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Antwerp Adventure: a weekend in photos

For a birthday / bank holiday treat recently I headed off to the Belgian city of Antwerp. Apart from some top tips from Twitter friends, I wasn’t sure what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised at this stylish, friendly and laid-back city. I hope you enjoy exploring Antwerp with me now via some of my snaps …

Central Station Antwerp

Train station meetings do not always live up to their Brief Encounter romantic expectations, however after arriving at Antwerp station from the Eurostar, I had a perfect rendezvous with my loved one. After being apart for a week, he appeared at the top of the steps in the magnificent Central Station. We missed our chance to run in slow motion into each other’s arms, but it was memorable nonetheless.  This nineteenth century fin de siecle station alone almost makes a visit to this Belgian city worthwhile. 

Antwerp central station

Antwerp station ceiling

Markets 

Markets tend to give a good flavour of a city’s character, and Antwerp has its fair share. We made it to Vrijdagmarkt, where locals were auctioning their goods at low prices, and we felt more like spectators than participants.

Antwerp market.

Chocolate has to be sampled in Belgium, so we had a post-market hot chocolate stop…

hot chocolate

Antwerp vintage shopping

Still in Vrijdagmarkt, there’s a a rather cool vintage clothes store called My Ohm, and home to a good selection at reasonable prices. I tried on a gorgeous evening dress from the 1970s, which fitted perfectly. The owner’s sales technique was direct, “just get it.” And I did … well it was my birthday.

Ohm Vintage

Another store that we came across was Jutka and Riska, which was a combination of new and vintage fashion.

Jutka and Riska

Antwerp fashion 

Antwerp is a fashion trendsetting city, and to capitalise on this growing reputation, you can go on a fashion tour. (Please let me know if you’ve been on it… ). I’m more of a vintage gal but if you prefer designer stores, Antwerp has it covered too. In the 1980s, the world took note of the Antwerp Six (Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee). Dries Van Noten‘s store is housed in the beautiful building below.

Dries Van Noten shop Antwerp

Couture in Colour: Silk and Prints from the Abraham Archive is the current exhibition at the Fashion Museum – Momu in Antwerp. And it was lucky for us, as I really enjoyed seeing sumptuous fabrics and couture dresses up close by Dior, Yves San Laurent and Balenciaga. I’ll save any more for a blog coming soon…

Fashion Museum Antwep Momu

Retro in the streets

I just couldn’t resist snapping  this glamorous shop dummy which brought to mind Ken Russell’s The Boyfriend somehow, and although the male dummies below should have been incongruous, they looked right at home in the street.

retro shop Antwerp

Male dummies

My boyfriend sniffed out quite a few vinyl record stores including Chelsea (pictured below).

vinyl record store

Whether jazz music is your thing or not, I’d recommend heading to the De Muze. Like all good jazz bars, it’s almost standing-room only on a Saturday night, but after a little wait we climbed the windy stairs to secure a table on the top floor, and there was no entrance fee. Sorry I’ve no pics, but visit their website for aural treat…

Museums: Culture Darling MAS here…

Although it’s me who works in marketing, my boyfriend took the opportunity for some free publicity for this blog. Perhaps he should have chalked “Culture Darling MAS here”, which covered some products in the MAS gift shop, shorthand for the Museum Aan de Stroom.

Culture Darling MAS here

The MAS Museum is part of a recent riverside redevelopment in the Eilandje or “little island” area of Antwerp. The building comprises boxes in brick-red sandstone piled neatly on top of one another like children’s play things with curved glass in between. Over six floors, the museum tells the story of Antwerp past and present, but as this is a port city its story incorporates the local and the global.  There are four permanent exhibits – Metropolis, Power, Life and Death and Antwerp as a Port city drawing on the museum’s collection of 470,000 objects. As this collection is so vast, the majority remains in storage. However, they made a feature of this by revealing their processes in a “visible storage” exhibit so that we could see how the objects are looked after by the team. This type of innovative curation continued throughout giving the museum a slightly off-centre appeal.

MAS

 

MAS entrance from outside.

The Winnie the Poohs are piled high as part of the exhibition about Antwerp as a port city, representing the trade in  illegal goods.

MAS museum pooh exhibit

The impact of Napoleonic rule of Antwerp from 1794 to 1814, when the city gained influence as an important military post was the focus of another exhibit. Many objects, featuring the French ruler, were displayed, such as pocket watches and the pipe featured below.

Napoleon pipe MAS museum Antwerp

‘Home Call’ was a interesting exhibit about globalisation, juxtaposing life for the Kasana in Northern Ghana with the lives of migrants in Antwerp, the second largest immigrant group in the city after Moroccans. Home Call means death in Ghana, a return to the ancestors, and whilst children used to announce the death in the streets, now posters are distributed. The home call posters were fascinating, displayed on lightboxes above our heads, which was fitting as there is a belief that the dead remain in the roof of their house. You can read more about this exhibition from the curator, Ann Cassiman.

Ghana exhibition Antwerp

Artist George Nuku combines traditional Polynesian sculpture with modern materials, such as polystyrene and plexiglass. Here he explains about the origins of the Haka dance.

Aboriginal art Antwerp MAS Museum

At the bottom of the MAS museum, Time Circus have transformed a disused crane into an urban garden, and we could see someone tilling the crops whilst making our way up to the top of the building.

