Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Carmen Dell'Orefice: Fashion's Favourite Muse

Carmen with Horst, by Leonard McCombe, Life Magazine, 1947
So, you’re travelling in a bus in New York City. (Already, this is starting to seem like an impossible Christmas-season fantasy in this time of recession? Stay with me here.) Junior Bazaar magazine spots you and thinks that you may just be the cat’s pyjamas. That is, you have what it takes to be the next supermodel. Test shots are taken. They are sent to the magazine. You wait, and wait, and wait some more. The mission is a colossal failure. But hang on. You get an opportunity to shoot for Vogue, and suddenly, you are making $7.50 an hour to model for the world’s best-selling fashion magazine. Did I mention that you are thirteen years old? (Now you can’t tell if this is a dream to be enjoyed with a glass of mulled wine, or an Oliver Twist parody…)

The London College of Fashion presents a retrospective of Carmen Dell’Orefice, supermodel extraordinaire, a woman born in 1931 at the height of the Great Depression, on Welfare Island, New York. A woman who has invented and reinvented herself more times than Christmas turducken. This tiny, but exquisite, exhibition is a yummy hors d’oeuvre for the holidays, a glimpse of a sixty-six-year career of fashion’s favourite muse, not to mention the skill of the world’s best photographers that daily walk the line between fashion and art.
Magazine covers from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, advertisements for Elizabeth Arden and something called Hunt’s Catsup, portraits by Cecil Beaton and Horst P Horst feature in this exhibition that could easily be five times bigger and not put you to sleep. 

In Irving Penn’s “Girl with Fruit, Shoe and Butterflies,” Vogue, 1946, Dell’Orefice sits surrounded by half a melon and a black leather pump. Butterflies flit around her, one sits on her shoulder, another on her shoe. And it is impossible to know if Dell’Orefice has just served tea and croquettes to the local chapter of the Women’s Institute, or butchered the latest in a long line of hapless victims in her basement. 

Her Italian father was a violinist, her Hungarian mother, a dancer. Dell’Orefice was training to be a ballet dancer at the Swoboda School when she developed rheumatic fever. Her dance career may still have flourished if she hadn’t grown three inches in height during her illness. By the late 1940s, she was considered too underweight and anaemic to be glamorous. A visit to Condé Nast’s in-house doctor, however, pulled a miracle transformation out of the bag, and suddenly, Dell’Orefice glowed with health and vitality, not to mention an Amazonian bosom. This led, inevitably, to a flash career as a lingerie model at Vanity Fair and an asking price of $300 an hour. 

Several decades, three husbands, and an honorary doctorate later, silver-haired Dell’Orefice laughs in your face in a series of photographs by Ali Mahdavi, recently commissioned by the London College of Fashion. As Norman Parkinson once said of the fashion camera’s favourite model, she “didn’t look bad for an old bag.”

Carmen: A Life in Fashion
London College of Fashion
Till January 28, 2012

Published in London Fringe Festival and The London Word

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Karl Lagerfeld Gives Willy Wonka a Run for His Money

Photo: Antoine de Parseval
More on Chanel's Paris-Bombay Collection

Chanel’s tasty Métiers D’Art 2012 collection titled Paris-Bombay, actively and unapologetically, set out to woo the Indian upper-class customer who has more pocket money than she knows what to do with. Fuelled by a booming economy, and a desire to consume, consume, consume, India seems to be the next destination of choice for the big design houses.

At first glance, designer Karl Lagerfeld’s collections, inspired variously by Byzance, Shanghai, and Moscow in recent years, follow the path of fin de siècle designers like Paul Poiret. These designers and artists married early-twentieth century art deco with orientalist acquisition to market to the European fashionista the mystery, exoticism, and opulence of the orient. But peer a little closer. The mingling of French lace with lavishly-embroidered anarkali gowns, of elaborate hand-chokers and tikas dripping down on the forehead, is not just selling the fantasy-India of elephants and maharajas to Europeans, but to the generous-pocketed Indian consumer. It is the Orient marketed to the Orient. Go figure.

The Paris-Bombay collection, in which models paraded their tight churidars paired with gold lame, their lashings of pearls, and their kohlapuri slippers down aisles studded with an Indian-themed banquet – replete with mountains of fruit, ornate candelabra and, I want to say, chicken tikka, but who knows? – is the orientalist version of Willy Wonka’s party. Instead of children whose brains have been addled by sugary confections, however, the invitations were exclusively given out to design and pop culture royalty, and the Parisian ton.

Seventy-three-year-old Lagerfeld, famously attired in his indoor sunglasses, white ponytail, and Tourette’s-like quotes, says he has never been to India and that “It’s much more inspiring not to go to places than to go.” Hmm? What does that even mean? He went on to say that women all over the world often respond to recession by dressing up in their most lavish jewels. Off to Accessorize I go…

Lagerfeld owns more than two hundred exclusive stores around the world, and designs not only for Chanel, but for artists like Madonna, stores like H&M and Diesel, and his own fashion house. He likes to periodically remind the world that he is still alive by using fur in his shows and employing strippers to model his lines. The Chanel Métiers D’Art collections have showcased the best of French craftsmanship for the last eight years. Priced somewhere between Chanel’s prêt-a-porter gear (£2000), and their couture (£20,000), the 2012 collection showcases Lagerfeld’s interpretations of Indian fashion history.

Published on the London Word

A Christmas Carol


Sell a Door’s A Christmas Carol, directed by David Hutchinson and Anna Schneider, recreates the loneliness of Scrooge as he sits at his desk in the Christmas season, jealously counting his money, and enjoying an orgy of mutual hatred with the world. The directors of the Dickens classic use the small stage of the Greenwich Playhouse and a modest budget to maximum effect. They place a live musician with his computer and keyboard in one corner of the room; use the actors and dancers in the production as stage hands and helpers between scenes; and they draw a series of quick-fire sets on the blackboard that acts as backdrop for the play – a surprisingly effective device.

Stephen Barden successfully brings to life Scrooge’s melancholic, solitary existence, while the young cast does justice to the somewhat holier-than-thou Cratchetts, and the various ghosts that pay Scrooge a visit in his home. Tara Godolphin and Jess Mock shine as the ghosts of Christmas present and past respectively. Godolphin in a neon-green dress, a size or two too small for her, totters about in high heels, and gives us a tarty interpretation of the former, while Mock animates her preaching with a coy and flirty, mock-angelic version of the latter. The singing and dancing interludes are effective and Christmasy, though there are Christmas horrors in store for Scrooge, so the play is not an ideal Christmas treat for the young ones.

