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Hollywood 1920s silent romcom – Clara Bow has It

With the Oscars just hours away, when stars’ sartorial elegance and faux pas will be dissected, it seems timely to blog about Clara Bow – a darling on screen and at the box office, but also a somewhat forgotten outsider from tinsel town. Her Hollywood story is both one of dream fulfilment and a cautionary tale ending in faded glamour and an almost forgotten career, which has been just been rediscovered over the last 1o years or so.

Clara Bow came into my head for this Oscars blog after watching a documentary on Hollywood’s Lost Screen Goddesses. All the talking heads reiterated that she had ‘it’ but the power of the star system and the way that it circulates via other media (magazines, TV shows, biopics) was not really discussed fully, and so I wanted to get to know Clara Bow, the star focusing on the silent film, It (Badger, 1927), her defining role as the original It-girl.

Coming from a troubled home in Brooklyn (her mother suffered from mental health issues and her father from alcohol abuse), Clara Bow’s Hollywood trajectory is on fast forward. Her acting début derived from winning Motion Picture Magazine’s Fame and Fortune Contest to appear in a film, and although this footage ended on the cutting room floor, she went on to make 57 films in her short career. At the height of her fame, she received 45,000 fan letters a year, and filled movie magazines with stories both complementary and scandalous, prior to retiring to married life on a ranch before she reached 30. Clara Bow  represented the new woman, who was taking on a more active role after the First World War, but these traits combined with her “vulgar” working class background, also brought her approbation (and the money from her talents went to the film bosses). Sadly her story ends almost ‘Baby Jane’ style with her divorced and living alone in Hollywood’s suburbia replying to fan mail and re-watching her old movies.  

Do you have It?

The character Clara plays in It has parallels with her off-screen persona. It tells the story of Molly Lou, a shop girl in a department store, who falls in love with the owner, Cyrus Waltham, and sets out to get her man. The movie is based upon the book of the same name by English author, Elinor Glyn, (who also has a cameo in the film) which tries to explain that indefinable characteristic that attracts us to certain people. According to the caption:

“It is that peculiar quality which attracts others of the opposite sex. The possessor of it must be absolutely unselfconscious, and must have that magnetic ‘sex appeal’ which is irresistible.”

A conventional romance narrative is played out, where after overcoming class obstacles and misunderstandings, love conquers all. At the end, the caption reads “We’re just a couple if it-less its” and the final shot sees them kiss with the ‘it’ of the name of the ship ‘Itola’ between them.

Although Molly uses a man to ahead, she is a character with agency – a new woman of the 1920s – who knows what she wants and how to get it. She may use her desirability to attract and steal men, but she’s also loyal to her female friend, willing to work to support her and her child, and she can fight her own battles (in the final scenes, she saves her love rival who tries to sink her and she does not need to any male assistance to save herself).

The pre-code film has an endearing, saucy tone. The inter-title reads – “Hot dogs that sizzle and satisfy! Best in the beach!” – to introduce the scenes when Molly takes the upper-class Waltham to her milieu, the beach fair. The couple go on a ride called the social mixer which spins them round and round, and they whirl down a chute with Waltham holding Betty between his knees, resulting in her skirt flying up to reveal her garters. She slaps Waltham when he tries to kiss her, and later says that she has to play this game, as women should not be seen to take the lead sexually.

The feminine consumer of romance

The romance is played out in the department store, and linked with commodity culture. Orgeron (2004) argues that the space of the shop, one of the few places in the public sphere where woman would be actively encouraged to look, formalises the way that the spectator is set up in the film to look, desire and then buy. A defining scene early in the film is when Betty first sees Waltham and palpably shows her desire for him – “Sweet Santa Clause, give me him”.

It in particular illustrates the link between the Hollywood system, the commodification of the star to sell movies and products. Orgeron says:

“The fan magazines were advertisements, and their pitch was attainability; if you buy this you can look like Star X. Bow made such aspirations looks particularly possible because she failed to create distance between herself and her fans that other stars worked rigorously to achieve. She was in many ways the star system’s best advertisement because she perpetuated the illusion of possibility for fans.”

As Clara won a competition to get into the movies, her story is the fulfilment of a fantasy even greater than her character in It.  Below is an article about Clara Bow to sell a book about how to make love like the movie stars. If you look, desire and buy, you too can achieve love.

Clara Bow's secret

Fashionable Clara Bow – the one to follow

Last year at the Oscars, the talk of the town was The Artist, a silent film, following the rise of female star, Peppy Miller who had ‘it’. And that’s not where the connection ends, Clare Bow’s style was the inspiration for Mark Bridges’ (Boogie NightsThere Will Be Blood) costumes for Peppy Miller. Clara Bow embodied the roaring twenties flapper, and after the success of It, she was a fashion icon. Fans could order their own Clara Bow cloche hat via mail order, scarf sales increased as did henna. Indeed, women are still encouraged to style themselves a la Clara Bow.

Of course Clara Bow’s red hair was not really captured in her movies, and the film magazines would literally add extra colour to the black and white films, encouraging readers to buy henna to get the star’s look. Here are some recovered lost fragments, just as this star has been brought back into the limelight in recent years. The quality of the footage makes us feel voyeuristic as though we are watching her audition reel through the camera lens.

Loved by movie-goers and one of the biggest stars in the business, she was nonetheless, kept at a distance by the Hollywood glitterati failing to shake off her Brooklyn working class background (her accent was not a problem in the silent era). One story which seems to circulate frequently when reading about this actress is when she turned up to a formal Hollywood party in a belted swimsuit. Her outsider status is articulated through lack of cultural capital via inappropriate dress code.  

It‘s costume designer was Travis Banton, best known for shaping the styles of Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich and Mae West. In the popular discourses about Clara, he despaired of her lack of taste but succumbed to her fashion ideas because she had ‘it’. In a Photoplay magazine article, the interviewer writes:

“And then her boundless vitality never failed to turn Banton’s most costly gowns into rags within a few hours. There was too much in the sheer business of living for Clara to remember what she had on her back the moment she left a mirror. Sequin trains were dragged through muddy studio streets, white satin robes fell unnoticed on dusty floors, and a frock of cobweb lace was an unfailing signal for a romp with the Great Dane.”

