Monday, 25 January 2016

On the body of women and agender-ness

Photographer: Nita Strudwick Photography Model: me. Lifestyle shot

(Still writing Part II of my post on age and marketing. It will not be too long, I promise!)

As I was catching up with my reading on a lazy Sunday afternoon I came across a great issue of the Italian weekly L'Espresso, dated 7th January 2016, to which I subscribed a while ago as I wanted to keep up to date with what is happening in Italy and feel the pulse of the current political discourse. Somehow, I never managed to read it until yesterday. Let's not dwell on my tardiness!
This was an issue dedicated to women and their bodies, with the title On women's bodies, a reference to the violence usually unleashed on women's bodies - the articles inside discuss a few such instances - and with a great cover, shot by photographer Maki Galimberti. 

The picture  shows the same model, first wearing a burqa and then wearing nothing, posing  like Botticelli's Venus. The girl is young and beautiful, as befits an image of Venus, and appears to be extremely fragile. The article which this powerful image illustrates discusses the veil and puts forward the views of Bruno Nassim Aboudrar, professor of aesthetics at the Sorbonne, Paris and author of the book Comment le voile est devenu mussulman (How the veil became muslim).
It is indeed a very interesting book, worth reading. But I am not posting to discuss the book.

Another article, part of this issue, caught my attention, one written by Maria Luisa Frisa, fashion curator and professor of fashion theory at the University of Venice.  Frisa is the incredibly stylish lady featured in  Advanced Style by Ari Seth Cohen on his tour of Italy in 2014.
 Frisa regularly writes about fashion, so she is quite well known to anyone who has an interest in fashion as a cultural phenomenon.

The article in question is entitled Che violenza, la moda (Fashion, how violent) and discusses the whole issue of body image, citing the views of a number of couturiers on what to them is the ideal female body to dress (this resonates with me, when I was doing my research in Jakarta every time I met a designer I would ask him/her who they designed for, who were their muses).
I would love to translate the  article in its entirety but it would make a very long blog post, therefore I will summarise it, quoting from it, those of you interested in reading the original can view it here.
Frisa begins by suggesting that the (female) body in  fashion is a body redefined by clothes: the clothes alter the body and realign it with a changing imaginary that every time proposes a different body typology. She gives some apt examples. For Gianfranco Ferré, his ideal woman is tall, lean, well proportioned, agile, sleek and dynamic, with dark hair and full lips. Charles James thought that the female body was intrinsically wrongly shaped, to be improved by his designs, whereas Walter Albini's pronouncements sound a little chilling in their details: "Slim but with a solid bone structure. With straight, broad shoulders, a longish bust, narrow hips, small breasts. A small head, medium length hair, almost short. Not beautiful but definitely irresistible".
These are views put forward by men, male ideals  regularly projected on female bodies, redesigned through clothes to match each variant of the ideal.
Fashion remains male dominated, despite the presence of women, some of whom of the calibre of Coco Chanel, for whom "a woman should dress like her maid - with simplicity". Never mind here the class distinction (Chanel's clients were upper and middle class women, for whom a maid was part of their lifestyle): the message is clear, Coco Chanel advocates something quite different from what her male colleagues (still) do.
Frisa notes that it was precisely to counter the impossibly narrow waist proposed by Dior following the second world war that she, Coco, returned to designing clothes, feeling somewhat outraged by Dior's "anachronism".
Citing Germaine Greer, Frisa goes on to comment that the female body bears the marks of the superstructures that culturally inscribe it. The history of fashion and its changes, she goes on,  is a narrative of bodies re-designed by fashion itself, and is given in the sequence of silhouettes through which the manuals of history of fashion illustrate its changes.
Frisa notes that there are subtle differences between styling and designing in their respective  construction of the  body. The professional development and cultural cooperation between styling and design has changed over the  decades, prompting a readjustment in the way fashion looks at the bodies it clothes. And more recently, the search for a silhouette that can follow with ease the contours of both the male and the female body is being touted as the culmination of the utopian dreams of 'the modern body'  of the last century. The (male) designers and the creative directors of recent generations are moving into this area of indistinct agender-ness, where men and women are irrecognizably mixed.

