Friday, 11 July 2014

The silent protest of apparel

Protest pins by Sedef Isim
Activism comes in many forms. From writing letters to occupying the streets, boycotts to strikes, I'm fascinated by the ways in which people take matters into their own hands to make a change. Some of these can be vocal, but others require no speaking at all. One of these silent methods is that of literally wearing our hearts on our sleeves; t-shirts, badges, ribbons and other pieces of apparel can play a huge part in gaining widespread support for a movement, and I'm going to use this post to explore a few examples of this and what they mean for their causes.

Wearing something which indicates which side you're on is a fairly ancient concept. Think of the Wars of the Roses, or the contrasting dress of the roundheads and cavaliers. As well as being a practical indicator of who to avoid killing in battle, having a symbol of your ideology can be a key part of expressing identity, and goes right up to campaign T-shirts worn today. When I was Fashion Editor of The Oxford Student last term, we had an ethics-themed issue which featured this great piece about Katharine Hamnett, whose political t-shirts played a huge role in popularising slogan-emblazoned clothing. She even wore an anti-nuclear shirt when she met Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

More recent causes to use this form of getting their point across include the No More Page Three campaign - whose distinctive t-shirt has been worn by Green MP Caroline Lucas in the House of Commons - and No More Fashion Victims, yet another project involving Hamnett, which promotes organic cotton. This second one is particularly important to the fashion industry, which has huge problems with the ethics of clothing production; supporting better methods of creating fashion through fashion itself can get across a vital message. This is also something which Who Made Your Pants? is doing, with the support of big names like Caroline Criado-Perez, Lucy Anne Holmes (of No More Page 3), and my friend Rosalind over at Clothes, Cameras & Coffee. The brand aims to make pretty, high-quality underwear in good working conditions, as well as being an actively pro-women business. What's not to love?

Read more about the brand on The Vagenda
When clothing brands and designers turn their attentions towards good causes, they can make some real constructive change. But what really makes a difference is the number of ordinary people who take up a piece of apparel and wear it proudly, promoting the cause as they go. Some of the most successful charity campaigns are the ones which use a simple badge to raise awareness and sometimes funds, such as the British Legion's poppy appeal. I've had some reservations about this appeal before, in part because I'm not all that comfortable with the way wars are commemorated to the extent that they become glorified in this country. However, the benefits of the appeal are obvious, and it is tremendously successful, raising millions of pounds every year.

Similarly, awareness ribbons are becoming increasingly popular. The most well-known are probably the red ribbon for AIDs awareness and pink ribbon in support of those with breast cancer, but there are all sorts of different ones now. Sometimes these are sold for a small profit which can then go back to relevant charities, but in other cases they are given out for free, as the aim is simply to spread the message as far as possible. This was the case recently in Oxford, when the Women's Campaign began handing out white ribbons to be worn as a pledge never to commit, condone or remains silent about violence against women. This is a movement which originated in the early 90s in response to the École Polytechnique Massacre and has since seen various resurgences around the world, often due to an extreme case of violence against women. It shows solidarity and a willingness to push for change, all without saying a word.

Wearing my white ribbon with a white carnation for first-year exams
This form of activism really interests me, especially when it spreads throughout somewhere like a university campus. A similar statement was made by the No Red Tape campaign at Columbia University when, frustrated with the administration's handling of sexual harassment cases, students wore red tape on their graduation mortarboards. An anonymous email encouraged this and outlined what the message would be: "By placing a piece of red tape on your cap (ideally parallel to the right side), you will demonstrate and signal to the University that you do not accept your degree lightly, that you understand the culture that they have been complicit in perpetuating, and that you will not stand for it, and that you demand justice and support for all survivors, even as a graduate of this institution." The tape was also put up around campus in various places including the iconic Alma Mater statue.

Red tape around campus
Something like this is so simple, and yet it creates striking imagery which shows that the activists are serious about their concerns. It also, perhaps not merely by coincidence, provides the media with a good photograph to accompany a report on the protests; after all, what large institutions fear most is bad press, so what better way to take a stand against them? It's no wonder that the use of red tape soon spread to other universities. Brown graduates used their tape to mark 'IX' on their mortarboards, referencing the federal gender equality law Title IX.

