Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Random acts of shopping

New shoes and dressing gown
For someone who claims to hate shopping, I certainly seem to have been buying a lot lately, though without spending very much actual money. I've just got another dress from Boden – it was knocked down from £115 to £22 in Clearance – and is very Grace Kelly. It's a cappuchino brown broderie anglais shirt dress, and for now is providing the background to the bags in the second photo. I plan to wear it with my vintage beige Cooltimer jacket, ivory lace flats and the boxy cream midcentury-style bag, which I got for £2 in the Red Cross shop.

The black lace bag is another charity shop special. My everyday bag is a 1960s black leather-look vinyl one by MacLaren of Norwich. Unfortunately it's starting to show signs of wear: the pocket zip has broken, I need to restitch the lining, and the underside of the handle is badly cracked. I plan to recover it and make a new handle when it finally 'goes', but I'm not sure how easy that will be or how good a job I'll make of it, so when I saw this little boxy bag in Oxfam for £7 I snapped it up. It's not quite as plain as I like for a day bag, but it will do. The snap clasp and boxy shape are very 'me'.

I also won £100 of Debenhams vouchers in Gemma (Retro Chick)'s giveaway. Spending them was a weird experience: I've mostly weaned myself off going into actual High Street shops, preferring to buy from charity shops, Etsy or online repro firms. I do get my bras from Debenhams as they do a nice selection in my size, but I wanted to get something different. I didn't know where to start looking. In the end, I spoiled myself with the softest dressing gown on earth, which I didn't choose because of how it looked but because I felt it on my way past the underwear department and decided I simply had to have. It cost rather more than I'd think of spending on a dressing gown but my old one, which I got when I went to uni in 1992, is falling apart, and the vouchers seemed like a good excuse to treat myself. It is more of a dusty lavender than fawn, and Muppets made from clouds could not be as soft as this! I think Mr Robot is already fed up of seeing me loafing around in it; he keeps telling me off for having the hood up.

The vouchers stretched to a pair of penny loafers too. (They're black, not the reddish shade they appear in the final picture.) These are quite 'budget' in quality – the little strip is just laid over the surface, not stitched down, so I wasn't able to pop a penny in – but they have a nice thick sole and will hopefully work well on days when I need something more practical than heels but smarter than hiking boots. And, of course, they suit the midcentury style I tend to adopt for work as penny loafers were popular with young people in the 1950s and 1960s. So, thanks, Gemma and Debenhams, for those!

I do need to cut back on my spending at the moment. I feel as though I've got a real awareness of my personal style now, and having found that direction I want to run in it as fast as I can. However, Christmas and parents' birthdays are coming, so from now on all my shopping really needs to be for gifts... Have you bought anything in the sales recently or started shopping for Christmas yet?

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The look of Crimes of Passion, episodes 1 and 2

