Thursday, April 21, 2011

Middleton-of-the-road style

In spite of being wildly distracted by the sheer number and weight of belongings strewn across my bed and floor, and the challenge of getting them all into one suitcase weighing no more than 23 kilos, I thought I ought to say something about Kate. Yes, that Kate - the one who's marrying the prince person. Because as well as coming in for a royal title, she's now our newly crowned Queen of Style. Apparently.
But, checking out The Style Police, I found that I don't have to - they've done the job for us. So over and out on that subject, and back to the packing.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Spare my blushes

Today I bought my first blusher. My first ever. In my whole life. I suppose you might have one of two reactions to this announcement: 1) just exactly what sort of a feminist/flibbertigibbet/airhead (etc) are you?; 2) what took you so long, and what on earth have you looked like up to now?
And I suppose that having raised the questions I should answer them. Though the mindset of 70s feminism still causes pangs of sheepishness, I can only say that these days I'm the sort of feminist who wears blusher. And the sort of flibbertigibbet and airhead who ... I don't know, reads book with big words and goes to movies with subtitles. Will that do?
As to the second question, one answer will cover both parts. I never felt I needed colouring in before. The bloom of youth might have faded a while back but I had enough pink in my cheeks to pass muster. Just lately though - especially since summer came and went so disappointingly - it's been a very pallid reflection staring back from the mirror. And with Buenos Aires looming, I thought I should Do Something.
A sweet young thing in a pharmacy took pity on me. Two flicks of her little brush and I looked ... well, glowingly healthy. So she sold me a nice pot and brush, and now all I have to do is learn how to apply it myself.

Make-up Tammy Faye Bakker-style.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Ladies' Rest

The charmingly named (and perfectly punctuated) "Ladies' Rest",
Whanganui, which also houses a second-hand clothes shop.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


1951 evening dresses from Balenciaga

E passed through San Fransisco on her way to the UK, and sent me this postcard from the Museum of Fine Arts' Balenciaga exhibition. I'm so sorry to find that it closes a week before I get there.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Gok and Brix

I watched Gok's Fashion Fix as I ate lunch. There's plenty that's heinously silly in the fashion world, and some of it is on display in this show, but I'm always impressed by how much Gok likes women and how much he stresses that they can look good no matter what their shape and size. For all his showy talk and gush, he evinces a good deal of respect for his subjects. Which is more than can be said for Trinny and Susannah. Especially Trinny.
I also like Gok's angle that High St can stand up again designer label any time. For those who don't know the show, apart from featuring a woman in need of sartorial help, it also includes a contest culminating in a catwalk show. One group of prancing models wears modestly priced, chainstore outfits put together by Gok, the other, eye-wateringly expensive designer equivalents, chosen by someone called Brix Smith. The audience then chooses which lot it likes best. Gok wins often enough to make his point.
This Brix Smith, though ... her sheer depth of shallowness is something to behold. This portrait makes her look half-way sane, whereas her on-camera persona is practically demented.

Leaping up from the TV to attend to this blog, my first thought was - who is this wretched creature? That's before I checked Wikipaedia.
So. She was born Laura Elisse Salenger in California in 1962, and - this is where it gets surprising - was a singer and guitarist before becoming a "fashion expert".  She was a member of post-punk band The Fall, and lead singer and songwriter with The Adult Net. She was also, as Wikipaedia so delicately puts it, "romantically-involved" with renegade classical violinist Nigel Kennedy.

Brix Smith in 1984, aged 22

I really don't know what conclusions can be drawn from these findings, except that, gosh, isn't there always more to people than meets the eye. Or less.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Your foot bone's connected to your/ hip bone ...