MAS-garden

Bitter Zoet  – land of honey at lunchtime

When your museum-treading, fashionable feet are worn out, head to Bitter Zoet, a lovely cafe in the t’Zuid area of Antwerp. Its quirky, retro style is matched with a friendly, laid-back vibe. I think I may have had the most delicious baguette ever via the introduction of honey as a spread.

Bitter Zoet Cafe Antwerp

Boerentoren – the original European skyscraper

Just around the corner from our apartment was Boerentoren or the KBC building, one of the tallest in Antwerp. This art deco building by Jan Van Hoenacker, is often thought to be the first skyscraper in Europe.

Antwerp skyscraper

Also up high were these religious icons on the buildings throughout the city.

Christian sculpture on building Antwerp

Building in central Antwerp

In contrast, there were signs protest throughout the city…

Occupy Antwerp

rusty doors Antwerp

On our last day in Antwerp, we headed to the Photography Museum (FoMu), which is well-worth a visit for any lovers of the medium, and again we were lucky that their current exhibitions were fascinating; from dressing like a wild beast to the power of the camera, this museum deserves a blog post of its own…

Photo Museum Antwerp FoMu

Have you ever been to Antwerp? I’d love to go back soon, so please share your tips and thoughts on the places I’ve shared.

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Bristol for European Green Capital!

What do Bristol, Brussels, Glasgow, and Ljubljana have in common? They’re all in the running for European Green Capital 2015 awarded to a city on its environmental performance and capacity to inspire. Congratulations to all the cities, but only one has its own local currency and only one has you… (We’re secretly confident.)

Bristol Green Capital Bid

Read more about Bristol’s Green Capital Bid on the Bristol Pound blog.

Michael Jackson’s costumes by Michael Bush

Watching Michael Jackson’s Thriller (Landis, 1982) for the first time at a friend’s birthday party as a kid must rank as one my earliest cultural treats.

Videos were much more of an event in the 1980s anyway, and with music videos still in their infancy, there was an aura of anticipation of watching this extended horror pastiche. Primarily it was the dancing that we loved, but with Jackson, the style is as stage-crafted as the moves.

Michael Jackson costumes at Michael Bush talk

So I was intrigued to hear more about the man behind the King of Pop’s costumes, Michael Bush, who was interviewed by Ali Vowles as part of Bath in Fashion. Bush (as the other Michael called him) has just written, The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson – the first art-driven book about his costumes. Although it was Deborah Nadoolman Landis who derived the iconic red jacket from Thriller, Bush along with his late partner, Dennis Tompkins created 800 to 900 costumes for Michael Jackson over a 25 year period, and was the only person whom the iconic pop-star would allow on stage with him. Indeed Bush and Tompkins’ names have been sewn into all the costumes at Michael Jackson’s insistence.

Back in his childhood home of Ohio, Bush used to watch his grandmother dress-making, thinking it was the last thing he wanted to do with his life. However it must have been in his blood, albeit with a showman’s twist, as he headed to Las Vegas to work in show business, which gave him valuable experience in creating fashion designed for performance.

Dressing Michael Jackson was a constant challenge to combine elaborate show-stoppers with functionality. Jackson wanted outfits that were ready for ‘showtime’ and matched his performance on stage, with his outfits “as entertaining on the hanger as they were on him”. Complex dance moves necessitated costumes that could absorb sweat without damaging the fabric, and multiple versions of his outfits were created as during a stage performance Jackson could lose four to five pounds, so needed different-sized trousers for the beginning and end of the show. It was also useful as Bush admitted that Jackson would often give his outfits away to fans or friends. Costume changes were designed to fit in with the songs and energy levels, so they might start with a lightweight piece for the vigorous numbers, heavier jackets for ballads, and returning to lighter fabrics for the finale. The belt pictured above may look too heavy to dance in, but Ali Vowles picked it up for the audience to prove it was actually lightweight, created from thin gold.

Michael Jackson red heels boots

A regal fashion influence was only fitting for the ‘King of Pop’, for instance pearls nod to King Henry VIII’s, while red heels are drawn from Louis XIV (pictured above). During Louis XIV’s reign, red signified wealth and power as the cost of red dyes was high, but he went further and created an edict so that only nobility could buy red heeled shoes. Emphasising strength and masculinity, military styles with embellishment and wide shoulders are another Michael Jackson staple. Authenticity was important to Jackson, so Bush sourced originals such as military buttons. He once discovered 300 military buttons from a dealer in Camden Lock without name-checking Jackson. The dealer would have been pleased with the final owner as he confided in Bush, “if only Michael Jackson could see them!” Bush told of how he and Tompkins were paid by Jackson to visit the UK to get inspiration from the Crown Jewels – it was important to soak up the aura of majesty. Movie influences are also evident from gangster films, hence the fedora hat and spats shoes (pictured below) as well as taking inspiration from street style.

The costumes were also part of the ‘Michael Jackson’ performance. Short trousers (which grew shorter and shorter) helped draw attention to his dancing feet and rhinestone socks which sparkled under the stage lights, and he liked to ensure that people at the back of large auditoria could see the tiny details too. Jackson also wanted to illicit a questioning response from the audience, by adding quirks, such as a band on one arm.

Michael Jackson shoes

The craftsmanship and technical effort that went into creating the costumes was immense, such as the single glittering, sequinned white glove, or the anti-gravity shoes. These high-tech shoes, which were patented by Jackson, Bush and Tompkins, allowed Jackson or his dancers to lean beyond their centre of gravity via a special heel which slotted into the stage. Despite all this fancy footwear, he always wore loafers to practice dancing – an everyday brand called Florsheim.

