Hats off to the royal wedding


Of course I watched it, although only slightly longer than enough to see the dress, check out the wedding crowd, and witness the spectacle. Who didn’t?
Although the drama and secrecy around the dress was a public relations coup, expectations were also raised very high so I was a little surprised to like it as much as I did. Actually I loved the dress. It was sculptural, elegant, and as somebody pointed out, very Tudor. Perfectly balanced as a statement of style within tradition and offering no challenge to the accepted order of things, it was in marked contrast to Diana’s dress, that fantasy of princess wish fulfilment.
The bridesmaid was both sexy and demure in a very English way, yet in this very grand spectacle the best show was surely the hats – even before Beatrice arrived. Posh stuck hers to her forehead, there was that weird lozenge one, and lots of wide brimmed things that would have been very upsetting for the people behind. And obviously these hats were worn to counter the ordinariness and invisible-making conventionality of their incredibly dull suits. Somebody gave them all a lesson in what to wear to Royal Weddings and it wasn’t Gok. Once upon a time only men had to wear boring suits while women were expected to be colourful and expressive (and wearing beautiful colours is still one of the best things about being a woman).
So at this wedding televised to a global audience of millions and touted as a trend-setting moment par excellence, hats were these women’s best and probably only opportunity to express personality, flair, or fashion leadership. A few took up the challenge, but in the end it was no contest. Beatrice took the cake. It wasn’t fashion leadership and it wasn’t good taste or fashion flair but it sure got attention. Flouting respectability and its demand for subtlety, acquiescence to Fashion Rules, and appropriateness, Beatrice almost upstaged the bride. Since the wedding I’ve seen that hat a hundred times to one image of the bride. It got attention on TV, print media everywhere, in my inbox, staff room and elevators. Then Fergie announced on Oprah its next appearance would be for charity auction where it raised over £81,000 for children!
Have you noticed that the fuss has been less about the hat than about Beatrice for wearing it? Perhaps because Beatrice is first of all her mother’s daughter-daughter of that disreputable, incredibly vulgar, tasteless woman! So even though she is a princess, Beatrice will never fit in, can never really belong. I suspect she understands this, and also knows something very important about being loud and proud about who you are. I respect her for that, and for having the guts to wear that extraordinary hat.
And besides, I haven’t laughed so much in ages.


Time and the weather: Fashion week in Dunedin


March 5-10, 2011
Tuesday 5pm
Fashion week in Dunedin kicks off to the drone and spectacle of a lone bagpiper in the rain. Arriving from all directions, Dunedin’s fashion glitterati are herded into the Allied Press building then down a corridor of astonishing 1970s wallpaper, through a cobbled lane and into the old press room. It’s like walking backwards in time, reminding me that everything in Dunedin, including fashion, plays second fiddle to history. A wall of press photographs showing a century of fashion-as-worn underscores this point, reminding me how silly some fashions look in hindsight and that really fashion has a very complicated relationship with the Now.
Among the crowd of familiar faces and the well-dressed is an occasional fashion stand-out, including Charlotte Smith, curator of the Darnell Collection looking glamorous in a vintage gold dress and eyelashes. Another is the DADA woman of Dunedin with her huge glasses. Like New Yorker Iris Apfel, her fashion persona radiates from these glasses, and her fashion statement is expensive-exclusive. In the crush I see Emily Cooper looks trés chic in a little coat from Hong Kong and Liz Ung, stylish in quirky smart layers. I don’t see the Russians in that crowd but see them next day in the paper.
A lot of people are wearing black.