But there are drawbacks to all of this. The first is that, when you start using fashion to fight inequality, you risk turning a cause into a trend. If people end up wearing a campaign's T-shirt simply because it's the cool thing to do, then in all likelihood they'll stop wearing it when it's become passée. It can't be beneficial for a cause to be seen as something which can be cast off when the next big thing comes around. Another problem is that we might be in danger of tokenising a campaign; just because you're wearing your white ribbon or your red tape doesn't mean that the battle is won. Symbolic stands like this are important, but so is further action. In the middle of writing this post, I noticed that Brooke Magnanti had published an article noting that this attitude could well be wrapped up in the Who Made Your Pants campaign. She doesn't say that the idea is necessarily harmful, but criticises "an approach that never moves past symbols to address anything systemic, that retreads the same category errors people make when they congratulate themselves for buying an organic apple from halfway around the world swathed in layers of plastic." I'm not sure how far I agree with relevance to WMYP, but this is definitely something which can happen when we boil a cause down into one particular item; people get hold of the item and then feel no need to do anything more.

Symbols are important, and if you have the chance to wear something which expresses your solidarity or desire for change, definitely do it. Incorporate it with your usual style or let it clash unabashedly with your outfit. Maybe we sometimes attribute too much importance to a piece of symbolism, and end up tokenising a campaign, but these little bits of fabric and plastic and tape can also be the catalyst of wider change. It really is quite remarkable what you can do with just a bit of ribbon.

Let me know what you think about all this in the comments or on Twitter

Monday, 30 June 2014

The Ethics of Excess

Last Thursday, as I emerged from a three-hour exam into the June sunshine, I knew I was about to experience something which pretty much every Oxford student will encounter in their time at the university: trashing.

The idea is fairly simple: when you finish your last exam (not just for your finals, but also for first-year Prelims) your friends come and cover you with everything from silly string and confetti to champagne and chocolate sauce. All the while, you're still wearing the compulsory 'sub-fusc' exam uniform: white shirt, black skirt or trousers, velvet ribbon or white bowtie, and a gown. It's a tradition of revelry which gives you a chance to let your hair down at the end of a stressful period and maybe snap a new cover photo while you're at it.

I think there's a little something in my hair
However, the practice has been criticised by some who see it as wasteful and destructive behaviour. The Mail ran this article which juxtaposed the plans to regulate student union bars with Oxford finalists celebrating - a slightly odd link, considering Oxford has no student union building, let alone a bar. Yet the tone is clear: what on earth are these supposedly intelligent people doing getting drunk and dishevelled in the middle of the afternoon? For many, the ruined formal wear and seemingly copious supply of alcohol is indicative of elitism, arrogance and excess, leading to some of the harsher comments on the article such as "This rubbish should have their degrees (assuming they got them through study and daddy did not buy them one, by giving the university a huge donation) taken away from them. That is the only way this rubbish will learn."

These are understandable grievances, and there are also counter-arguments (namely, the relatively low cost of sub-fusc, cheap prosecco and silly-string, not to mention the need to celebrate and relax after exams) but I won't turn this into a debate about trashing. I actually want to explore something wider: why do we enjoy the aesthetic of expensive things being destroyed?

Think about it. There's a certain cathartic satisfaction to watching a rockstar smash up their state-of-the-art guitar, or in the scene of a film where the heroine dramatically tears a pearl necklace from her neck. It's a dramatic enactment of a destructive drive which we all have in us, but rarely express. Yet it is also, in many cases, a statement of wealth and power; it says "I am rich enough to do this and for it not to bother me much." I think this is very well summed-up in Naomi Alderman's novel The Lessons, when the narrator notes a distinctive feature of those who are born rich: "The key is the possession of objects which are clearly tremendously expensive but are treated with disdain and often held in surroundings of squalor." When you haven't had to work to attain something, you don't feel the need to take care of it.

Mario Testino
So why is this on my fashion blog? Well it's because I think that this aesthetic - one of excess and destruction - is one which runs through all kinds of art and media, including fashion. I think it's at the heart of Fun's We Are Young Video, and in our enduring fascination with the raucous exploits of the Bullingdon Club, continued this summer in the new film The Riot Club, and in the ideal of the fashion lifestyle. Glamourous and destructive parties in which little heed is paid to expense are considered almost as essential as runway shows.