The paragraph in the promos and programme that points to the similarity between this classic tale and the current banking crisis does the play a disservice, however, in that it raises expectations that there will be more in the script that satirizes, or at least signifies, the current economic climate. I would definitely be up for watching an adaptation of A Christmas Carol that was actually set in today’s recession, where Scrooge could be the epitome of a Northern Rock banker, and Cratchett his hapless employee, fearfully trying to guard against redundancy. I wouldn’t mind seeing a gay Fred, fighting the good fight against his homophobic uncle. However, this is not the case here, and the play is simply a fun, and somewhat contemporary, adaptation of the original.

If you are into fringe theatre, then Sell a Door is a company to watch. They tour widely and successfully, one of the few fringe theatre companies to do so without any funding. Upcoming adaptations include Lord of the Flies and The History Boys.

A Christmas Carol, Greenwich Playhouse, Till January 15, 2012

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Chanel Métiers D’Art 2012

Photo by Antoine de Parseval

Chanel’s delicious Métiers D’Art collection, presented in Paris the day before yesterday, had much in common with an Indian wedding. Gold silk paired with a tight pair of white leggings, a multitude of nose rings, a tika dripping down on to the forehead, finely-crafted hand jewellery – and unapologetic excess.

Designer Karl Lagerfeld is happy to admit that he has never been to India, but the Paris-Bombay collection finds it easy to mate the fantasy of an opulent Orient, with the current-day middle-class Indian reality of having more pocket money than you know what to do with. Lagerfeld has installed this lushness into a European collection, saying that, “People have always responded to difficulty by dressing up in jewels.” Well, then, portends of a second recession be damned. (Is the first over? When did that happen?)

The Chanel Métiers D’Art collections have showcased the best of French craftsmanship for the last eight years. Priced somewhere between Chanel’s prêt-a-porter gear (£2000), and their couture (£20,000), the 2012 collection showcases Lagerfeld’s interpretations of Indian fashion history. Yards of intricate lace construct the classic Mughal anarkali dress, full with transparent sleeves and muslin scarf. Beads are threaded delicately into a long white sherwani. Necklines and hems are weighted down with jewels approximately the same weight as the models that wear them – a tradition followed by many Indian queens through history.

The borrowing of Oriental fashion and injecting it into European lines has a long trajectory. French designer Paul Poiret (1879-1944) opened his own fashion house in 1903 with the kimono coat. Just before the First World War, when dancers like Nijinsky and Loie Fuller dressed in filmy Turkish-inspired layers, and Egyptian head-gear, Poiret dressed his wife Denise in “harem” trousers and minaret tunics studded with turquoise stones. Poiret launched the first ever signature fragrance produced by a fashion house “Parfums de Rosine” with a lavish Arabian Nights-style costume ball. In similar fashion, Paris-Bombay was launched during a lavish Indian-themed dinner party that doubled as runway for the models who walked in kolapuri slippers through aisles of candlesticks, piles of fruit, and gold-plated cutlery – not to mention the French ton.

Seventy-three-year-old Lagerfeld has also produced shows inspired by Byzance, Shanghai and Moscow. Not far from a dandy himself with his white-powdered ponytail, his hand-held fan, and his sunglasses, Lagerfeld owns more than two hundred exclusive stores around the world, and designs not only for Chanel, but for artists like Madonna, stores like H&M and Diesel, and his own fashion house. He likes to periodically remind the world that he is still alive by using fur in his shows and employing strippers to model his lines.

Published on

Friday, 2 December 2011

Disrobing the King’s Mistresses

The Whore's Last Shift, James Gillray, National Portrait Gallery, 1779

Henry Angels as Mrs. Cole in The Minor, Samuel de Wilde, National Portrait Gallery, 1792

Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn, William Hogarth, National Portrait Gallery, 1738
Mary Robinson - Perdita, John Hoppner, Natioanl Portrait Gallery, 1782
Nell Gwyn (1651-1687) throws you a deliciously superior glance as her robes fall off her shoulders and reveal a not-so-coy vision of her milky breasts. You can look, but you can’t touch, she says. King Charles II’s mistress, mother of at least two of his bastards, and one of the first actresses to perform at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, Gwyn seems exclusively to be painted getting into or out of her clothes. As one of the visitors to the National Portrait Gallery commented, “This one seemed to be cursed with a series of wardrobe malfunctions.”
The First Actresses exhibition is a series of portraits by celebrated painters like Simon Verelst, Sir Peter Lely, and Thomas Gainsborough, of the first actresses to be allowed on the English stage. These were women who were desired and feared in equal measure for their bawdy, confident acting, their throw-it-in-your-face personal lives, and their decadent sense of style and fashion.
Many of the women combined a life as an actress and dancer with forays into the royal court. While this was most often as the chosen mistress of a king or a prince (like Nell Gwyn, Moll Davis, and Mary Robinson), women like Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) entered the royal threshold as reading instructor. Instead of displaying a quantity of rippling flesh, Siddons, in a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, is pictured standing next to a staid side table. A couple of weighty leather-bound founts of knowledge lie on the table, and Siddons’s carriage is made even more stately with a pair of serious eyes and a set of petulant lips.
Some of the choicest pieces in the exhibition are perhaps the ones least touted in the press. These are hilarious satirical etchings by artists such as William Hogarth and James Gillray. One titled Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn is a scene of dressers, seamstresses, half-dressed actresses, surrounded by a mind-numbing quantity of green room paraphernalia. Another, this one by Gillray, is simply titled The Whore’s Last Shift (1779).
While the 1660s allowed female actresses to perform on the stage for the first time, these women were considered disreputable and suspect, and easy prey to roving eyes and fingers. By 1737, only troupes with a royal charter were allowed to perform on stage. In this small but choice exhibition at the Royal Academy, portraits of these pioneering women are accompanied by lush caricatures of male cross-dressers. In The Minor, Henry Angels, in voluminous robes and apron, played the infamous role of Mrs. Cole, a woman who ran a brothel in Covent Garden and appeared often in an inebriated state. In this portrait by Samuel de Wilde in 1792, Angels combines a meaty bosom with a soured outlook. 