'He, She, Me': an exclusive track by Devonté Hynes and Neneh Cherry, commissioned by Selfridges for 'Agender' pop up department.

Suddenly, says Frisa, the female stereotype imposed by the media, that of 'sex and silicone', is passé. Antiquated. Except that once again it is a male dominated design that defines the contours of the female body.
I have found this article very enlightening. I had not thought at all of the background to agenderness and how fundamentally male centred it is, as a concept. Thanks Maria Luisa!
I would love to hear some of your views.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Some thoughts on art modelling

Photo: Atwood-Koschinsky
My blog has received over a million hits and this fact passed me by completely! Only just realised, after seeing the figures at the bottom of the page.  I would like to thank all the people that follow me and read my posts, it is quite overwhelming to know that so many  from around the world have had a look at what I write. Earlier this year I thought of abandoning this blog project but now I am not so sure. 
I write for my own enjoyment and whereas at some point I felt rather envious of those bloggers that are sponsored, I then realised, after reading various sponsored blogs, how very tedious it must be to have to write specifically to endorse a product. So here I am, an independent blogger writing about whatever takes my fancy. Thanks again for all the support you have given me, by reading and sometimes, commenting, I really appreciate it.

The other day I was called up to model for an art class, and less than three weeks ago I went to Zurich to model for an art nude project by former New York professional dancer turned photographer Laura Atwood and her partner Michael Koschinsky.  I am mentioning the latter because I had resolved to stop all  photographic art modelling altogether, but then the Atwood - Koschinsky project came along and I liked the concept so I thought, why not ?
Laura and Michael are interested in photographing older women and the body in motion  and avoid airbrushing. They do a lot of dance photography - it is Laura's background, after all.  I got a few clothed portraits too from that shoot which I am showing here. I like their naturalness.
But let me tell you about life modelling - I usually call it art modelling but I realise that it can be confused with photographic art modelling so for the sake of this post I will use the term life modelling.

Photo: Atwood-Koschinsky
I nearly cancelled the gig on the day because of all the hassle I was meant to go through at the college where I had been booked  - life models now have to register and give a copy of their passport and so on and so forth. I must have registered with that institution  half a dozen times but for some reason I always have to re-register. Then of course there was the issue of finding blankets and cushions and  heaters too - I texted the tutor and said I reserved the right of keeping my clothes on if no heater could be found! Sounds somewhat draconian but it is my body and my health. He was very good natured and obliging.
So we started with the first poses, I was given no direction at all, only told the duration of each pose so that I could decide what was suitable - no point in doing something complex and arduous if the pose is over two minutes, that's my attitude.
When I do these modelling gigs, I tend to keep myself to myself during breaks, I wrap up warm and do some stretches or check my phone and think of a few poses I may do later. I also drink plenty of water, being so close to heaters has a dehydrating effect.

