Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Skool Visit: Interview with Alexandra Oliver, Poet Superlative

by Justine Brown
photo: Andie Petkus

Class, as part of our Back to Skool festivities we have a most worthy visitor, one of our best-known faculty members and rarest beauties, the poet Alexandra Oliver. Few can wield a pen so deftly. This marks the occasion of the publication of her splendid new book of poems, Meeting the Tormenters in Safeway (you will doubtless remember her last, Where the English Housewife Shines). She had just finished a barnstorming book tour of the United States and Canada when we met up with her. Read on for a glimpse into Alexandra's alluring world.

MARCH 23, 1985

Know that your beauty is all that you have--
a luminous, numinous guide to the dark
to a world where the windows are fogged with desire--
a flash of the dagger, an interesting spark.

Nothing can stop what is smooth or burns bright.
Unhindered by fat or by bone or by rash
it soars like a satellite over the heads
Of women whose bloom has dissolved into ash.

And what of the book and the life of the mind
and hair that hangs loose by the cup and the lamp
and the scratch of a pen? That is for men.
And you, my slim cygnet, are not of that camp.

The other girls wait with their freckles and hands
full of flowers and notes. Their voices are real
but their friendship is not. They will use you for blood.
They will crumple you under their terrible wheel.

Hold on to your weapons, the spike and the tooth.
Go out there and slay them. The day will come soon
when you stand on the roof and it dawns on you there:
You are nothing, outshone by the unageing sun.

By Alexandra Oliver. Reprinted with permission from Meeting the Tormenters in Safeway 
(Biblioasis, 2013)

JB: I was struck by the ferocity of the mother's advice in "Mrs. Miller Lays it out to her Daughter at the Audition, March 23, 1985", the martial language. Can you comment on this?

AO: As a teenager, I did a fair bit of theatre and I also modelled for a short time. I saw girls coming in with their mothers to auditions and go-sees. There always seemed to be a blurring of lines with regards to what the girls wanted vs. what the mothers wanted. Often you’d see the latter huddling with their progeny, conveying pearls of wisdom as to how the girls were to go into the next room and basically disembowel the competition. There seemed to be, with many of these women, a kind of transference going on, the transference of a sense of gynocentric mistrust and, at the root, personal inadequacy. Friends of mine who survived ballet and gymnastics saw pretty much the same thing. Even if you haven’t had your mother go at you in situations like these (relatively speaking, I was lucky), that atmosphere of antagonism haunts you. That’s where the poem came from. In writing it, I called upon a pastiche of moments rather than one particular incident.

I guess the poem is attempting to portray a multilayered conflict at work. I imagined one of those mothers behind the curtain, or in the green room, giving the daughter a final pep (poop) talk before pushing her out towards the footlights. On the one hand, the mother is (perhaps superficially) in league with the daughter, campaigning for her success at all costs. She encourages her to mistrust and reject female companionship in the service of coming out ahead. On the other hand, she’s chastising herself perhaps, for not having tried hard enough. When she talks about “the cup and the lamp” and the pen there’s this disdain for learning, seen by some as a more “masculine” pursuit, an obstacle to success as an object of desire. But perhaps she senses that intellectual pursuits would have completed her in some way and is both repelled by and attracted to the idea. I think the thing to keep in mind is that the poem is not necessarily about a mother and daughter, but the relationship between a girl/woman and the nightmare side of entrenched female culture (one has only to turn on reality TV or go on the Internet to see what we’re up against) or the warring sides of the female self…how we do battle with those ingrained damaging expectations. The final image—that of the “unageing sun”—is, I guess, meant to represent both the fact that time steals from everyone but also that the potential for growing in awareness and knowledge is always there.

JB: Does some of the fierceness derive from a sense that her (adolescent, presumably) daughter is displacing her in the beauty stakes?

AO: Oh definitely. I think that, in many mother-daughter dynamics, especially ones in which the mother puts a high premium on attractiveness and sexual currency, there’s the dichotomy of wanting to reinvent oneself through one’s offspring while, at the same time, proving that you’ve personally still got “it” and can’t possibly be dethroned—a reenactment of the Snow White vs. the Wicked Queen archetype. Things seem to be getting worse and worse these days, what with the propagation of the celebrity ‘ideal”--women being railroaded into seeking an aura of youth at all costs, but a media-sanctioned template of youth. Even the business of having kids is tied in with sexual attractiveness. You open a magazine and there’s all kinds of fanfare about hot pre and post-natal celebrity mothers, not to mention affiliated terms such as Yummy Mummy and (*shuddering*) MILF. I always wish I had a crossbow handy when I hear that one.

JB: What about the Tormenters? Do they represent a popular beauty ideal that the speaker has come to reject (after, perhaps, a period of coveting it)?

