Columns

Category Archives: Columns

Sacré Bleu

AFR | October 2013

by Marion Hume

Hush hush, but have you heard the latest about cocagne? The source is limited but whispers are spreading through the French fashion crowd. Really, if you are planning to holiday in the snazziest summer enclaves in Europe next summer, (Cap d’Antibes, Ile de Re, St Paul de Vence….) you don’t want to miss out.

We are talking about something difficult to obtain but entirely legal of course. While you pronounce “cocagne” almost exactly like the marching powder which, some years ago, a supermodel allegedly put close to her nose, this column reaches you not from seedy late night London but from sun-drenched South West France, with its Medieval cities which grew rich thanks to the cocgane trade reaching every corner of the world.

What is cocagne? It’s about the size of a tennis ball and originally came with a distinct whiff of urine. In 15th century Toulouse, dealers built Medieval McMansions complete with blingy turrets and spiral staircases and probably tried to out-do each other with pimped-up ox carts too. The hit they sold was blue.

A cocagne is the solid, transportable form of a plant extract that releases blue dye. While abundant in nature, for centuries, blue was the trickiest hue to fix onto fabric. Your 12th century Game of Thrones warlord wasn’t wearing ecru because of a pre-Armani taste for beige but because no one had yet been able to take the taste for woad face paint and make it work for fashion. The breakthrough came when someone took the ordinary-looking plant called pastel, from which woad derives, pulped the leaves, dried them, fermented them in human urine, rolled them into balls then, about a year later, crushed these and hurled the powder into a vat of boiling water. When the offcuts from the loom were dipped into this brine, the cloth emerged a celestial blue.

So successful was the taste for pastel blue that by 1570, the pope decreed priests shouldn’t be seen in it as it was far too common. But the good times would end. Indigo – faster, cheaper – arrived from India. The French government tried to ban its import but by the mid 18th century, it was all over for the lords of cocagne. In turn, the 19th century saw indigo ousted in favour of synthetic dye, the 20th saw the pollution of rivers near European fashion factories. And so it came to pass that, by the 21st century, the poor of China started dying because dyeing had turned their water sources toxic. Those with a conscience are looking back to the environmentally-pure pastel of France.

A combination of university boffins plus eager artisans have been trying to bring pastel up to date for over a decade, the challenges, including finding an eco trigger for fermentation that does not whiff of the pissoir and making a labour-intensive process economically viable have taken time. First successes including (pee free) body products – soaps, lotions and the like – trumpeting the pastel plant’s antiseptic properties and labelled “Comptoir de Pastel” are now de rigeur in the chicest French holiday houses.

Now, at last, linen and cotton scarves dip-dyed a glorious Gallic blue are available via a completely sustainable reintroduction of a traditional artisanal trade and for around the 40 euro mark, making them viable additions to a holiday wardrobe. Gorgeous Gauls, who would never be seen dead out of darks while in Paris, are accessorizing their summer looks (white jeans, striped T-shirts – that chic cliche that keeps on looking good) with a swath of pastel blue scarf, worn either soft knotted at the neck, wafting in the evening breeze or even tied over an Eres swimsuit.

As far as I know, Pastel de Lectoure is the only producer to have launched an online source of pastel scarves with an English translation. Let the international trafficking of cocagne begin.

For Costume Parties Only

gatsby

AFR | January 2013

by Marion Hume

Now that the brouhaha about The Great Gatsby has settled — at least until it ramps up again for movie awards season — shall we take a moment to examine its sartorial legacy? As in, does it have one? Or does it not? You’d think the answer would be easy. Count the glossy pages devoted to “Gatsby style” in the past months. But is there now a taste for flapper dresses in a shade I still like to call “Queen Mum mauve”? Have oyster satin pyjamas moved from boudoir to street? For gentlemen, have pink suits taken off? The answer — to all — is no.

What is beyond reasonable doubt is that double Academy Award-winning costume designer Catherine Martin is on track for her third Oscar, for her fearless mixing of the historically accurate with the utterly contemporary. But when the looks filter down, what we have is fun, not fashion. The reason ‘20s style is the perpetual party theme that is so easy to do — with something spangly, a gold T-bar shoe and a cheap wig. Almost every woman looks like she’s having a good time when you add a feather boa.

A few years ago, I was reminded of the power of ‘20s dressing thanks to Eyjafjallajokull. Remember the volcano erupted? To cut one of my all-time favourite stories short, I was halfway through airline online check-in when I realised I needed a swift plan B to reach Venice. I hitched a ride on the Orient Express, a fun-filled flapper heaven (other than for me: I didn’t have time to theme-pack). The only mirrors on board are make-up sized, which means no one has a full-length view. Everyone thus dresses how they think they would like to look and, thanks perhaps to some dry martinis, everyone looks lovely. Not fashionable, but superbly theme-party lovely.

