Tuesday, 30 April 2013

10 ways to 1920s style: part 9, the flesh-coloured stockings

The opening scene of the 1928 film Our Dancing Daughters
Having read the words ‘flesh-coloured stockings’ you may well be recoiling in horror at the thought of wrinkly-ankled ‘American Tan’ tights. (Do Americans have ‘American Tan’ hosiery, I wonder, or do they aspire to a different tan? ‘Riviera Tan’? ‘Italian Tan’?)

The flesh-coloured stocking really came in in the 1920s, possibly as a result of the shorter skirts. Gone was the thick black woolly hosiery of the Edwardian age, and in swept silk and silk-alikes in paler shades. The ultra-fine textures helped create the illusion of showing a bit of leg even when one’s legs were still safely under a layer of fabric. However, adverts I’ve seen give the impression that the colour wasn’t completely designed to match the wearer’s skin, rather that the shade of tan should compliment the rest of the outfit, so you’d wear a cooler colour with blue than you would with red. Colours like grey and rose were also not uncommon.

I have to confess, while I have seen adverts from British magazines and know that stockings close to caucasian skin tones were marketed to caucasian women in the 1920s, I don’t know whether darker stockings were aimed at women of colour, and most of the photos I’ve seen of women of colour in the 1920s are of well-known actresses, singers and dancers, who probably didn’t dress the same as ordinary women in their everyday lives. If you’ve seen any adverts from this period aimed at women of colour, I’d love to know what sort of stockings were aimed at them.

Joan in 'Our Dancing Daughters'
Flappers famously wore their stockings rolled to the knee - Louise Brooks starred in a film called Rolled Stockings, and the start of the 1928 film Our Dancing Daughters is a shot of Joan Crawford’s stockinged legs, Charlestoning away even as she gets dressed.

If the memory of those ‘American Tan’ tights has you unconvinced, and the Duchess of Cambridge can’t tempt you into nude hosiery (although by all accounts she is bringing about a revival in sales), consider this: they do cover up flaws and irregularities in skin too, from ingrowing hairs to scars and dark veins, so they’re not all bad!

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Norman Parkinson 'Mouvement de Femmes' exhibition, Bath

As part of Bath fashion week, a small exhibition of photographs by Norman Parkinson, entitled 'Mouvement de Femmes', was held at the Octagon in Bath.

A photographer from the 1930s all the way up until his death in 1990, Parkinson was one of the great British imagemakers, working for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar as well as many other top-notch fashion publications. To me he bridges the gap between the very mannered, posed shots of Beaton and the relaxed, 'Swinging London' style of Duffy, Bailey and Donovan. The main thing that struck me was his use of blur. Usually blur in photography is something to be avoided, but he used it in a way that conveyed not lack of sharpness, but movement. 

One image that I loved was from Vogue, and was of a beautifully poised model, but the hem of her wide skirts was clearly moving in a breeze. She was still and flawless, but the picture had a great sense of life. Another that caught my eye was taken in 1970s, and was of Jerry Hall in bright Russian red, waving a Russian flag in front of a Soviet propaganda monument. (It looked like a poster made of stone, all in red and silver.) The flag is blowing and her hair is flying, and everything looks very active. One of the photographers I work alongside commented that Parkinson's images are always perfectly composed, and they really are, but he then shoots in such a way that they never feel artificial or stagey.

Parkinson also shot a lot of images that looked like they had a narrative: I found myself imagining stories behind them. There were people running down the street, or seemingly caught halfway through something – although always in the most perfect fashions. My very favourite photo fell into this category. It's of his wife, Wenda, walking towards a plane that's landed in the African countryside. The plane isn't fully visible, you just see the nose and propeller in the top of the shot, framing Wenda as she walks towards the camera in a trim belted dress, high heels and pith helmet. Who is this beautiful woman, you wonder, and why is she dressed so chicly in such a demanding landscape? Were it not for the helmet, you could picture her just as easily in Paris. I loved it. The photo is titled, 'The Art of Travel', and it's an art I fear we've lost.