Christer, Dina, Puck and Einar (episode 2, 'King Lily of the Valley') in their wedding reception outfits
Crimes of Passion is a midcentury-set Swedish crime drama currently being broadcast on BBC4. I've seen it described as 'Midcentury Midsomer Murders', which is a bit harsh – Midsomer Murders really is the low point for me as far as crime dramas go; I love the cheesiness of things like Quincy and Diagnosis Murder but Midsomer Murders is just dire. For me, Crimes of Passion is more akin to Agatha Christie stories, which is appropriate as the books were originally published in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, though there's a bit of spice in the form of the Einar-Puck-Christer triangle. (Einar and Puck are in love, but you just know Puck and Einar's pal Christer fancy the pants off each other.)
Christer's mum's house - classic Scandinavian midcentury
The first thing that struck me is how very unaccustomed to Scandinavian midcentury stuff I am. Watching Agatha Christie adaptations, I have another time to get to grips with. Watching Wallander, it's another place. Watching Crimes of Passion there's both another time and another place delivering little mental jabs, and I often found myself wondering if stylish things that struck me were normal for Sweden then and now, normal then, or brought in by the programme makers. The very icy colour palette in episode 2, 'King Lily of the Valley' makes me think the designers paid a lot of attention to using a palette to create a dreamy, remote feel.
Christer's mother shows Puck and Einar to their rooms. The clothes are what they wore to a wedding.
Before we get started on the clothes, I would like to say the interiors in this programme are absolutely gorgeous. Scandinavia was, of course, a design powerhouse in the mid-20th century, and all through the show you see gorgeous furniture. It's not in every location. Christer's police station, for example, looks very old-fashioned, and characters with less money have less up-to-the-minute homes. The beach house in the first episode, 'Death of a Loved One' is a blend of old and new and bohemian. Christer's arty mother, however, has a gorgeous home, from the sleek wooden-framed furniture in the living room to the open, geometric ironwork banister on the stairs.
Floral crowns for a midsummer beach party, and flamboyant Lil kicks off the dancing
The first episode was set at a somewhat bohemian party in a beach house. There were a lot of really charming cotton dresses to be seen, full-skirted things with colourful prints. They were often topped off with cardigans. It's a look that's stereotypically 1950s, but also very popular as a silhouette nowadays. I think the prints on the dresses really helps with the authentic feel; if you go to any large event you'll find that what really sets the authentic vintage or very good repro apart are the prints. Many of them simply aren't made any more. The costume designer did a really good job of not making things too fancy.
Marianne and Viveka, flirty and sporty
Also, the characters wore things you could imagine them picking: a flamboyant striped halterneck for the glamorous Lil, something deceptively sweet with plenty of racy scarlet for Marianne, and a more practical option for Marianne's friend Viveka.
Dina and Anneli
There was a similar pattern in the second episode. Dina, who was 'all grown up' - much to Christer's initial surprise - and had been to finishing school, was every inch the glamourpuss, while her tragic friend Anneli was all in angelic white.
Dina's outfit for the wedding. By far my favourite dress in both programmes
The wedding and the funeral in episode two do provide more opportunities for flamboyant clothing. The wedding was a white tie affair, and all the female guests were in floor-length frocks. I mentioned the icy colour palette in that episode, and you can see it in the long dresses on Christer's mother (seafoam) and Puck (turquoise) in my third image, and in Dina's incredible duck-egg-blue bombshell gown. It's really noticeable in the scenes in the church. I don't know if long dresses are still the done thing at regular Swedish weddings, but the Royal Family still goes all out. Order of Splendor did a fantastic breakdown of guests at Crown Princess Victoria's wedding back in 2010, and it was a proper, all-out gowns-and-tiaras affair.

Because the colours are limited at a funeral, that scene really gives you a chance to concentrate on cut. Everyone is in black, and every lady has her skirt bang on the knee, mostly with smart jackets, though Puck has a black embellished cardigan. Low shoes and square midcentury bags are definitely the order of the day.

Funeral wear. Very black, very smart.
Puck, Christer and Einar are the only three characters in both episodes. Puck is aptly named. She has an impish quality. She often wears trousers, a mark of her unconventional, practical nature, I suppose. Christer looks like he strolled out of a film noir, but then men's fashion changes less radically than women's, policemen aren't generally supposed to be high-fashion anyway, and I am not adept at following the shifts in the cut of lapel or tie. Whether his garb is period-appropriate or not, whatever Christer is wearing, he wears it well. Einar, on the other hand, seems to not wear things well. Usually spotted in casualwear unless the occasion demands it, there's also a good chance of seeing him shirtless. In a way you can read Puck's dilemma in their clothes: there's the boyish, playful innocence of Einar, who it is appropriate to see half-clad, and then the smouldering manliness of Christer, who has to be kept safely buttoned up.

Crimes of Passion is a stylish programme. After the first episode I wasn't sure if I liked it, but it's definitely growing on me, and I look forward to the third one!

Sunday, 7 September 2014

A trio of 1930s Oxford murder mysteries

If you love old crime novels, you'll know it's getting harder and harder to find them nowadays – it's been ages since I've found a decent stock of greenback Penguins, which used to be ten-a-penny. Imagine my delight, then, when Mr Robot and I nipped into Waterstones in Trowbridge yesterday and I saw that the British Library had started re-releasing classic crime novels from the past. There are currently eleven novels in the British Library Crime Classics series, and I hope there will be many more.

(Note for non-Brits: the British Library isn't a company, it's the central national library, and a copy of every book and newspaper published in the UK is held there, as well as many major historic papers, and academics can research there. I've used it myself, for looking up family history information as the Library holds many of the official papers from the East India Company and colonial-era India Office.)

The first one I read was Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay. She only wrote three crime novels and this is the second; the first has also been reprinted but it wasn't on sale in my local bookshop. However, I probably would've chosen this one anyway because I recently read Death at the President's Lodging by Michael Innes and reread Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, and it's interesting to contrast and compare the three.

