Friday, 29 April 2011

Hat resurgence!

I love weddings! I've been to costly ones, cheap ones, big ones, small ones and they've all been brilliant. Mr Robot has put up with me watching telly all morning to see everyone's outfits at the Royal Wedding, bless him.

Could we see a resurgence of the hat? Oh, I hope so. I am considering knitting a hat for Samantha Cameron as the poor woman appears not to have the money to buy one even for a big occasion. Learn to knit, SamCam, then you will never go short of a titfer again! I did note trends for certain types of woolly hats last winter; I quite fancy a return to the fanciful things of the 1930s, although cloches are probably easiest for everyday wear.

I do not have a particular hat icon, although Audrey Hepburn springs to mind as someone who could really work a hat. (Do you have a favourite wearer of hats?) I have a 1930s book, The Bride's Book, which gives all sorts of information on how to choose clothes. The advice on hats basically boils down to 'Never repeat a bad line'. In other words, if your face is extremely round, no round brims, crowns or turbans, and if your face is long and thin, avoid vertical feathers or high crowns, and opt for a low diagonal brim if possible.

I'm rubbish at doing my hair. Maybe hats are the answer!

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Points don't make prizes

Am I vintage enough? Are you vintage enough? I sometimes ponder the former, never the latter – whoever you are, that's probably good enough for me (religious and political extremists excepted). Anyway, this post is prompted by Fleur de Guerre's blog post yesterday where she revealed some anonymous commenter had dinged her for not being vintage enough. All I could think of was that because she is so well-known, someone less well-known but rigidly wearing only period clothing all the time is jealous of the attention Fleur gets, which is a bit pathetic really. As anyone who maintains a blog knows, it takes time and effort, and maintaining a diary blog packed with interesting activities is serious work. Perhaps if the anonymous poster put in as much hard work and dedication into a blog, he or she would see more people appreciating their wonderful wardrobe.

The other thing it's made me think about is using clothing for points scoring. I freely admit to being plus-size; part of my reason for this is that all too often vintageland seems focussed on being thin, and just as women now are able to enjoy vintage and do things like work after marriage, take out a loan without a man's signature, control their own fertility and so on, I reckon we should be able to step off the diet and body loathing treadmill if we choose. I admit, I probably could get thin, which is why I don't spend all my time moaning, 'But why is there so little authentic vintage clothing for meeeeee?' (Although if Tara Starlet would start making things in an 18 I would be one very happy robot!) However, not everyone can reduce their weight or height in order to fit into authentic vintage, and there are a great many people with non-typical bodies that limit their choices of authentic vintage. Should a girl who wears splints for cerebral palsy be thrown out of vintageland for not wearing enough of the real clothing? How about a little person? Or someone who has had an amputation? Vintage isn't just for the thin and typically bodied, or the pretty, or the young. It can be for us all, and if some of us are limited to repro, that shouldn't make us second-class citizens.

People also express their vintage in different ways. Mr R has an aunt and an uncle who are serious vintage car nuts. Their oldest is an Austin Seven, and I believe they've even machined spare parts when authentic ones have been unavailable. Are they into vintage? YES! Even if they do drive the Austin wearing fleeces. We all love different aspects of it, and all those loves help keep the whole thing alive for everyone, from silent film fans running an annual festival to dedicated seamstresses making repro clothing to trad jazz bands.

My point? It's not a game of points. You don't have to wear the 'right' clothing in order to rack up enough points to love vintage, or to be able to share it with others. Who wants to spend their life in a uniform defined by others? You are fabulous just the way you are, and I hope you allow others to be their own sort of fabulous too.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Last night's telly: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

I've been looking forward to the ITV dramatisation of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale for a while. If you're unfamiliar with it, it's a superb book on a notorious murder case that happened in a village not far from the town where I live. The town museum has some artefacts relating to the case.

