Sunday, February 19, 2017

I like the night life, baby

This week I went on a road trip with my parents to Barwon Park Mansion, Winchelsea, to see Night Life, a National Trust exhibition of evening wear from the 1920s and 1930s. By pure chance, we managed to time our arrival just as a guided tour by exhibition curator Elizabeth Anya-Petrivna was beginning. This was an awesome way to navigate the exhibition. Anya-Petrivna offered lots of detail about the archival research she'd done into the garments' manufacture, provenance, cultural context and conservation.

Clearly I am like a pig in the proverbial when it comes to this stuff, and so of course I've since looked up Anya-Pretrivna's other work. What a wonderful job she has! I found this 2016 feature article in which she's somewhat awkwardly cast as a high retro enthusiast; but what immediately excited me was reading that Anya-Petrivna has researched the people who once lived in her house. I've done the same thing and found some really fascinating stories, although I've felt conflicted and angsty about writing about it because I don't want strangers to figure out my address.

But anyway. This is all to explain that I was extremely excited and had to try super hard to be cool during the tour. Because I was lazy, I decided to put all the photos I took at the exhibition up on my Instagram, but then I relented and decided to do a proper blog post, which you are reading right now…

The interwar period is one of the most popular and well documented when it comes to fashion exhibitions. Thematically, it has an image of glamour and decadence. This was the Golden Age of Hollywood, and of the Bright Young Things in the UK. And the concomitant rise of the celebrity and society gossip media allowed ordinary people to follow the exploits of the wealthy and privileged.

Yet there's also an elegiac quality to these clothes. They're like a ballroom full of streamers, confetti, lipstick-smeared cigarette butts and half-full champagne glasses: evidence of a party that has now crashed. We can enjoy these looks, knowing – as the wearers had not – that the good times will soon end in economic depression and global war.

Just a few of the recent pop-cultural touchstones for interwar fashion have been The Great Gatsby (2013) – for which Catherine Martin won two Academy Awards – Downton Abbey (2010–15), Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (2012–) and Woody Allen's ongoing obsession with the period in Midnight in Paris (2011), Magic in the Moonlight (2014) and Café Society (2016).

So how can yet another exhibition differentiate itself in this crowded space? Just recently there's been the NGV's 2014 Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion show, and the vastly popular exhibition of costumes from Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, presented around Australia in 2015-16 in collaboration with the National Trust.

Let's embark on the tour!

Entering the exhibition in Barwon Park's downstairs drawing room, we encountered a stunning display of 1920s party dresses, coats and accessories, presented on rotating plinths that gave the impression the mannequins were dancing. In the dimness, spangles of light were projected on the wall. Rows of sequins and beads on the mannequins' heads sketched bobbed hairstyles. My shitty photography can't convey the glamorous impression.

What this exhibition does brilliantly is use lighting to show how the seductive textures of these clothes were intended to be seen at night: in dimly lit rooms or under dazzling electric and neon lights. Think of those flapper frocks encrusted with beads and sequins, and trimmed lavishly with fringing and tassels. Think of those slinky bias-cut 1930s frocks in satins and chiffons, worn with furs and velvets and fluffy ostrich boas. These are clothes designed to draw the eye and invite the touch. They were for energetic, moving bodies.

The iconic 1920s dress is the tabard. The original tabards were the loose, sleeveless medieval surcoats worn by knights over their armour, and usually emblazoned with their heraldic symbols, from which we get the term 'coat of arms'. In the 1920s, a tabard dress was a sleeveless tunic with a bateau, scoop or V-neck, sewn at the shoulders. Tabards were often open in the sides, held together at the hips with pins or a belt. You'd wear a matching or contrasting slip underneath. But they could also be sewn all the way down the sides.

These glamorous looks were also becoming more achievable for ordinary women, as while the labour costs were considerable, the materials themselves were not nearly as precious as they looked. This 1920s dance dress has glass beads and is very heavy, but its vertical beaded panels offer a heft that makes the dress swing beautifully with the wearer's movement. Other dresses in the exhibition are embellished with lighter materials such as gelatin, tin and celluloid. Celluloid is the earliest thermoplastic polymer (pliable plastics that are moulded and reshaped by heating). It was often used for jewellery, toys, homewares and accessories such as buttons and buckles that would have previously been made of ivory, horn or tortoiseshell.

However, as film buffs will know, celluloid is incredibly flammable – lots of pre-1950s cinema has been lost in fires – and there was somewhat of a panic that careless flappers would turn themselves into human torches if they got too close to fireplaces or hands waving cigarettes. (There was a similar moral panic surrounding crinolines.) Gelatin, too, was vulnerable to melting when subjected to heat or moisture. Or both, in the case of the body heat of a dance partner's hand in the small of the back.

These gorgeous beaded garments require painstaking conservation if they're to be displayed on mannequins. Due to the sharp edges of bugle beads, and the propensity of antique and vintage silk to shatter from the metallic salts used to treat the fabric, the sheer weight of the embellishments can tear the dress apart unless it's displayed flat. This gorgeous frock weighs as much as two bottles of wine. It would've been hugely expensive, yet it belonged to a young woman of modest means. It's one of the standout items in the exhibition, and was much pored over by attendees during my visit. It's also been photographed extensively on Instagram, and indeed was my most-liked photo by my Instagram followers.

In the 1920s, fake pearls were made by coating celluloid bead forms in (or filling hollow glass beads with) a disgusting iridescent goo made from fish scales, which was applied by mouth-blowing. Fish scales are still used today in iridescent cosmetics such as eye shadow.

This is a metallic Assuit shawl from Egypt. Note the little pyramid and camel motifs! Named after the Egyptian town where they were made, they were hugely popular as souvenirs and lots of them were brought to Australia by WWI soldiers, although the Thomas Cook-led tourism boom, the opening of the Suez Canal and the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb all made Egypt more fascinating and accessible than ever. They could be pinned or sewn into tabard dresses, worn as sashes or head wraps, or used as shawls. They came in heaps of colours and patterns.