All three of the novels I've mentioned were written in the 1930s by former Oxford students, and are mysteries set in Oxford colleges. Death on the Cherwell and Gaudy Night are the most plausible; there's one murder in the former, and one you can imagine happening very easily, while in Gaudy Night there's a nasty outbreak of poison-pen letters, a near-suicide and a near-murder. The murder in Death at the President's Lodging, with old bones scattered around the victim, is by far the least plausible.

Cherwell is a fairly simple tale, and possibly because the murder is so realistic I worked out the killer and the reason for the killing fairly early on, which was a bit disappointing, and might explain why Doriel Hay's novels have gone out of print. Agatha Christie's tales are simple on the surface, but they're remained popular because when you're new to one, it's very hard to identify the culprit. Lodging is the most convoluted, and you get the feeling that Innes was more interested in the 'howdunnit' than the 'whodunnit' – the intellectual challenge takes precedence over characterisation. Gaudy Night balances between the two; Sayers creates very realistic characters and they act in the ways you would expect those people to. It's not obvious who's behind the nasty letters, but it makes perfectly logical sense once you know what's provoked the writer.

Gaudy Night will always be my favourite of the three as far as detectives go. While it's often called a Peter Wimsey novel, for me the real star is Harriet Vane, who brings in her fiance later on. Harriet is spiky and intellectual, not afraid to speak her mind or butt heads. I don't always like Harriet, but I do always appreciate her. In this novel, too, she's wrestling with her own problems: she's one of the first generation of women to graduate from Oxford, and she has her own career, but in the 1930s getting married will mean giving up much of her independence. It gives her depth. It's unfair of me to judge Lodging's Inspector Appleby in the same way as this book was his debut, whereas Vane and Wimsey were established characters. He's thoughtful, decent and not afraid to take risks, but owning a yellow Bentley doesn't come close to giving him Harriet Vane's depth of character. Cherwell's DI Braydon is much of the same type, though less clever than the intelligent Appleby. Both policemen are outsiders and do get treated as such by the academics.

Now the students. Ah, the students. In both Cherwell and Lodging I found them very immature, which I suppose they ought to be. Very few of us are very grown up when we're 18. However, very few of us bounce around murder scenes with the overprivileged oafishness of a Bertie Wooster, or deliberately hide things from the police so we could investigate for ourselves, and I did find myself wishing someone would smack a few student bottoms. I warmed to both groups by the end of their respective novels, and thought the quartet of female undergrads (leader, saucepot, sarky minx, fashionista) in Cherwell gave it great cinematic potential, but they were annoying at the start. Sayers' characterisation is so much better that her students don't irritate in the same way. They may be young but they feel like real young people rather than giddy asses.

And in all the books, Oxford, and the University in particular, is the star. Even in the one with the least description, Death on the Cherwell, you get a sense of the beauty of the old college buildings, and of the gorgeous gilded mode of life enjoyed by students there between the wars. If I didn't have friends who work there (and therefore a more realistic view of what Tourist Hell the place is) I might be tempted to visit Oxford for myself! Perhaps, though, it's a place best visited through books. Just don't fall over any corpses in your journey through the pages.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Is repro bad for vintage?

Does it have to be original?
I like reproduction clothing. It has lots of advantages: it's easy to find in larger sizes, or to get custom-made if you have special clothing needs (say, arthritis means you can't fiddle with poppers and buttons, or you need to accommodate calipers or supports). Usually it's made of fabrics that are easy to care for, and because you can get another one easily you're not going to bawl if you rip the armpits out of a garment, unlike a unique piece of vintage that took you ages to find and months to save up for.

That said, I'm not sure that repro isn't undermining vintage style. I worry that it makes things too easy. Instead of regularly trawling charity shops and getting to know which specialist dealers have stock that suits one's individual style, it's faster (and sometimes cheaper) to hop over to a repro company's website and buy something with a few clicks. Something that looks exactly like the thing lots of other people are wearing. Something that may not actually bear much resemblance to actual vintage, but is seen as 'vintage'. (Honestly, some of the repro out there is about as accurate as stuff from mainstream clothing ranges like Boden and Fever, who acknowledge their inspiration but make no claims to be repro.) And sooner or later enough people will be wearing that sort of thing that genuine vintage will be thought of as looking 'wrong'.

There is some extremely good authentic repro around. It's ironic that it seems less popular than the mass-market stuff! I once found a company reproducing fabrics designed by a midcentury textile designer, and gleefully showed a crafting colleague. It was bold, energetic, like nothing currently on the mass market. "I don't like that sort of vintage,"she said, and carried on looking at the modern, 'vintage' twee floral prints. The weaker end of repro does seem to appeal to the twee dabbler, and there are an awful lot of them and, I suppose I'm a horrible snob, but I resent them rewriting what vintage is simply because there are more of them than there are people wearing much actual vintage.

