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

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,.

My 11 year-old snow bunny jumper

Purely in terms of cost per wear, this is my most profitable item of clothing. I have been wearing my beige snowflake jumper every winter for 11 years. My parents, as I had no disposable income at the time, bought it at Camaieu, the French ready-to-wear womenswear retailer, during the winter 2003 sale.

We’d gone to the local shopping mall, on a Saturday afternoon in January, for the express purpose of sale shopping, a bi-yearly family occasion scrupulously respected. It was the end of the day and, through the automatic glass sliding doors next to Camaieu, we could see that night had fallen. I hadn’t found anything I liked yet, which I’m sure would have annoyed me, when my mum picked up the jumper and told me that since I was small, I needed to wear something with interesting details. I’m pretty sure my sister hated it, if only because of the turtleneck, one of her fashion phobias. What I thought of it, I have forgotten. Taste, when it comes to this jumper, is secondary. This jumper is purely utilitarian. It has served me better than any of my other jumpers, of which there are many.

Normally, I estimate the worth of an item of clothing according to a very scientific formula: (price paid)/(number of compliments received). Des Petits Hauts and Diane von Furstenberg always win, as does a pale green Spring/Summer 2010 Burberry Prorsum skirt (bought at a sample sale) and all my Beatrix Ong shoes. This jumper never earns me any compliments (a sign in itself, my sister would say), but its original price, likely under 50 euros, divided by the number of wears, makes it different kind of wardrobe winner.

Although I have been wearing it for 11 winters, there aren’t many pictures of me in this jumper. It isn’t occasionwear, it is comfort wear - an item to throw on when I don’t want to get dressed or when it’s too cold but I can’t wear a blanket because that’s not deemed socially appropriate. This jumper is the promise of winter, of days leaving and coming back to the house when it is dark, of likely snow, of Eurostar return tickets and of Christmas approaching. It is a wardrobe holy grail, since it is bland enough to go with absolutely anything. To smarten it for work: skinny black jeans and heeled ankle boots at work; to be comfy at the weekend, old and faded jeans. During my first winters in London, I used to pair it with a Gryffindor-inspired scarf my grandmother had knitted for me, not because they went well together but because they were my two favourite items of knitwear.

The only photo of me wearing it is for my dad’s birthday, shortly after I had bought it. What can we learn from that picture? That on 7 March 2003, Nevers was freezing and I had gotten my first short bob haircut.

Six months later, the jumper followed me to London. I had bought it pre-relocation plans but its ease of care (machine washable knitwear!) combined with tales of grim British weather convinced me to add it to my suitcase. A Camaieu jumper was significantly less cool or expensive than what most of my Lycée français classmates wore but many of them came to identify me with it. In fact this winter, I have worn it to meet up with two people who knew me well at the time, and they both recognised it.

But despite accompanying me to London, to Lyon and then back to London, the snowflake jumper doesn’t evoke memories as much as it reminds me of my taste evolution. 2003 was the year I decided that browns would be the best colour palette on me. It seemed elegant and refined and so very grown up, because at 17, I really wanted to be grown up, which was synonymous with Having It Figured Out.

Most other brown items I bought that year are gone, since I’ve moved on, colour-wise, but the snowflake jumper remains, a steady presence in my winter wardrobe. It isn’t about being grown-up anymore, because I actually am a grown-up, it’s about reminding me of who I was when I bought it. When it’s cold outside, when I wonder why on earth I live so far from my family or why I am willingly putting myself through the madness of yet another Fashion Week, my Camaieu snow bunny jumper reminds me of the hopes, dreams and ambitions my 17-year-old harboured, and how I’m still the same person.

Posted at 5:44am and tagged with: first person, wardrobe, camaieu,.

During my only year in French higher education, my literature teacher imparted two pearls of wisdom to me: by the end of the curriculum, I would have enough reading to last a lifetime and there was no clever way to organise one’s bookshelves.

Bookshelf sorting has been a pastime of mine ever since I was a child. I’ve tried the by-author method, the by-collection method, the by-topic method, sometimes getting into quite anal Excel spreadsheet cross-referencing during the Summer holidays. On Sunday afternoon, I tried a new method of sorting: the books I have read vs. those I haven’t.