The First Actresse, National Portrait Gallery, Till January 8, 2012


Thursday, 1 December 2011

Degas's Dancers

There is something exquisitely voyeuristic about Degas’s (1834-1917) peek into the lives of nineteenth-century ballet dancers. In a backdrop of frothy tutus, and a canvas of dancers posing in unison as they launch into an arabesque, a ballet dancer sits with her head in her hands. Her legs are splayed and a pedestrian wrap around her shoulders keeps her warm in the cold of a Parisian studio. Degas, in his lifelong rapture with a dancer’s movements, catches not only the magic of muscles working at their best, but brings to life the curse of a dancer’s body that does not behave exactly as it should. A body that crumbles. Injures itself. That fails. That continually seduces. And perpetually falls short.
The exhibition at the Royal Academy of Degas’s studies of the human body in motion spans his career from his early, realistic portrayals of dancers in rehearsal studies and dance classes, to his later, bolder, more impressionist work that he painted often in one dominant hue. Sumptuous aqua tones, throbbing reds, and canary yellows mark this period, and though he continued to refer to himself as a realist, there is a definite heightening of the squiggles and splotches that brand him as an impressionist, and a telling juxtaposition of humanity and wilderness. The challenge of catching human locomotion through art was a characteristic of Degas’s period, and scientists like Etienne-Jules Marey, with his forays into fixed-plate chronophotography, inspired Degas’s work, as did the realism of popular illustrators like Daumier and Gavarni. While Degas captures the magic and the disappointments of a dancer’s existence through his work, he steers clear of delving into the murkier corners of the psyches of his nineteenth-century subjects who, outside of the effervescence of their chosen profession, often lived lives of devastating poverty, utter dependence on the largesse of their patrons, and the painful reality of cold, bleeding feet. Degas, instead, catches a shoulder strap as it falls off a shapely shoulder and the strength of a pair of legs as they pas de bourree on a wooden floor on pointe. Despite such a compulsive engagement with human flesh, later in his life, Degas turned more and more into a recluse, believing that a social and personal life were in conflict with an artist’s need for a vivid inner reality.
While the Royal Academy does a good job of displaying many of Degas’s oils of dancers, some of his sketches and studies of the human body, and many photographs of the moving body taken by his contemporaries, the exhibition nevertheless leaves you with a not-quite-full stomach as you walk out of the last room. It is the paintings Degas did in his later years that are so captivating, and the show leaves you wanting more of this aspect of his work.

Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, Till December 11, 2011, Royal Academy

Published in London Festival Fringe 

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Road to Shimla

My short story Road to Shimla has recently appeared in Inkspill magazine, a gorgeous print and online literary magazine. Check it out at

Monday, 5 September 2011

Mr. and Mrs. God Join Katie Price's Entourage

Mr. and Mrs. God are scouring the earth to find their daughter, the Goddess of Love, who has fallen to the earth, straight into the entourage of Essex-based celebrity Natty. In the meantime, Natty, in her Katie Price outfits (think bubblegum-pink velour), and her continuous orgy of self-loathing (“I'm so shit” is her theme tune), is squabbling with her soul-mate Baz. Natty and Baz are at odds because they're trying “normal sex” – that is, sex without toys, games and guilt – and are finding it strangely lacking. Meantime, a homeless drifter holds the key to love and happiness in a Hermes handbag.

The play is a modern take on the deus ex machina, a theatrical device originally from Ancient Greece, often used by Shakespeare himself, in which a God-figure descends to the earth to sort out the naff problems of the plebeians. In the God of Soho, while the Goddess of Love can perhaps help Natty and Baz find love sans vibrators (though, the play doesn't quite clarify how she does this), Mr. and Mrs. God have endless problems of their own.

Mrs. God is struck by the travails of being a “celebrity wife.” She wears a bag full of her own liposuction juices at her waist. Mr. God is worried that he is no more than a voice in a mental person's head, and his daughter, meanwhile, is driven to love unavailable men. Through her caterwauling about unrequited love, to Natty and Baz's dogged endeavours to enjoy sex, and sundry potty-mouthed interludes by just about everyone in the star-studded cast, the play takes you through a raucous, though somewhat baffling, romp.

The writer Chris Hannan stubbornly claims that the play is not a satire. Meantime, critics are calling it the Marmite of theatre – you either love it or hate it. And yes, Raz Shaw's direction could be tighter, and one of two gratuitous scenes deleted. Nevertheless, this odd mix of bawdy fun (in the tradition of seventeenth-century outdoor theatre that played in similar Greek-style amphitheatres), clever references to celebrity/brand culture, and excellent music by the hairy bikers of the eclectic ska band King Porter Stomp, provides an evening of brilliant entertainment – especially if you're lucky not to be rained on, and you have a sturdy back to withstand the hard benches.
The God of Soho, Shakespeare's Globe, Till September 30, 2011

Published on London Fringe

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Miro: Up Yours to Genre

The Tilled Field, 1923-4, Successio Miro/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

The Escape Ladder, 1940, Successio Miro/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

Walking through a Miro exhibition may feel like an epiphany, or if you are particularly susceptible, an existential crisis. A mind-boggling mating of precise lines and cubic shapes, with ferocious intensity and an up-yours-to-genre kind of philosophy, seems to be Joan Miro’s (1893-1983) signature style.
It may be a little bit like deep sea diving. Pings of colour hit you from all sides. Men and women from a post-nuclear freak show sit around a table and discuss Goethe. Creatures are boiled down to their very essence, and pedestrian objects take on a life of their own. And you are left to loiter between an overwhelming desire to stare at his art forever, and an equally intense need to run for your life.
Born in Barcelona to a family of goldsmiths and watchmakers, and heavily influenced all his life by Catalan politics – the declaration of a Catalan Republic of Barcelona in the 1930s, and then General Franco’s dictatorship – Miro’s work shared many Surrealist ideologies. Stubbornly anti-bourgeois, and always in key with the life and work of Catalan peasants, Miro juxtaposed unexpected elements in his paintings and sculptures – a dog, a moon, a ladder, perhaps a woman who looks like one of the Twits, or maybe people with insignificant faces, stick-like bodies, and humungous genitalia.
Nevertheless, Miro steered clear of aligning himself to any particular school of art and continued to experiment all through his life. The exhibition at the Tate Modern shows continuous curiosity, an unwillingness to stick to any one style, and a fevered experimentation, so that each of the twelve rooms of the exhibition and each decade of Miro’s life seems to be a testament to a constantly evolving style. Influenced by Surrealist qualities, Cubist reintegration of geometrical shapes, and a Fauvist fascination with loud colour, Miro’s art stands outside the bounds of all of these schools. Yet, walking through the exhibition, and confronted with pointy breasts and monstrous vaginas, you ask yourself, yikes, did he hate women?
His works show not only towering skill and a strict precision of line and detail, but an utter lack of fear in breaking the “normal” confines of life and art. He blended folklore with philosophy as easily as cruel caricature with the workings of the subconscious mind. As Miro said, “The works must be conceived with fire in the soul, but executed with clinical coolness.”
A philosophy and exhibition not for the fainthearted.

Miro. Tate Modern, Till September 11, 2011
Review published on London Fringe

More Watteau

To go with the exhibition of Watteau's drawings at the Royal Academy, the Wallace Collection at Manchester Square, near Bond Street tube station, are showcasing Watteau's paintings, along with those of some of his followers. Scroll down to read review of Watteau's drawings, or go to London Fringe. All of the following pictures of the paintings housed in the Wallace Collection.