The better I dance, the more painfully I walk. Is this fair? No, it's not! Turns out that 14 months of high-heeled tango several times weekly has produced a bursitis in both hips. And, predictably, a flurry of anxious internet research to try to establish what exactly bursitis is, whether it's curable or only treatable, whether the boring exercises the physio has me doing will actually make any difference, and whether it makes a hip replacement or two sooner or later inevitable.
None of this would have happened, I suspect, if I'd shunned heels from the outset and danced, as L always does, in flats. Now it's too late. I tried recently and felt so utterly wrong-footed that I nearly fell.
It's also too late because now I love high heels, and within 10 days will buying more, just for dancing, in Buenos Aires.

Comme Il Fauts are too high and needle-thin for me, so I shall try to avoid them for fear of falling in love.

Right now, this is my must-have pair - from Darcos. I saw someone wearing them on Saturday night at Nina's milonga and couldn't take my eyes off that glowing red suede and those sexy straps. 
Plus - albeit a dreary little plus - they look as if they might also be comfortable.

But then, look at these ...

And these ...

And these ...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Call me old-fashioned ...

... but when I pay good money for a garment, I expect not to have to fix it up after a wear or two, let alone before. What's good money? You know what I mean - an item from a non-bottom-end of the market retailer, who instead of charging $20 for a teeshirt, for instance, would charge $40 or $50. And the items in question?
One Kookai dress. Not this exact one but the same snakey fabric.

Mine is longer and has a lower-cut, crossover bodice. I bought it in Melbourne, and wore it for the third time last night, when I noticed, too late to change, that the left sleeve seam had unravelled enough to be noticeable. Obviously, I can't take it back to the Melbourne store, although if I'd bought it here, I would.
Here's what Kookai's website says about quality:

Quality is inherent in every garment. This is demonstrated through the designers' meticulous attention to detail, the use of quality finishes and unique prints which are designed and developed in-house. There is an honesty about every Kookai garment, made using ethically oriented partners.
Item two: one pair of Kimberley's stretch pants (sorry, but I refuse to call them ... brace yourself, jeggings, as they did in their Wellington shop).

These, at $179, were more expensive than the dress, and of good quality fabric. Yet the first time I wore them one of the belt loops fell off. Am I going to make a special expedition back to the shop to complain? Of course not, when I can fix it myself in five minutes. But I shouldn't have to, should I.
Item three: one pair Veronica Main pants, differing from the above in that they are more legging-like and fit snugly around the ankle with a zip that extends up to the calf (I can't locate an image). Great for tucking into boots.
The problem? That fit wasn't nearly snug enough, and the zipped portion stuck out in an unsightly way from my ankle. I guess you could say I should have noticed this in the shop and not bought them. And you'd be right. Unfortunately I didn't notice, and had put them on at home to go out before I did. So I've spent an hour or two unpicking and resewing one side of each zip so they tighten at the bottom. They certainly look better now. My mood, however, is considerably worse. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

Dress sense and sensibility

My review of two recent books about New Zealand fashion appears in the latest issue of New Zealand Books. This is the first time the journal has dealt with fashion, and it prompted a spirited exchange (which appears here, more or less verbatim) between me, the fashion enthusiast, and my co-editor, the cricketing man. 

The Dress Circle: New Zealand Fashion Design Since 1940
Lucy Hammonds, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and Claire Regnault
Godwit, $75.00, ISBN 9781869621810

New Zealand Fashion Design
Angela Lassig
Te Papa Press, $120.00, ISBN 9781877385377

Zambesis "Aphrodite" dress
in hand-printed silk georgette

Fashion can signify everything from cutting-edge catwalk creations to what you’re wearing now; from battered track pants to Armani suits, tramping boots to Kathryn Wilson high-heels. But whatever fashion means or doesn’t mean to each of us, the facts remain: we are dressed from the day we’re born and will go to our graves attired; and between these two dates we will almost never be randomly clothed.
Even if we claim dress is the last thing we care about, we do still care. As novelist Elizabeth Bowen put it, "On the subject of dress almost no one, for one or another reason, feels truly indifferent: if their own clothes do not concern them, somebody else's do."
Whether we like it or not, fashion implicates us all, although, paradoxically, its very quotidian nature can delude us into believing it's of no significance. Daily life slips by largely unexamined by most of the population. Wherever we live, whoever we are, we get up in the morning, pull something on and go out into the world looking more or less socially acceptable. Those who don’t – Wellington’s Blanket Man, for instance – are either punished or iconised, sometimes both, and named for their attire.

