Thursday, 30 November 2017

Diversity: we need to change mind sets

The December Vogue with Adwoa Aboah on its cover

Fashion has begun to  pay attention  to the issue of diversity. Fashion students at major colleges seem to be routinely  engaged in projects which deal with diversity; some of these projects are good, some are a little trite, but they all point to a significant effort being made by trainers  to educate a new generation of fashion professionals to think differently. The appointment of a new Chief Editor at Vogue UK, Edward Enninful,  who has been quite vocal about diversity,  signals that changes are afoot, though so far, as pointed out by Jacynth Basset in her brilliant podcast we have seen 'established' diversity, meaning that the faces featured in December Vogue, the first edited by Ghanaian born Enninful and focused on a celebration of Britishness,  were very much part of the  establishment - Naomi Campbell, Victoria Beckham, the Mayor of London, Salman Rushdie. And Adwoa Aboah, British model of the moment, with a Ghanaian connection.
We need be aware that diversity is not about ticking boxes and having a superficial make over. Diversity can truly come about by changing people's mind sets and by acknowledging that fashion is truly global, an industry and a  creative expression of  different cultures and societies perceived to be  on an equal footing. In the light of what global capitalist expansion is about this equality is often no more than wishful thinking. 
But there is another aspect that needs to be considered, that of perceptions of beauty and beauty standards, something that is very relevant to modelling. 
A recent article in the Business of Fashion discussed the rise of Indian models on the international scene. This is clearly tied, says the author, to the growth  of the fashion industry in a country such as India, where there is an economically powerful middle class and a strong demand for luxury goods. Yet at some point, in the original version of the article, the author wrote, infelicitously,  that Indian models though  not  the tallest or prettiest of girls  are nevertheless achieving international success.  The article was later amended changing that  ambiguous  word choice to "the tallest or prettiest by Western -centric standards of beauty", which had apparently been edited out.

Article in the business of fashion
It was an omission  that clearly changed the import of the article, which was meant to be celebratory, but which ended up sounding dismissive of Indian models.
In my view this incident  points to an important misconception about models and about beauty. The ideal model type has been set as reflecting an undifferentiated Northern European blueprint. Models should be tall, slender and fair skinned. Even when they are not Caucasian, an approximation of this ideal is required. That is,  black and Asian models, according to this standard, should conform as far as possible to the given ideal: tall and slender and with a complexion that is not too dark.  It is a bit like having a Barbie doll with a lighter or darker complexion but still fundamentally a Barbie doll, when in fact we really do not want any Barbie doll at all.
I keep on meeting on sets gorgeous models who are not regarded as 'models' but as general 'talent' because they may be a little shorter than what is considered the average model height. I even recently did a shoot which I thought was extremely progressive, from the brief given,  until I saw what  the client had specified  on the mood board.   The mood board referred to me as 'real woman' (being older than average) and my body would not be seen at all. One of the young women modelling for this brand,  a very  beautiful girl, was also referred to as 'real woman' as she was slightly shorter than the standard model  height, though she was very slender. All  the other models were acknowledged as 'models' as they conformed to the standard.  It was a very subtle way of differentiating and reinforcing a stereotype. I said nothing about it, I was just glad to be involved in some way, but to me it was very revealing of how entrenched certain ways of thinking are. The client believed  they were very forward thinking for having two 'real' women appearing in the commercial. This  allowed them to tick a box (by the way there were no curvy models at this shoot, I wonder how they would have been referred to.  Also all the models including the 'real' women, were Caucasian).

with beautiful model Davinya  Cooper
It is this box ticking attitude that makes me cringe. I did not participate in the still photography, only in the filming; the other 'real woman' was involved in the stills, so in what way was she less of a model than the others? The answer is: because she was atypical, just like, in my own way, I am.  It's not the height or the size or the ethnicity that makes a model. It is the attitude which some do some do not possess.
I look forward to a day when diversity becomes so normal that it is no longer necessary to focus on details of skin colour and body size .

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

A talk on personal style blogging

'What is style?' Photography: L.March Styling: Fran Tyler MUA: Mia Hughes Model : myself 

I have been  suffering from a rather  painful swelling  due to some dental problem and also had to deal with a stolen wallet (which meant getting a police report, blocked cards etc) but I really could not miss the talk given this evening by Rosalind Jana and Dr Rosie Findlay at London College of Fashion (LCF) on style blogs, entitled "Strangers in Style: Digital Intimacy and the Self Becoming on the Style Blogosphere". It  was a conversation, rather than a talk, led by Dr Agnès Rocamora, who asked probing questions, later opening it up to those in attendance.
Oxford graduate writer, poet, style blogger and model Rosalind Jana,  currently digital editor of the magazine Violet began blogging in 2009 at just fourteen, whereas Rosie Findlay, lecturer in the Cultural and Historical Studies department and Dissertation Coordinator at LCF,  blogged while doing research on style blogs for her doctoral thesis at the University of Sydney, which has now been published as a book - Personal Style Blogs: Appearances that Fascinate. 
The event was well attended, indeed I was very lucky to be able to get a ticket. I really relished the discussion which addressed a number of topics, from creative blogging to communities, hidden labour, commodification and, naturally, the concept of 'influencer', a word that has entered our vocabulary, globally,  but whose meaning is not fixed.  Different sets of people understand being an  'influencer' in ways that can be poles apart.  What does being an 'influencer' really mean? Is it about consumers and brands, is it about being aspirational, is it about the number of one's followers?
The conversation around such issues was stimulating and I felt really inspired to do some soul searching and engage in some reflection on what blogging has become and what it means to me, as I too am a blogger, though not exactly a fashion style blogger.

