Friday, 1 May 2015

Dress Well And Smell Nice

Pour Un Homme (first released 1934) and Yatagan (first released 1978), both by Caron.

Each and every morning I have a shower, I groom myself and I get dressed. I then reach for a bottle of perfume to spray on myself, choosing a fragrance that feels right for my outfit and right for what I have to do that day. I have worn perfume pretty much every single day for the past decade, and yet it is not a practice I have ever really given any serious thought to. I find this odd considering the fact that I never feel entirely dressed unless I am wearing perfume, and indeed I own several bottles including everything from the likes of Caron's fearsome Yatagan (a favourite of Iris Apfel), to a fragrance designed for Jane Birkin that was amusingly praised by Luca Turin as smelling of “boozy kisses, stale joss sticks, rising damp, and soiled underwear”.

I have spent the past two years smelling just about every perfume I can get my hands and nose on, learning to recognise notes and figure out exactly what I am smelling and what I enjoy smelling. The deeper I dive, the richer and more interesting things become. I try to remain open-minded in the sense that I do not care whether a perfume is expensive or inexpensive, from a luxury house or a celebrity release, marketed for men or women - all that matters is how it smells. In fact some of my favourite perfumes, and coincidentally the most critically acclaimed, have been relatively cheap to purchase (the fact that you can pick up 125ml of Caron's Pour Un Homme, an exquisitely comforting blend of lavender and vanilla, first formulated in the middle of the Great Depression, for under £30 is insane).

I said that I pick fragrances according to what feels right for my outfit, and that is actually quite a hard decision to describe. As with my general process of getting dressed it is very much centred around feeling, but I have noticed patterns of habit emerging. In fact I can pull sweaters out of my wardrobe and know exactly which perfume, or combination of perfumes, they will smell of before I even pull them up to my nose (I do not spray my clothing, however perfume sprayed on my neck tends to rub off on necklines). I have never been the type of person to wear the same perfume day after day, although I certainly have periods where one scent dominates (this past Winter was mainly the beautifully crafted Au Masculin from Lolita Lempicka - tacky bottle design, but a stunning liquorice, praline and violet leaf scent that is reminiscent of the original formulation of Yohji Homme).

My clothes hold memories and the my perfumes hold memories. Perfume is by nature more ephemeral than clothing, because you need to physically encounter it in order to smell it, and even then, unless you are around for the entire development you only ever get a snapshot. In order to smell a perfume the aroma molecules have to physically interact with the smell receptors in your nose (which would seem to decipher odours in a syllabic manner, although the truth is we still do not fully understand how exactly our sense of smell works), with the shorter chain molecules making up the brief top notes, while the longer chain molecules form the warmer and long-lasting base notes. Perfume is one of the most affordable luxuries there is - a bottle can last a decade, and it costs the fraction of a designer dress, but you can wear it far longer. It is odd that perfume, this ephemeral and invisible luxury, so implicitly tied into the idea of fashion, lasts so much longer and stays far more relevant than fashion. To take one example, I own a bottle of Hammam Bouquet that was originally created in 1872, and assuming the current formulation is at least vaguely faithful to that original, it has a longer life than any fashion could ever hope to have.    

My first bottle of "grown-up" perfume was an original formulation of Dior Homme, first released in 2005 (I either received it that year or the year after). In fact I have been carefully nursing the miniscule amount of juice I have left in that bottle over the past few years. It has been reformulated various times over the intervening years, and what I smell in stores these days is nothing close to my beloved bottle, even accounting for the fact that perfume changes in the bottle as it ages (I should really follow Tania Sanchez's advice: if you find a perfume you love, buy two bottles, because it will invariably end up reformulated or discontinued). That being said, the first perfume I was ever given was the requisite boy scout canteen bottle of Hugo Boss at the age of 13 or 14 (these days I cringe if I smell it on a grown man). Alongside that I remember wearing perfumes owned by my eldest brother, including L'Eau d'Issey Pour Homme, of which I own a bottle, and the red plastic tub of the original formulation of Gucci Rush (marketed for women). But before these (alongside teenage memories of Chanel's Platinum Egoiste, Calvin Klein's Obsession For Men, Dior's Fahrenheit, and numerous other perfumes I doubt I could ever wear again) my experience of perfume was entirely different.  