The exhibition is a very small one. It runs until the 12th of May. It's free to get in, so if you're in the city and have a little time to spare, I'd recommend dropping in, although it's not worth travelling a long way for in itself.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Wartime Farm Sleeveless Pullover: progress report

Can you tell what it is yet? Yes, my Wartime Farm Sleeveless Pullover is finally go, go, go! (To be said in the voice of Murray Walker.) Mr Robot’s workmates found out about it and have been teasing him - but he will have the last laugh when they see how dashing he looks in it.

Note to self: the office floor is no place to shoot knitwear!

I’m really pleased with how the textures of the King Cole Merino Blend 4ply and the Excelana 4ply match up. The Excelana’s a little more loosely plied and has slightly more of a halo, but both are pure wools and knit together really well. There’s a negligible difference in thickness and feel when knitted. I really love the sage green and pale grey shades in the King Cole, and keep thinking I ought to knit myself something in those.

I started out twisting the yarns every stitch, but that takes too long so I now twist only when knitting the second consecutive stitch in a colour. It's made things faster. I've got a bit of a deadline on it as I'd like to share the finished garment in my next column for Simply Knitting, so I've been knitting everywhere. I knit in the car on the way to work, I knit every evening, I knitted in pubs in Cardiff last weekend (for the first pint, at least)... It's getting there. I aim to be working past the armholes this weekend, and finish the whole thing over the bank holiday. Mr Robot is considering wearing it to Steamcheese.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

I would do anything for love...

Meatloaf's the blown-out blob in the right-hand corner!
And I did do that - I bought Mr Robot tickets to Meatloaf's last-ever tour for Christmas. I hate Meatloaf's music. He's great in Fight Club, and always seems like a thoroughly nice chap in interviews; the Classic Albums programme about the making of Bat Out of Hell is great. I just can't abide the music. But I bought the tickets, so we spent last weekend in Cardiff.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

10 ways to 1920s style: part 8, the bandeau

Bebe Daniels in a
perfect bandeau
What the cloche hat was to daytime, the bandeau was to evening. It was essentially a strip of decorated fabric worn around the forehead, coming low over the eyes. Like the bob hairstyle and the cloche hat, the bandeau and evening cap make the wearer’s head look small and neat, in contrast with the piled up and padded hair and flamboyant hats of the Edwardian age.

In the 1920s, even tiaras were worn in the bandeau style: one a lot of jewellery lovers would love to see being worn again is the Strathmore Rose tiara, given to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon – better known as the Queen Mother – for her wedding.

Whether fabric or diamond, bandeaux largely went out of fashion after the 1920s. I don’t know why; perhaps no-one wanted to cover up precise 1930s waves of hair, perhaps the more sedate style of dancing meant one’s hair didn’t need restraining quite so much or perhaps people simply wanted something new and different, not the previous generation’s style.

Little evening caps were also sometimes worn. I say ‘little’, but these whole-head garments fitted very closely, like little helmets. I’ve seen them made of lace or feathers, and even some resembling pastel-coloured hair, but my favourites are beaded all over, becoming in essence a jewelled version of the bobbed hair beneath. There’s something wonderfully robotic about them, as though the wearer is half machine herself.

To get the look, you can tie a scarf in imitation of a bandeau (if you do, choose your fabric carefully) or even sew one yourself. Choose a fabric that matches the dress you plan to wear it with. The basic shape is easy and it’s a small item, so if, like me, you don’t own a sewing machine it’s still not too daunting a task. And you can really go to town with embroidery and beading later.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Steampunk event outfit musings

There's always the gold
outfit, although it really
needs a bustle...
Steamcheese (a steampunk day in Frome) is about a month away, and I really don’t have a clue what to wear. None at all. There are all sorts of things complicating this, too. To start with, not being a steampunk, I don’t have a massive amount of choice in my wardrobe. I took a look on Pinterest for inspiration, but everything seemed to involve corsets (can’t be bothered) and trying to look sexy (ditto, and I’d probably fail if I tried).

