Friday, 29 May 2009

Silver Foxettes

I have rarely delved into the world of fashion in this blog, partly because it is everywhere at Elle and this is just for my extra-curricular amusement, and partly because I am a little apathetic about the whole thing. I love reading about designers, trends, shows and the whole glamorous circus, but it doesn't really penetrate my little bubble of comfy jeans, pretty dresses and killer shoes. I prefer the word 'style', because I think the true, lasting style icons have always been the ones that dressed to please themselves and kept to a signature look which suited them. This is true of Marilyn Monroe (curvalicious gowns, halterneck dresses, feminine blouses), Audrey Hepburn (cropped cigarette trousers, androgynous jackets, polonecks and ballet pumps) and Jackie O (classic shifts, tailoring, those enduring glamourpuss sunglasses). The stars of more recent years who get the most 'best dressed' accolades are also people with a signature silhouette, usually from a favourite designer (Keira Knightley in luxe, draped Gucci, Jennifer Aniston in clean, simple Calvin Klein, Sienna Miller in goddessy Marchesa). I think style is something totally undefinable, something personal to you, and something you have to be an absolute fashion athlete to really maintain every single day.

The commute into London is a veritable playground of people-watching; I love, love, love the way London women play with layering, contrast and colour, and the mix of ethnicities, ages, shapes and working environments means a little fashion show is put on for me every day between Waterloo and Bond St. I am particularly admiring of Stylish Older Ladies in the capital; like Stylish Pregnant Ladies and Beautifully Dressed Children, it always puts a little joy into my heart to see them. There was an immaculately put-together SOL next to me on the tube this morning; in a black cotton wrap dress, impossibly soft chocolate cashmere cardi and accessorizing with a classic black Prada bag and sunglasses, perched elegantly atop perfectly Mirren-esque bobbed silver hair.*

I think it can be a challenge, but a fun one, to maintain a sense of style after a certain age. My mother gets more chic every year; she's having fun with finding glamourous workwear and bold accessories as trends change, but never forgets the best way to dress her shape. A lot of women slip into 'comfy' territory - this can be a good thing; my grandmother chooses the best quality materials and workmanship due to her dressmaker's instinct, and as a result is a very stylish septuagenarian - but I am determined to hold on to my style regardless of age and its restrictions. The absolute worst type of ageing is the surgery-stretched, teen-haired, muttony celebs who refuse to accept the inevitable (take note Joan Rivers, Madonna and Donatella). The SOLs I see around West London are passionately clinging to the classics; the camel trench coat, the wrap dress, the cashmere cover-up, the elegant pumps, the pearls, and the short, bouffant blow dry. I think you can be more diverse with your wardrobe than this Mayfair look post-50, but the silhouette is a brilliant place to start. I'm still trying to forge my style on a high-street budget, but it does make me smile to see so many British women working a fabulous Spring/Summer look in the city.

*Helen Mirren is quite literally the Queen of SOLs: gracefully looking her age but keeping her hair and dress daringly Oscar-worthy. I can only hope I have such poise and va-va-voom at 63. Here are my holy trinity of graceful ageing:

Friday, 22 May 2009

Guilty Pleasures

What links Snickers bars, OK! magazine, American Idol, Dr Pepper and David Mitchell?

As readers of this post may have guessed, they are in fact my personal secret indulgences, weird crushes and bizarre cravings. None of them are particularly glamourous or intellectual (except the lovely David Mitchell) but nevertheless, they make me swoon.

Aside from the raptures of peanut, caramel and chocolate combined, the American Idol final came up in the news today for having its worst ratings in the US since 2004. This is supposedly due to gaming and internet use overtaking entertainment shows, but it probably also reflects the talent show formula feeling bit flat after all these years. For all its tackiness, I do love Idol. Even in the rounds leading up to the final 12, all of the US contestants could sing the socks off our 'novelty' Brit contestants (will Ray Quinn PLEASE have the decency to disappear??) and you get some stonking cover versions where they can really showcase their vocal skills. The standout contestant of this season, Adam Lambert, lost out to impishly cute Kris Allen - a bit of a travesty, considering the risks Lambert had taken with arrangements and his sheer vocal athleticism. But back in the guilty-pleasure lobe of my brain, I obviously had a massive crush on shamelessly middle-of-the-road Kris.

