Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007


George Szirtes has written a lengthy interview with me in a new book just out, Writing Liverpool: Essays and Interviews.

Liverpool, my home town and a significant influence on my ideas as a writer, is 2008's European Capital of Culture. You can find more of my views on it here

Welcome to Bag Snob readers

My friends Tina and Kelly at the Bag Snobs: A Selective Editorial on Designer Bags, whom I interviewed for UK Vogue, have linked to me. The Bag Snobs is one of my favourite on-line sites, as someone who understands the importance of accessories. Everything you need to know about bags you will find there. So, if you don't know them already, go visit the Bag Snobs.

And if you are a Bag Snob visitor, don't worry, there will be much discussion of handbags to come.

Belt tightening. Buy only these five things

Sarah Mower in the Telegraph reports retail gloom and doom on both sides of the Atlantic and suggests which five things to buy if you can only afford to buy five things.

It's time to stop, or at least get a grip on what's actually worth buying. As a recovering Primark shopper and someone who can still slip into crazy-happy spending trances at the tills of Harvey Nichols and Selfridges, I realise I'm a fine one to talk about prudence and necessity in wardrobe planning. I mean it, though.

It's going to require the relearning of habits that people like me have almost forgotten our mothers ever taught us, such as thinking ahead and (yuck!) budgeting. It may involve stopping to finger fabric, thinking how it'll wear, looking at care instructions, turning garments inside out to inspect how they're made.

(Though I discussed this very matter in the Guardian a couple of months ago:

For taste, knowing what to wear is about buying the right thing, not about buying for the sake of it.This past summer with all its attendant miseries, its downpours, its gang murders, its stock exchange nightmares and its unwearable clothes, should have taught us to stand up to fashion. To buy in order to make us look good, not to be a perambulating advert for some scruffy graduate of Central St Martin's.

No plastic

For those of you who didn't manage to get an Anya Hindmarch I'm not a plastic bag and don't want to buy a fake on ebay, Marie Claire magazine is giving away a Plastic Ain’t My Bag shopper, free with the December issue, supporting We Are What We Do’s campaign to make this year a plastic bag free Christmas. Marie Claire says their bag is 'an organic cotton shopper that is the perfect accessory, sturdy enough for all your Christmas shopping.'

I did manage to get an (actually three) Anya Hindmarch I'm not a plastic bag(s), and I use one of them pretty much every day, for shopping, as a gym bag and for travel when you can only take one carry-on. It fits my laptop and my handbag. My acquisition of plastic bags has dropped to almost nothing. I don't say it will save the planet (persuading one billion Chinese people that a car isn't better than a bicycle is our only hope of doing that, save revolutionary technological fixes) but do we really want disfigure the environment with landfill sites full of the cast off detritrus of our shopping?

Chanel wins

I'm not surprised that Chanel won The Thoughtful Dresser poll (it can't have helped poor old Christian that this very site has a picture of her at the top.) Seeing Dior's dresses up close at the Golden Age of Couture show at the V&A (hurry on down there if you are in or can get to London), you understand what a consummate couturier he was. If I absolutely had to choose one dress from either of them, I think it would be a Dior. In a Dior dress you become someone else, you are the essence of the feminine. He seems to understand a woman's soul. In a Dior dress you dream, no - you become what you dream of. You are wearing the dress of a poet.

But Chanel understands a woman's life, the one she lives every day. She was one of the great pioneers of Modernism, of clothes to be worn in the machine age. She changed everything she touched, even the way we smell.

I wrote a piece about Chanel in the Telegraph a few weeks ago, exploring her life and work:

The very first LBD, the Ford of dresses, she called it, referring to the Model T car built on a production line for the masses, was designed to be democratic; any woman could wear one. The original design shows a long-sleeved, slim-hipped dress, gathered low at the waist and reaching to just below the knee. Its only adornments are two pleated Vs dropping from the shoulders and rising from the hem, meeting in the middle to further create the illusion of slimness. You could step out in it today and no one would notice that you were wearing something designed more than 80 years ago. Chanel would develop this concept for the rest of her life, altering the fabrics, adding sequins or chiffon trains, but the underlying structure remained. A black dress, with dropped waist and schoolgirl white collars and cuffs, worn over leather footless tights from 2003 reveals how radical her thought was. 'A fashion that goes out of fashion overnight is a distraction, not a fashion,' she said.