Photo: Atwood-Koschinsky
During the first break I was stunned at the number of students that came up to me to ask whether I had been modelling for a long time. Indeed I have, I told them, and they all thought it really showed in the kind of posing I did. I was genuinely surprised, it was not something I had thought much about. But yes, I always know what to do when I model and, most importantly, what not to do, I know my body and my limitations. No one really taught me, I just learnt as I went along.
I have done life modelling for well over thirty years, on and off, of course, sometimes taking very long sabbaticals. I always go back to it.
Until I was sixteen I hardly knew anything about life modelling and knew no one who had done it. Then I met an art model. We were both in hospital, I was there because of a bad fall which had caused me lots of back injuries, she was there because she had overdosed on sleeping pills, a failed suicide attempt following the break up of her engagement. She volunteered the information, with a rather bored expression.
I remember her clearly,  she was waiting to be discharged, perfectly made up and wearing fashionable clothes. She must have been around twenty-four, medium height, with shoulder length raven hair and a very, very beautiful face, a classic, rather important nose, high forehead, a perfect oval.
Reminders to art students, LCC
We began to chat. I asked her what she did for a living and she told me that she modelled full time at the Accademia di Belle Arti. I was intrigued and asked her what she had to do and she explained. I thought it was quite a weird thing and what? No clothes? I was a little shocked. She demonstrated, keeping her clothes on, of course. She stood in the middle of the room and began to strike poses, asking me to time her. I thought she was very odd but amazing. I also thought I would like to try art modelling too. It sounded rather grand to say one modelled full time at the Accademia di Belle Arti.
Fast forward a few years, I was already in London, and must have been around twenty.  There was a noticeboard  at the dance school I went to for contemporary dance classes, and I spotted a notice by an artist who was looking for models. I called up the number and went along. I lied and said I was experienced, I really wanted the job, I said I had done it at the Accademia. The artist was suitably impressed.
I began and it was so hard, keeping still requires so much control and then it can be kind of boring, time seemed to drag endlessly. I tried to remember what the model I had met a few years earlier had done and attempted to copy whatever I could recall of her poses. It worked, no one spotted I had never done it before and if they did, they never said a word.
It was a cash only job, I liked that, it came in handy. So I began to do it more often and after a while  I was hooked.
Reminders to art students, LCC
And here I am, still doing it. The money is rubbish but it is the only job where you are allowed to be still and daydream and forget about everyone else in the room. I belong to the old school and prefer it when the art tutor refers to me as 'the model' rather than making an effort to remember my name. The nudity is no problem for me, so long as there is enough heating I am fine. To me the pose is my garment, and that's what I do, I wear a pose. In everyday life I cover up and do not advocate naturism, it simply does not interest me.
While posing I sometimes listen very carefully to what the art tutor says and have picked up so much knowledge about drawing and painting simply by modelling. Although it looks like I am not moving at all, in reality I am constantly moving, imperceptibly, but nevertheless I am moving. I sometimes put into practice the many instructions I have heard in dance class, like spreading out the toes, breathing with the back, elongating the spine, stacking the vertebrae one by one and so on.
I know at some point I will stop, but for as long as people ask me to do it I will probably continue, even though from time to time I might take longish breaks. But that's the beauty of it, to be able to do it if and when I want!

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Age, brands and marketing, Part 1

Nita Strudwick Photography. Model: me 

A few days ago Rebecca Valentine, owner of Grey Model Agency by whom I am represented, forwarded me an email sent by a fashion student at Northampton University, Rebecca Lewis. Ms Lewis is a bright young woman currently studying to become a fashion PR and she is most interested in exploring the way age is represented in the fashion industry in connection with one of her degree projects. She had written asking whether Rebecca Valentine, in view of her experience, could comment on the following:
1. is stigmatisation of age an industry issue or is it a cultural one and
2. is it possible for brands to operate with the philosophy of no age demographics? Instead of targeting markets focused on whether consumers fit into an age bracket, could a brand determine a consumer on the basis of their personality attributes and interests?
Rebecca Valentine wrote her own answer but she asked me to contribute my thoughts too.
And so I did. But I would like to cite in full Rebecca Valentine's answer before adding mine, as I think it is very eloquent and incisive.  As both answers are quite long I shall post in two parts.
Part 1 is made up of what Rebecca Valentine wrote, Part II consists of my own contribution.
I should point out that there is a global interest in this issue of age representation, only last week, the day before the terrorist attack in the Indonesian capital,  The Jakarta Post published an article about ageing and advertising by writer and social commentator Julia Suryakusuma, reblogged by Grey here
This is what Rebecca Valentine wrote to Rebecca Lewis:
"When I spoke at the Festival of Marketing Conference last year the main question asked by the marketing people in the room was 'Is age necessary as part of a brief? Implying that it is possible to create a brief without age factoring. This is an interesting and new consideration. I don’t feel it is currently very realistic as brands are so age conscious, they are still driven by the age categorisation feeling their market can and should be segmented by their generation which differs from those who went before and who follow.