At the end of the interview, an audience member asked Bush where he’d got his cowboy boots. (I’m sure we’d all been wondering… ) He answered London, and asserted it was the best place to buy them. There, I have to disagree – it’s Bath. My boyfriend bought my trusty cowboy boots in The Yellow Shop, and they have been re-heeled and re-heeled. It will truly be a sad day when the cobbler finally says, enough.

Over 1,000 lots of Jackson items were auctioned last December, and 55 of them caught the eye of Lady Gaga, who is keeping them Stateside in the public domain. You can find out more about Michael Jackson’s costumes by reading Michael Bush’s book, King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson. There is also a interesting piece on the influences on Jackson’s style in ‘Worn Through‘.

Who’s your fashion pop idol? Let me know in the comments box below.

A young dance troop gave a surprise performance before the interview to a mash-up of ‘Thriller’ and the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs’, ‘Heads Will Roll. But I’ll finish with the original Thriller moves…

Vintage Fashion fair – Bath in Fashion

What better way to spend a spring Sunday than a meander around a vintage fashion fair? And that’s exactly what I did last week at Bath VA Fashion Fair during Bath in Fashion week. The vintage fashion fair was the culmination of a week of fashion in the city, and over 50 traders came along to enjoy a vintage day out. Victory rolls were curled on demand courtesy of Artizan, tunes from yesteryear (and now) belted out, and vintage cocktails were supposedly supped (which alas I missed). Here are some of the styles and vintage-lovers I met along the way…

Summer is coming…

Straw hats and sunglasses embody vintage glamour, and made me yearn for summer days.

Vintage fashion fair - sunhat with sunglasses

Vintage Fashion Fair - big eyed dummy in a sunhat

vintage glasses

Refound Reloved

Refound Reloved was the first stall I stumbled upon, full of vintage fashion and objects for the home to covet. I just had to snap one of its owners in her fabulous 1950s rock ‘n roll style.

typewriter

refound reloved woman

Vintage dolls and toys at Bath Antiques Vintage Fashion Fair

Charmed by two ladies in vintage

Kate’s Cottage stall-holder and my lovely friend Emma (on the left) from Come Step Back in Time look gorgeous in their vintage outfits I think you’ll agree. Emma is a clever seamstress, and her dress was made using a modern Butterick Retro pattern ’55 (B5556). The gloves are original 1950s, belonging to her late grandmother, whilst her handbag (pictured below) is courtesy of me. Her ‘make do and mending’ is inspirational – in a previous life the faux-fur hat she is wearing, was a large hat brought from M & S, but she cut-off the rim (which she used as a collar on a black cardigan) and this left her with a 1950s style pillbox faux leopard hat.

Kathryn and Emma

fake leopard skin bag

vintage fabric and mirror

70s blue lady photo

Cock-a-Doodle Vintage

This pitch of 1940s and 1950s men’s and women’s fashion really stood out for me. Partly because of the cool Americana style mannequins, but mostly due to the smiling faces and vintage style of the owners. If you fancy an outfit from the post-war rock ‘n roll years, go and meet them at several upcoming vintage events.

Cock a Doodle Do  stand

couple

Baseball shirts from Cock a doodle vintage

Vintage reporter

It was a pleasure to meet Kate, Junior Vintage reporter for Vintage Explorer. Her faux-fur coat and vintage-coiffed do by Artizan at the event, completed her glamorous look perfectly. She also created the cute vintage tap rings below, which could help you make stylish hand signals.

Kate

Kate's button rings

hat on mannequin

Colour everywhere

Camera in hand, I enjoyed browsing the fair taking snaps of the colours, shapes and styles.

Vintage fashion stand

Pink

Coloured threads

vintage hat

red velvet hat

vintage military style

Time for tea

On any vintage shopping trip, there comes a time when you just need to take off your gloves, powder your nose…

vintage gloves and compacts

… and enjoy tea and cake. On this occasion with the lovely people from Velvet Teas.

cupcakes

vintage tea cups

Vintage tea rooms

A very vintage romance…

I loved the way this couple’s style seemed to match up. And indeed it was more than just compatible looks, Lucy and David were at the fair to declutter and save for their wedding. Congratulations!

engaged couple

kids books and bags

vintage bags

Gin and It Girl 

The prize for vintage store name of the day would certainly go to Gin and It Girl. And there are lots of ‘It’ girls on display as backings for these wonderful vintage brooches below.

Gin and IT Girl Brooches

Gin and It Girl Looking at Clothes

Shoes

The shoes on the right seem to be trying to step away from the others… and asking me to buy them. But I resisted.

shoes set apart

Thanks to Bath in Fashion and Bath VA Vintage for a perfect Sunday trip down vintage lane…

Bath VA Vintage Fashion Fair at Green Station for Bath in Fashion

Vintage fun to try at home or at a fair near you …

Fashion your future: top 10 tips for getting a career in fashion

Fashion may be your lifeblood, but how do you make a living from the passion in your veins?

That’s what I aimed to find out at Fashion your Future, a free Bath in Fashion event last weekend.