My name is Linda, I am a hypochondriac . . .

. . . and as such I am still alive. Hypochondria is a neurosis. On the other hand, my mother waited two years to see a doctor about a lump in her breast, 'because I was frightened.' I, on the other hand, never do a breast self-examination late at night or while on holiday because, on finding a lump it is my intention to run to the doctor shoving aside anyone with a little sniffle or a bad foot, crying, out of my way, I've found a lump. I am in a group genetically disposed to breast cancer, Ashkenazi Jews. Maybe I'll get it, my mother did, my aunt died of it. But what I will do is have it treated at once.

So my second thought for the day is, as yesterday, if you find a lump get it checked out now.

And please read Dina Rabinovitch's diary, republished in the Guardian today.

He asks a couple of questions, like when did you first find the lump, looking up from his sheet of white paper when I say, "Uh, quite a long time ago, probably when I was pregnant, actually." "How old's the baby?" he asks pleasantly. "He'll be three in a couple of months," I answer. Later, when I say, "I should have come earlier, shouldn't I", childlike, seeking dispensation, he offers it instantly. "We don't talk about what's already happened, no, no, no, it's closed."

Thought for the day

'I'm not going to recoil from the superficial. Surfaces, which are what the eye first falls on, usually say more than their contents, provisional by definition.' Joseph Brodsky* (thank you, Eamonn)

* He won the Nobel Prize for Literature, you're going to argue with him?

Tuesday, 30 October 2007


I am incredibly sorry to report the death of the journalist Dina Rabinovitch, aged 44. My love and condolences to her husband, Anthony.

If you have a lump, please, go to the doctor.

'In that detached way (quite possibly brought on by the two tiny, round morphine tablets I take each morning and night to stop the tumours from making my back ache) in which I register everything these days, I note first my slight sense of surprise at what the shop assistant has just said to me - "a size eight" - and then how little pleasure it gives me, and how odd that is, because once I would have thought size eight was great, albeit unattainable. Last of all, I note with some pleasure that I feel genuine anger. I'm glad because I've been worried at how muted my feelings have been of late, but here I am, violently angry at a culture that tricked me into thinking thin is good, when I can't stop myself losing weight these weeks, and I'm struggling to eat enough to stay well. Maybe it's the Jewish background, maybe it's actually the truth, but I believe that if I eat, I will be fine.'

Dina's Normblog profile

Today Linda is

Writing about Lanvin

Reading: Anita Brookner's The Latecomers

Dior or Chanel? The Thoughtful Dresser poll

Who was the most important designer of the twentieth century? Coco Chanel, who invented modern dress and who liberated women for modern times? Or Christian Dior whose New Look created some of the most beautiful clothes ever made?

Cast your vote in the Thoughtful Dresser Poll on the right.

Thought for the day

'Fashion can be bought. Style one must possess.' Edna Woolman Chase

Further to the three shoe man problem

Lynne Kiesling at Knowledge Problem: Commentary on Economics, Information and Human Action* writes:

. . . in general that's what most of the straight men of my acquaintance think. That is, until their women burrow into their subconscious and persuade them otherwise ... not counting athletic footwear (running shoes, bike shoes, etc.), the KP Spouse has about 5 pair of black or brown shoes of various degrees of formality, a pair of nice black boots, and a pair of nice brown boots. And the ubiquitous pair of Adidas Response trail runners that are the wear-around-always shoes. And the Teva sandals. I call that a respectable collection.

I've tried like the devil to get him in a sassy pair of retro-funky sneaker kicks, but nuthin' doin' ... as Linda says, though, that's OK, because it leaves more room in the closet for shoes for me ...

Eamonn has also returned, with a pertinent question for the Manolo, which I have hand-delivered to him in person, written on parchment and rolled up inside a chocolate shoe. I wait an answer when New York rises from its slumbers.