Book buying has been an ongoing budgetary issue. Books are heavy. Books take up a lot of space. Books are expensive. But books are also so easy to justify. I could be spending the money on less worthy pursuits, like drinking or smoking. On less lasting ones, like going out. On less educational things, like so many things available for purchase.

Books, on the other hand, are perfect. They teach me and they talk to me. They entertain me. They feed my writing. They help me fall asleep and busy the hours in between segmented sleep cycles. Books can be bought from charity shops and then it’s not just buying a book, it’s donating For The Greater Good (although not the good of the publishing industry).

Yet in 2014, I won’t buy another book until I have read all the unread and half-read ones on my bookshelf. This will be my new year’s resolution. No more book buying. My Sunday afternoon sorting was to see exactly how many unread books I have at my disposal. My estimate was around 40. I stopped counting after 52, when I realised that, unless I read one book a week, this new year’s resolution would have to carry on into 2015. Possibly long into 2015,  since quite a few  books are over 750-pages long. And we’re talking Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln here, not Harry Potter 750-pages long.

My decision not to buy anymore books had two catalysts. I feel quite shameful about sitting on this pile of books, which is essentially a pile of cash and knowledge, and not reading any of it. I might discover I hate some of them and that they should have been donated to the charity shop a while ago. I need to save money and my estimate is that I can save between £10 and £200 a month by not buying books. As I said, I am a big book buyer.

So how do I not buy a book? As stupid as this question might sound, and as obvious as the answer might be, I need a strategy. Even though I won’t be buying books, I will be reading them - and reading calls for more reading. The second I finished The Sense of an Ending, I had to find as much Julian Barnes as I could. Laura Jacob’s feature on The Group in the July issue of Vanity Fair prompted me to buy it. Hearing Lionel Shriver talk last September resulted in my buying two more novels of hers on eBay. After going to see the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris in August 2010, I bought my first biography of the couturier. One thing led to another, and now there are five biographies about him on my bookshelf, not to mention one of Pierre Bergé. Just minutes ago, looking on the Oxfam Books site for the sole purpose of linking to it in this article, I got thoroughly tempted by some Ian McEwan and The Future Homemakers of America, and I don’t even know what this novel is about. Nothing deserves to be called a rabbit hole more than the world of books.

To not buy books, I will stay away from eBay, Amazon, the paved street next to work which has both an Oxfam bookshop and a normal bookshop, Waterstones…in fact, any place where books are sold. I will also refrain from the Amazon wish list or the Amazon basket, because not buying any book for 52 weeks and then bulk buying dozens on 1 January 2015, isn’t exactly the point of my new year’s resolution. I might sign up to my local library. I’ve registered on Read It Swap It, a website which enables users to swap books with others. My sister introduced me to the concept in October through Bibliotroc, its French equivalent. Except on Bibliotroc, you collect points for each book sent, which you can then spend on any book available. No need to wait for an alignment of book desires between you and another user, which makes the journey slightly better (though both sites have terrible UX). I might ask my friends more often if they have a book I am looking for. And lastly, I might just use this blog to ask some publishing houses if I can review books.

So here’s to 2014: a year of reading books, but not buying them.

Posted at 5:54pm and tagged with: book, reading list, first person, 2014,.

We’ve all had a co-worker or a friend, often a man, who likes to brag about only getting four or five hours sleep a night and being able to function perfectly. However, he rarely makes the connection between his sleeping pattern and how irritable he might be, or the mistakes he might make…

Sleep, or rather the lack of it, has been on my mind a lot lately, and not just because of confirmation bias. Last month, Stylist ran a feature about how “you look tired” was the worse thing you could say to a woman (the article failed to explain why it wasn’t as cruel to men). Before that, BBC News had published a first-person account by Michael Mosley on how sleeping one additional hour every night can change your life. When I told Ashley Milne-Tyte, expert in women in the workplace and founder of The Broad Experience blog and podcast, I was writing this article, she reminded me Harvard was on a mission “to get companies to take sleep seriously and add it to their health and wellness programmes”; part of an initiative branded Re-start America.