Her taste in clothes was ‘noxious’ and she ‘jazzed up’ his most beautiful creations, accessorising with the vulgarity of  bangles, large earrings and socks, as well as pulling her skirt up to her knees. She may have had ‘it’ and moved to the West coast, but the Brooklyn girl remained.  I wonder if the cherries on Clara Bow’s cloche hat (which I love) were from her idea or his…

http://youtu.be/z5vgMWGe444

Fashion both its commercial side and the notion of a sense of style plays an important part in the film. Molly sells clothes to rich women whilst her love rival buys fancy stylish items. However, money and class cannot buy you ‘It’, so the qualities that made Clara Bow an outsider in real life, were her selling points in the movie. The difference between Molly and her rival for Waltham’s affections is played out through clothing as we see both actresses preparing for an evening at the Ritz. The wealthier woman takes time to dress in an opulent boudoir with a maid to help her, whilst Molly ‘makes do and mends’ with her friend’s help by cutting up the dress she is wearing to create an evening dress with a shawl. She also attaches flowers to her waist but once she is at the Ritz she copies the trend of her love rival and wears it like a corsage. When Molly sees an advert for dresses from Waltham’s store in the newspaper, she looks wistful for the object of her desire, which is also linked with the desire to consume. 

The pleasure in It, for me, resides in the active desire that Molly shows to get what she wants and the fun, cheeky attitude of the film. Although this is still very much within conventional gender roles, there is some negotiation here in a time where there were tensions in women’s roles. Clara Bow brings joie de vivre to her performance, and you feel that you would get carried along with her schemes. One of the first actresses to grow up watching movies, she brings expression and physicality to the screen. Indeed she said of the talkies:

“They’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me.”

What do you think of Clara Bow, the Hollywood legend? Are there any contemporary Clara Bows? Will you be hooked reading about the Oscar winners and losers tomorrow in magazines? Why not watch It – a very Hollywood film – to get in the mood for the Oscars tonight?

Clara Bow articles to check out

Ball, Christina, (2001), “The Silencing of Clara Bow” in Gladfly, March/April.

Orergon, Marsha (2003), “Making It in Hollywood: Clara Bow, Fandom, and Consumer Culture”, in Cinema Journal, 42 (no.2), Summer.

Less waste, more flavour – Poco Bristol wins Sustainable Restaurant of the Year Award for Environment

Poco Bristol

Simply creating vibrant flavours that make diners smile and clear their plates isn’t enough for Poco Bristol. Sustainability, locally sourced organic food, and a zero-waste endgame need to be on the menu. That’s why Poco Bristol won the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s (SRA) Restaurant of the Year Award for Environment presented earlier this month by its President, Raymond Blanc.

Read more on Bristol Pound’s blog.

Fasting fashion for Lent – Culture Chic of the Week

How do you know when you need a fashion spring clean? Maybe when your wardrobe explodes… After a whirlwind tidy before the arrival of a guest, my overstuffed clothes cupboard just couldn’t take any more and made itself heard. My cover was blown as with a bang, handbags, gladrags and all, freed themselves, and I was somewhat shamed into sorting it out.

And this may not only save my embarrassment but also my vintage purse. “Valuing our clothes, research from WRAP, in July last year showed that in the UK we have around £30 billion worth of clothes, which haven’t been worn for at least a year, hanging in our wardrobes. The report claimed:

“The average UK household owns around £4,000 worth of clothes – but around 30% of clothes in the average wardrobe have not been worn for at least a year, most commonly because they no longer fit.”

I’ve been guilty of buying clothes that have never or infrequently been worn, and a fluctuating waistband has meant that at times clothes go to the back of the cupboard… and come back out again. Although I’ve never been tied to the high street, the quick-fix charms of fast fashion have lured me in the past. With fashion seasons speeding up, shorter lead times and more frequent deliveries, consumers are encouraged to buy the latest trends before they leave the rails to make room for the next must-haves, rather than looking for quality or durable items. Implicit in the buzz of commodity fetishism is that it rarely lasts long or fills the gap but that only means the next thrill is round the corner.

For the past year I’ve been making a conscious effort to curtail my fashion spending. To save money is definitely in the decision mix but it’s also just about reducing consumption for both environmental and social reasons. According to WRAP, “… by increasing the active use of clothing by an extra nine months we could reduce the water, carbon and waste impacts by 20-30% each and save £5 billion.” And of course it is not only environmental harm caused by the fashion industry but unethical working conditions and deunionisation which are exacerbated by the demands of ‘Mcfashion’.

At the very least we can think about what we buy, and reuse, repair and recycle. Fashion innovator, Vivienne Westwood at London Fashion Week this month encouraged austerity Britain to buy less to maintain its individuality:

“People have never looked so ugly as they do today, regarding their dress. We just consume too much… I’m talking about all this disposable crap. What I’m saying is buy less – choose well. Don’t just suck up stuff so everybody looks like clones.”

Quality over quantity makes sense as clothes will be less likey to join the tonnes of used up products in landfills (UK consumers send £140 million / 350 tonnes of clothing and textiles to landfill each year). They’re more likely to be durable and to be recycled in charity shops (often the trendy, low-cost, seasonable items cannot be resold easily). But for people wanting to be in ‘now’ without lots of disposable income, quality items may not feel within reach (and I still feel uncomfortable paying too much for one item). It comes down to revealing the actual lack of consumer choice and homogenisation of major fashion chains. Vintage and independent retailers are not working outwith the commodified fashion system and key into fashion trends too, but at least these may be at a slower pace. And of course the major plus for consumers, apart from a clearer conscience, is that the chance you’ll be caught at the office or a party wearing the same item as your contemporaries is much reduced.

