The Liz Jones theory of just war

I’m not saying that Liz Jones is shallow, and spending a week in a burqa is more than I’m willing to do in the name of journalism. For one thing, I’m not going to risk the rickets. But is she absolutely sure that the right to wear a strappy top is so important it should be defended with the full force of the UK’s military? Has she really and completely thought through the politics of invasion?

In Afghanistan, the burka is known as the ‘chadri’; it became common only when the Taliban came to power.

When I think of the young men who have died fighting the Taliban and the calls to end a war that has ‘nothing to do with us’, I think of how I felt in my mobile prison and remember that, for all those women forced to hide their faces and their bodies, their fight is our fight, too.

The night I finally took off my burka, I wanted to put on make-up, spaghetti straps and the highest shoes I own. All week I’d been wearing scent, so compelling was the need to be feminine.

The Mail, “Liz Jones: My week wearing a burka: Just a few yards of black fabric, but it felt like a prison

© Sarah Ditum, 2009

How to make a magazine: The September Issue

Everyone knows that Anna Wintour is imperious, dictatorial and impeccable. The trailer for this behind-the-scenes-at-Vogue documentary promises to reinforce that image. Good news for us, because the scene of her telling Oscar de la Renta what’s in and out of his catwalk show looks mighty entertaining; good news for Wintour too, because I imagine that her ferocious reputation is the most valuable thing she’s got.

But what looks most interesting – for people infatuated with journalism and publishing, anyway – is the way this film follows in detail the process of putting together an issue of a magazine. September is the big month in Vogue’s year, and Anna critiques everything in hand-stitched detail: the fonts, the message, and above all the looks.

Paperhouse reads: The Language Of Things

The Language Of Things

Earlier this week, I wrote about Karen magazine and Karen’s question, “Why do people buy unnecessary things?” Deyan Sudjic’s book, The Language Of Things, has a pretty good answer:

It is a curious paradox that even the most materialist of us tend to value what might be called the useless above the useful. Useless not in the sense of being without purpose, but without utility, or not much of it. […] Usefulness is inversely proportional to status. The more useless an object is, the more highly valued it will be. High-status utility is confined to such baroque elaborations of conspicuously redundant utility capacity as the wristwatch supposedly designed for use by divers […] or the grossly overspecified SUV.

The Language Of Things, pp. 167-8

This description is shamingly acute. My favourite handbag is a wee pretty one that only holds a key and a lipstick, and has to be constantly clutched by the tiny handle. My best watch doesn’t have any numbers on its miniature face. I have a terrible addiction to copies of McSweeney’s which spread out in unwieldy directions, spill mini-mags everywhere, and are actually pretty hard to read. Luckily, Sudjic is just as susceptible to the wiles of objects, and tells a reassuring story of his seduction by a MacBook near the start of The Language Of Things. Playfulness and ingenuity in objects aren’t universally bad – my handbag, my watch and my McSweeney’s are all witty and lovely things. But it’s curious that I’m not equally impressed by sturdy and capacious bags, watches with digits or the basic marvel of the paperback.


Design – the polish that convinces you to buy one thing rather than another, the copyright-protected detail that identifies a desirable brand – is critical to consumer culture. But good design – the “brilliant synthesis of structure and mechanism” which Sudjic identifies in the anglepoise lamp and the French wine bottle – is less so. A well-designed product will last, will replace similar products, and exempt the purchaser from being a consumer for the life of the object.

And it’s the useless that gets treasured. The examples of design which make it into the Museum Of Modern Art in New York are divorced from the context of their function: “whether consciously or not”, says Sudjic, “[MOMA] is doing its best to suggest that design is just as useless as art, and therefore almost as valuable.” In the end, Sudjic argues that the artistic aspirations of designers is changing the ideology of design, and will “fuel what may be a short lived explosion of flamboyant new work.” It’s clear that he doesn’t think this will be especially good for design or for consumers.

Hatred shaped like a fat girl

There are some precious moments when you’re reading the Daily Mail and it seems that the hatreds it espouses are too many and varied to be contained in one coherent feature. The prose is stretched in every direction by loathing but somehow, magically, holds on to its double voice. Around the time of the Hutton report, I gleefully anticipated the implosion of the Mailiverse as the opposing forces of ‘hating Labour’ and ‘hating the BBC’ worked against each other – but of course, if I’d paid as much attention to how the Mail says stuff as I did to what it was saying, I would have been a lot cooler. Those masterful Mail subs don’t let a tiny thing like conflict of interest undermine their copy. These negatively capable editorial geniuses can easily hold on to to contradictory ideas at the same time without any irritable reaching after fact and reason, whipping up disgust all around the reader.