One thing I really liked about this show was the way the garments were displayed to draw attention not just to their textures and manufacture, but also to their role in an 'outfit'. Modern slips were unobtrusively teamed with period garments so that it wasn't immediately obvious that the accessory – a shawl, coat or boa – was the featured garment, not the dress. But we get a much more aesthetically satisfying impression of how it would have looked in its heyday. Contrast with this Assuit shawl, which I found on the Vintage Textile dealer website:

This striking display of 1930s evening wear is inspired by Max Dupain's silhouetted photos of the same period.

Max Dupain, Top Hat, c1930. From the Peter and Olivia Farrell Australian Photography Collection, Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego.

A gorgeous Chinoiserie evening shawl, although it also reminds me of traditional Polish/Slavic folk embroidery. Part of a display of 'orientalisme' on the landing of the mansion's grand staircase. There were also fireworks projected onto the wall, which of course are a Chinese invention, but also signal the celebratory occasions at which many of these gowns would have been worn.

One of the star items in the exhibition is this amazing 1920s evening wrap/coat, which belonged to the same ordinary working woman as the pearl-encrusted dress. It was beaded using a tambour: a frame across which the fabric is tightly stretched and a small hook used to thread the beads through. Worked from the underside of the fabric, this technique ensures the inside of the finished garment looks as neat as the outside.

This screen-printed 1930s evening dress is ciré silk. Rather than the sheen coming from the weave (as in satin), the silk is wax-coated to produce volume, stiffness and a wet, shiny finish, which here is reminiscent of lacquered Japanese ware. Ciré fell out of fashion after WWII when synthetic fabrics could produce the same effect; but interestingly ciré cottons were popular from the 1950s-1970s, known as "polished cotton". The fabric's stiffness made it perfect for full-skirted 1950s cocktail frocks.

Upstairs was a lovely display of 1930s floral evening gowns. I'm often struck by how timeless these 1930s screen-printed floral fabrics are. I own several dresses whose prints are not too dissimilar – and I have lots of clothing in 'semi-synthetic' fabrics. These gowns are rayon, which was marketed as modern, easy-care 'art silk'. Today I own a lot of viscose clothing, and my friend Paulina has a glamorous Shakuhachi evening frock that looks and feels like silk but is made of Tencel. Rayon is made from plant cellulose; Tencel (a brand name for lyocell) is from wood pulp and viscose is made from wood pulp or cotton lint.

The final room of the exhibition was set up as a 'workroom', displaying gowns from the Trust's collection that were unfinished or substantially altered. There was also a video explaining how the conservators had worked to restore the beading, and a tambour set up so you could give it a try.

This 1940 self-spotted evening frock is a 'transitional' gown – it was displayed alongside a 1919 gown that showed the transition from the corseted empire and princess lines of the 1910s to the boyish tabard. The later gown shows the next transition from the sylph-like bodycon gowns of the 1930s to the weirdly modest and structured 1940s gowns, whose emphasis shifted to the shoulders and hips. I hate 1940s evening wear; those big shoulders in dowdy black crepe with high necklines. I'm super glad fashion has never compelled me to wear this stuff.

Barbara Stanwyck, hating sequins, 1941.

Anyway. You can't see it in this pic, but this gown has a ruched 'polonaise' bustle, which is a retro look. It was first given to bunchy gathered overdresses in the 'Polish' style in the 1770s, but the polonaise made a comeback a century later as part of the early 1870s Dolly Varden fad.

This polonaise-style dress is American, from 1780-85, from the collection of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

However, the 1940s bustle is more like a peplum: extra decorative drapery in the back, shifting the dress's volume to the rear.

This is a McCall's dressmaking pattern from the period.

Night Life is at Barwon Park Mansion until 26 March 2017, open Wednesday to Sunday from 11am to 4pm.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

A closer look at fash-speak

Fashion writing is popularly understood to be a vapid genre. Most people see it as remote from their daily concerns, referring instead to a fantasy world of runway collections and red carpets. And it's written in a gormless, burbling dialect that I will call ‘fash-speak’.

‘Fashion’, by the way, is not a synonym for ‘clothes’. It's an industrial cycle of design, media and retail, which constantly renews itself to drive demand for new garments. Fashion is a dynamic, wealthy business sector that engages with politics, ethics and social ideologies, and writing about this is not stupid. To intelligent, discerning people, fashion offers plenty of food for thought – and some fashion writers are impressively knowledgeable and analytical.

However, the majority of fashion writing – from glossy magazines to weekend newspapers and the increasingly crowded blogosphere – is explicitly framed as ‘lifestyle’. That is, it’s all about the role clothing plays in an individual’s consumerist fantasies. And because ‘lifestyle’ is still consumed as part of a broad media diet, readers who aren't interested in fashion are likely to encounter fash-speak and find it meaningless.

In the style of Star Trek's Leonard 'Bones' McCoy, let me point out that I'm a cultural critic, not a fashion writer. I don't go to runway shows and industry launches, or follow designers and trends. I've gone to fashion events before and felt completely unwelcome. To be frank, sometimes I see fashion journalists at media screenings of fashion-adjacent films (most recently, The Dressmaker) and experience a mean yearning to make them feel as unwelcome on my turf as I feel on theirs. So it would be easy for me to massage my professional self-respect by hanging shit on fash-speak.

But inevitably I want to defend fash-speak as a legitimate linguistic practice, and to explore what it might do. Like all industry jargon, it's a set of shibboleths that reflects shared concerns and polices insiders and outsiders. Industry aspirants learn to use it, because mastering fash-speak establishes professional authority and credibility.

