Thursday, 29 January 2015

Silent Partners

I feel so lucky that I managed to catch the very last day of 'Silent Partners' at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I'd been dying to see it ever since I first saw posters about it all over the tube and knew it would be right up my street. Entitled 'Artist & Mannequin from Function to Fetish', the exhibition looks at mannequins throughout history, as props used for paintings and later as the main focus of the images themselves.

The first mannequins we encountered were ones used for medical study, with the ceramic body cut away to reveal neatly carved internal organs. There were also miniature mannequins used to model clothes on a tiny scale, including a Marie-Antoinette style doll with painted on rosy cheeks and a made-to-measure dress with delicate embroidery. But the majority of the exhibition focused on the use of mannequins by artists, as a means of replacing life models. These were created in France and were skilfully designed to mimic the human body, with moveable limbs and sculpted faces. A short film - a piece of early French cinema by Georges Melieres - was also on display and showed some hilarious battles between artist and mannequin.

I loved seeing the Pre-Raphaelite paintings by the likes of Burne-Junes and Ford Madox Brown and was to surprised to learn how often they used mannequins in their work. 'The Black Brunswicker' by Millais shows Kate Dickens (daughter of Charles) in an embrace with a soldier. However, as she was unmarried the artist had to make use of mannequins so that the two where never in the room at the same time!

As well as the main exhibit, throughout the museum there were a selection of photographs by Tim Walker, hidden in various rooms. Tim Walker is one of my favourite photographers, so it was lovely to see some of his pictures blown up. I had never really thought about the influence that mannequins have on his photography, but he so often references them in his work (type in 'Tim Walker mannequin' into Google and you'll see what I mean). This is why I love going to museums and exhibitions so much as you get to learn who inspired who and find out how everything is connected.

There is something eery and unsettling about mannequins, and the exhibition captured this perfectly, with the life-like dolls sitting throughout the exhibition, staring blankly into space. And, whilst I would not like to be trapped in this exhibition at night, I honestly found it to be one of the most intriguing and inspiring that I've been to in a long time.

If you missed the exhibition (like I very nearly did) then you'll be able to catch it across the Channel in Paris! For more information see here.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Fashion Academia

Over the past few months I've become more and more interested in fashion writing. Fashion as a study was something altogether new for me. Of course, I knew of costume history and costume design, whole university courses are dedicated to learning the intricacies of the 18th century corset, but this was something different. These books look at how and why clothes are used in literature, how historical clothing is presented in museums or how a fictional character's wardrobe speaks volumes about their place in society, and who they are. 

I've managed to hoard a few these type of books, as well as discovering some in my local library. Here are my 5 favourite 'Academic Fashion' books:

1. Dressed in Fiction by Clair Hughes.

This book combines two of my loves: fashion and fiction. Looking at specific moments in literature, Hughes examines the important role played by clothing. Her collection of essays focuses on iconic novels such as Wilkie Collin's The Woman in White, George Elliot's Middlemarch and Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. I found her writing on Northanger Abbey and how Austen's Henry Tilney knows so much about fashion particularly interesting, and, although I have yet to read all of these classic novels, I found reading about clothing and costume in this way completely fascinating and refreshing.

2. Adorned in Dreams by Elizabeth Wilson
Perhaps the best ever title for a book? First published 1985 this is a 'pop culture' style look at fashion. Wilson includes her observations on the fashion industry, fashion and gender, oppositional dress and fashion and feminism. Although it was written 30 years ago this is so on the ball and relevant to discussions we have about fashion today. Wilson talks about consumerism and fast fashion as well as whether a woman can wear lipstick and heels and still call herself a feminist. That we are still having these conversations today shows how much we still have to say about fashion and the role it plays in our everyday lives - and how on it Elizabeth Wilson was back then!

3. The Literary Companion to Fashion by Colin McDowell
I absolutely love that this book exists. As reviewed earlier on my blog here, The Literary Companion to Fashion is a compendium of fashion quotes. From Shakespeare to Joyce, Dickens to Woolf, the book includes every reference to dress you could possible want. All those iconic fashion moments in literature appear, from Meg getting dressed up for the ball in Little Women, to Scarlett O'Hara making dresses out of curtains in Gone with the Wind. This is such a brilliant reference book for the moments when fashion meets literature, although as it was published back in 1995 I'm sure there are many more quotes to be added to this list!

4. 400 Years of Fashion ed. by Natalie Rothstein
A friend gave me this as a birthday present a few years ago, and it was a lovely way of introducing me to costume history. The book is filled with some beautiful illustrations and photos (as shown above) and gives a broad overview of fashion history throughout the ages.

5. Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen by Sarah Jane Downing
Finally, this little book sheds some light on clothing of the regency period and what Jane herself might have worn. When I studied Austen at university I used to love absorbing all the details of dress that are included in her novels, wondering about the part the played in her characters' lives - and this does just that.

I'm also really looking forward to Amber Jan Butchard's Nautical Chic book which is due to come out in March!

What are your favourite fashion books? I'd love to know in the comments!

Thursday, 15 January 2015

My Favourite Books of 2014

I know I'm a little bit late in the game to be talking about last year's 'favourites', but I couldn't leave 2014 behind without flicking through my book diary and typing up a list of my most treasured reads from the year.

