It's OK for intellectual feminists to like fashion

Blog title from Hadley Freeman's book The Meaning of Sunglasses : "Prada styles itself as the label it's OK for intellectual feminists to like".

The author is a bilingual fashion editor, writer and translator with a serious blog, cinema and magazine habit.

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Email: fashionmemex(at)gmail.com

Blogger Adventure: A. Bello’s pop-up blog Rose

On 4 August 2014, children’s author A. Bello will launch Rose, a pop-up blog exploring why Neci, the baddie in her book Emily Knight I Am, became hateful. Rose will only be available for one month, with one chapter published and taken down every week over four weeks, before forever disappearing from the interweb.

A gifted writer and dancer dedicating much of her young career to inspiring children, A.Bello isn’t new to the blogging world: for three years, she has been running Life of a Street Dancer where she chronicles her writing journey, her struggles to get signed by an agent and her school visits.

I caught up with her on how and why she got the innovative idea for a pop-up blog, her creative process and what being a role model means to her.

Why create a pop-up blog as an extension to Emily Knight I Am?

I wanted to do something different. Sometimes with a book, you can’t expand on certain characters if it’s not relevant to the story line. I wanted an opportunity to show more depth in those characters. It’s an experiment to see if perception changes once you know more.

How did you get the idea?

It just came to me. I remember doing an Author’s visit at a school and the class said how at first, they thought Emily was such a brat but once they understood her, they changed their minds. So I wondered if people knew Neci’s story would they sympathise with her? I want to see if people change their minds on Neci after reading the blog.

Why did you make it a pop-up blog?

I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of getting a book done, as it isn’t for money, it’s for the fans. I can see how many reads a blog gets. If it’s successful, I will do more on different characters.

I thought it would be cool to have a pop-up blog that fans could really get into. I get messages all the time as to when the second book is coming out but as I’m in the process of getting a book deal, I wanted to do something to keep the interest.

Have you already written all chapters or will you be writing as you publish?

I have already written the chapters but I have changed bits here and there. Rose was actually the prologue to my second book, so really people are getting an advanced extract!

Each chapter is going to disappear after seven days. Why not keep them up forever?

It keeps the experiment interesting. As a kid, I would have loved that suspense!

Which public are you trying to reach through Rose?

Mainly my fans, the young people. Hopefully they will like the blog and if they haven’t read the book, they’ll read it.

Theme-wise, Rose will be similar to the movie Maleficent, which is doing really well at the moment. Why do you think we are interested in the topic?

As humans, we don’t want to believe someone is born evil. I think experiences and environment are what influences a character, so an opportunity to find out how they became bad is intriguing. I haven’t seen Maleficent yet! Angelina Jolie is my favourite actress and I was so scared of that character when I was a kid! Sleeping Beauty was the creepiest Disney movie, so maybe after watching it I won’t be so freaked out by her.

Why did you decide to use Blogger as a platform?

Originally, I wanted to have the story as something you could download but then I wouldn’t be able to track the views. My friend suggested doing a blog, which made more sense. I have been using Blogger for years for my other blog, Life of a Street Dance, and it’s really easy to use.

You’ve been running Life of a Street Dance for over three years now. Why did you decide to start it?

I used to be very private with my writing. I used to write just for me. When I was thinking about becoming published, I realised I had to get over the fear of people reading what I wrote. I also thought other people who wanted to get into writing or dancing and wanted to understand what it was like, could get an insight into it and see the challenges, because there are a lot! But I’m so glad I wrote it because I can see how far I’ve come. If I’m feeling a bit blah, reading past blogs lifts me up.

How do your writing processes for Emily Knight and for your blog differ?

Emily is all of the crazy things that I think about; it’s my escapism and my fantasy world. Life of a Street Dancer is all me and the real things that happen to me.

Are there similarities between your dancing and writing creative processes?

With both of them, I see what I want to create in my mind first. It plays out like a movie: I see it all in my head and then I create it.

The key characters in Emily Knight are female. Why was it important?

There aren’t enough lead female characters in children’s fantasy books. I do think it’s getting better but nowhere near enough. Us females are just as fab as guys!

As a self-published author how important have blogs and social media been to your promotion?

I self-published Emily. Thankfully I’m signed to an agent now because it was hard! Social media is key. I only made my TwitterTumblr etc. to reach out to more people but you have to be consistent to get results. My Emily fan page on Facebook reached 10k this year, which is amazing!! I won’t be content till I reach over a million though. Blogging was a great way to connect to people prior to my book release and I still keep it going because I get pretty good hits on it.

As a talented, driven young female black writer, you are an inspiration for young girls. Is being a potential role model something conscious for you?

Oh thank you! I have worked with young people since I was 16 so I feel I have always been conscious of how I act, as I know a lot of young people look up to me. The bigger my books get, the more that role will be, so it’s in my best interest to always be aware of my actions.

Posted at 8:05pm and tagged with: blogger adventure, book review,.

My great-great-grandmother, La Centenaire (The Centenarian, guess how long she lived…) was a cook in a large country house in the French village of Paray-le-Monial. In the vocabulary of Tessa Boase's The Housekeeper’s Tale, a cook is an upper servant. As is the housekeeper, the second in command in any country house, and the hero in Boase’s book.  

The Housekeeper’s Tale features six women, all housekeepers in National Trust and English Heritage houses that date back as far as the Regency period: Dorothy Doar (Trentham Hall), Sarah Wells (Uppark), Ellen Penketh (Erddig), Hannah MacKenzie (Wrest Park), Grace Higgens (Charleston) and Nicky Garner (Holkham Hall). Boase took Regency as a “starting point because the role of the housekeeper began to subtly change from Victoria’s reign; also because The Reform Act of 1832 seemed like a good year to begin a book about the gradual enfranchisement and emancipation of the working classes.”

The six housekeepers have service to a mistress and to a big house in common. They all start out loyal, yet four out the six get the sack. Doar was kicked out after the house agent realised she had been stealing. Twist: Doar was pregnant. It’s likely that she only started stealing after she was relieved of her duty; a married housekeeper with children was not acceptable in 1832. Wells was kicked out without much notice after 13 years of service. Twist: Wells and her mistress Frances Fetherstonhaugh had been friends, back when Fetherstonhaugh was just a dairy farmer’s daughter.