Festival of Marketing panel, November 2015
Of course this is in part true and with the fast paced developments technologically the younger generation are speeding ahead with the older generations, even ‘middle age’ being left behind in the knowledge stakes. What is interesting though is that the older generations are realising this factor and are making a stirling effort to ‘catch up’, which is new.
The access to information available at our fingertips is working to narrow the divide between the age groups which has never happened before and what we are experiencing now is less an age gap and more a knowledge gap.
This is allowing older people who are still questioning and engaging with the world in a proactive way to understand and collaborate with the younger generation. In turn, the younger generation are interested in the knowledge and experience the older community has accrued and can offer - much like you are doing here with this study.
The more the proactive older generation gain ground the easier and more motivated the less proactive members of that demographic become and so we see a domino effect. My feeling is that via social media and online communities this phenomenon is speeding up and the market - the general public - are becoming more savvy and more switched on to cultural changes which is pushing them to question their own part in how they are being represented and portrayed. This shift is of course reflected in buying habits as well as self-portrayal.
This is easily evidenced by my 'Specials' model, Sarah Jane Adams (Saramai) who is still an exception. She  has lived her life very separate from convention, worn the clothes she likes without following fashion or trends, travelled the world in a job that is purely independent of the usual corporate framework and expressed her own life values freely as a result. I feel it is no coincidence that her Instagram page resonates to such a large and varied audience of followers, male and female, old and young. Let’s call it a breath of fresh air.

Nita Strudwick Photography. Model: me

So, the reason she is still an exception, as is Alex , (thanks Rebecca Valentine) is because up until now - the past 2 years or so, there has been a complete lack of positive representation for those over the age of 40-50, in fashion and across the media. 
The film industry have been the first platform for reform in this area as we begin to see older people portrayed in greater diversity in Hollywood, the fashion and beauty industries are now following suit largely driven by a backlash in their market -  the older generation who no longer wish to be sold products based on how they might make them look and feel younger. Last to take up the baton are the consumer brands in mainstream advertising.
 The machine is feeling very slow to catch up with this market change which is both frustrating for an agency like Grey but also an opportunity as the market will always dictate what the brands eventually have to do.
Age discrimination has been social - historically encouraged by the older generation in the early part of last century. This became ingrained and was then driven by the younger generations in the mid to late century who wished to distance themselves from their parents and the ‘old guard’. It was during this period that branding and advertising took off and that of course was based on youth being dynamic and creative and the older people set in their ways and ‘brand loyal’. 
What we are seeing now is the children and teenagers of that period - 60’s, 70’s and 80’s - who are now the older generation, but they still feel the same entitlement as in their youth and are no longer led by the media, the brands or by the perception of what they should be doing and acting.
I would like brands to try to operate a campaign that is age indifferent and that focuses entirely on type, but with any brief their must be categorisation and as a result, prejudice. What they must do from now on is recognise the dynamics within the age groups. They can no longer lump 20s and 30s in together, nor can they lump 50s+ in together. They must now find and exploit other common denominators within and across those age groups. 
A good illustration of this last year was the new collection created by Chinese young designer, Youjia Jin. Her SS16 collection was inspired by her relationship with her mother and she wanted to create a collection that worked for both of them without differentiation. I am now seeing more of this generational blending and also want to encourage the same dynamic via Grey through collaborations with brands, charities and personalities.

Nita Strudwick Photography. Model: me

I feel we are at the beginning of an age revolution. Age is the last prejudice to be challenged and deconstructed. I also feel that with the help of an agency like Grey and others sprouting up in finance, health, marketing etc. that progress and change will be swift, that we will soon begin to see marketing companies and all other platforms sprouting up that are driven by an older workforce. Personally, I would like this redefining of age to come packaged in a very cool, rebellious and confrontational form initially, like the punk era that gave way to a less extreme period of expression. 
So to answer your question about who or what stands out I would say Grey at  the moment. Biased perhaps but I am not aware of another company who is breaking down age barriers as quickly and as thoroughly on an international basis."
Part II will follow with my own take.
A bientot.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Consuming death in celebrity culture

