Sunday, 24 October 2010

Hallowe'en Chills

As the nights continue to draw in around us, Hallowe'en will soon be here. I'm unfortunately too old for trick-or-treating so I have to get my creepy kicks elsewhere. I'm not a fan of gory horror films, and can do well without the likes of Freddy, Jason and the rest. For me, scary films that manage to deliver eerie atmosphere with a good dose of psychological suspense leave a much more lasting impression. I wanted to share my choices for perfect Hallowe'en films to watch with the curtains drawn, lights out and something (or someone!) to hide behind, and wondered...what would yours be?

Sleepy Hollow (1999) Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci:

Being a massive fan of Tim Burton's gothic vision of the world, it's always hard to choose between his films. In his version of Irving Washington's story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane steps onto the screen as a contemplative hero (unlike the self-serving, snivelling character of the book) in favourable contrast to the all-brawn-and-no-brain of Brom Van Brunt (the actual hero of Washington's story). Plot and character changes aside, Sleepy Hollow is a half-slumbering, half-fearful village swathed in mist and old superstitions, terrorised by the psychotic, ghostly Headless Horseman (Christopher Walken with a fantastic set of sharpened teeth). Constable Ichabod Crane is dispatched from New York to investigate a series of beheadings which the villagers attribute to the Horseman, determined to prove that the killings are the work of live human hands.

Laura (1944) Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews:

If you need a good introduction to film noir, look no further than Otto Preminger's Laura, because it has it all: the serenely beautiful heroine who may be harbouring a dark secret (Gene Tierney playing the eponymous Laura), the wise-cracking, beleaguered yet good-hearted police detective (Dana Andrews), stylish sets and costumes, moody cinematography and a crisp, witty script. The film opens with a murder - Laura's murder, as we follow Detective Mark McPherson's investigations and his increasing fixation with the victim herself. I don't want to spoil the story for you, but the film has a now classically famous plot-twist that leaves both the detective and the viewer confounded.

The Man With Two Brains (1983) Steve Martin, Kathleen Turner:

A completely insane film that always makes me laugh, and perfect viewing if you like your Hallowe'en films to be about mad scientists, disembodied brains and inventive murderers, with a healthy sprinkling of stupid sound effects, bizarre scientific apparatus and impossibly silly situations. Steve Martin plays pioneering brain surgeon Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr, who accidentally mows down the gorgeous Dolores Benedict (Turner) and saves her life by performing emergency surgery on her. The couple are soon married, but unbeknown to the doctor however, Dolores is a scheming gold-digger. Chaos, attempted murder, actual murder and a love affair with a brain in a jar follow...

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) Hurd Hatfield, Angela Lansbury:

Forget last year's version of Oscar Wilde's story: this is the adaptation to watch. There are certain liberties taken with the plot, but this is a far more atmospheric and subtle version that stays more true to Wilde's vision of a charmingly brittle young man who becomes so obsessed with the idea of staying young and handsome that he sells his soul. The price of eternal youth: that his life of debauched decadence never shows upon his beautiful face, but instead twist and changes a portrait of him so horrifically, that it is locked away from view. The London of this 1945 version has a smoky, grimy underbelly, glittering town-houses and an unsettling depiction of Dorian Gray's repulsive portrait.

Hocus Pocus (1993) Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker:

The only film on my list that is actually about Hallowe'en itself! Disney's cinematography is a chocolate box painting of the town of Salem, but with a twist. Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy play three seventeenth century witches, hanged for their crimes but unwittingly brought back to life by a group of children. Determined to stay alive, the wicked sisters set about brewing potions, conjuring spells and unleashing bedlam onto the holiday going townsfolk (even finding time for some song-and dance routines along the way). It's worth watching just to see Bette Midler playing head-witch Winifred with pantomime evilness and a ridiculous, plummy English accent. 

And, if all of those choices leave you wondering - what-no-zombies...? I'll concede that Shaun Of The Dead is a brilliant film...

Monday, 18 October 2010

A Little Bit of History Repeating

For me, one of the most interesting things about fashion is that trends can more often than not be attributed to something that has gone before, and maybe even more than once. My mother has often told me that I'm wearing something that reminds her of something she once wore, and I know I'm not alone in this line of thinking. Take this winter's "new" shape trouser; a beautifully tapered cut that is high-waisted, slim at the thighs and wide at the ankles; they borrow their look heavily from the trouser shapes of the 1970s. You could also take it one step further and say that that womens' wide-legged trousers have been in existence in one form or another since the 1930s. They are an elegant idea that is ripe for constant reinvention and innovation. 

 (Then - 1970s) Charlie's Angels, (Now- 2010) Chloé's Autumn/Winter Campaign.

Adaptations and rethought versions of bygone style are not strictly limited to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, either. A beautiful example can be seen in the penchant for high-waisted bodices and narrow, draping skirts in the years leading up to the First World War. This evening gown from 1912 was designed by the aristocratic couturier, Lucile, in striking black and white silk. Note the high empire line of the bodice, (which stops just below the bust line and much higher than the natural waistline) and the softly draping folds of the skirt. 