Fashion your future panel at Bath in Fashion

Fashion your Future was hosted by Louise Pickles, Head of Fashion at Bath Spa University and Creative Director of Bath in Fashion, with a panel comprising fashion professionals from a variety of roles in the industry from design to fashion writing. The experts were:

  • Seren Colley, Menswear Design, Tom Ford
  • Emma Askew-Miller, Senior Lecturer in Pattern Cutting, Bath Spa University
  • Marie Baluti, Product Developer Knitwear, Ben Sherman
  • Meera Stannard, Assistant Buyer, Liberty
  • Naomi Smart, Fashion Features Assistant, Vogue
  • Chloe Jones, Bath Spa University Graduate and winner of the Gold Award at Graduate Fashion Week 2012

Informative and perhaps a reality check, the discussion gave me a greater insight into the processes and job roles involved.  I was surprised at the limited amount of time allocated for pure design – although, Seren Colley from Tom Ford, travels to get inspiration for the collections, she only has three weeks to transform her concepts into garment designs, with the rest of the time more about refining and product development.

So, do you want a dream job in fashion? I’ve tried to distil the panel discussion into top 10 tips.

1. Passion

With the fast-pace of the industry, long hours, and hundreds of competitors ready to knock you off your stilettos, you really need to be sustained by fashion.

2. Teamwork

As with many cultural industries, the myth of the sole artist or star designer may be overplayed. The panel illustrated the need for teamwork in the ‘fashion family’, for instance the collaboration between the designer and pattern cutter. Divas need not apply.

3. Internship

From listening to the panel, it sounds as if an internship is an essential step in securing a fashion industry post. Louise Pickles admitted that it may not be right, but often working for free was expected. Unpaid internships certainly can exclude those who are economically disadvantaged, and in the current competitive job market, this trend will surely grow unless there is legislation or incentives to pay interns. Of course, this is not just in fashion but in a variety of sectors, particularly the arts. In fashion, it also seems to be the catch-22 of agencies not working for you until you have some experience…

4. Be a sponge

… but all this means you need to maximise any opportunities work experience or un/paid internships bring. Each member of the panel reiterated this, and urged soaking up all you can like a sponge. Pattern cutting expert, Emma Askew-Miller challenged everyone to learn something new every day.

5. Connections

It’s a cliché, but the connections you make are vital for your career, and from your first placement or job onward you should be building relationships which can help you in the future. Pretty much everyone had got a job from knowing a man or woman who knows a man or woman…

6. Don’t be defined by your role

Even if you are looking to get into a particular function or area, don’t be too confined by this and take opportunities when they arise. Seren, although trained in menswear, took a first position in women’s fashion, whilst Naomi too tested out different skills at Vogue. For Chloe, a recent graduate, she found that each of her internships had been completely different, helping her gather skills in different parts of the industry from mass-market to higher-end.

7. Expand your skillset

Whether budgeting or desk top publishing and CAD, it is important to develop other skills to improve your chances. For Meera in a buying role, she felt that keeping abreast with digital was vital, and also for fashion writing with Naomi noting that Vogue iPad sales were doubling month by month.

8. Get creative with your CV

This is not a euphemism for lying, but rather to get creative with how you deliver your resumé. Louise Pickles mentioned that Matthew Williamson had sent out his scarves as a calling card, which got him noticed. Seren Colley also suggested going old school and printing and snail-mailing CVs, which could actually be more effective than trying to sneak into someone’s cluttered inbox. In fact, it may even be advantageous to head to the company that you’re interested in working for.

9. Grasp your chance

After sending out hundreds of letters and emails with little response, you also need persistence to keep going. But when you get that chance of a face-to-face interview you need to make it count. Marie Baluti’s story was inspiring, as without a background in fashion, she got an opportunity at Celine – knowing it was her best shot, she was honest saying that she would work hard to learn everything with them. Meera from Liberty mentioned their three-minute Best of British Open Call where every second counts to pitch your designs.

10. It’s only fashion…

When asked what was the best piece of advice she’d ever received, I loved Marie Baluti’s comment that “It’s only fashion, you’re not saving lives”. She said that at times she has even cried when things have gone awry at work, but this quote helps her get perspective.

The panel at Fashion your Future answered the audience's questions afterwards

I was particularly impressed with the way in which the panel took time to answer audience questions after the event in the Komedia cafe, and I’m sure those wanting to get their foot in fashion’s door, or strengthen their emerging career, left the event with renewed determination. I met designer Jan Knibbs at the event, who had studied her MA at Bath Spa. She told me:

“I found the forum really useful and it gave me much more of an insight into how a fashion house is run. It also made me realise that as a designer with my own small label I am trying to fulfil all the different roles (designing, product developing, pattern cutting, making, marketing and PR) myself so it’s no wonder that it’s so difficult, especially when you’re not based in London. It was great to speak to Naomi Smart from Vogue, and I’m going to send her a piece of my statement jewellery which hopefully she will use in a shoot.”

From a careers seminar to Vogue, that certainly would be nice work! You can find more fashion careers tips on the Guardian website. Would you still like a career in fashion? Do you have any additional advice for people wanting to get into the fashion industry?  I’d love to hear your tips and experiences.

Dior wins Dress of the Year at Bath in Fashion

The 50th Dress of the Year frees the ballgown. Raf Simons’ winning dress for Dior embodies all the glamour of couture, but updates it, replacing a restrictive full skirt with elegant ease.

The winner, chosen by Vanessa Friedman, the fashion editor for the Financial Times, was revealed during Bath in Fashion Week. Each year Bath Fashion Museum asks an expert to pick a dress that exemplifies the time’s fashion mood or tone, and that’s why this Dior piece is such an appropriate choice. Raf Simons’ debut couture collection for the House of Dior was so hotly anticipated, and this dress manages to pay tribute to the status of this fashion house behemoth without compromising on the Belgian designer’s fresh, modern vision. Indeed the flared hip silhouette of the dress has been taken from an original pattern in the Dior archives, but cut off and worn with slim pants.

