Sunday, 29 January 2012

Closet Thinking

Here is last Sunday's Closet Thinker (or read it below, with links), and today's column, as well. (The illustrations are by the wonderful Mio Matsumoto, whose drawings illuminate the Closet Thinker every week in Stella). Meanwhile, I've been eating hot porridge for breakfast (it's so cold in the mornings) and almond mini magnums at night (why does a choc ice straight out of the freezer seem so appealing after dinner, even in January?). No answer yet to this conundrum, but it seems to be working for me as an antidote to the low skies; speaking of which, there is an unexpected hint of potential snow in the London sky this morning (although on Friday, there was a violent burst of hail instead.)
Now, just off to make my porridge...

22 January:
Once upon a time, the beau monde escaped the misery of January aboard their private yachts, and doubtless some still do, but for the majority of fashion consumers, the cruise (also known in the US as resort) collections have come to mean something different. Often the most profitable of seasons, and frequently more wearable than catwalk extravaganzas designed for supermodels rather than real women, cruise fills the gap between the autumn/winter collections (available since the dog-days of late summer) and the spring/summer lines (due to arrive next month, when the weather will still be miserable).

Not that resort lines are the sole preserve of luxury brands; H&M launched its Versace cruise collection three days ago, with silk dresses and bikinis in strawberry and butterfly prints, alongside matching bags, earrings and charm bracelets. I didn’t particularly like the much-publicised first collaboration between Versace and H&M – although apparently I’m in a minority of one, given the speed with which it sold out – but this new one looks sweetly appealing (and hopefully the quality of the fabric will have improved since last time).

Alternatively, you could interpret cruise in a more literal, nautical sense, given the predominance of oceanic motifs in the spring 2012 collections: starfish at Yves Saint Laurent and Versace, shark-tooth medallions at Givenchy, tropical aquatic prints at Peter Pilotto and Mary Katrantzou, and an entire Chanel show based around a fantastical seascape, complete with conch-shell clutches and Florence Welch as a mermaid emerging from a giant clam, singing ‘What the Water Gave Me’.

Sceptics, cynics and sufferers from Seasonal Affective Disorder may by now be muttering in disbelief about the implausibility of catwalk scuba ensembles (as seen at Peter Pilotto) set against a background of economic catastrophe. But history reveals that this is not the first occasion in which high style has collided with a surreal view of how to dress in a crisis. During the First World War, the artist Paul Iribe (who subsequently became Coco Chanel’s fiancĂ©e) transported wounded soldiers to Paris from the Front Line whilst dressed as a deep-sea diver, for reasons that have never become clear. At his side were Misia Sert (the reigning muse of modernism) and another leading exponent of the avant-garde, Jean Cocteau; both of them dressed in nurses’ uniforms designed by the couturier Paul Poiret, who had also donated his delivery vans as ambulances. Unfortunately, Poiret was thereafter bankrupted; suggesting, perhaps, that if absurdist fashion is a fishy business, it is nevertheless occasionally capable of making waves, even while so far out as to be drowning…

29 January.
It is a convention of fashion (and yes, this is a business as prone to conformism as any other, despite protestations to the contrary) that one is either a wearer of spots or stripes, but not both. If polka dots are supposedly for the girlish, then stripes are for those of a more gamine look; as embodied by Jean Seberg sporting a sailor’s top, in contrast to the young Bridget Bardot in a pink spotted bikini. But there is also the Third Way, currently very much in evidence, kick-started by Dolce & Gabbana’s star print dresses in the winter 2011 collection, and still in a beguiling variety of forms (my favourite a starry cashmere sweater from Chinti and Parker at net-a-porter).

The timing of a resurgence of starry motifs is intriguing, given the concurrent economic gloom, which some commentators are now referring to as a Great Recession, echoing the long slump in the wake of the Wall Street Crash. If previous decades – the Roaring Twenties and the big-spending Noughties – allowed themselves to play with the idea of stripped-down fashion (the Little Black Dress; luxe minimalism), then the aesthetic of 2012 has some parallels with that of 1932. Nowhere is this more evident than in fashion’s latest employment of diamond stars, as if to remind us that even in a Depression, a few essential elements remain fixed points of navigation, and potentially safer investments than risky stock markets.