What is lovely is how loudly Catherine Martin has acknowledged the roles Tiffany & Co, Prada and Brooks Bros played in her overall costume creation. When she brings her Oscar count to a trifecta, I’ll wager that, once she’s effusively thanked her collaborator in life and work, the film’s director Baz Luhrmann, she will name-check all the above. By so doing, Martin will be acting more than graciously — she will be setting right a wrong done when The Great Gatsby last garnered an Oscar, in 1974. If you recall that version at all, what you’re most likely to remember is Robert Redford’s clothes (Mia Farrow’s Daisy is a more misty memory). Yet when costume designer Theoni Alderedge caressed her Oscar at the podium, she did not thank Ralph Lauren, an omission that made clear the attention he had been getting for his suits had got right under her skin.

Aldredge was not the first costume designer to neglect to thank the input of fashion designers. When Edith Head collected an Oscar for Sabrina (1954), she seemed not to recall that French couturier Hubert de Givenchy was responsible for the new neckline that so flattered elfin Audrey Hepburn, igniting a trend. Givenchy didn’t stake his claim to the “Sabrina neckline” until years after Head’s death, even though those who’d worked with her at Paramount Pictures had, by then, confided that the costumes had been made up from Givenchy’s sketches.

As to the current Gatsby changing the way we dress, I doubt it. But acknowledging that you need creative collaboration to make something great? Well, that’s bang on trend.

Dream Weavers

IMG_5216

AFR | May 2013

by Marion Hume

What constitutes fashion? That’s what I’m pondering while standing out in the Red Desert holding a handmade basket trimmed with emu feathers. Could it look good upended as a hat?

The Tjanpi Desert Weavers (pronounced “jumpy”, it means “grass”) make baskets – amazing, extraordinary, original baskets of fistfuls of spinifex. They embellish the baskets with skeins of vibrant wool, feathers and seeds. They also create toy animals in colours not seen in nature; but then I’m learning that the artisans of Australia’s Western Desert see nature in an entirely different way than I do.

I’m not a “clutter fan”, nor do I tend to buy souvenirs. Yet I find myself tempted by both the basket I want to put on my head, and what might or might not be a lizard. Maybe it’s a duck? The Tjanpi women make all sorts of animals, inspired by those that inhabitat a vast sweep of South Australia, WA and the Northern Territory, but also by those they have seen seen on television. A penguin, imagined in local grass, by an Indigenous woman living in one of the world’s most remote communities is a creature to behold.

The Tjampi ladies are spread across an area exceeding 350,000 square kms — bigger than Germany — yet they are both global and local. Their favourite material is raffia, which comes only from Madagascar, the island which hangs like a tear off the East Coast of Africa. This discovery reminds me why fashion is such a great beat. You and I speak one word of Malagasy (raffia) although perhaps unlike you, I’ve been to Antananarivo, that nation’s capital. There, 25 years ago, I met a real-life spiderman called Simon Peers, whose ambition was to rediscover the lost art of “milking” spiders to use the skeins to weave cloths of (natural) gold as had been done hundreds of years before. Last year, he achieved it with a dazzling drape exhibited at London’s V&A museum. (Every spider who contributed had been released at the end of each working day – none the worse, Peers believed – although we agreed, with aggressive hairy spiders, how could you tell?). Now, here I am, in the Red Centre of Australia,  twiddling with a piece of raffia sticking out from a basket woven by an indigenous woman and recalling how half way across the world, on the island raffia hails from, the bizarre ambition of an eccentric Englishman lead to the creation of a thing of beauty and how with this basket/hat, another fashionable thing of beauty could be born.

Maybe one’s thoughts kangaroo-hop under the vast desert sky because the next thing I’m thinking is how complicated some of the names I have to learn to spell as a fashion reporter can be. Tjanpi is easy and with a lovely zing to it, however I have to check the website before I write here that the weavers are Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara. I learn that their ancestors make circles of grass on which to balance whatever they needed to carry around on their heads, so I think there’s a millinery precedent.

I’ve come to Alice Springs to catch up with Krystal Perkins, who helms the Australian Indigenous Fashion Initiative, which launched at the AFR’s Bespoke last May and will celebrate indigenous creativity with a show in Sydney next April. Tjanpi hats? The challenge is, what with the heat, December to March, they may not be ready for the inaugural event. Yet even if we have to wait – and “wait lists” are, after all, very fashionable – with a few creative tweaks, we could be on to something.

I learn another new word;  “Tjarpa!” “Put it on!”

Highfliers

cn_image.size.qantas-airlines-miranda-kerr-new-uniforms

AFR | April 2013

by Marion Hume

It was the best runway show held on a runway. Well, to be accurate, it ties as my joint favourite of only two fashion shows ever shown on a runway. I’m using the Australian sense of that word (a long straight strip on which planes land) as opposed to the American, where it also means the thin strip catwalk models swank down.

The first runway show I saw was some twenty years ago when the brainiac of fashion, Hussein Chalayan, revealed a conceptual collection called “Beyond False Equator” illuminated by aircraft landing lights. Great shows stick.

The other is likely to remain front-of-mind to Australians for years to come, given it began with the roar of jet engines and then out came the new Qantas uniforms. We all know Qantas is NOT the national airline (the people don’t own it) but when it comes to distilling the modern spirit of chic, sophisticated, multifaceted Australia, frankly, Qantas nailed it.