Fete Galante in a Wooded Landscape with the Sculpture of a Seated Nude Woman, 1719-21, Watteau

La Belle Greque, N.Lancret

Monday, 23 May 2011

Mark Leckey and the Fear of Critical Theory

At the risk of sounding brainwashed by a chick-lit, Shopaholic ideology of life, I have to confess that I like beautiful art, difficult as that word is to define. I also like art that is ugly, uncomfortable, or just plain terrifying. And I adore art that is both beautiful and ugly at the same time. What I find less interesting in a piece of art is when it is so cerebral that it forgets to touch the heart. And I have to admit that Mark Leckey’s Samsung refrigerator, as part of his exhibition of installations, art work, and videos at the Serpentine Gallery, just left me cold.
GreenScreen RefrigeratorAction sits in a room the colour of irradiated grass. There are two flat screens on two of the walls, speaking to you with automated, mechanical, repetitive voices, and the centre piece is a Samsung refrigerator, its double doors slightly ajar. And that’s pretty much it. Leckey’s inspiration is to communicate the idea of people being in constant communication with all aspects of their environment. Is the refrigerator asking me to think about brands, our culture of consumerism where it is practically a life imperative to own the next iPhone? Is it speaking to our constant hunger for more – more food, more technology, more busyness? Maybe it is. But when I look at it, the one question it makes me ask is: and…?
One of the most interesting pieces in this exhibition is Leckey’s renowned Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, a montage of video footage from the underground club scenes of Britain from the 1970s to the 1990s. The young people in the footage evoke the paranoia, frenzied immortality, and the trance-like quality of acid-infused hope, and at the same time the fevered scenes of British rave culture create a George Orwell-like premonition for a fragmented future. Kurt Cobain couldn’t have injected it with more pain. The totemic quality of dancing to a steady heartbeat could just as much magic a whirling dervish into being, as point to the schizophrenic nature of our lives.
For someone who confesses his distrust of and boredom with critical theory, Leckey certainly makes heavily intellectual art. At the same time, the media love to call him a dandy, a flaneur, with his penchant for pink trousers, floral monochromatic shirts, and desire to come to terms with modern life. He confesses in interviews to be torn between his own “disgusting ambitions” and the need to please people with his art. Having won the Turner Prize in 2008, it is safe to say that he is well on his way to satisfying both. He confesses, though, that maybe he feels sick with the world, and perhaps that is what his art is really about.

Mark Leckey, Sepentine Gallery, Till June 26, 2011
Review published in London Fringe

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Degas' Dancers

La Danse Grecque, 1885-90, Hon. Earle I. Mack Collection

Exhibition coming up at the Royal Academy of Arts in September 2011

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Watteau: Of Wistful Faces and Satin Breeches

Three Studies of a Young Girl Wearing a Hat, 1716. Ann and Gordon Getty Collection

Flemish-born French artist Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), credited with the revival of baroque during the reign of Louis XIV, and flourishing in the use of a style that ultimately gave birth to rococo, had the knack of juxtaposing contradictory elements in his paintings and drawings, which show not only a sparkling wit, but an acute insight into human longing. Restless, unmindful of his future, and inspired by everything from Persian servants to travelling troubadours, Watteau’s artistic ego did not stop him from coming back to a drawing five years on and adding a disparate figure to completely transform his creation.
His simpler red-chalk drawings in the first decade of the eighteenth century made use of elaborately plumed and costumed commedia dell’arte figures to illustrate the performativity of high society. A Barber’s Shop (1709) evokes the social commerce of a hair-dressers, where men in their ornate coats and gloriously slim breeches (think Georgette Heyer at her Regency best) choose lushly powdered wigs and other paraphernalia essential to a gentleman’s comfort. This shop sign, though, is set on the proscenium stage, with tapestry curtains hiding the wings on the side. Many of Watteau’s drawings were not only an early reflection on art about art, but also inspired the popular imagination through decadent fashion plates, and garments named after Watteau.
These drawings gave way to a fuller bodied, more thoughtful, more intimate and probing study of his subjects. While these red-and-black-chalk body lines and postures show the maturing of Watteau’s skills, it is the exquisite expression in the faces of his subjects that really displays Watteau’s heightened engagement with humanity.
In his final years, along with an interest in female and male nudes caught in moments of pensive self-absorption, Watteau’s skill in drawing fete galante was at a peak. This was a style of art that displayed men and women of ton lolling in parks, and living a life of leisure, or, as in the case of The Remedy, a reclining, naked woman waiting for her maid to give her an enema. Yet even in his erotic drawings, and his depictions of noble life, Watteau seemed not to draw the physical beauty of a person, but instead penetrated their thoughts and feelings. It is in the wistful, shy, vivid and vibrant faces of his subjects that Watteau’s keen sensitivity to people, and his trend setting, though short-lived, talent really come to life.

Read review on London Fringe.

Watteau: The Drawings
The Royal Academy of Art
Till June 5, 2011

Monday, 9 May 2011

Proof: Genius and Madness

Photo: Robert Gooch

David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Proof has inspired one of several Hollywood films based on the genius and madness of brilliant minds that dazzle with their grasp of abstraction, but unlike Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind, Proof enters the overlooked and closeted world of female mathematicians. The play opens as Catherine, a young woman shattered by the loss of her father who she has cared for through the last years of his psychosis and his loss of confidence in his mathematical abilities, questions if she has inherited his mania, but if she lacks the elegance of his path-breaking work.
David Hutchinson’s fringe adaptation is set in an intimate theatre space overlaid with synthetic turf that is the front lawn of Catherine and her father’s house. The action centres around the patio, with its lone wicker rocking chair, that becomes the symbol first of Robert’s growing psychosis, then of Catherine’s depression and her tentative relationship with Robert’s doctoral student Hal. In the middle of this turning point in Catherine’s life arrives her controlling sister Claire (embodied to a tee by Amy Burke), who is in turn protective and envious of Catherine’s instability that holds the promise of towering talent when compared to her own normality as a prosaic Currency Analyst.
Hilarious scenes between the sisters complement beautifully Robert’s last years (poignantly brought to life by Marcus Taylor), and Catherine’s inconsolability. Dan Cohen (who would give Hugh Grant a run for his money) shines as the bumbling, awkward drummer who is secretly in love with Catherine, but Holly Easterbrook’s interpretation of Catherine turns her into a petulant teenager, rather than the nuanced Catherine played by Gwyneth Paltrow in the film, her character a mix of acute sensitivity, strength, fragility, and a prickly reluctance to let people in.