"I didn’t set out to look for this, but it did become a bit of a theme", Boase explains when I ask her why she features so many careers that turned sour. "These stories are far more interesting to unpick than that of the ‘treasure’ buried in the family graveyard after half a century of loyal service. Why did they get dismissed? Was it fair? Were they working in an impossible situation? What were the fault lines of this job? I enjoyed the sense of settling scores, of rewriting history, of giving them back a voice. But I also think this was perhaps a reasonable ratio of successes to failures. If you look at the bundle of application letters for the top job at Hatfield House, it seems to have been a surprisingly insecure profession, beset by in-house politics. It’s the ‘treasures’ that have been remembered by history as they show the aristocracy/upper classes in a flattering light.”

Housekeeping wasn’t just hard because of the responsibilities and workload. The job was what we would today consider a managerial or a leadership position. Housekeepers were second in command to their mistresses, entrusted to large sums of money, managing groups of maids, responsible for hiring…

At the heart of all of Boase’s stories is the relationship between the housekeeper and her mistress, a relationship that often went bad. “If it goes wrong for a housekeeper, it’s often because of a clash with a mistress,” Boase reveals about the four housekeepers who get the sack in her book. One of the reasons is that training to run a country house seems impossible. “Marrying into a big house, with its own particular regime and way of doing things, seems always to have been a bumpy ride for the incoming mistress”, she explains.

Boase is an Oxford English graduate working as a freelance feature writer, yet The Housekeeper’s Tale is a first class example of how to do social history. She credits the skills gained in her degree and through her job for her knack for the genre. “Context is everything, when you’re studying English Literature. That ability to try to get under the skin of a text – to extract nuance, new meaning, to hypothesise – I’m sure I owe this to my degree. But more, probably, to 20 years in journalism writing human-interest stories, honing my eye for telling detail and a good quote. I approached the historical research as I would any piece of contemporary research: like a detective.”

You can feel the human interest in the first class research, done “in those houses where there are particularly good archives”, that’s interwoven with more fictional passages. For example, Boase writes about potential encounters between MacKenzie, housekeeper at Wrest Park when it was a World War I hospital, and author J.M Barrie, a friend and benefactor of the house.

Including these passages was important to Boase but she had to fight her editor who “wanted to cut all the imagined stuff as it wasn’t strictly history. But there are such gaps in servant narratives that I wanted to try a new way of writing about them. With women like MacKenzie – where I had photos, a great story and even a living relative, but nothing actually in her own voice – I needed ways in which to bring her more vividly before our eyes. This is true for all of them: I wanted to hear them talk, to see them go about their business, to know their mannerisms. All my imaginings are flagged up in the text, and firmly based on the bald facts that I had sleuthed into place.”

The more fictional moments succeed in bringing the housekeepers to life, but even when retelling facts, Boase is never arduous to read. Her writing flows, the type of writing which surprises at every turn of phrase thanks to the beautiful and evocative way words are assembled. A random example, on the solitude of the housekeeper: “too senior to fraternise with her maids; too dignified to let her hair down.”

The English grad in Boase is also present through the book’s title. Its structure makes it hard not to recall Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The reference wasn’t something Boase had planned on, although she doesn’t reject the comparison: “Atwood’s focus on the subjugation of women and the corrupting potential of power has definite relevance for this book. Though my story arc is, thankfully, one of emancipation.”

The best proof of this emancipation? Garner, the last housekeeper featured, shows how the job really is all about management. Her boss, mistress of Holkham Hall, recognises this, and sends her on HR courses. Garner’s job is to make sure the house runs smoothly for the 30,000 visitors it welcomes every year rather than focusing on making sure the family has food every evening.

Featuring a contemporary housekeeper was important to Boase “because this is the only job to have survived from the old country house world, along with the butler. Housekeepers are currently having a resurgence due to the growth of the new rich and the influx of Eastern European labour. It would have been odd to end the book in the 1970s, when the country house was in decline, and servants had all but fizzled out. The successful reinvention of the English country house, and the new roles for its staff, is very much a part of this story

Housekeepers aren’t just topical for those reasons. Every autumn, the job is present on our screens though Downton Abbey's formidable Mrs Hughes. Boase is a self-confessed Downton watcher. Her book’s press release name-checks the series in its first paragraph (“A far cry from the Downton fantasy, the real life Mrs Hughes was up against capricious mistresses…”). She also references the series on her Twitter to promote the book: “Love Downton Abbey? Read real stories of grand housekeepers #thehousekeeperstale by@TessaBoase out on Thursday”; “Love Mrs Hughes? then read fascinating stories of housekeepers in #thehousekeeperstale by @TessaBoase out now” etc.

Although Downton Abbey might help with the book’s sales and marketing, Boase believes the convergence of events that made it possible goes far beyond the ITV series. “I don’t think this book would have been possible 20 years ago, but it’s not just Downton that’s got everyone focusing on servants (though it’s certainly helped, for all its maddening inaccuracies!),” she reflects.

Other reasons range from our growing interest in how people used to live to our interest in genealogy: “The feminisation of history led by women like Amanda Vickery, Lucy Worsley, Alison Light, Judith Flanders and Mary Beard – all women with a brilliant, popular touch – has turned our interest in the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras indoors. The home is where it all happens; we’re now all agreed. Servants are very much a part of this story – but not just those working for the aristocracy. Every archive office I visited was filled with grey-haired couples researching their ancestry online – another relatively recent phenomenon. More of us will have servants in our past than masters and mistresses. Many people have contacted me with their own stories of a great grandmother or great aunt in service. The fact that the National Trust & English Heritage are now re-imagining the visitor experience to take in the service quarters isn’t just down to Downton: people were, apparently, asking for this before it aired. It gives us a sense of ownership of the local big house; so many of us have connections, but not posh ones.”

As a child, influenced by stories of my great-great-grandmother, present through her cookbooks and her pans, so heavy we rarely cook anything in them, I went through a phase of reading books about servants in the early 20th century. My readings around domesticity weren’t limited to non-fiction. Mrs Danvers, Rebecca’s housekeeper in Daphne du Maurier’s novel, fascinated me and millions of other readers.

Boase thinks we are obsessed with housekeepers “because they know all the secrets. The combination of absolute power, a bunch of keys, a black silk dress and a whalebone corset seems to be a seductive one. Is it a part-sexual fascination? Dominatrix-esque women guarding the door, safeguarding the aristocracy’s scandals… Of course the truth is far duller, but for fiction she’s a ripe character and a useful go-between linking upstairs and downstairs.”

The Housekeeper’s Tale busts the myth and like the best social history books, it left me wanting to keep researching the subject. The potential extensions to the book are many. An organised tour of the National Trust houses featured is an obvious one and this is the kind of book that will end up in all good country house gift shops. It’s also easy to imagine The Housekeeper’s Tale being turned in a six-episodes TV series, to be broadcast in parallel to an upcoming series of Downton Abbey. Boase isn’t against the idea: “it would make for great television I think, and there’s been some interest. Part documentary, part drama, set in the houses themselves. As an ex-thespian, I might even struggle into a whalebone corset myself…”

A complimentary copy of The Housekeeper’s Tale was provided to me by Quarto Publishing Group UK. Email interview with Tessa Boase 10 June 2014.