At least Allen is conventionally boyband-dreamy; Psychologies magazine this week cast my mind back to that guiltiest of pleasures, the 'Shouldn't but Would'. If you think you don't have one, maybe this will jog your memory: Simon Cowell. Richard Madeley. Paul Merton. Simon Amstell (who cares if you're not his type?) Andrew Castle. Chris Moyles.

Chances are your SbW is a bit wrinkly, nationally unpopular, aesthetically unappealing, chubby or all of the above. Usually humour, power or just that twinkle in the eye are all that keep him out of barge-pole territory. When XFM asked listeners to send in theirs, the hilarious responses ranged from the cradle-snatching (Daniel Radcliffe, Zac Efron) to the political (Boris Johnson, Michael Portillo) and even, disturbingly, to the fictional (Mr Tumnus, Cheetara from Thundercats, and even Simba from the Lion King). If we're delving into Disney, I always had confusing feelings about Robin Hood - yes, the talking fox - and I know I share this crush with at least one friend. You know who you are.

I'm off now to read OK! in front of a One Tree Hill repeat with a can of Dr Pepper - where's David Mitchell when you need him? - but please do comment with your guilty pleasures, be they culinary, carnal or downright cringeworthy.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Beauty vs The Beast

In last week's G2, feminist writer Julie Bindel wrote about how she had never felt compelled to wear make-up , and preached to us moronic L'Oreal-loving traitors about the terrible conformity of having to 'dress up for male approval' with a face full of slap. Now, I am of the opinion that in a perfect world, we would all have flawless, glowing, evenly-coloured complexions which self-moisturised and accentuated our cut-glass cheekbones. In planet reality, I am firmly convinced that the average woman is never 100% happy with her bare face, and that make up is mostly for her, not Him. Some of us don’t even have a Him to impress. And I’m pretty sure that not many (past that teenage preoccupation with how boys are viewing you) are bothered about random builders and barmen analysing their features.

It is a pleasure and a pastime to play with colour and enhance your face; like some women are attracted to gaudy costume jewellery or sharp, bold hairstyles, I am a magpie for beauty products. Little dreamy pots of luscious creamy substances that highlight cheek and brow bones, buttery-soft balms that transform my less-than-generous lips into a Hollywood pout, powdery pink blush for that healthy glow even after four hours’ sleep, and mascara, that wonder product, the path to impossibly long, feathery bambi lashes.

As a romantic when it comes to style and beauty, I resent the hard-nosed accusation that ‘people like me’ are betraying the sisterhood with our desire to entrap men and hide our true character. I have never described myself as a feminist, because women like Bindel have made it an ugly preference (no pun intended). There is no middle ground with these women, you either shun all modern enchantments in favour of becoming hairy, disgruntled and plain (not to mention preachy and outspoken), or you have no feminist leanings at all. What Bindel is essentially saying is, even after years of feminist study and political campaigning, any would-be fish without a bicycle can ruin it all with one slick of a Juicy Tube.

What hope for fairly independent, forward-thinking women who also want the little indulgences that make them happy? I know that personally my make-up habit is for me alone; I like playing around with it and improving my skills, I like the glow certain products give me, and I like it when people say I have nice skin (translation: YSL's touche eclat). Most of all I know it's for me because my boyfriend dislikes cosmetic overload and is constantly hinting that he likes me best first thing in the morning, fresh faced. If anything I'm resisting male pressure by continuing to choose make-up.

When reading the article, I respected her effort to try what she was condemning, but hated the scathing treatment of anyone dabbling in a little Elizabeth Arden. She links stupidity with cosmetic appreciation unnecessarily; the women getting furthest in many industries are the ones who realise that people with the whole package are much more likely to be promoted and valued. People react well to those who make an effort, whether that be the well groomed, fragrant smelling, neatly attired or immaculately manicured. It is subconscious, and yes, perhaps a bit misogynistic. But why is it so wrong to want to be successful and admired? I find it hard to take women like Bindel seriously when they are so ludicrously intolerant of the mainstream.