Review published in London Fringe, and The London Word 

Thursday, 28 April 2011

London Burlesque Week: Juicy Couture

Photo by Sharon Cooper

The London Burlesque Week opening night gala was a Diving Dolphin short of a Soho sex shop. If it wasn’t a pair of rosy cheeks staring at you from above crotchless tights designed by the sponsor Secrets in Lace, it was pleather corsets and tit tassels singing Funny Honey, to the gentle sush-sush of the war boat floating on the Thames.
After the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fashion show that boasted pink and leopard print padded glory with matching girdles, on came the talented ladies of the main event that could easily be titled World Stripping for Dummies. While Marianne Cheesecake stripped to a Far East theme, Betty Delight evoked her inner Marie Antoinette, and the Folly Dollies danced a cheery Charleston.
The show stealer was Ivy Paige, hostess extraordinaire for the night, replete with corset and Long John Silver’s parrot perched on her fascinator, to go with the nautical theme of the evening. She informed the audience that she had been aboard all the big ones in her time, and gone down on a few – ships, of course, what else? While Captain Jack Sparrow had given her pieces of eight, she’d given him Chlamydia in return – some would say, a fair exchange. To seal the deal with her adoring audience, she crowd surfed down to the back of the room, while giving running commentary on her mike on what it felt like to sit on a man’s head.
While the opening night captured the United States version of burlesque that billed striptease at the top of the genre back between the two world wars, it watered down the original intent of burlesque to poke raucous fun at dramatic and literary works, or to simply create caricatures and bawdy sketches that brought together enticing female flesh with a bellyful of laughs.

Review published at London Festival Fringe.
London Burlesque Week
The HMS President’s War Boat

Monday, 18 April 2011

Enchanted Palace

As the £12million makeover of Kensington Palace gets underway, the state apartments have been transformed into a treasure hunt for the seven princesses that lived there from the seventeenth century all the way to Princess Diana. If your favourite dream is to fall down a rabbit hole and make eyes at the Mad Hatter, or you keep your visions realistic and a tour of a Tim Burton set will do for you, or, as a final resort, you are just a garden-variety voyeur, then the Enchanted Palace quest may be just the right medicine.
Queen Victoria’s boudoir houses a Princess and the Pea style bed (minus Sky Broadband), a cast of enormous string puppets and a William Tempest dress to tell the story of Victoria’s youth in which she penned stories and dabbled with watercolour. A Vivienne Westwood frothy confection catapulting down a staircase could be Cinderella leaving the ball, but it tells the story of Princess Charlotte, who defied her father, rejected the suit of the Prince of Orange (aka The Young Frog), and married dashing Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. The displays, underlined with the princesses’ often tragic and melodramatic lives, are studded with arty fashion, spooky wolf howls, and historical artefacts like satin slippers that belonged to Victoria’a children, and Princess Margaret’s wedding tiara. Flitting amongst these are “tour guides” in gray jumpsuits and head torches who ad lib about the building works.
The interactive, multi-media display is a great excuse to learn about the history of the palace, and get a quick summary of the monarchy, at a time when there is renewed interest in the romance of royal princesses. While the exhibition would make a great day out for children, as an adult, I could have done with more history and biography.
The Enchanted Palace,
Kensington Palace.
Till Feb 28, 2012

Thursday, 31 March 2011

The Cult of Beauty: The Pursuit of Pleasure

Short review published in London Festival Fringe

I can’t get enough of Pre-Raphaelite art, or maybe it is their relentless pursuit of beauty and sensuality for their own sake, and pleasure in all things decadent (with a dash of addiction and paranoia thrown in for good measure) that is so intoxicating. The Victoria and Albert’s delicious collection of art from the Aesthetic Movement (1860-1900) reunites paintings from the second wave of the Brotherhood, which included Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and Edward Burne-Jones, with writers Oscar Wilde, and Algernon Swinburne whose poems were often inspired by paintings like Rosseti’s The Blue Closet (1857), and furniture by artists like Edward William Godwin.
Having faced all kinds of controversy in the 1850s about their art and their morals (or lack thereof), and the blinding rivalry and incestuous sharing of models within the group, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in its first avatar had petered out, and given way to this second group. This group shared many of the concerns of the first, and their goals and aims were in tandem with many other artists and intellectuals of the second half of the nineteenth century - to produce art that was free of pious moralizing and prudery, to create work that was not based on narrative, classic texts, commercialism, materialism or the ugliness of the Industrial Revolution and the Great Exhibitions, to follow and worship nature and feeling in their art, and to live life by those same ideals. The Brotherhood was interested in the form of a painting, rather than its narrative, and synasthesia was a common goal.
In 1862, Rossetti’s set congregated in Tudor House, Chelsea, like bees swarming around a pot of honey. They painted a bevy of flame-haired women, some pale-faced and consumptive, with an unconventional beauty that was enticingly out of reach – using models who looked like Lizzie Siddal, who died in 1862 of an overdose of laudanum, before Rossetti moved to Chelsea; and others who were riper and earthier, like Jane Morris, another of Rosseti’s obsessions, albeit married to one of his cronies. Not everyone in the set was in a single-minded quest for notches on their bedpost, however, or in helping models make the smooth transition from artist’s studio to bedchamber. Frederic Leighton’s black-haired Pavonia (1858-9) is an exquisite oil of a woman framed with peacock feathers, who he paints with haunting devotion and clinical detachment. A portrait of his favourite muse Nanna Risi, the painting communicates the movement's ideals of feminine beauty and sensuality, and indeed, peacock feathers.
Punch cartoonist George du Maurier satirized this heedless pursuit of pleasure. He found the Movement’s penchant for blue-and-white china, Japanese screens and ceramics, sun flowers and peacock feathers to be especially worthy of ridicule. Critics of the movement derided the main followers as aesthetes, dandies, people with no control, discpline, or substance, people who blindly followed ideals set by "the continent," and more locally, by Walter Pater in an infamous conclusion to his book that advocated that people live life with directness and intensity. There are links between many works of art produced in the height of the movement. Frederick Sandys's picture of an angry young woman with a trail of curly hair in her mouth (1868) inspired the poet Algernon Swinburne, an ardent follower of the ideals of the movement. Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl (1860s) is perhaps inspired by Wilkie Collins's Woman in White. Aubrey Beardsley's The Toilet of Salome (1894) illustrated Oscar Wilde's controversial play.
The Movement was spurred by Baudelaire’s insistence on l’art pour l’art, by the literary set’s antipathy to writing literature that only inspired self-righteous moralizing, and by the ugliness of the Industrial Revolution, and it went on to inspire the Art Nouveau, Art Deco and the Art and Craft Movements. Some trace the influence of the movement in J.R.R Tokein's work.

