Friday, 25 February 2011

London Fashion Week Favourite: Topshop Unique

Today's post fast-forwards several hundred years from eighteenth century style to a one of my favourite shows from this week's London Fashion Week. The great-and-the-good of the fashion world have been at large in England's capital, showcasing designs for autumn and winter. For me, the best catwalk shows always have an element of the theatrical; yes, the shows' purpose are to display a designer's wares, but it doesn't mean they have to be boring. When the catwalk is treated like a stage, the whole thing is so much more fun.

Topshop may not be a designer label, but they are an institution on the British High Street. From their flagship store at Oxford Circus, London, to their branches both large and small around the country, they have been at the forefront of affordable but edgy fashion for years. I have Topshop clothes both old and new - my oldest being a vintage floral print dress that my Mum bought back in 1981. As Topshop seems to be attempting world domination (with stores opening around the globe, including New York and Toronto) it seems only fitting that they also take a piece of the action at Fashion Week.

For their Topshop Unique show this week, models stepped out to the Cruella Deville theme from Disney's 101 Dalmations. The clothes had a strong dalmation influence, too; there were dalmation print coats and jackets, cardigans and jumpers emblazoned with canine faces, spotty-dalmation print gloves, bags and shoes, and dog-print dresses, blouses and suits. 

And the models? Cruella Deville styled hair, black bows and painted noses completed the homage. I've always had a huge soft-spot for Topshop, and this week's show confirmed what I've always thought about the store; that they're fun, irreverent and quirky with an edge. Long live Topshop!  

All images courtesy of Marie Claire UK.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Keeping Warm

Spring seems to be hiding just around the corner and out of plain sight. The chill in the air  remains persistent, and I still find myself wrapped up in jumpers, scarves and heavy coats.  Thoughts of eighteenth century fashion never far from my mind, I often wonder how my Georgian counterparts coped with the cold, and what exactly they did to guard against the winter chills. The answer isn't really all that far away from just what we would do today; layers and thicker fabrics, as well as the subject of today's post: quilting. 

Floral Print Quilted Cotton Cloak, c.1780-90, Platt Hall, Manchester Art Gallery

In the 1700s, the notion of wearing quilted clothing was successfully borrowed from warm, quilted blankets. A bed-quilt would essentially be two pieces of material filled with an insulating substance like wool, and then embroidered on the upward facing side in a variety of patterns. The most popular was a diamond pattern, seen on the glazed cotton cloak above. 

Satin and Linen Gown, c.1780-90, quilt made c. 1730 -59, V & A Museum
This gown from the V & A Museum's stores shows how quilts which originally served as bed covers were recycled and cut into dresses fit for winter wear. The museum puts the embroidery pattern as mid-eighteenth century, but the style of the gown to much later (1780s). 

Silk Waistcoat, c. 1745, V&A Museum
As well as gowns, separate pieces also received the quilting treatment. There are examples of pockets, petticoats, jackets, cloaks and waistcoats.

Silk and Linen Jacket, c. 1700-20, Platt Hall, Manchester Art Gallery
My favourite example is this beautiful, pristine looking jacket from the early 1700s; part of the collection at Platt Hall in Manchester. Made from silk lined with linen and trimmed with fur, it is quilted both inside and out. Nowadays, quilted jackets and coats are all over the High Street come winter time, keeping us protected against the elements. Modern outerwear often uses quilting technology; heat generated by the human body warms the pockets of air in the quilted fabric, thus keeping us warmer for longer. Light modern fibres have replaced more bulky, heavy insulation, but it's interesting to think how the idea has evolved over time, making its way from our beds to our bodies - a clever solution to the problem of keeping warm.

Images courtesy of Platt Hall, Manchester and the V & A Museum.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

True Love

With Valentines Day nearly upon us, and this being the weekend of romantic gestures, I thought it only right and fitting to share a truly, hopelessly fairytale love story with you. You might know The Princess Bride as a film (and it is one of my favourites), but the film itself is based on the book of the same name, by William Goldman. 

The first and most important thing to note about The Princess Bride is that it is a spoof of the fairytale genre. That doesn't mean that the romantic aspect is any the less sincere, because it isn't. Goldman's writing is funny; brilliantly so. The first time I read the book, it was a train journey companion on a trip to-and-from home and university. I probably embarrassed myself by sniggering, snorting and grinning in an effort to prevent myself from fully laughing out loud.

It is the story of the beautiful Buttercup and the dashing Westley, set against a backdrop of an imaginary European kingdom. Westley is Buttercup's one true love, but because he is only a Farm Boy (as Buttercup initially calls him) he leaves her to seek his fortune on the high seas, promising to return when he is wealthy enough to marry her. Alas for Buttercup, she receives news that Westley is dead; captured by the scourge of the ocean, the Dread Pirate Roberts. Lost and empty (but still very beautiful), she is forced to enter into an engagement with sneaky Prince Humperdinck, but before he can marry her, she is kidnapped.

The story that follows is of her rescue by a masked stranger, and in the words of William Goldman, who sums it up best,
"Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles."