Whether it's trashing or a trendy party, we seem to simultaneously enjoy and revile this imagery of excess and carelessness. The thought of someone throwing champagne everywhere is both attractive and out-of-touch. Where did this come from? I guess it's a product of the way we would all like to be rich, and yet note all the flaws in the way privileged people behave. We want to be them but we hate them. It's a curious paradox and one which I think the fashion industry in particular feeds on, creating luxurious images in which designer clothes are flung about and designer jewellery is treated like it came free with a Happy Meal.

Mario Testino

Essentially, we buy into this because, as with much fashion, it's aspirational. But one can't help but wonder what the implications of this excess might be. In a world where 'fast fashion' and the huge wastefulness (not to mention unethical status) of consumer culture, might we be better off not glamourising this kind of wilful destruction? It's certainly worth contemplating, but on the other hand, fashion is so often about fantasy and escapism. The same is true of trashing; it can certainly be viewed as wasteful, but in truth its essence is merely a celebration of having made it through exams and marks the start of time off.

Let me know what you think about excess and glamourous destruction in the comments section or on Twitter @fashionmoriarty

Monday, 9 June 2014

I Want It! Selected World Sweatshirt In Map Print

Have I ever mentioned before that I adore anything with a map printed on it?

I mean you might have guessed from my collection of travel-themed luggage but I don't think I can have fully impressed on you, dear readers, the extent to which I will pay attention to even the weirdest item if it's got a map on it. I've considered buying a men's cycling jersey before, simply because I liked the San Jose map on its front.

My obsession is, apparently, well-known amongst my friends. It was only logical, therefore, for my friend Amber to message me a link to this divine piece when she saw it on ASOS.

This has a particular air of history about it (something which I think draws me to map prints), since it seems to show Tartary, the Medieval term for an area which now encompasses Siberia and Turkestan among others. Yet this is offset by the very modern sweatshirt cut; the contrast makes this just the right kind of cool.

I like to think that, wearing this, I'd look simultaneously relaxed and (I'm sorry there's just no other word for it) fly. I'm not sure if that's really the case (I certainly wouldn't wear it with white trousers as the model is daringly doing), but I feel like the power of map-print would make me feel like a confident world-traveler anyway.

Monday, 7 April 2014

It costs a lot to look this cheap

When I opened a few weeks ago to check out what had been going on at Milan fashion week, the last thing I expected to be presented with was a runway model decked out like a McDonalds server. Let's be fair for a moment, what else could we expect from Jeremy Scott, the man who brought us a coathanger dress and Adidas trainers which wouldn't look out of place on a Greek god? Yet it was still a bit of a shock to the fashion world, and instantly divided opinion. And when I say it "divided opinion", I mean that the Vogue review was tentatively appreciative of the collection's humour, whilst seemingly every commenter on their Facebook page thought it was "disgusting", "tacky" and "not something I'd buy at all".

Personally, I like Jeremy Scott's particular brand of humourous design. Not to buy (as if I could afford it) but more in the way I would enjoy looking at a Tracey Emin artwork, with a mix of amusement, bewilderment, and desire to unearth the political message hidden within. Combining the imagery of one of the most recognisable brands in the world with the silhouette of the typical Chanel-wearing high-class woman seemed, to me, a comment on capitalism and its ridiculousness. You may say that McDonalds is a dominating force which impresses its image onto the masses, but could the same not be said about iconic fashion houses?

One thing which does strike me, however, is that somebody must be buying this stuff - stuff which looks rather like it came free with happy meal. Now obviously people who keep up with their fashion will know that you've purchased a new Moschino piece and will be dutifully impressed, but what about everyone else? Surely one is just paying huge sums of money to look like you've paid nothing at all?

Like it or not, fashion is often used as a status symbol. A Chanel purse doesn't just say "I appreciate the history and quality of this brand" or "I like the size and shape of this item for practical purposes", it also says "I SPENT SEVERAL THOUSAND POUNDS ON A HANDBAG!" Perhaps it's a symbol of achievement in that one can afford to buy it, or perhaps it's just a symbol of consumerism. Either way, it's showing that you have money, so what is the point of paying the same amount for something which looks like it costs a fraction of the price?

Many designers have adopted this kitsch style in recent years. Though the items themselves can sell for the usual high prices, they can look like the kind of thing you would buy in Primark. RED Valentino springs to mind, with its Disney-inspired collection. It's not that I dislike the clothes, in fact I think they're pretty cute, but I just don't understand why you'd pay the brand's usual prices (typically in the hundreds) for something you could find a similar version of for a lower price elsewhere.