Of course, I'm as guilty of this as anyone. My fair isle cardigan that I'm knitting is in completely inauthentic colours. I'm sitting here typing this in a smashing dress from Collectif that I adore and that I've had loads of wear out of – and that the cardigan will go perfectly with. Both 40s-feeling, but both inauthentic in terms of colour. My accessories are the real deal, though, and perhaps that's the way to go with repro: treat it as an element, but don't let it form the entire basis of one's look. Use it to fill in the gaps, not to be the whole picture.

And the other thing that the less authentic repro could well be doing is catering to people who would otherwise be cutting up original garments. (This Old Thing makes me swear - if you don't like, say, the length of 1950s dresses, don't buy 1950s dresses, ffs, buy something shorter! Don't cut up perfectly good, ever-scarcer originals! I could have cried when a lady's treasured 1980s Laura Ashley dress - known to the family as 'Mum's Special Dress' - got hacked about and ruined.) In the long run, it could be helping preserve original vintage for people who really love it.

What do you think? Do you find yourself buying more repro than genuine vintage nowadays? Could repro be the secret saviour of authentic vintage, or is it undermining it?

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Outfit post: looks very 1950s, is actually 2014!

A large woman in a park in a 1950s-style Boden dress
Woohoo, new dress! I got asked earlier this week if it was 1950s, and got quite a startled look when I said it was new. Yesterday I forced Mr Robot to take some pictures of me around Trowbridge

Splashing out on a brand-new frock feels a bit extravagant, but I fell in love with Boden's 'Nancy' dress as soon as I saw it. I originally wanted one in the seaside print based on a vintage washbag, but over time the more restrained, but still quite midcentury-looking, blue print became my favourite. Being a skinflint, I waited for the sale to buy it. I have a bit of a mental block when it comes to paying £70 for a day dress! £50 felt more reasonable – and it's down to £35 in some prints and sizes now.

That said, the dress would have been worth £70. It's made of cotton. It's also lined, so while it feels wonderfully floaty, there's no risk to your modesty. It has lingerie loops in the shoulders, so you can snap the straps of the dress over your bra straps. Even my chunky old bustenhalter is safely hidden underneath. The waist is perfectly placed on me (I'm five foot five, and wearing a size 16), and it actually makes me look curvy rather than blocky. The length is ideal. In an age when it's often hard to tell whether something is a dress or a tunic, this reaches my knees – a proper dress length.

Nice floaty skirt, but the whole dress is lined so not flimsy.
I'm funny about prints. I don't know what it is about them, but I'm really not keen on many of the prints on garments I see on the High Street. Possibly it's that there are too many colours and a lot of modern prints are very large, but to me an awful lot of them simply look cheap, as though an attempt to cram as many colours as possible onto the fabric was made without much attention to the shape those colours were making. There are exceptions; Oasis are usually reliable for nice prints (but not in fatlass sizes, grr), and Seasalt and Laura Ashley both have appealing ones.

Boden's print designs are often quite retro, with a midcentury aesthetic that I like, and while they do use very bright colours, they don't try to use every shade in the paintbox on one bolt of cloth, and there's enough regularity within the print to feel orderly. Does that make sense to you? There needs to be some cohesion and clear repetition or structure within a print, for me, it can't just be some scattergun thing splurged all over a garment in such a way that it's hard for the eye to make sense of it. The more I look at the pattern on this dress, the more I like it. It's geometric, but the shapes are not too perfect, being rough two-tone blue circles and scratchy black squares.

Here I've paired the dress with my me-made late 40s/early 50s navy cardigan, my grey pearl jewellery, and Hush Puppies 'Freya' shoes. A vintage 1960s MacLaren handbag completes the look. I love this outfit!
Boden 1950s style dress plus size
Chimping away on my phone - but you can see
how nice the print is.

Want more?
I don't do outfit posts often, but you can see a couple of my favourites in my Burgh Island oufit post (one 1960s lace dress suit, one repro 1930s dress) and my writeup of this year's Vintage Nostalgia show.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Crinoline Robot's vintage week

NOT HELPING!
Another quietish week for me, with lots of vintage going on but nothing worth a complete post on its own (or worth it but lacking decent photos!) so I thought I'd do a roundup for you.