The case was really quite a horrible one: a family awoke one morning to find the youngest son missing, and after a search he was found with his throat cut, stuffed down an outside privy. However, what's really significant about the case is the impact it had. This was a time when policemen were supposed to take into account the sensibilities of middle-class families, while the awfulness of the crime meant the press were all over the case. Detective Jack Whicher was closely scrutinised at the same time as he was being hamstrung by the class system. The result? He never caught a killer. A couple of years after the case collapsed, someone confessed (Summerscale is doubtful about the complete veracity of the confession), but by then it was too late for Jack Whicher, who'd left the Met. Whicher inspired Sergeant Cuff, policeman in Wilkie Collins' Victorian detective novel (and the first English-language detective novel) The Moonstone.

A lot of things had to be left out of the dramatisation. Two older sisters were barely mentioned, and you'd be forgiven for thinking the whole thing took place in the countryside whereas the larger town (Trowbridge) was actually a mill town. The possibility that Mr Kent, the father, had given the mother of his older children syphillis goes unmentioned, and he's shown in a way that makes him seem much less obstructive than the evidence in the book suggests. The confined, repressed atmosphere of the family home, and the tensions between children of the first wife, and the governess-turned-second-wife is missing. Whicher also speaks much more freely than someone of his station would have been permitted to, and voices opinions that are actually Summerscale's. Ultimately the dramatisation felt lacking in substance, but it would have been hard to cram a packed and scholarly book into a two hour television programme. If you saw it and enjoyed it, you must read the book!

Sunday, 24 April 2011

A weekend with bad men [DVD/books]

It's lurgytime here at Casa Mechanica! Well, it's been lurgytime for me for nearly a month now, with coughs and virii culminating this week in a chest infection. I took my final antibiotic today and hopefully that will be the end of it for me, but Mr Robot is stuck on the sofa as now he's poorly. Anyway, this meant a change of Easter plans, with a big dinner being postponed in favour of a weekend of rest, so I've been knitting, reading and watching films.

I read/watch a lot crime fiction, but this weekend I've gone a little later than usual, reading two books by Mickey Spillane, I, The Jury (1947) and My Gun is Quick (1950) and watching the 1942 film This Gun for Hire and 1955's The Fast and the Furious. This Gun For Hire was pure noir, based on a Graham Greene novel, and Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd's first film together. She's a singer, going to LA to investigate the passing on of industrial secrets to America's enemies, while Ladd plays Raven, a contract killer searching for the client who double-crossed him. I felt Lake's songs were misplaced, detracting from the tautness of the rest of the story, but overall it was jolly enjoyable. (The photo of Veronica is from one of my vintage film books, Preview 1950.)

The two books and other film really made me realise how quickly noir vanished after the Second World War. The Spillane novels have a lot in common with earlier books by Hammett and Chandler, yet are much more violent and brutal (and the prose style is far less elegant). I was annoyed at how predictable the stories were, but then they're not whodunnits, they're revenge stories. The point is not for Mike Hammer to discover who killed his friends, it's to find them and kill them.

The Fast and the Furious was an odd film. My expectations dropped as soon as I realised it was a Roger Corman film. It's a horrible mishmash of things; female racing driver Connie (in an amazing white Jaguar which is the best thing in the film) gets kidnapped from a diner by a man, Frank Webster, who's wanted for murder; he decides to enter a road race to Mexico to avoid the authorities. His character is written half the time as a complete thug, half as someone who's been set up and is honest and misunderstood. Far too much of the film is taken up with Connie and Frank getting to the race, then there's some flannel with an old boyfriend of Connie's, and in the end there's not nearly enough racing. What is clear is that the bad man of noir has, by this point in time, morphed into the juvenile delinquent.

I've been enjoying all this reading and watching, but on the whole I think I like my crime films to be noir and my crime fiction more complex, and less vicious.

Friday, 22 April 2011

My Style Icons: Myrna Loy

To be specific, the Myrna Loy of the 1930s is one of my style icons. A love of the Thin Man films is partly responsible – was there ever a dame who cracked wise as well as Nora Charles? – but her look is fantastic too. In a decade when garments could be overblown and fussy, with frills and ruffles and fancy sleeves and capelets, all topped off with an elaborate hat, she managed to stay streamlined and elegant without ever losing her femininity.