Wednesday 6pm
Starlight shopping is a great idea: fashion shops stay open till late, customers are wooed with champagne, red carpets, and the beguiling absence of men and children. Small groups of women wearing dark coats search for their big find, that rush of shopping success. Although fun, the champagne probably doesn’t help. The speed manicure in Ruby is as delightful as the clothes, the décor and the service – what a great shop, absolutely best in town. The trendy white polish takes forever to dry and makes browsing impossible, but by about fifteen minutes before closing time I am really hitting my stride. Suddenly I realise I’ve missed the Geek/Chic Fashion Show, where public library staff parade vintage clothes from Modern Miss.
Thursday noon
I drive around the block twice looking for a park near the Public Art Gallery for the lecture by Japanese Australian designer, Akira Isogawa. A hundred or so people are turned away from this event which is full by 11.45. Akira delivers an engaging and intelligent overview of his approach to fashion, which is a mixture of art and surrender. Everybody laughs as he describes creating a unique texture by heating giant sequins in a wok.
I interview Charlotte Smith in her hotel room overlooking the stormy ocean at St Clair. In another twist on fashion and history, items from her vintage couture collection are to be shown in the iD Fashion Show. Yes, vintage. What we used to call a really good score second hand. Many of these are couture, so it’s quite a few steps up from the Op Shop on the corner.
Everywhere I look are vintage clothes, shoes, hats, and gloves in colourful, glorious profusion. It’s very refreshing to hear Charlotte’s views on fashion (it’s a living thing) and vintage fashion (it’s for wearing; it should look somehow current, not stuck in a time warp). She shows tremendous strength of character by refusing to reify the clothes. Pondering her extraordinary luck as inheritor of the Darnell Collection and the way it shapes her life, I must say how perfect she is for the role.
I battle my way through wind and freezing rain to the iD International Emerging Designer Show, and it’s worth it. The clothes are an imaginative mix of darkness and colour, fashionability and wearable art. My favourites are Kate Bolzonello’s cloud shapes, Renuka Pana’s beautiful trousers and her mature palette, Aihua Wei’s astonishing coils, and Nour Hassan’s dark cube dress. I am assured that those grim black shrouds by Marie Kelly are quite lovely up close.
I wear red and get my picture in the paper. Kerry McKay and Pamela Brown both wear beautiful colour combinations, and everybody else wears black.
Friday 7.30am
Somehow I get up in time for the iD Designer Breakfast. It’s delicious and I enjoy sitting next to Charlotte and chatting to Damien Woolnough, editor of Australian vogue.com. Damien and I agreed that fashion is something to choose, not follow. Fashion talk – I love it even at that hour.
Quick visit to Emily Cooper’s Silkbody and Tamsin Cooper’s new showroom, for yet another glass of champagne.

Saturday 8pm
The climax of fashion week is the iD Fashion Show. Held in Dunedin’s high gothic, tourist-attracting Railway Station, I am confronted again with the glossy, cold stones of history.
I am wearing turquoise and red, and a hat. The mayor is sitting in front of me and I notice his special occasion shoes with their very long toes and shiny patterns (could it be fake alligator with glitter?) Nearly everyone else wears black. A chilly draft blows on my back throughout the show, the models plod up and down the incredibly long runway and the music is too loud. I see lots of great clothes but I don’t see anything really new.
Perhaps I am overwhelmed by history and the weather, but I want to forget that I live such a long way from nearly everywhere, and that the best of this city might be in the past. Above all I want to be warm.
It’s been a long week.

Just say YES


YYYEEESSS: 100 ways of saying YES
March 19-27th 2011
284 Princes St, Dunedin

When Yoko Ono made Yes a principle of her art in the 1970s, my response was well, Yes. And because I like working with textiles, I started saying YES in cloth until finally this year, I find myself with 100 ways of saying YES. It’s time to show. The Dunedin Fringe festival seems the perfect opportunity, since my art also plays on the edges.

YYYEEESSS is an exhibition of works in cloth, using many and various combinations of materials (mainly recycled), techniques and styles. I explore texture, transparency, and colour using patchwork, appliqué, thread, lace, trims, buttons, beads, and sequins, always using the word YES as a focus of the work. Wanting to make cloth objects that are more than decorative, I celebrate affirmation, active choice, and spontaneous delight – all concepts contained in the word YES. I love it that these concepts works on so many levels; at the same time saying YES to cloth, to the meanings of words, to creativity and connection, and to life itself.

My art celebrates the self from the viewpoint that making choices is the defining action of the individual. It also affirms resourcefulness, the value what’s already there – I use remnants kept and collected over decades, even working the smallest scraps into a piece. I embrace the way limited choice challenges me to make something beautiful or startling out of what I’ve already got, and with skill and imagination my scrap boxes become treasure troves.

I want my show to make you laugh or smile. I want you to say YES to imperfection, to a second life, to absurdity, and above all to the pleasures of the eye, heart, and mind.