AO: Thinking back, I see a great floating cloud of feral flossy blondes…I remember that many of the girls I came into conflict with had that very Aryan variety of white-blonde hair, carved into Midwich Cuckoos pageboy helmets. They seemed to be a weird amalgam of applied femininity (Hello Kitty everything, pink, sticker collections, princess phones, frosted lip gloss, long, flapping white lashes) and brutal athleticism. They were either soccer players or field hockey players. Having dishwater blond hair and no skill for sport whatsoever, not to mention bad teeth and thick glasses, I stood out like a gourd in a petunia patch, and that led to bullying, real, nasty bullying--and in a girls’ school, too. Today, if anyone pontificates about the “safety” of private institutions over public ones, I just roll my eyes, because independent status is no guarantee that the misfits of this world are going to be protected. I think, to answer your question, I may have wanted to fit in at some point, just to make the bad stuff stop, but it wasn’t really in me. I think that the descriptors in the poem are just to add cinematic vividness to the proceedings; the poem’s not an indictment of the blonde mentality. Some of my best friends are blondes, as you well know.

JB: Yes indeed. Was being a Goth greatly consoling and/or protective from the powers that were when you were in high school at Crofton House?

Alexandra Oliver as adolescent vampire

AO: What appealed to me about Goth was the anachronistic element. I always felt out of my time, and I admit that I sometimes still do. Goth for me was partially about flowing clothes, mournful music, dramatic and elegant posturing and embracing the dark and subversive side of life, but there was also something poised and courtly about it that seemed very comforting. The Goth friends I had weren’t Crowley worshippers or slouchy, mumbling misanthropes. Yes, there was a certain celebration of doom and drama, but all of them had exquisite manners and wonderful vocabularies. I remember once, when I was about fifteen, coming home to find two college-aged male friends in Robert Smith hairdos, bow-necked blouses, tight breeches, riding boots and full makeup taking tea with my mum. This kind of thing made a nice counterpoint to the Amazonian super-permed norm that dominated the school hallways.

JB: Is assembling your look still performative?

AO: It became less performative after I had my son (case in point: I only wear heels if I know that a car will be involved in my plans) but, even if I’m just working at home or running errands, I always like to have something interesting going on, be it a large fluorite bead necklace, a voluminous skirt, a curious vintage scarf, an exciting hat or an Austrian hunting cape. I like to go about my daily business with some aroma of otherworldiness hovering in the air. Curating one’s look is the easiest visible way to do that.

JB: Is reading page poetry any less of a performance than appearing at a slam?

AO: No. If anything it has greater potential because you have to mediate between the audience and the book and make it lively. Sometimes, when you’re off-book, you tend to fall into stock performers “habits”--the same hand gestures, the same way of visually addressing the audience. You can find yourself going through the motions. When you have the book, the text is like a third element in the dialogue. It always tells you something you don’t know. I think, ironically, it permits a special kind of elasticity.

JB: When you "perform" or "read" poetry (take your pick), what role does your look play? Do you, for example, like to confound audience expectations? Do you see yourself as costumed?

AO: I don’t do costumes per se, but I like to dress up to read. Why not? It’s an occasion. I think it’s a way of honouring the room. The only time I’ve ever read in jeans was when I was at an outdoor festival in Washington state and my son was in a stroller and I had a nappy bag under one arm and a pile of books under the other. In my normal performing life, my rule of thumb is to try and be elegant but keep whatever outfit out of the province of costuming. I want the poems and their delivery to be the primary focus.

JB: Movie stars of today seem to have lost the sense of duty to be glamorous, appearing in sweats and the like and only getting (over) dressed up to appear at events like the Oscars. Can you comment on this?

AO: Can I have an aspirin and a cold cloth first? But to be fair, I think there are quite a few actors who have what I’ll term “the aura”. George Clooney has it, of course, and Kate Winslet is always pleasing to watch. The paragon for me is Helen Mirren. She is celestial in her beauty and dignity, and I can’t think of one picture where I’ve seen her in Uggs and yoga pants, carrying a Matcha Latte and walking a French bulldog.

JB: Do you see beauty rituals as powerful?

AO: I’ll preface my answer with a story, so bear with me. I remember back when I had just finished grad school and was starting to run out of money. I’d get regular trims at a hair school in Vancouver. One day, a helper from a care home brought in a large, pale lady in her fifties with thinning red hair. She was having the lot twisted into numerous tiny braids that stuck out all over her head. She told me that it was the only way she could pick up radio signals from her extra-terrestrial brethren throughout the cosmos. I think about that when I put myself together, not because I have extra-terrestrial brethren I need to keep in touch with, but because there’s always a style element, or assemblage of such, that makes you feel more like yourself, more able to cope. I have certain rules and regimens which make me feel a little bit more primed to go forth and conquer. Dispensing with all the trappings wouldn’t translate for me as empowerment. On the contrary, I’d feel bereft.

JB: Have you ever had a hairdo that will go down in infamy?

AO: 1984. I shaved my head and had one snaky blonde front tendril. There was some sort of red flying saucer thing in 1985. And two bad perms, one in 1982 and the other in 1991. What was I on? There are no pictures from these periods. I have destroyed them all.

JB: What item or items do you never leave the house without first applying?

AO: Moisturizer, a sweep of bronzer, concealer, tinted brow gel and red lipstick. Were the zombie apocalypse to erupt tomorrow, I wouldn’t change a thing.

JB: What are your five desert island beauty items?