Dress of the Year

Dress of the Year at the Fashion Museum. Photo: © Come Step Back in Time

As Vanessa Friedman states:

“This dress, or rather (this) evolution of the dress, from Raf Simons’ first collection show for Christian Dior, represents not just a generational shift in fashion – the moment when a new designer took over at the intimate couture house – but also an aesthetic new direction. It signals a move away from the most escapist, extreme garments of the fin de siècle and forward to a new 21st Century post-recession balance that blends functionality with fantasy…”

Detailed shot of the embroidered embellishment on the Dress of the Year © Come Step Back in Time

Detailed shot of the embellishment of the dress. Photo: © Come Step Back in Time

The ballgown may be cut short, but glamour abounds, and the intricate design of the bustier is complemented by the simplicity of its line and slim pants.  Pale blue and pink flowers are appliquéd and embroidered onto fine tulle which covers the silk dress, more than nodding to Christian Dior’s love of flowers, “where designs for dresses played second fiddle to the studies of flowers that inspired them.” (see Impressionist CouturierAll hand-sewn, the embroidery is covered with gemstones, pearls, tiny petals, and metallic thread. 

The heavy dress is corseted inside, and there’s a mini silk tulle petticoat, which you can see in the picture above. For the exhibition, the Dress of the Year is accessorised with a net veil by famous milliner Steven Jones and kitten heels. It is a look that is easily transferable to a vintage-lover’s wardrobe by shortening an evening gown and pairing with trousers.

For this small, but fashion-packed museum in Bath, it is a coup to display this piece, and it was wonderful to see the dress up close as part of visit to Bath Fashion Museum during Bath in Fashion. Raf Simons said:

“It is a great honour to have one of my debut Christian Dior Haute Couture collection’s looks chosen as Dress of the Year… The way the Museum’s collection is such a distinct document of, not just fashion, but history in general makes me proud that my clothes can feature amongst those looks and say something about today.”

Raf Simons’ debut show for Dior did not disappoint back in July last year. Take time out for a stylish reminder of his collection, referencing New Look silhouettes, parading down the floral-covered catwalk in the video below.

For the past 50 years, a fashion heavyweight has picked his or her Dress of the Year for Bath Fashion Museum, and you can relive fashion history via their list of the previous 50 winners. With wedding dress designs on the minds of many in the fashion industry and beyond in 2011, Sarah Burton’s exquisite “Ice Queen” wedding dress for Alexander McQueen was the winner last year, especially fitting as she was later revealed as the creator of the Kate Middleton’s bridal gown.

Dress-of-the-Year---Dior-2---(c)-Come-Step-Back-in-Time

Dress of the Year – Raf Simons for Dior. Photo: © Come Step Back in Time

There is more Dior at 50 Fabulous Frocks, an exhibition to celebrate the Fashion Museum’s 50th birthday, featuring an opera coat, which, though not couture, exemplifies the trademarks of this fashion house.

If asked for my Dress of the Year, I just wouldn’t know where to start… but I feel that this dress really fits. What would have been your Dress of the Year? Does this piece embody fashion’s mood in 2012? Let me know…

Look out for more blogs about my Bath in Fashion adventures coming up…

Bristol on film – Java Head and Anna May Wong

When a film or TV series is based where you live, you can’t help but look out for places you recognise. You probably have an example of it in your own town or city. For me in Bristol, it used to be Casualty and then Being Human (I walk past the house of vampires, werewolves and ghosts everyday) but it was certainly a little surprising to see Chinese-American actress, Anna May Wong in 19th century Bristol in Java Head (1934, dir.  J. Walter Ruben & Thorold Dickinson). This British film from the 1930s has been on release from the BFI since 2011, and at last I’ve watched it.

Primarily my interest lay in the novelty of the Bristol setting (and mentions of Clifton Downs, St Mary Redcliffe, or Brandon Hill …) but actually it is worth watching in terms of its representation of the Orient(al) in film, and the effects of the East on the lives of those in the West (country).

West meets East

Java Head is a historical melodrama set in the port of Bristol in the 1850s with the title derived from the name of the family home of the shipping company, Ammidon and Sons. One of the sons, Gerrit is in love with Nettie, the daughter of his father’s rival, but as a family feud prevents marriage, he heads off for adventure on the high seas, where he is happiest. He returns with new wife, the ‘exotic’ Manchu Princess, Taou Yuen, played by Anna May Wong, which causes quite a stir in the conservative community. Just before her first appearance on screen, the youngest member of the family plays a discordant piano key, and then the camera follows each of the family members’ shocked faces. Gerrit’s father asks what she will be called – “Taou Yuen Ammidon? The two don’t go together”.

 

Java Head publicity

Wong’s character is steeped in Western representations of the East – noble, stoic and studied in Chinese philosophies, but also passive, wanting to please her husband. However for the time when ‘yellowface’ was common, it was a lead role for an Chinese actor and, at the beginning of the film, I felt that we could make a recuperative reading of the film. The town is to some extent critiqued for its hypocrisy and prejudice – we see the city gossip about the couple, but Gerrit stands up for his wife and goes against the grain of the closed-minded community.

