Sunday, 26 May 2019

Ageism and interviews about age

Coco Chanel. Wikimedia Commons

I spent a couple of hours yesterday being interviewed by  Zoe Bennetts,  a second year BA Fashion Journalism student at London College of Fashion. I like working with students; after all, teaching was what I did for the best part of my working life.
Zoe wanted to have my views on ageism in the fashion industry; we were introduced by Jacynth Bassett of the I answered her questions as best as I could. I had not prepared anything so in hindsight I could have said a lot more. The interview has been video- recorded, so I hope to post it at some point when it is edited.
Zoe reminded me of an event in which I took part last year, at the South Bank Centre. It was a discussion on fashion, style and age scheduled for (B)old, a festival celebrating older men and women. I wrote about it here. My co-discussant on that occasion was Jacynth Bassett.
I remember how excited I was to be speaking and how difficult it was too because the panel discussion clashed with the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.  Even I could not wait for it to be over - the discussion, that is - so that I could go and watch the wedding which was screened live everywhere at the South Bank. Like millions of people around the world, I wanted to see the famous dress,  a Givenchy gown, as we all know - some thought it did not fit properly but I loved it!

Portraits of me, May 2018, by Oida Beide

"Fashion fades, only style remains", the title of the panel discussion, is actually a quote by Coco Chanel. The full quote is "fashion fades, only style remains the same" which, interpreted broadly, means that one develops a personal style and one sticks to it for most of one's life. It does not mean wearing always the same thing, but whatever one wears is a reflection of one's uniqueness.
I will not repeat here my views on ageism. All I will say is that yes, it exists, it is rampant in the fashion industry (and not only in the fashion industry), and we need to eliminate it. The best way to do it is to stop thinking of age as a problem.
Older people are no longer young -  now that I have written that down it sounds silly, I know. What I mean is that there are specific issues that pertain to growing old and it would be foolish to deny their existence. Not being ageist does not mean that we remove age from our vocabulary or that we deny that there is a difference between the old and the young. It only means that we regard both old and young with the same respect, acknowledging difference but not discriminating on the basis of that difference.
Personally, there are moments when I absolutely hate getting older. My favourite phrase is "this ageing business is no fun" something a friend of mine said once with reference to various aches and pains in her body. As you grow older, your body changes and that can be a bit of a shock. Acceptance is key.  For example, I am very active but my knees are not as strong as they used to be, so I have problems jumping or sometimes even squatting can be painful.   It takes me longer to warm up to be able to stretch to my fullest. Gone are the days when I would jump out of bed and immediately engage in a gruelling workout. I need to warm my muscles gently and prepare my body for exercise.  I also find that increasingly I cannot tolerate alcohol anymore; I am thinking of ditching it altogether.

Artistic nude by A.J. Kahn. Model Marlo Dell'Antonio, Amorphous Series #4

But there are good things about getting older.
Several years ago I interviewed an art model who was at the time 65 years old.  Photographs of her had won prizes and many excellent photographers, such as A. J. Kahn had had her as their model and muse. I was younger then and just starting out as a model. I sincerely admired her. Then something rather unpleasant happened to her and she disappeared from public life, severing all contacts. The interview can still be found online but I will not link up to it as she would not like her name to be revealed, even though she used an art name. She will probably never read this post, but it is the principle of it, I would have to ask for her permission if I were to write her name.
I am digging all this up because she discussed age in that interview and her answers impressed me for their clarity. Ten years ago people hardly ever discussed ageism, the word had not even entered our vocabulary. But age as such was discussed, it was part and parcel of modelling - remember supermodel Agyness Deyn who at 29 was being passed off as a twenty-three-year-old by her agency because she was 'too old'?  Age was especially an issue in art modelling.
When questioned about it  the model I interviewed said :
"I get weary of focus on my age. Prior to modelling, my age was generally a non-issue. I don't remember anyone asking what it was, and I never thought a lot about it, except to be grateful for having a long life. Now not a day goes by without someone sending a message centred on my age. It is always cast in positive terms and meant to be a compliment. But no 20-year-old model could even imagine age as such a central factor in her everyday life. I could never have imagined this either. It came as a shock to me. When someone says, meaning it in the best way I am sure, "You don't look 65," I want to say, "What do you think 65 looks like?" It's right up there with saying, "You don't look Jewish." I don't know what these comments are supposed to imply."
There is an affinity between human age and that of clothes. When clothes are new they all look good; the proof is in 'the wearing' them -  just made that one up, along the lines of 'the proof of the pudding is in the eating'.  Old clothes of quality are 'vintage' and much sought after; they may, sometimes, need some careful repairing but we are always proud of owning them and wearing them and look after them. But old clothes of poor quality are deemed to be rags; we would not be seen dead in them once they are worn out.
In other words, the most important thing about getting older is not so much the way we look but the way we present ourselves to the world - with elegance, grace and confidence.  Then age as such becomes immaterial.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Rite of Spring (Sacré du Printemps)