MAKING
I've been plugging away at the Fair Isle cardigan. Oh, so slow! But I keep telling myself it takes a single stitch to start something and a single stitch to finish it, so if I only manage a single stitch each day, I'll still be making progress. I want to get it finished before the cold weather really sets in, though, as it'll look perfect with a 1940s-style 'Wilhelmina' dress I got in the Collectif sale back in the spring. I also started embroidering a pillowcase, using one of the vintage transfers I bought from Claire at Eternal Magpie. You see so many people chopping up vintage embroidered textiles, it's nice to be creating something new. Boycie (usually called 'Smello Kitty' on Twitter) was on hand to supervise.

When I had my trunk clearout the other week and had fun rediscovering a couple of 1990s dresses, I also found some craft projects that really need finishing, like this hardanger table runner – it's a traditional Scandinavian style of embroidery, but one that picked up a bit of popularity in the 1950s here in Britain, with colourful versions being moderately trendy in the 1960s and 1970s. This design is from a 1950s book. As ever, I couldn't possibly try doing something quick or small...

SHOPPING
I've got a new thing. As in, actually new. A 'Nancy' dress from the Boden sale, which I hope to do a proper shoot of this weekend because it's so lush. I even got asked if it was 1950s, that's how retro it looks. And then I won £100 of Debenhams vouchers in Gemma Retro Chick's giveaway. I'm telling myself I'm not going to spend it all on Doreen bras, I'm going to take a proper look round the shop and see what they have that suits my style. Their website is a bit overwhelming, so hopefully shopping in person will be easier.

TRAVELLING
I haven't done any actual travelling, but plans have been made. Tickets for Vintage Nostalgia 2015 are now on sale, and I've ordered weekend camping tickets for Mr Robot and myself already. The event gets more and more popular each year, and this time camping is pre-booked only (no rocking up on a whim) so if you want to camp, get your tickets! I'm also planning a trip to London early in October as I'm going to the press day for the British Library's 'Gothic Imagination' exhibition. Big London, on my own. Scary.

TELLY
I rewatched the second series of The Hour. Damn it was good. WHY did the BBC not do another series?

And that was my week in vintage. It was a good 'un! It's not all I've done, but it's the stuff that involves old tat. I also reread Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy over the Bank Holiday weekend: bloggers, infectious diseases, zombies and political conspiracy. With a perfect balance of paranoia and the walking dead, I highly recommend it though it's definitely not vintage! I hope your week has been fun too.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Coldest City [comic]

Cold War spy stories are increasingly rare these days - with the Cold War over, that's no real surprise. However, I love a good espionage story, whether on film or in a book. The Coldest City is the first one I've read in graphic novel form.

This story is set at the end of the Cold War. The action actually takes places while the Berlin Wall is coming down. Lorraine Broughton, a British agent with no connection to Berlin, is sent to the city after another agent is killed there not long after one of his sources promises him a list of all the agents, on all sides, in Berlin. Because much of the story is told by Broughton at her debriefing, you know something has gone wrong, but what, and when, at at whose instigation, you have to wait to discover.

I liked Sam Hart's sparse, angular black-and-white artwork. I always loved mono artwork in 2000AD back in the 1980s, and was gutted when they switched to colour. You really see the power of pure monochrome in The Coldest City and, of course, having only two colours is perfect for a game of two sides. I also think the storyline is fascinating; writer Antony Johnston pulls no punches and does create a tense, complex tale. It's a proper old-school spy story, and it's refreshing to have a female lead character. (One who's in no danger of ending up on Escher Girls, either.)

There is a 'but', and it's a deeply subjective 'but': I really would have preferred there to be more words. Perhaps it's because I work with words, and am not really a terribly visual person. I remember words and music and smells far more than pictures. More words would have spoiled this as a graphic novel, it's beautifully weighted in its current form, so I'm not wishing for more words within the graphic novel... what I'm wishing for is an actual novel. As I said, that's very subjective. It's a backhanded compliment of sorts: The Coldest City is beautifully done, to the point where I wish there were more of it for me to linger over.

So, my big but aside, would I recommend it? To graphic novel fans, definitely. It also might be a good dose of realism for teens who think spying is all Spooks and James Bond; it's a world away from that sort of silly whizzbangery. As a fan of spy novels I don't regret buying it, but I'd probably reread a John le Carré or John Buchan before this.

Disclaimer: I bought my copy for full price with my own money. Antony and I used to work together years ago, but if I'd hated his comic, I simply wouldn't have reviewed it here. I liked it enough to tell you about it!