The Princess Bride is a fairytale for everyone. It manages to be touching and downright silly at the same time...naive and wise in the same sentence,
' "Don't you understand anything that's going on?
Buttercup shook her head.
Westley shook his too. "You never have been the brightest, I guess."
"Do you love me, Westley? Is that it?"
He couldn't believe it. "Do I love you? My God, if your love were a grain of sand, mine would be a universe of beaches! If your love were -"
"I don't understand that first one yet," Buttercup interrupted. She was starting to get very excited now. "Let me get this straight. Are you saying my love is a grain of sand and yours is this other thing? Images confuse me so - is this universal business of yours bigger than my sand? Help me, Westley. I have the feeling we're on the verge of something just terribly important."

"I've been saying it so long to you, you just wouldn't listen. Every time you said 'Farm Boy do this' you thought I was answering 'As you wish' but that's only because you were hearing wrong. 'I love you' was what it was, but you never heard." '

Happy Valentines, to romantics and dreamers of all ages - whether your true love is by your side or yet to be found, all that remains for me to do is to leave you with this,
"There have been five great kisses since 1642 B.C. ... (before then couples hooked thumbs.) And the precise rating of kisses is a terribly difficult thing, often leading to great controversy...Well, this one left them all behind."

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Perfume: Chemistry & Magic

Joy by Jean Patou, advert from the 1940s, but still one of the most expensive perfumes around.
Perfume is an intensely personal thing. Some people spend a lifetime searching for a scent that they feel best suits them. Open the pages of any of last December's glossy fashion magazines and you very likely saw some kind of article about the trials and tribulations of buying it, both for yourself and also as a gift. And therein lies the problem; we wear perfume on our bodies. The scent seeps into our skin, permeates our clothes and hair. It is a deeply personal purchase that even the closest to you may get wrong.

My own experiences with perfume were began as a child at my mother's dressing table. Trying to find her own "signature scent", she accumulated fascinating bottles which I would line up in a row, removing the lids and stoppers to breathe in their essences. As a young child I found them to be mostly too heavy and too strong. I screwed my nose up at YSL's Opium in its iconic brown bottle; likewise Paris (also a YSL creation), Givenchy's Amarige, Dior's Poison and even Chanel No. 5. I couldn't understand how my Mum could wear something that was altogether too much for my young nose. 

Yet the allure of the jewel-like perfume bottles remained. On a family summer holiday to the south of France we visited the mountain town of Grasse. Considered to be the perfume making capital of the world, the town has been at the forefront of the industry since the eighteenth century due to the success of its flower growing, harvesting and distilling. 

And so a burgeoning interest in perfume grew stronger still as we toured the parfumeries, learning about the elements that go into creating a successful, wearable scent. It was here that I learned about top, middle and base notes, and the intricacies of the chemistry of perfume. Even the most basic of perfume descriptions reads like the write-up on the back of a wine bottle. Fresh and juicy hints of this coupled with heady notes of that...vanilla, spices, fruit, flowers; the creators of our favourite perfumes (known in the industry simply as noses) cast intangible spells through scientific means. Put in simple terms, the top note is what we initially smell when a perfume is sprayed, the middle note is what we can smell when the perfume has worn in for a good few minutes, and the base note is what we are left with after a few hours. As we wandered around Grasse, I drank the information in and stored it for later use.

The very first perfume I ever owned was Les Belles de Ricci, by Nina Ricci. It was a fruity, bubblegum-burst of a scent in a lime green bottle. The corridors of my high school smelled strongly of CK One at break times. It was the cool perfume to wear, and boys and girls alike doused themselves in it, but I disliked the deliberately ambiguous way it smelled. I wanted something girly, and the cloying sweetness of Les Belles de Ricci was the answer. A few years on, I find that even a quick spritz of it on a cardboard swatch in Boots brings about a wave of nausea. How I didn't walk around with a permanent headache, I will never know, but at the time it was my first real exploration into the minefield of perfume and I thought it was brilliant.

Fast forward a few years and a few bottles of perfume at least. While I still can't take to some of the stronger scents that my Mum favours (I'm unsure if I'll ever be able to comfortably wear Chanel No.5), amongst my attempts at finding a perfume that sits easily on my skin and perfectly with my nostrils, I have tried Nina by Nina Ricci (too sweet), Dolly Girl by Anna Sui (too cloying, not to mention sneeze inducing), Lovely by Sarah Jessica Parker (my only celebrity scent purchase...and also my last) and CK In2U (not bad if you can forgive the silly text-speak name, but not memorable enough by half). I wore Lancome's Miracle for a couple of years, and was happy for a while, but still...

Have I found my one, true signature scent? I honestly couldn't answer that, but it is the perfume my boyfriend immediately associates with me - I was wearing Rose by Paul Smith the very first time we met and that makes it very special indeed. It isn't a pure rose scent, nor does it smell like synthetic rose scented soaps and talcum powders favoured by elderly ladies, but it has that magic something that seems to work happily with me. Perfume creation is a heady, interesting mix of chemistry, but with a healthy dose of untraceable magic.

Do you have a signature scent, or are you still searching? I'd love to know!

Image courtesy of Vintage Ad Browser.