Photo by Foteini Christofilopoulou. Reblogged

A friend persuaded me to go and see The Rite of Spring, which was on at The Place Theatre from 17th to 18th May. It was a new work choreographed by Bharatanatyam dancer Seeta Patel, supported by the Bagri Foundation and commissioned by The Place.  I hesitated to begin with, somehow I was not keen, but I went, partly to please my friend, whom I wanted to meet to catch up with  - she was about to go away on a long holiday.
 I used to teach about such 'experimental and cutting edge' dancing when I lectured, eventually feeling crushed by the tedium of it all  - I look back, and it seems like someone else's life; I often wonder what compelled me to do it for as long as I did, I have no fond memories of that life. So going to see this performance was like putting the clock back. It felt weird, especially when I met people I had forgotten all about and was unable to recognise -  embarrassingly, I  had to rely on my friend to tell me who they were, as she seemed to know them well.
I did not like the performance.  I could not make out why, exactly, so I went back on Saturday, I forced myself to go.  If I do not like something, I have to know why; it's never enough for me to say 'I don't like it.'   I sat through it again. This time I was sitting next to an unknown,  utterly obnoxious woman, who kept on fidgeting in her seat, like those people on the tube, usually men,  who place their elbows on both armrests and sprawl themselves. I always curse them inwardly.
I arrived just before the performance began and left while the audience was still clapping, to spare myself any other awkward encounter, like the previous day.
Before The Rite, we had to sit through an excerpt from another 'experimental and cutting edge' choreography by Patel and a cello solo performance which would have been fine in another context but was totally unnecessary in this one. I will not even attempt to speculate on what prompted this bizarre programming.
Anyway, Patel's Rite improved on second viewing, I noticed some good moments in the choreography, I give her that.  I appreciated the effort she made to create something uniquely hers, choreographing The Rite of Spring is no easy task.  But wanting to be different was Patel's downfall, it felt she was trying to tick all the boxes, and the work did not grab me at all. So on a scale of 1 to 10, I would place it between 5 and 6.

iTMOi, Akram Khan Company, Photo: Rex Features. Reblogged

The Rite of Spring with a score by Stravinsky was one of the ballets of  Diaghilev's Ballet Russes.  First shown in Paris in 1913, the audience hated it, and the performance was interrupted because a fight broke out.
But a year later, Stravinsky was hailed as a genius musician, and The Rite was applauded as one of the most brilliant music pieces ever composed.
The original ballet fell into oblivion until Millicent Hodson and her husband Kenneth Archer reconstructed it.  The reconstructed ballet premiered in 1987 in New York, danced by Joffrey Ballet. The story of the reconstruction is most fascinating and intriguing, and I would encourage you to hear  Dr Hodson's account, available here and here.
Though we have lost the original ballet,  Stravinsky's powerful score has inspired hundreds of choreographers to recreate their own version of The Rite. There have been extraordinary ballets made by Maurice Béjart, Pina Bausch (my personal favourite) and in more recent years by Akram Khan, the very talented contemporary dance choreographer of Bangladeshi origin. I love Khan's version, entitled  in the Mind of igor (iTMOi), and programmed in 2013, one hundred years after the original production of The Rite. Khan did not use  Stravinsky's score at all except for a musical line that is referenced, and the piece was not a literal rendition of the story of the Chosen One, a maiden who is forced to dance herself to death.  It really was an exploration of Stravinsky's psyche, reimagined when he composed The Rite. Yet Khan captured the essence of The Rite and his choreography has the violence and brutality of  Stravinsky's famous score,  embodied in the original ballet - it was for this reason that the audience at its premiere in 1913 hated it. The cruelty of the pagan narrative was essential to the development of the musical composition, something that occasionally people seem to forget.
 I can listen to  Stravinsky's score for hours and watch Khan's iTMOi again and again. I cannot do that with Seeta Patel's Rite. If I went back, it was only for my own satisfaction, to answer my own questions, find out why my reaction was what it was.