Fashion writers have been playing with language for ages; Diana Vreeland was an especially inventive wordsmith. Stephen Fried coined the term fashionista in his 1993 biography of model Gia Carangi, as an umbrella term for all the industry people in her orbit. It was a playful riff on the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, who were prominent in the media at the height of Carangi's career in the late 1970s and early 1980s. 'Fashionista' was irresistible because it connoted both exoticism and political militancy. It's since birthed glamazon and frock star.

But while Fried now regrets opening Pandora's portmanteau, fashion blogging has supercharged fash-speak. A brand-building exercise for individual bloggers is to create terms that go on to be adopted more widely. Self-declared Man Repeller Leandra Medine is an avid neologist, but she's best known for inventing the arm party: a term for a collection of watches, bracelets and bangles worn all at once.

Fash-speak can operate in two registers. When it's talking down, it's euphemistic and twee, aiming to generate solidarity with the reader. Hair is a mane or tresses; a mouth is a pout; eyes are peepers; fingernails are talons; toes are tootsies. When it's talking up, it's constructing an air of mystique and exclusivity around industry practices. But it does this in a vague, nebulous way that fudges the distinctions between different price points and market positions.

The word couture just means sewing; but haute couture is a trade appellation granted by the Parisian Chambre Syndicale (now the Fédération française de la couture) that entitles a designer to show at Paris Fashion Week. Nonetheless, fash-speak uses hautecouture and high fashion as adjectives that all mean 'labels that show at fashion weeks'. Other brands are described variously as luxeboutiquecult and niche – all of which imply that they are still expensive and exclusive, but have a small, discerning market. Bespoke, strictly speaking, is clothing tailored to one person's specific measurements; yet fash-speak uses it much more loosely to connote things that are hand-made and customised.

Much of fash-speak reflects the palimpsestic nature of fashion’s trend cycle. The treadmill of seasonal collections moves so fast that writers are flat out just describing how outfits look on models. It's impressionistic rather than contextual, aiming to capture evanescent moments, moods and gestures.

Some words and phrases seem to be deployed primarily for literary effect. Va-va-voom, originally a 1950s term for the sound of a car engine revving, now connotes a buxom, old-fashioned kind of sex appeal. Outfits that are presumably not sentient are nonetheless whimsical and flirty; they're also floaty and flippy and filmy and froufrou. And mute objects have something metaphorical to say: they become statement pieces.

Because of the pace of the trend cycle, fash-speak valorises an ability to anticipate and lead trends rather than to follow or lag behind. We hear of a fashion-forward or directional person or garment. Things are on-trend, or even bang on trend. They're edgycutting-edge or even bleeding-edge. X is the new Y. However, you'll often be allowed a sneak peak (always misspelled) at what's coming up next.

Other elements of fash-speak refuse to view fashion as an industrial process of producing and marketing clothing, but instead see it as a rarefied aesthetic practice. I don't think it's accidental that what Alix Rule and David Levine have dubbed International Art English is an industry jargon almost as universally maligned.

When fash-speak is forced to consider the everyday practicalities of wearing clothes, it sounds almost grudging. It assures you that sober yet very costly garments constitute investment dressing, and that sometimes a garment must take you from day to night. Perhaps the most arch word in fash-speak's vocabulary is wearable, which faintly damns a garment as bland and unimaginative, but also contains a note of admiration that a designer has been so bold as to invite non-fashionistas to wear their garments.

By contrast, fash-speak is at its most free-wheeling and grammatically elastic when it ponders aesthetic choices. One of fash-speak's most commonly ridiculed quirks is the Fashion Singular. This is the tendency to depluralise things that come in pairs: a pant, a lip, an eye, a shoe. Could this refer to the fashion writer's own eye, which has to travel so quickly that paired objects merge conceptually into one? The fashion writer's gaze displaces itself onto the things gazed upon, which synecdochically become looks. And because this gaze has a velocity and a direction, fash-speak doesn't have contemplative colour 'schemes'; it has colourways.

Obviously you would never wear only one shoe, or make up only one smoky eye; but the Fashion Singular refers not to the actual object or body part, but more to the act of making a single aesthetic choice, or to the effect of any one element in a successful look. You can make the Fashion Singular buddy up by teaming X with Y. But if you want one element to quickly draw the eye, you make it pop. Colourful items in drab contexts so reliably do this that they become nouns: a pop of colour.

The fashion writer's knowing, expert gaze is also implied in the fash-speak terms for choosing clothes – the prepositionless to shop (never 'to shop for' or 'to shop at'), or the connoisseurship implied by to source (that is, to track down items to the place where they originate). Even the fashion editor's job of choosing garments for an editorial is displaced onto the designer, whose runway collections are an edit – especially a tight edit.

Because the fashion world deals in exorbitantly priced luxury goods, it encourages mercilessly commercial writing that hypes the merch. In grammatical terms, this is the Fashion Imperative. Fash-speak deals heavily in hyperbole: journalists announce their current obsessions, what's hot and not, dos and don'ts, the essential clothes they're really feeling, which you need right now, the It bags and other must-haves they're currently all about. This garment is everything. It's killer. I die.

Here, it's important to acknowledge that a lot of fash-speak is appropriated from the language of people of colour – especially queer people of colour – and that this political redolence is neutralised in its use within mainstream (white) fashion journalism. In fash-speak, as in US hip-hop, people look fresh to death in what they're rocking – their kicks are totally on point, on lock; their brow game is on fleek.

The underground queer ballroom scene is deeply entwined with fashion. Voguing is named after Vogue magazine; its moves are inspired by the poses of models and the performance space of the runway. Ballroom collectives are also called 'houses' – like fashion labels – and many have even been named after fashion houses. Competitors walk for their house, much as fash-speak refers to models appearing in a given designer's show.

