit'?

I feel particularly troubled that when I sit down at my desk, the fat pad on my torso bunches up and exerts upwards pressure on the underwire, whose outer edges them splay away from my body into the insides of my upper arms. That probably happened with my last bra too, but I can only feel it now because DD underwire is taller than C underwire.

And, more importantly, this is something a bra fitter would never pick up because women always try on bras while standing up. Like a drill sergeant, Miss Blankenship made me lift my arms above my head, and then bend at the waist, to see how the bra behaved with my movement, and she was satisfied with this one. But she never asked me to sit down.

I worry that I've wasted $54.95, which for me is a vast amount of money to spend on clothes. The rest of my entire outfit probably cost that much, including my shoes.

Monday, July 29, 2013

More heartache in the underwear department

I had some free time before my first MIFF film on Friday, so I went to Target where they are currently having an underwear sale. I urgently need to buy a plain, everyday pale-coloured bra – white, cream or pale pink – because mine are so old their elasticity is almost gone and they are that sad grey colour. I came away empty-handed, of course.

You can see from this instore display that Target is buying into that oft-cited statistic about the percentage of women who wear ill-fitting bras. I tracked down the journal article they cite; I can't read it without an institutional subscription (paywalled academic publishing is a GODDAMNED RACKET) but it charmingly says in the abstract: "women were found to have a poor ability to independently choose a well-fitted bra, which was not improved by trying on several bras or using bra-sizing measurements."

Women's ignorance is the key message conveyed by this "wrong bra size" statistic when it's cited in the popular media. We are portrayed as idiots who blithely squish or flop our boobs into ill-fitting bras, and who need the assistance of 'expert' bra fitters and extensive how-to literature.

Here is Target's 'checklist' for well-fitting bras:
1 The band sits horizontally around the body.
2 The centre front panel sits flat against the chest.
3 The cups are smooth and wrinkle-free.
4 The breasts are fully contained within the cups – no bulging or spilling out of the top or sides.
5 The underwires surround the breasts without digging into the breast.
6 The straps are secure but not tight – the main support comes from the body of the bra, not the straps.
Women are not idiots. We know all this stuff. We know it because we are constantly reading a bazillion media articles telling us we're doing it wrong.

Here's an alternative view: what if women just want to come home with a new bra? Like other heartache-causing garments including swimsuits and jeans, bras are something women go on missions to buy, knowing it will be no fun but suffering through it because they need the garment and don't want to go home empty-handed.

What if women get so fed up with the poor selection available that they pick the best of a bad lot and learn to live with it?

I really want to hammer home that so many of the problems we face with clothing size and fit are retail issues. For instance, negative experiences with customer service (and my survey unearthed some heartbreaking stories) deter us from seeking 'help with sizes', and poor stock replenishment means we can never access a complete size range in the one store.

So many times I'm forced to settle for a bra I don't really like because they don't have a suitable size in the one I do like. On Saturday I went to Big Dubs, where I tried on various styles of bra in four different sizes. The store didn't have my preferred size in any of the styles I liked, and none of the ugly bras I tried on fitted me either.

I turned myself over to the 'expert' advice in Target's 'bra book', and measured myself according to the instructions. The size chart tells me I should be wearing a size 22B. That is interesting, since Target does not make such a size and nor does anyone else. I am not the only one to call bullshit on Target's bra sizing.

Target recommends solving fit problems by trying larger or smaller cup or band sizes, or trying on a style of bra you wouldn't have picked yourself because it's frickin' ugly. For instance, if underwires are jabbing you, they recommend "a minimiser style as they are designed for a wider breast shape." Too bad if you don't have big boobs that you want to minimise, or if you like to wear low-cut tops.

Target also advocates 'swing sizes' – rather than a 12C, try a 14B or a 10D. Good luck trying to find those in the store in the style and colour you want. But swing sizing only works if you stay within the conventional 10A-16D. If a 16C doesn't fit, you can't try an 18B because there is no such size.