You see I had a somewhat unorthodox introduction to perfume in childhood, in that before I encountered the eau de toilettes of my teenage years, perfume for me consisted of tiny precious-looking glass vials of dark concentrated oil that came back carefully wrapped with friends and family from the Middle East and South Asia. Unstoppering these tiny vials would unleash a dense wave of exotic smells - Turkish rose oil, Damascus rose oil, Oud oil, vetiver oil, amber oil, jasmine oil, styrax oil. While these were pure oils it should be noted that perfume oils smell different to their diluted counterparts, essentially being a condensed version that is darker and usually missing the lighter top notes. Of all of those oils I most vividly remember oud and rose. I believe Yves Saint Laurent's M7, released in 2002, was one of the first commercially successful oud-based fragrances for men, but years before that I knew the powerful smell of pure oud oil. When it comes to perfume, I was thrown in at the deep end – rich, dense, liquid gold. But to this day smelling oud makes me picture bad hair cuts and cheap polyester suits. Go figure.

My father never wore Old Spice, or Brut, or whichever aftershave most dads wore when I was younger. In fact he never wore any perfume except on special occasions when his preference was for pure rose oil. The best description I have read for the extraction of natural perfume materials is that instead of Seville oranges you always get marmalade. Rose oil is a heady and sweaty scent that differs greatly from the natural aroma of a fresh rose. But then if you smell most flowers in their natural habitat, they never smell anything like the perfumes, natural or not, based on them. In fact most natural flowers have all manner of odd notes, from faecal matter to vomit, because nature has a wicked sense of humour. It is probably thanks to my father, and his love for roses, that I have never paid attention to the “gender” of perfumes. I will wear anything that moves me, regardless of whether it is marketed towards men or women.

For me perfume is an integral part of my dressing process, and is very much a sensory practice, so I thought it would be interesting to introduce the idea here. I have been thinking of writing reviews for some of my favourite perfumes, just to see if I can, because although I have been learning about perfume, writing about it is another matter entirely. Regardless, this is a topic that I will no doubt come back to in the near future.


Thursday, 16 April 2015

Always Create

Comme des Garçons
Autumn/Winter 2015

Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons
Autumn/Winter 2015

Christian Dior wrote that 'there is no logic in the development of fashion, it has a kind of logical sensitivity which obeys one or two reflexes: reaction or confirmation'. Confirmation is the safer option of the two, whereby a designer presents a collection that appears (conscious or not) to confirm contemporary trends. Reaction is the riskier route for it means the designer goes against the prevailing current in favour of suggesting something new or, at the very least, something different. There are obviously varying degrees of reaction because fashion is not, contrary to popular belief it would seem, built upon binary opposites. Reacting against a trend in short skirts does not necessarily lead to long skirts...trousers are always an option. I joke, but hopefully you get the idea. There are an infinite number of alternatives to be had - black does not automatically give way to white, there are all the other colours in the spectrum to choose from.

This variety of choice is vital because the most commonly understood behaviour of fashion is its predilection for novelty. There must always be something new. But to be too new is to risk ridicule. Ridicule only gives way to conformity in two main instances: when enough people embrace the new look, or when a few socially-accepted trend setters adopt the new look. The former can often follow on from the latter, but it is worth noting that trends can develop from any level and move in any direction (although there is always a trail for the intrepid researcher to follow - I personally have my own documented files for the New Balance, Reebok Insta Pump Fury and, more recently, Stan Smiths trends that actually stretch back farther than one would think...and yes, I have a bit of a trainer obsession despite only owning two pairs).  

But to consider fashion only as a vehicle for novelty is a mistake. An artist creates because it is in their nature to do so (especially if their income depends on it), whether it be a writer writing, a chef cooking, or a fashion designer cutting a dress. It is a way to share what you love with the world in whichever ways you know how. Just as with language it is about communication and community. You propose an idea not simply because it is new, or because it is reactionary, or because it is confirmatory, but because you have something to say. Who listens and how many listen depends on the quality and intensity of what you have to say and the manner in which you do so. I realise this sounds rather vague, but the idea I intend to express is that fashion is at its best when it is about proposing these personal ideas. In this instance novelty is merely an inherent factor rather than a driving force.

As far as I am concerned the role of the fashion designer is to propose new ideas each season. These ideas do not need to be a radical departure from last season, actually far from it, because I feel that refinement allows for more interesting results. When I look at a catwalk show I see the clothes, I see the styling, I see the scenery, I hear the music, and of course I pick it apart and see what pieces I would myself like to wear. But there is far more to looking at a collection than simply deciding whether or not I would personally wear it. What is the designer proposing? What are they saying? Objects are mute, but I would argue design is not. Function and movement reveal meaning.

Dress needs body to be fully realised and understood. To be more precise it needs a body in movement, hence catwalk shows. Movement is where the beauty of the garment is unveiled, and this is what separates fashion designers from those who simply call themselves fashion designers. Anybody can come up with an interesting print to stick on a t-shirt, but it takes someone with an intimate knowledge of the human body and its dynamic relationship with fabric to create a dress that looks stunning in motion. Instagram and Tumblr may have spawned a million and one streetwear labels with their respective "fashion designers", but that is purely because we have a culture where all clothing is synonymous with fashion.

