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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The blonde woman on the cover “wears a black turtleneck jumper, holds a cigarette in her left hand, she seems to be looking at someone or something, but likely isn’t looking at anything, her smile dark and sweet”*. The black and white woman immediately drew me to Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit, displayed between other recently published novels in a French train station in the middle of nowhere. For some reason, I was convinced she was the book author, Delphine de Vigan. I say for some reason, since nothing else about the cover, especially not the summary explaining the story was about her family and her mother, Lucile, suggested so.

I read Rien before all other Vigan novels, in between a Eurostar journey and my daily commute. The book stayed with me on the platform and working at my computer, it was the last thing I saw at night and the first thing I read in the morning. For a week, Lucile’s troubled world became mine, Vigan’s words impossible to shrug off. I didn’t know yet that Vigan’s foremost gift as a writer is to find the exact word to describe the anguish and torment of the human soul, but also the hope in bottomless darkness. Even reading her in George Miller English translations, you feel that the original verb had to be precise, lucid to allow such a seamless flow of sentences.

Rien is an abnormality in Vigan’s ten year writing career: it is double the size of her biggest previous novel, and, an acknowledged biography of her family with autobiographical forays, holds the key to her previous work. Having read Rien, you know Laure’s anorexia in Jours Sans Faim is hers, that Laure’s crazy mother is hers too. Lou’s family’s anguish after losing a child in No and Me mirrors her family’s and Mathilde’s misery at work in Underground Time was inspired by her own.

Vigan’s writing is to the point with a sense for surprise. Although craziness and untimely death are recurrent themes, her stories always took me to places I hadn’t expected. The ending of the first Les Jolis Garçons short story was my first literary surprise in weeks. Vigan’s talent for weaving inconspicuous details through a plot constantly keeps the reader alert, aware that although easy to read, her books demand attention and command introspection.

*Delphine de Vigan, Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit (JC Lattès, 2011), p.436 translation my own.

Posted at 5:53pm and tagged with: book review, literature, france,.

French luxury brand Lanvin messaged its Les Yeux d’Elsa brooches for Halloween. Made of a right and a left eye, red lips and black hands, the brooches come together in an email visual the Surrealists wouldn’t have rejected. Luckily really, considering Louis Aragon, the man who wrote the poem Les Yeux d’Elsa, Elsa’s Eyes, which inspired the design, was one of the three founders of the French literary Surrealist movement in 1919.

An ode to Elsa Triolet, the love of his life, Les Yeux d’Elsa was written during the Second World War. The poem references the blueness of her eyes and their tumultuous love (“you make big eyes perhaps it means you lie”, “violent amours”) as well as Aragon’s opposition to the War (“it happened one fine night the universe/foundered”) and heartbreak following the Occupation (“O the wet brightness seven-sorrowed mother/The colour-prism pierced by seven broadswords”). The Lanvin brooches, embellished with Swarovski crystals, have the brilliance of Elsa’s eyes: “I’m tangled in the net of shooting stars”, “I won this radium”. Pity they’re not blue.

Photos: Lavin email 30 October 2012, Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet from the Maison Elsa Triolet-Aragon

Poem translation by Timothy Adès

Posted at 5:48am and tagged with: literature, email marketing, france,.

Described by Colette as the story of “young love and the difficult transition from childhood to adolescence”, her 1923 novel Le Blé en Herbe, Green Wheat (Zack Rogow, 2004) or Ripening Seed (Roger Senhouse, 1955) in English, tells the story of Philippe and Vinca, two teenagers who grew up together from summers in Brittany to weekends in Paris. He’s 16, she’s 15 and they’ve come to realise their love has evolved as they grew up. That summer, Philippe starts an affair with la Dame en blanc, the neighbouring, thirty something woman in white Mrs Dalleray.

Colette uses clothes and colours to differentiate the love triangle: Vinca, the natural beauty wearing earthy garments, still the girl Philippe used to play with; Vinca again wearing white while acting the accomplished, Parisian woman in their parents’ presence; Mrs Dalleray, always in white or naked.