Pavonia, Frederic Leighton, 1958-9

Choosing, George Frederic Watts, 1864

Bocca Baciata, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1859

stained glass, Edward Burne-Jones

The Cult of Beauty
Victoria and Albert
April 2-July 17, 2011

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Importance of Being Yohji Yamamoto

Yohji Yamamoto’s signature style makes you stop, blink owlishly and ask yourself the question: is he kidding? His clothes often look over-sized. Seams are flagrantly exposed. And flaps of quilted or felt fabric that would look more at home in Heal’s than in a prêt a porter collection, look tacked on by safety pins. You turn up to a menswear line (like Fall 1998, modelled by Vivienne Westwood and Charlotte Rampling, amongst others), there isn’t a man in sight on the catwalk, and the female models are wearing flat Japanese shoes, long skinny skirts and swathes of chiffon. So, is he kidding? A little, yes. Is he ever serious? Yes, probably. In a kooky, ironic, finger-at-the-establishment, kind of way, he is poking fun at the deadly seriousness with which the fashion world treats clothes, collections and bodies. Well, maybe. No one really knows.
Following hot on the heels of the Barbican’s Future Beauty, the Victoria and Albert’s retrospective of Yamamoto’s career spans thirty years, and mixes standard issue mannequin displays, with multimedia installations that tell you about Yamamoto’s life and work, and show the timeline of his collections. Peppered throughout the museum are further displays that share secret liaisons with the museum’s more traditional exhibits, from Trajan’s Column to Rodin’s writhing sculptures. In the main exhibition hall (which is for some reason lit and heated like a furnace) a quilted and be-furred Victorian-style jacket and long skirt nestles close to a sumptuously simple asymmetric red felt dress sewn together in skewed blocks. A gray-and-red chequered, two-tiered dress stands next to a canary-yellow frothy confection, shaded by a hat the size of Honduras. The gray-and-red strapless dress could be a mad person’s take on a business suit, but features instead in Yamamoto’s 1998 Sp/Su wedding collection called Playing with Tradition, where models walk with eye-popping solemnity down the aisle in their lampshade dresses, holding foamy bouquets made of net, quirking an eyebrow at the stereotypical sentimentality of wedding rituals.
Born in Tokyo in 1943, Yamamoto lost his father in the war, and grew up with his widowed mother, which some critics like to link to his penchant for using the deepest, darkest of blacks for his collections, ironically referred to as “post-Hiroshima” chic. He completed a law degree, then switched his attention to the fashion world, and launched his fashion label Y’s in the 1970s. He quickly became notorious for making garments that looked oversized and unfinished, and that too in the 1980s when everyone else was having an orgy with undersized Lycra. Over the years he has collaborated with filmmaker Takeshi Kitano and photographer Wim Wenders. Pina Bausch’s dancers wore Yamamoto’s clothes for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the dance company, and Yamamoto appeared on stage in a rare appearance as a karate aficionado. Both Bausch and Yamamoto’s work is inspired by the harmony between what should and should not be seen. Keeping with the wabi-sabi theme of his life and work, his company was declared bankrupt in 2009, a detail that the V and A exhibition chooses not to harp on.
Yamamoto is a designer whose clothes are often admired for two things. For being sensationally wearable (like his 2002 collaboration with Adidas to launch the Y-3 line), and intensely avant garde. The V and A collection is an effervescent selection of Yamamoto’s life and work, but it tries hard to highlight the deconstruction and theatricality of his clothes, often at the cost of the starkness of his style. It tries so much to be full of what Levi-Strauss would call “floating signifiers,” the glam and pastiche of post-modern clothing, and the lavishness of Yamamoto’s disregard for the fashion establishment, that it gives the retrospective a slightly un-tethered, pupils-dilated, frenzied look.
Read short review on London Festival Fringe. Longer article coming up in Radia magazine.
Exhibition, Till July 10, 2011, V and A

Monday, 28 March 2011

Does Po.Mo. Mean Grim?

(Published at London Festival Fringe
When I think of 1970s New York artists, living in communal lofts in the wake of free love, the second wave of the feminist movement, and Vietnam war protests, I imagine a collective driven by hope. But as the Barbican exhibition reveals, the artists were interested in the grim reality of urban decay and chronic unemployment, the horrors of industrial waste and homelessness, and George Orwell-style nightmares of a fractured and hyper-anxious society. The soundscore is industrial noise, grating and static, a refrain more suited to Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 than to post-modern dance.
Making work a decade after Judson Dance Theatre, Trisha Brown (a member of Judson), Laurie Anderson, and Gordon Matta-Clark shared the collective’s concerns. Dance was about pedestrian movement, stepping out of the proscenium, saying “no to spectacle” (Yvonne Rainer), and exploring alternative surfaces.
Watching Brown’s famous Walking on the Wall (1971) is a discombobulating experience, like you’re witnessing the moonwalk – not the Michael Jackson avatar, but rather people gliding on the moon’s surface, moving their limbs with deliberation to keep them from walking off in a different direction from the rest of their body.
Matta-Clark set up an enormous dumpster called Open House (1972) in SoHo, and invited people to walk in and out of its maze-like corridors. He made it a hobby to collect “gutter spaces” in New York, unusable and unsustainable buildings, at local auctions.
Anderson was interested in technology. Her installations range from a table on which you place your elbows, so that your arms function as earphones; a ghostly electric chair, part of a derelict recording studio, that moves of its own accord, rotates at odd moments, flickers on and off; and a ten-inch clay model, a “fake hologram with sound” that talks to you about its experiences on a shrink’s couch.
Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s
Barbican Art Gallery
Till May 22, 2011

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Anna Karenina: The Perils of Russian Loving

Photo: Robert Workman

Read short review on London Festival Fringe and longer review on The London Word

Helen Edmundson’s rapturous adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s towering epic Anna Karenina, brought back to life at the Arcola Theatre this spring, is as much about Levin’s idealistic love for Kitty as it is about Anna’s fatal attraction for Vronsky. Max Webster’s skilful direction and a considerably talented cast of actors and physical performers supports Levin’s journey from faltering, wrought declarations of his love to Kitty which she spurns, through the throes of unrequited love, to his eventual acceptance that love is not the perfect dream that he has imagined – that the reality both falls short of, and ultimately trumps, the fantasy.
Anna, meanwhile, satisfies her hunger for meaning in life by falling for Vronsky, a dashing Byronic military man and jockey, who heats her blood like her prosaic husband, twenty years her senior, with his righteous lectures on local politics and big offending ears never could. As Alanis Morissette would say, every hot blooded woman needs an object to crave, and Anna is no exception. Anna’s craving for Vronsky eventually leads her from the empty life of a social butterfly to complete social suicide.
Forming the backdrop are Anna’s brother Stiva and his wife Dolly who struggle to come to grips with Stiva’s chronic infidelity. A theme throughout the book and the play is the idea that though society a tickled by the sexual adventures of men, women pay the price for their own and their partners’ illicit passions – though the truth is, suggests the book, that women pay the price no matter if they follow those passions or not. Dolly chooses her family over her own feelings, and sticks it out with Stiva, even though she knows her happiness is threatened by the next housemaid in a short skirt or the Bolshoi’s next favourite dancer. Anna pays the price of giving up her son and losing the goodwill of the Petersburg gentry when she leaves her husband to travel with Vronsky through Europe. When they return, Vronsky carries on as usual, dining, drinking and cavorting with his friends, while Anna is refused entry into society. As always, Tolstoy gives us a weary view of the world.
Using a trendy theatrical devise, the actors change clothing and accessories to take on multiple personalities. They become abstract figures at times, and towards the end of the play they come together and transmogrify into the train that is to be Anna’s destiny. The set is transformed with zip and verve into the snowy Russian countryside, the streets of Moscow, a railway platform, a sparkling drawing-room, and a votive-lit altar. The scene where Anna and Vronsky dance in the street, as snowflakes flutter all around them, and later when spring blossoms, is bewitching. The Arcola’s new site, a nifty warehouse-conversion on