However, ultimately the film does not allow the interracial romance to flourish. Java Head fits in with “yellow peril” discourses where the West’s desires and fears are projected onto the East, and colonial practices sanctioned. As the narrative unfolds, her husband starts to drift away from Taou Yeun, finding her ‘foreign’ characteristics repellent. In one scene he looks around their bedroom, and the camera focuses on their Chinese objects, cutting back to his disgusted expression. Gerrit tells Taou Yuen “this will never be your home… you’re so different from everything here”. Wong’s character is described as priceless and delicate, a description more suited to the cargo the Ammidons trade, and as she is a princess, her status rather than ethnicity is used at times (disingenuously) to explain their irreconcilable difference. Although Gerrit turns against Taou Yuen, the film holds him up as honourable as he regards Taou Yuen as his (Colonial) responsibility.

Nettie, the innocent, but plucky girl-next-door, is set in opposition to the more worldly, detached Taou. When Gerrit sees Taou perform a ceremony for his deceased father, he asks her to stop her ‘barbaric’ ways and questions what she is wearing. Underneath Taou’s calm exterior, the Orientalist’s essential Eastern characteristics are revealed when she tries to strangle Nettie with a mad look in her eyes. Anna May Wong’s Chinese ‘costumes’, and hair and make-up in the Peking opera style, create her as Oriental Other. In the final scene when she visits and confronts Nettie, her elaborate outfit contrasts with the English rose in a plain, pure white cotton nightdress. In the end, Taou cannot live without her husband’s love, and sacrifices herself by committing suicide so that the white couple can be together. The film acts as a warning against an unnatural mixing of cultures and reveals that although the East seems to be wise and ordered, at essence lies instability and danger.

The moral dangers of the East are also played out through the family business itself. The head of the Ammidon family has a heart attack when he realises that his other son, landlubber, William, has been trading opium. Nettie’s uncle, Edward Dunsack has just returned from China, and the Ammidon ship has carried his stash of opium to feed his addiction to the East. He worships Eastern culture, but Taou Yuen says, “China’s bad for men like him”. Edward is weak (“as pale as a Chinaman”) and easily tainted by the East, whereas Gerrit, a ‘real man’, ultimately resists. Edward sees in Taou, “all the beauty and culture of two thousand years of civilisation in one women. It takes knowledge to appreciate the full fascination of China”. But his love of the East is seen as unnatural, a sickness, and he is a reminder to Taou that she will never belong in the West.

Anna May Wong death scene Java Head

Java Head in context of Anna May Wong’s career

Java Head was Wong’s third film in Britain in 1934, along with Tiger Bay (J. Elder Wills) and Chu Chin Chow (Walter Forde). After the 1927 Cinematograph Film Act, a quota of films had to be British to counter the dominance of Hollywood films and Americanisation. With more movies being made in the UK, this provided opportunities for Anna May Wong to attain roles – and leading roles – which were not forthcoming in Hollywood. Karen Leong (2006) argues that Wong’s European cinematic performances and star persona, led to her win Hollywood parts, such as in Limehouse Blues for Paramount (Alexander Hall, 1934).

Anna May Wong PhotoPlay article about her making Limehouse Nights.

After making Tiger Bay in an interview with Doris Mackie, Anna May Wong stated:

“You see, I was tired of the parts I had to play… Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece? … We are not like that… why do they never show these on screen? Why should we always scheme-rob-kill? I got so weary of it all – the scenarist’s conceptions of Chinese character, that I told myself I was done with films forever.”

Although Wong goes on to say that her character in Tiger Bay is a more accurate representation of Chinese people, from our contemporary perspective, the narrative of this film follows a similar pattern to Java Head. Western colonisation is justified through a Chinese, exotic character, who, although seems to be on the side of the British Empire, has a murderous heart and must sacrifice herself so the young, white heterosexual couple can be happy. However, Wong’s critique of Hollywood as racist suits the British feeling against American imperialism, and also helps to cover their own colonial guilt.

The Motion Picture Production (Hays’) Code in America, which began to be enforced more strongly after 1934, prevented miscegenation, so kissing between different races was forbidden. Java Head was the only film where Wong kissed a male actor (her kissing scene from Piccadilly [Ewald André Dupon,1929] was cut).  However, even at the time, one reviewer stated that Java Head “chiefly serves to introduce the most famous object in the museum, the daughter of a Chinese mandarin (Miss Anna May Wong)… making an engaging contrast with the homely Bristolware”. There is a patriotic parade during Java Head for the Queen’s birthday where Gerrit and Nettie realise that they are in love, but Taou Yuen is absent illustrating that the East cannot fit into the British home.

A natural sacrifice

For contemporary audiences, as soon as Gerrit starts flirting with Nettie, you know that it’s over for Anna May Wong. Java Head may leave a bitter taste as she sacrifices herself so that the white couple can sail happily off into the sunset, to visit new lands, but stay British.

Gerritt and Nettie in the final scene of Java Head.

Have you seen Java Head or any other Anna May Wong movies? Let me know what you thought.

Further reading:

Leong, Karen J., (2006) “Anna May Wong and the British Film Industry” in “Quarterly Review of Film and Video (23, pp 13-22)

Living without the Queen’s head (my Bristol Pound TXT2Pay Challenge)

Bristol Pound Challenge - mobile phone for TXT2Pay

How long could you live without access to credit cards, or that printed cash with the Queen’s head on? Well, recently I took up the challenge of swapping my purse for my mobile phone with Bristol Pound’s TXT2Pay system. As I made my way around Bristol on my mission, people usually asked worriedly whether I had to pay for everything this way – food, drink and entertainment. So how long would I last…?

Read more on the Bristol Pound blog.