Seeta Patel's choreography is somewhat bland. Her Chosen One is no longer a girl but a 'genderless' being; but in her reimagining, Patel fails to create a piece that is memorable and that truly matches the intensity of the score. I also find her dubbing of The Rite as a joyous experience for the audience, somewhat amusing. The Rite is not joyous at all. It is profoundly dark. At the heart of it, there is a human sacrifice. In my understanding, the Chosen One is not happy to be sacrificed and there is no sense of duty and acceptance of a higher fate. The Chosen One is a doomed creature, her fate is tragic and pointlessly violent. It is a narrative that does not convey a joyous experience, on the contrary, one feels overwhelmed by its savagery. Patel tries at the end, almost as an afterthought, to hint at entrapment, but it is not enough. Her Chosen One is an incarnation of the Divine, but it is an interpretation that feels somewhat forced.
There have been other versions of The Rite programmed earlier this year, it is a score and a theme that never ceases to be popular.
No doubt, there will be more. At some point, someone will have the bright idea of creating a Top One Hundred list of all the versions of the Rite. On second thoughts, it's not such a brilliant idea after all.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Back from Iran

The former American Embassy in Tehran

I am now at home, I returned on Friday. We spent the morning of Friday in Tehran, trying to visit the former American Embassy, now a museum of "American iniquities". Unfortunately, it was closed, due to Ramadan. We went instead to the artists' park nearby and came across a Smoker Anonymous group (formed on the AA lines) who welcomed us and told us about their activities and then posed for endless selfies and group photos. They were very friendly and genuinely happy to meet us.
I also noticed subversive graffiti on walls which had been carefully covered. A woman, possibly another tourist, was busy taking pictures of them but I did not approach her.

Covered up graffiti

Then we searched for a cafe where we could sit, drink coffee and relax. As it was Ramadan, it was challenging to find somewhere open, but we found it at the National Archaeological Museum.
Ramadan in Iran means that no restaurant or cafe serves drink or food until 8 pm unless they have an exclusive license. These are places for tourists, of course. It would, however,  be wrong to believe that all Iranians fast during Ramadan. Many eat in the privacy of their homes, and those who travel are exempt from fasting.
I miss Iran and its wonderful people. I am also anxious about the current political situation, with Trump threatening to go to war. It's dire.
I would like to go back to Iran as soon as possible. I am intrigued by it, totally bowled over.
This morning I tried to catch up with my knowledge of Iranian history and watched a few Youtube videos, one about the celebration of Persepolis 2,500 years of history, the lavish procession arranged by the then Shah of Persia Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and the other a quick discussion of the Iranian revolution  - you can find the relevant links here and here.
Many people in the West,  including highly educated ones, tend to confuse Iran with Iraq or even Saudi Arabia. I may have done so in the past, but not anymore.
 No, Iran is a different country, quite unique with its own identity and vibrant history.

Iranian girl in Kashan

Iranian women are aware of their undeniably lower status in comparison with men - it was only a few years ago that women were allowed to travel alone, unlike Saudi Arabia, where 'unattended' women put on a bus or train by a male relative have to wait at their destination until a male relative comes to pick them up. But in a small and unobtrusive way, Iranian women tend to challenge the system, through the clothes they choose to wear: how they tie their hijab, how they nonchalantly let it slip, how they show their long tresses  while using a rusari too short to cover the hair dangling on their backs, how they choose mantos a bit more fitted than usual and so on.  Young men seem to be supportive and often defend them when encountering the morality police.
Even though from time to time the powers that be choose to make an example of some woman who seems to have gone too far - as reported by Amnesty International - condemning them to lashes and imprisonment, it seems impossible to control all women. 
Thus Iran remains a big question mark.
Coming back and looking at my social media stream I feel a sense of dismay. How trivial some of the concerns! Travel expands your horizons and gives you a different awareness and perspective. For that, I am immensely grateful and so very glad I chose to go to a beautiful, vibrant and much-maligned country.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Travelling to Iran #3