Agnès Rocamora, Rosalind Jana and Rosie Findlay

Findlay no longer blogs, Jana still does from time to time. Both speakers noted that style blogging now is very different from what it was a decade  ago, when blogging was a creative endeavour rather that a commercial one. Blogging has become professionalised and the relationship of bloggers with brands is all important, there is also a convergence between fashion journalism and style blogging in that brands sponsor magazines and expect content that promotes their products, so that fashion journalists are placed in a position similar to that of professional bloggers.
I personally believe that the efflorescence of creative style  blogging that we have witnessed is definitely on the wane. Blogging as such is undergoing a major transformation, Instagram seems to have taken over and the stories bloggers told through their disciplined writing, giving vent to their creativity though the written word is now being translated by the very same individuals into the visual narratives of Instagram. Instagram  has greater immediacy, it cannot be denied. Through their Instagram accounts, style bloggers and former style bloggers can pay greater attention to  images,  curate content by adding short write ups under  photos to complement their visuality,  ensuring  that the right hashtags are used. This is, effectively, the death of blogging as such, as we have known it.
I have often toyed with the idea of wrapping up my blog - I started in May 2010.  The Real Does Not Efface Itself has been a personal exploration of modelling, of the visual image, and the written word, leaving behind my academic persona. I have never accepted to collaborate with any brand, to me blogging has to be first and foremost a way to express myself.
But I have felt the lure of Instagram and I can see its potential, the opportunity it affords to use the written word in a different way. I am of course aware of the commercial uses of Instagram, but  I am not particularly interested in that.

1960's inspired. Styling: Suzie Coulon. Photographer: Scott Salt

I know of bloggers  who  are really making the most of Instagram, through short videos and photos - not just of themselves -  in a creative way, using their images sometimes as social and cultural commentary, sometimes in a humorous way, sometimes to promote themselves. They may occasionally write a blog post - some have ceased to do so altogether: overall their creativity has been channelled into   a different medium .
So why should/would I carry on blogging?
 I shall continue, integrating it more with Instagram perhaps, but I shall definitely continue. It is to do with the discipline of writing, something that came up in this evening's discussion. I do not know how many people read what I write - I used to get comments, not so much now. But blogging is still deeply satisfying and as I have now  done it for a period of eight years, going nine, it gives me an overview of significant incidents and/or issues with which I have engaged  over a considerable time span, including research notes. A sort of public journal/notebook, if you like.
This alone makes it worthwhile to carry on.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Opera, fashion and Maria Callas

I went to the V&A last weekend to see the current exhibition about opera entitled 'Opera, power, passion and politics" . I am a great opera lover so I could not miss it. It's a charming exhibition, really aimed at those who are quite unacquainted with opera and its history, but there is also something for those who already know much, which is a great curatorial achievement.  I enjoyed its immersive quality and appreciated the concept of taking the visitor through a number of operas, focussing on their context and political significance in the major European capitals, from its beginnings in Venice, with a grand finale of short films about opera today.
 A highlight of the exhibition is the audioguide which gives an opportunity to hear wonderful arias. I also appreciated the attempt to bring fashion into the equation,  though it was not the exhibition's main focus. I absolutely loved the Gianni Versace's gown designed for Salome's mother Herodias in the 1987 Robert Wilson's production of Salome. What a dress! Pure, unadulterated elegance, devoid of any flamboyance.
Versace's dress for Herodias

As a fashion and opera lover I would have loved to see more of the opera and fashion  connection explored.
La Divina Maria Callas could be heard singing Abigaille's love song for Ismaele in Verdi's Nabucco. I ADORE Maria Callas. Her inimitable, instantly recognizable, unique  voice has been discussed and analysed at length , I don't have much to add to that conversation.  But La Divina was also a fashion enthusiast and I am totally bowled over by her elegance, on and off stage.
There have been a few exhibitions of her costumes and a recent one is being  held at the Scala until January featuring the Scala years and seeing the great singer through her physical changes, from tall and heavy set to a svelte silhouette, following a dramatic weight loss  that changed her forever from ugly duckling into beautiful swan and, according to some, negatively affected her voice.
Even more interesting was the exhibition 'Private Callas' also in Milan earlier this year curated by Maria Luisa Frisa and Gabriele Monti.  Here one could really get a sense of her style. Callas was dressed by Dior and other famous couturiers but she also bought, occasionally, from department stores. Most of all, she established a long and warm relationship with Elvira Leonardi Bouyere, known as Biki, who was her personal dressmaker and personal stylist.
Harper's and Bazaar have put Callas on the cover of their limited edition issue  to mark the V&A Opera exhibition.
I believe Maria Callas, through sheer hardwork, really managed to find her own personal style, exuding sophistication and turning herself into a fashion icon. She was not a follower, but one who would be followed: "Don't talk to me about rules, dear. Wherever I stay I make the goddam rules." she said.
My inner Diva

Photo:Scott Salt Styling: Suzie Coulon Hair:Lisa Higgott MUA: Maryam Wain

Something to be remembered as an encouragement to embrace one's individuality.