Fifty fabulous frocks – Bath Fashion Museum

Think of the biggest names in fashion, and you’re likely to see their creations have made it to the party to celebrate 50 years of the Fashion Museum in Bath. Fifty Fabulous Frocks curates pieces from the top fashion designers from Vionnet, Schiaparelli and Chanel to Quant, McQueen, and Erdem, as well as historical creations.

Frock may mean dress to us now, but it actually has a wider meaning:

“Frock: historically referred to an article of clothing; in the 17th century specifically a workman’s outer garment; in the 18th century a man’s loose fitting coat; a religious robe; more typically a woman’s dress.”

As a keen frock lover myself, I headed to the museum for some vintage fashion inspiration. Here are my top five from the collection, not in any particular order…

1. Red mini, André Courrèges, 1960s

Andres Courreges red mini dress

Swinging sixties chic with the optimism of the decade is conjured by this simple, angular mini dress in block red by André Courrèges. A designer for Balenciaga before establishing his own fashion house, he introduced a radically different line in 1964 with dresses like this worn with flat boots, goggles and helmets – outfits ready for the ultra-modern space age. This frock was worn by Ernestine Carter, fashion editor for the Sunday Times (1955-1972), who called 1963 the Year of the Leg. Indeed, as Courrèges  started to shorten skirts at the same time as Mary Quant, the debate on the mini’s originator rages on. An engineer by training, his designs are functional and in heavier fabrics, and he also helped to popularise trousers for women. Go back to the future in ’60s style with this footage of one of his fashion shows. (I’m unsure whether the girls are being locked away for another fashion show or being sent into space…?)

2. Mickey Mouse Dress, 1930s

mickey mouse dress

This quirky dress from the late 1930s made it into my top five, despite a dislike of product placement or branding on clothes, and an ambivalence towards Disney. The maker of the dress is unknown but according to the exhibition, from its skimpiness and narrow seam allowances, it appears to have been mass-produced for wholesale. Without the Mickey motif, the puffed sleeves and fitted waist make it a style I would wear today. Fashion seems to maintain a fascination with cartoons from Minnie Mouse hairstyles at Zac Posen to Manga inspired fashion at Gucci

3. Opera Coat, Christian Dior, late 1950s

Dior coat

The Dior New Look was such a fashion shift that this red satin opera coat had to make it into the top five. Dior’s lines marked a return to a ‘feminine’, curvaceous shape and a luxurious look using lots of fabric after war-time’s less restrictive lines and scrimping on fabric. The bar was the ultimate hourglass outfit with narrow shoulders, nipped in waist and padded hips and full, flared skirt.  Dior was also a marketing innovator by devising theatrical shows, creating trends every six months and diversifying his market. This coat is not couture, but from Dior London, through which his designs were licensed and sold at cheaper prices.  I can just picture this coat modelled in one of Norman Parkinson’s photographs, epitomising effortless glamour.

4. Opulent mantua, 1760s

Mantua 1760s

To show the breadth of the collection, I wanted to include a pre-20th century piece, and so opted for this mantua from the 1760s. Although highly impractical, its sheer opulence and beautiful embroidery made it fit for a top five. This piece was created around the same time as the Assembly Rooms in Bath, home to the Fashion Museum today, but it would have likely been worn in even grander venues, perhaps weddings or birthdays at the Royal Court. The expensive fabric and design would signify the wealth and status of the wearer immediately, and although the owner is unknown, the Museum thinks it is likely it was worn at the court of King George III, who succeeded in 1760.

Before ‘make do and mend’ and the resistance to fast fashion, in the 1760s, fabrics were re-used and clothes ‘upcycled’. The exhibition quotes from a Mrs Papendiek in the 1780s:

“Fashion was not then… the matter of continual change. A silk gown would go on for years a little fashioned up with new trimmings.”

5. Green silk dress, Jeanne Lanvin, 1919 

Jeanne Lanvin dress 1919

This green shot silk pannier dress by Jeanne Lanvin illustrates the word ‘frock’ perfectly. The influence is 18th century with the full skirt requiring panniers, which are sewn into the dress. Lanvin began designing for children, and this fashion house’s logo remains a mother and child. As the Museum suggests, this dress certainly has a child’s birthday party feel. I love the way that now looking back it’s going against our idea of the period with its streamlined flapper look. Alber Erbaz now heads up the Lanvin label, and one of his dress won the 2005 Dress of the Year award showing some affinity with this dress. The footage below features the designer herself in fittings. Don’t miss the pockets in the first dress shown – the detail is absolutely beautiful. 

Happy Birthday Bath Fashion Museum

Fifty Fabulous Frocks is just part of the Fashion Museum’s fiftieth birthday celebrations. The museum was established in the sixties (initially called the Museum of Costume Bath) by Doris Langley Moore and Bath City Council. Fifty Fabulous Frocks runs until the end of 2013. If you’re in Bath next month, check out Bath in Fashion 2013 too.

