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

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

In which Alber Elbaz and I think the same thoughts



From Lisa Armstrong in the Times, today

Elbaz isn't sure: “But they say in a recession that the one thing that doesn't go down is red lipstick.” Not that baldly commercial imperatives sway him. He used red because there have been many mornings, since the sunny, colourful collection that he designed more than a year ago (the one in all the magazines now, coveted by every woman conversant with modern clothes), when he woke up, switched on the news about Gaza or another failing bank and thought, Who Needs Fashion? “But, you know, it's almost like that moment when someone is told they have a disease. Either you say, OK, let me die now, or you say, I'm going to buy a beautiful dress, I'm going to go forward and I'm going to go back to lipstick. And do you know what? A good shoe or a good dress does something to you. It's not just about fashion victims. It really does do something for all women.”

Eccentric as this might seem to those not embalmed in fashion fluid, he is on to something. In The Thoughtful Dresser, Linda Grant's new book about clothes, she recounts the almost life-saving effects on female inmates of a consignment of red lipstick mysteriously delivered the to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp shortly after the British Red Cross arrived in 1945.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

A change of perspective

Here in Cornwall it is almost impossible to understand or remember why anyone would ever wear high heels. I think a counter-reaction has started, courtesy of Hadley Freeman:

Oh yes, this is the 21st century. Previously considered insurmountable barriers for women have been broken, glass ceilings shattered and exciting medical advances made daily. Yet when it comes to footwear, women seem to be voluntarily choosing to return to the days of footbinding, crippling themselves in the pursuit of neat little feet. You can't help remembering the times when women broke their ribs to narrow their waists. Plus ├ža change.

As you might have discerned by now, I am not a fan of high heels, never have been. In fact I've lost friends through wearing them, and I'm sure I'm not alone. The very few times I've reluctantly hoisted myself up into a pair for some social occasion, I've spent the entire evening grumpy, immobile and longing to leave. I hadn't even left the room at one such party when I heard an old acquaintance mutter - one who I haven't seen since, incidentally - "Christ, what's up with her?"

"Up" was the operative word in that question because I was up, all right - up about four-and-a-half inches in a pair of designer shoes I'd bought after having been promised that this label was the most comfortable around. Here's a hint: magazines and heel devotees often say things like, "Oh, you just haven't worn good heels. When you wear Manolo Blahnik / Jimmy Choo / Christian Louboutin shoes, you don't feel like you're wearing heels at all." They're lying. The only way you might not know you were wearing heels is if someone slipped them on your feet while you were sleeping, and even then they'd probably pinch you into wakefulness.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Another book



Tomorrow I am going here for a week or maybe two to get on with writing another novel. As I no longer have clothes at the forefront of my attention, posts to the Thoughtful Dresser will become less frequent, I'm afraid, though I have managed to talk Harry into making a reappearance, and he says he has several ideas for posts lined up, including a Christmas purchase of a handbag, though not for himself (or me.)

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Elsewhere

William Dalrymple, writing in the Guardian today:

Few had very high expectations of Zardari, the notorious playboy widower of Benazir Bhutto. Nevertheless, the speed of the collapse that has taken place on his watch has amazed almost all observers. Across much of the North-West Frontier Province - around a fifth of Pakistan - women have now been forced to wear the burka, music has been silenced, barbershops are forbidden to shave beards and more than 140 girls' schools have been blown up or burned down. From the provincial capital of Peshawar, a significant proportion of the city's elite, along with its musicians, have decamped to what had, until yesterday's attack, been regarded as the relatively safe and tolerant confines of Lahore and Karachi.

Very expensive shoes

Balmain, £975

I was looking at a pair of very beautiful £1000 Ferragamo shoes in Grazia yesterday and wondering who buys £1000 shoes? Who are these for? Is this the new price of a shoe which the rest will, as it were, inch up to?

But I remembered a phone call I had the other day from someone with high placed retail contacts who told me that fashion no longer caters for London women, even rich London women. The crazy shoe and crazier bag are for our guests from Russia and the oil states. If they are holding up our retail economy with their slender manicured fingers, perhaps we should be grateful. Otherwise I would have to buy three and a third pairs of £300 shoes.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Bewigged, bothered and bewildered


Independent columnist and literary man-about-town John Walsh, having read The Thoughtful Dresser
(book) asks in the Independent today why and in what ways men care about what they wear:

Men can be quivering violets about clothes and what they say about them. Recently, I met a judge at a party (it's so weird when the High Court judges start looking younger) who told me how uncomfortable judges are with their new judicial garb. A year ago, the judiciary agreed to abolish horsehair wigs and black robes (except in criminal cases) and kit out judges in groovy blue gowns, designed by Betty Jackson. How, I asked, did the judges like their new look?

"They hate it," said my friend. "They think they lack all dignity and gravitas – especially if they're thinning a bit on top. They say they feel half-dressed without a wig." They're reduced, in other words, from stern embodiments of the super-ego to mere, humble, fallible-looking men.

Elsewhere, there are signs that chaps have gone a tad precious about chaps' clothing. The Daily Mail, always reliably dirigiste on garments, ticked off Alexander Lebedev and Andrew Marr for appearing in the latter's TV show in less than full canonicals. The paper called Lebedev "casually attired," but fairly smacked Marr around the head for wearing denims. "A disquieting sight," it shuddered. "No jeans, Andrew, please."