The ballroom use of language to commentate on performance emerges in fash-speak when someone is slaying it, worked it, did that or went there. Yaaaaas queen! And fash-speak expresses enthusiasm by declaring the writer is living for or is here for expensive designer merchandise.

Popularised by designer Christian Siriano during his time as a Project Runway contestant in 2007, the term fierce is older; it appears in drag artist RuPaul's 1992 single 'Supermodel (You Better Work)'. To call black women 'fierce' is to reappropriate racist myths that they were savage and primitive, less feminine and deserving of less respect than white women. 'Fierce' became a term of pride in and admiration for a racialised (trans)femininity.

But fash-speak's attachment to 'fierce' has had the unfortunate effect of dehumanising black women, while granting white women access to feelings of playful power.

The terrible irony is that fash-speak is not a very good idiom for citing or paying homage to aesthetic influences. It will freely admit that something is iconic and that certain people are style icons, and will even dabble in spiritualism to suggest that a garment or person is channelling someone or something else. But its ideas of classicvintage and retro are vague, unmoored from specific periods in fashion history, and relying much more on the reader's emotional stake in the past.

Like any other industry jargon, fash-speak only becomes meaningful in the encounter between fashion writer and fashion-savvy reader. It's a connotative rather than a denotative argot – surprisingly poetic in its use of allusion and onomatopoeia, and intended to create moods – of urgency, of pleasure, of possibility – as much as to actually describe things. But fash-speak's innate elitism means it's troubling that it's so happily adopted the language that disempowered people use to assert their own dignity and sense of style.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Does fancy dress have to be sexy?

It's such a cliché that there are regular fancy dress costumes, and then there are 'sexy' ones for women, which focus on revealing cleavage, midriff, silhouette and legs at the complete expense of fidelity to the idea of the costume.

In Out of Shape, I argue that the vocabulary of sexiness we draw on when we dress up for costume parties comes from what I call 'exploitation culture':
So-called because it exploits viewers’ crudest impulses, this genre discards such piffling irrelevancies as plot and character; instead, it visually represents ‘sexiness’ to excite its (male, heterosexual) audiences. 
Flimsy, form-fitting, and tantalisingly unbuttoned and unzipped, women’s exploitation costumes represent the ordinary world viewed through a fog of lust. ‘Sexy teachers’ and ‘sexy librarians’ doff their glasses, unbutton their prim cardigans and shake out their severe updos. ‘Sexy policewomen’ wear skin-tight military-style shirts, tiny hotpants, and stiletto heels that would be very impractical for chasing criminals. ‘Sexy waitresses’ and ‘sexy flight attendants’ promise personalised ‘service’, while ‘French maids’ know what ‘dirty’ means. (Out of Shape, p. 166)
I have been thinking about fancy dress because my friend Andy's birthday is coming up tonight, and for his party we have to dress as something beginning with the letter A.

My first instinct was like Cady's in Mean Girls: to come as something nerdy and enthusiastic, not something sexy. Asparagus would be funny – I'd wear a green T-shirt and tights and make myself a pointy bonnet. Or an armadillo: I would wear a brown T-shirt and tights and wear a laundry basket as a backpack. I discounted an apple because it would be too demanding, structurally.

But Anthony, my co-author on our romantic comedy novel-in-progress The Hot Guy, just shook his head when I told him these ideas. He said that the entire purpose of costume parties was to dress in sexy costumes in order to get laid.

As a compromise, I decided I would dress as the Greek goddess Athena. Of all the Greek goddesses whose names begin with A, I identify with her most: she represents wisdom, courage, inspiration, learning, the arts, and war strategy (one of her epithets is Promachos, 'she who leads from the front'). As Athena Parthenos ('Virgin Athena'), she also isn't married and doesn't have sex, so… there's that too.

She's often depicted wearing a war helmet, and holding a spear and a shield in the centre of which is Medusa's head (which Athena was gifted by Perseus). She is also often seen with a pet snake, Erichthonius, and a pet owl (those animals are sacred to her).

I only settled on this costume on Thursday night, and didn't have time to find or make myself a Spartan-style helmet, or to make myself some weaponry out of materials to hand (garbage bin lids, broomsticks, cardboard, gold paint). However, I have researched ancient Greek clothing and have made myself a Doric chiton out of a curtain I got in an op-shop for $5, plus a flannel himation, which I already had as part of a previous Virgin Mary costume (see below). I also bought some gold sandals, and five metres of gold ribbon to wear as a girdle, and I'm going to pin a gold necklace in my hair as a diadem. And I was pleased to remember that I own a pair of gold earrings in the shape of wings.

 Here's what Athena looks like, in a marble Greek copy signed “Antiokhos”, a first-century BC variant of the famous sculptor Phidias’s fifth-century Athena Promachos that stood on the Acropolis. (Her empty left hand is meant to hold a spear.) She's wearing a peplos, under an armoured breastplate bearing Medusa's head.

But then here's some of what came up when I Googled "Greek goddess costume":

Yawn. This tendentious sexualisation of fancy dress isn't new, however. Fashion historian Amber Butchart argues that fancy dress began with the Venetian carnival masquerade tradition. Carnival, a medieval festival immediately before Lent, was a time when dominant social and moral standards were subverted and mocked, and people could mingle freely and behave eccentrically without being punished.