Fashion is manifest in clothing, but it encompasses far more than the garment itself. I think the catwalk allows designers a space in which they can say something meaningful. It is the reason I think so many designers, especially in London, would be better off simply having a showroom collection rather than a catwalk collection - many do not have enough to say to warrant a full show (and having a lot of looks is not the same as having a lot to say). I am not suggesting that fashion week should only have the type of theatrical shows Thom Browne or Iris Van Herpen present (...but I have to admit that would be a golden age), after all I enjoyed the Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons show just as much as the mainline show, but rather that we need to expand the ways in which we critique and consider fashion shows. There is room for more commercial shows, there is room for more conceptual shows, but what we should value is creativity and meaningful expression in whichever form they may happen to take.


Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Funeral March

Thom Browne
Autumn/Winter 2015

Fashion: Come, in the name of your love for the seven deadly sins, stop a moment and look at me.
Death: I'm looking.
Fashion: Don't you recognize me?
Death: You should know that I don't see very well and that I can't wear glasses because the English don't make any that fit me, and even if they did, I wouldn't know how to keep them on.
Fashion: I'm Fashion, your sister.
Death: My sister?
Fashion: Yes. Don't you remember that we are both Caducity's daughters?
Death: What can I remember, I who am memory's greatest enemy?
Fashion: But I remember well; and I know that you and I together keep undoing and changing things down here on earth although you go about it one way and I another. 
 Giacomo Leopardi, Dialogue Between Fashion And Death (1824)

Over the past several months I have lost more family members and attended more funerals than I have ever before in my life. In those moments I found myself functioning in something close to an auto-pilot mode, where everything was broken down into a series of steps. All that mattered was the task at hand, and life was reduced into nothing but a series of these small tasks. There was no time to think, no time to feel, just the task at hand. You have to step up and do what needs to be done. I found myself focusing on the mundane details of a task more so than ever before because there were no distractions. I am standing there buttering toast, and all I am doing and thinking about is buttering the toast. I feel the drag of the knife, I feel the texture of the handle, I experience the process like never before. In a way it was the experience of perfect mindfulness, were it not for the fact that I was not really aware of anything at the time.

Awareness is wisdom, but as usually tends to be the case, awareness comes after the fact. I did not think about clothing, I did not think about dressing, it simply became another task. My wardrobe is almost exclusively black, so in a way it already fulfilled part of the function required. My cultural background is such that funerals tend to be conducted within a day or two of the person having passed, at a time when the loss is still very raw. There is no concept of dressing up for a funeral – of attending in a suit or the like. People will turn up directly from work or from home, and although most will be in dark clothing, it is not unusual for people to be in a work uniform with a coat on top or whatever the case may happen to be. In that moment of grief, function is what matters most.

I have been looking back and considering my dress precisely because I was not thinking about it at the time. But it is ever possible to make any decision or choice without some form of conscious thought? And, as I thought about it, I came to the startling awareness that in each case I had worn exactly the same outfit. I had not planned to, I had not consciously thought to do so, it had just happened. I have a notably small wardrobe, so overlap is inevitable, but the fact that it is almost all black would ostensibly lower the chances of wearing the same thing each time, yet that is exactly what happened. I made a decision on some level to wear the same outfit, but it is only recently that I have become aware of that fact. I thought it would be interesting to explore my choices and consider why I made those decisions and what implications they hold for how I think about and relate to my wardrobe.

What I reached for was a functional uniform, one that I have worn before, and one that I feel provided me with some sense of confidence and reassurance. I wore a black long sleeve Muji heat control top, which has a beautiful long and slim cut that works well with my body. I found it a few years back in Muji, but have yet to come across it again, so I regret not picking up more than just the one. I dislike Uniqlo's version because the fabric composition does not wash or wear well, it is far too shiny; the sleeves come up too short for me and I dislike the cuffs; and the bottom hem has a label sewn in which is a small detail but annoys me to no end. The Muji top has sleeves long enough to cover my wrists, has a long and slim body, has a far nicer neckline, and has no tags or labels sewn on or in the garment (it merely has a printed label below the neckline with no noticeable tactile feel).

The sweater and trousers in question.

On top of the heat control top I wore a slim black merino/silk Muji crewneck sweater. The cut is similarly long and slim, following the line of my body without hugging or being too tight. The merino/silk blend has worn well, with a nice soft hand and a decent warmth. The neckline has a far better weight and knit than the merino sweaters I have seen in Muji in the years since I bought this one. Thus on top I wearing two pieces that fit slim, were cut well for my body shape, and had enough stretch and softness to feel supportive rather than restrictive. Warmth was obviously a concern, especially with having to be outdoors for the burials. But I find it interesting that I went for a slimmer top, as opposed to the baggier layers I own and more frequently wear. How do I account for this choice? I think it comes down to movement. These clothes feel supportive, with enough stretch and comfort to support a full range of natural movement. They fit close to the body, but have no noticeable seams or breaks that one can feel in movement, unlike those that would be found with different fabrics that sought to achieve the same cut. I feel prepared and ready for movement, exactly what one needs in such a situation where mind and body are focused purely on accomplishing the task at hand.