One of my favourite writers, India Knight, has a completely contrasting ode to cosmetics in her wonderful memoir/gift guide The Shops . If given the chance to make your eyes bigger and brighter, your skin gleam and your lips look plump and alluring, she wonders, why wouldn’t you take it? Knight is fairly mistrustful of make-up-free ladies, which is a little unfair, but what she is basically saying is that those sharply opposed to looking their best are not her type of women. Incidentally, she comes across throughout her writing as a total woman's woman, with sisters and girl friends filling the pages, her books aimed at women who want to treat themselves. Bindel’s only acknowledgement of her fellow femmes seems to be feuds with other prolific feminists such as Julie Birchill, and her constant censure of ‘them’, these terrible normal women who don’t share her views. I know who I’d rather have coffee with.

Bindel and Knight: Not hitting the Clarins counter together any time soon

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

West End Girl

Since I was about 16, I have been in love with the music of Jason Robert Brown. Musical-theatre-phobes look away now; this is a gushy one. All this time I have had the original cast recording of his innovative two-person show The Last Five Years, which (in thinly veiled autobiography) tells the story of a passionate, painful, beautiful five year relationship. Even in my mid-teens, knowing little of love and heartbreak, the honesty of the music grabbed my attention. No note, chord or lyric is wasted and every song perfectly encompasses a relationship scenario we can all relate to. There's no way to describe the genuinely modern, hilarious and tragic quality of JRB's work, but if you are at all interested in musicals, get hold of this and his revue Songs For a New World.

I went to see the fabulous Notes from New York production of The Last Five Years last week with such high expectations of the songs and characters I have been besotted with for so long - for five years, incidentally. It is rarely on in London, so I jumped at the chance to finally become better acquainted with the piece. Starring as Cathy was Julie Atherton, who I recently saw in the brilliant Avenue Q, and she more than delivered as an alternately sweet and sour tempest of a woman, accompanied by her usual supreme vocals. I hadn't seen Paul Spicer in anything thus far (he is the co-producer for the Notes from New York production, as well as starring) but I was completely seduced by his cocky, romantic, ambitious Jamie, a part which he made sweeter and funnier than I had envisioned it, to great effect. Being in the second row of the stalls felt both uncomfortable and hypnotic; you felt awkwardly wedged between them in the bad moments of the relationship and oddly voyeuristic during the good.

What struck me the most, especially in light of its autobiographical core, was how balanced the production was; the male protagonist is cocky, cruel at times and even unfaithful, but his love interest is also stubborn, confrontational and closed off at times. You can love and hate and totally relate to both all the way through. The minimalist set put the spotlight completely on the two actors, and the structure of the show (her songs begin at the end of the relationship and work backwards, his run vice versa and they meet in the middle) made it incredibly moving.

Something wonderful about composer-lyricists is that often the melody and lyrics become completely inextricable, and Brown is the best example of this. Many themes appear instrumentally in the show before words are put to them, and when they are, the emotion of the melody immediately makes sense. I feel I could see this show a hundred times over a hundred years and recognise something different in myself every time; maybe this is the product of someone with real life experience. Either way, my talent-crush on Jason Robert Brown is bigger than ever.

In life news, my second week at Elle is going great, I feel like I'm on top of things and like I'm making an impression, and there has been talk of possibly getting to go to film screenings and review books for their wonderful Preview section, which I'm ridiculously excited about. I'm also going to see the other Notes from New York show this Saturday, Jonathan Larson's Tick, Tick... Boom! I know nothing about this musical so it will be a contrast to how emotionally invested I was in last week's show. I'm hoping to have a bit of a theatre-going year, so any show recommendations are very welcome.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Golden Oldies

Age gaps are interesting to me. I have often wondered why I appear to be missing the 'older man' gene; both my sisters and my mother went for men at least a few years older than themselves, while I have always had relationships with people who are at exactly the same stage of life as me. This popped back into my head today as a bit of drama played out on facebook (that theatre of miscommunication and stalkery).