At the time, Milne-Tyte was working on a radio segment for Marketplace about how “showing up to work tired is just like showing up to work drunk”. Apparently, US companies lose $63 billion a year due to sleep deprivation. There is no hard data in the UK but in 2008, The Telegraph suggested the issue “costs the economy millions” while a 2010 study by health insurance company Bupa claimed it costs the country £1.6 billion in sick days. 

I made the only serious mistake I’ve ever made at work less than 24 hours before a June menswear show, around 3pm on a Friday afternoon, having slept less than six hours in total since the Wednesday morning. I deleted 50 rows from a mission critical Google Doc. This being Google Doc, the mistake was fairly easy to repair, in theory. Except it took me longer than it should have to remember that the revision history function existed, let alone how to use it. And it’s not the only reflex that had gone awry. Doing my little post mortem the week after, I could remember thinking, before I started deleting, that the Excel filtering function had changed. Lack of sleep stopped me from realising I was working on the source Google Doc, rather than on the Excel download I thought I had opened. 

People tend to discover the value of sleep after sleep deprivation upsets their lives. At The Shriver ReportKaren Brody explains how, as the under-slept mother of two toddlers, she started suffering from anxiety attacks in a supermarket, which forced her to take pills for three years. Pat Byrne founded Fatigue Science, a Canadian start-up selling fatigue management technologies, following his nephew’s death in an accident due to sleep deprivation. Arianna Huffington hit her head after fainting because of tiredness and sustained a head injury. 

This accident turned Huffington into a sleep campaigner. Addressing a TEDWomen audience in 2011, she argued that sleeping to your body, soul and brain’s content had the potential to unlock ideas, make you more productive and more creative. Sleep deprivation has been linked to memory loss, the difficulty to process information and heightened irritation. It has been used in Guantanamo. It is recognised as a method of torture by the UN and international law because “ongoing sleep deprivation is an extraordinarily cruel form of torture which leads to a breakdown of the nervous system and to other serious physical and psychological damage” (International Society for Human Rights definition).

When you read the pros and cons of getting enough sleep, why anyone would willingly choose the opposite becomes a mystery. And I don’t think it’s just because their addled, sleep-deprived brains can’t process the information on the topic. I think it’s because not sleeping much has become linked to virility and power, which might be why it’s ok to tell men, but not women, that they look tired. There is a romanticism attached to the idea of not sleeping enough: working hard with a team throughout the night to solve an issue, staying up all night to talk about life and philosophy on a Left Bank cafe, cramming for finals etc. There is also a self-importance to it: if you are going to sacrifice what many see as a basic human need, surely it means what you are doing is more serious than what everybody else is. 

Hollywood, as with many contemporary mores, is partially to blame. One of my big frustrations with The West Wing was that, although it was regularly suggested they pulled long hours, administration members never seemed tired, unless it was a plotline requirement. Even then, it was exaggerated tiredness, the type where you sleep in your office, borrow a co-worker’s shirt the next morning because yours stinks and survive on a cocktail of Red Bull-aspirin-eye drops. Sleep was to The West Wing, as it is to most TV shows, what money was to Sex and the City.

The thought that people in the upper echelons of the business and political world take pride in their lack of sleep scares me. A 2011 study by Duke University suggested 18-hour work schedules for traders was partially responsible for the financial crisis. The research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, “evoked a strategy shift during risky decision making such that healthy human volunteers moved from defending against losses to seeking increased gains”.



I am always worried when I read interviews with leaders bragging about how they only need four hours a night. Margaret Thatcher was famously one of them, as was Winston Churchill. Or were they? In a BBC News article published shortly after Thatcher’s death, Tom de Castella highlights how their reputation for needing little sleep contributed to their political legend: “for the Iron Lady four hours was a badge of almost superhuman strength. It fits the narrative of the “warrior” prime minister”.

Castella quotes studies suggesting that about one percent of the population can function on four hours of sleep like the 99 other percent can on eight hours. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a lot of them at the top because having 20 hours a day available means you get a four hours head start. 

Yet Castella also acknowledges there is a lot of one-upmanship on the topic, especially in competitive, testosterone-fuelled environments such as finance. If your colleague says he only gets five hours a night, you might feel the need to only get four or be perceived as less able. Whether or not he actually survives on five hours is another matter. Sleep is personal. You can get as much as you want, or as you can, and yet claim whatever you want. I feel about people who volunteer that they need very little sleep to function the way I feel about models and actresses who say they eat loads and never exercise: disbelief but on the off-chance it might be true, a bit of jealousy. 