The key to Myrna’s look is simplicity, especially around the neck and shoulders. In evening dresses this was often a sweetheart bodice with two narrow straps, frequently without jewellery to complicate things. Let there be no ruffles, no frills, just an elegant sweep to the floor. Sometimes there’s one eyecatching element: there’s a famous photo of Myrna in a simple black dress with, at the back, a dramatic rosette of feathers. One of my very favourite dresses she wore was based on a calla lily, with a simple, fluted white underskirt, off-the-shoulder black overdress and one large half-moon brooch at the neckline to focus attention.

By day things can get more complicated, but still not too complicated. As with evening wear, there may be one dramatic touch, but no more: puffed sleeves, but the simplest of collars, or a straightforward blouse with a stiff bow. Sometimes there’s a dramatic trim, such as curlicues in a contrasting colour or a white lace collar on a dark frock, but it’s always simple and graphic rather than fussy.

I've always loved simple clothes (I could have a wardrobe full of black dresses of varying sleeve lengths, necklines and fabrics and would never need another sort of garment) and when I want some 30s inspiration, I think, 'What would Myrna wear?' It's possible to dress like Myrna without fancy dressing as Myrna. Style icon!

The image on this page is from an old fan magazine: Myrna at a Hollywood dinner. Getty Images has some superb photos of Myrna, if you want a closer look at her style.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Gatsby's house, gone!

You wouldn't think something like this would be allowed to happen, but CBS has reported that the house that inspired The Great Gatsby has been pulled down to make way for a gated housing development. I'm quite surprised; I did think people in America placed a higher value on their more recent historical buildings than we tend to here in the UK, where most things under 200 years old seem to be fair game, but it appears that the house was in such a state of disrepair that demolition was the only option.

Still, it makes me feel a little sad.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Madeira jumper: finished!

Yes, I have finally finished my Madeira jumper from my 1950s book Knit with Norbury. I'm really pleased with it. The yarn I used is quite a pricy one, Sublime Extra Fine Merino 4ply, but I wanted something that would be wearable against skin, and it is extremely comfy. The jumper took a little over five balls which, as I got the yarn in a sale, means it cost about £18.

Because it was designed for a 36in bust and mine's 40in I had to do some resizing, and I think I made it a little too large, so it bunches up at the sides instead of having a nice smooth line. On the other hand, I did manage to get the armholes right even with the extra stitches, and the shoulders are perfect. I'd rather have a bit of bunching at the sides than sorrowful, droopy shoulders.

If I knitted it again, then, I wouldn't add so many extra stitches at the sides, and I'd extend the neck a little as the 'corners' at the top of the plunge neckline were closer to my collarbone than to my neck.


And here's the full shot! I nearly didn't include this one - clearly having my hair scraped back, no lippie and no jewellery is not my best look, but what the hell, you can see the jumper, and Mr R didn't seem in the mood to take pictures so there wasn't hair-faffing time.

Right! I'm off to drink Crabbies and work on my Jersey with a Soft Bow.

EDIT: The company I bought the yarn from have tweeted about the jumper, so I shall tell you all where I got it – I bought my yarn from Deramores. I am a bit of a yarn bargain hunter, and it was on discount, so I pounced!

Thursday, 14 April 2011

My favourite shop has closed

After about 160 years, Duck, Son & Pinker in Bath has closed. I used to love going in to browse the music there, but anywhere with an entire gondola of 20s/30s music was probably never going to attract roaring business, although I'm surprised the musical instrument/ classical CD side of things didn't keep the place open.

I feel sad for the city, because a little piece of its living history has gone, and sad that I can no longer go shopping there for wonderful CDs. (I was planning a trip for rock'n'roll CDs for Mr R's birthday; now I've no idea where to look for them. HMV? Erk!)