Etsy (£17.96) 
RED Valentino

Now you'll say it's about quality and longevity, but with items like these, I honestly can't see them being staples which can be worn year-in year-out like a good trenchcoat or well-fitting pair of jeans. In fact, fashion in general, even the expensive stuff, is becoming more and more disposable. I doubt many people will still be wearing their McDonalds-style shirtdresses in years to come.

So what I want to know is, why are rich people spending so much on looking like they haven't spent much at all? Is it for the same reason that middle-class people will fork out for a flat in the Barbican Estate, so as to live a fantasy of the idyllic council flat existence? It has a feel of Marie Antoinette constructing a village to pretend to be a poor woman in. But perhaps it's nothing to do with this, and is in fact more about the humour of kitsch items. I guess it all comes down to exactly how much you're willing to pay in the name of comedy.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

What's In My Bag? TEDxOxford

Even though I'm a student who has to attend lectures regularly, I actually gave up the whole of my Sunday a couple of months back to go to a TEDx conference and listen to a whole host of interesting and inspiring speakers. You've probably heard of TED, and a TEDx conference is essentially the same except it's been independently organised. As well as a day of listening to thought-provoking speakers such as Laura Bates, Anders Sandberg, Susan Greenfield, and Augusta Thomson of the Girl Rising project, we were also treated to goodie bags! This is what mine contained along with a few things I gathered during the day.

TEDx tickets, wristband, and program - It was a slightly miserable wait outside in the rain before we could go into New Theatre, but once inside we were extremely excited for the conference to begin. The program was packed with speakers, all of whom had a very short slot. That was the best thing I think, because even the most engaging speaker can lose the audience's interest when they have too much time to fill.

Gloves - It was a very cold day!

Thermos - This was part of the goodie bag. We were so excited about them that we ran over to the cafe where we'd had breakfast (Combibos Coffee, a place a heartily recommend if you're ever in Oxford) and asked for our drinks to be put in them.

National Geographic Traveller - Also part of the goodie bag; I do like a good copy of Nat Geo, if only for the photography.

Phone - In contrast to most events which take place inside a theatre, the organisers encouraged us all to leave our phones on and to Tweet and Facebook throughout the day. It was slightly odd having your Tweets favourited and retweeted by several people who you knew were in the same room but didn't know where they were!

The Oxford Student - We went to Blackwells for lunch and happened to find copies of the OxStu there, which had my article about university life in it.

This happened quite a while ago now! I've had this post in the works for a good two months. Anyway, we really enjoyed the day, and if there's a TEDx conference happening near you I definitely recommend getting tickets, or even volunteering to help out. You leave with all sorts of interesting ideas buzzing round your head and it's a great way to spend the day.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

#nomakeupselfie and me

When I first saw the #nomakeupselfie craze (a viral awareness-raising campaign where nominees take photos of themselves without makeup and donate to a cancer charity) circulating Facebook, I felt somewhat uncomfortable. It was difficult to pinpoint at first, and of course I recognised the benefits of a trend which combined the mood of the moment with giving to a worthy cause; using a nominations system in the same way as the infamous neknominations did, and using it for good, is a stroke of genius. However, as articles began to come out which criticised the movement, I was able to identify what it was that I found questionable.

Firstly, the whole thing seems to imply that for a woman to show her face without any makeup is a brave act, which is quite indicative of the way society tells women they ought to cover up their 'flaws'. Now of course even though it shouldn't be scary for women to show their bare faces in the same way men can, this doesn't change the fact that for many it is a daunting task, which raises another problem: once you've been nominated, everyone has seen you tagged as a nominee, and you feel obliged to go through with it even if it makes you uncomfortable. I remember a girl at my school once being forced to remove her foundation in front of a class, crying as she did so. Makeup isn't just a way of improving how we look, it acts as a kind of armour against the world, a comforting aspect of ourselves which we have total control over. While #nomakeupselfie has its heart in the right place, I can't help feelings that some girls are going to be pressured into taking part when they really don't want to.