In my research for Out of Shape, I learned about the elaborate historical fancy-dress society balls in late-19th-century Canada:
Wearing old-fashioned clothes temporarily freed the members of high society from prevailing social mores – women could wear their hair down and don revealing dresses, while men flaunted their legs in tights. After an 1898 ‘historical ball’ that had featured many eighteenth-century-esque outfits, the Montreal Star wistfully reported that ‘those beautiful old-fashioned pink and white gowns, and great skirts of rich brocaded silk that fell in such heavy clear folds, made one wonder if the nineteenth century had not lost the art of dressing.’ (Out of Shape, p. 259)
There's so much to say about the history of costume parties and their use in either avant-garde or reactionary aesthetics and politics. There are 'exotica' trends that veer from Egyptian and Middle Eastern motifs to straight-up blackface. There's the whole 'bad taste' trend, which links back to carnival's burlesque of social conventions. And there are attempts to use costume to playfully transcend the usual shapes and functions of the human body – dressing up as abstract objects or ideas – which we can see in the Surrealist and Bauhaus costume parties.

Salvador Dali dressed up as the kidnapped Lindbergh baby at 1934 New York society party, and was forced to apologise publicly, only for his Surrealist mates to give him a dressing-down for the apology. (I once dressed as JonBenet Ramsey for Halloween.)

The Pre-Raphaelites and their intellectual circle popularised vaguely medievalist 'artistic dress', which then morphed into 'aesthetic dress', and became a mainstay of Liberty of London, which from 1884 maintained its own Artistic and Historic Costume Studio, where you could buy dresses that combined late-19th-century silhouettes with design elements from medieval, Renaissance, Jacobean, 18th-century and Regency fashions. (In 1909 it was renamed "Picturesque and Fancy Dress".) Interestingly for me, I read that from 1887 Liberty made a Grecian gown called 'Athene', in "Arabian cotton with silk Himation".

In the 1960s and 1970s, these historical dress-up fantasies found their retail equivalents in Biba's visions of Golden Age Hollywood and Laura Ashley's pastoral nostalgia.

Because fancy dress parties are often private events rather than public displays, they can also be insular, reinforcing membership in elite in-groups. For instance, the 'Bright Young Things' of 1920s and 1930s England famously favoured elaborate costume parties.

Dressing as Athena Parthenos basically reveals that I have given up on the idea of being sexually attractive. But I do remember in the past putting a lot of effort into looking as 'sexy' as I could at costume parties, and yet not attracting any flirtatious attention whatsoever. So now I think, "why bother?"

Here are a few pics of me in fancy dress, which I ripped off Facebook. 

I always wanted to go to a toga party, so I made my 30th birthday a toga party. You can see that the Doric chiton always slips off the shoulders if you don't watch yourself. I was trying to be sexy at this event by not wearing a bra. In hindsight, I should probably have worn a bra.

I can't even remember what the theme of this party was (it could have just been 'party' – but I (left) went as Corey Worthington.

Best party ever; that's what everyone's been sayin'. To be honest though, while I was pretty happy with the humour value of my costume, I felt so gross and unfeminine all night with my jeans pulled down below my underwear. For me, dressing butch is not sexy. For someone who is butch or is into butch women, it might be.

Here I am (left) dressed as Cyndi Lauper earlier this year. In the pic (taken at the Filmme Fatales launch I went to before the party), I am looking really pissed off but I was actually deliberately doing this to try to approximate Lauper's squint.

The theme was New Wave, and basically Lauper was the only person I could think of where I could use my hair, and had all the components of my outfit already. I was inspired by her look at the start of the 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun' video. At the bus stop on the way to the Filmme Fatales event, two teen girls asked if they could take a selfie with me. I agreed, unsure if they thought I looked cool or if they wanted to mock me. I choose to believe it's the latter.

This is me (centre) in 2006 doing the 'Thriller' dance at an Is Not Magazine Halloween party, dressed as Carrie from the film Carrie. The paint I drenched myself in looked red in the bottle, but as you can see, it was really hot pink. I am covered in fabulous hot-pink pig's blood.

Here I am in 2005, dressed as the minor TV Batman villain Marsha, Queen of Diamonds for a superhero-themed ball. I wanted to wear something 'hot' to impress a guy I was crushing on at the time; but he didn't even go to the ball, and nobody else was interested in me.

Here I am going to a Yacht Rock-themed party in a hipster bar. Again, I was trying to impress a guy I was into at the time, but basically nobody else dressed up, so I looked like a total idiot.

Bless you, my child: here I am at my 33rd birthday (my 'Jesus year') dressed as the Virgin Mary. I had an LED torch hidden in my bra that made my Sacred Heart glow. This is not sexy at all, but it is my favourite fancy-dress costume of all time. I think I look amazing. Mother of Christ? That'd be nice.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Lorna Jane has a fit model problem

Boutique activewear brand Lorna Jane is currently enduring a severe tutting from the online media after it posted a job advertisement for a dual role at its HQ: as a receptionist and a fit model.

My initial response was to tweet: "Fit model is a legit job that needs specific body dimensions. But Lorna Jane shouldn't combine it with another job. Obviously anyone can do a receptionist job; but not everyone can be a fit model. Your measurements need to embody the brand's sizing."

Fit modelling isn't 'fitness modelling' – which is a genre of modelling in which the models look athletic and have very defined muscles and very little body fat. Rather, fit models work in the back end of the industry. Unlike regular models, who get booked by matching a designer, art director or stylist’s desired ‘look’, fit models stay employed by winning another kind of genetic lottery – possessing a body whose proportions match the vital statistics of a manufacturer’s target customer.

When I was writing Out of Shape, I did a fair bit of research into fit modelling that didn't make it into the final book. There really isn't very much discussion of this fascinating subset of the modelling industry – just as we prefer to concentrate on the glamorous world of fashion weeks and couture rather than the nuts-and-bolts business of garment production.

At many clothing manufacturers, employees step in as fit models when required, in addition to their regular jobs. And at some fashion labels – including, famously, Leona Edmiston – the designer uses himself or herself as the fit model. (I wish I could've got one local designer to go on record with his yarn that, having used himself as his fit model, his sizing began to get smaller when he lost weight – something he only realised when a longtime customer pointed it out.)