I have no words to describe the beauty of Iran; every day is a new discovery. We are seeing lots of ancient mosques, as can be expected, and they are all quite different in their apparent uniformity, in the same way that churches in Europe are also quite unique, even though they are fundamentally alike.
Like elsewhere, the practice of taking over a sacred site already used by local people is fairly common. When the Muslims arrived in Iran they converted several  Fire temples of the Zoroastrians into mosques and every ruling dynasty added to an existing mosque as a way to reaffirm its power and glory. One of such mosques is in Isfahan (Esfahan) where the Jamie Mosque encapsulates 800 years of Muslim architecture.
The food here is delicious and I am eating a lot more than usual. Because of the ban on alcohol, I find myself developing a sweet tooth; at home, I never eat anything sweet but I do habitually drink wine with my evening meal which means I take much of my sugar from it.
Travelling with a group is nice but you do not get many opportunities to explore on your own. I am an independent traveller and like doing my own thing.
Today I opted out a museum visit to go swimming in my hotel - it was ladies day. It was an interesting experience.
After Esfahan, we will drive to Tehran stopping at various places on the way including Kashan where one can get the locally made rose water. I bought a few souvenirs already but I need to be careful, I do not know how to handle cash, I am not used to it and I am overspending. But who can resist the saffron and the beautiful lapis lazuli stones? I saw some magnificent earrings...

I am still struggling with the Farsi script but am making slow progress. Yesterday I bought myself a book of poems by Hafez, in the hope of being able to read them at some point in the original Farsi - but there is a translation in English too so I will start with that.
It's Ramadan and officially the whole country is not eating nor drinking during the day, thus only a few restaurants are open. But my guide tells me that in fact many people do not observe Ramadan at all and eat privately, without being seen. Our driver is a case in point, he joined us for lunch, together with our guide.
Today we visited an Armenian church. There is a considerable Armenian settlement in Esfahan. They are allowed to worship as Orthodox Christians and have been here for centuries. Some more Armenians moved to Isfahan when the Ottomans implemented their ethnic cleansing policy. The Turks never admit this was the case, so, according to our guide, they never visit the Armenian quarters in Isfahan, though there is plenty of Turkish tourists in Iran.
Iran seems to be keen to develop its tourist industry. Obviously, the sanctions do not help. This is now a cash economy and for many tourists, it is a drawback. Expensive purchases such as enamel, miniatures and carpets can be made by using a credit card as the galleries often have branches in Turkey or in Dubai. But otherwise, it is just cash.

Last night I was in a beautiful five-star hotel with an elegant and overpriced shopping arcade - goods always are overpriced in such establishments. I wandered in to have a coffee in the beautiful grounds and browse the galleries. There was a bookshop which sold a pre-revolution magazine in which you could see an Iranian woman on a beach in a bikini, side by side a woman wearing a traditional dress. Next to me, a beautiful Iranian girl with clear blue eyes struck up a conversation with me. She pointed to the photo in the magazine and said "See? You could choose. That's what we want, we do not have much of that at the moment." I did not know what to reply. She added that it's only now that women are allowed to wear colourful rusari and fashionable manto, and it is merely tolerated, rather than approved "We had to fight for that freedom. You take it for granted, you can wear a scarf if you want and take it off whenever you do not want it. We do not have that freedom".  I could have told her that much of our freedom, as women,  is quite relative, it has to be seen in context and some would like to take it away from us but I did not wish to get involved in this kind of conversation. I am a tourist and as such, I need to keep well off political comments.
I find it quite extraordinary, however, that people should be so open about their views with total strangers. The morality police are still active but much more lax, these days, so I am told.
The internet is controlled but everyone seems to have access to a VPN. There is, as I noted before, a total separation of private and public, true schizophrenia. How Iran will resolve all this is a question mark. Children are encouraged to learn English and foreign languages from a very young age in the hope they might be able to go overseas. Travel and knowledge of the world outside Iran makes people here either desirous or afraid of change.
I will write again from Tehran. My holiday is ending rather fast, time flies.