Wellington's Blanket Man

Perhaps this taken-for-grantedness accounts for fashion’s late arrival on the New Zealand publishing scene. That and our post-colonial heritage. Only a few generations back, the indigenous people were bullied and/or persuaded into “respectable” Victorian dress.
The immigrants who did the bullying and persuading brought with them in their cabin trunks a bundle of sturdy attitudes about what was proper for men, women and children to wear and to be interested in, along with a determination to make their way that valued the useful and spurned the aesthetic.
Then there are those who dismiss fashion, as one US museum director has said, as “the bastard child of capitalism and female vanity”; as superficial, light-weight, exploitative (add your own adjectives to suit). The alliance between fashion and commerce is particularly often cited by anti-fashionistas, as though art, photography, music and, indeed, writing, were not similarly in bed with the devil.
Such disdain is by no means universal. Few nationals take their intellectual life more seriously than the French, but that doesn’t prevent them putting couture up there with cuisine and cinema. Not for a moment would a French citizen think he or she had to choose between reading Barthes on fashion or dressing in it.

The authors and publishers of the two books under review may have been galled to discover that they broke this new ground in the same year, but, given their differing takes on the subject, there is no contest. Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, Lucy Hammond and Claire Regnault take a social historical approach; former Te Papa history curator Angela Lassig comes at fashion as art, focusing on its current stars and selections from their work. Fashion scholars and enthusiasts will probably want both titles on their shelves, but, the general reader – especially the more fashion-averse – should undoubtedly go for The Dress Circle: New Zealand Fashion Design Since 1940.
Jenkins et al give us a time tour of the last 70 years of New Zealand fashion, and how well they do it. The text, whose chapters are mainly written solo by one of the authors, is always lively and informative. The generous illustrations – of the clothes themselves, on (usually named) models or mannequins, and their designers; magazine covers and features; shop windows and designers’ workrooms – are various and intriguing. The book’s design is attractive without drawing attention to itself and thus distracting from the content.
In his introduction, Jenkins says the book originated in the 1999 explosion of interest in New Zealand fashion when four designers (Karen Walker, WORLD, Zambesi and NOM*d) were invited to show at London Fashion Week. As usual, home media coverage of these events both created and reflected this “sensation”. It hailed a unique New Zealand look, playing up its economic and national-identity potential.
But, says Jenkins, it was a response in which “all notions of the past were removed.” It ignored older generations of fashion designers, who, not unreasonably, felt they had had something to do with the success of the new. And it “severely limited the ability of contemporary New Zealand fashion design to explain the origins of its own uniqueness”. It also, it should be said, ignored generations of men and women who, in spite of this country’s isolation, and restricted production and choice, managed to avoid the default codes of respectable crimplene and walk-shorts, and dress stylishly.
The Dress Circle succeeds because it doesn’t restrict itself to fashion’s rarified heights. It tells the stories of what was designed and made for, bought and worn by those we lazily dub “ordinary people” as well as by the great and glamorous. It examines design but doesn’t turn up its nose at commerce.
The text is studded with names and personalities, observations and insights. It had never occurred to me, for instance, that this country’s many highly skilled home-sewers were both an advantage and an impediment to a home-grown fashion industry. One evocative 1944 photograph shows a Naenae woman and her neighbour kneeling over fabric and paper pattern on the kitchen lino. Nor did I realise to what extent copying was once perfectly respectable, with new Paris designs being rapidly recreated here for the New Zealand market.
I fell on the nutshell biography of Flora McKenzie, known to me only as a brothel keeper. First, though, she was a skilled designer and founder of Ninette Gowns, an exclusive Auckland salon with a rich and confidential clientele. They were fitted for beaded and appliqu├ęd gowns that set them back 100 pounds at a time when an off-the-rack dress cost seven.