So, style warriors, a question for you. considering that I live in Buenos Aires where it's going to be unbearably hot and humid for the next 4/5 months, I work a lot at home and don't get invited to many formal events and I am anything but rich; what single footwear purchase should I consider making that would do most to raise me up from my badly shod state?

Just while I'm here, I might as well mention that Lynne adds.

Sitting in the Manchester, NH airport, coming home from a way cool conference on new frontiers in emergent order research ... the brain is too full to think of anything along those lines for a post! But courtesy of , I've found a new fashion read: The Thoughtful Dresser, by writer Linda Grant. I love one of her tag lines:

Because you can't have depths without surfaces.

Brilliant. Evocative. I can't wait to read more.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Made in Italy. It says.

Over at the Bag Snobs a dispute has broken out in the comments about the relative merits of handbags made in Italy versus those made in China. Who would not prefer a handbag lovingly crafted in a sun-dappled Bologna bottega by craftsmen with centuries of tradition at their fingertips?

Reality: European Union regulations are so weak that you only need to put the handle on in Italy and you can claim it's made there. Outside Florence there are whole company towns comprising of nothing but Chinese foreign workers.

The only way tell the quality of a bag is not the label nor the place of manufacture - but to look at it.

How many shoes should a man own?

How many shoes doth a man need? Three, is the conventional wisdom, and no, flipflops and slippers don't count.

Eammon, writing in the comments box on an earlier post says:

1 pair of newish hi-tech brand trainers

1 pair of normal black leather shoes

and 1 pair of knackered deck shoes that I may have no choice but to replace as summer is virtually upon us

(I believe he lives in Argentina, ie below the Equator.)

It's a firm rule that no man thinks he needs more than three pairs of shoes, while for a woman, the notion of limiting the numbers of shoes she buys is as philistine as placing a ceiling on the numbers of books in her library.

Of course there is always a downside to male multiple shoe ownership: it has the potential to reduce the pairs available to his wife.

If I buy this will I look like Kate?

Hadley Freeman in today's Guardian writes:

'Now, I thought celebs flogging their own scents was weird enough, but trying to make the rest of the country look like their mini-me's takes the concepts of "self-obsession" and "lack of a sense of personal privacy" to a whole new level. To wit, Kate Moss has designed for Topshop a copy of the dress in which she met Johnny Depp. You can see the thinking here for the prospective customers - "If I wear this dress, Johnny Depp will snog me" - but Kate's mentality is a different matter. Now, the Kate'n'Johnny union is often seen as the Tristan and Isolde coupling of the modern day, but I don't recall the legacy of the latter pairing to be cheap knock-offs on Oxford Circus. And you know, maybe that's why they lived so unhappily ever after.'

Thought for the day

'I can't imagine becoming bored with red - it would be like becoming bored with the person you love.' Diana Vreeland

Child Labour and Gap

Child sweatshop shame threatens Gap's ethical image | World | The Observer

I have a piece coming out soon in the Guardian which covers these matters. Gap generally has cleaned up its act and developed a very good track record on worker's rights and the supply chain (at least better than many other high street shops.) Was it trying to conceal the use of child labour, or was it the case that its usual supplier subcontracted the work? Interviews on the BBC last night with Gap exceutives indicate that they have called a summit of all their suppliers in the sub-continent.

The Observer report says:

Gap has huge contracts in India, which boasts one of the world's fastest-growing economies. But over the past decade, India has also become the world capital for child labour. According to the UN, child labour contributes an estimated 20 per cent of India's gross national product with 55 million children aged from five to 14 employed across the business and domestic sectors.