AO: Right. Let me think:

1) Red lipstick
2) Rosehip oil
3) Lip balm
4) Concealer
5) A hairbrush.

JB: Who are your aesthetic heroines-- because of what they made, how they turned themselves out, or both?

AO: I have a stable of them but, for the sake of economy, let me list seven:

Isabella Andreini. She was an Italian 16th Century actress, poet and intellectual. She had great wit and charisma and the whole package was beautiful.

Edith Piaf: she was unconventional-looking, yes, but she was so unrelentingly passionate and fierce.

Eleanor Roosevelt for her moxie and the elegance of her soul.

Lee Miller: in addition to being Man Ray’s muse, she was a wonderful photographer in her own right. Even before she started doing her own thing, you can see from her eyes that she’s no cipher. Her intelligence, her innate knowingness, is all there.

Maeve Brennan: the Irish writer. She was so feisty and yet so exact in how she put herself together. She came to a bad end, unfortunately.

Dominique Sanda: the French actress. Great haunted quality. I love her in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. She breaks hearts.

Solveig Donmartin: A German actress, fantastic. Long, wild hair and red lipstick. She was the trapeze girl in Wings of Desire. On screen she was so ethereal and melancholic, but in real life, she was always the last one to leave the party.

JB: What is on the horizon for you, Alexandra?

AO: Well, having just finished the ten-city tour, I’m sort of trying to get my land legs back. Launching a book feels a bit like what I imagine launching Voyager’s golden record must have felt like for all those scientists in white coats. You set something free and hope it will communicate something, have some kind of far-reaching effect. What next? Give more readings. Finish the next book. Make a poem into a short film. But for now, I think I’ll wash the day off, reach for the rosehip oil, slap on an eye mask and go to bed.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

A Brief Sabbatical

Hello class

Just a brief announcement to let you know that we are having some professional days for research and development. This might be a wise time to review the archive for exam purposes...

Monday, 15 August 2011

For Those About To Ink, We Salute You

article and illustrations by Mrs Tami Thirlwell-Nicol

Ever popular Hawaiian lady

Good Day, Class. A few semesters ago, September 2010 to be exact, you will recall our discussion on body decor, specifically piercings. Today we’ll continue to cover this area with the tattoo. Has it ever been more popular or widely accepted? Your mom is out getting one right now. And middle America knows that it has the green light to ink up one side and down the other with ‘reality’ TV shows illustrating that the paint parlor is just another esthetics appointment in the day-planner. Akin to getting your hair and nails done, getting a new ‘tat’ is not out of the norm for a week’s end of pampering. But don’t get me wrong; tattoos are very special and the decision to have one can be a very significant event in one’s life.

Take for instance the first tattoo I came into contact with; it was on the arm of Popeye. Yes, I’m referring to Popeye the Sailor Man, the beloved cartoon character. My brother was the ecstatic recipient of a ‘life-size’ inflatable Popeye punching toy one Christmas morning. Hence, I got the day off. He sported an anchor on each steroidal-sized forearm, naturally. I didn’t think much of them. It was a Navy thing. I was about 4.

The next tattoo I saw was on a real life friend of my dad’s. It was an image of an exotic hula girl. He could make her wiggle by flexing his bicep and triceps muscles. I had a feeling this was a showstopper at the local pub where he assuredly drew the ladies. Talented, this fella, and maybe just a little creepy; I wasn’t all that impressed.

Aside from girlfriends’ names, the only other tattoos I was witness to were of the jailhouse variety sported by friends in my father’s motorcycle club. The homemade tattoo, traditionally in blackish blue ink, was often hard to decipher. Some looked as if they were a little hurried while others seemed abandoned altogether. Or maybe “Rosie forev” was intentional shorthand. Skulls, flames and crosses seemed to be the order of the day. The occasional teardrop was one to be wary of.

There weren’t too many kids adorned with ink in the early punk days, probably for the sole reason that most punks didn’t have the necessary funds. Eventually more and more tattoos surfaced. Many went for a comic approach with cartoon characters. Fred Flintstone with his “Yabba Dabba Fuck You” was a standout. Soon loyalty to favorite bands would influence tattoo choices--for example, the graphic black bars symbolizing Black Flag or the DK logo for the Dead Kennedys.

As the early1980s rockabilly revival scene grew so, too, did the number of tattoos. More hula girls and anthropomorphic cats with quiffs! And, of course, when hard-core punk and heavy metal rolled out like thunder, fellows lined up around the block at their local tattoo parlor for the toughest designs: again, skulls, flames and crosses. I guess if it ain’t broke...

But with the tattoo’s recent leap in popularity, encompassing wide demographics, we now see a more diverse and unique implementation in design. People have pushed far beyond the standard rose tattoo into new and exciting territory. But Skoolers, I have a few words of caution, so please, take these following tips in to consideration when you are about to take the plunge:

loyalty counts

Tip #1  When deciding whether or not to get a tattoo of the name of the Love of your Life, choose the girl or guy you will love forever wisely. This tattoo will let you discover just how long ‘forever’ really is. Consider tattooing your ‘one and only’ using the shortest version of their name as possible. For example, rather than inking in “Elizabeth”, why not go for “Liz”? That way if you break up you may still be able to find yourself a “Liza” or even “Eliza” down the road, rendering the tattoo pertinent. Remember, it’s easier to amend a “Sam” than a “Samantha”.