Hardly a coincidence, then, that Chanel’s 2012 Cruise collection revived the star-strewn jewellery designs from Coco Chanel’s diamond show, originally staged eighty years ago. Princesses and celebrities alike came to the opening party in 1932, to see Mademoiselle Chanel’s radiant, astronomical jewels; a sparkling treasure trove that formed a curious juxtaposition with a hardening winter, when increasing numbers of unemployed were homeless on the streets of Paris.

To Chanel, however, it made perfect sense: she declared that her glittering constellation of stars was the only way forward ‘during a period of financial crisis when an instinctive desire for authenticity is reawakened in every domain’. This pronouncement might seem dangerously close to Marie Antoinette, but as it happened, Chanel was proved right, at least in terms of the markets: two days after her diamond show opened, De Beers stock jumped 20 points on the London exchange.

It is always a dangerous game to make predictions, in fashion as in the wider economy; but still, I’d hazard a guess that however terrifying the coming bust, diamond stars by the luxury brands will sell even better than they did in the boom years.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Short and Sweet

I've been engrossed in Dan Lepard's baking book -- a present from Father Christmas -- which is the perfect late January comfort read. Not that I've just been reading about cooking; there has been much activity in the kitchen in the last few days (possibly because my younger son has his arm in a sling, suffering the after-effects of a dislocated shoulder -- my cooking can't mend his rugby injuries, but as is generally the case in this household, baking seems the best thing to do, under trying circumstances). So, chicken soup on Saturday, after the hospital, lemon cake for tea on Sunday, followed by fish pie for dinner; a plentiful stir fry last night, and salmon trout this evening; the convalescence has also been punctuated by Maltesers (for both of us). Very annoying: I can't link to any of DL's recipes on the Guardian website without my computer crashing -- have tried eight times in the 45 minutes, and am now giving up and going to bed. But I very much want to try making one of his pear cakes before too long, and the caramelized banana cake looks incredibly tempting...

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Snowdrops and gloves

It's drizzling this morning, after days of crisp air and icy cold blue skies; but though I miss the sun, I'm glad of the rain for my spring bulbs and the cyclamens that have miraculously survived the winter thus far in window boxes. I've been re-reading Elizabeth Bowen -- To the North is such a brilliant novel, and her short stories are remarkable (their landscape seems to continue, long after I've stopped reading them; like a dream that exists even when you have stopped dreaming it).
Meanwhile, Frances Cornford popped back into my mind, after I read Bowen's 'Hand in Glove'; prompting last Sunday's Closet Thinker. When I think of Cornford's Fat Lady poem, it seems to form an instantly visual scene -- vivid as the woman in gloves, seen from a train. For me, the fat lady is wearing white gloves, and there are snowdrops on the winter ground. I don't actually think of her as fat; rather, of the poet as thin and melancholic; possibly hungry, as well, with nothing to eat on her train journey. Finally, it was Henrietta Llewelyn Davies who introduced me to Frances Cornford, and much else besides (on a train from Fowey to London, after we had both been talking at the Du Maurier Literary Festival); all of which I find myself remembering, in the new year after Henri's death.

Closet Thinker: January 15th
It is perhaps indicative of the time of the year that when my thoughts turn to gloves – why have I mislaid one again, leaving me with yet another singleton? – I also remember Frances Cornford’s poem, ‘To a Fat Lady Seen from a Train’: ‘O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,/ Missing so much and so much?/ O fat white woman whom nobody loves,/ Why do you walk through the fields in gloves…’

I have often wondered about Cornford’s own gloves, and her writing hands beneath. The slender, dark-eyed grand-daughter of Charles Darwin, part of an abstemious family that disapproved of sugar, she married a Cambridge Classics don in 1909, the year before she composed the poem, and suffered from a depressive tendency, but history does not relate the details of how she kept her hands warm. Perhaps if her gloves had been cosier, she might have been less unforgiving of the fat woman; and it seems to me entirely possible that the larger lady wasn’t unloved – it was Frances herself who was feeling melancholic.