Looking back, I read a total of 35 books, which I'm quite happy about. I'm not someone who can skip through a list of books at a mile a minute, but I'm hoping this year to meet the 50 mark... we shall see!

Anyway, without further ado, here are my top ten reads of 2014:

1) The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Virgin Suicides is such an escapist book to read in a way and really captures the hazy, magical, boredom-filled days of teenage-hood. 

2) On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
This is a very short novel about a young couple in the run up to their marriage. Their miscommunications and naivety, along with the pressures put upon them by their families mean that their relationship is put a risk.

3) For Esme with Love and Squalor by J.D. Salinger
This is one of Salinger's short story collections. The title story is my favourite. It's about a young girl's correspondence with a soldier during the war. Their relationship is both charming and heart-breaking. 

4) A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
This book won the Bailey's prize for women's fiction last year and deservedly so. It is written in a stream of consciousness style and so takes a while to get into but the effort is so worth it. Its a story of a girl growing up in desperate circumstances, her brother is ill, she falls in with the wrong people, she spirals into a never-ending cycle of self-destruction and depression. It's not a cheery read but is a book that stays with you.

5) Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
There was such a buzz around Chimamanda last year and I hope to get round to reading all her books in the future. This book opened my eyes to feminism from a Nigerian woman's perspective and made me think about attitudes to race in both America and the UK that I had never even considered before.

6) The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter
My first Angela Carter! Unlike anything I have read before this is a magical, disturbing and unsettling modern 'fairytale'. Her writing is incredible and conjures up vivid images, of white wedding dresses, macabre toys, unconventional families, but is ultimately about a girl Melanie who trying to come into her own against this incredibly backdrop of Grimm fairytale, Greek tragedy and British folklore.

7) Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
I loved the nostalgic atmosphere that this creates, of the country house of Brideshead, of roaming through the colleges of Oxford university, and of course Charles's obsession with Sebastian and his family. It's perfect summer reading.

8) The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The hype surrounding The Goldfinch has been everywhere. I tried to avoid it seeing as it's such a long book but eventually gave it a go and am so glad I did! It involves art, secrets, mystery, friendships and beautifully created scenes set in New York and Vegas.

9) Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
I went to Lena's book talk in November where she was interviewed by Caitlin Moran and was completely blown away by her. She is so open with her experiences and I was often found thinking that her experiences were nothing out of the ordinary, similar things have happened to me, and yet that's what's so important about her work. She is making women's experiences important through writing about every aspect of a girl growing up and I'm excited to see what she does next.

10) Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates
This both enraged and motivated me. I don't think anyone could read this without feeling an overwhelming sense of anger but this isn't a book that rants or preaches, Laura explores the power of educating girls and boys in schools and using people power to change things, creating a network of women who are in solidarity with each other.

So that's my top ten books of the year! I'd love to know what yours are in the comments. Here's to lots more reading in 2015.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Christmas reads

I hope you've all had a lovely Christmas and have had some time to snuggle up with a book. I was lucky enough to receive a few gorgeous new books from my family this year. My mum presented me with a big cardboard box filled with these four and I couldn't have been happier. 

1. Vivienne Westwood by Vivienne Westwood & Ian Kelly

I have always had a soft spot for Queen Viv and have read pretty much everything about her I could get my hands on (see here for another Viv book review). So I was over the moon to hear that the definitive autobiography was going to be released a few months ago. This is a very hefty book, with some gorgeous lesser-known images of Vivienne, her family and her fashion designs. I'm looking forward to whiling away these cold winter days by immersing myself in Vivienne's world.

2. Women In Clothes by Sheila Heti

I have to admit, I did have to drop a few hints about this one as it's slightly more unusual. Women in Clothes takes an almost scientific look at the clothes women choose to wear in real life. Sheila Heti's project was to get hundreds of women to answer  a questionnaire about their dressing habits. The result is an almost psychological understanding of why we wear what we do, our insecurities around personal style and how we get dressed every day. I was so intrigued by this concept and have high hopes after reading Heti's 'How Should a Person Be' in 2013.

3. Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography by Meryle Secrest

This was a complete case of judging a book by it's cover. The bright pink lured me in and I was quickly dropping hints as to how pretty it was. My knowledge of Schiaparelli is fairly limited and after watching a ShowStudio talk earlier last year about the brand's relaunch I really wanted to learn some more about the woman herself. I'm excited to read more non-fiction this year and hopefully keep those brain cells a-moving!

4. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I was so proud to have read (and finished!) Donna Tartt's the Goldfinch last year. I don't know why but I had got it into my head that I wouldn't be able to finish it and what was the point of reading it etc. etc. but I'm so glad that I gave it a try. Donna Tartt's writing is, put simply, an absolute pleasure to read. Though her subject matter often involves history, art, classics and the like, her books never feel pretentious or inaccessible, they are just completely enjoyable and I feel like I'm learning new things and making connections all the time. I'm about halfway through The Secret History now and can honestly say it's steadily making it's way up the list of my favourite books. I'm trying to savour every word!

So that's it for my little Christmas book 'haul' - ugh how I hate the word haul! This was not an excuse to show off, I genuinely enjoy sharing what I'm reading and welcoming new books into my little book family. If you received any books for Christmas please do share - I'd love to know what your'e reading and am always looking for inspiration!