As the story goes, one day on a South Island beach over a hundred years ago, a little girl saw a moa. Perhaps she saw the last ever Moa in New Zealand, perhaps it was a ghost, or perhaps she was dreaming, but she saw a huge bird in the sand hills and it was blue. Imagine that! Coming across an enormous flightless bird would be pretty surprising, especially one that’s meant to be extinct. These birds were so far extinct that only their bones remained, dug up in the nineteenth century and pieced together by dinosaur enthusiasts and archaeologists who in re-articulating the bones also began to tell stories about moa lives, appearances, habitation, and the drama of their extinction four or five centuries ago.
The moa is unique to New Zealand and therefore an object of national interest and pride. Many museums in New Zealand display full or partial skeletons, which can measure more than two metres tall, depending on the species and the sex. The skeletons are usually accompanied by a model or painting to help us imagine what this prehistoric bird might have looked like in the flesh. Whatever size bird is depicted, the moa is invariably clad in a long shaggy cloak of dull, grey-brown feathers. It’s always presented as the same colour as the kiwi, that other flightless bird of NZ, that other carrier of national burdens, the one that has not yet succumbed to threats of extinction. The kiwi is nocturnal, small, and its mousy colouration blends well with the forest floor and provides perfect camouflage in dim light. Subtle in the vegetation, it both needs and wants to disappear. (I wouldn’t want to be caught out in the open dressed so drably either.)

The moa on the other hand is a much bigger bird, and although its feathers may have been shaggy and long, we have no reason to suppose they were dull. Only a few fragments of moa skin and feathers have ever been found, and they were reddish in colour. Yet nobody rushed out and corrected all those old paintings, and people continue to depict them wearing the same dull kiwi colours. Since moa came in different species and sizes, maybe they came in different colours: why not a blue one? I’m thinking the blue of the takahe or pukeko, those peacocks of Aotearoa. Why were scientists and the rest so quick to dismiss even the possibility of a blue moa? And why did my heart leap at the thought of it? Improbable as it is, a blue moa would offer our collective psyche some real colour, something uniquely NZ to identify with, something confident and decorative, not scuttling about in the half light but resplendently out there – colourful, visible, and unafraid.
Identifying with flightless birds has its own problems, but I think the worst aspect for our society and culture is the utter drabness of the kiwi. Its colourlessness has been extended like an aegis to the moa and to us as inhabitants of this archipelago at the edge of the world. Isn’t it enough that we are miles from anyone’s idea of a cultural centre without effacing ourselves too? Anti-colour is the national colour; colourlessness implies authenticity, character, natural nobility. The ideal colouration in NZ is camouflage, and neutrals take top honours in the Taste Dept.
According to a recent article in The Dominion Post, people dress badly at work these days, and the declining standard is a cause for concern. Looking casual is a sign you’re slacking off. But I think the worst of it, and the cause perhaps, is this renunciation of colour. This is a much deeper problem. Colourlessness is embedded in the NZ psyche as a value, as a virtue, part of the deep reluctance to stand out, to be noticed. Being colourful or visibly distinctive is taken to mean one of two things: you think you’re better than everyone else (a crime in NZ society), or you are on day release from psychiatric care. Either way colour is a social risk.
A couple of exceptions spring to mind. It’s ok to be colourful as a group or team, (only ok because the team rather than the individual stands out), and it’s ok to be colourful when you are hamming it up i.e. dressing up without sincerity. One example illustrates both: painted-up rugby fans at a match. Supporters can’t wear the team uniforms (that would be confusing and wrong) so to “wear the colours” they must paint their faces and put on silly wigs. Although sincere enough in their efforts and about the occasion, it’s strictly carnival. The paint is also a kind of mask which offers a degree of anonymity allowing the individual to hide in the group (again much like other kinds of uniform). So it seems these exceptions operate rather like a safety valve, giving an opportunity to combine the real pleasures of wearing colour and dressing up, but without the risks of being personally seen, without stepping outside the group to stand colourful, visible, and all alone under the huge Southern sky. Like a target.