Tip #2  Don’t be preachy. Be careful with tattoos that are full of free advice, like the catchy phrase “Live fast die young”. Unless one is planning on checking out before their 30th birthday it could look a little hypocritical sporting that tattoo at the age of 70 over at the seniors’ shuffleboard showdown. And slogans telling us to “live free” in a fascist country’s text isn’t the best choice. Talk about rubbing it in. No one likes a Sanctimonious Sandy. Your tattoo should not be a bumper sticker for your body.

Tip #3  Keep the text to a minimum. Some folks load up on too much information-- for instance, by tattooing the whole left side of the body with a favorite passage from the New Testament. That’s all well and fine, but keep in mind you may be spoiling the story for those that haven’t yet read the book.

Tip #4  “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” These words are all too familiar. When is the best time to get a tattoo? After many, many drinks, obviously. First of all, it won’t hurt as much. Plus, you will have obliterated any reservations about the appropriateness of the tattoo, leaving you open to a world of choices. Perhaps renew your feelings for a first love by putting the name of an old flame over your heart. Even if they are now married to someone else, they will still feel honored.

And you can’t go wrong with good ol’ “Mom” or “Dad” – unless it turns out that you were disinherited.

Tip #5  Research your Sanskrit and verify it with a master. You never know what sort of sense of humour the local tattoo artist may have. You might think your fancy lettering says “Avoid evil, practice good”...only to find out it really translates as, “we’re having a two for one sale at Ed’s Inkery.”

Aside from these five basic tips you need to ask yourself this: what’s the message you’re posting permanently on your body? Further, what part of your body is displaying the message? I need to question the positioning of the tattoo on the small of one’s back. It can’t possibly be for the owner’s amusement but rather in consideration of the person assisting the tattooed one while down on all fours to, say, find that contact lens that just popped out. Or perhaps as an accompaniment to the uber classy thong straps rising up from the crevice they are inevitably wedged into. A tattoo of a phoenix might work well here. And keep in mind, Skoolers, when choosing your symbolic skin adornment: a little something called ‘collagen’ and it’s effect on skin’s elasticity, not to mention gravity. What may have started out as a fresh and lovely new rose tattoo, (in homage to the Damned song, of course), may become wilted or shriveled by the time you hit age 75. It is for this reason that one rarely sees a tattoo of a bowl of fruit.

One of the benefits of the tattoo as a form of expression is that it affords effortless communication. It alerts others to the tattooed parties’ interests, viewpoints and hobbies. Various youth group, motorbike enthusiast and Satanic logos allow an onlooker to get an idea of that person’s favorite pastimes and decide if they might be compatible. The tattoo is a sort of shorthand conversation starter in a society that has become shut off from directly interacting with strangers, with the exception of ‘friending’ a friend of a friend of a friend on Facebook. Pretty handy, I’d say.

too normal even for Jim Rose

But with its vast popularity, has the tattoo lost its edge? It is now so widely accepted and assimilated into society that its shock value has ceased to exist, which is kind of sad. Even that fully tattooed guy, Enigma, from Jim Rose’s Circus got fired for looking too normal. And these days people are using their renting out their skin space as human billboards to pay the rent. Is nothing sacred? The tattoo, once a counter-culture demonstration of expression now finds itself in the form of commercial logos on skin pimped out by giant corporations. The rebel yell reduced to a skin tag-line.
Advertising is in your blood

And while I have no tattoos of my own it speaks not to the fact that I am against them, but more to my lack of decisiveness and inability to commit. My problem is I’m afraid of becoming bored with having to look at the same image for the rest of my days. I worry about the potential of a poor ink job or worse, misspelled words. I don’t relish the idea of having to constantly explain it away to strangers I’ve inadvertently been silently communicating with. No, I think I’m better off sticking to the temporary tattoo until I discover that one thing that can really get under my skin – and stay there.

Friday, 24 June 2011

These Are the Girls: Part One: Ginger vs. Mary-Ann

article and illustrations by Mrs Tami Thirlwell-Nicol

Gilligan, Ginger and all the rest
It’s no secret that I received my early childhood education primarily from 1960s television. Oh sure, there were the extraneous interruptions, like having to attend a few hours of public school, but as soon as I returned home it was straight downstairs and straight to business. I clocked in to work and headed to the rec. room, (which I recently learned isn’t meant to be spelled ‘wreck room’), to tune in, turn on, and drop out, sans the LSD.