Indeed, it is very hard to find bras with small cup sizes in relation to the back size. I'd be interested to see the percentage of women who have this body shape because I imagine it's quite low – too low for brands to be bothered trying to market to it.

There is, however, a market for fashionable lingerie for small-bodied women who have comparatively large breasts for their size. Culture is beginning to normalise (rather than fetishise) this body shape, although large-breasted women get slut-shamed and female politicians including Julia Gillard and Angela Merkel have been criticised for showing cleavage.

Yet there isn't a complementary bra market for large-bodied women who have comparatively small breasts for their size. They get the obesity stigma of plus-size, yet they lack the bountiful 'curves' that plus-size women often use to combat obesity stigma by associating themselves with retro-styled pinup glamour.

Judging from Target's plus-size range, fat chicks must clamour for either nanna-beige minimisers or 'sexy' bras in bold prints and bright colours, doused in cheap-looking machine lace. Target did not stock any plain, pale-coloured bras in sizes outside 10A-16D. They were black, red, purple and leopard-print vampish styles with lots of lace and satin.

My search for a plain, pale-coloured bra that doesn't make me look like a trussed ham continues.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

My week in clothes

Apart from the stupendous reunion, this past week I wanted to blog some tidbits that are perhaps not deserving of their own entire blog posts.

On Tuesday night I went out for drinks with my colleagues at Junkee, and the taxi I shared home dropped me outside the Salco Group on Elgin Street. I couldn't get over the British Country-ness of this window display.

I've always thought Salco was some random corporate and uniform manufacturer, but it has a long history in that spot on Elgin Street, Carlton – it's been there since 1922. In 1942 it seems to have landed a wartime military uniform manufacturing contract, because it was advertising for machinists.

It seems to specialise in menswear (especially shirting). It has its own men's shirt brand 'Abelard', and also has the Australian production and distribution rights to American brands including Gant, Geoffrey Beene and Tommy Bahama, and UK brands Thomas Pink and Jeff Banks.

These are all quite preppy, traditional brands, so no wonder the window display looks like this. It's fascinating, though, to be reminded that brands trading on 'heritage' (for instance, citing London shirtmakers' district Jermyn Street, or ties to Ivy Style and WASPy resort wear, or Jeff Banks' Swinging London past and association with the Eurythmics) are not necessarily manufactured in 'authentic' ways.

Yet, ironically, Salco has its own kind of authenticity simply by operating for more than 90 years in the one location, even though it doesn't have any of the 'cultural' authenticity markers of the brands it manufactures.

Here I am on Friday in the Body Shop store in the Bourke Street Mall. I am wearing the other dress I bought from Hunter Gatherer in my 'two for $10' bargain. It's not the greatest; the skirt is a bit frumpily long and the print is a very '80s paint-swish abstract, but I like the colours, plus it has POCKETS, which was really helpful when I was standing around instore and wanted access to my phone. (It was also great wearing a dress with pockets to the MIFF opening night; I didn't have to worry about carrying a bag around all night.)

I was there as part of an event to mark the brand's 30th anniversary in Australia and its store redesign. There was a deal whereby if you bought $40 worth of Body Shop products, you got a free copy of my book, which I could tell you about and sign for you.

I'm coming to realise that I've written the sort of book that's hard to categorise – just look at all the various bookshop sections I saw it shelved during Home City Book Tour. But once I could tell people about it in person, they seemed quite interested and animated about the issues at stake. I gave away about 25 books, which hopefully went to people who mightn't otherwise have discovered my work.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Reunited, and it feels so good

Last year I bought a fancy scarf for $1 from the Brotherhood of St Laurence op-shop in the Royal Arcade. It was from a basket of scarves out the front of the shop, and I was drawn to the bright red, pink and violet colours.