Kathleen Fasanella – who to me is the authoritative resource on the technical aspects of fashion – had a great two-part blog series about fit modelling. Natasha Wagner has fitted for jeans brands ranging from Gap and Old Navy to Levi's, 7 For All Mankind and Proenza Schouler, leading Vogue to dub her "the model whose bottom is shaping a nation". And here are some fun first-person accounts by Sable Yong, who at 5'2" works as a fit model for petites.

When I interviewed Clea Garrick of Australian fashion label Limedrop, she told me she tests her sample garments on several fit models who wear a size 8 differently – taller or shorter, and with varying body proportions – so she can get a sense for how each garment will look on different body shapes, not just sizes.

“We still do make garments that are fluid and flowing, so our sizing is not as strict on some pieces as they appear in measurements,” she added. “We aim to make fashion that looks great on real people, not just models.”

Lorna Jane, on the other hand, needs a fit model more than many fashion labels because all its products are form-fitting and stretchy. The way tight clothes compress the body can't properly be predicted from using industrial fit mannequins, which is why it's so important to use a live model who can report how the tightness feels.

When I looked at the the websites of specialist fit modelling agencies, I was struck by their galleries of pretty girls, photographed at full length and labelled with specs of height and body measurements. The effect is slightly unnerving – like a flipbook of mugshots or mail-order brides. They all hover around a standard Australian size 8-10, and all have a similar svelte, leggy look.

Yet it’s heartening and strangely touching to see how even these girls, whose job it is to be living dress forms, represent the shape variations of the human body, their proportions all slightly different. And this is important! A fit model isn't always a 'house model' – like Clea, some brands bring in several differently shaped women to test the tolerance of the size being fitted.

However, fit models are inextricable from the practice of targeted sizing. As Christina Cato commented at Fasanella's site Fashion-Incubator:
I’ve worked with fit models at a very well known company. In the time that I worked for them we went through 4 different fit models. We were also working on an identity crisis with understanding our customer. Once it was determined who she was the fit model was replaced with someone that would better fit that ideal. It is not a general ideal or an average. It is specific to the woman that buys this line of clothing. Through constant customer feedback the fit is refined and if needed the fit model is changed.

The clothes certainly don’t fit everyone (I couldn’t wear them), but the customers that can wear them are extremely loyal. The fit is the “signature” of the industry. I think it’s very clever to keep that a secret and to keep it unique. It ensures that the loyal customers remain loyal.
Lorna Jane, however, has the same image problem as its fellow 'fashion sportswear' label Lululemon. In claiming to champion health and fitness, yet targeting a particularly small, thin customer, Lorna Jane has been accused of excluding potential customers who also aspire to be healthy, sexy and stylish, but who fall outside its target size range.

So it seems extremely tone-deaf of Lorna Jane to advertise the fit model job – which legitimately has very specific requirements – alongside the receptionist job, which can, and indeed legally must, be offered to applicants of any age, gender, ability, and body shape and size. A Lorna Jane spokesperson told Crikey:
As a fit model is only required in a part time capacity, Lorna Jane felt it appropriate to combine this position with the part time receptionist role which is also currently vacant. … There are a number of positions within our business that combine roles to accommodate the needs and interests of our staff.
For me, this media outrage stems from the same "what about me?" attitudes that I see again and again in media discussions about clothing size. I really hoped that Out of Shape would help dispel them; but they keep being repeated in article after article. And as I noted in 2013 about Abercrombie and Fitch, people really struggle to get their heads around the legitimate marketing practice of targeted sizing in the fashion industry.

There is a widespread belief that consumers 'deserve' to be able to wear whatever brand they want as long as they have the money to buy it; and that if they don't fit into the brand's clothes, then this is the brand's conspiratorial moral judgment. We hear things like, "X brand doesn't care about real women", "X brand doesn't want to tarnish their brand with customers like me" and "X brand promotes unhealthy body image".

Conversely, when a brand decides to offer a broader size range, the media report this as an act of generosity and moral acceptance rather than what it really is: a decision to target a different market. And we'll hear things like "Y brand understands real women", "Y brand is welcoming and inclusive of customers like me" and "Y brand promotes healthy body image".

For me, the main problem with Lorna Jane's two-for-one job ad is that it has allowed the perceptions of exclusion and discrimination associated with its brand to extend to its broader hiring practices. Workplace law specialist Peter Vitale told SmartCompany that it's unlawful in some jurisdictions to discriminate against someone based on their personal appearance. Much depends on the way a job ad is phrased, and “the way [Lorna Jane] have structured the ad hasn’t done them any favours … Because it’s for a receptionist as well, the ad probably sailed a bit close to the wind".

Lorna Jane has made it easy for onlookers to infer – as some media reports have done – that the company only wants to hire employees with very small body sizes, in any role. But the company is perfectly entitled to seek a fit model whose proportions reflect those of its target customer.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Wearing the same thing every day

Check out this guy, always wearing the same grey T-shirt and charcoal hoodie. You don't need a facial recognition algorithm to know who he is.

It's Social Overlord Mark Zuckerberg, of course. (Captured by his nemesis, Google.) Recently Zuckerberg did a Q&A at Facebook headquarters and was asked why he always wears the same grey T-shirt. He answered: "I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how best to serve this community. […] I feel like I'm not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous."

I decided to blog about this, but as the blog post got more detailed I thought, "Why don't I actually pitch this as a feature story?" So I did… and you can read the rest of it over at Junkee. I'm glad they have a 'Style' section over there, so I can pitch these kinds of stories.

This has been one of my more popular stories lately. I'm surprised by the pageviews and the number of comments, and that it's got the biggest reach of anything I've posted on my Facebook page in the last three months. That said, the comments seem to have taken issue with the way I situate 'wearing the same thing every day' within a culture of technologised neoliberalism. Jeff Sparrow's essay on Soylent has been very influential in my thinking about this.