With Lent coming up, I thought I should formalise my resolve to tidy up my wardrobe, and there are no shortage of projects to inspire us to rethink our addiction to fashion. The 333 project challenges participants to use 33 items of clothing for 3 months. Or how about A New Dress a Day where the stylish and inventive Marisa Lynch, transforms an oversized, seemingly unwearable vintage item each day?

Six Items Challenge

Could you manage with only six pieces of clothing? That’s what Labour Behind the Label, a not-for-profit raising awareness about garment workers’ rights, asks us to do every Lent with their Six Items Challenge. It’s a fashion fast to highlight the impacts of fast fashion. The idea spins around choice. Those involved in providing Western consumers with their fashion fix do not necessarily have a choice about working longer hours for low wages to meet increasingly demanding fashion brands, and by narrowing the apparent choice of items, participants are encouraged to get creative and think about what they actually need.

Six Items Challenge - what will you give up for Lent?

Follow the fashion fasters to see how they get on over the next six weeks. Even if you’re keen to continue to wear more than six items, I’d certainly encourage you to join Labour Behind the Label’s campaigns too.

The Uniform Project

The Uniform Project is a few years old but it’s still inspiring, innovative and shows how social media can be used for good. Sheena Matheiken pledged to wear one little black dress for 365 days of the year styled up with accessories from vintage and thrift shops. (Don’t panic, she did have a few versions of the same dress…) Her efforts raised over $100 million for the Akanksha Foundation, a grassroots organisation in India, which seeks to educate children from low income communities. I love the way that she turned her disillusionment with the advertising sector around and used her skills to make a difference. In the UK, when we are being fed ‘Big Society’ philanthropy to disguise public service funding cuts, her quote from Martin Luther King (which you’ll hear in the video below) about philanthropy is timely – “Philanthropy is commendable, but that should not stop the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make philanthropy necessary.” Like Labour Behind the Label, which seeks to help educate the industry and improve workers’ rights, here by providing education for children through this campaign, in theory at least, new, sustainable opportunties are being created.

Profitting from my wardrobe 

Part of the reason I have so many clothes is that I don’t tend to throw things away and have bought clothes to last – just too many of them and often rash purchases rather than planned staples. Many are vintage or charity shop gold dust, even from way back to when I was a student, and pieces passed down from stylish relatives. Indeed I still feel pangs of guilt about wearing a camel coat to death that my great aunt had kept ‘for good’. Although, better loved and worn, than wardrobe bound.

My challenge is inspired by J. D. Roth from Get Rich Slowly, and is not so much about reducing the use of items but more about maximising what I’ve got. My wardrobe is being cleared and clothes only get back in, if they’ve been worn by Lent time next year.

So I’ve started to sort into charity (two bags gone already), eBay helped me out at Christmas, Mum (she’s already rejected two tops but taken a coat) and a swishing party bag.  Some items go season after season without being worn as they’re at the bottom of my wardrobe, repairs get left after I stuff them back in the cupboard on realizing that the hem is down or a button missing on the mad whirlwind rush to work. Now the cupboard is becoming bare, who knows what I’ll find?

Are you giving up something for Lent? Could you manage the six item challenge or even one dress for a year? Let me know if you come across any projects that have made you rethink fashion consumption.

Vintage Movie Magazines – Culture Chic of the Week

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Whilst researching about Hollywood star, Clara Bow, I came across this piece from the American film magazine PhotoPlay about her relationship with costume designer, Travis Banton. The interview articulated the designer’s cultural superiority towards the working class actress as he described her rather vulgar fashion sense:

“He finds it almost impossible to describe his mixed feelings for her. She made him suffer, she caused him endless anxiety and worry, and yet there always will be a glowing place in his heart for her. Her taste in clothes was noxious, she thwarted every move he made to improve it, she “jazzed up” his most beautiful creations, and yet he continued to indulge her.”

It seemed that Clara Bow’s beauty and charm somehow superseded her ‘noxious’ taste in clothes. After reading this quaintly formal article, written without any quotes from the interviewee himself, I was hooked and wanted to flip through the pages for more…

Such movie magazines are a fascinating way to peer into the cinema of the past and its intertwined relationship with fashion and consumer culture. Films and their stars, even in the early stages of the medium, were sold via these publications, whilst fans gained access to the lives of the glamorous actors. In the days of black and white silent film, these magazines played a vital role for the studios in bringing the actors alive in colour. Through adverts and editorials, readers were offered a lifestyle, advice and consumer products to fulfil such movie star dreams. Sensational stories about the seedy side of tinsel-town (with titles such as ‘Nobody is safe in Hollywood’) also feature to safely scandalise, and perhaps to allow the readers to ease back to their ordinary lives with a dose of schadenfreude – even the stars can have it tough.

PhotoPlay was launched in Chicago in the 1910s, reaching its most influential period in the 1920s and 1930s, and best known for its stunning illustrated covers. In the photo gallery above, I’ve picked out some gems for you to enjoy: cover stars, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Dorothy Mackaill, (a British born actress, who made the transition to the talkies). The movies’ influence on style is evident throughout as you can see from the recurring fashion series (featuring actresses like Kay Francis, one of the highest earning actresses at Warner Bros in the 1930s) and spreads showing the way that film costumes influence the latest trends (for instance see 1855 inspires 1936 with Gracie Moore’s costumes from The King Steps Out alongside illustrations of designer, Ernest Dryden’s 1930s versions). 

This cultural history was to delivered via Media History Digital Project, which is digitising collections of classic media periodicals to make them accessible in the public realm. So far I’ve just delved into the movie fan magazines, but there are also trade periodicals, year books, educational magazines, and legal and governmental papers as well as some European film mags.

Familiar elements of contemporary women’s fashion magazines are evident: female stars on the cover, problem pages, the latest fashions modelled by actresses endorsing beauty products,  adverts for female products to satisfy made-up needs lifestyle features (‘Mary Pickford entertains‘) and insights into how men really think and their romantic intentions (“Carey Grant – reluctant bachelor” or “Dick Powell admits he’s in love.” I just know that I shall be returning time and time again to this collection for fashion and period inspiration, and to analyse the way these cultural artefacts inform the films from the past.