You don’t need me to describe the trench coat, the slender dress, the shorts for the baggage handlers – by now, the images are everywhere. After decades being unknown except to the tight, top-tier of the fashion world, Melbournian, Martin Grant (a long time resident of Paris) who Qantas hired as the designer, at last needs no introduction – although he is hardly what you would call an overnight success.

I grabbed an aisle seat a few rows back (always my preference), in amongst flight attendants who were seeing what they will wear to work for the next decade for the first time. “Loving the Qantas red with the hot pink!” the woman next to me exclaimed, not to me but to herself, in affirmation that she felt her pride in her job sweeping back back. Clothes can, you see, be powerful. The best uniforms can unite a workforce in a common goal.

You get it that my verdict on the Qantas uniforms is excellent when it comes to style but top marks to in terms of the politics of business, which can be very turbulent.  Habitually, when corporations collide with fashion, the results end up ugly. Corporations have what I call an “Auntie Mame” view; they come to those funny people in fashion for glamour, yet want it for a buck in cheap synthetics. Surprisingly perhaps, fashion designers tend to tone things down yet they want beautiful fabrics and everything in a tiny size. Then it goes to committee where there’s an uneasy compromise, especially when the resulting designs are scaled for the climates of 5 continents and in sizes 2 to 22.

In addition, when corporates call the fashion world, usually, they are after a star, a personality who can be rolled out like a camp court jester. Martin Grant is no performer. He is quietly spoken, determined, diligent and has built his business one client at time. As a result, he knows where the bumps are and how to plan for them.

There are bumps ahead for the global aviation industry in the sky and on the ground. Yet Qantas can certainly tick one box; for motivating its far flung global battalions in a modern way. The era of the trolley dolly is over. It’s not about marrying the pilot or the guy in seat 1Aand the new Qantas uniforms signal pride in one’s career.

Martin Grant told me it was pressure from the flight attendants that persuaded him to add the gloves, the hat. “Too right,” say my friend Suze, who flies domestic for Qantas. “I’m in my 50s. You don’t get much attention. But in that outfit, I can’t wait to see the heads turn as we march through the terminal”

Call this lift off to a new and stylish corporate dawn.

It’s In The Bag

AFR | January 2013

by Marion Hume

The day after any televised royal event, I know just what my mum is going to say. “Did you see the way the Queen walked down those stairs? Not holding a handrail and she never looks down!” HRH’s agility fascinates my not particularly Royalist mother. I was wondering what both she and her Maj might have made of the scene at a recent fashion party. The exit was via a vast marble staircase, so I hurried down the centre then waited and waited as everyone else teetered to ground level, clinging to the rails as if this were the sinking of the Titanic. Isn’t the purpose of a shoe that you can walk in it, including down a stair? But what’s on­trend now are styles so unbalanced that the fastest speed is a hobble. HRH would be amused by that!

Yet fashion decrees that when one must ­have reaches the realms of the ridiculous, another becomes sensible to compensate. Handbags, once so weighed down with hardware you could hardly lift them empty, have become more practical. What is chic now is unadorned and calm. (Imagine here, please, handbags by Celine. So simple. So lovely. So expensive.) HRH knows all about practical bags – she’s had the same style swinging off a regal forearm for the past half century. Indeed, maybe not just the same style, perhaps the same actual bag? I suspect she owns but three: one cream, one black and one which they re­cover to match whatever primrose ensemble she is wearing. Those of us who can’t avail ourselves of such a service do need a few more choices.

I made one a month ago. As I walked to the office, I decided to buy a rucksack, a style I have not owned since I gave up backpacking in my early 20s. Mine, though, is black canvas, with a leather base and a pocket for phone and keys. It is not at all something you would take on a scout camp. That the label, Ally Capellino, is not better known in Australia is something I am trying to change, one convert at a time. The label sells online, at the Tate galleries in London and in just two little London stores.

If your tastes are snazzier, may I draw your attention to the bags of Baraboux. Reema Bandar Al Saud of Riyadh was looking for a solution to the organisational needs of a globe trotting lifestyle and decided to do something about it. These are not schlepp­-it-­through-­the-sand bags, although they’d be perfect if you were, say, flying Emirates and doing a few days stopover in Dubai. I swooped in on the Marie, a day bag with detachable pocket­ purses on the outside, for when I’m travelling and a rucksack won’t cut it. Usually you put purses inside a handbag, but this way, you can go: “Can leave that one in the hotel. Need that one. Don’t need that one until later.” Amazingly, the bag looks equally attractive with any combination of pockets attached.

Every women knows the prettiest evening bags are the most useless. It’s a fantasy to think all we need to carry is a lipstick and a hanky. The Reema bag has a neat trick: a metal mesh cuff which looks like a decorative detail to a black satin clutch, yet slides around the barrel revealing two compartments – one for things you don’t mind people catching a glimpse of, one for those necessities you do. Phone, business cards, keys and other items a girl needs close at hand. I dumped them from one bag to the Reema. Call that a sale.