Anyway, the avoidance of chilly extremities is paramount this month, as is cheering food – for why punish oneself any further than necessary, given the flagellating weather and economic outlook? In an ideal world, a fairy godmother would bestow everyone with jolly gloves – my favourites are from Brora, long enough to cover well beyond the wrists, in soft Scottish cashmere. (I like them best in scarlet or blueberry; and am thoroughly annoyed at misplacing one of mine in each colour, leaving two unmatched left hands).

That said, traditional white gloves can still have something sinister about them, as is made manifest in Elizabeth Bowen’s wonderfully eerie short story, ‘Hand in Glove’, about two sisters living in Ireland in 1900, both in search of rich husbands. Bowen – herself of a generation of well-dressed women, brought up to believe that smart gloves were an essential part of an outfit – imagines a scenario whereby the sisters keep their ailing aunt locked alone in a bedroom, while breaking into her trunks in the attic containing her bridal finery. Only the aunt’s long gloves elude them, but when she finally dies, the elder sister, before even closing the old lady’s eyes, steals her keys and opens the last trunk, whereupon one of the gloves reaches up and strangles her…

Fortunately, when I discovered Coco Chanel’s white gloves in the pocket of one of her signature suits, no such ghostly horrors took place; but then I would never have the temerity to steal another woman’s gloves, however often I lose my own…

Friday, 13 January 2012

Reading and writing remembering in the New Year

I've been re-reading Nancy Mitford (you'll see why, in the Closet Thinker that I've posted, below), along with Alice Munroe's brilliant short story collection, The Love of a Good Woman, which is even better than I remembered it, and Five Sisters by James Fox (equally absorbing, and with some overlap of subject matter -- the lives and loves of women -- but also satisfyingly different, as a narrative non-fiction history of a dynasty that was almost too odd to invent).
More sisters on my mind -- you'll see I've been thinking about the Bronte corsets at the Parsonage in Haworth -- and my own sister, as always. The story about Ruth's misdiagnosis and death of breast cancer is more complicated than its reporting; but then isn't that generally the case in the messiness of real life? If I have learnt anything from Ruth's death, it is that life is precious, and all the more so for the randomness that can shape our journeys. Ruth cherished the little pleasures, as well as her great loves (and she had a huge capacity to love, and be loved), yet was also forced into confronting the worst of all losses -- to leave those who she loved, when she was far too young to die. Many years have passed since her death, but still, she seems so close; to me, at least, as if the apparent distance between us (that of the dead and the living) is not impossible to navigate. Whenever I write, she is somewhere in my mind -- as the writer whose courage and openness I admire and applaud, as well a beloved friend and sister, and the reader who understands where we both came from, even though she has traveled far ahead of me. Ruth knew the power of tiny details, as well as big ideas; of how our daily lives (what we wear, eat, read, discuss) forms a tapestry that continues to be threaded and sewn over many years. I once believed that death put an end to that weaving; yet it seems not to now. Here, then, are some small patches of an unfinished tapestry...

Closet Thinker: January 1st

We all know that Marilyn Monroe declared she wore nothing but Chanel No.5 to bed, but perhaps she might have been happier the morning after the night before in soft cotton pyjamas? In my experience, they are a welcome consolation against the harsh realities of January, as long as they are not made of nylon; for I still remember those sudden shocks of static electricity from childhood, induced by the synthetic peach nightgowns that my maternal grandmother bought as Christmas presents for all the female members of the family.
My mother generally donated these flounced nighties to the dressing-up-box – my sister and I wore them to Narnia and back again – and like her, I would rather sleep in plain cotton than frilly acrylic. As a look, however, this can need fine-tuning; even the grandest of Nancy Mitford’s aristocrats loses her dignity appearing thus in Love in a Cold Climate: ‘Lady Montdore cut rather a comic figure drinking strong tea in bed among masses of lace pillows, her coarse grey hair frizzed out and wearing what appeared to be a man’s striped flannel pyjama top under a feathered wrap.’