Friday, 3 May 2019

Travelling to Iran #2

 Impromptu photoshoot at the Pink Mosque, Shiraz

 I am here, in Iran! On Sunday 28th,  the day before my departure from London, I checked out the British Museum collection of artefacts from Ancient Iran. There is a lot of gold from ancient burials,  statuettes,  some big casts from Persepolis and the famous Cyrus cylinder, inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform.
I marvelled at the sheer size of Persepolis - there was a film showing its reconstruction.  I got a sense of what I was going to see.  Then on Tuesday early morning, I landed at Tehran IKA after a longish flight, via Istanbul. I was met by my tour guide, Marina, and spent the day sightseeing in Tehran, after checking in at the hotel and getting hold of a - vital for me - local SIM card.
Marina took me to the Golestan Palace and the Jewellery museum, both equally stunning. We had lunch at a hundred years old cafe in the centre of the city,  where the food is home cooked,  and in the early evening we went, at my request, to a beauty salon and had a mani-pedi, the best possible thing for my tired, aching feet. It was also an excellent opportunity for me to see Iranian women in a women-only environment.   I learnt very quickly that there is a disjuncture, in Iran, between public and private life, certainly so for women, less so for men.
 On Wednesday morning, we went to the airport - a different one - to fly to Shiraz but our flight was delayed by several hours, which caused a lot of frayed tempers among the waiting passengers, so we ended up arriving later than planned but still in time to meet the rest of the  group, a few Australians travelling to Iran from Tashkent. They are on a Silk Road tour, which includes Samarkand. I am only joining them for the last leg of the tour, Iran, as there was no other group travelling from the UK at my chosen time.

Iranian girl posing for a photo at the Persepolis ruins

Shiraz is enchanting.  The highlight of the tour for me has been, so far,  our visit to Persepolis. I felt really moved by the sight of the necropolis with the burial place of Darius the Great - not precisely a tomb, as Zoroastrians did not bury their dead but put their bodies in the Towers of Silence, where they were consumed by vultures and/or insects. I really felt the impact of history. We visited several other sites, from Islamic times, including the Pink Mosque, and a shrine where I had my fortune told, as is customary. Apparently, I need to be more humble, to avoid being a  target of hatred. I shall think it over, it did not occur to me that it might ever be the case.
I love Iran. Friendly people, delicious food, beautiful landscapes, a rich history, not to mention the fantastic carpets - I am a carpet lover.
Iranian women are incredibly stylish. I am getting used to wearing the compulsory hijab, just a scarf  - a rusari - draped on my hair. I also wear a hat on top, the sun is rather intense). When I look around me I see that Iranian women interpret the hijab in many different ways, pushing boundaries, and nonchalantly letting the scarf fall off to reveal the beauty of their hair,  often reaching their hips.  I have seen a few 'Fendi' manteaux (manto in Farsi), a longish jacket worn over a t-shirt and trousers, jeans  or leggings;  some women wear  a Hermes scarf - sometimes a genuine one, sometimes a clever fake - under their chador, a long black garment that covers the whole figure but which is not compulsory making sure the Hermes scarf can be seen peeping through ; some women allow their rusari to cover just the nape of their neck, bringing one end forward to  the front. The rusari is held in place on their heads by a hair knot, which keeps the scarf in place thus allowing quite a bit of hair to frame the face. Hands are always well manicured, with the nail polish often matching the scarf. Cosmetic surgery is in fashion, and many women go to Shiraz, where there is a significant number of established cosmetic surgeons, to have their noses done, their lips filled, their eyebrows reshaped through microblading. Some have work done on their boobs and bottoms, and they find smart ways to display them without becoming immodest, eg a tight top under an unbuttoned manto, a see-through manto over tight jeans or leggings. They also tend to be on the tall side,  especially the younger generation, which gives them a great presence.  Foreign women wear their rusari messily, it takes a while to get it right - our guide spent a few minutes over dinner showing us how to tie it gracefully.

Me at the tomb of Cyrus with an enchanting local little girl

Coming to Iran was very much an impromptu decision, I only made up my mind in February. I would have travelled independently - as an Italian passport holder, I qualify for VOA and do not have to be escorted by a guide at all times, which is, unfortunately, the case for British tourists, because of the less cordial relationship between Iran and the UK.
 But I had never been to a middle eastern country before, and I hardly speak any Farsi, so I felt unsure about travelling on my own. I will come back, I am determined to,  and will improve my Farsi. With a group, one is bound by specific rules, and there is limited freedom to explore, due to the tight schedule.
But I am not complaining.
There is no mass tourism here, though there are still numerous tourists from all over the world and all walks of life. But it's nothing like, say, Kuta beach in Bali or Palma de Majorca in summer. Iranians are welcoming and not blatantly out to make money out of you as it often ends up happening in places overrun by tourists.
Now I am on my way to Yazd, by minibus,  I am getting a sense of the country's landscape. We are travelling through Central Iran.
I shall continue my travelogue in the next few days.