Secondly, as great as it is that some people are being liberated by the challenge to show their un-made-up faces for the first time in several years and being supported by their friends, I've noticed a certain trend in the comments on photos. Many people exclaim "you don't need makeup!", "so that's what you actually look like!" or "you look so much nicer naturally!". All of these things are said with the best of intentions, but sometimes it can perpetuate the notion that women wear makeup because they have something to hide, and often the assumption following this is that they must hide it in order to attract a man. I've got to be honest, I'm pretty sick of being told that I wear makeup "to get boys to like me" or "because the media has made me insecure about myself". Has it occurred to anyone that I wear makeup for fun? Or because I feel good wearing it? There are countless reasons why we use foundation and blush and mascara, and yes, sometimes that is to feel sexy, but sometimes it's to experiment with our identities or simply to mix things up.

Which leads me onto my final point (sorry this is just a complaining post, I promise I have a point). It's very sad, considering how much fun I get to have with makeup, that men can't really wear it without being seen as doing something out of the ordinary, and possibly laughed at. There have, of course, been several men in popular culture who rocked makeup - Adam Ant, David Bowie, every punk-rock band member of the mid-noughties - but often this is part of a stage persona. I love that, as part of the #nomakeupselfie craze, men are daubing on the eyeliner; it's a great way for even more money to be raised. However, it again reflects the fact that it is 'normal' for women to wear makeup and for men not to, because the point of the fundraiser is to do something out of the ordinary. That's just the way things are at the moment, but I think it's a bit sad that they are.

And so, when I was nominated, with all of this going around in my head, weighed up against the benefits of the campaign, what was I going to do?

Well, by a rather strange leap of logic, I decided to try doing my makeup like a Georgian lady.

Why? Well for several reasons. Firstly, I tend only to wear a bit of eyeliner on a regular basis (I would wear mascara too but I always seem to forget) so my no makeup selfie (which you can see at the top of the post) isn't that different to how people usually see me. To get into the spirit of things, I thought it would be good to do something far more out of the ordinary.

The other thing is that I was thinking about how there's this assumption that women will go to all sorts of lengths to change their appearance these days; while true to some extent, I feel this ignores the fact that this is not a new phenomenon. People - that's right, not just women but men too - have been doing crazy things like painting their faces with lead and pasting mouse-fur to their brows for centuries. This whole "girls cake their face with makup these days" attitude is just completely fallacious.

Richard Griffiths in Stage Beauty
Anyway, the point is that I both had fun with makeup and also did something out of the ordinary, as well as making my donation to Marie Curie Cancer Care. Don't get me wrong, I do think that #nomakeupselfie is a fantastic initiative to raise money, but there are some problems with it which I had to get off my chest. Have you been nominated? Can you think of any other alternative ways one could respond to the trend? Let me know in the comments or tweet me @fashionmoriarty

Quick Update #2

Well hello there, it has been rather a long time hasn't it? I'm afraid I'm going to do another post like the one I did way back in November to let anyone who cares know what I'm up to. I do have some proper posts in the pipeline (most of them have been there for some time) but this is a useful way for me to, if not excuse, at least beg for your understanding in why I haven't been posting often.

Since my last post:

  • I've finished my second term at university, and in the process studied all sorts of things including Virginia Woolf, Anglo-Saxon poetry, the short story, and feminist literary theory. It's gone so quickly this time, and despite the looming specter of exams, I'm looking forward to going back.
  • I've become fashion editor of The Oxford Student! If you're wondering where all my fashion output is going these days, do like us on Facebook or follow our Twitter account for updates on what we're doing.
  •  My review of The Great Gatsby has become one of my most-viewed posts, presumably because everyone was Googling Catherine Martin after she won her Best Costume Oscar. Incidentally I'm by no means surprised that she won, as the costume design in the film was stunning and - I have to say - outstripped the others in the category.
  • I've bought several fab things from charity shops, including two £1 jumpers, a glittery top, and the dress I'm pictured in above. Here's a fuller image:

  • I've written fashion articles about age, religion, gender, and individuality, as well as overseeing and styling this lovely shoot with vintage clothes from The Ballroom Emporium.
  • On a non-fashion-related note I also wrote this about the pressure for university life to be the best time of your life, and it had a very positive response from readers.
  • Costumes so far this term have included dressing as The Magic Mirror, a Grecian Urn, and wrapping myself in a rainbow flag.
  • I made a floor-speech at the Oxford Union (oh look there's a photo of that too)
Credit: Roger Askew
  • I can't think of anything else. Rest assured I will post at least one more thing before I go back to university, but as I say, if  you don't hear from me for a while, keep up with OxStu Fashion since I'll mainly be doing that.