As for the lower half of my body, for anyone who has read my previous post (click here), it will come as no surprise that I opted for something baggy. In this instance it was my favourite pair of Yohji trousers, a wide cut black woollen pair in a size LL (they have a 36 inch waist). I wear them belted at my natural waistline and with the hems rolled up. Underneath these I wore black knitted long johns as my knees tend to hurt in the cold, however all my pairs are sized up so that the fabric is supportive without being restrictive. The sensation of the trousers in movement is one of my favourite things about them – there is an organic swing of fabric in time with the flow of movement, so that your legs come into contact with the fabric at a reassuring interval; couple this with the additional weight provided by the rolled hems at the bottom of the trousers and the flow is improved. Again it is all about the movement and that feeling of freedom within a supportive structure.

I have not worn these trousers with braces frequently enough to comment, however I would be interested to see how my experience of the mind-body-dress interface changes when compared to the belted natural waistline I currently employ. The sensation of trousers hanging from the shoulders is entirely different, especially in movement, to a belted waist or belted hip, which no doubt changes the emotional/psychic quality of the experience. What I will say however is that the feeling of a belted waistline, especially at the natural waist level, does for me have a certain determinedness attached to it. You feel prepared and you feel ready. Of course at the extreme this can be detrimental, for example anxiety often presents with a tightened stomach. But then the anxiety bell curve would suggest that this is the body being over-prepared, so scaling that feeling back from the extreme would suggest it is that nervous anticipation of action and movement that allows you to feel confident. I do not happen to wear any of my woollen trousers lower down at my hip level, as one would do jeans or other trousers with a lower rise, however that is something I would like to investigate.

For footwear I went with my deadstock 1980s Dr Martens shoes. They are sturdy, smart and have a wide enough foot bed to help me feel secure and grounded when moving or standing. The traction on the sole was also important for attending the graveyard. For outerwear I wore my black woollen winter coat and wrapped a six foot black cashmere shawl around me. Six foot of cashmere sounds rather luxurious, but, oddly enough, for me it is wearing a regular patterned men's scarf that seems luxurious in comparison. I grew up seeing my mother wearing Kashmiri pashminas and shawls, so wrapping myself up in cashmere has a certain childlike security to it. I do not tend to wear hats, and my coat has no hood, so the closest I get to blocking out some part of the world is wrapping the shawl around me. I now have a five foot black Kashmiri pashmina to add to my scarf line up, which is incredibly soft and delicate, and I am interested to see how it feels when wearing in comparison to the thicker cashmere of the six foot shawl.

I wore the exact same outfit each time without even thinking about it. Function ruled supreme, but function in service of an emotional, as well as a physical, need. The outfit was about allowing me to feel like I had maximum freedom of natural movement whilst simultaneously feeling supported and comforted. I find it interesting to consider the contrast between the slimmer top half and baggier bottom half, but I think it relates to the movement and emotional potential of both (free arms and chest for hugging, or conversely for fighting I suppose, etc.). It is a fascinating process for me to break down outfits in this way, especially when considering them in movement, because it helps reveal some of those hidden thought processes that go into dressing and brings me closer to understanding why I choose to wear what I wear.

As we can see the feeling of the garment is arguably the primary concern in this instance, and I would argue that it informs the majority of my dressing process. That is not to say that how a garment looks is not important, but rather that the work that goes into finding garments that suit my body happens long before the garments actually enter my wardrobe. All choices also have to made with consideration of the rest of my wardrobe, especially given how small it is, which means multiple pieces have to work together. Having such a coherent wardrobe provides you with a safety net, in that you do not have to think so much in the moment of whether pieces work with each other, which I find helps in opening you up to a more emotive process in dressing.

For me it is about feeling and function. Then it is about how it looks. Of course how the garment looks will inform how the garment feels to an extent that must not be understated, but I am interested in the order of primary drives when choosing and wearing clothing. As for how I think this relates to the process of building my wardrobe...I always talk of 'building' my wardrobe, but the only time it will ever be 'built' is when I stop adding to it, which is to say when I stop wearing clothes. A finished wardrobe is a dead wardrobe, which given the topic at hand is perhaps fitting. But yes, I think going ahead I want to focus more on exploring the feeling of garments in movement and documenting those experiences, especially when it comes to trying on new clothing (and of course, potential future purchases).