Is black a colour?
It’s impossible to ignore the dominance of male dress codes here, which have been sliding into colourlessness since the 1990s and dragging women with them. Perhaps always precarious, the palette for female success currently imitates the male and in the professional world, black is an almost perfect choice. The colour of national teams, black also offers itself more generally as a way to dress not colourfully. Black is then valued as the uniform of sophisticated renunciation. This ideal person makes no claim of appearances, using black instead of colour, but that just lets such people get on with presenting “who they are” as a status indicator only, without the burden of exposing real personality.
Black can also be used as a non-colour like mousy brown and blue-grey, which by denying colour also downplays character, exception, and risk. Black is a perfect colour for uniforms; readily available and much easier to keep clean than white, and compliments most complexions. But although black is often worn in a uniform or camouflage way, it can be worn boldly as a colour in itself. Black can be very assertive, imaginative, and stylish. I am reminded of an American woman I once met. She was dressed entirely and immaculately in black, the black intensified by her silver jewellery, red fingernails and red lipstick. Her whole appearance was one of colour, and there was no hint of uniformity, camouflage, or effacement. Far from it – she stood out in any crowd.
People keep saying that everyone in Dunedin wears black, but it’s just not true. This is just the impression that people get because they expect it, they look for it. People everywhere in New Zealand wear black… and mousy brown and grey blue, and grey, and brown, and red, and even orange sometimes. How many people in Dunedin actually wear black as a colour? Probably less than in Auckland or Wellington…Sadly, there are many people throughout New Zealand who wear camouflage, uniforms, and colourlessness. Colourlessness is not really a property of particular colours themselves, which can be muted yet subtly beautiful, retaining the quality of colour presence. Colourlessness is a state of mind, an attitude to dress. It’s about choices, intentions, and your idea of yourself: whether you see yourself as somehow exceptional just by being who you are, a self you are comfortable reflecting in your clothing choice, backed up by social confidence and knowledge – or if you see yourself above all as needing to hide in the crowd.
Hiding and fitting in eventually boils down to being colourless. And let’s not mistake this apparent disinterest in appearances as a virtue: I think this absence of colour indicates a lack of personal involvement and commitment, a lack of care. The body has shown up, but the person is not really there. What kind of cultural ideal is that?



Synthesis: the art and fashion of Zandra Rhodes

Fashion week in Dunedin was particularly good this year. I can’t decide if this was because the quality of local and emerging designers was also high, or if it was solely due to the halo of real celebrity, the glow of reflected light from a million-watt personality: designer and artist Zandra Rhodes, guest designer for Dunedin Fashion Week 2010. Accompanied by her friend Andrew Logan, UK sculptor and jeweller, Zandra was brought to Dunedin with support from the British Council and Dunedin lawyers Anderson Lloyd, and worth every penny. Interviewed by nearly everyone of note in New Zealand, she also consented to be interviewed for Context on the Friday afternoon of Fashion Week, shortly after a public lecture given that morning at Otago Museum. Zandra had spoken to a capacity audience of about three hundred people, mostly women (a quick count estimated proportions of women to men at nine to one, roughly equivalent to the opening night of Sex in the City). Her presentation was informative and polished, abundantly illustrated with images of her collections spanning forty years. Zandra presented her career as a progression of collections and their inspirations, many of which were from other cultures encountered during her extensive travels. The range, quality, and quantity of her work was astonishing, and was also (unusually) marked by the human hand of creation, rather than the machine of production.
Her work is frankly beautiful. The more I see of her fashion, the more it looks like art. Imaginative, innovative, she achieves in her work a uniquely balanced fusion of textile, dress, technique, colour, and design. She communicated all this with warmth, humour, and lack of pretension, so it was no surprise crowds flocked round her at the end to buy signed copies of her book.

An hour later, down at Otago Polytechnic, it’s my turn to meet Zandra, which has given me time to rewrite the questions prepared before the lecture. I know she is in her seventieth year, but it’s hard to tell her age, and age becomes irrelevant anyway when confronted with her person. Her hair strikes me first – it’s such a wonderful and startling pink. Then her eye makeup rivets my attention: extravagant ultramarine, turquoise, (and wasn’t there some gold?) plus a lot of eyeliner. She is instantly recognisable, even with her once–striking cheekbones blurred by age. Yet the details of her face diminish next to her striking dress and jewellery, which provide a new and distracting feast for my wide-open and curious eyes. Zandra wears several layers of dress on this cold wet day, with multiple colours, textures, and patterns, combined in colourful profusion and completely covering her short frame. Huge jewellery pieces adorn her body, beginning at her throat and falling well below her waist, dangling from her ears and wrists, while vast rings stud her fingers. The pieces blend and dazzle in a riot of colour, sparkle, and sound; they fall and slide and crash into each other with soft clicks – a timpani of paste, a cacophony of coloured light.
She makes no attempt to flatter her figure or steal beauty against time; it’s not the point. Ageless, beyond fashion, her style is her own self. A doyenne of colour and profusion, of subtle and beautiful combinations, of technically brilliant patterning – intricate and delicate yet assertive, she creates an unusual femininity which escapes the passive, yet which keeps the observer’s eye engaged on the surface, so that the female form becomes a means not an end to decoration, suggesting that a life in these clothes is a life portrait of display. Although that doesn’t quite make sense, it’s the best I can do. Perhaps I mean that this way of dressing is what display itself looks like: a subtle blend of surface, content, impression, and intention. It doesn’t say “look at me” so much as “look at what I present to you”.
Scraping our chairs on the lino floor, we take our seats on opposite sides of the long wooden table and I make my introductions. Various people hover about: members of the organising committee, fashion school staff. Andrew Logan arrives half way through with postcards in one hand and stamps in the other, bringing Stella along with him to show Zandra her blue blue eyes.