Recently, my mentor challenged me to stop thinking my level of tiredness, which I let rule my life, is actually linked to me getting exactly the seven hours I think I need. His example was that for years, he was convinced that he would be exhausted unless he got eight hours a night, until he read a newspaper article which explained seven could be enough and changed the way he looked at sleep. Just like that, he stopped feeling tired on seven hours a night.

My sleep paradigm doesn’t so much revolve around how much sleep I think I need, rather that I have hard-wired my brain to think that unless I am asleep by 10pm, I will be exhausted the next day, no matter the amount of shut-eye I get. This came from a realisation, while at uni, that my most restful sleep was done by sleeping between 9pm and 1am, having an ‘awake’ period until about 2am and sleeping again until 5am. The awaken period used to freak me out, which in turn meant I couldn’t go back to sleep, until I started researching it and discovered segmented sleep is quite normal and is actually the pattern often followed in pre-industrial societies. It’s the perfect time to catch-up with your neighbour, go check the cattle or read a book. 

Whether it’s how we organise sleep, how much time we think we need, or the belief that we don’t need much, our views on sleep need to be challenged so we get real about what we need to be at our very best.

Posted at 2:11pm and tagged with: sleep, management, work, first person,.

Nevers, the making of a ghost town

Nevers was never a vibrant, busy city but when I was a child, it had over 6,000 more inhabitants than it does today. When I was a child, la Nièvre, the county Nevers is in, had given France its then President (François Mitterrand) and a Prime Minister (Pierre Bérégovoy). Under their government, the county gained the French Formula 1 race, which was held in Magny-Cours, barely 20 minutes away from Nevers, and the country’s latest hospital. But today, neither doctors nor Formula 1 fans want to come to Nevers. It’s too quiet, too complicated to get to. The circuit doesn’t host Formula 1 anymore and the hospital isn’t quite as much of an example anymore. 

The first thing to go, back when I was in primary school, was the caserne (barracks). Before the military left, I remember sitting in a traffic jam at noon, on the way from school to lunch. Last time I went back, during the 3pm, 5 minutes-long drive from the station to my house, I spotted just three cars and four people on foot. For every end-of-war commemoration, we would be woken up on bank holidays by a canon. Postings to Kosovo were real, not just another headline in the news, because some of my friends’ dads went. And then one day, the children went too. The disused caserne was meant to become the new nursing school, to host the county archives, to be turned into a real estate development. Over a decade on, it hosts a pharmacy and wild grass. So do a lot of houses, abandoned and never sold when the militia left. The city didn’t cry over it with as much to-do as Mrs. Bennet, but it really should have. Instead, Nevers became the perfect city to buy a manor for the price of a London studio. The problem is: hardly anyone wants to. 

When Mitterrand left and Jacques Chirac took power, Nevers, a traditional, anchored left-wing city, found itself on the wrong side of the political spectrum. The left doesn’t have to do much to win elections there beyond making sure its name is on the ballot. Mayorship isn’t as much earned as it is bestowed to pre-determined heirs who run the city until they feel like leaving. Didier Boulaud, who took over from Bérégovoy after his suicide by the Nevers Canal (most of the city believes it was state murder), held the job for seven years. The power check that’s meant to happen through the risk of losing elections has so far been close to nil. It doesn’t happen through the local rag either, since it is the kind of paper where spelling mistakes are considered acceptable – editing would be against editorial independence. 

The newspaper, which I even wrote for in high school, used to be printed locally, right by the train station. These days, fewer trains pass through Nevers, and the nearby restaurants and hotels seem to have a new owner every time I return. There was hope, at some point, that a high-speed train (TGV) linking Paris to Nevers would resuscitate the city. A support meeting was held; apparently, the turn out was so high, the highest of all the cities the TGV would be stopping at, that partition walls had to be taken down. The hope of an entire city, riding on a train. How very industrial revolution. The TGV project has been shelved until further notice because of a train derailment a few months ago. Reason: tracks might not have been taken care of as well as they should have. The TGV budget will go into refreshing the tracks, and Paris will remain two hours away.