Culture Chic of the Week… 

Each week I aim to pick something cultural that’s inspired me – my culture chic. I’d certainly recommend checking out the Media History Project – although don’t blame me if you lose an hour or two… If you come across any other digitisation projects that you love, let me know.

Bohème Sauvage: back to Berlin 1920s style

The time is 1926. The place, Berlin, and the atmosphere smoky, bohemian with a touch of big band swing and burlesque. Absinthe is being sipped at the bar by a distracted cabaret dancer, whilst a speakeasy gangster cavalierly gambles Reichsmarks away, and a young flapper shimmers with delight as all eyes follow her to the dance floor… We’re at  Bohème Sauvage , a night of fun for vintage lovers in Germany. Actually before you read on, why not get in the mood and tune into Radio Dismuke?

I was invited by my 1920s-loving friend for her fortieth birthday to Berlin with six others with Bohème Sauvage on the agenda for a night of dress-up, dancing and who knows what else in a vintage playground. The support acts of swapping accessories and styling tips, washed down with deliciously authentic Russian vodka, were almost as much fun as the main event.

Bohème Sauvage is a postmodern mash-up of periods, styles and locations: bohemian Berlin of the 1920s, the Belle Epoque Paris of Toulouse Lautrec, burlesque and Moulin Rouge, and the American thirties with speakeasies, jazz clubs and gangsters. Whether we were dancing the Charleston, foxtrot, swing, waltz, tango, mambo, rumba… it hardly seemed to matter. As the website says:

“Bohème Sauvage does not try to copy this era; authenticity is not the highest aim… It is made for people who enjoy to express themselves, who like to dress up and wear costumes, who like playing with identities and basically for everyone who is open for experiments and adventures.”

As the birthday girl loves the 1920s – the decadence, the androgynous looks, the Louise Brooks do – we all dressed in clothes of that era. And where better to celebrate the style and culture of the twenties than Berlin. Between the two world wars, despite being wrecked from defeat, for a brief time the city was a cultural and intellectual capital of Europe, a Bohemian centre, with intellectuals and artists from all disciplines (including Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Christopher Isherwood, Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich, Otto Dix) making the city their home. Rainer Metzger in Berlin in the 1920s goes as far as arguing that Berlin at this time was the nearest to capture the Modernist idea of art and life becoming one.

Caberet photo - two women dancing.

With a creative surge in the arts from cinema to cabaret and a more relaxed attitude to sexuality, in retrospect the post-war mood was about enjoying the transience of the glitter now. The Charleston, the shimmy and the foxtrot were hugely popular and Metzger says, “there was a strong desire to lose oneself in the rhythm, and to let one’s body react to the syncopation and feelings engendered by the beat.” This was the time of androgynous dressing, Josephine Baker making top billing at the Femina-Palast, or at the Troika, in Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin” where girls dance behind gauge, assignations are set in motion via the telephones lined up on the dancing hall, and dancers stream with sweat. Indeed, the decadent Sally Bowles, not anticipating the rise of Fascism to come, is the Berlin of our popular consciousness. The Cabaret element is alive at Bohème Sauvage with an Emcee character hosting the entertainment, including a burlesque dancer and a female three-piece band.

The mix and match attitude to vintage dress-up suited me as I love wearing vintage clothes without pandering too much to period detail or authenticity, and I enjoy the experience of dress-up rather than a particular period or scene. As Ted Polhemus says, “…sampling and mixing diverse, eclectic, often contradictory elements into a unique, personal statement.” Part of the pleasures of this event undoubtedly was being admitted and thereby told that we had dressed the part – although not necessarily “authentic” (I was wearing a 1920s style dress via the 1980s). Subtle dress code boundaries were prescribed on the website:

“…quite apart from any modern clothes such as jeans, t-shirts, sneakers etc, kitschy, glitzy and tasteless carnival costumes, plastic products, flashy wigs, pink feather boas and all of the time from 1880 to 1940 are obviously not appropriate. We appeal very specifically to your sense of style and aesthetic.”

Admittance depended on your (sub)cultural capital which cannot necessarily be learned – you either have that sense of style or you don’t. Even if you’ve bought your ticket online, we’re told you can still be refused at the door (but you will get a refund to soften the affront to your sense of style). During the night, we all commented on how wonderful everyone looked – all shapes and sizes, a range of ages – and how pleasurable it was that there seemed to be a group affinity and that people had entered the spirit of the party. It almost felt like a ‘scene’ but was more like a shared affinity with people who would place themselves outside mainstream culture ranging from weekenders to those who have a vintage lifestyle.

Bohème Sauvage was created by “Miss Else Edelstahl” who started hosting private 1920s salon parties in 2004, which have now has grown to monthly gatherings at large ballrooms across Germany. Ours was held in Meistersaal in Berlin, a prominent artistic venue in the 1920s.  We were attending Bohème Sauvage as it was being incorporated into to the mainstream, being mentioned as a not-so-secret travel tip. This decade is in, in, in with the hotly anticipated Great Gatsby and top designers picking up on the styles, not only for women but in menswear too, which will be highlighted in the vintage store and filter to the high street. There may be people who think that Bohème Sauvage has become less authentic, filled with “tourists” like our group…

It was not just in fashion terms that people could express their subcultural capital but also on the dancefloor. We were too late for the dancing lessons at the start of the evening to help people learn the Charleston, swing or foxtrott. I loved dancing (and waltzing very badly) but also enjoyed watching the couples swing, spin and twirl round the floor. As there were language barriers, I am not sure how many people were taking on particular roles or characters but it certainty felt like an environment where you could do this without fear of being laughed at, in fact it may add to your subcultural capital.