I am the observer and the observed, and dress provides the avenue for insight.  


Sunday, 8 February 2015

The Jeans Experience: A Sensory Approach

A short-lived experiment, these jeans made me feel like I was walking on stilts.

Autumn/Winter 2015
Now these trousers are more like it!

Movement precedes perception. When movement ceases (the person dies), perception of external reality also ceases. But we would be overloaded with sensation if the brain could not filter and prioritize the signals it receives from the body. This process occurs in the primary somatosensory cortex and its gatekeeper the thalamus. There is a continuous loop between the thalamus and the cortex where we can measure alpha wave rhythms (usually pulsating at some ten times per second), which gives us a visual indication of the editing and amplifying of these sensory signals.

We are constantly bombarded with sensations through movement, but perception is automatically focused by the mind to stop overload. Imagine being constantly aware of every article of clothing rubbing against your skin every second of every day, let alone the touch of the air, or each strand of hair stroking against you. If you could not edit these out, it would slowly drive you mad, and so we see that on a small scale and a large scale we edit out sensation after sensation without even realizing. Imagine putting on a hat – you are aware of the feel of it for the first few hours, but eventually you get used to it.

The body can adapt to any number of modifications, internal or external, to the point that you stop noticing it, whether it be wearing glasses each and every day or a bodily joint that no longer moves like it used to. If we lose sensation, which is to say perception, of any part of the body, all we need to do is increase the motility of that part. In moving my hand I become aware of it. This may sound obvious, but what I want to emphasize is that perception relies on movement. To consider a static body is to only ever understand its structure, because structure is formed of frozen function. To truly understand the body we need to look at it in movement. Similarly to truly understand dress we need to study dress in movement. I often feel that the beauty of a garment lies in the folds because that is where the movement is stored.

It is through the movement of our bodies that we relate to and experience the world, and it is through our bodies that others relate to us. Every movement occurs on two levels – the somatic and the psychic – at the same time. When you get angry it is not the mind that gets angry and the fist that clenches independently. Rather it is a joint action, because the mind and body act in unity. But the motility of the body is rarely entirely free and exposed – we spend the overwhelming part of our lives clothed. After all, the social body is the clothed body. Imagine yourself curled up at home reading a book on a rainy day. Chances are that you did not imagine yourself naked (but hey, power to you if you did). Indeed so powerful is the assumption that the body needs to be clothed to be socially acceptable that we have the standard dream of turning up to a presentation or a class naked, with all the anxiety that goes with it.

The clothes we choose to wear change the way we feel on both a psychic and somatic level. I believe this relationship has yet to be fully explored and understood, but it is vital we do so. For me the most obvious and easy place to start thinking about this is on a directly personal level. By focusing on myself I become both the observer and the observed. Thus I am neither purely mind-focused nor purely body-focused, but focused on the very mind-body interface itself. Focus on this interface actually forms the essence of mindfulness meditation, a practice I have been engaged with for over a year now, and the research into which is very exciting (neuroplasticity is damn cool). Dress fits into this practice neatly because in focusing on perception and movement we are actually able to focus on the mind-body-dress interface. Interestingly enough the dress component is already built into the practice of mindfulness as bodily sensation is often referenced in terms of the body's relation to dress (e.g. “How does the left knee feel right now? How does it feel to have your trousers touching your left knee right now?”).

I have previously written about my Archive Project (click here), part of which includes writing down short sensory descriptions of wearing individual garments. To be specific I have been writing down how the garments feel in motion, because as we have already determined, movement precedes perception. It is my belief that sensory experience has a direct correlation to psychic experience. If we can better understand the sensory experience of a garment, we can better understand what happens on a psychic level (ideally with quantifiable data in the form of recorded alpha wave rhythms and cortical readings, so if anybody would care to hook me up with access to magnetoencephalography, it would be greatly harm in asking right?).

Mind-body psychotherapy maintains that the body structure and movement of the individual form part of the physical expression of psychological issues. But it is not only neurosis that is played out in muscular holding patterns and tensions – we all know that there is more to communication than the words we speak, everything from gesture to posture 'says' something (of course to varying degrees of comprehension and open to various levels of interpretation). However, to quote Freud, even though he abandoned his attempt to understand neurosis on a somatic level, “the ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly from those springing from the surface of the body”. It is at this surface level that dress directly acts, so I find it fascinating to consider the mind-body-dress interface instead of just the mind-body.