The Auld Country

AFR | January 2013

by Marion Hume

For once, I look more like Chanel than any other woman present and me a big boned six footer while Coco was a little bird. I’m in Scotland, land of my heart, a nation with which Mademoiselle Chanel fell in love while being wooed by the Duke of Westminster, familiarly known as Bendor and the richest man in England, (which, in turn, meant he owned half of Scotland). In the end, Chanel would ditch the multimillionaire but would keep her love for “the auld country” forever.

While they were dating, Coco and Bendor would enjoy long walks through the bonnie purple heather, which inspired a devotion for the rough weaves and the colours of tweed which remain central to the Chanel DNA. It was “North of the Border” that the jaunty French mistress of a naughty rich gent fell for the majesty of tartan, the softness of Scottish wool, the patterns of Fair Isle. And it was up here, in the land of lochs and crags, that Chanel really took to mannish dressing. She’d dabbled before, decking herself in the jersey undergarments of a former boyfriend, but she really crossed over in Scotland.

For salmon fishing at Lochmore, Chanel wore an oversized chunky sweater, warm “trews”, big socks, jack boots and, in a snapshot taken in 1928, a radiant smile. She looked entirely different from the hard, little Parisian of other photographs with the gimlet eye of ambition, the jaw fixed in grim determination, the armholes of her jacket cut high and tight.

It is Chanel’s joyful Lochmore look I have gone for tonight because we are instructed to wrap up warm. I’ve added a huge broach, which looks as if it was hammered and forged by the Pictish men of the dark hills; in truth, it was dug up with delight, at Christine Barro’s treasure trove in Melbourne.

Snow falls on the location, a roofless, ruined castle. Karl Lagerfeld has invited us to witness a fashion show inspired not just by the brand’s long history of Scottish production but also by its life-saving purchase, last August, of Barrie Knitwear, which makes Chanel’s cashmere twinsets. A pension fund crisis in the conglomerate by which it was owned had bought Barrie to the brink. Chanel added it into its charm bracelet of specialist companies, the Metiers d’Art, acquired in order to preserve the savoir faire of glove makers, feather makers, milliners, goldsmiths. “It’s a dream,” says managing director, Jim Carrie, who feared he was headed for the block.

That was the grim fate of Mary, Queen of Scots, born here at Linlithgow Palace and whose every living heartbeat brought her closer to her cousin, Elizabeth I, sending horseman North with orders for her execution. The models in the show wear their red hair plaited upwards, tight to their scalps, keeping their necks clean for the axe. Scotland changed Chanel. Its haunting highland spell softens Karl Lagerfeld, who modernises the traditional in his most beautiful show in 30 years with the brand. Models hurry past, their chiffon gowns held by kilt fastenings, wrapped up against the weather in vast tartan scarves and bonnets. Never, in all my years of singing Auld Lang Syne to see in the New Year did I expect that the Chanel bag du jour would be a sporran rendered in golden chain mail or that Hogmanay vocabulary like tam o’shanter, ghillies and sgian dubh (men’s bonnet, brogues and the knife you stick on your kilt socks) would become a useful part of my lexicon in the high speed frenzy of the front row.

The “Auld Alliance” between France and Scotland was forged way back in 1295. The show’s title is Paris Edimbourg, to me, thrilling proof that the age-old pairing between the land of my work and the land of my blood stays strong.


Heart Of Glass

AFR | December 2012

by Marion Hume

Sometimes an adventure beckons and you have to follow the lead. When an interview was relocated from New York to Prague, I was thrilled, given I haven’t been to the Czech Republic since it was Czechoslovakia. I looked forward to going again to the mighty Prague castle, to walking the span of the historic Charles Bridge. 

But then a half-lost nugget of something began to niggle. When, recently, had there been mention of something Czech? I realized it was a few weeks before, in Kenya, when I was watching Maasai women working their magic on a range of bags for Myer, including designs by Karen Walker, Fleur Wood and Jayson Brunsdon. 

Maasai beading is every bit as good as in the ateliers of the Paris haute couture. (How lucky am I, to have witnessed both, and often). This is due to a mix of traditional skill and sheer bloody-mindedness. The Maasai won’t even touch beads from India or China (whisper it, but the French will). Only the Czech ones are perfect. 

Today, glass seed beads are still traded through second, third, fourth parties, so it has taken a degree of investigative skill to trace the source to where I am standing now, inside an old glass foundry, up a mountain, near a village I will never learn how to pronounce. Getting all the way here from Prague has taken guts and the navigational skills of a girl scout (Ok, that’s not true, but it has required the essential fashion skill of knowing how to hire a cheap driver with a GPS).

Inside, it is roasting hot, as you’d expect when five furnaces hit over 1,000 degrees. What looks like needle-thin vermicelli is being extruded (protuded? Who to ask for vocab when I can’t speak Czech?) along thin, raised contraptions that stretch as far as the eye can see. The secrets of glass reached Bohemia from the Venetian isle of Murano. But they will get no further today. How does this clear vermicelli become tiny beads of more colours than I can describe? Before I work that out, I am ushered outside into the icy cold. With every step I take there’s the crunch of glittering fragments of glass, sparkling under my feet. 