Dance card (Tanzcarte) Boheme Sauvage, Berlin

A 1920s revival may be of the moment with its echoes of economic, political and cultural uncertainty, and the sense of decadence and shifting gender roles is perhaps more appealing than certain recreations of the 1950s with more secure home-making attire and lifestyle. We could all fritter the hyper-inflated Reichmarks at the mock casino and drink and dance the night away as if all was lost. There may have been a whiff of decadence, but of course it’s played out within safe boundaries. However it was glamorous fun, and my inner flapper certainly enjoyed being released.

Anyone else been to Bohème Sauvage? Do you enjoy dressing up in the clothes of a particular era? Are you part of a vintage ‘scene’? Please share your thoughts in the comments box.

Look out for a blog about my flapper outfit but for now here’s a taster of the party…

Books I’ve mentioned…

Isherwood, Christopher, (1939), Goodbye to Berlin, Vintage: London

Metzger, Rainer, (2007), Berlin in the Twenties: Art and Culture 1918-1933, Thames & Hudson: London

Polhemus, Ted, (2010), Street Style, PYMCA: London.

No Borders – the post-Christmas antidote

My suggestion for the perfect antidote to the post-Christmas bulge? A trip to No Borders

No Borders: contemporary art in a globalised world is an exhibition at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, which pulls together artists from the Middle East, Africa and Asia to explore global stories from local perspectives. Reflections on the local and global seem particularly timely in the aftermath of Christmas with its consumer frenzy for stuff and more stuff made miles away with little connection to their location of production, or purchased online in seemingly non-spaces. Having Bristol as the site of this exhibition puts a twist on it, where city initiatives are helping to rethink the local and global with creative projects, such as Bristol Pound which encourages us to shop and spend locally with the city’s own currency. The pieces in No Borders, which have been purchased through the ArtFund, are themselves part of a global trade network, and open up a dialogue about our global interconnections, shared histories and conflicts as well as Bristol’s economic and cultural place as an international trading city. 

Ai Weiwei

In Ai Weiwei’s A Ton of Tea, Pu’er tea, drunk by ordinary folk in China (and named after the trading post for dark tea in Imperial China) has been dried and compressed into a block as though it were being packed for export. In this minimalist, witty piece, the everyday and ubiquitous are transformed into a precious object to be looked at and tiptoed around in the gallery space, which raises its commercial price as well as cultural value. (At another exhibition, Ai Weiwei said of it “don’t touch it or you’ll have to drink it”.) So this new museum acquisition is put into conversation with the more traditional Chinese objects collected by the museum, questioning what constitutes ‘art’ from China for Western galleries and how the Chinese nation has been constructed through these traditions. In another well-known work, Ai Weiwei plays with similar political and cultural themes, creating Duchamp-like ready-made vases and purposely dropping a prized Ming vase offending the antiquities trade not only in China, but globally.

Questioning the role of art culturally, politically and commercially is certainly a theme of the exhibition with the contemporary works set in the traditional gallery space of the blue damask patterned wallpaper and placed in dialogue with those in the permanent collection of Chinese ceramics and Indo-Persian miniature paintings. 

Imran Qureshi

The Mughal tradition of miniature painting is given a contemporary twist by Pakistani artist, Imran Qu’reshi. This Leprous Brightness makes the blood from a reported incident of violence into beautiful foliage. In the video below you can see Qu’reshi’s imagery of flowers/blood seep from the stones in a site-specific piece. 

The creation of nationhood, history-making and the mass media are explored by Shilpa Gupta in her piece, In Our Times – Singing Mobile Microphones. The speeches of Jinnah and Nehru at the time of Independence of India and Pakistan in August 1947 are played through two swinging microphones. Annotated versions of the speeches hang at either side behind the installation indicating that Nehru’s speech was more prepared for ‘history’ with memorable quotes (“At the stroke of midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom”) compared to Jinnah’s more practical prose. (“Dealing with our first function in this Assembly, I cannot make any well-considered pronouncement at this moment, but I shall say a few things as they occur to me.”) The microphone swings up and down as power shifts from one leader to another, as regimes come in and out of favour. The see-saw of history illustrates the way that nations are constantly in flux and with conflicts still unresolved.

Shilpa Guptta: Singing Mobile Microphones

In Berlin-based Korean artist, Haegue Lang’s work Holiday for Tomorrow the private/public, holiday/work, insider/outsider are explored through an installation of pretty coloured Venetian blinds and traditional Korean bamboo blinds or hanoks. The blinds were used to allow women to see out into the public world of men whilst remaining private in the domestic. Here we can peek through the blinds as voyeurs but also always be partially seen as we wander the exhibit.

Haegue-Lang BlindsIn the exhibition space fans flutter the blinds evoking a holiday mood, whilst the video narrates about the world of work evoking the repetitive nature of many occupations, for instance opening shop shutters each day (which you can see pictured in the still below). Ultimately, perhaps holidays only function to make us refreshed for work.

Haegue Yang Unfolding Places
Walid Raad describes his work as “reigniting our curiosity in truth”. A fictionalised foundation, The Atlas Project, is his mechanism to interrogate the truth of the history-making, specifically of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). By gathering, sorting and thus knowing the evidence both written and produced by visual media, those with power create the ‘truth’ of the manifold stories involved. The “regimes of truth” (in Michel Foucault’s terms) created by institutions such as the Museum are brought into question in Raad’s miniature version of a gallery (pictured below).

Walid Raad / The Atlas Group

No Borders, run in partnership with the Arnolfini, is on until 2 June 2013 and if you are in Bristol I would recommend it. I headed off there after hearing that there was an Ai Weiwei piece but actually there are a variety of works worth seeing in this well-curated show.

If you’re not able to make it, I hope that you can check out of some of the artists’ work. You can download pdfs about the artists and some of the key themes. Let me know your thoughts.

Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar

Today’s guest post comes from blogger CultHorror.

At the age of 92, the internationally renowned composer and sitar maestro Ravi Shankar died today (12/12/12) in hospital, near to his home in California. Arguably he represents perhaps the most important single figure in the rise of World Music and his association with The Beatles and the hippy movement has ensured his enduring place in cultural and musical history.