Take the example of a man in a new suit. He feels uncomfortable, he feels tightly bound, he feels like he can not move naturally. His stomach may contract, his neck feels constricted, his shoulders may feel tight. We know that on a basic psychic level that biological expansion is perceived as pleasure, whilst contraction is perceived as unpleasure (a gasp, a tight stomach, etc.). He feels constricted in that new suit, and this is entirely evident to all those who see him move. But as he becomes more comfortable in the feeling of the suit and feels he can move more comfortably, that unpleasure no longer shows (the thalamus regulates the sensory information accordingly the more he wears the suit). This is something we have all seen, you can spot someone who is uncomfortable in their clothing a mile away. Now consider the fact that this discomfort is external. On a mind-body level there are also internal factors that contribute to equally evident visual cues in the motility of a person – chronically tense shoulders are one of the more readily apparent examples.

I thought I would start the ball rolling on sensory experience by looking at a specific garment. Many of you will no doubt remember that I bought a pair of slim jeans last year after a few years of not having worn jeans (click here). It proved to be a short-lived experience primarily because of the fact that although wearing the jeans filled me with nostalgia, that was exactly where the experience stopped – there was no 'present' feeling attached to them. In fact to be exact I would say that there was a definite lack of feeling attached to them. My mind quite literally filtered out the sensation in my legs to the point that I felt disconnected from them entirely, a process I only actually became aware of through my meditation. I was surprised at first, but the more I wore them and the more I focused in on that mind-body-dress interface the easier it became to understand why this could possibly be the case.

We have said that expansion is perceived as pleasure and contraction is perceived as unpleasure. Let me use for example a hug – you would be forgiven for thinking that it is a constrictive process of the arms wrapping the person, but it is actually the opposite, it is a process of the person expanding into the hug. The difference between expansion and stretching is that expansion is a comfortable release because it actually decreases surface tension. You feel supported in a hug rather than constricted (unless it is a particularly bad hug). On a clothing level take the difference between a bias cut dress and a corset. In both instances the individual is aware of the garment in movement, but whilst the bias cut dress feels supportive yet free, the corset is restrictive and tight. The quality of movement is different in both garments, as is the quality of sensation, but it is amplified to a greater extent in the latter until the wearer becomes accustomed to the corset. However to stop sensory overload the mind actually dulls out the feeling of the corset quite quickly, because there is too much tension acting upon body. Tension without release results in anxiety, so the mind filters out the tension to help avoid this process.

What I found I was experiencing with the jeans was something similar to the process of wearing the corset, but obviously at a far more nuanced level. I am now entirely used to wearing looser cut trousers, where sensation is relatively clearly defined in movement, with the space between body and fabric allowing for a natural swing of feeling rather than a constant tightly wrapped interaction. Now I do admittedly wear leggings underneath my trousers in the colder months, but even so, I tend to size up for a comfortably supportive fit rather than a skin tight stretch. Again the difference is that between support and tension, which is actually more noticeable in this instance than one would initially think.

How did the jeans differ from this experience? The slim cut of the jeans and the density of the denim meant that they were fitted and relatively rigid. Instead of feeling entirely supportive (they had a small elastane content, but never quite enough for the fit I felt), there was an element of tension and restriction. It goes without saying that tighter jeans hold the fabric over the leg under tension, hence the higher elastic content of skinnier cuts to quite literally avoid cutting off blood supply and feeling to the leg. Without going to the extreme of cutting off blood supply I experienced some sense of loss of feeling, albeit I only became aware of it when I focused specifically on the quality of leg sensation. The term I always think of when I think of when wearing skinny or slim jeans is that 'it puts a spring in your step'. It is that sensation of fabric under tension, where every movement is accompanied by a stretch and a feeling of snapping back. It feels stretchy, it feels elastic, it almost comes close to the feeling of compression tights worn when running.

What I found was that this feeling, most evident when I crossed my legs or otherwise stretched the denim in ways that increased the surface tension significantly, was something I had not experienced in a long while, thus I became hyper aware of it. It felt familiar, but at the same time it felt new, like the man trying on a suit after years without having worn one. In order to avoid sensory overload my mind seemed to rapidly block off feeling to my legs without me actually realizing it on a readily apparent conscious level. The best way I can describe it is that when wearing the jeans it actually felt like I was walking on stilts. Thinking back it is actually the best way I have to describe my experience of having worn skinny jeans in the past – like I was walking on stilts. Let me emphasize that this was not an immediate thought or something that I was readily aware of, but a feeling I only came to really notice and recognize by focusing specifically in on that mind-body-dress interface during mindful movement and reflection. It was always a background sensation, but one I had to bring to the forefront to examine.