Where I am welcomed, warmly and officially, is at the offices of Preciosa Ornela from whence all top-end traditional seed beads, known as rocailles, hail. (Preciosa Ornela, best know for glass figurines, bought out an ailing company called Jablonex which pioneered rocailles). These beads range from so teeny, they are given the measure 13/0 – a percentage of a millimetre – to 4/0, which is just about big enough for me to see without glasses. 

Over eggs, ham and pickles, my hosts explain the reason Preciosa Ornela, and previously Jablonex and originally, the way more famous Swarovski, (a Czech company before moving to Austria) all hail from a cluster of tiny mountain villages. While glass is hard work, it doesn’t need many people. What it did need, traditionally, was wood, sand and water a-plenty. Given the Venetians soon ran out of wood, that this landlocked region of icy streams and forests always had to import sand (today a complex mix of chemicals) soon made the competition about even. But while the venetians lent more towards chandeliers, here it was beads and buttons. Thence, from the top of this mountain, traders ventured around the world, all the way to Mexico, China, India and East Africa. 

“But the world we have never conquered is fashion,” my hosts lament, comparing to the spectacular style success of Swarovski. That’s when I reveal that Vivienne Westwood evening clutch bags and Sass & Bide tote bags are beaded by the Maasai through the United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative in Kenya. My hosts are utterly delighted – although not as delighted as my Maasai mates will be when I hand over the new season’s disco beads in shimmering gold, bronze and silver.

The Doisneau Department

AFR | November 2012

by Marion Hume

Paris in the sunlight. As my taxi slows in traffic near the Hotel de Ville, I am once again convinced of the existence of a secret agency of the French government, or perhaps a hidden team within the offices of the mayor. Their mission? To hire gorgeous young people and send them out on the streets to kiss, thus maintaining a worldwide reputation for romance.

The codename, or so I like to think; “The Doisneau Department”.

The smart bit is that whoever is in charge doesn’t just reach into the costume cupboard for vintage pieces and send the actors out to “do a Doisneau”. The trick keeps working because the fashions are always up-to-date.  But even if they did just try to stage literal recreations of Robert Doisneau’s eternal and endlessly-reproduced photograph, The Kiss (or Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville, to give it the original title), the snapshots you’d catch from a cab would still look utterly contemporary.

If you can picture the original image, first published in Life magazine in 1950, in your mind’s eye, you’ll recall the young man is wearing an oversized double-breasted jacket which, today, you’d source from Yohji Yamamoto, plus a scarf like any you’d find in a good menswear store. The lass looks like she’s in Prada, although that nipped-in cardigan, pretty blouse and fit-and-flare skirt could just as easily be Marc Jacobs. Or Zara.

The two in my view now? They’re the “on-trend” versions. The boy (long black hair, thick as a paint brush and scrunched up with a rubber band) is in a T-shirt so sheer you can see a tattoo on his flank, worn with pants that are charcoal in tone and multiply slashed. The girl is in a jacket of this season’s Yves Klein blue + skinny jeans. J Brand? Citizens for Humanity? I’m not so close I can read the label. But I can spot Pierre Hardy strappy sandals at 100 paces, which signal the stylist has a considerable budget to work with.

The Paris Metro may be cheap and fast but the way I see it, cabs are a necessity to keep abreast of what the Doisneau Department is up to. This season, I’m noticing a marked casting choice towards Vanessa Paradis lookalikes, perhaps out of solidarity to the chanteuse since her split with Johnny Depp or maybe just because, if you are hiring an actress to look chic in a clinch, you go for the girl with the bee-stung lips.

As for the boys, if I were in charge, I’d be telling the prop stylist to stop handing out guitar cases – there’s been too much of that “Boho/busker” look lately. And all the boys grasping a plastic bag from techo-supermarket, FNAC, in their free hands?  That doesn’t do much for romance, does it?

Ah! But maybe it does! For what better proof that Paris herself is ravishing, than “couples” who can’t help themselves, even if  they only popped out to pick up an external hard-drive?

The Doisneau Department has a long history of getting it right. They’re good, these guys. They managed to keep a lid on the fact that the original picture was a set-up for 42 years. Word only got out when a real couple, who thought they were “the couple”, sued for a slice of the profits of a photo that launched a thousand fridge magnets. Only then, in 1992, did Robert Doisneau himself have to fess up to having hired a couple of actors; a girl of 20, a boy of 23.

Which is exactly the age I’d put on the pair lip-locked outside the Hotel de Ville now. As for me, I love that we’ll always have Paris, the city of love – even if, to keep the myth alive, civil servants are toiling away, somewhere behind these grand Haussman facades, calculating the day rates.

Fit For A King

AFR | September 2012

by Marion Hume

A thrill goes through your body like a shiver when you stumble on an absolute master of the art of fashion writing. 

What? You think it is not an art? Just a lot of waffle about frocks? Try this; “Anne was wearing, that day, rose pink and dove grey. The colours should have had a fresh maidenly charm; but all he could think of were stretched innards, umbles and tripes, grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body…The pearls around her long neck looked to him like little beads of fat, and as she argued she would reach up and tug them; he kept his eyes on her fingertips, nails flashing like tiny knives.” 