Textile and fashion designer, artist, fashion icon and instantly recognisable as herself, Zandra is also a businesswoman who has survived in the tough world of fashion for more than four decades – without backing. She runs her own screen printing company Zandra Rhodes Enterprises Ltd, sells her designs in multiple outlets and in media ranging from satin to rubber to ceramics, helped set up the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, and has more recently designed costume and sets for international operas.
The New York Times has declared her work collectable, her bust (by sculptor Andrew Logan), is in England’s National Portrait Gallery she designed the white batwing costume for Freddie Mercury, her clothes have been worn by almost every grown-up celebrity known to gossip columnists, and she has been awarded a CBE and nine honorary doctorates in Britain. What other kinds of famous are there?

Growing up with art and fashion, Zandra started printing her own textiles as a young woman because she needed a job. They were at first seen as too extreme, so she made her textiles into dresses herself and opened her first shop in 1967. She had black hair in those days. In 1969 actress Natalie Wood wore one of her designs, gaining attention for her work in the US. Legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland included Zandra’s designs in American Vogue (“in those days fashion magazines worked differently”) and the rest is history.
Her most famous work includes her one-sided dress designed in 1974, inspired by a visit to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in Australia; from 1977 her torn dresses joined with beaded safety pins and chains, i.e. Punk before Versace; she also pioneered ‘lettuce’ edging (rippled external seams) and made modern versions of the sari in India in 1987. Her designs have been copied as homage by several top designers (such as Marc Jacobs last season), but not all copyists acknowledge her (she mentions Versace and Dior). Zandra says it’s not worth pursuing copyright through the courts; it is very expensive and hard to prove. So although some work is a direct rip-off, she prefers to save her energy and instead see them as flattering imitations. She does however keep a book of these copies, which I hope will be collected by the Fashion and Textile Museum someday, for the record.

Seasoned world traveller and visual magpie, Zandra keeps her eyes open for sources of inspiration which she appreciates at the level of detail. She explains this process by looking around the room for a moment and calling my attention to the rather wonderful wood grain in the table, and then to the view from the window. Through mist and rain a silhouette of stone battlements is visible on the city skyline. It’s the tower of Otago Boys’ High School, a landmark and institution in Dunedin, but to Zandra it’s a castle. She describes how she sees such forms as possible patterns. First and foremost a textile designer, she collects these impressions by sketching, later developing a select few into her signature prints which are then screen printed by her company. Working from her final drawings, the patterns are separated by hand onto screens, then printed layer upon layer, colour upon colour, onto coloured cloth. She often works with satin or cotton, and says of her choice of materials: “You have to [see] quality in the garment somewhere.” Although never printing more than three colours, these are applied to a coloured textile, which both expands and unifies the palette. The colour range is expanded in a different way by printing the same colours onto different coloured textiles. Emerging from these combinations are luminous, complex, yet harmonised colourways. For example: imagine a cloth of pale green, printed with layers of red, pink and black. Try to imagine these colours overlapping and blending, not competing, and then imagine red, pink, and black on a ground of soft orange: soft and dynamic at the same time, and all part of the same collection.