As I am writing this today I can assure you I am totally fed up with the news of Bowie's death and I wish people would stop talking about it, writing about it, posting on Facebook and Twitter,  everyone desperately trying to get a piece of Bowie and feel involved, while the tabloid press in its usual predatory fashion revisits his life, attempting to give us morsels of his 'real self' to consume.
Let me be clear, I have absolutely nothing against David Bowie. I spent my teenage years listening to him. I even went to the blockbuster exhibition about him at the V&A in 2013 and enjoyed it - I have a weakness for blockbuster exhibitions, I went to the Alexander McQueen's three times at the very least, I am a member of the V&A so I  go whenever I wish.
I am truly sorry that David Bowie, a cancer victim, has passed away at 69. His wife and children must be truly devastated - the loss of a loved one is always a major blow, I certainly know as lost a family member recently.
What confuses me is this way of mourning the passing of celebrities, something that began with the mayhem unleashed by Princess Diana's death and has now reached tremendous sophistication in the way it is being manipulated  - think about it, we are going to have David Bowie T shirts, new releases of old albums, the new one of course, TV programmes, David Bowie fashion, a biopic or two. It's only just begun, the construction of David Bowie's immortality is on its way, his legacy currently being assessed in terms of how profitable it can be.

I am tired of hearing that Bowie was a genius and an icon of our times - oh, that word icon is so overused. Why,Victoria Beckham is hailed as an icon. Without meaning any disrespect to either Bowie or Mrs Beckham I think that nowadays everyone is an icon - mostly of mediocrity.
Everyone seems to be at great pains to let everyone else know how influential David Bowie was in their lives. I don't get it, maybe it's me, but I truly don't get it.
I lived through the time Bowie became famous, he was funny, he had great talent, he was an amazing performer, he was very good at reinventing himself - so is Madonna by the way, yet people are always  bitching about her and the way she looks.
But I would not go as far as saying that David Bowie influenced my life with Ziggy or with Aladin Sane or Let's Dance - as for the latter I really do like the way French choreographer  Jerome Bel used it in The show must go on .  Now, Jerome Bel is truly someone that  entertained me and made me think long and hard abut the meaning of dance.
I was influenced by the time in which I lived, the books I read, the conversations I had with people I met in different contexts, the films I saw, the art I encountered, the performances I attended, the countries I visited.  Music played a big part but I did not listen only to David Bowie, there was other music too - for example, classical music figured prominently in my life and still does. I am sure this is  the case for most other people too. Unless they were perhaps trying to break into the music business and so, yes, perhaps David Bowie's music inspired them, as I am sure the music of others must have. But Bowie as the most influential person in my life? How?I never even met him!


I intensely dislike the big emotional scenes reported in every single detail in the media, inviting us to be spectators of grief and participate eg Bowie's ex-wife breaking down on camera.
This kind of praeficae like behaviour is totally repulsive to me. In Roman times the praeficae were hired to lead funeral processions and they lamented the departed, to whom they were not related at all, creating intensely dramatic scenes. The Romans were not alone in doing this, other ancient people relied on variants of the praeficae because of their belief that the departed should be led into the after world.
Celebrity culture is turning all of us into praeficae divested of the spirituality that was once attached to the notion.  Celebrity deaths are ritualised spectacles stage managed by the media in a bid to secure profitable immortality for the dead celebrity through the commodification of their death . We consume celebrity death, we lap it up, we want to have some part in  it, we are hankering after that immortality, we want it to be ours too.
The media led representations of celebrities and their death wilfully confuse us over what is public and what is private. There is also some kind of bullying behaviour at work: David Bowie has died, you must mourn, if you don't, something is wrong with you.
But of course we are not mourning Bowie. It is  those who were close to him, who knew him well, who knew his qualities and weaknesses as a human being that mourn him.  We are only being manipulated into participating in the act of canonising Bowie, turning his death into an ever lasting success.