Black & white silk evening gown (1912) by Lucile, V&A Museum

The Lucile gown of 1912 is in many ways similar to this gown (below) made between 1807 and 1811. It is this period that epitomises true Regency style; a perceived revisitation of neoclassical ideas about simplicity of dress which, for women, culminated in the empire line gown seen below. The bodice ends below the bust line and the skirts beneath are straight, but with a hint of classical style draping at the back. Women were to be as statuesque and as simply attired as their Greek and Roman counterparts, and indeed, for the first few years of the nineteenth century, the truly fashionable colour palate only touched upon whites, creams and light colours. It was only as the years progressed that colour and decorative trim became accepted once more.

Red gauze evening gown (c. 1807-11), V&A Museum.

Fast forward a hundred years and this column-like style becomes popular again, albeit with a distinctly twentieth century twist. It's certainly no bad thing to say that fashion history repeats itself. 

Velvet and satin gown with lace, net and bead trim (1910) by The House
of Worth, V&A Museum. 

Designers and consumers both take inspiration from what has gone before, as feelings of nostalgia point us back towards shapes and colours that we were once fond of, and makes us see the beauty of them again. From a designer's point of view, they make the old and tired seem both new and palatable again. There is certainly no need to reinvent the wheel, but to make it attractive once more is where the real skill lies.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Things To See: Art Deco Glamour At Upton House

On Sunday, we visited Upton House in Banbury, Warwickshire; former home of the Bearsted family (otherwise known as the founders of Shell oil). It was such a warm, beautiful day and a real pleasure to walk around outside and admire the house from every angle, which is an especially nice memory now that we seem to be well and truly into  a succession of grey autumn days. The house is Georgian and built of golden Cotswold stone; long and sprawling, and the gardens and grounds expansive and beautifully thought out. The National Trust have taken particular pains to maintain the ambience of the 1930s, both inside and out, and somewhat unusually, the house retains that comfortable feeling of a true home. A record player  sits in Lady Bearsted's bedroom; an evening gown hangs out ready for wear and beneath it sits a pair of shoes. There are many little details like this scattered around the house, together with a myriad of family photographs. 

The 1920s and 30s were when the house was really in it's heyday and it is a testament to Art Deco style. Best of all for me is the astonishing bathroom, commissioned by the then Lady Bearsted to be an opulent place of wonder. The room really is silver; in fact, the walls and ceiling are covered in aluminium leaf, which at the time of building, was an even more expensive commodity then gold. It is garish, angular and ostentatious, but stylishly so in a way that a lot of Art Deco interiors are. Lady Bearsted wanted her personal bathroom to be a place where she could lounge in splendour; her husband's wealth on conspicuous show.  You can imagine many long, bubble-filled hours spent in the deep bathtub, or preening before the huge mirrors. The luxurious nature of the bathroom was part of a growing trend for beautiful, purpose built bathrooms in an age where ordinary people were still getting used to having separate rooms for washing and bathing. The National Trust have restored the lustre of the silver and red scheme and reinstalled the bathroom's fixtures and fittings as they would have been in the 1930s, right down to commissioning a replica of a small vanity mirror photographed in situ after the bathroom was first finished.

Upton House is well worth a visit; not just for the bathroom (although you could stand slack-jawed in there for a good long while), but for it's beautiful art collection, vast gardens and complete charm. A lot of Trust properties close their doors to the public during the winter months, but Upton House stays open all year round, and I imagine would be wonderful to visit in December for an Art Deco flavoured Christmas. See you there for cocktails, perhaps...?

Image courtesy of The National Trust.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Genius Of British Art

If you were lucky enough to catch the first episode of The Genius of British Art on Channel 4 on Sunday evening, then I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. If not, I'm sure that if you head over to the channel's On Demand website, you can watch it, too. That is, if you're a fan of David Starkey (like me) and find anything he does nothing short of hypnotically interesting. The Genius of British Art is a five part lecture series being screened by Channel 4 in conjunction with The National Gallery, London. David Starkey's contribution, Power & Personality, charted the portrayal of British royalty in art, from Hans Holbein's striking images of Tudor aristocracy through to modern day images of the royal family.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), King Henry VIII, 1540

Throughout the programme, Starkey gives insight into the symbolism latent in so many royal portraits; the perfectly arrogant stance of Henry VIII, fruit and flowers littering a 1562 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I to announce her burgeoning fertility, or the fact that Anthony Van Dyck preferred to paint King Charles I on horseback to avoid the embarrassing problem of his diminutive stature.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Equestrian Portrait of King Charles I, 1633

By focusing on royal icons through the ages, David Starkey effectively shows that the depiction of royal power has remained largely unchanged since the early modern period. Only recently, Starkey argues, have the royal family had to accept a more informal approach to their public image (and in more ways than one). I always enjoy watching just how Starkey picks apart his chosen images, giving fresh perspective and wonderful insight into signs and symbols increasingly lost in a modern age.

Next Sunday sees Gus Casely-Hayford makes his contribution in Art For The People- a discussion on the pioneering artwork of William Hogarth in eighteenth century Britain. As well as the Sunday night programmes, (Flesh- Howard Jacobson, Visions Of England- Roy Strong and Modern Times- Janet Street Porter) The National Gallery are also hosting talks given by the series speakers.