In his book The Language of the Body, the psychotherapist Alexander Lowen equated a lack of grounding, that is to say a strong and secure feeling of attachment through the legs and feet to the ground, to falling anxiety (which he related to the fear of loss of ego control). His argument was that a person who feels unsteady on their feet when standing and, more importantly, during movement will generally feel unsteady and unsure within themselves. The body is connected to the mind, and his belief was that healthy movement and healthy expression went hand in hand. Thinking about this link I find it interesting to consider two things in relation to my wearing of tighter jeans – my tendency to lock my knees more than usual when wearing them and a preference for pairing them with heavier footwear. Although it is easy to overstate the link, I think some basic pattern of compensatory behaviour was evident. Locking the knees helps regain some sense of structure, especially in the case of feeling like you are walking high on stilts, and the heavier footwear quite literally helps anchor you to the ground. To this day I prefer shoes that help me feel more grounded, for want of a better term, which is to say nothing too tight or narrow (the issue of weight is no longer a primary concern, as for instance the Birkenstock clogs I wear are very light).

Needless to say the jeans did not last long in my wardrobe, and although I am interested in trying on more jeans and studying the mind-body-dress interface each provides, I doubt I will be including any in my personal wardrobe in the near future. I realize this post barely manages to skim the surface of several complex issues that I need to understand further, and indeed I am currently researching and considering these matters in greater depth, but I thought it important to at least begin to share some initial thoughts and observations. I have more information related to other trousers, especially with reference to looser cuts and the effect of waistband tension in feeling and movement (wearing trousers belted on the natural waistline vs. hanging off the hips, etc.), as well as other garments in my wardrobe. I plan to systematically explore the framework of my wardrobe from this perspective and use it to further my understanding of why I choose to wear the clothes I wear.

Why not take a minute to stop, check in with yourself, and see how you are feeling right now? Focus in on your breath, then focus in on your body. How do you feel right now? How does the air feel against your skin right now? How do your clothes feel against your skin right now? There is so much we can learn from just stopping and checking in with ourselves from time to time...and of course I try to link that all back to fashion and dress at every opportunity I get!

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

London: A New Hope?

"The real problem I think with fashion now is that creators means less and less. It's bureaucrats and facilitators who make the decisions." 
"The British Fashion Council seems to be growing and growing and growing but the results aren't getting any better." 
"Out of this chaos will come something good. The world came out of chaos."
A lot of people talk about London fashion at the moment as if it's really standing out and going through this incredible period of creation and growth. Do you not agree?  
Why is that? 
Why? Because I use my eyes. 

There is a sense of anything being possible here in London. What do you think is extremely hard to achieve in the city? 

Well, it depends. I don’t necessarily find that the London designers here are taking enough risks. When I used to show in London, in the mid 90’s, we took so many risks. We were doing it for creativity, we weren’t really thinking about the consequences. Of course, I really wanted to sell at the same time, because I was really concentrating on tailoring as well. I always thought it was much more modern that everything was wearable, apart from a few show pieces that you’d seen more of, because of the way that the press wanted to see the designs, and not necessarily the way the designer wanted to be represented. I always thought it was really important to have an inspiring show, but also to really have a wearable collection. Even the wearable stuff was experimental. I was always trying to push ideas, let’s say. 
I feel that now a lot of the designers are more on a commercial route, where they can have the businesses. But, I just don’t think they push boundaries enough; or I find their work too similar to other designers’, from the past. I find that they’re not really pushing themselves enough. Of course, there are a few that I think are, but generally I think it’s not as much as the work from my generation. I would definitely like to see more of that happening. I think you can do both, you can have a business and push boundaries at the same time, but people think you have to do one or the other.
London now has a fledgling male fashion scene that could soon lead the world, if handled correctly. 
All I can say is, ‘Thank God, but what took you so long?’

Autumn/Winter 2015

Autumn/Winter 2015

Autumn/Winter 2015

Autumn/Winter 2015

I am a Londoner, born and raised South of the River (I was born just opposite the Houses of Parliament, across the River, in St. Thomas' Hospital and have remained South ever since. Fun fact: officially speaking you can not actually die in Parliament, your body will be carried across to St. Thomas' and pronounced dead there instead). But when it comes to fashion week, London has never really excited me - each and every season I wait patiently for Paris. Let me say right off the bat that if you are truly serious about fashion, Paris is where you take your collection, and I honestly do not see that changing for a long time to come. It is why Yohji and Rei went to Paris, it is why Rick went to Paris, it is why Raf went to Paris, it is where you go if you want to be seen alongside the best (...and of course some of the worst, but there we are, money buys you anything).

London Fashion Week and London Collections: Men has not excited me in years, and I have been quite open about that fact - it has been a visual orgy of costume shows and deafening noise, drowning out the talent and chewing up young designers mercilessly. The British Fashion Council would boast about how many more shows they had this season compared to last, as if determined to prove that quantity beats quality by shoving it down our throats until we spewed it back up and called for a dark room to lie down in. I maintain that most collections that show in London would be better served with a simple showroom presentation, and that most designers who show would be better served by going away, learning to edit, and only showing if they have something actually worth showing. But it's fashion, so I guess I'll get on my flying pig and speed away from the street style fodder come London Fashion Week.  

