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

Friday, 2 November 2007

Something UK shoppers should know about

Fashion Confidential

Tales my mother told me

Some time ago, I was talking to the daughter of a Most Distinguished Intellectual. ‘I had a very difficult relationship with my mother,’ she told me. I was astounded. Nothing could have pleased me better than to have grown up in Hampstead, in a political, book-lined home where they read the Guardian over the breakfast table and discussed its contents; where it was taken for granted that you would go to Oxford, and where there was no pressure to get married, have children and make your mother a grandmother.

What was wrong with her, I asked. ‘Oh, you know, she was very angry with the Nazis for stealing her childhood, she could be very bitter. But she did teach me some important values about opposing oppression, and feminism of course. Are there any lessons your mother taught you that have stayed with you, Linda?’

We were driving through Swiss Cottage at the time, held up at the traffic lights. I tried to think. My mother was not an intellectual, she read the Daily Mail, lived for shopping and what-will-the-neighbours-think and was also a difficult woman, but for different reasons altogether. But indeed, I suddenly realised, she had taught me an important lesson and it had not only stayed with me all my life but I could consider it a defining part of my identity.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘She taught me that a good handbag makes the outfit.’

‘I wish my mother had taught me something useful like that.’

Two days after the 7/7 London bombings, understanding that if I didn’t get on the tube now, maybe I never would, I set off on the Victoria Line to Oxford Circus. Police with heavy weaponry milled about on the platform, the passengers were jittery. Rescue workers were still trying to retrieve bodies in the deep tunnels below us. I got out at Oxford Circus, into a profound, sunny morning, high blue skies and walked up to Selfridges. Inside I passed a man from Liverpool on the phone: I’m alright, Mum, there’s no bombs, I’m just trying on a Paul Smith jacket, I’ll ring you back.’ When people shop, life goes on.*

In the January sales in Harvey Nichols a few months earlier, I had bought a purple DKNY coat, and on the way out passed a cream/pink Furla handbag which was one of those coup de foudre, fall in love encounters frustrated by my bank balance. Now, in Selfridges, seven months later, it was the very last day of the summer sales, with an additional 10 per cent off to lure in terrified Londoners (because that’s what terrorism’s goal is, not merely to kill but to terrify those who survive). And there it was, my bag, patiently waiting for me, reduced from £330 to £93.

That bag was later stolen, recovered by the police with most of its contents gone, its leather subsequently ruined in a very heavy downpour in Budapest but I can’t quite throw it out because it was, in its time one of the best bags I have ever owned. It made every outfit I wore it with.

Eventually I replaced it. This came about because of my historic (for me) meeting with Anya Hindmarch and her wares when Alexandra Shulman sent me off to her Pont street shop after a fruitless five-day search for a brown day bag. Buying bags is about finding the best one you can possibly afford that is a classic - that is not a bag that you have seen in a magazine on the arm of a celebrity (which she got for free, 'gifted' by the designer) and which will be out of date in three months. A magazine editor told me that 20-year-old girls on £14,000 pa are buying £1000 handbags and going into crippling credit card debt to pay for them. Bags they will be ashamed to be seen with in a year.

If the best bag you can afford is an Hermes Birkin, buy it. If it’s a Chanel 2:55, buy it, if it’s an Anya Hindmarch Carker, buy it, if it’s a Furla buy it. It’s not a pet, it’s not a Xmas tree decoration, it’s an accessory. It’s designed to be right for the occasion, whether it’s going to work or going to a party, and it’s designed to pull together the rest of your outfit. Were I have to surrender all but three bags from my own collection they would be: my brown Carker, a red suede Fendi baguette, and a sequined evening bag inherited from my mother.

When she died in 1999, we put in her death notice in the Jewish Chronicle, ‘She taught us to respect others, that a bowl of chicken soup can cure almost anything, and a good handbag makes the outfit.’ I’ve worn her evening bag to Vogue parties thinking of the day, sometime back in the Fifties when she bought it, little knowing that from suburban Liverpool it would one day be held with pride and affection, with no jealousy at all of what Kate Moss had on her arm (Pete Doherty, as it happens.) It makes the outfit every time.

Norm has something to add

A small but important addition

To my very small blog roll I have added the site of my friend Lisa Goldman. The Thoughtful Dresser is not a political blog but from time to time it does reflect some of my wider interests. Lisa is a Vancouver-born Canadian-Israeli journalist, now based in Tel Aviv. Building up to the summer of 2006 she worked to make contact with bloggers on the other side of the sealed border with Lebanon. When the war started and the bombs fell she insisted on doing everything she could to maintain contact with the ordinary individuals, bloggers and journalists like herself, who were supposed to be her enemies. She insisted on not accepting the demonisation and dehumanisation which is a characteristic of this conflict. She embodies for me the quote from Vasily Grossman's novel Life and Fate, on the sidebar (a book which at some point I will write more of): 'The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and his right to these peculiarities.'

Prohibited from entering Lebanon because she holds, in addition to her Canadian passport, an Israeli one, she nevertheless went there this summer. The discovery, after she left, prompted a scathing editorial in the Beirut Daily Star accusing her of being a spy. The hundreds of emails and comments she received from Lebanese civilians thanking her for her visit, proves Grossman's maxim.

There are evil people in the world, but most of us merely struggle from day to day to find joy in whatever interests us, in love in friendship, in clothes or football. Flawed and often failing, we must nevertheless do what we can to live our lives in the circumstances, societies and political systems in which we find ourselves and sometimes we must struggle to change what is intolerable about those societies and systems. But mostly, we just live. And being alive is a unique wonder of its own.

Thought for the day

Now I'm trying to decide: Do I care more about clothing or about literature? There isn't any great difference. I respect clothing because it is literature. Wayne Koestenbaum