'Gap may be one of the best-known fashion brands with a public commitment to social responsibility, but the employment [by subcontractors ultimately supplying major international retail chains] of bonded child slaves as young as 10 in India's illegal sweatshops tells a different story,' says Bhuwan Ribhu, a Delhi lawyer and activist for the Global March Against Child Labour.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Why clothes matter

credit: The Sartorialist

I was at the private view of the V&A's current exhibition, The Golden Age of Couture
a few weeks ago. (No, not the £1000 a plate ball the night before - even if I could have afforded the ticket, it would have cleaned me out for the dress.) I was standing in the V&A's shop with a glass of champagne in one hand, trying on a vintage fur-collared cardigan with diamante clasps and buttons at the sleeves. An envious crowd was standing about, waiting to see if I was going to take it or not. The champagne went to my head. I got out my credit card. With my purchase I wandered past the statuary, tapping along those marble floors, into the exhibition, looking at Dior's Bar suit and some Digby Morton tailoring. Ines de la Fressanges, impossibly tall and thin, in a silver satin bias cut dress gave a charmingly long-winded speech. I drank an unidentifiable cocktail and talked to an old university friend about a bid to build a replica Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in Liverpool. Then back home to a hangover the next morning and aching ankles from my high heels, but who cares? Fashion is the elixir of life.

Look, the day job of the writer is 67 per cent staring out of the window, 28 percent going to make another cup of tea and the remainder is spent actually typing. Then deleting. Fortunately, as Norman Mailer said, you can't beat the hours. Come lunch-time you can knock off and do something else. You might, like, say Martin Amis, write voluminous screeds about the post 9/11 world or you could keep your mouth shut and go shopping.

Brood on this. There are only a few minutes every day when we are not clothed: in the shower, changing from one set of garments to another, having sex - these times of total nakedness are far less significant than the overwhelming hours in which we are dressed. Clothing begins in the first minute or two of our lives and we will be clothed in the grave, whether it is a suit placed on our corpse by an undertaker, or a linen shroud.

Writing about clothes, let alone thinking about them, is considered to be light-weight, trivial, empty-headed. Fashion is for those devoured by greed and consumerism. To be serious is to barely conscious of what you wear.

Enough of the sneering, already. Clothes are important.

As the great Manolo the Shoeblogger writes:

. . .claiming to not care about the clothes, to not be concerned about what one wears, is the paradox, for the clothes worn by one who claims not to care make as much the statement as those worn by one who dresses with purpose. These inescapable facts obtain: that clothes are always necessary, and that others they will always judge us by them.

Words of acute wisdom, no?

About the links

The list of blogs on the right-hand side are the ones I read every day.

Manolo the Shoeblogger - he the Daddy! The greatest fashion and celebrity blog on the web today. Behind the Manolo is an anonymous New Yorker whose witty, brilliant mind takes a passion for shoes into an erudite and incredibly funny take on our modern times. Particularly check him out on Wednesdays for his guessing game Whose Shoes?

The Bag Snobs, Tina and Kelly, write about my favourite accessories, bags. They vigorously review every new handbag of note and are merciless in their condemnation of ugly, badly designed bags, whatever the brand or the price. They go where no fashion magazine dares. And they still allow you to dream that one day you might own a crocodile Hermes Birkin.

The Sartorialist is a series of photographs of ordinary people, or people who work in fashion, taken on the street, often with little or no comment. They invite the viewer to develop an understanding of what makes individual style, which is rarely the slavish following of fashion. His pictures from Sunday mornings in Harlem illustrate that you need be neither young nor slim to have inimitable style.

On matters of world significance, I invariably take my lead from Professor Norman Geras whose Normblog investigates the maddening questions we all need to get our heads round since September 11th. I greatly admire his ability to patiently examine the moral complexity of these difficult times. He also likes cricket and country music and has been known from time to time to link to The Manolo.

Finally, George Szirtes, is the place I go to when I want to think about literature and visual art. George, winner of the T.S. Eliot poetry prize, and his wife the artist Clarissa Upchurch are the people to whom I dedicated my forthcoming novel, The Clothes on Their Backs and whose poem 'Dressing' forms its epigraph.

Please go and read these fantastic blogs.

Thinking about clothes, literature and other matters

In the next few months I will be writing about clothes, about literature, and very occasionally about news and current affairs. I'll also be reporting on parties, exhibitions and private views, in other words life in London in these interesting and rather fabulous days - whether it's the opening of the new Anya Hindmarch flagship store on Sloane Street next month, or what goes on in Brick Lane, where my rapper nephew lives. Finally, this is not a political blog, let's save those weighty concerns for other places. I welcome all comments and will moderate only very sparingly. I will not tolerate abusive posts.