If you have an independent shop you love, support and treasure it. The world is becoming an ever blander place…

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Die A Little/ Queenpin [books]


"She didn't even need to show her face or have a voice to demand complete attention." Die A Little

Megan Abbott is an academic who has written about the noir style, so it makes sense for her to write noir novels. Even so, I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with modern crime stories with vintage settings, so while I read David Roberts, I’d rather discover a new Dorothy L Sayers, and when I read Walter Moseley I wish wholeheartedly for more by Chester Himes. All too often later writers’ political sensibilities carry over. (I know, I know, this is coming from the woman who gets a real bee in her bonnet over the portrayal of so many women and people of colour in vintage films and novels, but too often ‘historical’ crime fiction simply turns out to be modern characters in vintage settings.) That isn’t a problem with these books, happily.

Die A Little, the first of Abbott’s books that I read, didn’t grab me. I felt it was too overblown, emotionally unrealistic, but I have felt that about some vintage films and books too (The Blue Dahlia [film] and Laura [novel] spring to mind). Essentially it’s a tale of repressed 1950s schoolteacher Lora (the narrator) disliking her policeman brother’s new wife, Alice, and doing some digging into a very murky past, only to find herself becoming more like Alice than she likes to admit. Rapidly she sinks into a world of nightclubs, drugs and the shadier side of the film industry.

Queenpin is set in a nameless town in the early 1960s, and again is narrated by the protagonist, a young woman who dives eagerly into the murky waters of racketeering when taken under the wing of an ageing ice queen who works for the mob. I liked Queenpin a lot more, possibly because it made more sense for the characters to behave in the way they did; Lora’s descent into ruthless criminality in Die A Little is too much, too fast, for someone who’d previously been upright and law-abiding and shown no real inclination to be anything else, whereas for the nameless hoodlette in Queenpin it is a more natural progression.

I would definitely recommend Queenpin, but I’m still undecided on Die A Little. I do have the urge to go back and read the earlier book to see if I missed something, though, and if you can find a copy cheap, give it a whirl.

Source of books: Die A Little, bought for full price from local Waterstones. Queenpin, bought for £2.50 from Oxfam bookshop.

Friday, 8 April 2011

The Great British Dance Bands: A Nostalgic Collection

This is awesome, and not just because I found my copy in a local charity shop for £2. You can get it new from Amazon for as little as £4.30 at any rate. (At that price, it would be rude not to.)

With famous names like Al Bowlly and Sam Browne, and bands like the BBC Dance Orchestra, there are some fab recordings on this 44-track two-disc set. Many of the songs are American classics, showing how their culture travelled to this side of the Atlantic, but the renditions are a little less swingy, more tinkly, than many other versions of the same tunes, taking you straight to the Savoy Ballrooms.

My favourite song is 'She Had to Go and Lose it at the Astor' for its cheekiness. ("But she had to go and lose it at the Astor, she didn't know exactly who to blame, And she couldn't say just how and when she lost it, she only knew she had it when she came…") That said, 'Toodle-oo' comes a close second. My least favourite is Joe Loss and His Orchestra's version of 'In the Mood', which is incredibly like Glenn Miller's but with a good chunk of the verve missing

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Shopping: new shoes and old photos

I finally bought the Hotter Comfort Concept ‘Charleston’ shoes that I mentioned a couple of months ago. I'd wanted to get them sooner, but I waited until I’d had a decent freelance payment come in. Remember the pearl-cuffed gloves and fascinator I designed? They paid for the shoes! I’m very pleased with them. They’re extremely comfortable, and I can stride along happily in them. I'm still buying cheap brooches, in keeping with one of my New Year's Resolutions, but they need a post of their own!

Yours, one of the women’s magazines does a regular feature on ‘The Way We Wore’, showing photos their readers send in, and they’ve brought out a publication, Fashion We Wore, made up of those images. (I tried to scan the cover but it's super A4 and I only have an A4 scanner, so it's a bit cropped.) It’s of higher paper quality than a regular magazine, and won’t come out regularly, but it’s not quite a book; in magazineland these strange beasties are known as ‘bookazines’. I bought a copy in Sainsbury's. To be honest, there isn’t enough text for the bookazine to be worth a fiver, and spelling mistakes like ‘broach’ for ‘brooch’ and ‘Dirdle’ for ‘dirndl’ are quite irritating, but it is really good in one important respect: the photos show what ordinary women actually wore. It's reassuring to see that even in the 1940s, not everyone looked like a cross between Rita Hayworth and Lauren Bacall!