Even if you don’t yet know who this Anne is, you do know she is a dangerous woman. When you find out the lady described is Anne Boleyn and that she has schemed to win a king and dipped her hands in blood to be crowned queen, the writing is more powerful still. For you see ahead the puddle of gore in which her little head will lie once severed by an executioner’s sword.

The words are penned by the peerless Hilary Mantel, before whom even the judges of the world’s most prestigious literary prize, the Man Booker, bow down. Mantel is the author of “Wolf Hall” and its 2012 follow-up, “Bring Up the Bodies”, both of which chart the rise of Henry VIII’s right hand man, Thomas Cromwell. Even if you have zero taste for the Tudors, might I urge you to reach for Mantel’s double bill set in 16th century England, despite this requiring a considerable commitment to 2 x 400 pages? For within lie not only some of the greatest descriptions of clothing put to the page but also perhaps the most sage and searing portrait of businessman-as-survivor that you will ever find. 

You don’t know anything about Thomas Cromwell? Neither did I; indeed I had him confused with Oliver Cromwell, the “Roundhead” who came along more half a century later, wore monochrome black and white and decreed that the cavaliers must stop wearing such jaunty outfits. (Were fashion of little importance, why, throughout history, have powerful men been so determined to ban it?) 

Thomas Cromwell, in contrast, sported a nana-style black coat with a fur collar, accessorized by a horrible hat, (at least when he sat for the court painter, Holbein). He was Henry VIII’s wingman, from the days when the young king looked a bit like Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the US TV series “the Tudors” right through to when the monarch was as massive as Gerald Depardieu.

Cromwell was executed in 1540 then had a long wait for a truly great biographer. For until Mantel turned her eagle eye and diamond lines upon him, who knew it was this Machiavelian minister who first noticed the it-bag? “This season young men carry their effects in soft pale leather bags, in imitation of the agents for the Fugger bank, who travel all over Europe and set the fashion. The bags are heart-shaped….” Thomas Cromwell observes in “Bring up the Bodies”.

My reading matter is more often Grazia than great literature. (And what’s not to love about a glossy where the wordsmiths come up with new vocabulary weekly? Currently, I’m liking the economy of “FROWers” meaning the front row set). But when time, or being in bed with flu allow, what better than to behold a young queen, busy spending recklessly on the luxury goods of the 1530s – damask clothes, Spanish leather, gold-fringed gloves – while a minister in a bad hat and plain Jane Seymour, dressed in black and dispatching messengers to the king to return his gift of jewels undo and outsmart her? The power of clothes indeed.

Ghost Celebrity

AFR | 2012

by Marion Hume

Is there a seasoned celebrity who still enjoys the red carpet? Or does it become akin to running the gauntlet in high heels: a trial to be endured while starved of oxygen in a gussied-up gown?

For if it really were fun – beyond that thrilling first time – why, in every interview, do celebrity couples (The Beckhams, the Jolie-Pitts) insist they prefer staying home? You can see where they are coming from. Even in a not famous life, the lure of a glass of wine and a box set is strong. 

But whatever business you are in, you can’t just stay on the sofa; not when showing up counts towards success and you’ve got to be seen building your “brand”. For we’re all brands these days, on message, out there, smiling.  What can make it even harder is the party presence of those glistening, glamourous people, the kind who don’t appear to be bogged with the hard work of a day job. Add to that too much champagne and the fact that, of course, you’ve got to tweet and blog and facebook and it all adds up to exhausting.

And so, a solution to this modern dilemma; a job share, if you will. What if, indeed you did stay home (pass the remote) thus clearing space by the velvet rope for the paps to snap the beautiful people head-to-toe? What if you got on with the work side, working late if need be, and you simply hired a “ghost celebrity” (duties to include anodyne tweeting) to dress up, go out and be a better you?

A better you? Of course. Ghost writers are always way smarter than those they’re doubling for. Sending out someone with a body of death or at least all their own hair is merely the flip of a supermodel or a sportsman hiring a brainy, flabby, shabby-looking scribe.  

The requirement for a ghost celebrity would not be restricted to those with red carpet lives. You might even explore a ghost celebrity time share, so you could hire someone smoking hot on a job-by-job basis, perhaps to show up at your school reunion or to attend that tax planning conference in Adelaide. Given everyone is already ameliorating the images they post on social networking sites, or at the very least keeping up the photos that are, in truth, ages old, this shouldn’t be that shocking. And you’ve got to admit the absolute brilliance of someone else watching their weight for you.

How would you select your ghost celebrity? It would be a two-way process, with either side entitled to walk away before the contract was signed. When I was approached to be a ghost writer, I was excited until I met the celebrity and it dawned on me than there could be no worse purgatory than a year spent sieving through what was – or in this case, was not, in her head and that no amount of cash would compensate. As with a ghost writer, the contract would be detailed and legalled. (Personally, I might insist no leopard print be worn in my name and that an over-reliance on ozone-destroying hairspray be deemed unacceptable). 