But of course there is the broader truism that anyone who actually uses the term 'neoliberalism' tends to do so suggesting it is a socially corrosive, structural phenomenon. Whereas those who might actually practise and enable neoliberalism rarely acknowledge it as a guiding philosophy at all, preferring to couch it as a climate of ideologically empty 'individual choice'.

To me, it seems obvious that much of tech culture's thinking about the body is instrumental – obsessed with what the body can be used to achieve, rather than how it looks or feels – and also can't be disentangled from the historic disparagement of the 'nerd body' and the way it's dressed.

Popular culture has created this category of the 'nerd' or 'geek' as someone who lives 'in his head' (the nerd is a historically male category) and so consequently is either incompetent or uninterested in the social and aesthetic aspects of dress. When I as much as raised the issue of gender and the way that 'being interested in clothes' is feminised and hence devalued, commenters told me I was "reading too much into this". So I guess it's really about ethics in videogame journalism.

I also feel that some people who either identify as or get categorised as geeks might experience clothing primarily as a weapon of social distinction rather than as a source of joy or pleasure. At school, clothes are used to police in-crowds and are adopted as badges of honour by defiant subcultural outsiders. If you felt victimised by or wanted to opt out of all that bullshit, you might say, "I don't care about what I wear."

But as a researcher of clothes, I think very few people genuinely don't care about what they wear. I suspect that people who deliberately wear the same thing every day (rather than dress randomly from a limited pool of utilitarian clothes) actually have much more invested in the issue of clothing, and have a keener awareness of what their clothing says about them, than your stereotypical absent-minded professor whose mum or wife or workplace supplies his clothing.

So the semiotic question – what wearing the same thing every day might express about a person – is the issue I focus on in the Junkee feature.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Back on deck

On the weekend I went away and got a pretty good haul at the Venus Bay op shop.

This was a proper country op shop, with old-fashioned prices – the lambswool/angora jumper, stretch miniskirt, Glomesh wallet, glitter shoelaces and leather shoes cost me a grand total of $12. You can probably also tell that it's Seven Sisters Spring! (A trans-seasonal period that's not too hot and not too cold.)

And it's the class dimensions of this look that I find quite confronting. Even though they were only $5, I really angsted over whether to buy the boat shoes. When I was at school and uni, boat shoes were the uniform of private-school louts, along with rugby shirts and chino pants. I associate them with the sexism and political conservatism that come with being complacent about gender and class privilege.

But in recent years I've noticed that cool young people are wearing chinos (albeit skinny-legged rather than the pleated, baggy sort popular in the '90s), boat shoes, and chambray shirts (often worn buttoned to the neck). It's as if they are reinscribing these garments' connotations of wealth as aspirational and glamorous, similarly to the way 'Ivy Style' and 'prep' are nostalgic for a vanished WASP elite.

Recently I read an eye-opening Tatler feature about the Scottish aristocracy (reading Tatler always sends me into a tailspin of "who even are these people?") and thought to myself, this is the culture that produced my beloved British Country Winter aesthetic. What do I love about this look? If I'm being honest, it is that it's an elite look, one that speaks of the low-key luxury and leisure that intergenerational wealth can enable.

Boat shoes (also known as deck shoes or top-siders) are intended to be worn for leisure boating, as their name implies. (Interestingly, John Sipe, the innovator of cutting grooves in the rubber tread of tyres to increase their traction in slippery conditions, is frequently said to have cut lines in his own shoes while working in a slaughterhouse – hardly an elite occupation.)

The recognisable style – sturdily stitched leather; deep-treaded rubber soles; moccasin-style top-seamed toe; leather laces threaded through eyelets – was invented in 1935 by avid boater Paul Sperry, who called them the Sperry Top-Sider. They took off in 1939 when the US Navy decided to make them standard issue for sailors.

Traditionally they are never worn with socks. Because of the historical association of leisure boating with the monied US north-east, who also sent their sons to Ivy League colleges, a practical item became a signifier of privilege.

But as Jessica Friedmann commented on my Instagram, "There's definitely a class connotation but I like the idea of 'casual' shoes that are as meticulously and carefully made as dress shoes, to be chucked on with jeans on the weekend. It's one of the 'old money' affectations that I like - investing on good quality no matter the situation."

And she's right. There's something alluring about the zero-fucks way that old-money people buy expensive, beautifully made clothes and then just wear the shit out of them. That, I think, is why the modern Ivy/prep style revival can look too fussy and overdressed compared to the carefree fratboys captured in Take Ivy.

This aesthetic also challenges me because it is a conservative style. Fashion – by which I mean the industrial cycle of trends – recognises and rewards innovation and eccentricity, which is why older women are celebrated when they dress boldly and individually, and dismissed as 'frumpy' when they stick to unshowy, utilitarian 'classics'.

Young people can potentially make conservative clothes fashionable, due to the incongruity of fresh-faced, taut-bodied beauties wearing otherwise 'ugly' and 'unflattering' clothes. Hence the popularity (ironic or unironic) of 'normcore' and the 'Elaine from Seinfeld' look. But if you are 'plain', fat, or once you get over a certain age-related event horizon (which I constantly fret I have done), you have two options.

First is to dress flamboyantly and eccentrically in order to 'read' as youthful, beautiful and stylish. (This was Diana Vreeland's sartorial philosophy.) Second is to embrace minimalism: a cerebral and challenging 'fashionability' that flatters the non-normatively beautiful because it radically de-emphasises the body and focuses on the textural and sculptural qualities of the materials. (Coco Chanel was a prototypical minimalist.)