Nevers is a beautiful city and I wouldn’t have grown up anywhere else. It has a rich history with a church, l’Eglise Saint Etienne, a model of Roman art which used to be pictured in the dictionary. They’ve stopped doing mass there though because they couldn’t afford to keep the heating on and nobody wants to pray when it’s cold. There is a cathedral, which survived a WWII bombing, revealing the presence of a 6th century baptistery. The very first Loire Castle, geographically at least, has been standing proud since the 15th century. Nevers hosts an incredible artisan industry, la faience, a high-end type of porcelain brought back from Italy during the Renaissance. It has been featured in classic movies, such as Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour and gave its name to a fencing thrust, or at least to the duke who invented it in the book Le Bossu, la botte de Nevers, guaranteed to kill one’s adversary with a swift hit between the eyes. 

Yet for all this richness, cows and pilgrimage are probably Nevers’ two strongest points. The cows: le Charolais, offer the best type of beef. The pilgrimage: Bernadette Soubirou, the saint who saw the Virgin Mary in Lourdes and came to the Nevers convent. Unearthing her years after her death, the nuns realised that her body hadn’t rotten and, claiming a second miracle, covered her in wax and put her on display in the chapel, where you can see her to this day. As a result, Nevers is something of a compulsory stop for people on their way to Lourdes. These are the days when the train station becomes busy again. 

Nevers definitely has the potential to develop again, but it doesn’t know how to capitalise on it. Stuck in the middle of France, far from the sea and the mountains, it hasn’t developed the writers’ or yoga retreat economy many fledging French cities are enjoying. Big city inhabitants crave country vacations, foreigners come to Burgundy for food and drink and a little bit of culture on the side – all activities Nevers is more than able to provide. There are enough destitute farms around to start up a high-end B&B chain, not to mention all the inhabited mansions within the city. Yet the local tourism authorities haven’t bothered to publish an English website, the city’s presence on social media, in any language, is non-existent and advertising campaigns to encourage people to visit are nowhere to be seen. Until Nevers takes an audit of its local strength and comes up with 21st century solutions to exploit them, the city isn’t going to revive. In the meantime however, I would strongly encourage you to go spend your holidays there. I can promise you peace and quiet, good food and a nice castle.

Posted at 6:04am and tagged with: first person, france,.

Cairo on my mind

The other day I found an essay about Nasser, the Muslim Brotherhood and America written for my third year LSE course about Egypt during the Cold War. I had chosen to study the topic after spending an extraordinary two weeks holiday in Cairo in late August 2008, exactly five years ago.

I’m not very well travelled and, by the time I landed at Cairo International Airport, I was the furthest away from Europe I had ever been, apart from a trip to Malta, aged 11. I had been warned against Cairo. You’ll hate the smell. You must be careful; it’s a dangerous city. You’ll be really hot. I braced myself for disliking it yet it took me one quick morning walk around Maadi, the residential, expat-filled South Cairo location we stayed in to love it.  

My time in Cairo happened in incredible and very lucky circumstances. I went with my friend Elisa, who knew the place well, havingspent part of her childhood there, and we stayed at her parents. Most mornings, her dad dropped us off at Tahrir Square and we went to visit the city, hopping on the metro or into taxis. Upon hearing we were French, every taxi driver said two names: Carla or Chirac. The first lady or a former president was what France seemed reduced to.

At the Cairo Museum, we saw the Tutankhamen statues that were pillaged in January 2011. I was working at the British Museum at the time and the museology of the place would have been enough to make it interesting, even if there were no artefacts on display. Many explanatory labels probably dated back to the 1902 inauguration of the museum. The museology at the Coptic Museum was another story altogether. We visited it shortly after its renovation, and the place provides state-of-the-art conservation. There has been multiple reports of backlashes against Copts all over Egypt in the past few days.  

People told us things in 2008 that we didn’t necessarily pay attention to but which sound different, in retrospect. About how more and more women had to wear the Niqab because men went to Saudi Arabia en masse to make money working in oil. About how Cairo was becoming a dirtier city because Copts, who traditionally took care of the rubbish, were leaving. Nobody ever talked about Hosni Mubarak, then in his 27th year running the country. We spent some time with a young man our age living in our apartment building. There were multiple photos on the walls, including many of his grandparents under the monarchy. The clothes worn weren’t dissimilar from the ones my own grandparents wore in photos taken at the time.   