It is a very long strip: long enough to loop loosely around my neck and still have enough length left for a decent pussy-bow. I remember wearing it to the Emerging Writers' Festival program launch in early May last year, double-looped and pinned to the inside of a plunging black dress, like an underlying blouse, and someone complimented me on it.

Here I am wearing it last September to meet my friend Tash's new baby Max (I have flipped the pussy-bow over my shoulder so I do not suffocate a small baby with it):

Anyway, I was planning to wear it to tonight's MIFF opening gala as a contrasting sash for my electric blue dress. But then I was walking down Brunswick Street yesterday and on a "two for $10" sale rack outside Hunter Gatherer, which is the Brotherhood's pricier, more upmarket 'vintage' brand, I saw… THE DRESS MY SCARF WAS THE SASH FOR!!!

I actually squawked aloud, "Omigod, omigod, omigod…" like a parody of a retail-obsessed airhead. I tried it on and thanks be to elastic waists: it fits me and looks good!

It's a '70s Ossie Clark-esque design that's actually perfectly in sync with the opening night film, Pedro Almodóvar's '70s sex comedy throwback I'm So Excited. The skirt is full and swishy, and has groovy thigh-high side slits (why!?). It also has POCKETS!

The bodice is daringly low-cut: I could wear it braless with double-sided tape, but since MIFF is technically a 'work' event for me, it's probably more dignified to wear a slip or camisole underneath.

Left: Cate Blanchett wears Ossie Clark to Vogue Australia's 50th anniversary event; right: Emma Watson wears Ossie Clark to the London premiere of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

You have to understand how uncanny this is. This dress has no label and is probably handmade. Clearly it was donated, with its matching scarf, to the Brotherhood, but they got separated. The dress was deemed 'vintage' enough for Hunter Gatherer while the scarf was siphoned off to the regular Brotherhood stores, and both items clearly hung around long enough to be reduced to bargain-bin status. And I was lucky enough to stumble across both of them, more than a year apart.

How serendipitous op-shopping can be! To fill up my 'two for $10' bargain I also bought another printed, elastic-waisted dress. It's okay – nothing special. Well, not nearly as special as this happy reunion…

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Jeans: the litmus test of fit

Last Sunday was quite nippy, so I wanted to wear my Christmas jumper. Underneath the jumper I wore a navy and white striped T-shirt. First I tried teaming this with a royal blue miniskirt with red tartan leggings, but it looked too busy and choppy. So I tried it with my black cigarette-leg pants. It looked good, but it bothered me that the top was navy while the pants were black. Then I remembered… my jeans.

Now, I hadn't worn these jeans since the ill-fated Collingwood Skipping Club performance at the State of Design festival opening in 2011. They were part of that night's story of crushing humiliation, and I balled them up in a drawer and forgot about them.

But I put them on today, and I was shocked by how ill-fitting they were. I don't think my body has changed too much since 2011, so did I actually wear these terrible, baggy jeans on a regular basis? Prepare yourself for some ugly photos…

This is the best photo. They don't look too bad here. But you can already glimpse…

…that phenomenon colloquially dubbed 'ghost penis' or 'polterwang'. Also known as a pants tent, this is that bunchy, saggy thing that loose pants do in the crotch. It's particularly unfortunate on women.

It was difficult to photograph these jeans well enough to properly convey the horror. In this pic you can see the elephantine bagginess through the thighs and knees. But gentlemen, grasp your manhoods, for here comes the money shot!

Dear god! These are the worst-fitting pants ever! To me they are an excellent illustration of why I never wear jeans.

But a better explanation for why I never wear jeans is that jeans are one of the most difficult garments to fit properly. Unless they're deliberately baggy, they have to fit snugly yet comfortably in the torso, buttocks, crotch, thighs and calves, which is a lot to ask of a mass-manufactured garment when there is such a vast amount of variation in the human body.