To anyone interested in reading up on celebrity culture I would like to recommend the book by Ellis Cashmore, Celebrity Culture, 2006, published by Routledge.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Trunks and cold showers

With Darrell. Photo by Hakim Satriyo

A shoot in Norfolk for a local magazine and featuring the Stratton Hotel as its location sparked off an interest in trunks and so off I went to ebay to buy my very own wooden trunk which is meant to be a coffee table but which will simply be, when it gets here next week,  in my bedroom,  storing all my knick knacks. I can't wait for it to arrive!
 I also realised ,while doing that shoot, that storage furniture has its charm - the hotel bedrooms had mesh lockers in place of wardrobes and they were gorgeous! So I got out of my shed some red metal storage shelves I was going to give away and after a good scrub they seem to be fine and can fit  very well in my spare bedroom.

Me as captured by Hakim Satriyo for Tri Handoko

There you are, I have been busy redecorating, getting rid of unwanted stuff and of course, acquiring more.
There was an article in The Guardian recently about Marie Kondo and her philosophy of getting rid of things, rather than investing in storage space. I have read her book and have tried to put her advice into practice but no, it does not work for me. I am still fascinated by storage solutions, in other words, I am still very attached to my things, I am just after better ways of keeping things out of sight.
Some people might find this a little sad, but hey, this is where I am at.
Overall, I feel such a rise in my energy levels, could it be the effect of having begun the cold shower challenge?
Briefly, the cold shower challenge is something you do for thirty days and it involves having a cold shower rather than a warm/hot one. I am doing it slowly, because I start off with hot water and wash with it then at the very end I have that cold water blast which is the most difficult decision ever to make - 1,2,3, deep breath, now - but is , apparently the best thing you can do to your skin, your body  and general well being.
As I have only just started I will monitor this and tell you at the end of my thirty days how it feels. Till then, goodbye and have a wonderful weekend.

PS the pictures here are from shoots I did while in Jakarta. I miss Indonesia, definitely.

Friday, 1 January 2016

From Home

My highlight moment of 2015, with Darrel, wearing Tri Handoko

Well, it's New Year's day and here I am, back in London. I know it is a bit arbitrary, many people do not celebrate their new year today, it is the new year in the Gregorian calendar but it is a global convention to set all calendars to reflect this change of date. After all, when I was in Indonesia, a country with a Muslim population of almost 80%, although the Islamic new year was observed, all dates were given according to the familiar Gregorian calendar, now universally adopted.
Anyway, that was a digression.
I begin the year with some melancholy: a family bereavement that, as often happens on such occasions, nearly caused a rift, of the kind 'this is mine, now' with the typical response  'no, it is not, it belongs to me'.
Then, of course, I am feeling melancholic because I left a most beautiful country - I know, I was always complaining about the traffic jams of Jakarta but it all seems rather hazy now. I do regret not going to Papua, I hesitated when I had a window of opportunity back in November and opted for North Bali, which seemed safer, somehow,  but I know I should have gone. I spent the whole of yesterday reading about Papua  and I now know I will have to go there. Definitely.
Papua, formerly Irian Jaya, is the western half of the island of Papua proper and it is an Indonesian province, the other half being Papua New Guinea, an independent nation, until 1975 ruled by the  Australians.
Papua is absolutely stunnning.   It is the home of the bird of paradise, whose plumes were traded for centuries, of the Dani and of the Asmat tribes, who are known for their woodcarving and were once headhunters.

I also begin the new year with some intellectual curiosity about ethnomathematics of which I was only vaguely aware. A family member is quite obsessed with maths, a bit of a problem really because once he starts talking about it  he just never stops, firing off examples I can't get my head round.  For him it all started with the Rhind Papyrus at the British Museum and its famous problem "Aha, its whole, its seventh, it makes 19" where aha stands for x. It sparked off  a lifelong fascination with maths.
But ethnomathematics, which came up during one of our idle conversations sounds quite interesting so I will try to explore it.  Why not? Basically, ethnomathematics studies the relationship of mathematics and culture. It does have its critics and its supporters.  That too is interesting, in itself.
I look forward to the new year, I hope it is as eventful and interesting as 2015 was, with lots of travel. Happy New Year everyone!