Also, it’s a day-to-night event. Do I dress quietly, so as not to look too obvious in the daytime, or wear eveningwear all day? I can’t be bothered to take a change of outfit, even if I knew of anywhere to get changed! The ideal solution would be some sort of dainty outfit with a plainer coat or jacket over the top. Take the coat off, party time.

Current top option is wearing my gold dress again. I daresay people are getting bored of it, but it’s my only piece of full-on Victoriana. Mr Robot suggested pairing the top part with breeches or trousers, wearing it as a jacket, which might work.

Other possibilities are one of my vaguely Victorian blouses – I have a couple - with some sort of skirt. Then there’s my Hobbs 20s-style dress. The problem with all those options is that my bust is a bit big for them; I don’t fancy repeating the occasion that someone had to tell me my blouse had undone itself. I really would like to show off the Hobbs dress, though, it’s so pretty! And yes, it’s the wrong era completely, but my friends know it’s very ‘me’ and would like it too.

Friday, 12 April 2013

My column in print!

I mentioned in my ‘An everyday outfit’ post that I had a special project in the pipeline. Well, here it is! I’m now writing a column for Simply Knitting magazine. I’ll do about four a year, all on my vintage knitting disasters adventures.

The first one is appearing in the issue on sale from the 17th of April, but subscribers have just started receiving their copies. If you’ve found my blog via the magazine and want to go straight to the knitting, just click on the ‘Knitting’ tag on the right-hand side of the page. That way you’ll avoid all my other nonsense about old clothes, films, comics, music, steampunk or what-have-you.

It feels a little odd to see the column in print. I write this blog, but it’s the sort of thing people only find if they’re looking for it. I’ve worked in magazines for years, but this is the first time I’ve written something and had my picture on it... it’s a bit different from editing something to fit, designing a pair of gloves or writing a book review. I’m actually quite nervous about the whole thing being so ‘me’ and so public.

I’m really enjoying my knitting at the moment and am already planning my next couple of columns. Hopefully other people will enjoy seeing the knits. That’s what I’m aiming for: to share some love for vintage knitting patterns, and show some appreciation for ‘nana knitters’ – we wouldn’t have these patterns without them having been there to buy them and knit them, yet things are forever being marketed as ‘not your nana’s knitting’ or ‘not just for grannies’. Hopefully younger knitters will want to try knitting from vintage patterns, and older ones will enjoy getting a blast from the past. (I hope they don’t all write in to tell me I’m doing it wrong!) Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to.

Thanks to Mr Robot (PP Gettins) for taking the pictures, and again to Chloe at the Rose & Crown, Trowbridge for letting us take photos there.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Piccadilly [DVD]


Very little about the plot of Piccadilly is original. A poor dishwasher becomes a dancer and seduces the owner of the nightclub where she works, splitting him up from his girlfriend, the club's former star act. So far, so humdrum. What sets this 1929 British silent film apart from a thousand other Bad Girl stories is the cast: the dishwasher was played by Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, and so race as well as class was a factor in the story.

Although nowadays she's the film's big attraction, and the first cast member people will name, Wong wasn't the lead. The star of the film, and the person whose name appears first in the credits, was Gilda Gray, a one-time Ziegfeld Follies girl who invented the 'shimmy' dance. She'd already starred in several films in the United States, and in Piccadilly plays Mabel, dancer at the Piccadilly nightclub and lover of its owner, Valentine Wilmot (played by Jameson Thomas). However, Anna May Wong as Shosho acts Gray off the screen. Like Clara Bow, Anna May Wong is a natural star, making you understand every nuance in the character without ever needing speech. Gray, in contrast, overacts a bit, especially when it comes to fainting or showing jealousy. (Silents Are Golden contains comments from some 1920s reviews of the film, and reviewers then seemed to prefer Anna May Wong too.)