Fat Kate

Welcome, then, beaming journo Kate Faithfull with a magnificent example of this style. She’s the one in the middle, but don’t worry, she doesn’t really look like that – she’s wearing a fat suit to London Fashion Week in a mission to “challenge every received prejudice in the industry” and “show the fashionistas what real curves look like”. Actually, if the industry wanted to know what real curves look like, it turns out in the course of the article that Dawn French was right there anyway being plus-sized and fabulous, so Kate’s weird balloon tits and sack belly would be redundant even if they did have any relation to “real curves”.

The tiny chance that Kate’s mission is in good faith but misguided is rapidly crushed by the sneering prose that follows. Kate feels “soft and sexy” in her fatsuit because “there are no rolls of wobbly flesh” – because real fat would be too revolting for the Mail‘s delicate readers to tolerate. When she has to dress her new round body, she declares: “It’s a good job my breasts are made of foam and don’t require any support — it would have to be a bra to fit two space hoppers.” There’s no sense that Kate has any feeling of ownership or sympathy for this body. She finds it ridiculous, she doesn’t even look for clothes that fit (maybe an actual fat girl could have advised her on bra shopping?), and the outfit she settles on is spectacularly cheap-looking and unflattering. The default colour for both fashion shows and plus-size clothing is black, so how did Kate end up in a fuchsia and pea-green? By trying really hard to look hideous, that’s how.

So while the piece goes on to confirm what Kate claims she set out to discover – um, models are thin! fashion people judge your looks! hold the front page and THINK OF THE IMPRESSIONABLE YOUNG GIRLS! – it’s also able to gratuitously attack the overweight under cover of sympathy. Kate plays her size for laughs again and again: “I will need three [chairs] to accommodate my bottom, not to mention a miracle to prevent [them] collapsing”, she hoots, apparently forgetting that her bulk is lightweight foam and she’s in more danger of blowing away than breaking a seat. But the real magic happens at the very end:

Clearly, the front line of fashion is not the place for me. I feel like a circus freak. I truly can’t face going to the other shows I  –  so I run. With tears in my eyes, I bolt out into the street like a bride sprinting away from a wedding she knows will never make her happy.

For the first time today, I feel like I can breathe again. I think to myself that I hope I horrified and repulsed all those snotty skinnies at the shows.

They live in a rarefied world, and they should be forced to confront reality for once  –  to realise that not everyone looks like them, or even wants to be like them.

I never thought I’d say this, but forget the catwalk. Give me the fatwalk any day.

This is the climax, and it sounds pretty dramatic even if it’s mostly fiction. “Like a bride sprinting away from a wedding she knows will never make her happy”? Really? And what about (again) Dawn French, Victoria Wood and Lorraine Kelly, who apparently all manage to mingle with the “snotty skinnies” without fleeing in disgrace? Never mind that, check out the second to last paragraph. Following on from what’s gone before, “they” seems strictly to encompass the “snotty skinnies”, but sitting nakedly after a line break, “they” could easily be the “fatties” as well. And it makes just as much sense, after Kate’s pillorying of the overweight throughout, for her to be saying that they “should be forced to confront reality for once  –  to realise that not everyone looks like them, or even wants to be like them.” Because whether you’re alarmingly bony or disgustingly plump, the key thing in the Mailiverse is that you’re not acceptable unless you’re ‘normal’. So little Kate turns away from the catwalk, peels off her foam and goes back to being a comfortable size 10. She hasn’t learnt anything. She hasn’t taught anyone else anything. But she has confirmed that the too-thin and the too-fat are almost equal candidates for mockery – which is what the Mailiverse really wanted to know all along.

Pennywise, Pound Foolish, Sewing Incompetent

About two years ago, life in the Paperhouse was changed forever by the discovery of a couple of pairs of Falke Soft Merino tights on the hosiery shelf during a rummaging session in TK Maxx. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I really am pretty shallow. Suddenly, winter dressing was transformed from a misery of static-y, snaggley, chilly legs to a cocoon of cosy chic. I went back and bought every pair of the tights in my size – even some in a shade which I like to think of as “camel” but is really an unwearable sort of unfleshly tone. I liked them so much I bought a couple of pairs at full, eye-watering price, thinking that even though £40 was a lot to blow on tights, at least they’d last a long time and I could definitely darn them.