White becomes the colour of culture and desire, a canvas heightening emotions and other hues like blood red or thistle blue. Phil realises his twin feelings of desire and possession in chapter 2, when Vinca wears an ironed, starchy white organdy dress for a meal thrown for her father’s friend. At first comparing the outfit to a monkey costume, he eventually comes to see her in the eyes of the guest (“She’s become ravishing! Ravishing!”). Until then, she had been Vinca his childhood friend, dressed in a worn-out jumper, green and blue tartan skirt and salt-coated espadrilles to go fishing. Down to her nickname of Pervenche, Periwinkle, everything about Vinca evokes the sea, the sister she’s shed blood for on the rocks, the sea that feeds their back-to-nature summer ways of fishing prawns.

Mrs Dalleray is the opposite of this natural state, her dark house the negative impression of Vinca’s sun-drenched existence. First introduced as an apparition in white, ill-walking on the beach in heels and a cane, Mrs Dalleray sticks to immaculate clothes reminiscent of her skin. Trust Colette to take the symbol of virginity and pervert it, the symbol of femininity and taint it with suggestions of the wearer masculine, and therefore freer ways. Mrs Dalleray is comfortable in white whereas Vinca was ill at ease in her first white, “monkey” dress creasing it in the sand. Only someone at ease in her own femininity and love could wear the colour.

Mrs Dalleray and la Dame en blanc are interchangeable throughout the character’s presence in the novel however, in the pivotal chapters 10 and 11, she is Mrs Dalleray while seducing Philippe but la Dame en blanc after a narrative ellipse during which they sleep together, her sexuality reducing her down to her clothing. Even after learning her surname in chapter 14, Camille, Philippe still refuses to call her anything but Mrs Dalleray, la Dame en blanc or Elle, she, to highlight that she is his mistress, not his love.

Mrs Dalleray seems as free and unconventional as Vinca is traditional and submissive. Whereas Vinca reddens at the mere mention of marriage, Mrs Dalleray seems to want little but physical satisfaction from Philippe. Vinca knows of her paramour affair but chooses to ignore and forgive it, submissive 1920s wife before she’s even said her vows. Vinca wearing white is a subversion which forces Philippe to reconsider his views on her: in chapter 12, she dons another white outfit to feed birds but ends up stepping over a crab, to Philippe’s dismay (“Je croyais qu’elle était douce”, “I thought her sweet”) yet she wears a blue kimono before they sleep together for the first time.

Philippe’s clothing is described by lack: he’s half-naked during his first encounter with Mrs Dalleray, by the beach, half-naked again during their second encounter. He’s happy living in communion with the nature around him, preferring the freedom of jumping in the sea when he feels like it to clothing. This freedom and shamelessness however changes after he’s slept with Mrs Dalleray. Like Adam realising his nudity, he decides to wear a bathrobe tightly fastened before joining Vinca at the beach. His clothing choices embody the evolution of his character and its consequences on his relationship with Vinca.

Photo: Sentier douanier à la Pointe du Grouin, Flickr user lepoSs; Pervenche, Flickr user Hacheme26

All quotes from Colette, Le Blé en Herbe (J’ai Lu, 1950), translations my own

Posted at 6:05pm and tagged with: literature, book review,.

Virginia Woolf, by Anthony Curtis

Well-researched, beautifully written and illustrated, Anthony Curtis’ biography of Virginia Woolf sheds light on her life, the Bloombsury set and how both influenced her writing. Without shying away from the usual controversies (was she a not-so-closeted antisemitic lesbian?), Curtis focuses on her writing rather than her already much-discussed mental illness. Drawing from contemporary accounts and extracts from her books, he doesn’t hesitate to switch to the first person to give his own views on her character and writings, be they articles, novels, disguised autobiographies or short stories. Probably a lot more enjoyable if you are highly familiar with Woolf’s writings.

The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett

If you often feel that life gets in the way of reading a book, imagine what it would be like if you were the Queen, forced to hide your newly found love of literature from staff and subjects. By choosing the most unlikely character for a book on the power of reading and writing and what it might lead us to do (watch out for the ending), Bennett signs an extraordinary, hilarious and thought-provoking book. A book anyone who loves words needs to read and re-read. How far are you willing to go for literature?