Elisa and I spent a couple of afternoons teaching Greek history at Collège Mère de Dieu, a religious institution for girls ran by Catholic nuns in Garden City, right by the Nile. Last Friday, there were reports of gunfire in this area as protesters tried to walk through it to get to Tahrir Square. I marked some homework one evening, while listening to France 24 in the background. Rachida Dati had just announced she was pregnant.

The girls we taught would be in their late teens or early 20s by now. Have any of them taken part in the Arab Spring or in the more recent protests? On which side? Have any of them been wounded? Killed? Is this intimate link with the place, the fact that I recognise locations in news reports the reason why I am more upset by what’s happening in Egypt than what’s happening in Syria? Is it because I understand a bit more about it and its background than I do about most developing situations? 

In 50 years time, somebody studying at the LSE will write another essay on the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt and American foreign policy. Their ideas will be shaped by the events of 2011, 2013 and the years to come, events that create history. It’s impossible to predict what their conclusion may be, but I think it’s safe to say theirs will be different to mine. 

Posted at 6:00am and tagged with: first person,.

The day after my grandfather passed away, a friend asked me if I had any regrets. I couldn’t name any on the spot but now realise that I regret not hugging him when I last saw him, three weeks before his death.

I don’t regret not telling him I loved him, because I knew he loved me and I believe he knew I loved him, not just because we were family but because the opposite being true never was a possibility. I don’t regret not spending more time with him, because although I hadn’t seen him much since I moved to London, I know we spent as much time together as we could, everything considered.

I regret not hugging him because it did feel like the right thing to do at the time. I didn’t because it just wasn’t the kind of thing we did. Although part of me felt it would be the last time we’d be in a room together the other part refused to break our goodbye routine; I wanted to believe I would see him again. 

I didn’t even want to see my grandfather one last time. I feared seeing him, an absolute force of nature I had never seen with as much as a cold in 26 years, sick and frail on a hospital bed. I didn’t want my last image of him to be him struggling to sit up or in pain. 

I wanted to keep in mind the man who built Fashion Carrousel and I a pole and carpet tepee to play in the courtyard every July, the man who taught me to swim on a polyester slab in the dining room in Brittany when I was five and to play chess in another dining room when I was 12, the man who made me love history. 

My grandfather was, hands down, the one person in the family who wrote as much as I do. His writing was pedantic, self-conscious and long-winded, either about himself, as the definitive narrator of post-war automobile history in a little corner of France, or about his research. 

He wrote up the family history, pursuing genealogical research until he couldn’t track down another ancestor. He even found a convict, on my grandmother’s side, sentenced for stealing a loaf of bread.  

Another typical story would be about how he met my grandmother at an engagement party “but the fiancés didn’t get married”. His last piece of advice was telling me I should start thinking about settling down, as he had when he neared 30. He also asked me when I thought I would come back to France. London, after all, was the city he visited once with his wife, during one of their numerous retirement trips, and where he bought a typical umbrella which turned out to be Made in China.

Considering his love of story-telling, it was only fitting that during the lunch following his funeral, Fashion Carrousel texted me that a classic story of his pertaining to people she knew nothing about had just been told. 

Like most of my grandfather’s stories, it had to do with his time working as a mechanic, which saw him form life-long friendships, paint Austin Haley race cars for Le Mans and enabled him to lecture us on how oil wasn’t really that expensive nowadays (another text he wrote). 

He had a thing for memories, not just his own, which were formidable, but also telling us about things past so they wouldn’t be forgotten. 

One summer, between making fun of us for reading Harry Potter and taking us to the local swimming pool, of which he was the oldest patron,  he showed me his history books, the ones he’d used as a child before WWII and which listed every single colony as a part of France, something I trace my interest in modern history back to. My first end of BSc dissertation idea, about the MPs of French Algeria, was all thanks to him.

Despite his influence and how much of him I recognise in myself, I struggle with the idea of missing someone dead, versus missing someone I didn’t see very often anyway. 