In case you can’t make the exhibition, look out for another post featuring the next top 5. After all, there are another 45 fabulous frocks to choose…

Flapper fashion: 1920s dress-up in Berlin

After blogging about dressing up for Bohème Sauvage in Berlin a few weeks ago, I thought I’d share the outfit that I wore to that very 1920s party, which had the period’s sensibility without any real efforts at authenticity. All were picked up cheaply at vintage stores or had been hiding in my wardrobe just waiting to go to the ball…

Flapper(ish) Dress

When we think of 1920s style, it’s all about the flapper. Zelda Fitzgerald, dubbed the first by her husband, writes in a “Eulogy to the Flapper”:

“The Flapper awoke from her shoes of sub-deb-ism, bobbed her hair, put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge and went into the battle. She flirted because it was fun to flirt and wore a one-piece bathing suit because she had a good figure … she was conscious that the things she did were the things she had always wanted to do. Mothers disapproved of their sons taking the Flapper to dances, to teas, to swim and most of all to heart…”

The flapper sticks in our imagination starting with film of the same name in 1920 starring Olive Thomas, and then through the stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anita Loos via Louise Brooks, Clara Bow and Josephine Baker. Although many of the women in the 1920s wore flapper attire, they did not necessarily have the attitude – it was just fashion. However, part of its appeal for us now are those glamorous, wild connotations. These young women were taking a more active role, living for the moment after the insecurities of war (and won the ‘flapper’ vote in 1928 in the UK). The archetypal image of a flapper is heavily made-up, doing the Charleston, cigarette or cocktail in hand – stepping out in domains where women were not supposed to tread, let alone kick up their heels.

As fashion and cultural change are intertwined, women’s more active role during the First World War was reflected in post-war trends. Women took on men’s roles in factories and wore loose full knickers – slack girls, while Coco Chanel introduced less restrictive fashions, pauvre chic, in jersey. And of course women needed looser, shorter dresses for dancing the tango – just in vogue from Buenos Aires. Nonetheless, I was really interested to read that when Paul Poiret’s neo-classical empire line dresses came into sale pre-war, the Edwardian corset did not completely disappear. The boyish dresses still necessitated a corset, which was straight up and down rather than an S shape, for those with the figure of a less lithe boy.

The flapper dress was certainly what I had in mind when I went on a mission to Glasgow’s vintage treasure troves. In Circa Vintage, I tried on a flapper style dress with tassels but it just looked awful and shapeless (I don’t have a boyish flapper figure). Then my fellow vintage shopper spotted this dress below. It’s 1980s /early 1990s but the characteristic drop waist is there, it’s got a low neckline and back, and the diamontes are in keeping.

vintage 1920s flapper dress and accessories Boheme Sauvage

Headdress

Headgear is key to the 1920s look – whether a turban, cloche, birdcage hairpiece or feather headdress. It’s in this area that your dress-up can become costume, but it’s also what makes you feel most of that period and out of time. That’s why the Bohème Sauvage website encourages us to wear our hair vintage style:

“We especially want to encourage the ladies to creative use of headdresses and hats, as well as exciting modelling of hair (keyword: water wave) and the use of various make-up techniques (keyword: smoky eyes and pale complexion).”

The headband (pictured above) picked up at a vintage fair here in Bristol, helped me get in the mood. The girl whose birthday took us on this trip to Berlin, was treated to a bob, and another of our party had a go at water waves (see the flyer below). If you want to read more about 1920s hair and make-up, pay a visit to Come Back in Time.

Water wave - Boheme Sauvage ticket

1920s jewellery

I imagine a flapper wearing long pearls as in this iconic photo (by Eugene Robert Richee, 1928) of queen of the bob, Louise Brooks. A long string of black beads which I bought in a charity shop years ago, were flung on (needless to say not really anywhere near Ms Brooks).

Louise Brooks peals - Pandora's Box

Cape

The 1920s style of coat that appeals to me the most has long lapels, perhaps with (fake) fur, and one large button to fasten it. However there weren’t any coming my way so I chose this cape. It’s not of the period but it’s in keeping and worked with the dress. Although in a ‘Style Me Vintage’ guide I read, they advise eschewing the cliché of long gloves, I added them for extra sophistication and again to pull me out of the present time.

cape for 1920s vintage dress-up

Bag

I have a rather shameful love of handbags of all shapes and sizes so I thought this part would be easy, but when I looked in my wardrobe the right thing did not jump out. So I opted for this simple purse.

1920s style silver purse with Boheme Sauvage tickets

Shoes

I must confess I did look in high street shops for a new pair of Mary Jane T-bar shoes as I thought they were a staple that I’d wear again and again. However, luckily I remembered a pair of Red or Dead shoes that I’d bought around 10 years ago in my wardrobe. Although the heel is perhaps too high and not rounded enough, they were the style of the decade – the T-bar and the suede element felt right. So they got to dance the night away. (And I am very pleased about this after reading WRAP’s report that there is £30 billion unused clothes in our collective wardrobes.)

Red or Dead T-bar shoes with metal heel - 1920s vibe.

And for the boys… or girls

Vintage style is not just for the flappers. Gangsters, cads and artistic bohemians also need to look the part and Bohème Sauvage welcomed a mix ‘n match style for men too. We had the upper class toffs in top hat and tails, the middle class professionals in pinstripes with trilbies or twisting it to a gangster look, and the workers or starving artists in baggy Oxfords with braces and flat caps. Flapper frenzy was avoided by some women too taking on male attire but it was notable that the worker look outlined above was chosen by women, over the others, so there were no Marlene Dietrich look-alikes. Monocles were optional for men and women…

Over to you flappers …

Do you like to dress as a flapper? What style would you choose? Who are the ‘flappers’ of 2013?

If you want to find out more about 1920s fashion (and look at lovely illustrations and photos of the period) check out the ‘Fashion Sourcebook – 1920s‘ by Charlotte Fiell and Emanuelle Dirix (Fiell Publishing Limited,2012).

There are lots of vintage style books on the market at the moment, and one of my lovely friends treated me to ‘Style Me Vintage’ by Naomi Thompson, Katie Reynolds, Belinda Hay (Pavillion Books, 2012).