This is why jeans companies have partnered with 3D body scanning technologies. Jeans labels and retailers are the most prominent of the participating brands with Me-Ality, the 'virtual fitting room' startup that has kiosks in North American shopping centres.

The idea is that you have yourself scanned using the same Alvanon scanning booths that I experienced as part of Target's sizing survey, and then the software actually directs you to the shops in the same mall that stock your 'best-fitting' garments. Target, too, made it all about jeans; I was offered a time-limited discount off Target jeans for having participated in the scanning survey.

Bodymetrics is a scanning startup that uses the same white light technique as the XBox Kinect. Here, the TechCrunch team road-test the technology in Bloomingdale's:

It's fascinating, though, how coy they are about the process. White light scanners require you to strip down to your undies in the booth, but TechCrunch gracefully evades actually showing the scanner in action.

Based on the scan data, Bodymetrics then assigns you to one of three orthovestic 'body shapes' and recommends the corresponding jeans, which it euphemistically names Emerald (a straight figure), Sapphire (an hourglass figure) and Ruby (a pear-shaped figure).

Marks and Spencer's Body Shape Denim range also sorts you into three orthovestic categories, named after Hollywood stars and dictated by waist-hip ratio. 'Lana' is designed "for a fuller waist and a slim hip"; 'Marilyn' is designed "to follow the contours of an hourglass figure with well-defined waist and shapely legs"; 'Eva' is "for a small waist and curvy hips".

A red flag comes up about how shitty jeans will always look on me when the 'Lana' style is recommended for those with a waist-hip differential of 22cm or under, and my waist-hip differential is 9cm. According to M&S's size chart, my waist measurement dictates I choose jeans four sizes larger than the size recommended by my hip measurement. Which size should I choose, even in this supposedly shape-conscious jeans style?

No wonder my jeans, which I painstakingly tried on in a shop and bought primarily because they did not create a 'muffin top' at the waist, fit me so badly.

As I gesture to here, jeans have become an omnipresent casual uniform – so much so that they're often regarded as 'essential' and 'classic', and culture tells me again and again that I should go to as much effort as possible to find a pair that fits me. I suppose if I cared enough I could get some jeans custom-made, but honestly there are so many other nice things to wear, why would I bother trying to squeeze my body into this particular genre of garment?

This is a prime reason why we should let our own tastes guide our dressing, not external notions of what we 'should' wear. In the end, I put my black pants back on and wore those, even though navy and black don't go especially well together.

Friday, July 12, 2013

British Country Winter

I have become obsessed lately with a kind of midcentury British winter country look: chunky jumpers; kilts; boots; brogues; scarves. If my last sartorial theme was Seven Sisters Summer, this season I am all British Country Winter. Here is the, ahem, monarch of that style:

I am not into wearing headscarves like that; however I love those giant silk scarves themselves, and own quite a few in that style. It's so hard to wear them without looking dowdy, though – but that is the challenge of British Country Winter.

Last Friday I teamed my argyle knee socks with my dad's Balenciaga wingtips, which I am ashamed to say have scuffed toes because of my bad habit of resting the toes of my shoes on the floor when I sit at my desk. As a fun aside, the argyle pattern is said to be derived from the Clan Campbell tartan, whose lands are in Argyll.

This is a beautifully made navy and jade wool kilt by Fletcher Jones that I bought on my recent Savers trip. Intriguingly, it's size 17 – a size I have never seen before.

I probably bought it because just recently I was discussing Fletcher Jones kilts with my aunt. I was under the impression that the brand was still in business but she said it wasn't. This is correct; it went into administration in 2011 and all the stores closed that year. Just goes to show how off my radar the brand is.

Fletcher Jones is a very traditional brand specialising in well-made, well-fitting investment suiting for a mainly older clientele. I would never have shopped there. The above image depicts its Chadstone Shopping Centre store during the 1960s. It has recently reinvented itself as an online store selling a limited range of basics. (The womenswear range is only pants and jeans.)