What you could not then do is show up yourself, any more than a ghost writer can pop out from behind the floral arrangement at the press launch of a glittering tell all autobiography and shout “I’m…. fill famous name in here”. Ah I can see I might need to workshop this more. For why, by delegating to someone else, would I risk missing out? How could I be sure that an event I was ducking out of might not morph into the time of my life? Guess it’s time to polish the party shoes and not let some other Cinderella go to the ball, after all.

Style In And Of Itself Has Power

Style in and of itself has power

AFR | April 2012

by Marion Hume 

Right now, I’m obsessed with how accessories can grab attention. This is far from unique; I know women who position their latest Louboutins at the end of the bed at night so their first sight in the morning is guaranteed to be gorgeous. I know others – and perhaps you do too – whose idea of relaxation is window-­shopping the latest Brian Atwood stacks online. I don’t know Asma al­ Assad (at time of writing, Syria’s first lady, but things can change fast in a bloody conflict…) but surely one of the only vaguely normal things about a contemporary woman in the most abnormal situation is that she was known to press ‘add to basket’ in times of stress?

I know this is risky, but let’s workshop Asma (first ladies, whether courageous or cowardly, tend to be first-­name only). She shopped just like her former colleagues when she was a London-­based investment banker. Then recall what happened when the GFC hit like a slap in 2008. Pre GFC, the City of London was the leading ‘delivery to desk’ market for net­-a­-porter. After the crash, it is whispered that the same high fliers shopped not less, but more, although they ticked the ‘no packaging’ option and had their nannies sign for the deliveries at home instead of having anything turn up at the office.

I know I’m on a knife edge here, but can I state that it isn’t the taste for fashion that’s the sin. If it were, how explain that one of the most charismatic activists I know wears Ferragamo pumps, polished to a perfect sheen? “No one cares about your image; we care about your action” was the slogan adopted by the wives of ambassadors to the United Nations in a commendable effort to grab Asma’s attention with a YouTube video, International letter & petition to Asma al ­Assad, signed by women all over the world, posted back in April. “Some women care for style and some women care for their people” went the commentary, suggesting these interests are mutually exclusive. Yet I’ve spotted plenty of on-­trend handbags at human rights conferences. My point is, it isn’t what’s on Asma’s feet that is of concern; it’s what’s in her heart. “Stop being a bystander,” begged the video. Perhaps, by the time you read this, she will have found the courage to stand up to be counted. If she manages to do the right thing, who cares whether she does so wearing Louboutins or cheap shoes?

Someone who was just a bystander in another strife­-torn country – she was visiting her sick mother when students wounded in a military crackdown were brought into the hospital – is another British­-educated woman who knows the power of accessories. When this woman made a decision that she could not remain indifferent to what was going on outside the walls of her family’s comfortable lakeside villa, she stepped centre stage in front of half a million people wearing a look from which she has never wavered: tailored blouse, ‘longyi’ wrap skirt, signature flourish of flowers in her hair. Recognising the power of style, Aung San Suu Kyi has never let it slide, despite two decades of mental torture under a brutal regime. When she walked towards a platoon of soldiers, their rifles cocked to fire, she did so shielded by nothing but the power of that iconic image, earning her the moniker ‘steel orchid’. The great pro­democracy campaigner will make her first overseas trip in 24 years this June, and she will be recognised wherever she goes. Image and action – now that’s the potent combination.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

AFR | 2012

by Marion Hume

By the time you read this, you may either have been delighted by the feel-good movie of the season or have vowed that a herd of Indian elephants wouldn’t drag you to see a bunch of old folk cavorting about “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”. 

For myself, while I loved witnessing the finest thesps show how terrific they are at enunciating, what pleased me even more was that not one of the seniors looks like a dowdy old nana, in stark contrast to how those beyond their Botox years are usually depicted on screen (if, of course, they appear at all). 

What this movie gets spot on is that today, those of advanced years are as diverse in their clothing choices as everyone else, although perhaps with longer sleeves. Dame Judi Dench (78) plays the widow, Evelyn, who looks lovely in loose linens of a tonal palette flattering to a silvery pixie crop hairdo. Evelyn’s light layers semaphore that she is the innocent ingenue – despite her years – who embraces a new world with an open heart and in very pretty scarves. 

But how satisfying that, just as the villain often gets all the best lines, in “Best Exotic” Penelope Wilton (66) plays Jean, and is by far the best dressed. Jean hates the heat and dust. She simmers with righteous anger that she has been robbed of the retirement she imagined, back home. That she does this while looking well turned out shows she is not some awful cliche of an old lady “losing it”, instead she is simply not in love with India or indeed, with the man she has stayed married to through habit. She wears a bang “on trend” and flattering indigo tie-dye shirt waister for the scene in which she proves she is brave enough to go home alone. 

Jean’s travel attire is anchored by a tailored beige jacket in a good cloth that doesn’t crease. Here is a woman who will never slum it in a comfy top, despite the indignation of a seat at the back of the plane. We see Jean chasing down the high court judge while wearing a long line floral shirt (its sartorial message; “spirited” but not “young”). What’s clever is we see her working the same seperates into different combinations. Jean may not be the heroine but she knows how to get full use out of a 23kg budget flight luggage limit. 