For some chaps, civilisation itself is threatened by the packaging of powerful men in working men's garb. In America, President Obama is under fire for his attempts to be casual in bright blue jeans and white trainers. "Get back into your sensible skinny suits pronto," is the message from the Democratic faithful: "Who do you think you are, George Bush?"

The semiotics of clothing is everywhere. Note how readily Sir Fred Goodwin got himself photographed by the media wearing his country-gentleman-at-a-shoot attire rather than anything that smacked of a) banking, or b) the City. Notice how Tony Blair, even in the boiling heat of Gaza, wears a tightly buttoned club tie to emphasise the unearthly gravity of his role as Middle East envoy; when he was PM, he'd have jettisoned the tie at the airport.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Released from shame

I received this email from tv producer Angela Wallis who has given her permission for me to reproduce it:

I am a TV producer and while researching a programme about recession chic I came across your article in this Saturdays Guardian Magazine and from there I found an extract of your book The Thoughtful Dresser.

I was struck by the description of shopping with your mother, and how while shopping her true self reappeared. I too was raised by a Jewish mother in Manchester and the similarities to my experiences of shopping with her were uncanny. My mother always planned her shopping expeditions as a day out, a thing you did even when you did not need to buy a thing, often involving an elegant lunch stop at Kendal’s or the Kardoma Cafe. To this day I still see shopping in a similar way and have indulged in its delights for all my adult life. Having read the extract of your book I feel like an addict who has been released from her shame, a feeling experienced all the more when my more intellectual friends who would never dream of coming shopping with me had no problem encouraging me to visit art galleries, museums and even worse, films with subtitles. They would treat my at oneness with department stores with a wry smile that would make me feel like the shallow nueveax rich Gucci socialists persona I tended to adopt in their company. Now I can claim that a joy of shopping and of spending time among beautiful things is in itself a higher activity than simple consumerism.

A Marxist writes


Emeritus professor of Government at Manchester University, Norman Geras, author of Marx and Human Nature and 'The Controversy about Marx and Justice' refutes in a new post on his blog the notion alluded to in The Thoughtful Dresser that shopping is often dismissed byt critics from the left as a form of false consciousness. Refutes, that is, their accusation.

He writes:

So, the first step in my defence is just to say that, in the way that the world is now organized, shopping is a straightforward means towards taking care of one's appearance; it's the instrumentality of a basic human good. But, it might be said, this is just shopping of the kind anyone can do - even me, even people who take no special joy from the activity but treat it in a matter of fact way, as the mere means to a necessary end. A deep interest in shopping such as Linda describes and commends is not necessarily part of taking care of one's appearance. We can shop instrumentally without developing any deep interest in shopping, shop without passion.

However - the second step in the defence - one can do anything without developing a deep interest in that particular thing, without its becoming a passion. All the same, people do - they develop passions of one kind and another. They become passionate collectors of this or that - books, stamps, art - passionate about literature or music or movies or sport (or just about their team), become bird-watchers, train-spotters, students of many different kinds of subject. Each of us has a life to dole out as we see fit, subject to meeting our various obligations to others. An interest in shopping is as legitimate a pursuit within the range of human interests as any other. Save for those who urge upon us an ethic of devoting all our disposable time and resources to helping people in need, no one is well placed to condemn the interest someone else may have in shopping. And the ethic of comprehensive self-sacrifice may be good for saints, but applied to the generality of humankind it is mean and unbearable.

But what about shopping as an obsession? What when it becomes pathological? The problem, then, is with the obsession, the pathology, not with the shopping. Any pursuit can be taken too far. And what about the fact that not everyone is in a position to enjoy shopping, because some don't have the means for it? This is a critique of systemic inequality and poverty and their effects and it is a valid one. But deployed by anyone who has disposable income which they use for (non-shopping) enjoyments of their own rather than directing it towards people living closer to the margins, it is a hypocrisy. Unless you believe that those living above the level of the bare necessities - whatever these are taken to be - should part with all their surplus income, you allow that each of us has a right to some enjoyments. It is not then for you to say what mine should be or vice versa. I won't be going round with Linda spending time looking at scarves. I doubt she'd want to join me in following all five days of a Test match. You plays it as you feels it. But there is a right to that for everyone.

Man goes shopping

I received this interesting email from a male friend over the weekend, describing his shopping strategy:

If I want to buy a £75 external hard drive for my computer for example, I will go and look at them in at least four shops, asking each sales assistant for an opinion. Then I will read up on the model I finally decide upon in Which or other reports. If I could find someone who uses one of these I would ask them if they made the right decision and where they bought theirs. As a final act to convince myself I will go online to see if I can buy the model cheaper and if this doesn't bring a result, after about two weeks have gone by, I will go back to the shop and make my purchase. I think the word people use to describe this method of purchasing is called 'agonising.' On the other hand, I have been with [my wife] who has seen completely by chance an item of clothing on the rack for £150 and 90 seconds later the credit card is being swiped. But I really do have a lot of fun using my method and am reminded of that fun every time I use the item
.