The love triangle

Wilmot is a cad. He takes advantage of women. In the film's early scenes it's suggested by a couple of club-goers that he made Mabel a star and his girlfriend more or less simultaneously. He fires Victor, Mabel's dance partner, because he thinks Victor has been flirting with Mabel, then he throws Mabel over for Shosho.

Shosho I have more sympathy with. One of the first things we see of her is her laddered stockings. She's bitterly poor, washing dishes for a living and renting rooms in Limehouse, about as far from the classy side of London as you can get. I found I couldn't blame Shosho for grabbing opportunity when it came her way, although she does treat Jim (played by King Ho Chang), the man who was in love with her even when she was just a dishwasher, very badly. Wilmot uses women, but Shosho is happy to use Wilmot – a bit of justice there.

As for Mabel... Ah, Mabel. Gilda Gray was the star, and while Wong starts out in stockings with holes in them and a tatty old apron, with a beret and stripy jumper for her off-duty wardrobe, Gray has the advantage of stellar outfits all the way through. And yet it's always just too much. Her hair is a weird frizzy bob that detracts from her face (Wong's bob-and-ponytail combination, by contrast, emphasises her beauty). Her outfits are too complex, with glitter and feathers and diamond bracelets all over her arms. Gray's beauty was a delicate, pale sort, and piling lots of things on top of it did her no favours. Moreover, you never really get to know Mabel. She is a dancer, she is Wilmot's girlfriend, that's it. He's a cad, so you can't really believe she's better off with him, and you want Shosho to have some luck so you hope she gives Wilmot what he deserves – an empty wallet and a dumping.

But the film doesn't end like that. I won't spoil it for you.

Shosho's wardrobe improves greatly once she's a success -
you should see the gown under this coat!
I bought the BFI remastered version of Piccadilly (complete with blue and amber tints, just as the original film had) with some Amazon vouchers my mum gave me for Christmas (Piccadilly on Amazon*). It's got a specially-written soundtrack too. If you get the chance to see it, I strongly recommend this film. Wong is mesmerising, you'll wish nightclubs looked like the Piccadilly club nowadays, and the dance sequences are great.

*I get no money for linking through to Amazon and the BFI, I just thought I'd make it easy for you to get the DVD if you want it.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

10 ways to 1920s style: part 7, the long necklace

Think of 1920s evening styles and you’re sure to think of the long necklace. This part of the look is easy to get for yourself. You should be able to find a long string of beads secondhand or on the High Street, or you can make your own. Just make sure the beads are a reasonable size or they’ll look like seed-bead hippie necklaces – wrong era! With an opera-length string of pearls you do run the risk of looking like a pastiche of the famous portrait of Louise Brooks… but if you’ve got to remind people of anyone, it may as well be one of the most beautiful women of the century, eh?

The long string of beads draws the eye up and down, adding to the impression of length, slenderness and straightness of torso that was the 1920s ideal. It helps reinforce the overall silhouette created by the flat chest and dropped waist. If you’d rather stop the eye a little higher, say if you’re very petite and want to add the illusion of height, try tying a knot in your necklace. Alternatively, a lavaliere (a necklace where a pendant is fixed to a chain, and usually has trailing elements) is also authentic and has the length but stops the eye higher than a long rope of beads.

If long necklaces aren’t your thing – they do have an annoying habit of swinging into things with an almighty clatter, or getting caught on door handles and suchlike –long earrings and cuff bracelets or rows of thick bangles, in the style of Nancy Cunard, were also popular styles for jewellery in the evenings in the 1920s.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Casefiles of Mr Reeder / Busy, busy, busy

I have been hideously busy of late. I’ve mentioned doing craft swaps in the past. Well, my last parcel went astray, so I’ve been working like mad to complete a replacement (I knitted a shawl; not a small thing) and to do a half-parcel to help ‘angel’ for another person in the swap who hadn’t received a parcel. I finally finished that over Easter weekend.