I loved the fact that kindergarten started early in the morning and ended by noon. This gave me plenty of time to engage in my more critical curriculum: my favorite afternoon shows, in particular the gothic cult hit Dark Shadows. When you are five years old, there’s nothing more frightening than watching a good old-fashioned vampire drama alone in your dark, dreary basement where a freaky cellar and other nooks and crannies are bursting with horrific paranormal denizens. I sat paralyzed with fear, knowing that if I tried to run upstairs to the safety of the kitchen before the end of the show I would somehow be punished, either by Barnabus Collins or my mom for my self-inflicted daytime terror.
Barnabus Collins himself

When I felt I could safely make a break for it, I tore up the steps like my pants were on fire. I could sense a bony, gnarled hand was mere inches from grasping my ankles and dragging me to the depths of a snake-filled hell, every time. Gasping for air I tried to cover up my panic by insisting it was time for a milk and cookies break. And really, it was. And then back to work. Refueled with sugar I safely returned to my ‘study den’. While kids were getting kudos for memorizing the times table in arithmetic I should have been awarded at least four gold stars and a ribbon for committing the entire TV schedule to memory. After a few game shows, like Truth or Consequences and What’s My Line, (yes, there was a time when I wanted to change my name to Kitty Carlisle, who didn’t), it was finally time to settle in for some serious television: Gilligan’s Island. This show was ultimately made for a five-year-old such as myself. It had all the key ingredients necessary to babysit me for a good half-hour. What more could a mom ask for?

The castaways were a complete family, with the exception of responsible parental figures. I could relate to this on some level. There were rich grandparents (the Howells), a lovable uncle, (the Skipper) and the choice of the Professor or Gilligan as potential love interest. And while the Professor was brainy, if I had to make a decision I would opt for real estate. It was, after all, called Gilligan’s Island. Lastly, the ladies, the older sisters, who would contribute to my impressionable mind and warp it into the gem it is now. 

 As far as my young, spongy brain could determine, there were two types of women in the world: the Gingers and the Mary-Anns. Ginger, of course, was a second-rate Marilyn Monroe and a genius with the make-up kit. Fabulous winged eyeliner and a beauty mark that never smudged. Unfortunately her reasoning skills were somewhat subpar, rivaling those of a tennis racquet. Even I rolled my eyes when she’d contribute suggestions on how to get off the island based on plots from movies she starred in. I pondered the dilemma of being beautiful yet unable to consistently grasp the obvious. Mind you, she had enough foresight to bring along more than enough make-up for a three-hour cruise. That counts for something.

Desert island essentials

Then there’s Mary-Ann, a down-to-earth country girl with a spunky spirit. She sported a wholesome fresh-faced look. Sassy in her own right, but not really thinking ahead in terms of her appearance. The pigtails, reminiscent of Dorothy in Oz, symbolized a naïveté, which contrasted perfectly with Ginger’s more experienced femme fatale quality. But did I really want my role model to live in a state of arrested development? No, I would strive for a more sophisticated look, hers was too country bumpkin heavy.
Mary-Ann still has it at 80

And what of the love dynamics? Sure, both girls had their eye on the Professor, but his head was so buried in dry logic that his ability to sense their flirting was nonexistent. Ginger wasn’t going to stoop for Gilligan or the Skipper, so that only left Mr. Howell, if she could just edge Lovie out of the way. But Lovie was a pretty tough broad under all that Tilley Endurables ladies sportswear. And she would have had no problem getting down and dirty to fight for her man if push came to shove. As for Gilligan, if he ever grew some testosterone, it would seem that Mary-Ann was the logical choice. She was closer in his age range and they were undoubtedly both virgins -- so they had that in common. The only snag might have been convincing the Skipper that it was time to let go of his ‘little buddy’.
I didn’t have to make my decision any time soon as to who I would model my feminine prowess after when I became a young lady, but I started weighing out the pros and cons. For all of Mary Ann’s fun-loving attributes, it was Ginger who tipped the scales ever so slightly with her knowledge of the benefits of a mud bath while being stranded (spoiler alert!) indefinitely on a deserted island. She was the ultimate Survivor. And I’m sure that once she ran out of the make-up she brought she would eventually (with the help of the Professor) figure out how to manufacture facial scrub and moisturizer from the indigenous habitat. Perhaps she would grind up oyster shells for highlighter and squeeze out some concentrated berry juice for lip stain and blush. Her eyeliner might be a concoction of plant oils and charcoal from the campfire.

Meanwhile, poor Mary-Ann would be relegated to a corner of the island fashioning little gingham romper sets and aprons out of old picnic tablecloths for herself while sewing lavish gowns for Ginger from Mrs. Howell’s satin drapes. Her perky spirit slowly fading with each passing sunset as her eyes strain while she struggles to reattach some errant sequins on Ginger’s best dress. No, this will not be my destiny. I choose the life of Ginger, the movie star!

I reach for another cookie and swig of milk feeling satisfied that I have chosen the right role model. Unwittingly, I have secured the value of a beauty mark and somewhat unconsciously I will apply that precious nugget in my teens for a glamorous nightclubbing look in the punk scene.

So many television shows and so many ladies would influence my style sense over the next several seasons. We’ll have to wrap it up for today’s class, but next time I’ll discuss the kooky yet extremely fashionable Ann Marie, aka That Girl. Her hairdo defied gravity with its perfect pipeline flip.  Also, Wilma versus Betty, which one are you? We’ll continue to explore iconic TV Girls from the Sixties. Stay tuned!

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Style Pirate: Designer Collaborations Rule O.K.