Born in Benares in 1920 to a high caste Brahmin family, Ravi Shankar’s life was from the very start closely associated with the performing arts. With an absent father whom he did not meet until he was eight years old, Ravi’s early years were shaped significantly by his older brother Uday who became a feted dance artist in Europe and America during the 1920s following a series of collaborations with Anna Pavlova. In 1930, at the tender age of 10 Ravi travelled to Paris with Uday’s dance troupe, beginning the first of many trips abroad to both Europe and the USA. Whilst visiting the USA the young Ravi was exposed to the brightest lights of the entertainment world, visiting the Cotton Club on several occasions and meeting such luminaries of the film world as Clark Gable and Joan Crawford.

It was not until 1934 that Shankar first began to learn the sitar when he was accepted as a pupil by Alluaddin Ali Khan and in 1938, Ravi moved to Maihur to be closer to his guru and studied there for seven years. During the 1940s Ravi Shankar worked successfully as both a musician and composer for All India Radio and worked in areas as diverse as ballet and film. In the 1950s he enjoyed a long association with celebrated Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, for whom he contributed some four film scores, including that for the internationally acclaimed Pather Panchali (1955), which won Shankar the Best Film Music Director of the Year award at the 1957 Berlin Film Festival (a year later he went on to win a BAFTA with his score for the Canadian short film A Chair’s Tale).

It was during the 1950s that Shankar started touring both Europe and the USA as a sitar player, which marked the beginning of his life-long attempt to bring Indian classical music to a global audience. Key to this development was Ravi’s association with Louis de San; a minister at the Belgian embassy in Delhi, where the musician performed a series of sitar recitals to a largely Western audience. It was at such events that Shankar developed his combination of performance and explanation; his desire to educate as well as play for non-Indian audiences subsequently became a central pivot of his international career. In 1957, EMI released the first of Shankar’s recordings to a Western audience and Ravi Shankar Plays Three Ragas became the first of several albums to be released that year marking the beginning of his international recording success.

Ravi Shankar and Menuhin

The 1960s is undoubtedly the decade that Ravi Shankar will always be most associated when his international profile skyrocketed. This period represents the beginning of a number of attempts to fuse or combine elements of Indian classical music with a range of Western styles. The first of these collaborative projects was undertaken in Los Angeles in 1961, when Shankar alongside other Indian classical musicians played together with various noteworthy jazz artists, including celebrated flautist, Bud Shank. In 1963, he performed at several prestigious European music festivals – Leeds, Edinburgh and Prague – evidence of an increasing level of interest in Indian classical music in the West. His travels abroad, combined with his rising international profile brought Shankar into contact with a range of musicians, many of whom were becoming increasingly interested in Indian music. In New York in 1965, he had the first of several meetings with jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, whose interest in Indian culture and music was nurtured by Shankar having a profound effect both on his own musical output and his personal life (later naming his son Ravi). In 1966 Shankar performed the first of his East/West collaborations with violinist Yehudi Menuin at the Bath Festival in the UK. The two musicians had met originally in Delhi in 1952 and the performance at Bath was the first in a series of collaborations.

George Harrison and Ravi Shankar with a sitar in 19060s

It was in London in June 1966, that Shankar met George Harrison for the first time; this was to have a profound effect on the musical careers of both men and set about changing the future direction of music from the East and West. At the time of their first meeting, Harrison already held a deep fascination for Indian culture and music, having contributed a rudimentary sitar passage on ‘Norwegian Wood’ for The Beatles album Rubber Soul. Harrison had, up to this point, received no formal training on the sitar and after Shankar agreed to tutor him, travelled to India for six weeks of training with his guru. Although this was the only sustained period of tuition Shankar gave Harrison, this period marked the beginning of a life-long friendship and had a profound effect on the sound of subsequent Beatles recordings; most notably on 1967’s Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band particularly on the track ‘Within, Without You’ which incorporated a range of Indian classical instruments, sounds and influences.

The considerable influence of Indian classical music on psychedelic rock and pop of the period – ranging from the use of sitars by bands such as The Rolling Stones and Traffic, to the meandering ‘raga rock’ guitar solos of artists such as The Grateful Dead – undoubtedly owed a great deal to the pioneering work of Ravi Shankar and during this period he found himself playing alongside many such artists. In 1967, Shankar played at the Monterey Pop Festival in California and continued to perform at a number of similar events, culminating with Woodstock in 1969.

Ravi Shankar playing the sitar at Monterey

Despite the fact that his music was taken by many to be the ideal accompaniment to the hippy values of peace, love and drugs, Shankar himself was somewhat uncomfortable about his role in the counter-culture. After Monterey, he became disillusioned with the behaviour of the ‘unruly’ festival audiences and regretted his role at such events. In his autobiography Raga Mala he states;

After Monterey I performed three or four more festivals. My manager had booked me so I couldn’t avoid them but I hated being there. People in the crowd were shrieking, shouting, smoking, masturbating and copulating, all in a drug-crazed state – it was a horrible experience. I would ask myself “Why am I here?” I felt as if I had soiled and diluted my music. At times I walked offstage with my sitar because it was too unruly, and would only come back again when they had calmed down.

Of his final festival appearance of the decade at Woodstock he says;

This was a terrifying existence. If Monterey was the beginning of a new movement or beautiful happening, I think Woodstock was almost the end… I wish I hadn’t performed there but because of my commitment, I had to… I learnt that apart from the abundance of drugs, there was violence, theft, robbery and raping at Woodstock. It was not what people try to glorify it as today.

Despite his misgivings, Shankar’s role as musical guru to the counter-culture endowed him with the trappings of superstar status. Appearances on prestigious chat-shows either side of the Atlantic (including David Frost in the UK and Johnny Carson in the USA) reflected this new found status. Subsequently he found The Doors front-man Jim Morrison attending his sitar classes in California and Marlon Brando inviting him to play the 1968 UNESCO benefit in Paris in front of the great and the good (including Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor).