Posted at 7:20pm and tagged with: book review,.

The Last Room opens with a harrowing, hardly-bearable-to-read description of a pregnant woman being raped in the Cote d’Ivoire in 2005. I started the novel on 10 June, the first day of the Global Summit to End sexual violence in war, so this short chapter was immediately topical.

“When I wrote the book, I had been reading about the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire”, remembers author Danuta Reah. “It seemed to epitomise what we have since become more aware of. I wanted to make a victim of this kind of appalling sexual violence (and I was by no means as graphic as I could have been - I’m very aware of the danger of tipping over into gratuitous or titillating description) real to readers, to see her as a real woman and have some conception of what it must be like to suffer something like this.”

Although centre stage in the first two pages, Nadifa, the woman raped, only assumes a secondary role in the story. When the plot starts in earnest, she is an asylum seeker in Britain, married to a man recently deported for links with al-Qaeda, and mother to Sagal, a child recently murdered by a paedophile.

That murder, as well as the apparent suicide of Ania, a forensic linguist and expert witness in Sagal’s murder trial, accused of falsifying the voice evidence she used to convict the presumptive paedophile, are at the heart of The Last Room. Yet despite her integration of female characters, Reah often gives them second, passive roles. The real actors are the two men investigating Ania’s, and by extension Sagal’s, deaths: Will, Ania’s bereaved father, a disgraced retired policeman living in Scotland and Dariusz, her Polish fiancé. Both are convinced she would never have jumped willingly.

In their attempt to understand what happened to Ania, they encounter more men: Ania’s boss, policemen in Poland, Will’s former colleagues in the UK, a professor and a guard at the Polish university where Ania worked…

Reah says writing a story dominated by men wasn’t the plan but rather “the way the story worked out. I wanted both Ania and Nadifa to be women who had faced terrible adversity, and in a way they both survived. Ania dies, but she dies defending what she believes in. She isn’t defeated. At the end, I wanted her actions to be a model for Will who has lived so much of his life in bitterness and despair - she’s shown him another way. I couldn’t write from Nadifa’s perspective for long - I haven’t been through what she goes through, and I didn’t want to put words into her mouth. Also, she is marginalised exactly as women like her are marginalised all the time. Ania, was also a literary device. I wanted to show her from the different perspectives the men in her life had, and then finally, as a full person.”

As a female writer in the male-heavy crime fiction genre, Reah knows something about evolving in a field dominated by men. A few years ago, with fellow female crime writers Lesley Horton, Priscilla Masters and Zoe Sharp, she set up LadyKillers, a joint alliance to promote their novels. Although it doesn’t operate much anymore, the need for it is still there.

Reah’s audit of the inequalities in the crime writing landscape echo those female writers in any genre face: their books get reviewed less, and they are invited to speak on panels less. “Women still don’t get their fair share of reviews as opposed to male writers”, she regrets. For instance, in 2012, all genres combined, the London Review of Books featured 210 books by men and 66 books by women.

Panel underrepresentation doesn’t just mean that female writers voices aren’t heard, it also means that their names are less known. “I went to a conference in London called Queens of Crime, about women in crime fiction and it was fascinating. I got the names of several writers I hadn’t heard of who I plan to catch up with. At events and on panels, women are usually very generous with time and with to-ing and fro-ing in discussion, and asking questions about other writers’ books. Men can be more inclined to focus on their own work, though I have worked with many who are not like this. The worst panel hogs I have ever witnessed have been men.”

For all those disparities in terms of promotion and recognition, Reah doesn’t believe there is much difference between how both genders write crime fiction, though she reckons she would have said different a few years ago. So why the evolution? “I think men are still more represented as writers of fast moving action thrillers and women more in psychological crime fiction. However, there has been a marked increase in the number of women writing extremely graphic violence towards women. This makes me uneasy, especially as this kind of writing sells very well.”

In addition to championing women’s crime writing, Reah is teaching the next generation of female and male writers. One of the courses she’s taught focuses on setting up the all-important plot in a crime novel, so I asked her how she had structured the plot for The Last Room, inspired by a trip to Lodz for a Forensic Linguistics conference.

Ania’s character was the inception of the book. “I started with the idea of an expert witness being accused of falsifying evidence and apparently committing suicide. I then let the threads of that story run - had she in fact falsified the evidence? If she did, why? If she didn’t, what had happened? This is how I like to work - telling the story to myself as I go. I thought about the reactions of the people close to her. The intensity of Will’s grief and guilt gave me the idea that he would embark on a quest to find out what happened, and that he might even believe this was what Ania wanted - that she would talk to him and guide him. I was also curious about the concept of ‘the greater good.’ Are we ever justified in doing things for some undefined greater good that can destroy an individual’s life?”

Taking place between the United Kingdom and Poland, The Last Room includes a strong European dimension. For instance, Will is able to speak to the police team investigating his daughter’s death in Lodz thanks to a recommendation from his former boss in the UK.  The novel also includes multiple details on the history of Lodz. One in particular has stayed with me: the description of open grave pits in the Jewish cemetery where Ania and Dariusz met. They were dug on Nazi orders by Jews tasked with killing fellow Litzmannstadt Ghetto inhabitants. The graves were meant to be theirs, however the Russian army’s progress panicked the Nazis, and they fled before killing the men.

Mixing European travel, collaboration and horrific history is an effective way of reminding us why the European Union was built. Reah thinks herself “as European. My father was Polish and my mother was half-Irish. I think Europe is a wonderful continent and one we are part of, even though it can be troubled, with a very dark side. We’ve spent centuries knocking seven bells out of each other (and Lodz has some sobering reminders of what happened in continental Europe and what could so easily have happened here, less than 100 years ago). We haven’t had a war since we became more united, and I would hate to see that go.”

From the horrors of rape as a weapon of war to the usefulness of a European union, Reah has succeeded in constructing a story that isn’t just a page-turner, but also an example of how fiction can carry a message of progress and peace.

A complimentary copy of The Last Room was provided to me by Caffeine Nights Publishing. Email interview with Danuta Reah 14 June 2014.

Posted at 6:38pm and tagged with: book review,.

For the past two weeks, I have been trying to figure out what my peanut is.

In The Compass of Now, DDnard’s million-selling Thai self-leadership book recently released in English, the peanut stands for all the things we hold on to which stop us from moving forward and achieving our goals.