Bringing Home the Birkin, by Michael Tonello

Oh the Birkin and its legendary waiting list. According to Tonello, this list is exactly that: a legend. Apparently, all you need to score a Birkin is spend enough in store on various accessories and ready-to-wear before asking for one. As a careered eBay Birkin reseller, he would know. From his initial realisation that Hermès sells better than anything else on eBay (and with bigger profit margins) to fine-tuning a sure-buy method for Birkins, Michael Tonello runs us through the stereotypes of Hermès sales assistants and a gallery of people orbiting around the luxury industry with good humour. The perfect summer autobiography de gare.

How to be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran

If I was a misogynistic bigot, I would be very afraid of Caitlin Moran. Her feminist and hilarious penwomanship hits in all the right spot with the strongest arm of them all: laughter. Weight, fashion, career, waxing, marriage, bras, motherhood, strip clubs: all the usual themes,  treated with false lightness and real cheekiness. Forget the umpteenth wave of feminism, all you need is to rally around Moran.

Déjà Dead; Spider Bones, by Kathy Reichs

As a big fan of the Bones TV series, I had high expectations for the original Temperance Brennan character. The books preceded the TV show by about a decade. Their heroines couldn’t be more different, and I was lost for most of Spider Bones, trying to reconcile TV Dr Brennan with novel Dr Brennan. I shouldn’t have. The two women have little more than their job and intelligence in common and the novels are best enjoyed focusing solely on who Brennan is in the books.

Images: Virginia Woolf painting from Wikipedia; The Queen’s speech 2010 from the Daily Telegraph; Hermès from File Under Fashion; Cartoon from The Boar, February 2010

Posted at 8:33pm and tagged with: book review, TV series, Hermès, literature, Royal Family, feminism,.

Rebecca had it all. She was tall, thin and beautiful, had more money than she could spend, a dream stately home and the respect and admiration of her peers. In Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier created a woman who wouldn’t look out of place in the pages of Vogue.

The novel’s title character is only present via her clothes and the memories of her contemporaries. The nameless narrator, Mrs de Winter, spends most of the story scared of her husband’s deceased first wife, imagining what she must have been via the clothes she finds in her wardrobe. Rebecca’s ghost is never more present than in her room, which Maximilian de Winter consciously abandons but which his second wife can’t help creeping into. Everything, down to “a satin gown on a chair, and a pair of bedroom slippers beneath” is as Rebecca left it, the house ready to welcome back its mistress. Where Mrs de Winter wears “an ill-fitting coat and skirt and a jumper of [her] own creation,” Rebecca’s wardrobe is full of evening gowns in silver, gold brocade and soft, wine-coloured velvet.


When she first arrives at Manderley, fresh, naïve and totally unprepared for its grandeurs, Mrs de Winter is reduced to using Rebecca’s mackintosh for her first walk with Maximilian, a walk that, unbeknown to her, takes her to the place where Rebecca was murdered. It is “too big and too long,” just like the shoes she has to fill.

When Mrs De Winter decides to throw a ball at Manderley, she, on Rebecca’s housekeeper Mrs Danver’s suggestion, chooses to wear a white dress inspired by a family portrait hung in one of the house galleries. When she walks down the staircase, dressed in the same gown Rebecca wore to her last ball, Manderley and its ghost close down on her. It’s the wedding dress Du Maurier never described, the shroud we can only imagine. The dress is a materialised ghost, the ghost of Rebecca, elected queen of Manderley.

For Maximilian, keeping the memory of Rebecca away means keeping his bride in a child-like state, forbidding her to grow up because “it would not suit her.” From their first meetings, Maximilian lets her know that if she were “a woman of about thirty-six dressed in black satin with a string of pearls,” someone resembling Rebecca, he would have no interest in her. The opposition between the over-sexualised Rebecca, who had a husband and lovers and was quite likely bisexual and the very shy narrator is clear in the latter’s choice of undergarment. Mrs de Winter, a young woman in her early twenties, has child-like lingerie, in “plain material with a small edge of lace.” Her demeanour is as reassuring and wallpaper-like as Rebecca’s was threatening, her youth and inexperience constantly reaffirmed by her behaviour, her clothes and her choices. Maximilian’s first wife was a woman who went to the altar with her own fault, tastes and ideas, his second wife is a child for Maximilian to mould to the life he offers.

Written for WORN Fashion Journal

All pictures from Hitchcock’s movie at Womenonscreen

Posted at 12:00am and tagged with: literature, WORN fashion journal, Classy film,.