Ashwin Street
, with seats on three sides of the stage, and even a row of “balcony” seats, adapts well to the shenanigans of the cast. In one memorable scene, Anna is transformed into Frou-Frou, Vronsky’s horse, that he rides with so much thrust that the mare has to be put down.
No one can accuse Tolstoy of brevity, and the danger of adapting his work is not knowing when to stop. It is difficult to adapt something as looming as a Tolstoy novel, one that appeared as a serialized epic (1873 to 1877, The Russian Messenger.) This two-and-a-half-hour adaptation tends to drag a little, but despite that, it convincingly weaves multiple storylines with physical theatre, spiffy set direction, a dash of humour, and a lilting soundscore. Vronsky provides humorous interludes by performing a caricature of the love struck lothario, and cast members with a black mask on the face play Anna’s nightmare of death. This is not the first time Helen Edmundson has set herself the task of adapting a heavy duty Tolstoy epic. She adapted War and Peace for the National Theatre in 1996, and put her lightness of touch to George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss for Shared Experience Theatre. While she retains the dark passions of Tolstoy’s novels, she sprinkles joy and humour into the adaptation, that keeps the story from being entirely grim and cynical.

Anna Karenina
Arcola Theatre
Till April 16, 2011

Wednesday, 23 March 2011


Review at London Festival Fringe
If you think watercolour is too airy-fairy for your tastes, and when you look at a contemporary watercolour you can’t tell if there is a painter behind it, or if someone had an accident with the beaker of water in which they clean their paint rag, well, think again.
One of the stars of this extensive exhibition is none other than Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones. While Burne-Jones’s artistry in the bedroom never reached the lore of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s, and his paintings don’t have the ravenous passions of his idol’s, Burne-Jones’s Clerk Saunders (1861) reveals Rossetti’s influence. Painted (though you wouldn’t believe it) with watercolour and gum arabic, the picture relishes browns and reds to display a relationship between two women that seems based on smouldering desire and crippling repulsion. The women may be two entities or alter egos, and bring to life the classic Pre-Raphaelite model – red-haired, other-worldly, melancholic, and fatally consumptive. Other contemporaries like Rossetti and John Ruskin feature in the exhibition.
Tate Britain brings together paintings that span the last eight hundred years of watercolour – a fiddly, time-consuming medium that has been used to illustrate new species, maps, manuscripts, moods, and exotic locations. Walking around the exhibition, it is just as likely that you will bump into a detailed and precise illustration simply titled Figs (by Jacques le Meyne de Morgues, from the sixteenth century) as you are to stumble across a decadent fantasy titled Hhareem Life, by John Frederick Lewis (1857), a man who would certainly never have been allowed inside a harem in all his years living in Cairo.
In the early nineteenth century, watercolourists decided they had had enough of the art world’s oil snobbery, and launched the Society of Painters in Water Colours and the New Society, to proclaim their equal standing as artists.

Clerk Saunders, 1861, Edward Burne-Jones (Tate)

Hhareem Life, Constantinople, 1857, John Frederick Lewis, (Laing Art Gallery, Tyne and Wear Archive Museums)

Friday, 18 March 2011

Hoppe Portraits: Fair Women and Flappers

                  Tilly Losch, 1928. 2011 Curatorial Assistance, Inc/E.O. Hoppe Estate Collection

Regent Street, London, 1934. 2011 Curatorial Assistance, Inc/E.O. Hoppe Estate Collection

A robust matron wrapped snugly in a wool coat, fox tail draped with a singular lack of irony around her neck, chest proud and hips thrust out at the commuters behind her, waits to cross a street in her West End shopping spree (1934). She clutches her handbag tightly to discourage the London pickpocket. A waitress Miss. Vyse, the first “Nippy” to have starred in J. Lyons and Co. advertisements, looks the picture of kindly but promising virginity, as she stands poised, balancing an empty silver tray in one hand (1925). “Sandwich Board Man Advertising Shafi Hindustan Restaurant” grins at the camera, with a billboard around his neck in war torn Britain (1945). These are just a few of E.O. Hoppé’s sensitive, droll and unsentimental snapshots of city life in London between the two world wars.
It was the end of the British Empire, the loss of innocence brought on by a savage First World War that yet had no premonition of the horrors of the second, and a time of blatant appropriation from the colonies of the “Orient.” Yet it was also the era when young women shed their beribboned corsets, unshackled their zippy bosoms, and demanded the right to work and vote, and artists and intellectuals lounged in smoking rooms and artists-only soirees, and theorized about sex, psychology, and the cavities of the human mind. Hoppé’s invaluable archive of this lost time period is one of the most probing and influential of the modernist photographers, yet the collection was all but lost to posterity when Hoppé in a feat of spell-binding self-deprecation sold his collection to an anonymous London library in 1954, where it was catalogued by subject and scattered in dusty, lightless hallways, till it was reconsolidated forty years later. Though his work was more often published and written about in the early decades of the twentieth century than that of his contemporaries like Alfred Steiglitz and Paul Strand, for many years his name was not listed as one of the great modernists.
His portraits show serious-browed shaggy-moustached young men with thin, frowning faces; languishing flappers in Grecian sparkly dresses ready to break into a Charleston if they can but lift their boneless limbs from the lusty Oriental couch at their side, like Teddie Gerard (1915) who wowed London audiences at the Hippodrome in Hullo, Ragtime!; and lavishly costumed Russian dancers like Vaslav Njinsky as the Spectre de la Rose (1914), a flower child sewn with dying rose petals.
Scornful of the idle rich, Hoppé was clear-sighted in his interest in women who were thinkers and doers, women who would plot the course of the early feminist movements. His own wife Marion was an enterprising woman and ran a London dressmakers. She helped support the couple after Hoppé left his bank job to become a professional photographer. Yet, despite his enlightened views on femininity, Hoppé was very much a man of his times. While many of his portraits are etched with glittering captions – dancer Ted Shawn (1922), the haunting actress Tilly Losch (1928) with her uncontainable beauty, Frederick Ashton’s favourite muse Margot Fonteyn (1935) when she was a mere sixteen-year-old chit, others are simply and with spectacular generality and arrogance titled “Cuban Beauty” or “Haitian Beauty.” At the same time, a portrait of Madame Wellington Koo (1921) is suffused with a mystical and other-worldly fog, and accessorized with the tiny generic figure of a robed Chinese man.
Like other intellectuals of the early modernist period, Hoppé was deeply interested in personality type, and strived in his portraits to find the meaning behind the face. Besides his pursuit of “Fair Women,” Hoppé photographed many celebrated men like Albert Einstein, sexologist Havelock Ellis, playwright George Bernard Shaw, New York intellectual Paul Robeson, and the Duke of York before he made his now-Oscar-winning “King’s Speech.”
The only danger with consuming this exhibition is that it is like eating dark Swiss chocolate with a glass of bubbly – once you start, you just can’t stop.