An ex of mine and his subsequent girlfriend appear to have split up, and are carrying out a bit of a public war via the good 'book. I really like her (unusual for me, I am usually a bit scathing and dismissive of my relationship successors) and sympathise with her plight, namely that he is an overgrown toddler with a lot of issues and a borderline gambling addiction. Something that he is only proving with his current facebooking antics. I couldn't quite believe I had dated this guy not that long ago and not found him unbearable. Such are the risks of same-age pairings.

This is not to dismiss our relationship, he has changed quite a bit, but the difference in maturity was always a problem. It is hard to find a great guy who shares your values and pursuits who also inhabits the same era of life as you, when the maturity gap seems to stay wide open well into our twenties. Saying that, my last couple of relationships have given me a better impression of 'boys my own age', and there are definitely a few gems out there. My conundrum is that I can totally, totally see the appeal of the Older Man (more cash, settled into his lifestyle, plentiful relationship experience, gentlemanly values, often more likely to commit) but I have never, ever been attracted in any real relationship-coveting way to an older man. I'm talking more than two or three years older, essentially.

The pros of same-age seduction are many- you're less likely be made to feel childish or silly, more likely to have the same references and tastes, you'll occasionally feel you can look after him as well as vice versa, you don't feel pressured to settle down before your time, and you'll often both be financially synched - less disagreements over places to eat or holidays to book.

But so many of the bright, gorgeous, funny, driven girls and women I know have opted for an older man, I often wonder why I'm not following suit. Answers on a postcard...

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Cereal Monogamy

Mitchell: Pedantic, overly articulate, ranting, irritable and sarcastic. And topping many a 'Shouldn't but would' list.

Hilarious comment article by David Mitchell in today's Observer.

I also have a tricky relationship with cereal. This could be tied in with my milk issues - I like strawberries and cream, ice cream, cream-filled profiteroles, but if there is even a speck of cream in my milk it totally freaks me out. I can't explain it either, but it'll probably come out in therapy when I'm thirty. Cereal used to be a perfectly normal start to the day; I remember when a Kellogg's variety pack was the breakfast hallmark of special occasions and treats, usually involving a tiff over who got the Coco Pops. But these days, if I'm eating cereal I am almost certainly on a rare and short-lived health kick.

I went through a phase in the second year of university of stocking up on Fruit'n'Fibre, which at least attempts to incorporate some tastier fruit pieces, and skimmed milk in a desperate bid to kick my bread habit. Now having given up such dieting efforts at the ripe old age of 21, only once in a blue moon do I deviate from my love affair with toast to delve into the raisin bran. This is odd because the rest of my family are devoted cereal eaters, it is the only proper start to a weekday, usually substituted by more exciting options at the weekend.

But Mitchell is right in saying it is a curious thing to market as enjoyable rather than essential. Anyone who saw this year's Apprentice candidates fudging their way through the breakfast product task (Oh, Pantsman... there is nothing anyone can say that will justify that departure of taste and sanity) will appreciate that essentially you're trying to make puffed rice, brown flakes, and shrivelled fruit exciting and delectable. As I understand it, my option of two slices of wholemeal toast with marmite is just as healthy and fibre-rich, and I even avoid the hidden sugars lurking in the cereal option.

I just can't understand any culinary lust towards a breakfast option which strongly resembles the dried mix you would feed a rodenty pet; if I feel I'm not getting enough fibre or fruit, I'll get involved, but stop trying to make me excited about it.* There's a reason cereal doesn't appear on those food-porn M&S ads: 'misshapen, crunchy, brown flakes.... shrivelled unidentified-floating objects.... this is not just cereal....'

*I'd like to make an exception for Stateside luxury Lucky Charms - any leprechaun-bearing product involving colourful marshmallow shapes is fine by me. If you have had the misfortune never to try these, get hold of some in Selfridges Food Hall. Believe me.