Take the businesswoman who refuses to sell her land for less than the offer she previously received for it, even though she really needs the money. Her peanut is the past opportunity, which has convinced her she can get more than the current going price. Holding on to it means the bank ends up forfeiting her land. She has debts, but no more land and therefore, no means to pay them back.

Identifying your peanut requires practising self-awareness, or “the compass of now” as DDnard calls it. Self-awareness takes time, which explains why I have been reading this book for two months.

DDnard herself is a proponent of slow reading when it comes to The Compass: “in today’s fast-track world, people are looking for the quick tips and quick fixes for their lives, but our heart and souls do not work that way”, she explained to me in an email interview. “You can’t speak numbers and quick fix with your heart. Our mind needs soothing and comforting for quiet thoughts, and a pause to feel and be enlightened at our own pace.” Like most self-leadership books, The Compass deserves to be read with a notebook and a pen in hand, so you can reflect on your own life.

The Compass of Now stemmed from DDnard’s own practice of self-awareness. It enabled her to overcome a £2 million debt inherited from her husband, the grief of his loss, her struggles as a newly-single mother and her physical pain. Explaining how she got over these very human difficulties has catapulted her to literary fame in her home country Thailand, where The Compass now has its own meditation retreats, seminars and a charity.

Launching the book in the United Kingdom, where the self-help book market is already popular, was the next natural step. From her personal history, DDnard is attached to the country, which she describes as a second home and as the place where she grew up.

One of the most harrowing personal stories in The Compass see a young DDnard, homeless and without acquaintances in the UK learning that when you have a problem to solve, you don’t have time for self-pity. “The UK taught me so many things present in this book”, she remembers. “If millions of people are benefiting from The Compass of Now, I feel that the source of my knowledge should benefit from it too.”

In the UK, The Compass should find an easy public, even though parts of it, particularly the ones referring directly to the Thai lifestyle or to the way industrialisation is affecting Thai society might not be as relevant to the British audience. The decision not to adapt the book was a conscious one. “You see it as the rest of the world sees it. I think pain, suffering and happiness are universal”, explains DDnard.

Generally, The Compass is at its strongest when it focuses on the thoughts and habits the reader can change, rather than on companies or states. The two chapters on misplaced priorities at corporate and national levels are interesting in themselves, but feel out of place in this book about personal change.

For DDnard however, talking about corporations and governments was an imperative. “To have a balanced life, readers need to have sustainable wealth and prosperity. If we work in the wrong place, if we are manipulated by our governments or organisation without understanding the bigger games that are played, it is more difficult to achieve long-lasting wealth and happiness. We all need a broader paradigm about the world we live in, how we impact the world and how the surrounding affect us”, is how she explains it.

It probably isn’t by chance that the two chapters that spoke to me less contain concrete examples rather than the nature-based parables the rest of the book is woven with. To make sure the reader identified with The Compass, DDnard used stories ranging from the peanut to a rose, from a monkey to Finding Nemo. She’d had a chance to test the impact of her parables before publishing The Compass in one of her multiple seminars.  

While Stephen Covey’s very American stories in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People caused me to roll my eyes numerous times, DDnard’s parables were easy for me to picture and identify with. For instance, since reading her comparison between how the mind grasps onto painful thoughts and how the hand grasps onto thorns, I often find myself physically opening my hand when my mind struggles, which helps me let go.

Like every chapter of The Compass, the one this example comes from is illustrated by Suporntip c. The drawings include numerous monkeys, angels, men and women and hearts. By providing more food for thought as well as enabling the visualisation of the book’s advices, they are a welcome addition to DDnard’s exercises and parables and are further evidence of how she takes advantage of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic cues to make her message as powerful as possible. The illustrations’ symbiosis with DDnard’s message was guaranteed by the way the two women worked together. “I told her the style, the pictures in my head, the feeling I expect the illustrations will communicate to the heart of the readers”, DDnard remembers.

Although The Compass was written a while ago, DDnard still loves it the way it is. She is planning to share more wisdom with the UK by bringing her seminar and meditation retreats here: “I’m seeing the free meditation retreats happening for the busy working people in the UK. That will be my happiest day”.

These retreats will no doubt add to DDnard’s already extensive library of stories of how people’s lives have been transformed by her book. She shared two of her favourite with me.

The first one, which also appears in the The Compass, is that of “a man with £1,000 debt, thinking of killing himself, his wife and kids. His neighbour told him the story of the book and gave him a copy. Today he is not only happy with his family but also happy with his noodle factory.”

Her other favourite story is that of a “lady who lost six babies. Her husband lived with another woman for 32 years, and she had £40,000 debt while her monthly salary was only £400. She had nowhere to turn to and wanted to kill herself, until her niece gave her The Compass of Now. After reading it, she came to meet me and decided that she would let go of her husband and, like the monkey letting go of the peanut, live happily. She also asked her husband to pay her debt for her so she can start her life free and happy, giving him the divorce papers in return.”

A complimentary review copy of The Compass of Now was sent to me by Palamedes PR. Email interview with DDnard carried out on 9 May 2014.  

Posted at 5:32am and tagged with: book review,.

Four books are currently sitting on my bedside table: In My Shoes (Tamara Mellon), the Jimmy Choo co-founder’s autobiography; The Compass of Now (DDNard), a part-coaching, part-autobiography book teaching you “to be happy and fulfilled regardless of the circumstances”; The Making of Her (Susie Nott-Bower), about a makeover TV show and The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power (Kim Ghattas).

Last December, I vowed not to spend another penny on books until I had read all the ones I currently own. In keeping with this resolution, I haven’t paid for any of these titles. The deviance is that back in December, none of them were on my shelves. The Compass of Now and The Making of Her were both sent to me for review by PRs, In my Shoes and The Secretary were both lent to me by friends.

Not buying books has had an unexpected effect: I read less and I am actually less focused on what I read. I flit around from one book to the next. Discovering that I hadn’t read 15 books in the past four months, a low figure for me, resulted in some reading introspection.

At first, I struggled with the sudden decrease in my reading rhythm. Devouring books is part of who I am, it’s why I choose to spend so much time on my own.

I looked at the practical reasons. Since realising, during the February Tube strike, that taking the train home would save me between 20 and 30 minutes a journey, my public transport reading time has shrunk from 45 minutes a night to 15. I am working on the launch of a site about women, foreign policy and education, scheduled for September, and the time I invest in it isn’t spent reading. Since I was a child, I have preferred reading over doing. Deciding to launch this website, putting together its critical path to hit the self-imposed deadline and realising the work that needs to go into it, has forced me to rethink this.