Back in India however, Shankar’s success in the West was not greeted with such universal acclaim and he became accused of ‘commercializing’ and ‘Americanizing’ the ‘pure’ tradition of Indian classical music.  Although Shankar has always refuted such claims, his own unease at the ‘superficial’ interest that the counter-culture was paying Indian music and culture in general, led him to deliberately turn away from the rock and pop arena. Instead he refocused his efforts on classical performance and collaborations such as the composition and performance of a sitar concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1970. By 1971, he was back performing with George Harrison as part of the Concert for Bangladesh and in subsequent years continued to compose, perform and record as a ‘pure’ classical Indian artist as well as continuing to develop East/West collaborations in pop and rock as well as classical tradition. He continued to perform regularly around the world well into his eighties and his last concert was in November 2012 when he played alongside his daughter Anoushka at Long Beach, California to celebrate his tenth decade on stage.

The range of innovation, artistry and collaboration that characterised the career of Ravi Shankar marks him out as the prototype World Musician whose lasting influence continues to be felt both in the East and in the West.

Ravi Shankar and sitar

Vintage treasures Rayne

One of the key pleasures in vintage clothes is the moment when you find that treasured item. It may have been once loved, neglected or never out of its wrapper but it’s just right for you now. Usually a bargain adds an extra frisson but at the very least it shouldn’t be overpriced. This discovery could be after 10 empty-handed visits to the same thrift store but therein lies the pleasure, it’s not something that you or anyone else can simply pick from the shelf on demand. Last weekend I had that moment in Salisbury whilst meeting up with one of my best friends (a vintage fan too but on that occasion she had her moment with a bookshelf-quaking pile of second-hand cookery books!)

I uncovered from the window a luscious magenta bag which I thought would make the perfect Christmas pressie for one of my friends. She would be drawn to the shade and, whilst she’s not an everyday vintage wearer, she would still appreciate its 1960s sensibility without it being too ‘period’, way-out or worn (or ‘characterful’ as I’d say).

So it was a vintage treasure. But it was doubly so as I found out it was made by Rayne, the famous shoe company, which I’d spotted earlier in the year at an exhibition about British glamour.

Rayne in the label of the vintage bag.
H & M Rayne was the British monarchy’s shoemaker being granted a Royal warrant by Queen Mary in the 1930s and famously, designing Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding shoes. The royal connections don’t impress on their own but these shoes were hand-made involving 136 processes by a skilled workforce. Watch this video to see behind-the-scenes of royal wedding shoes:

In the 1950s Rayne, fronted by Edward Rayne, was one of the most glamorous shoe brands with collaborations with top couturiers such as Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell and the famous British pottery firm, Wedgwood. At this time, the appropriate accessories were key to the look with Rayne offering matching handbags and shoes in a range of colours to maintain order in the post-war consumer’s outfit. It wasn’t just royalty they’d charmed with their shoes, film star clients included Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead as well as Vivian Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor in their roles as ‘Cleopatra’.

With the rise of youth culture in the 1960s, Rayne extended the brand with ‘Miss Rayne’ to attract a younger crowd pulling on the design talents of Mary Quant, for instance, who created Shirley Temple ankle straps and stiletto heels for them. Another icon of sixties’ pop culture, Emma Peel from The Avengers (played by Diana Rigg) sported Rayne boots, surely a sign of a shoe-maker that was in touch with the times.

However, the Rayne family business did not always mix in such high circles. It was founded in 1885 by Henry and Mary Rayne as a leading theatrical supplier. An Irish immigrant, he changed his surname from Ryan to avoid anti-Irish prejudice.  With flapper fever in the 1920s, women who could afford it wanted the latest styles as worn by their favourite movie stars. To cater for this demand, their son Major Rayne opened a shop in Bond Street to extend the market for their exclusive lines. As an early example of celebrity endorsement, actress Lillie Langtry modelled for this family business. Henry and Mary Rayne’s grandson, Edward Rayne, continued to be a fashion leader and headed up the British Fashion Council in the late 1980s to promote home-grown talent overseas.

I love that this bag holds unknown memories that my friend can imagine and augment with her own, that the person sitting next to her on the bus won’t have this bag and that we can chart British cultural history through a fashion brand from the immigrant experience to the rise of celebrity endorsement.

What vintage clothes treasures have you come across recently? Do you shop in vintage stores for Christmas presents?

Rayne Shoes Logo

And now I just have to be strong and make sure that this bag makes it into my friend’s hands for Christmas…

Vintage bag by Rayne

Fancy finding out more about Rayne?

Visit Rayne’s website, check out Sheep and Chick where Miss Rayne reveals lots of vintage pieces and the showcase at Ballgowns: 50 years of British Glamour.

If you do happen to find yourself in Salisbury in the UK, seek out Foxtrot Vintage for the potential treasures inside!

Stir-up Sunday

Plum pudding stir-up Sunday

I love cooking but as I’m a savoury fan (and cheese seems the perfect way to end a meal) rather selfishly it’s been my tendency to neglect sweets and cake-making. However, one dessert, that is not only one of my favourites, has also become something of a festive tradition. Around five years ago when my parents joined us in our home to celebrate the holiday for the first time, we decided to try out our first Christmas plum pud.

We were pleasantly surprised that… shhhh it’s not actually very difficult. The recipe we use has not been passed down through either of our families for generations, rather it’s the first one we tried by Dan Lepard and we haven’t strayed from it since. Although this pudding calls for plums, often they do not even contain this fruit and were so-called traditionally because raisins were known as plums.

This year we’ve actually managed to make it on Stir-up Sunday (today)! The practice of stirring up started from the Book of Common Prayer:

“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded…”

On hearing this on the last Sunday before Advent, those responsible for cooking would be reminded to get started on their puddings, which usually have to be left for four or five weeks before their reawakening on Christmas day.

Hopefully this year’s will turn out something like this…

Christmas plum pudding.