Hoppe Portraits: Society, Studio, Street
National Portrait Gallery
Till May 30, 2011

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

New Asian Writing

My short story Durga and the Holy Cow has been selected for publication in the 2011 New Asian Writing Anthology. The print version will come out at the end of the year, but it is right now on their website 

Friday, 11 March 2011

My Beautiful Launderette

Review on

Trendy couples in skinny jeans and blazers, men with peroxide-blonde punk hairdos and brassy roots, and ageing heavily-made-up Dolly Parton types – and that was just the audience. Above the Stag is a hip theatre company, home to a small but versatile set that changes from bedroom to living room to Laundromat before you can turn and say The 39 Steps. Despite a creaky and stubborn blind that wouldn’t budge, the cosy mise en scene added charm and a few laughs to this fringe adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s screenplay My Beautiful Launderette.
Full of cultural stereotypes of 1980s London, the play is the love story of Omar, a fresh faced second-generation Muslim with a pisshead father who bemoans the loss of his sentimental ideals of an enlightened Britain and worries that his son’s penis is not in good working order, and Johnny, a skinhead junkie who teeters a thin line between his life as a gay man and his role in the National Front. Their love blossoms in a seedy launderette that smells of bleach, urine and used condoms, with a hustler uncle (played with relish by Royce Ullah) who simultaneously hates and loves England – where you can be anyone you want to be if you know how to “squeeze the tits of the system,” a sleazy young man who would fit the role of a Bollywood baddie like a metal hook fits an arm, and a mistress and daughter in supporting roles.
The program notes promise that the issues of the 1980s are as relevant today as they were thirty years ago. I would like to believe that we don’t live in the same atmosphere of rampant homophobia and racism, but while the play, directed by Tim McArthur, seems a little dated, it hasn’t yet become a period piece either.
My Beautiful Launderette
Above the Stag
Till April 10, 2011


Tuesday, 8 March 2011

What, Oh What, Will I Wear Tomorrow

The “Future of Fashion” exhibition, sponsored by accessories manufacturer YKK and designer Kei Kagami, held in St. Martin’s Courtyard in Covent Garden, was a fringe event that accompanied London Fashion Week. It seems odd to name one event the Future of Fashion, when, really, isn’t that what Fashion Week is about anyway? To showcase new collections, show off new “girls” from the hottest modelling agencies, and to create new fashion trends? How do new fashion trends come about, though, and what makes them so cyclical? Why are we so enthralled by the corseted velvety primness of the ladies on Lark Rise to Candleford, and what makes us drool for vintage fashion?
Kemp and Earl say in The Elgar Companion to Consumer Research and Economic Psychology that two things signal a change in fashion trends. One, a particular trend gets more and more extreme, to the point where it becomes unsustainable to run any further with it. And two, the whole point of new fashion trends is to allow the people who are “in the know” to stand out from the crowd – once everyone starts to wear cheap imitations, the trend loses its reason for being. So, the trend changes, and things move on. (In Kate Middleton’s engagement dress from Issa, have we finally reached the anti-thesis of this proposition? Will we ever see the end of it?)
This kind of trend may be true of design historically, but it seems in the fashion industry today that designing a new collection is an end in itself. As a hot designer, your new collection has to always outshine your older work, and everyone else’s new ideas, too. Where, then, do designers look for this constant flow of new ideas? Are there any new ideas, or are we resigned to looking at retro fashion to find new inspiration? Alexander McQueen’s armadillo shoes notwithstanding, are there any truly new ideas in design?
Critical postmodern theorists like Jameson and Baudrillard, in Fashion as Communication, say that everything we design, the buildings we live in, the clothes we wear, they are all a pastiche. We’ve done it all before, and our “new trends” are simply a nostalgic re-hash of old trends. As Baudrillard says, fashion is always a recycling of the past. This is not a criticism, simply a fact of the cyclical nature of trends.
Going with the flow, then, the Future of Fashion showcased a motley collection of fashion and accessories from recent London design graduates. Fully three of the eleven pieces on display evoked a distinct Isabella Blow flashback, designed either with bird feathers in the head gear, or as birds in flight. Emma Yeo’s two pieces of millinery half hid and half revealed the face, cosseting the head like a nun’s habit, or an Egyptian hieroglyphic. Both hats were made of delicate-looking but strong black mesh in the shape of a bird’s wings, and looked poised for flight. If it were up to me, I would have chosen some of the award-winning confections on her website to be featured in the exhibition. The starburst oyster shells and the delicate tiara of wood shavings are my favourites.
If Rob Goodwin’s funky leather bustier is the future of fashion, though, then I’m in. Delicately and softly moulded to the chest, the jacket buttons all the way up the neck, and leads up to one of Goodwin’s acclaimed leather helmets, some of which have been commissioned by British Vogue and Vogue Italia. Going with the retro trend, the gear wouldn’t be out of place on a Roman gladiator, if she were young, petite and sexy.
It is true that the Future of Fashion event featured David Longshaw’s mouse Maude, who is supposed to be a spawn created by the (im)possible mating of British fashion’s favourite muse, Isabella Blow, brewery-goddess and walking-pastiche, Daphne Guinness, the effervescent Beatrix Potter, and several other colourful characters. It also featured Mason Jung’s uniform “Camouflage,” that evokes, for him, the strict discipline of his childhood. Still, my biggest thrill on visiting St. Martin’s Courtyard was the discovery that Bill’s from Brighton has now stormed London. I’m not totally convinced that this small fashion-fringe event was indeed the Future of Fashion, but I do know that Bill’s is the Last Word in Food!