Shifting priorities and shrinking time on public transports aren’t the only reasons for reading less. I only realised the third explanation after seeing Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent. The film brought back my Saint Laurent obsession and I re-read Lettres à Yves (Pierre Bergé), extracts of which feature in the movie, Saint Laurent Mauvais Garçon (Marie-Dominique Lelièvre) and The Beautiful Fall (Alicia Drake)in the space of ten days. This was reassuring (I can still read!) but more importantly, it showed me the role of flow in my reading habits.

Choosing books linked to what is going on in my life at a given moment is key to my reading. I am not one to pick titles based on glowing reviews or on what’s in the 3-for-2 promotion at Waterstones. All the unread volumes on my shelves tell the story of what I was doing when I purchased them. Laurence Benaim’s Yves Saint Laurent was my first biography of the couturier, bought at his Petit Palais retrospective. The Cairo Trilogy (Naguib Mahfouz) was my way to investigate the Arab Spring and to learn more about a country I had holidayed in and had studied at university.

When I don’t read a book at that specific time however, the momentum is lost. Purchasing The Buddha and Dr Fuhrer an Archeological Scandal (Charles Allen) was logical when I was working at the British Museum, helping put together a catalogue for a Buddha exhibition in China. Although it still sounds intriguing, it makes less sense now.

Of course, this made me question the sustainability of my book-buying habit. Not only did I spend significant money for the purpose of a gratification that never came, but that money has been immobilised ever since.

Not buying books was the answer to a financial imperative. As I near 30, not saving money starts to be more irresponsible than carefree. Tying up money in books is less financially viable than investing money in fashion: whereas I can re-sell the latter for a decent price on eBay, the going rate for a read book is often too low to make it worth more than the read, or so I tell myself. Considering the number of second-hand books I have purchased online for £0.99, I am only too aware of this. Arguing that books are an intellectual investment is only valid if I actually read the books.

2014 is meant to be the year where I reap my investment. Unexpectedly, the self-imposed ban has had another consequence: for the first time, I am asking for things in the name of this blog.

Trying to figure out how I would cope without buying books for a year, I suggested last December I would ask publishing houses to send me books to reviews. So far it has worked, thanks to the launch of Books4Media, a platform linking industry PRs with journalists or bloggers. This is how I learnt about the publication of Suffragette Autumn, Women’s Spring, of The Boy from Aleppo who Painted the War and how I got in touch with Lynn Michell at Linen Press. Most books on Books4Media are from small publishing houses who are more than happy to put me in touch with their authors. This fits nicely with my desire to base more Fashion Abecedaire articles on people and to celebrate achievements, especially women’s achievements.

The most unexpected thing to come out of these four months though: I haven’t even been tempted to but a single book. Not once. I am planning to spend the next quarter investigating that change.

Posted at 10:00am and tagged with: book review, first person,.

From news reports to charity appeals, highlighting the plight and hardship of Syrian children has become a way to get the Western public interested in the civil war that’s divided the country for the past three years.

Sumia Sukkar's first novel, The Boy from Aleppo who Painted the War, aligns with this trend though in a much more moving and effective way than any reportage can achieve. “Fiction raises awareness by creating well-rounded characters in a situation, bringing to life the pain and suffering. I aimed to bring to the surface the cry for help from the heart of the Syrian war, hence, raising awareness”, the author explained in an email interview.

We meet Adam, the 14-year-old narrator who lives in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the object of a bloody military confrontation since 2012, just days before war breaks out. Adam likes painting, Adam likes his older sister Yasmine, and Adam likes watching American movies. Adam doesn’t like noise, Adam doesn’t like when people shout at him and Adam really, really doesn’t like when things get in the way of his established routine. Yet Adam’s life, pre-war, although seemingly comfortable, wasn’t fully sheltered: he lost his mother to an unnamed illness and he suffers from Asperger’s syndrome.

Of Algerian and Syrian descent and raised in London, Sukkar was inspired by her own relatives and their experiences of the war to write The Boy from Aleppo. “Most of [Adam’s] family members are based on my family members and my memories of them from when I visited Syria. From there, the characters wrote themselves, depending on the situation they were in”, she remembers.

By her own estimate, “more than 50% of the book is fiction”. The rest is based on real stories she has heard and been told.

For the character of Adam, Sukkar “did countless months of research and went to Autism foundations and met autistic people”. She uses the three main areas of difficulty for Asperger syndrome sufferers, i.e. social communication, social interaction and social imagination, as well as the characteristic love of routine, special interests and sensory difficulties (as described by the National Autistic Society) to construct an effective story.

Electing to have a young Asperger sufferer for narrator works because it highlights the sheer absurdity of war. First person narrators are by nature unreliable, yet Adam’s very condition, his difficulty in reading social signals, make the tale more poignant and believable. When an adult narrator would rationalise, when an adult narrator would hide part of the truth so he can better deal with it, Adam just describes and never hides his lack of understanding. “I wanted to portray this horrid situation through the eyes of a delicate and innocent young man. I wanted to rid Syria of judgement and show it through a pure mind. Syria deserves this much”, Sukkar says.

Most of the book’s events, from the happiest to the most horrific, ring true. Thanks to Adam’s creativity and imagination, Sukkar tells a story of war through two key senses, smell and vision, making reading her novel a realistic and vivid experience. For example, Adam discovers that the house next door is used to store cadavers through the stench emanating from inside the building, invoking a more horrific reaction in the reader than any straight description would.

Although Adam’s brothers are siding with the Syrian opposition, this isn’t a political tale. Adam repeatedly expresses his surprise that the two fighting sides are so hard to differentiate, when encountering them in the street for instance. By choosing to remain above the political debate, Sukkar develops a novel which talks of the horror of modern warfare and which anybody, no matter their location or their life experience, can empathise with.

I have been reading a few first novels for this blog and so far, The Boy from Aleppo has been the best written. It is also the only one whose author studied creative writing at university, making Sukkar a poster woman for how important it is to train in a discipline that many like to consider intuitive. The course enabled the author to find her voice. “It helped me know my strengths and weaknesses. This influenced the writing of my novel. I learnt many things that I have implemented. Taking a creative writing course helped me transfer my thoughts and ideas into a novel”, Sukkar explains.

Next, she is planning to do a master’s degree in creative writing and publish a sequel to The Boy from Aleppo. But before that, she’s started another, very different novel. I can’t wait to read it.

A complimentary copy of The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted the War was kindly provided to me by Eyewear Fiction for the purpose of this review.

Exclusive email interview with Sumia Sukkar on 21 March 2014.

 

Posted at 8:05am and tagged with: book review, writing,.