I do a lot of worky things in my spare time, including now doing a column for Simply Knitting magazine. (First one is in the issue due on sale on the 17th of April, which is when my family will discover I have a blog as it’s mentioned in the mag. Erk! I don’t think I swear too much on my blog...) Anyway, I suddenly realised that my next deadline is waaaaay sooner than I’d thought, so am frantically working on my next piece for that. It's not the writing that's the problem, it's knitting something worth writing about.

I had vowed No More Swaps, but there’s an Addams Family one coming up. Should I? Definitely not. Will I? Almost certainly.

Anyway, amid beavering away making things, reviewing books, and repeatedly cleaning the dining room thanks to a strange cat getting in through the flap and spraying everywhere, I have found time to read The Casefiles of Mr JG Reeder, which I bought with some Amazon vouchers my mum gave me for Christmas. This volume is actually a collection of Edgar Wallace’s JG Reeder stories from the 1920s, Room 13, The Mind of Mr JG Reeder (a collection of short stories), and Terror Keep. I’d heard The Mind of Mr JG Reeder stories in the Crime & Thrillers hour on Radio 4 Extra. Mr Reeder isn’t your typical Edgar Wallace hero. He’s an old-fashioned-looking chap, positively Victorian, in fact, with his side-whiskers and tall hat. He's quite humble and polite, and attributes his success as an investigator to the fact he has a criminal mind.

As pretty much always with Edgar Wallace, I’ll slap a racism warning on this one. It’s so frustrating, because he only lapses into it a few times in Room 13 and there’s simply no need for it. It’s literally a few words and phrases describing an incidental character which could easily be deleted. Even so, I feel I should warn you of this.

The racism issue does lead me on to another point: Edgar Wallace doesn’t really write characters of any colour, he deals mainly in stereotypes, and even his lead characters are often a collection of traits stuck together to create a straw man just robust enough to support the storyline. If you can predict how a Wallace character would act in a given situation, it’s because that’s how the stereotype goes, not because you have a vivid impression of the character as a real person. 

Wallace’s women are particularly sketchy, and his heroines are always young, middle-class, plucky types. You could swap the heroine from one story with one from another without making much difference. Even Miss Bellman, of whom Mr Reeder is fond, isn’t allowed to display much in the way of individuality. She doesn’t do anything that isn’t directly involved with the plot: no books to read or films to see, few aspirations and no hobbies at all. Older women are invariably portrayed as in some way disappointing, and rarely show much get-up-and-go. Certainly women are never shown as having much potential; they are typists or criminals or don’t have to work, and it really is a case of survival of the most decorative.

Yet for all that, I do appreciate the pacing and convoluted plots of a lot of Wallace’s writing. His characters are shallow, but he goes all out to create inventive locations and interesting criminal schemes. His villains have intricate hideouts with secret tunnels, and carefully-formed nefarious plans. There's little in the way of suspense, but plenty of action. There were a couple of films made featuring Mr Reeder in the 1930s, and a television series in the late 1960s, and I’d happily watch all those. I’d recommend The Mind of Mr JG Reeder stories because the criminal plots in the stories are such fun, and there’s nothing massively offensive in them. The two longer stories in this volume are less interesting, and probably best left to people who already enjoy early 20th century pulp adventures.

I have also reviewed The Green Archer by Edgar Wallace.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Follow me on Bloglovin'

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Yup, I've signed up to Bloglovin' as Google Reader is going, so you can follow me there. I've transferred my bloglist to there so I can still read all my favourites (it's a looooong list!) but only time will tell if the little widget in my sidebar will keep updating. I suppose I'll have to remove it if it doesn't, which will be a shame as I like the idea of people being able to see interesting topics there and find other blogs they might like.

Anyway, follow my blog. It's like the Yellow Brick Road. You can be Dorothy – I prefer Glinda's dress anyway.