When his wife died, about six months after I had last seen her, it didn’t hit me straight away. Summer holidays aside, she wasn’t someone I got to spend that much time with. Her death was made true by its upsurge into my daily routine, the day I realised I didn’t need to write her name when addressing letters to my grandparents anymore. Last weekend, I similarly realised that I now only have one set of grandparents left to write to. 

I didn’t go to my grandfather’s funeral, and I still haven’t cried but there hasn’t been a day since he died I haven’t thought of him, just like I’ve thought of his wife every single day since she departed three years ago. 

With time, I hope I will stop just seeing him sick on his hospital bed, and that my memories of him will be more than my gratefulness for passing on to me his obsession for writing, knowledge and history. 

* Headline: Alfred de Musset, “A la Malibran”. “In this country I know two weeks turn a recent death into old news.”

Posted at 6:26pm and tagged with: first person,.

23 Rules which have inspired my style

  1. Stripes: Neutral colours.
  2. Men’s shirt: Only comes from the menswear department.
  3. Tweed jacket over jeans, smoking jacket over a printed t-shirt, leather jacket over everything else.
  4. Skirts: Never below the knee. Never mid-calf.
  5. Trousers: Ankle-length is the perfect length.
  6. White dresses: Always with colour pop shoes, never black or white ones. 
  7. Tights: Unless you’re a grandmother or a Duchess, never wear skin-colour ones (Ines de la Fressange).
  8. Cleavage and legs are mutually exclusive, even if you have very little of both.
  9. Only wear heels you can walk in.
  10. Never buy something you struggle to put on in the store changing room (my mum).
  11. To lengthen the leg, straps must always be under the malleolus (my sister).
  12. Loose top, skinny bottom.
  13. "When accessorising always take off the last thing you put on" (Coco Chanel).
  14. The high-street/high-end mix only works if you can afford high end.
  15. If something looks amazing on Olivia Palermo/Diane Kruger/mocktress of the moment, it doesn’t mean it will look good on you.
  16. If something looks bad on Olivia Palermo/Diane Kruger/mocktress of the moment, it means it will look bad on you.
  17. Navy blue is more refined than black (my sister).
  18. Don’t wear it if you’re scared to stain it/crease it/tear it.
  19. Being cold isn’t elegant. 
  20. If it seems like a good idea in store because you don’t own anything similar, it means it isn’t.
  21. Stick to a few trusted brands. It makes throwing outfits together that much easier.
  22. There is no such thing as too much underwear.
  23. Scarves dress an entire outfit up or down. 

All pictures by Tommy Ton, sourced from a variety of sites. 

Posted at 8:13pm and tagged with: list, first person,.

I bought a t-shirt last summer for a lot more money than it was worth. I’ve worn it twice, and it has since been gathering dust, though hopefully not moths, at the bottom of my white t-shirt pile. The official reason is that I ordered it at the end of the summer, and by the time I received it, it was too cold for t-shirts. You could wear it under a jacket, you say? I hear ya.

Truth is, I can’t face wearing this t-shirt, a reminder of a less than sound financial decision. I went through a similar phase when I bought my Yves Saint Laurent Muse, leaving it in its dust bag for weeks. To this day, it spends more time in than out, although I do carry it from time to time for weeks on end.

Of course, logic dictates that having bought an expensive accessory or item of clothing, I should use it as much as possible, to get my money’s worth. I am however concerned by the quality of the t-shirt, having had a few appalling experiences of button losses with the brand I bought it from. I am not sure how many washes it will withstand before the motif starts fading. As I said, not my most sound purchase.

When I bought this t-shirt, I full-well intended to wear it. I had even started assembling outfits in my minds. As such, it should be differentiated from another category littering my wardrobe but hardly ever worn: the concept clothes.

Concept clothes are bought, generally in the sales, because I either think I look hot in them, have been lusting after them all season long or think they would be perfect for a cocktail party or a date, never mind I never go to either.

Maje is the biggest culprit. There’s the life ambition dress (which I bought, eventually, after annoying the whole family over it), a blue draped dress, which I’ve worn once in over a year of owning, mostly to justify buying it and never giving it to the charity shop, a raspberry pink dress with shoulders as big as its V-neck is low, a skirt made of so many layers of fabric I don’t even know how to get into it and my personal favourite, a corseted white lace dress I can’t get in or out of because the process is just too darn complicated.