Crucially, the separations and printing are done by hand. Zandra doesn’t use computers in the printing process because she says they generate an unmistakeable sameness which she rejects– she can always see when a print has been computer generated and this is not what she aims for. For her, computers also waste a lot of paper (“there’s another twig gone!”) Zandra always works to reduce waste in the design process, which is also apparent in her characteristic synthesis of textile and dress. Unlike most designers, her textile is never subservient to the dress, and the prints are worked out with the final shape of the dress in mind. The positioning of the printed pattern anticipates the placement of sleeves, neckline, waistline and hem: the ‘dress pattern’ is virtually printed on the cloth which privileges the design motif while keeping waste to a minimum. A variety of dress shapes is still possible, even from the one print. The textile directly influences the shape of the garment, which becomes a vehicle for the print, so she doesn’t torture the cloth or lose the print with a lot of cutting, shaping, and joining, as other designers do. Instead her dresses wrap or fall with a fluidity that gives life to the textile, simultaneously flattering the body to achieve a rare balance between revelation and concealment. The result is an effective display of body, dress and textile, in a kind of radical femininity, an artful balancing act. Her art lies in the synthesis.
She keeps her screens, and although some were broken by builders during renovations, most have survived. She recently reprinted one of her early designs, making a kind of retro reproduction. This allowed her to show some examples of her early work in Dunedin, since many of the early surviving garments are now too fragile to be worn. They made an appearance in the grand finale of iD Fashion Show, along with her more recent work, all accessorised to great effect by Andrew Logan’s outsize jewellery. And what a finale it was.

“What drives you?” I ask as the rain starts to pour. She doesn’t understand the question, so I try again. She can’t imagine what else she might have done. Reflecting on her long career, she says that it has never been easy, but that she always pretends that it is. She gets to do what she loves for at least part of every day, and has done that throughout her career. She describes herself as “an artist in the field of fashion”, and says it’s just as well she is “a workaholic because you have to be to find time for everything”. Spending half her time in Britain and half in San Diego, not counting trips to India, China, or the Pacific, she is always working and travelling. While in Dunedin she gets up very early to attend to her business emails before Fashion Week consumes another ten or twelve hours of the day. She has survived in a tough business by “ducking and diving, knocking on doors”, and “always looking to where she can sell”. She has to fight to get enough PR, to get another break. Although not being backed by anyone makes it harder to survive, it also means she is her own boss and her company is small enough to be flexible. I find her description of her career as survival very telling.

She always wears her own designs because she believes in them. And this is what strikes me most about Zandra: her self belief. She is successful as an artist, fashion designer, business woman, and individual in the world, partly because she is so confident. Her individuality is what she sells. Her brand is as much about her colourful hair, clothing and makeup as it is about her designs. She tells me she is selling a dream, and that people buy into the image because it makes them feel good. (I wonder later if they are buying into her individuality or their own?)
The impact of her persona on me is huge; her colourful look, her fashion, her clothes. And she is selling that image, but for her it’s much more than colour. She looks at colour a lot, and she likes it, but its only part of things and not the whole point. She doesn’t dress by colour selection. She tells me that when she gets up in the morning she quickly selects what to wear based on ease and practicality, she just makes a choice from her wardrobe (imagine her wardrobe!). Her colour choice each day is not connected to how she is feeling (unlike me) and I realise I have confused her colourful persona with colourfulness more generally. She doesn’t even think Dunedin is a city of dull colour (as I do). Zandra only comments that “fashions come and go… if you look fabulous then people will compliment you, which makes you feel good, and on it goes”. In any case, some people like to hide, so strong colour is not for them. Zandra recollects how The Daily Mail once challenged her to wear black for a week and she was surprised at what a struggle this was – but only because she didn’t have enough black clothes! It took her “a while to work it out”, and she had to go out and buy a pair of black pants. (How many of us would be challenged to dress for work for a week without wearing black?)
If she could do it all again she “wouldn’t change anything”. She doesn’t “want someone else’s life”, and she can’t imagine doing anything else. She is proud that she can “do prints and work them into garments”. Acknowledging that textiles are her first love, she also knows she just did her own thing to see if it would work, and it did. Otherwise she would have had to teach, which she hated (much to the disappointment of her mother).
She has really loved doing costumes for Opera, and has done several for New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company, printing kimonos and saris for costumes: in other words she ‘Zandra-fied’ them. She tells me that in Opera the director selects the whole design team, so “if you want to do the costumes you have to kiss the director”.
She loves seeing “that castle” out the window. She keeps turning her eyes to its battlements showing against the skyline in the pouring rain. She pauses briefly to contemplate the castle as an idea for a new print design. I think Otago Boys High School Old Boys would be astonished if they knew.