I enjoy savouring the pudding all on its own but if you fancy a sauce to accompany yours, check out Come Step Back in Time blog for some help from Mrs Beeton.

As our pudding is simmering, that can only mean the festive season has officially started, so I’m off for a mulled wine (Copenhagen style with almonds and raisins…)

Apologies as it’s way to early to ask but what Christmas traditions do you have? Do you have any delicious recipes that have become a festive can’t live without? Let me know…

Glasgow Girls – the musical

“A letter-writing campaign and a petition to stop child detention in Scotland. It’s not exactly ‘Legally Blonde” is it?”

Glasgow Girls at the Citizens Theatre Glasgow.

That’s what Amal, one of the eponymous ‘Glasgow Girls’, says when questioning whether their story should be a musical. And thankfully (as someone who has seen Legally Blonde the musical), this isn’t that…

The self-named Glasgow Girls are teenagers who fought against the detention of asylum seeker children and dawn raids in Scotland. From a variety of cultural backgrounds and nationalities themselves (including Somalian, Kurdish, Roma Polish as well as Scottish) Amal Azzudin, Roza Salih, Ewelina Siwak, Emma Clifford, Toni Lee Henderson and Jennifer McCarron started their fight after their fellow Drumchapel High School friend, Agnesa Murselag’s family were removed from their home in the middle of the night and threatened with deportation. The teenagers take on the Scottish Parliament and the UK Home Office, which ruled in 2005 that it was safe for asylum seekers to return to Kosovo. For Agnesa’s family – Kosovan Roma – this was far from the case.

Why a musical?

But as Amal says this doesn’t necessarily seem like the stuff of musicals. Another ‘Glasgow Girl’, Emma Clifford, was surprised on hearing it was to be in this genre:

“Jazz hands does not fit the bill here. But the more I thought about it, music was so much a part of our campaign. Whenever we were celebrating or anything like that there was so much music. It was inspiring.” (BBC website)

After watching Lindsay Hill’s TV documentary Tales from the Edge about the campaigning teenagers, director Cora Bissett, decided to opt for this form as music played such a big part in the girls’ lives but also reflected their different cultural backgrounds.

The music and choreography work to create a vibrancy and energy mirroring that felt in the girls’ campaign; from the exuberance of their solidarity (you’ll be humming the ‘Glasgow Girls’ theme after you leave the theatre) to the threatening in Patricia Panther’s menacing performances as the opposition – police officers, immigration and spin doctors.

The production plays with the fact that it’s “a life-affirming new musical based on a true story”. Throughout the piece, characters question whether their campaign should be a musical (it’s mostly about photocopying) and at the beginning the girls shout down an off-stage “Hollywood” voice-over telling their story.  In the self-aware, happy ‘opening montage’, the girls sing about Glasgow (where it rains all the time except when it snows) and do a routine with tartan umbrellas. The seventh ‘Glasgow Girl’, Tony Lee Henderson isn’t in the play but the characters shout to her off-stage. I am not sure whether they cut her character out because she didn’t want to be portrayed but again this seems like a joke at mainstream cinematic reflections of real life, where the truth is pared down.

The other residents of the Kingsway high-rise flats worked together to stop the dawn raids with an early warning system to help the intended victims evade arrest. The character of Noreen (played by Myra McFadden) represents them. With self-awareness, she claims that she didn’t want to be involved in a musical but she has to stand in for all the others. Again playfully, she questions how you can reflect real life in a Glaswegian high-rise if you are prohibited from smoking in the theatre and urges the girls to give the musical a happy ending as that’s what is expected (unless it’s a very ‘modern’ musical).

This artifice and playfulness actually works to make the play feel “real”. In the second half, there is an invented family seeking asylum, the Chirugoes from the Congo, whom the girls try to help. As a plot device to illustrate the emotional distress of immigration and deportation – a symbol of the girls’ fight – they worked well. However in comparison to the other vibrant characters, they were only really seen as victims or through the local community’s eyes rather than being drawn out more fully.

To a Mouse….

Mr Girvan (played by Callum Cuthbertson), the girls’ teacher, sings Scottish Bard, Robert Burns’ To a Mouse including the lines:

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union…

As a Scot who’s lived in England for 15 years or so… I try not to sentimentalise the homeland too much but I was moved as he sang this folk ballad. It’s so appropriate as Burns, not just a lover of nation, was an internationalist seeking to help the common man. The fight here is not just on racial or ethnic grounds but a fight against those who are crushed systemically. Later in the play, as a celebration the girls dance to this song again but this time it’s intertwined with globally diverse dances reflecting Scottish multiculturalism.

The play also mocks the political system which has lost touch with the people they represent (Dawn Sievewright as Tommy Sheridan at the Scottish Parliament drew a huge laugh from the audience). Scottish First Minister at the time, Jack McConnell is represented as a cabaret singer in a gold lamé jacket who remembers a time when he was like the girls’ idealistic teacher but has now become  just a ‘mac’ down South without real power.

Want to see the Glasgow Girls?

You can still catch Glasgow Girls at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow until 17 November 2012 and then at the Theatre Royal Stratford East London from 8 February to 2 March 2013.

Glasgow Girls was conceived and directed by Cora Bissett and written by David Grieg. The music is a collaboration between the director, Sumali Bhardwaj (Soom T), Patricia Panther and John Kielty.

Want to be a Glasgow Girl?

The play posits that the ‘Glasgow Girls’ aren’t just the seven girls but their teacher, the headteacher, Noreen, all the others in the community… and everyone who gets involved to help in this cause. Here are some organisations which are working to help change the lives of asylum seekers and refugees:

Have you seen any musicals that deal with tough, political issues? Does this story inspire you to get involved? Do get in touch and let me know.

If you would like hear more about the story, watch this Q & A with local Drumchapel residents and documentary filmmaker, Lindsay Hill alongside a real ‘Glasgow Girl’, Amal Azzudin, and her former teacher, Mr Cuthbertson.