Mitford always had a sharp eye for these details, perhaps because she came of age in an era when pyjama parties were the milieu of the fashionable Bright Young People. (‘Dearest Old Bottom,’ she wrote to her brother Tom in 1928, upon escaping from the conventional formalities of English family life in the countryside, ‘My dear this visit is being a perfect orgy, if only you were here you don’t know what you’ve missed We haven’t once been to bed before 2, pyjama parties every night…’). Hence the parade of nightwear in Mitford’s first novel, ‘Highland Fling’: ‘Sally looked lovely in crepe-de-chine pyjamas, over which she wore a tweed coat lined with fur. Lady Prague was also wrapped in a tweed coat over a linen nightdress and a Shetland wool cardigan.’

Mitford’s scene was set in a draughty Scottish castle, but her world was not entirely removed from that of Coco Chanel in silk pyjamas, entertaining the Duke of Westminster and Winston Churchill at her Riviera villa, the epitome of apparently easy chic. ‘Coco dines at home in printed pyjamas,’ ran the Vogue caption to Christian Berard’s illustration of Chanel in 1937, ‘[with] jewels, striped linen, flannel jacket…’ Perhaps the closest we can get to that fantasy landscape nowadays is within the pages of the Toast catalogue, inhabited by tousled beauties in velvet dressing gowns; either that, or escape to bed to read the glorious stories of Nancy Mitford herself.

Closet Thinker: January 8th

Within the archives of the Bronte Parsonage Museum are several tiny corsets, belonging to the sisters, and when you see them on a winter’s day, as I have done, it seems believable that Anne, Emily and Charlotte died young because of a combination of cold, consumption and constriction. It is the memory of these corsets that prompts me to suggest that January might not be the best month to squeeze oneself into the modern equivalent – now known as ‘shapewear’ – given that we are already tortured by dismal weather, indigestion, and winter viruses. Breathing freely is therefore the only sensible option…

Not that I’m averse to a new set of underwear at this time of year, as long as it’s not too tight; anything that provides a small pleasure in these, the most depressing weeks. Having recently interviewed two very chic women – L’Wren Scott and Carine Roitfeld – I was struck by how practical they were on the subject of underpinnings. Scott (who designs for the voluptuous Christina Hendricks, amongst others) remarked that big knickers were unnecessary with a properly fitted dress – ‘you don’t need control underwear to do the work of a zip, that’s what the dress is for’ – although she also recommended an excellent bra from John Lewis. And Roitfeld, the former editor in chief of French Vogue, proclaimed the cheering effect of black tights (hers are from Fogal, sheer and seamed at the back): ‘something that makes me happy now is a pair of new tights – it’s not so expensive, not like buying a Dolce & Gabbana dress or a Dior bag – this is nearer to yourself, nearer to your skin, something that makes you more sensuous, more voluptuous, more woman…’

There’s nothing like a conversation with Carine Roitfeld to make you want to rush out and buy French lingerie – she wears the highly desirable Carine Gilson (stocked at net-a-porter, though a trip to the Paris boutique in Rue de Grenelle would be a delight). Simone Perele is also good for quintessentially Parisian pieces, at slightly more affordable prices; I’ve got my eye on the charmingly named Invisi’bulles control briefs, that look less dominatrix than gossamer.

Meanwhile, I remain a fan, like everyone else, of stalwart M&S underwear, particularly the Ultimate Magic Secret Support Tights (not such a secret after all, given that quarter of a million pieces were sold in the run-up to Christmas). True, they’re not quite as glamorous as Fogal seamed stockings, but they do the trick for me, gently smoothing over a full stomach. Here’s to a comfortably happy new year…