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

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Depths and surfaces

A mysterious on-line magazine called No More: A Compendium of Wit and Folly, has the most intelligent and insightful review so far of The Clothes On Their Backs. And I'm pleased to see they read The Thoughtful Dresser, too.

Grant takes a firm interest in fashion and the history of fashion, but ‘serious’ facts and ‘frivolous’ fashion are not so easily separated, as she is keen to establish. The way we dress has always been part of the surface-depth conundrum, whether you are listening to homely wisdom (it’s what’s inside that counts) or depressing yourself reading the works of French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard. It’s difficult to think of an anti-establishment movement that hasn’t been at least partly defined by a dress code, from Bolsheviks and their caps to Boudica and her face paint. It is even more challenging to imagine being oblivious to people’s clothes. They are simply part of the visible environment. Grant’s title, The Clothes on Their Backs, speaks of immigrants fleeing and arriving, ‘left with nothing but the clothes on their back’. These men and women lose more than just possessions: naked of context and familiarity, they need to construct themselves anew.
. . .
The Clothes on Their Back is about dark places and bright, beautiful clothes, which can help define and preserve identity, often under the most terrible circumstances.

Sunday Telegraph review of The Clothes On Their backs

Like money, clothes have real, symbolic and psychological value. Linda Grant understands these dimensions implicitly. Stitched beautifully into the fabric of her latest novel is an acute understanding of the role clothes play in reflecting identity and self-worth.

Sándor Kovacs, a refugee from Hungary, arrives in London in 1956 with just 'a mackintosh, a scarf and a leather satchel' - literally the clothes on his back. Over time he builds up a murky business empire as a landlord to immigrants from the West Indies, a career which eventually lands him in prison, sees him likened to the Kray twins and depicted in the media as the 'face of evil'.

The one image his niece Vivien has of him from her childhood is of his electric blue suit and suede shoes. Kept apart from this scandalous man by her hibernatory immigrant parents, Vivien's first present from him when she is in her early twenties is a green silk dress.

By this stage it's the late 1970s, the National Front is throwing its weight around, and Vivien changes her name to Miranda so that she can befriend her family's 'black sheep'. Gradually Sándor's stories about his early life act as a mirror, reflecting back to Vivien a stronger sense of herself.

Vivien's position highlights Grant's concern over how we validate ourselves. Is adopting the uniform of one particular gang (punks, skinheads, tango dancers) enough to forge our identity? For decades, British-born Vivien cannot get her bearings.
. . .
Grant's own particular beam reveals the way we acquire our sense of self from what gets reflected back to us, either in the mirror or in our relationships with others. She is as at home writing about the thrilling ripple of silk as she is charting social tensions.

So: Prada or Primark? Rather enticingly, Grant provides the best of both.

read the rest

Botox, etc some issues

Read, ponder

A recent investigation by the consumer watchdog Which? found a woeful lack of professionalism within the UK's cosmetic treatments industry: non-medical staff giving advice, companies pressurising uninformed customers into buying treatments, and even nurses selling Botox jabs on eBay. When an independent panel of experts rated the 19 clinics that Which? investigated, they found none to be "excellent", and only five managed a rating of "good".

"People tend to think that procedures such as Botox and dermal fillers are safer than plastic surgery because they are quick and don't involve an operation," says Jenny Driscoll, a health campaigner at Which?, whose website ( provides one of the few comprehensive guides to treatments.

"But actually, the plastic surgery market is far better regulated because all surgeons have to be passed by the General Medical Council and the Healthcare Commission. Conversely, when it comes to non-invasive procedures, there is no single body you can go to for information, and rule-breaking often goes unchecked."Driscoll thinks that because cosmetic treatments are viewed as vanity procedures, the Government is reluctant to spend money on the industry. "But my argument is that if you do not have better regulation, you will only end up having to spend money on these people when they need NHS treatment if something goes wrong."

My own position on these treatments is that I am too much of a hypochondriac to have any non-essential treatments with side effects and would rather spend the money on a digital mammogram. And Creme de la Mer.

In your face

When I was young enough not to worry about the etiquette of showing cleavage, I did not do so because: dresses that showed cleavage were not in fashion, and even had they been, I did not possess one. Now I have a cleavage I must concern myself with adding to the list of proscriptions to the purchase of my perfect dress, is it cut too low?

I know a famous women in British journalism who smilingly asserted that her steps up the career ladder were aided by her decision to always wear a low cut top to the office. Duh. Why did I fill my head with literature instead of thinking up that one? Why did I assume that newspaper editors were interested in whether I could write and think? Obviously I could not think if I didn't work that one out.

The Telegraph today agonises over the new rules.

They are everywhere. Encased in lace, just visible beneath the check-out girl's uniform at Sainsbury's, harnessed by spandex at the gym, like two setting suns about to disappear beneath the horizon of Victoria Beckham's slashed Cavalli dress, spilling from overly ambitious frocks at award ceremonies. Enough, I say. British women are confused about breasts: we need new guidelines - a little breastiquette, please.

and comes up with the following list od do's and don'ts.


At work or the school gates: There is one simple rule, regardless of age. The breast bone is your barometer – never wear anything that dips below its midpoint. A glimpse of inner cleavage or the underside of a breast is a step too far.

At a cocktail or dinner party: Under-40s can go as low as an imaginary empire line. For over-40s, especially the large-breasted, the neckline should rise an inch a decade, but there is no reason why – provided you have spent a lifetime shielding your throat from the sun – one should be confined to polo necks before the age of 70.

At balls: Under-40s may go as low as they dare. Over-40s, invest in expensive underwear and structured evening wear.

The surgically enhanced: Those who have turned to the surgeon for a little rafraîchissement in middle age should not feel tempted to pay and display. See above.

Visible underwear: “A tiny flash of pretty bra or a slightly opened button showing just a bit of cleavage hints at what could yet be revealed,” say Trinny and Susannah in their book What Your Clothes Say About You. Their advice is generous: visible underwear is a dangerous card to play, often yielding a crude result.

Accessorise when necessary: A common complaint is that all the most beautiful dresses are low-cut. Use scarves, pashminas and camisoles to make a dress more versatile.

Thought for the day

Fashion comes from a dream. Dior