John Galliano
by Mrs. Justine Brown

Picture this-- John Galliano perched in his Arizona detox, surrounded by a cluster of rogue P.R. agents determined to somehow benefit from the designer's thoroughly-understandable exclusion from fashion circles worldwide. How can he possibly redeem himself after the series of poisonous outbursts that will have him brought up on charges in France? It's clearly a case of too little too late, but the ex-Dior designer may have hit on a way to make up for his bile a bit: he is set to design a Beatles-themed collection for ASDA, the British big-box shopping experience (a bit like Wal-Mart). Having just ordered Biba founder Barbara Hulanicki's latest collection for ASDA myself, I can attest happily to the success of the one the things that makes style-hunting so fun these days.

Ms. "Biba" Hulanicki

Designers making cheap clothes for the masses-- it's hard to resist. The style world is full of such winning combinations lately. For example, attentive Skoolkids may remember the swoon Mrs. Brown fell into in December, when H and M issued a collection designed by the delightful Israeli, now residing in Paris, Alber Elbaz of Lanvin. After a tense week spent in the virtual aisles of the Swedish superstore, I finally emerged triumphant with TWO cocktail dresses, one black and dramatic with puffy yet tight sleeves, the other resembling a dark purple tulip-- with one bare shoulder. I fear I'm not doing the dress justice through words. Pictures may be preferable. Suffice to say that this dress had its own Facebook following.

Another august example is the collaboration between TK Maxx, a cut-rate designer paradise (albeit a paradise with hellish greenish florescent lighting--- makes the skin look, well, "bad" doesn't quite cover it, speaking from personal experience) and Liberty. Now, in London-towne, just the mention of a Liberty scarf can send ladies' temperatures through the roof. Liberty is is department store dating back to the turn of the last century, and its headquarters are to be found in a huge mock-Tudor pile on Carnaby Street. There's a rich tradition there that can be traced back to William Morris and his Art Nouveau theories. Anyway, silk, weavers, sartorial idealism-- it didn't work out quite the way Morris planned, but, to sum it all up, TK Maxx got together with the Comic Relief charity and Liberty to produce a silk scarf with all the trimmings for 12 pounds 95 pence. Yes! That's about 5% of the regular retail price.

While I'm singing the praises of TK Maxx and Comic Relief, I may as well add that they also worked with Vivienne Westwood to produce a series of t-shirts featuring Rowan Atkinson and Miranda Richardson in their time-honoured roles as Lord Blackadder and Queen Elizabeth I. And I am pleased to report that the scarf and the t-shirts now have pride of place in my closet.

In honour of Britain's Queen of Style

And no report on this theme would be complete without a celebratory reference to the winning combination of Jil Sander and Uniqlo, the planet-wide Japanese sartorial phenomenon-- the German designer who rose to fame in the 1990s  dressing everyone in minimalist black suits. For reasons too dull to go into, Jil Sander is no longer allowed to use her own name. The label still active, but others lie behind it. The result is +J, the distinct line designed by the actual woman and retailed in Uniqlo. So hurrah! We win again-- designer threads at manageable prices.

So by all means explore these opportunities, dear readers, but beware-- those online baskets can get full hair-raisingly fast. Personally, I limit myself to one treat a month. But that's just me, Skoolkids-- you may have more control over your credit cards.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The Joey Ramone Interview

article and illustration by Mrs Tami Thirlwell-Nicol

In honor of the upcoming 10th anniversary of Joey Ramone’s death, April 15th, 2001, I decided to channel Mr. Ramone (nee Jeff Hyman) from the Rock ‘n’ Roll crypt the other night. I wanted to get his take on what inspired his look and how he feels about what the kids are wearing today. He was good enough to spend some time chatting with me. (At least, I think it was the Joey Ramone). What follows is a portion of the interview.

Beauty Skool: Hi Joey, it’s great to have you show up, even if in an
amorphous state, and take the time out from your busy after-life.

Joey Ramone: Yeah, sure.

BSK: I’m a huge fan and I know I’m not out of line when I say that the
Skoolers are just as thrilled to have you spend some time with us today. First, how are you keeping and what’s that whole dead business really like?

JR: I’m okay-- it’s a lot quieter, not as many gigs, and I guess I’m a tad more relaxed.

BSK: Well that is good to hear. I understand there was a little band conflict as the years went by.

JR: Yeah, but now with most of us settled in for a long dirt nap things have mellowed. Jury’s still out on Dee Dee though.

BSK: No doubt. So, nine inch nails aside, let’s get down to brass tacks. The Ramones: style icons! Your whole look, as a group, was definitive. You were the fashion vanguard for a generation of kids and then some. In fact, jeans ripped at the knees originated from you guys in the 1970s and really exploded on to the scene. By the mid 1980s every Guns N’ Roses maniac was slashing furiously at their Levis. What was the brain-child behind that
rough and tumble feature?

JR: I was born with razor blades for kneecaps and nature took its course.

BSK: Wow! You were a pioneer in the whole distressed denim devolution.

Mr. Joey Ramone, Esq.

JR: I never really thought about it that much.

[Garbled sounds surface from the background and another voice makes its way through]

JM: Hey, Joey, you wanna hear my new poem? I just finished it.