That probably sounds thoroughly pessimistic, but the truth of the matter is that the more I despair about the state of fashion, the more hopeful and excited I actually become. The worse things get, the stronger the need for a reaction, and when that reaction comes, it is definitely worth the wait. Looking at any of the great moments in fashion history we see time and time again that designers emerge to shock the system because they were reacting against something. Whether this reactionary motivation is conscious or not for the designers who create those landmark moments (although I would argue that it almost always is), it is that sense of rebellion and a yearning for something new that is at the very heart of fashion. So perhaps it goes without saying that certain conditions do help cultivate it, and nothing is more antithetical to the cycle of fashion than stagnation. Stagnation may sell well (Saint Laurent being prime example of that), but it also allows for creativity to emerge. 

For the first time in a long time I saw the London shows (London Collections: Men A/W '15) and was actually excited by what I saw. Suddenly it seems as if something genuinely exciting could emerge, and maybe there is hope yet for the flourishing London fashion scene that the British Fashion Council has been raving about for the past few years. The shows this season actually made me stop and look twice, and although there is a lot of work still to be done, the seeds have been sown, and nowhere was that more obvious than in the work of Craig Green. His current season collection is for sale in Dover Street Market as we speak, and without meaning to generalize, that in itself is a promising sign. This Autumn/Winter 2015 collection built solidly upon the framework he built with his debut, with a clarity of voice that is remarkable for such a young designer. If one will allow a rather cheeky comparison, the energy and creativity of his work reminds me of early '00s Raf or, as McDowell points out, early Galliano. 

For me the improvements at Casely-Hayford have been welcome and steady, and indeed this collection was one of the better ones in recent memory. How do we advertise and export the idea of London fashion? Yes there is the quirky nod of Paul Smith's tailoring that probably outsells everything else London has to offer, but I think the two main stays will always been youth subcultures and tailoring. We have the two extremes - from punks to dandies, and this provides a goldmine of resources and creativity. Casely-Hayford have the craftsmanship on lock, so to see the cool streetwear vibe executed so neatly, and in a far more alluring manner than the kitsch insanity of KTZ and the like, was a really nice moment. Indeed I wish most of the brasher brands that seem to need to scream youth culture and rebellion would simply stop for a minute and think about actually designing clothes rather than just Instagram and Tumblr friendly prints and images. 

Alongside these two collections were two, somewhat more conservative ones, that really stood out to me - Patrick Grant's E. Tautz and Margaret Howell (who McDowell affectionately calls the "Mother Teresa of London fashion"). With E. Tautz I think Grant manages to do what Ozwald never could - bring a sense of Savile Row to the catwalk in a translatable and fashion-oriented manner. What I mean to say is that Ozwald's shows never got the balance quite right. Even though the technical skill and creativity was there, the direction was never really suited to a fashion collection. It is the same issue I have with the likes of Gieves & Hawkes or Richard James; their catwalk shows do not really fit into the fashion framework - they are showroom collections at best. E. Tautz also managed to do what Dunhill failed to. Although both collections were tinged with nostalgia, E. Tautz channeled that nostalgia to create a contemporary image, whereas Dunhill's efforts simply came off as costume (albeit costume well styled).  

When it comes to collections by London tailors I would suggest two possible routes. The first option is that you create a brand profile away from bespoke and oriented towards a younger fashion consumer like E. Tautz does. Or you go budget (and balls) to the wall with the technical brilliance and theatricality of Thom Browne in order to bring more bespoke clients in and also to help sell some of the more creative off-the-peg pieces. London has some of the best tailors in the world, and for that brilliance not to be center stage come LC:M is a crime. They should be able to amaze us with their skill and craftsmanship and get all the menswear bro's away from mid-market Italian tailoring and double monk shoes, and into the best of the best that London has to offer. Oh, and while we're at it - kick Abercrombie the heck out of Savile Row and protect the area by instating it as a heritage site, after all it is where modern menswear began.

Getting back to the quieter side of things, Margaret Howell is one of those designers who I think of in the same space as Christophe Lemaire - a whispered elegance that you want to surround yourself in. Like most of my favourite designers her story is a continuation each season rather than an abrupt change, and that constant refinement really shows in the quality and finish of each look. I would rather see ten looks from Howell than ten of the "blockbuster" London shows that fill the newspapers. Parallels to the earlier work of Jil Sander are dangerous, because Jil had a far more artistic (for want of a better word) direction, but I think there is something there - I wish Jil could have stayed and kept refining her collections like Howell. Keep your head down, work hard, share what you love with the world - she gets it, and boy does it look good.