It’s no surprise “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is proving a worldwide hit with retirees or that audiences emerging from cinemas are so stylish. While no sensible fashion label markets to the “old” – if they did, who would buy? – the grey dollar is a segment ignored at peril, given this generation discovered their dress sense before the rise of fast fashion and while they may indeed be interested in “good value”, are loath to accept second-best. 

Indeed, some of the Best Dressed anywhere are of this age group. Look at the red carpet and how the likes of Dame Helen Mirren (67) always nail it. Among the chicest women in Sydney is the best selling author, Marion von Adlerstein, who, at 79, has just completed a book tour for “The Freudian Slip” dressed head to toe in daringly bright combinations of Issey Miyake. Maggie Tabberer is still, deservedly, an Australian fashion icon at 76 (her breezy summer elegance remains a lesson in chic for our climate). And should you ever walk past the pyjama emporium, Peter Alexander, and wonder who wears the brightest picks, with the parrots in hot pink, that would be my always adventurous godmother (80), although of course her taste is tame in comparison with what Dame Vivienne Westwood (71) would dare to wear. 

In 1961, a 29 year old poet called Jenny Joseph promised; “When I am old, I shall wear purple and a red hat that doesn’t go…” Instead, the poet (80) has lived to an age where purple and red do go, if you want them to. As to the cliche of “nana dressing”, there’s still a place for wooly cardies and furry slippers. The under 25s rock that combination and look terrific.

Cheongsam

AFR | 2012

by Marion Hume

Fashion exhibitions are, if not ten-a-penny, given they are costly to stage, certainly pretty ubiquitous. 

But can you remember when fashion wasn’t thought to be “serious” enough to deserve gallery space or attention in a museum calendar? An upside of that was one might stumble on an unexpected gem, as a friend and I did when we noticed the gates of a usually private Parisian mansion were open in order to share a bijou collection of artifacts celebrating the client-couturier relationship between the late, lady of the house and that greatest couturier of the 20th century, Cristobal Balenciaga. 

The last time I saw a Balenciaga exhibition, it was at Le Louvre. It featured as many clothes by today’s designer for the brand, Nicolas Ghesquiere as by the long dead namesake. Fashion exhibitions have become like movie blockbusters, enjoyable in that they are mega, but with the commercial preoccupation of reinforcing brand message definitely front of mind.

What a joy then, to be in Singapore in time to catch “In the Mood for the Cheongsam” at The National Museum – the title echoing, of course, the movie that introduced Asian cinema, Maggie Cheung and the serene sexiness of a covered-up style that follows every curve to a wider world. 

While the exhibition has now closed, I have a hunch its influence will spread. Fashion creatives throw their nets very wide and surely, by now, someone has shared the images from the excellent catalogue on Pinterest. (Who bothers with Facebook anymore?) For alongside the expected (black satin, gold dragons) were groovy geometric and intriguing hot floral prints that looked so contemporary. The cheongsam provides a broad canvas for decorative experiment, although not too broad, given its second-skin proportions, these part of the reason it dipped out of fashion once Western styles became widely available across Asia.

It disappeared from sight in mainland China, where it began, for other, political reasons. On a trip back to Beijing recently, I met students from the nation’s leading fashion university. To those who have grown up with Western labels and with mothers, perhaps grandmothers, who wore Mao suits, the cheongsam is as exotic as it is to me, except perhaps through the threads that tangle back to a long-ago history. So at the exhibition in Singapore, I started thinking; given we are anticipating a new generation of designers to emerge from China, what might they do to reclaim, reinvent, reinvigorate this glamourous garment?

That’s been done already of course. Shanghai Tang, the witty Hong Kong label that takes a culture’s cliches, then, gloriously, spins these right back at you always has a cheongsam in its collections. Vivienne Tam in New York, Shiatzy Chen from Taiwan, often play with the sartorial markers of their heritage. The exhibition introduced me to the fresh talent of Priscilla Shunmugan, whose heritage is part-Chinese, part Indian and that got me thinking about how in India, the seductive beauty of the sari absolutely competes alongside Valentino, Versace, Cavalli while Hermes sells Lyon-silk printed saris there. Might the cheongsam, in some uncliched way, stage a bigger comeback?

The exhibition included a gown from John Galliano’s 1997 Dior show, inspired by the handover of Hong Kong, which I saw and adored. Yet while Galliano created so many ravishingly riffs right across a mash-up of cultures during his time at Dior, in retrospect, the cheongsam tripped him up, veering perilously close to drag. A cheongsam-inspired cocktail dress by the late Alexander McQueen looked leaden. “It needs an Asian Miuccia Prada,” I thought; a designer who takes historical references forward to create something new. I stopped in my tracks at a studio portrait of a woman in a loose, wildly patterned cotton cheongsam, accessorized with beguilingly elongated Mary Jane shoes. So modern. The date, “late 1920s”. 

I bet that’s already been shared via Pinterest and has someone’s creative juices flowing.