BSK: Who is that?

JR: It’s Jim Morrison.

Jim Morrison: Hey, Joey, who’re ya talkin’ to?

JR: Not now, Jim, I’m being interviewed by Beauty Skool Girls.

JM: Girls?

JR: Just ignore him. You were saying?

BSK: Well... is that really...? Okay, right, and I think the skinny pant really elongates the leg nicely, rendering an enviable and elegantly lean look.

JR: Pant? I wore a whole pair.

BSK: Was there ever a time that you, Joey Ramone, wore a wide-legged jean?

JR: Are you looking for a fight?

JM: I wore flares all the time-- the chicks dug ‘em. Hey, can I read you my new poem?

JR: Yeah, not now, King Snake.

JM: “Incense brewed darkly...”

JR: You already wrote that, man. That guy is always trying to read me his poetry.

JM: You wanna talk pants? How about my black leather trousers?

BSK: True.

JR: I think Elvis beat you on that one. Look, Lizard King, why don’t you go find a nice rock to sun yourself on, okay? I’m being interviewed.

BSK: Let’s move on. Let’s talk about your penchant for stripy tee shirts.

JR: Yeah I like ‘em-- they’re cool.

BSK: But the striped shirt isn’t for everyone.

JR: Depends on the width of the stripe.

BSK: Too true. The striped shirt has a rich history of being worn through quite a few decades. Great artists like Picasso were fond of this bold look.

JR: And mimes.

JM: Don’t forget pirates, man.

BSK: Would you agree that the horizontal striped tee is a statement against the traditional vertical striped shirt favored by the majority of the business establishment? For example,the beatnik versus the banker?

[More muffled voices surface and interrupt our interview]

“Hello, hello, hello-- how low...”

BSK: That sounds it?

JR: Yeah, it’s that guy from Seattle.

Kurt Cobain: Hello, I have to weigh in here and agree on the striped tee shirt. One of my favorite shirts, thin or wide striped, it doesn’t matter.

JR: Aw, come on, what’s going on here? This is my interview!

KC: Okay, alright, nevermind.

BSK: Hey! Wait! Kurt, did Courtney...?

JR: He’s gone.

BSK: Oh, well. Now let’s talk about something that is very close to my heart. Footwear. What’s the story behind all the Converse sneakers?

JR: Just a classic runner. Comfortable, unassuming, we aren’t into flash. They’re just cool.

BSK: I’ll say. They are just as popular today. So let’s move way up north to talk about the hair. Aside from your own locks, it seems the other Ramones favored bangs and some had a sort of overgrown bowl cut that worked remarkably well when you guys played on stage.

JR: Yah, mine was a bit too thick and unruly to get that same movement. The main objective is to keep a lot of hair in and around your face. Long bangs can be your best friend. They conveniently shield you from offensive everyday occurrences, like invasive people.

BSK: I hear you.

JR: Good hair and a pair of shades will take you far-- or at least get you out the door to get some errands run...What?

[A soft voice wafts through]

BSK: Is that Kurt? Is he back?

JR: No, it’s that mopey Ian Curtis, he’s been hanging around here for quite a while.

Ian Curtis: Sorry to interrupt, I just wanted to say that I agree with Mr. Ramone about the sunglasses. Whether one’s wearing informal clobber or a smart suit-- the addition of a cool pair of shades completes the look.

BSK: Well, Mr. Curtis, you always were a snappy dresser-- no casual Fridays for you. It was all nicely pressed shirts and slacks.

IC: It’s just what I feel comfortable wearing.

JR: Shirts and slacks? Really? Were they wash ‘n’ wear?

IC: Are you taking the piss?

BSK: Well, Joey, they weren’t a pretentious shirt and slack combo. More of a relaxed everyday post-mod look, wouldn’t you say, Mr. Curtis?

IC: Laid-back, I suppose. I’m going for a nap.

BSK: Fair enough, thanks for weighing in. Joey, are you still there?

JR: Yeah, but it’s hard to get a word in with all these other guys lingering around.

BSK: I had no idea-- let’s get one more question in before Bon Scott shows up. What do you think of some of the trends happening these days, particularly with men’s fashion?

JR: Well, I find the whole baggy pants/ass crack thing quite amusing, although I suppose the volume of denim comes in handy for shoplifting. The whole oversized clothing trend is a little unclear. And I’m not really sure why guys wear baseball caps so often. I guess things will eventually cycle back to our look in another ten years or so.

BSK: Well, I sure hope so. Joey, it was great speaking with you. If kids today had even half of the style that you and the rest of the Ramones exhibited the world would be a much cooler place. Thanks so much for your contribution.

JR: No sweat.

BSK: Thanks very much for chatting with us today. Oh and if you happen to see an old friend of ours, Dimwit, would you do us a favor and say ‘hi’ to him from the girls at Beauty Skool?

JR: Yeah, sure thing.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Magic, Men and Makeup

by Mrs. Justine Brown

Mrs Brown gives instruction
Or magic-men and makeup. Geddit? Class! Wake up! Pop quiz alert. Are men even stylish at all? Yes, that was the question. Men. Makeup. Fashion. Do the three add up to equal Style?