With local and European elections just around the corner, this spring is a good time to revisit how many of us women, but also men, have enjoyed the right to vote for less than 100 years.

Ian Porter’s Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring is a reminder that until 1918, non-propertied men, like the main character Alexander Nash, weren’t allowed to vote, and that until 1928, neither was any woman.

Porter packs a lot into the 374 pages of his second novel, including a lot I had never thought about: the Titanic as a defining moment of class identity, the difficulties of the shipwreck survivors, particularly the ones from steerage, and the specific struggles of disabled people who lived in the early 20th century, like “the cripple suffragette” Rosa May Billinghurst.

Although I like to think I am a feminist, Suffragette Autumn was a humbling read, highlighting how little I know about the suffrage movement. The gap in public knowledge about right to vote demonstrations is one of the reasons why Porter decided to write this book. “Before starting to research Suffragettes, I was shocked by how little I knew of them. And I was supposed to be a women’s early 20th century historian! If I knew so little, it was reasonable to think that most people were similarly ignorant,” explains Porter.

Looking into the topic, Porter discovered that his usual go-to places, like the local library, didn’t offer a single book about suffragettes. “TV, the great driver of public interest, has avoided the subject for the past 40 years. I suspect it’s because the women come out of the story well, whereas the government come out of it badly, but it could be argued that the women were terrorists. And in the troubled world we live in today, TV doesn’t want to show terrorists in a favourable light”, is how Porter explains the lack of knowledge in the movement.

With Abi Morgan’s upcoming film Suffragettes, starring Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst as well as Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Whishaw, this might be about to change. At least, Porter hopes so: “I would imagine that with such a big star on board the film will receive a lot of publicity, so hopefully this will lead to plenty of interest from the public. Being a political issue, there is always both a right and left wing version of history, hopefully there will be plenty of debate and argument from women’s groups, historians, politicians, documentary-makers about women’s issues 100 years ago, how they relate to women’s issues of today and what we can learn from history, both regarding women’s issues and fights for a fairer society in general.”

The Pankhurst family, one of the driving forces behind the UK suffragist fight, appears in Suffragette Autumn, even though the storyline doesn’t centre on them. Ruby Martin, who survived the Titanic thanks to Nash, joined Sylvia Pankhurst's East End movement shortly after returning to England. She became an employee and was involved in high-profile publicity stunts such as the 18 April 2013 capture of London’s Monument and Emily Wilding Davison’s protest at the June 1913 Epsom Derby.

Historians still disagree what Davison aimed to do when she threw herself in front of the King’s horse, was injured and subsequently died. Porter was careful not to take side.

A horseracing fan himself, Porter based his writing for the scene on two 1913 films: “The old theory that it was sheer chance that she happened to collide with the king’s horse is less persuasive. One thing is for certain, she did not ‘throw herself under the horse’ or ‘commit suicide’ as some people have believed over the years.” Based on the clearest of the two films, Porter thinks there is a possibility that “Emily did target the king’s horse and tried to place her Votes for Women scarf in its bridle. Her scarf was found on the turf afterwards. And having been to Epsom I can see how the incident was possible.”

Although a book about women’s right to vote, Suffragette Autumn isn’t a gendered story. Each chapter shows how much the suffragist movement was supported by men as much as women. Nash, who joins as Sylvia Pankhurst’s bodyguard, was modelled on “Kosher Bill, a Jewish 6-foot tall, ex-boxer”, explains Porter in his author’s notes. Ruby repeatedly notices that men make up the majority of attendees at suffragist public speeches. “Look at any old photograph of a Suffragette giving a speech, and all you can see is a group of men surrounding the woman. Working class women were too busy working 14 hours a day in a factory or sweatshop, or bringing up large families, to be at political speeches.”, Porter explains.

Obviously, the author himself is a man. “I have always had an affinity with the viewpoint of women and my main interest whilst studying history at university was women’s history, particularly in the 19th and early 20th century. Perhaps it’s because I am particularly interested in inequality and unfairness, and of course much of this has been aimed at women throughout history. I would like to think that I have approached the book as a novelist, a historian and a socialist, rather than as a man. Purely on a practical writing side, my wife was my editor, so if anything didn’t ring true to her, she would put me straight.”

Like Nash, Ruby is inspired by many real-life suffragettes, a storytelling device which allows her to be in multiple interesting places. Porter actually apologises to some of the suffragettes he replaced for the purpose of the plot, particularly to the memory of Mrs Watkins, who met with Prime Minister Asquith in Ruby’s stead to convince him to grant women the right to vote.

Constance Lytton, a real-life member of the Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union never mets Ruby, yet her activism is felt through one of the most harrowing scenes of the book. Jailed for partaking in suffragist demonstrations, Ruby start a hunger and thirst strike and ends up being force-fed. The torture, which was repeatedly used against suffragettes, as well as its effects, were described by Lytton in her memoirs Prison and Prisoners and was the basis for much of what Ruby undergoes in jail.

In memory of every single one of these women, and men, who gave time, money or even their life “to the cause”, go and vote on 22 May.

A complimentary copy of Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring was kindly provided to me by Troubadour Publishing Ltd for the purpose of this review.

Exclusive email interview with Ian Porter on 1 March and 16 March 2014.

Posted at 5:51pm and tagged with: book review, feminism,.

In 2012, the London Review of Books featured 210 books by men and 66 books by women. To get women’s voices read and recognised, the literary world needs companies like Linen Press, the independent publisher set up by Lynn Michell to champion “great writing, by women. For women”.

Going against the current trend in mainstream publishing, Linen Press never prints the pastel, lipstick-illustrated covers too often associated with and “for women”. Rather, Michell picks manuscripts which are “tough, honest, relevant and brave enough to take a broad look at the world and women’s place in it”.

Enticed by the company tagline, I interviewed Linen Press founder and writer Michell and her team to learn more about the ethos and the concept behind the publishing house.

Michell got the idea for Linen Press after a serious and sudden illness cut her career in academia short. Having always enjoyed writing and editing, in addition to lecturing English and psychology and her anthropology research, she started a creative writing class in Edinburgh, where she realised working with writers was her true calling. Setting up her own publishing house was the natural next step.

Naming the company Linen Press was the first homage to women. “I was thinking of traditional female activities and came up with fabric, texture, washing, ironing, folding, washing on the line drying,” Michell remembers. “In Edinburgh’s Victorian terraces and houses, there are very shallow cupboards called ‘a press’ which are fairly useless except with the doors removed for bookshelves, so I was playing with the words Linen Press - a shelf or cupboard where Linen is folded and stored. The phrase ‘The story unfolds’ came next. And finally my name is Lynn. Blend ‘lynn’ with ‘women’ and you get Linen.”