I think some loyal Fletcher Jones customer (or her relatives) must have donated her collection of kilts to Savers, because there was also a cream-coloured one and a russety-brown one. But the navy and jade was the most to my taste. My mother will probably laugh at me when she sees me wearing it, because it looks more than a little like my high-school winter uniform skirt.

I bought this jumper above as it combines traditional cable-knit, polo-neck styling with the bright colours I love. I think colour is a good way to wear conservatively styled clothes without looking too dowdy. Plus, it's super cheerful in winter.

I also had my eye out for a Fair Isle jumper. Ever since I got my Christmas jumper I've been a little obsessed with them. Like argyle (which is still associated with golf), Fair Isle knits were popularised in the 1920s by the Prince of Wales, later to become Edward VIII and then the Duke of Windsor.

By all accounts he was a prize dickhead: a permanent adolescent whose own dad said, "After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself in 12 months." However, in terms of his influence on menswear, he is up there with Beau Brummell. Other fashion trends sparked by him include the glen plaid (better known now as the Prince of Wales check), the tartan suit, and the midnight blue evening suit. His personal tea blend – Twinings Prince of Wales – is one of my favourites. I refer to making a cup of it as "cracking a Prinny."

Vintage Target! 

My new Fair Isle jumper isn't as colourful as I would've liked, but I like the snowflake motif and the grey and gold colours. I happen to own a stretch pencil skirt in the same gold, so on Monday I paired it with the jumper (with a black T-shirt underneath), plus herringbone textured tights and my new black patent mary-janes.

To jazz it up a little, I wore my silver pendant, which I got from the Rose St Artists Market. It's made from an old piece of silver-plated cutlery.

There's a certain nostalgia – a class nostalgia – about British country style in a similar way there is to Ivy style. The clothes originated as practical garb for country sports such as riding, shooting, golf and fishing, but have now themselves become emblematic of a certain posh, landed country lifestyle.

I'm reading a fascinating book at the moment called Gentry by historian Adam Nicolson, which tells the story of this uniquely British upper middle class through the archived diaries, papers and correspondence of particular families. They built and consolidated their social power through property, strategic marriage, political alliances and colonial trade.

But land – the saleable commodities it could nurture, and the rents it could generate – was the heart of the gentry, which is why they're so often called the landed gentry. Country dress has changed very little over the last 50 years – check out this insane online guide, which unironically uses the word 'jolly'.

What if 'classic' styles are classic not because (as we are often told) they 'never go out of style', but rather because this very sartorial petrification communicates wealth?

This hasn't escaped class fantasist Ralph Lauren: here's his Fall/Winter 2012 collection:

But British country style overlaps with what we could think of as 'academic' or 'intellectual' style. Here I'm not speaking of bohemian or creative style, but the 'tweediness' we associate with Oxbridge in the first half of the 20th century, or with stereotypical lady librarians, or perhaps with Bletchley Park staffers during WWII.

Last week I gave a talk on the costumes from the film Cabaret, and was intrigued by Brian Roberts' (Michael York) dress. Brian, you'll recall, is a PhD student living in Germany in 1931. His friend Sally Bowles is a bohemian, but Brian is more straitlaced.

That's actually quite close to how real 1930s clothes look. I found some pics of period knitwear. Note how short the jumpers and vests are, because of the high-waisted, baggy, pleated pants.

This old-fashioned Oxbridge nerdiness is, perhaps, what the Doctor Who costume designers had in mind for Matt Smith, although the shortness of his pants gives them a punk edge, and the tightness is fashionable right now.

His new outfit, with the waistcoat and frock coat, is much more reminiscent of teddy-boy styling:

But I do love the wingtip boots! Mixing browns, blacks, greys and navies is a key aspect of British country style. However, if you go too far in one direction you get steampunk; too far in the other direction, you get Frankie. It's going to take me a while to nail this style.