This article was first published in CONTEXT, journal of the Costume and Textile Association of New Zealand http://www.costumeandtextileco.nz

Follow this link for other articles by dress and textile researchers published in CONTEXT:

Armless Women


Suddenly, it seems the upper arms of middle aged women have become indecent. I am not sure when this happened, but it was somewhere between those hilarious conversations with other women sharing their flab vernacular 4 years ago, and the gloating exposure of Madonna’s gristly arm muscle on the cover of a magazine this year. If you don’t have perfectly-toned upper arms you better cover them up, honey. Showing those old arms is offending someone. Flabby and fat or taut and muscular, the exposure of no-longer-young upper arms has become (in some circles) simply wrong.

It reminds me of when somebody somewhere took exception to older women showing cleavage. The talk was designed to humiliate women over 35 exposing bosom, making it seem indecent and worse, making us seem out of touch with etiquette and fashion. Regardless of the fine examples set by Jamie Lee Curtis and Susan Sarandon at the Oscars in 2007 (or was it 2006?) and the age-defying appearance of Helen Mirren at the 2008 Oscars, there is not much middle aged cleavage to be seen anymore. Hadley thinks it’s just another example of anti-age bias, and although she may be right, that is not the end of it.

Social ideas of decency and modesty are in perpetual flux, it’s part of how fashion itself works: through influence, opportunity, and a process of collective selection. The selection process is a kind of crowd behaviour so it’s unpredictable and uncontrollable, and also the most dynamic part of the fashion equation. This is where those of us with enough confidence and knowledge have some fun, make a statement, and show the way. We are the crowd, we make fashion’s offerings fashionable, not fashion dictators. Fashion buyers and editors gamble on fashion each season, staking their reputation on what will take off. Keeping a sharp eye on what key people are wearing, identifying the trend then presenting their selection to the readership; they do influence the rest of us. But we are all playing inside the same playground: somebody designed what’s in the shops, somebody sourced the various materials which were all produced by somebody else, it all got made, shown, ordered, and shipped before it ever got to appear in that stunning fashion moment, the golden Now. While all those industrial processes are working hard to sell us something, we still have choice about what we buy and wear.

There are a surprising number of people who believe that Fashion is a kind of Law, that there are Rules which must be followed. Therefore the most fashionable people are those who follow most faithfully. But this also makes fashionable people the most stupid “why else would they allow somebody else to manipulate them into parting with their cash season after season while piles of perfectly good clothes pile up in their wardrobes unworn? Just because some capitalist misogynist fashion dictator decrees that this season, pale denim is in and middle-aged women Do Not Show Upper Arms?

I am not that stupid. Are you?

Still, I hesitated when I was getting dressed on this balmy summer morning. I know it is going to be hot today. Can I get away with wearing that lovely sleeveless dress, or do I have to cover my arms? I admit my arms have seen better days, yet plump and un-toned as they are, they match the rest of me. I can laugh at arm jokes (“The wave that keeps on waving”) but I really like wearing sleeveless; it feels great in this brief Dunedin summer. Yet even the doyen of UK fashion writing Linda Grant describes her perfect going-out dress as having cover-up sleeves and is she even 40? Must I be a defiant risk-taker, a fashion rule breaker, when all I want to do is wear my summer dress? I can wear anything I want (or nothing at all) but the part I have no control over is how this appears to others, what people will make of me. And sometimes this matters.

The crude power of social opinion always challenges a woman brave enough to be herself, to display her personal style. It takes a bit of grit. If you have really developed a personal style there will certainly be times you are on your own. Flaunting social expectations often provokes a reaction and a bit of calibrating is required to prevent social discomfort (you have to know your limits) and you must have enough social connectedness to avoid extreme reactions like bullying (you have to know their limits).

But there are times we just have to break on through to the other side. I am not armless, I will show my old arms. I will show my age, my imperfection. I think it’s sexy. Age is only a crime to the death-denying young; imperfection is only a crime to fearful perfectionists, being yourself is only a crime when you think you are more important than you are. Everybody else knows it’s normal and ordinary to get old and to show it, it’s normal for humans to show human variation, and it’s one of life’s great accomplishments to be yourself. The censorship of age, imperfection, and difference is a threat to be resisted or better still, ignored.

For those of us in their mid-40s and older who are not ready to disappear, who don’t want to disavow the pleasures of the body (including sex, food, and sunshine), not willing to become distasteful to ourselves – we can just carry on wearing our armless dresses. In doing so, we influence that process of collective selection and participate in fashion as actor, not imitator. It’s a kind of power, the best kind.

We are the sleeveless women; it is our dresses that are armless.