2013 was a successful year for Linen Press with the publication of two well-reviewed books: Sailing through Byzantium by experimental novelist Maureen Freely and Shooting Stars are the Flying Fish of the Night by Michell and Stefan Gregory.

Although Michell is mum on her plans for 2014, she reveals the company is hoping “for a Booker long-listing”.

Linen Press isn’t just a place for great writing: the company takes its championing of women’s rights in every domain very seriously. Last April, it started backing the One Billion Rising campaign, which demands an end to violence against women and girls, by giving £1 from the sale of each Hema Macherla novel to the cause.

The author’s stories are the perfect fit for the campaign. “My Indian author Hema Macherla writes about taboo subjects like abuse in arranged marriages, the plight of child widows and fallen women, and the practice of suttee. Her approach is subtle and she is a born story-teller; her personal campaign is to write novels that tell the truth about women in India while pulling you into a page turner”, Michell tells me.

Raising awareness of women’s condition around the world isn’t limited to donating money. On its social media platforms, particularly Twitter and Facebook, Linen Press shares links and insights directly related to the books and memoirs it publishes. “For those unfamiliar with Linen Press and its ethos, the social media networks are often a good introduction to what we are about”, Michell explains.

Followers can also click on general links about women and the literary world. Recent shares include a first person account by published novelist MM Finck of how she struggled to recognise the writer within herself and a New York Times op-ed by Amy Wallace about life as a female journalist. In other words, if you are a woman writer, or just interested in writing and or women’s rights, the Linen Press social media platforms are a good source of information.

This strategy is all part of Michell’s attempt to change the literary industry from within. “Women writers struggle to find a foothold in the male-dominated world of publishing which gives many more prizes to and reviews to male authors and often doesn’t include women on the shortlists for the glittering prizes. Linen Press regards the publishing industry as a only-just-ajar door to women writers and our mission is to help redress the balance.”

Much of the social media content is run by female interns. How does she reconcile championing women and employing interns, a hot topic in the news for its unfairness and its favouring of the most privileged? For Michell, It’s all about making sure the interns get actual experience under her mentorship and leave Linen Press equipped with all the skills they need to secure that hard-to-get first job in publishing.

Interns also play a key role in responding to the numerous submissions Linen Press receives. Michell trains them personally to make sure they, as well as the manuscript writer, get the best possible skills out of the experience. “When I take on a new intern, I work with her on a batch of submissions, checking her comments and criticisms, and asking her why she would accept or reject a piece. Most can do this pretty well, but they need to witness the very high standard of writing I expect”.

Michell has some advice if you are a female writer after that all-important acceptance letter from a publisher.

First, study the company website and make sure your manuscript is a good fit. Linen Press for instance is “looking for literary and top end contemporary fiction”. If your thing is illustrated stories or science fiction, your submission will be automatically rejected.

Secondly, “write about something that has truly moved you, changed you, or made you stop in your tracks to think and reflect, then make sure you have transposed that experience into fiction or memoir”.

Lastly, polish up your narrative voice. “I want to hear a strong, singing narrative voice that sucks me in and doesn’t let me go. That’s a lot to ask.”

Disclaimer: Linen Press has kindly provided me with copies of Sailing through Byzantium and The Making of Her for review.

Posted at 7:43pm and tagged with: book review, feminism,.

Imagine that your only memories of your mother are through early childhood impressions and, more recently, a photo of her and two unknown men found in your adoptive mother’s papers. Clothes, all of a sudden, take on a new role. They become clues in your search for her personality, hints to follow as you redraw a life you’ve fantasised but never heard about.

Hélène Hivert, a Parisian archivist, never got to know her mother Nathalie: she died in a car crash when Hélène was an infant. Raised by her father and his new wife Sylvia, she spends years in ignorance until she finds a picture of Nathalie photographed against the Alps.

Nathalie is “dressed in white” with a “white hat, worn at an angle, complet[ing] her elegant look, reminiscent of the Seeberger brothers’ early fashion photographs”. This is Hélène’s first clue: her mother played tennis in the summer of 1971 with two unknown men. One of them, Pierre Crüsten, is about to posthumously unlock her past, through his London-based biologist son Stéphane.

Stéphane sees the photo in one of the dailies Hélène published it in, in the hope that someone would recognise the people pictured. He immediately gets in touch. Thus starts The People in the Photo (Eux sur la photo), a French bestselling, prize-winning epistolary novel spanning letters, emails, text messages and real-life meetings interwoven with descriptions of the pictures of Nathalie and Pierre that Hélène and Stéphane find during their inquiry.

As the novel progresses, engaging the reader in the identity search, s/he starts picturing Nathalie through these descriptions. Most of them only start making sense in the latter part of the book, when the mystery of Nathalie and Pierre’s relationship, and the intrigue that surrounds all of the people orbiting around them, is solved. Only then do the photos find their true meaning, dresses suggesting happiness or heartache, haircuts hinting resolution or dilemma.

Throughout the narration, Nathalie is described as elegant and of her time, fashion-wise. My favourite outfit, after reading the book twice, describes her as “wearing a typical 1960s sundress with a wide rectangular neckline, bold geometric cut and diamond pattern. The straps of her bra which compresses her breasts are visible through the fabric”. It’s my favourite description because in that picture, Nathalie is pregnant, a rare photo of Hélène and her mother which starts a particularly emotional letter to Stéphane (“My past, which had always seemed so hazy and shapeless, suddenly had a face, pictured in such sharp focus that my heart skipped a beat”).

Hélène, as an archivist and a postcard specialist, has a critical view of every photo. Describing her mother’s 1963 driving license picture, she explains “her striped blouse brings an element of geometry to the composition and reveals a glimpse of long, white neck featuring a fine chain”.

All descriptions are made in a factual, objective manner, from the point of view of an almost omniscient narrator. As the other two narrators are the emotional, involved and unreliable children of the people we are learning about, the reader needs an anchor, something suggesting that there are clues s/he can rely on as s/he journeys alongside Hélène and Pierre.

Descriptions aren’t limited to grown-up pictures. Early on, Hélène discovers one from a parish choir which shows that her adoptive mother and Nathalie knew each other. One “has on a plain, pastel dress with a slightly low-cut neckline, the hem just above the knee; ankle boots, a neck scarf and a small bag demurely hanging from her arm”. The other “stands tall, thin and rather gawky in an oversized man’s raincoat and strap shoes”. The mystery thickens and the reader’s imagination starts running wild. Was there an affair? Were both women after the same man they eventually both married? How evil could the woman in the pastel dress be to deserve being whipped from her daughter’s memory?