Not all the photos have dates, so I had quite good fun playing ‘guess the date’. In many cases I couldn’t make up my mind. People had to make their clothes last, so rarely picked anything too radical in style. The one exception seemed to be the going-away outfits, where lots of ladies had splendid suits. Turquoise appears to have been a popular colour for those.

I found a couple of things really interesting. The readers had voted the 2000s as their favourite style decade (it had one?!), with 60s, 50s and 40s coming second, third and fourth respectively. The 'Ultimate Style Icon' was not Audrey Hepburn, not Grace Kelly, not Jackie O – it was Princess Diana. That really set me wondering; I can remember how popular she was in the 1980s, but I honestly can't recall anyone I ever knew wanting to look like her. Have you ever known anyone who wanted to look like Princess Di? Still, I've never been in fashion, so it doesn't bother me that I'm way out of step here!

The bookazine did confirm one thing I’d already suspected: I need more blouses. There’s no way my home-made woollies will see me through summer unless I plan to spend it in Greenland, so my next lot of freelance will be stuck into a blouse-buying fund – I want to buy at least one decent repro blouse this year.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Spiffing! [radio]


I was very busy over the weekend – I had two books to review so I could hand in the reviews this morning – so I completely missed the fact that there is another Miss Marple series on Radio 4 Extra (nee 7) this week. It's Nemesis, and I'm never sure if that or Sleeping Murder is my favourite. Even better, between 8:45 and 9 each evening they are broadcasting an episode of Dick Barton: Special Agent. It's not the immediately post-war series, but one from the 1970s. However, it is set in the 1940s and tonight's episode did not disappoint. It sounds as though they must have remade the very first series as Jock does not appear, and it begins with Dick and Snowy trying to decide what they should do now the war is over.

In other news, my clumsy one-eyed cat broke one of my favourite mugs jumping on my bedside table. Augh! And I can't find one like it on the internet at all. I still have another mug I like, but this one was a present from my mum and somehow tea always tasted good from it. It's a good job I love that animal…

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Vintage cycle run, Bristol

Didn't get a place on the Tweed Run? Live too far west to contemplate lugging your beloved bike on one of Worst Late Western's sardine-tin trains? As a trailer and fundraiser for Bristol Cycle Festival this September, there's going to be a 'Vintage Velo' bike run on the 17th of April, so you can shine up your cycle clips and enjoy a 10-mile ride in both urban and countryside areas.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Forgotten Bombshells: Sabrina

She may not be well-known now, but back in the 1950s she didn't need a surname: she was simply Sabrina. I first came to hear of her listening to The Goon Show, from the exclamation 'By the sweaters of Sabrina!'

Born in 1936 in Cheshire and given the name Norma Ann Sykes, she contracted polio as a teenager. In later years fan magazines would claim it was the swimming she did as part of her therapy that caused her figure to develop – although I've never seen an Olympic swimmer quite the same shape as Sabrina.

If you've ever had trouble finding a dress to fit a small-waisted figure, spare a thought for Sabrina, who at 41.5-19-36 probably had to have everything tailored to fit her!

Aged 16 she posed nude for playing cards, tame by today's standards but something she later said she regretted. She actually had trouble making a breakthrough as a model because photographers found her too voluptuous. However, in 1954, the year she turned 18, she got a small part in Arthur Askey's television series, became Sabrina and the bombshell exploded. By the time the Audrey Hepburn film was released in Britain, it had to be renamed Sabrina Fair to avoid confusing the public.

Over the following years she made a number of films, including Blue Murder at St Trinians (1958) and travelled internationally – she was a massive hit in Australia. She mingled with royalty and met Fidel Castro (who gave her some chickens). But don't take my word for it, the Sabrina Site has everything you've ever wanted to know about the bumper-bosomed bombshell, right down to film clips and her recordings.

Sabrina is still with us, and lives in California.

The picture is from 1957, when Sabrina gatecrashed the Royal Enclosure at Ascot.