The concept dress is beautiful but unpractical. Think silk, significant décolletage, easily creased cloth, dry clean a minimum, specialist clean preferred. It’s only useful if your life is all about sitting pretty and being chauffeured from one fabulous party to another. Think Daphne Guinness.

The concept dress isn’t for me. It isn’t even the promise of a life, or the feeling of how much better my life would be if I had places to wear this type of garment to. The concept dress is bought purely for theoretical value. It is about my obsession with building the perfect wardrobe. If you asked me what I am most proud of, my wardrobe would feature in the top five. I have something for every occasion. Except really waterproof rainwear. Which is just fine, since I’m not living in a country where it rains too often.

Posted at 5:20am and tagged with: first person, dream shopping, yves saint laurent,.

If you studied International Relations in the mid to late noughties, or had any interest in contemporary warfare during that same period, I would challenge you not to have heard of General David Petraeus. I name-checked the man and his counterinsurgency doctrine in more than onr essay. Petraeus is widely thought, if not as the instigators of counterinsurgency, at least as one of its foremost proponents. The “let’s build nations rather than bomb the shit out of them” approach might seem a bit of a “duh, common sense” idea, but until Petraeus’ Iraq and Afghanistan leadership, this phase, on a large scale, was mostly synonymous with post, rather than during-war behaviour. It was something (and I overly simplify here) occupying forces would consider as a way to settle down. Think post WW2 Germany.

The first time I heard about Petraeus was in 2007, when he became commander of the Iraq Multi-National Force. What struck me was neither his leadership, nor his strategy but rather his name, which seemed straight out of Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars. Having spent many teenage hours translating Roman war strategy texts, I could just picture Petraeus consorting with Hannibal over the best way to trap the Romans at Lake Trasimene. The name was the hook but as I researched the leader, I found his mastership of modern media fascinating. He wasn’t just running counterinsurgency abroad, he was running a parallel campaign at home, becoming a pin-up general and gathering popular and political support.

As you can imagine, for the past week, I have been glued to my computer, questioning in the process this slightly unhealthy interest. In sex scandals, I am generally the first in a conversation to ask “who cares” (as long as it was agreed between all parties, I’m looking at you DSK) but in this instance, I care very much. Part of me is disappointed by the sheer banality of it. How can Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, by all accounts two smart individuals with such careers and promises, fall on the stupidest of swords? An affair, when you’ve worked in counter-terrorism and ran a couple of wars, isn’t it a bit… mundane? Shouldn’t history have taught them better? Part of me likes the almost Greek aspect of the story, this crime of hubris of thinking your intellect and intelligence experience will allow you to outsmart everybody.

Scandal after scandal, we are reminded that as human beings, we want irreproachable leaders we equally admire and envy for their rise and success, their drive and ambition. This envy is at the heart of their downfalls since we like to think they are, in fact, no better than us. It makes becoming them seem more possible. For that very reason, I doubt we’ve seen the last of Petraeus. He’s shown he was a leader, and he’s shown he was human. Unless malpractices are discovered in the process, if he plays it right he could come out of the scandal stronger.

If nothing else, we’ll likely see him impersonated on the big screen in the next few years. The scenario is just writing itself. As a reminder: General Petraeus stepped down from the CIA after his affair with biographer Broadwell was discovered following emails she wrote to army social liaison Jill Kelley warning her off her lover. Kelley asked the FBI to look into the threatening correspondence, which resulted in an FBI agent sending her shirtless pictures of himself and in the Bureau stumbling upon pages of “flirty” emails she’d been exchanging with General John R. Allen, who replaced Petraeus in Afghanistan. You just can’t make this kind of intertwined plot up.

I’m calling for Daniel Craig and Angelina Jolie in the title roles, not because they look like Petraeus or Broadwell but because a movie with the two of them has been overdue since Tomb Raider. As for the scenario, I’d give it, another personal indulgence, to Aaron Sorkin, who can write leadership and sexual tension like no one else when he really pours his heart and brain into it. Not to mention his penmanship would play quite well with the sexist and double standard undertones the affair narrative has been riddled with.

Posted at 12:16pm and tagged with: first person,.