Fashion clues aren’t limited to pictorial descriptions. As Hélène starts to explore her Russian roots, she explains that some Slavic words hold a particular connotation to her. “The adjective goluboy always reminds me of a certain fabric, with beads and gold thread. The first time I heard the word kotyonok, a jumble of images came back to me: a bedcover, a fur throw”. She compares these Russian words to Proust’s madeleine.

The People in the Photo is also a reminder of the subjectivity of photography. We use it to commit happy moments to memory: one’s involvement in a choir, a pregnancy, an engagement, or more in official moments such as a driving license. But it can’t depict what emotions the subjects were going through at the time, it can’t paint unravelling marriages or the love of a mother for her child. That’s partly why the novel finds such an easy echo in its readers: we’ve all gone through family members’ and friends’ photo albums, trying to imagine what was going on, relying on our own albums to complete a faltering memory.

A few photo descriptions however depart from the rule of only picturing happy moments. One has Nathalie in “a round, black felt hat, slightly too big for her”, “wearing a white blouse and a thick, shapeless woollen waistcoat”. The oversized detail, like her “voluminous woollen skirt from which a thread hangs” suggest a woman who has given up on the pretense of clothes, wearing her unhappiness for her daughter to see. “But how sad she looks. She could be a different person from the bubbly girl in the choir photo”, Hélène writes to Stéphane.

The family secret genre, whether in literature or movies (Un secret/A Secret, Pour une Femme/For a Woman, Elle s’appelait Sarah/Sarah’s Key) is well-established in France. Most of the time, the secret has to do with the Second World War, often with Jewish families. The People in the Photo is unexpected: the secret has nothing to do with the war. It is a lot more mundane, a lot more expectable and because it happens in normal circumstances, rather than in the midst of the heightened difficulties of the War, easier to emphasise with rather than be horrified by. The characters might come from the 1970s but you get the feeling this is something that could happen with our generation, or any of the ones to come.

The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern (translation Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz) will be published in the UK in February 2014 and in the US in June 2014. A review copy was kindly sent to me by Gallic Books.

Posted at 6:00pm and tagged with: book review,.

The Queen’s headscarves, models’ too skinny backs, and how men are like Homer Simpson were just a few of the topics Justine Picardie, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, fiction writer and biographer of Coco Chanel, discussed with Colin McDowell, Times and Business of Fashion contributor at the Victoria & Albert Museum to promote his latest book: The Anatomy of Fashion: Why we dress the way we do

As two representatives of a fashion world that’s often presented as cutthroat, it was refreshing to see two speakers who were both gifted and friendly. As Picardie introduced him, McDowell helped himself to some water and filled her glass. After the event, as he was signing books, she stayed in the room and talked to the line of people which had formed, answering questions about how to become a fashion journalist, a question she must have answered a hundred times before.

After hearing Lionel Shriver at the Soho Literary Festival, I was a bit weary at the idea of hearing two of my favourite fashion writers in real life. Picardie introduced McDowell as an “entertaining observer of fashion” in the midst of “a lot of bad fashion writing” with “a true understanding of the history of fashion”. This understanding was on full display throughout the talk as they went through dozens of images of people, commenting here on the significance of a hat, there the role of an epaulette. “Fashion alights on various erogenous zones of the body, including shoulders”, McDowell reminded the audience.

All the pictures were taken from The Anatomy of Fashion, a coffee-table book about the interaction between fashion and the body. McDowell explained that the idea came from the body, an under-explored yet constant presence in fashion. Acknowledging the fashion world’s fascination with young bodies, he explained he had become more and more interested in the topic as his own had become more and more decrepit getting him the first, and far from last, laughs of the evening.

Picardie and McDowell kicked of by talking about the head, lamenting the disappearance of the hat after World War II. Picardie, who has just updated her book Coco Chanel: the Legend and the Life, recalled that the French designer had started as a milliner and that, towards the end of her life, she was never seen without a hat, possibly because of the scars caused by a Swiss facelift that went awry.

Chanel was a recurrent theme throughout the talk. When McDowell claimed that no biographer had ever revealed all about her life, Picardie took mock offence, reminding him she had. Later on, when the discussion moved on to dresses, Picardie explained how subservient Chanel’s use of black had been. It wasn’t just the colour of mourning, seen across Europe on WWI widows, it was also what judges and hangmen wore, the colour of gravitas and uniforms. By mixing black dresses with white collars, an association Chanel picked up in the convent where she was raised, the designer made her wealthy customers resemble their maids. 

Chanel wasn’t the only public figure associated with black and hats, Jackie Kennedy – from JFK’s funeral to her love of pillbox hats – was also mentioned. For McDowell, the fact that Kennedy made the pillbox hat so iconic turned it into her own crown, meaning no one else at the time could wear it. To this day, a pillbox hat is shorthand for the First Lady’s style. 

As crowns go, you can’t find a better association nowadays than HRH Elizabeth II. Yet McDowell had selected a picture of the Queen wearing a Hermes headscarf. The monarch rides every morning with headscarves rather than a riding hat, apparently to the horror of her courtiers.  Both speakers took her action as a sign of freedom and subversion, the Queen’s very own brand of rebellion. 

Kennedy took quite a bit of advice from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland, a fashion legend McDowell knew and qualified as “scary”. Speaking about Vreeland, he demonstrated his skills as a storyteller, talking for instance of the time she had told him any woman going shopping with her best friend was stupid. 

He also talked about a fashion editorial he had done in India about 20 years ago with Naomi Campbell. The editorial featured models in distressed jeans and worn-out tops, as was the fashion of the time. His disgust at the fact that “we all want to look like we’re pooh in the West” was palpable when he reminisced about the faces of the locals who had expected Campbell to turn up decked out as a princess.  

Vreeland wasn’t the only legendary editor McDowell got to know during his career. He also spoke warmly of Isabella Blow who, despite her lack of education, could capture the essence of a period. One of his main regrets about Blow seemed to be that she never got round to writing about fashion.

Agreeing with Picardie that a lot of fashion legend is based on lies, an issue both, as journalists, must be confronted with regularly, McDowell explained he never really believes designers who talk about how they remember their mother dressing to go to the ball as their first fashion emotion. But then building a world and selling is what fashion brands is all about. No reader, no customer wants the truth, just excitement. 

Although most of the talk focused on women’s fashion, McDowell has also included photographs of men and men’s style in his book. During his writing career, whilst exploring trends and fashion history, he has discovered that men don’t wear overt fashion and always put comfort first. “Men want to look like they just stepped out of The Simpsons” is how he summarised it. 

Posted at 6:30am and tagged with: victoria and albert museum, book review,.