Doris de Pont "Tribute" jacket
The effects of WWII on fashion make fascinating reading. Clothing was rationed from 1942, with the government aiming to reduce the fabric and time going into individual pieces. So seams, pleats and buttonholes were restricted; lace, tucks and shirring banned. Men lost the right to double-breasted suits, an official sock length was decreed and turn ups forbidden. The outcry against this last proved that, sometimes, those professing to care the least for personal style actually care deeply: New Zealand men and their tailors rose up to demand the return of their turn ups. Show trials of Dunedin tailors ensued. Eventually the government capitulated and the right to turn ups was reinstated.
Unlike many lavishly illustrated books, The Dress Circle is no mere coffee-table volume. It can, and should, be read end to end. In contrast, the portentously hefty New Zealand Fashion Design recalls Kramer’s invention in a Seinfeld episode: a coffee-table book with legs that transforms it into the coffee-table itself.

Its 500-plus glossy, large-format pages cover the work of 25 designers. These include the four whose collections appeared on the 1999 London Fashion Week runway, along with the well-established, such as Marilyn Sainty, Trelise Cooper and Doris de Pont, and a younger, lesser known contingent. Several-thousand-word profiles of each designer and their development are accompanied by photographs of them and their work.
Many of the latter images – showing both the whole garment and, pleasingly, on the facing page, a detail from it – are given the full-page, clean, white, context-free background treatment that signals “significant art object”.
While the designs are arresting, even mouth-watering, the cumulative effect, particularly alongside Jenkins and et al’s distinctly human story, is chilly and alienating. It raises the question not of whether contemporary fashion should be admitted into the hallowed halls of museums and galleries but whether it is enhanced by being so. The status of the industry and its creative forces might be, but perhaps not the individual garments, which are, or should be, designed for the dynamic human body.
Whatever prevents clothing from becoming an acceptable, mainstream interest isn’t obviated by a lurch to the other end of the pole that elevates outfits to artefacts.
Unfortunately these textual and illustrative treatments add up to a perfect illustration of the view Jenkins and his co-authors object to – that home-grown fashion sprang fully formed into the world in 1999. All notions of the past are absent. Peter Shand’s introduction attempts something of an historical overview, but is more concerned with cultural identity and the extent of home-grown fashion’s uniqueness.
The profiles themselves amount to little more than rather pedestrian, if dressed up, magazine-style, narrative-plus-quote features, as in “The process of designing for de Pont is, in her words, ‘in the alignment of the stars’”; “The switch from Zambesi’s work practices and aesthetics to those of Street Life was not an easy one for Helen to negotiate”; and, “After almost two decades of designing high-end ready-to-wear, made-to-measure bridal and couture garments, Mitchell began a concerted expansion of her business in 2006.”
Readers might well have expected something altogether more scholarly and thoughtful, given that Te Papa has an extensive costume collection, and that Lassig specialised in fashion history. Some have hailed her book as “seminal”. Yet it seems to go little further than fashion journo Stacey Gregg’s Undressed: New Zealand Fashion Designers Tell Their Stories (Penguin, 2003).
Perhaps what these enthusiasts mean is that they are delighted to at last see fashion elevated to art status. Whatever you make of it, though, this isn’t a volume many are likely to read cover to cover; at best, it’s a reference book, complete with designer facts, glossary and a listing of the last 20 years’ major design events, to return to as the need or mood takes us.
Fashion will never represent the pinnacle of human of achievement. It can be venal and vacuous, its writers capable of producing some of the silliest prose you will ever read, and bequeathing us irritating singulars, like pant and legging. And it relies too heavily on foreign sweatshops, starving models and glamorised youth. Nonetheless, fashion is what you and I deal in every day, what others show us of themselves and what we show them of us. How can that not be significant and fascinating?