The correct answer is yes. If you answered no, please read the following essay very carefully. The rest off you can have the afternoon off. No, just kiddin.' Get back in your seats. I mean that, darn it!

Sometimes we ladies are so glamorous and fabulous and all-round great that we don't notice the menfolk. We notice them noticing us, we notice them noticing us noticing them noticing us, but we don't... remark upon the fact that they themselves are quite stylish, indeed knowledgeable about style. (Yes, I know it doesn't apply to all of them, but neither does it... oh 'whatever'.)

So for your delectation and edification, I have brought a few examples along with me today. I wish they were real, but our budget doesn't extend that far. I have to rely mainly on experience, observation, lots of reading... and the Internet. I'm thinking of three examples of males: an individual (like A.A. Gill, who writes so cunningly for the Sunday Times Style Section when they have their yearly Men's Issue),  the mysterious Sapeurs of Africa , and men who use kohl. The rest will have to wait their turn.

Let us begin with the familiar: kohl. We know something of kohl, that powerful black substance from whence sprang mascara, eyeliner and shadow. This substance is spooky sexy: dab some on at night and go out. Then pass out with your kohl on and wake up looking fabulous in a louche sort of way. Some people, like Anita Pallenberg, haven't removed their eye makeup for decades, and I wear they still look fascinating. Keith Richards too. Not young and fresh, but then Keith has always looked, even as a child, very wise. (By the way, when Keith and Anita parted ways, it is my theory that Keith left their home with his guitars and a pot of kohl, which he then presented to his future wife, the wholesome freckled model Patti Hansen. It's a bit like Rod Stewart and his ever-present bottle of bleach. All his wives are blondes, even the current one, though she started out in the public eye with Rod as a brunette. That lasted about one week.) (Oh, and ROCK STARS, are you listening? 'Hope I Die Before I Get Old' is not a helpful anthem. 'Hot for Teacher', on the other hand, now there's a tune worth rallying round.) (Silence...)

Fetching in kohl
Men who use kohl-- well, maybe not all of you are in familiar territory here. It depends on your menfolk, mostly, and it just so happens that a lot of mine favoured that eroto-haunted look. Speaking of territory, up and down the crags and deserts of Afghanistan you will find men in kohl-- in fact, throughout the Middle East nearly everyone wears the stuff, even babies, and they have done so for thousands of years. Dark and shady kohl is an ancient potion believed to ward off the evil eye. It also deflects the desert sun. Finally, it's alluring. Some of the most striking photos to come out of the latest Afghan wars... it seems that the nascent Afghan police force  includes a lot of fey and flirtacious young men with roses in their Ak-47s and bedroom eyes enhanced by kohl.

Let's move on to a more exclusive group, the Sapeurs, or Society for People of Elegance and Ambiance. Here's a club I am desperate to join, and they won't have me (it's men only). Now, the Sapeurs are mainly from Africa. They worship style. Literally. They are incredibly sharp dressers, and they have made a cult-- again, literally-- out of fashion. To confirm this, just look at these handy illustrations. (Struggles with overhead projector.) Plus, they don't consider it an insult to be viewed this way. Quite the opposite is true, though I can't speak for their loved ones on this matter. All I know is that the Sapeurs are gorgeous dressers who put the rest of us in the shade and make us look pretty dowdy.

A member of Les Sapeurs

These extraordinarily spiffy guys mostly hail from the Congo, formerly a colony of Belgium, and there is a strong Belgian influence in their style. They are said to regard Brussels as their fashion Mecca, and dream of making pilgrimage there. And many do make that trip of a lifetime, going straight from airport to tailor. As many of you know,  Brussels has been giving Paris some stiff competition in the fashion stakes over the last twenty or so years, and many Belgian designers have made inroads into the French capital with a view to fashion world domination. The name Olivier Theyskens comes to mind: the pale, fragile, black-haired and attired Goth type became style director at Nina Ricci and is now poised to dominate Fashiontown, U.S.A.

Mr. Olivier Theyskens
The Sapeurs may pay homage to Brussels style, but they have no time for its stark palette of black, white and greige. They like their beautifully tailored suits in the boldest colours and combinations conjureable. Hot pink with acid yellow, turquoise with orange; that sort of thing. Watch-chains, crisp handkerchiefs, gloves and shoes magicked through polish to perfection.

Which brings me to my last exhibit, Mr. A.A. Gill, London writer and general dandy-about-town. Lucky Mr. Gill recently wrote an article about tweed, wool, and Savile Row tailoring. The Sunday Times had the budget to let him design his own tweed (which you can do on an I-Pad), order a huge bolt of it, and have the tailor run a three-piece suit up specially for him. You can't get much more bespoke than that. Mr. Gill added a hat and now can't be separated from his suit; I think he sleeps in it. (This picture doesn't feature the tweed, but gives you a feel for his style.)

Now, to return to my original question. Are men concerned with style? I think we have answered that arithmetic. The answer is three. Perfect. Class dismissed! (Sounds of stampede toward the door.)

A. A. Gill checks his look