So, to return to items such as these boat shoes, I have this paranoid conviction that I can only 'get away with' them if I don't wear them with other 'preppy' items. Here they are today, on their first spin under my ownership:

I chose the skirt to match the shoes, and decided not to emphasise the black in the skirt, so I chose a white top with stripes of similar thickness, to highlight the block colours rather than the blackness of the stripes. I also wore my denim jacket because it added both colour and casualness to the outfit, and because blue denim is inextricable from Seven Sisters Summer in my mind.

I don't think long skirts are the go with these shoes; the effect is daggy. I feel like they go best with pants. (I don't wear jeans or shorts.) But perhaps I could also wear them with simple, non-uber-femme dresses, with miniskirts and leggings (I exposed my naked thighs to the world once – as documented in Out of Shape – and am never doing it again), or with knee-length pencil skirts.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Beret fashionable

I am not really a hat person, but when I do wear a hat, it's a beret. I own five: in black, navy, charcoal grey, yellow and red. I find the yellow one the jauntiest, but really struggle to match it with outfits because it's easy to look like you're in uniform if, like me, you wear a lot of block colours.

When I wear my caponcho (my navy-blue knitted poncho with epaulettes, brass buttons and arm slits, like a cape) with my yellow beret, the effect is very Madeline:

I end up wearing the black one most often. This was a miserable wet autumn evening in the Carlton Gardens, when I basically wore it to keep my head warm and dry.

Most recently, I purchased a bright red beret at Savers. However, I couldn't really decide how to wear it.

So I decided to investigate the beret's history, to see how it was actually worn. While beret-like soft hats have been worn throughout Europe since ancient times, what we think of as the beret is the traditional headgear of Basque shepherds in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. In the Pyrenees it's worn straight across the forehead and piled loosely on the crown.

They began to be made commercially during the 17th century; Oloron-Sainte-Marie in south-western France became known as the beret capital. By the 19th century, beret-making had become industrialised. The beret was the working-man's hat – worn by Breton onion-sellers along with striped Breton shirts, it became part of the 'Onion Johnny' French stereotype that circulated in England after these farmers brought their produce across the English Channel to sell.

Soldiers have worn berets for hundreds of years – especially those who come from mountainous terrain, the beret's traditional home – but it first became internationally known when French mercenaries fought in the 1830s Spanish civil war between the crown and the Carlist rebels. The beret was later adopted during the 1880s by the French Chasseurs alpins.

But it was a new technological development that made it the ubiquitous military signifier it is today: the tank. Basically, soldiers' brimmed and peaked uniform hats – designed to shade the eyes – just got in the way in the cramped spaces of armoured vehicles, while wearing goggles and headphones.

French tank crews in WWI wore berets, and despite some grumblings that they looked too 'feminine', the British Tank Corps adopted them as early as 1918 – usually in black, which didn't show the oil stains from the tank. (The UK now has nine different colours for different branches of its military – the most in the world.)

Military berets have a drawstring and a leather band around the edge to keep them in place. My grey beret apes this style. Today, they're favoured by elite units – the US Army Special Forces are known as Green Berets – and UN peacekeepers are instantly recognisable by their sky-blue berets.

These military associations have also made berets popular among revolutionaries.

"LOL, Fidel forgot his beret!"

In Scotland, beret-style hats with pompoms have been worn since the 15th century; but the poet Robert Burns nicknamed them the Tam O'Shanter, after the hero of his 1790 epic poem. But what's interesting is that in the 1920s, tam o'shanters were popular sportswear for teenage girls. As fashion historian Geoff Caulton notes, historical photos show sporting teams wearing tam o'shanters.

During the 1920s, berets were worn pulled down low over the ears, the same way as cloche hats:

But during the 1930s – when hats became more sculptural and were worn tipped back at a jaunty angle, berets were also worn this way.

In Bonnie and Clyde (1967), set in the 1930s, Faye Dunaway wears a beret, alternating between wearing it straight on her crown, but with the mass of fabric to one side (which is my own preferred way to wear berets)…

…to wearing it on the side of the head, '30s-style.

By the 1960s, berets tended to be worn tipped backwards on the head, like pillbox hats:

That's how Peggy Olson wears her tam o'shanter in Mad Men:

Almost as big a beret cliché as the stripey-shirted Frenchman is the 1950s beatnik in a beret, black turtleneck and cigarette-legged pants. But berets have a long history among artists and bohemians.

In 1659, Rembrandt painted his Self-Portrait With Beret and Turned-Up Collar. He also painted himself wearing a beige beret; scholars argue this is in homage to similar paintings by Titian and Raphael. Thus, the beret signifies Rembrandt's trade as a painter.

In 1886, Claude Monet also painted himself wearing a beret. And in 1888, Vincent van Gogh painted his friend Paul Gauguin as Man in a Red Beret:

Pablo Picasso was well known for wearing berets, especially late in his life:

When Picasso's work was shown in Britain's Institute of Contemporary Arts during the late 1940s and 1950s, his acolytes would show up to the exhibition wearing berets, which became a common item of lost property. Around the same time, American jazz musicians and writers began to wear them. (Interestingly, 1960s musicians seemed much more into Greek fishermen's caps; Bob Dylan wore one in 1962, and they took America by storm when John Lennon wore one on the Beatles' 1964 tour.)

Ernest Hemingway was a massive beret aficionado. He'd served in WWI in Italy, lived in Paris during the 1920s, and was a foreign correspondent during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Perhaps the beret was his way of showing he belonged in Europe.

Hemingway (far left) on the 1925 trip to Spain that would inspire The Sun Also Rises.

Hemingway in Spain during the Civil War, 1937.

Perhaps it's in Hemingway – in many ways an intensely macho figure, yet one who, like Picasso, inspired legions of slavish young boho imitators – that the beret's military, creative and cosmopolitan European meanings coalesce.