But even tights with a serious Germanic name will wear out eventually and when mine ripped along the gusset, it turned out that my mending skills were a little reluctant. First of all, I put them in the mending pile. Then they ended up in the laundry. Then I tried to wear them anyway, and that was a thigh-chafing little adventure. However, I wasn’t going to buy replacements, and I refused to go back to nylons, so something would have to be done.

I don’t know how to darn. I remember my mum’s darning mushroom, and even recall seeing the occasional sock on it, but I wasn’t interested in acquiring any textiles skills. Darn number one was a rough stab with grey cotton which – and I really do see how this could have been foreseen – ripped through the surrounding wool on first wear. So I tried again:

Whipstitching with black sock yarn made a seam with the unrefined look of something out of a Cronenberg movie but also one which is stretchy enough to hold up. So I’ve got my tights back, although the world hasn’t really gained in darning expertise. Any tips on a good source for learning to do this properly would be welcome in the comments…

Paperhouse goes to see: Vivienne Westwood at Sheffield Galleries

I remember hearing a radio interview with Vivienne Westwood (Desert Island Discs, probably) when I was in my early teens, in which she told the story of how she used to wear a pencil-skirt and high-heeled shoes to school. And this struck me as a wonderful thing. If you’d asked me at the time to explain why this was so impressive, I would have been lost – I don’t think the idea that I would want other people to find me attractive or sexy had really formed in my mind yet, although it certainly had its unacknowledged part in my psyche. Something about the soft-spoken intent to provoke and the unselfconscious love of dressing up won me to Westwood forever.

And then there were the clothes. Mini-crinis, bustles, corsets, tottering wedges, tweeds and tartans. I watched their passage through the fashion pages with breathless lust: strange and gorgeous costumes for a world of untouchable theatre and glamour. I wanted – still want – to live in that world. And for a giddy hour in the Sheffield Millenium Gallery, I got to do so.

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Further On Fashion

Portfolio magazine on luxury fashion’s vague shrug towards responsible manufacturing practices.

In a January report, investment research firm Innovest’s list of the 100 most responsible corporations included no luxury conglomerates […] Innovest’s list, oddly, does include two leading retailers in the wasteful “fast fashion” movement—H&M and Inditex, which owns the Zara chain. It’s hard to be truly green with a business model that compels customers to frequently throw out what they own. Unfortunately, luxury fashion has begun taking cues from fast fashion, putting itself at odds with its exclusive nature. Whereas couturiers once made design statements as part of an ongoing evolution—creating new jackets that would go with last year’s dresses—fast fashion introduces clothes nonstop, zigzagging through multiple styles each season. Forced obsolescence drives consumers to buy more. This may sound like a shrewd business practice, but overproduction leads to overconsumption: The more we buy, the more we discard. That’s environmentally heedless—and it’s ugly.

For Portfolio, one of the key points here is that by chasing the throwaway fashion dollar, luxury fashion has been unwittingly degrading its own marketplace. A jacket that matches last season’s skirt implies a select clientele of repeat customers, picking out essential pieces season after season. The novelty-hungry trend seekers who rummage through H&M and Zara are, by their nature, not very loyal: they don’t have a relationship to the things they buy, and they don’t have a relationship to the places they buy them either.

Couture design and crafting can’t respond to the rapid turnover of street fashion. By inciting a furious desire for new beauty every season, the designer brands have summoned up a demand for copycats who can supply quick-turnaround product. Susan Scafidi’s solution to this problem is to espouse copyright protection for fashion designs – a proposal which, despite my sympathy for designers, seems neither very workable nor fair nor desirable. It doesn’t serve to change the self-immolating business model which Portfolio picks up on, either. Portfolio offers a different remedy which combines sustainability with exclusivity:

try to imagine a high-end fashion giant responding to our overtaxed environment by embracing traditional methods that are both more luxurious and less ephemeral. Now that would be a radical new design.

For domestic knitters and tailors, this isn’t that radical at all – if you are a competent needleworker, then you’re all set to be your own couturier. Luxury fashion is racing to catch up with your knitting bag…