A woman in shoes by Christian Louboutin. Photo: Getty
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The empress’s old clothes: who are women dressing for, anyway?

Most of us will have had the sensation, at one time or another, of feeling as though we were dressed up as someone else. A new book and an exhibition explore what it means to be a "woman in clothes".

 

There’s a scene in the second series of the BBC’s Sherlock in which the detective goes to visit Irene Adler – the woman who will become the woman. She is accused of blackmailing a princess with kinky photographs, so Sherlock decides to dress up as a vicar in order to gain access to her flat. But Irene is ahead of him; she knows who her visitor is and she knows what he does. When her assistant asks her what outfit she will wear to greet him, she replies simply: “The battle dress.”

A moment later, she is standing in front of Sherlock. She is completely naked. His eyes scan her body, drawing only a confused blank where he would expect the detail of a cuff or the bulge of a pocket to give up its secrets. She turns the tables on him, pointing out the ridiculous subterfuge of his clerical collar. “Do you know the big problem with a disguise, Mr Holmes? However hard you try, it’s always a self-portrait . . . I think you’re damaged, delusional and believe in a higher power. In your case, it’s yourself.”

Most of us will have had the sensation, at one time or another, of feeling as though we were dressed up as someone else. For a job interview, you become a neater, smarter version of yourself, for instance. We stubbornly cling to the “traditional” white wedding dress, even though it became a tradition only a century ago. And yet something of ourselves always bleeds into the image: everyone has a friend who has only to touch a freshly ironed shirt to crumple it, or one who can mysteriously carry off styles that make us look like unformed dough. And, unlike Irene Adler, most of us are unwilling to opt out of this system of signification altogether (not least because it’s cold out).

Both Women in Clothes – a new book ­edited by the New York literary darlings Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton – and the “Women Fashion Power” exhibition at the Design Museum in London attempt to unweave the stories we tell through our dress. Women in Clothes is ultimately more successful: as the cover proudly announces, it features contributions from 639 women, including the artist Miranda July, the writer Kiran Desai and everyone’s favourite hook for a comment piece, Lena Dunham. By doing this, it underscores the universality of the system, even as it highlights the diversity of its expressions.

The book is a ragbag, designed like a scrapbook and punctuated with grids of single items – tights, buttons, logo T-shirts – from various individuals’ wardrobes. The effect is to make you realise how much time and mental effort women expend on their clothes and also how much they rely on them to tell stories, either about where they come from or who they want to be.

There’s a common thread linking the women wearing their grandmother’s wedding ring and Emily Gould, the favourite of internet hate-readers, who writes about blowing her tax rebate on a pink Marc Jacobs purse. “In 2004, Marc anything was the ultimate status symbol for a specific kind of New York City woman, the kind I aspired to be: someone with natural charisma, a cool job, effortless and understated sexiness and plenty of cash,” she writes. It cost hundreds of dollars but, six years later, battered by wear, she sold it at a yard sale for just $10. High-fashion items are worth only what someone is willing to pay for them.

Simone de Beauvoir once wrote: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” That is certainly the case in Women in Clothes. One of the most revealing interviews is Heti’s discussion with the NS writer Juliet Jacques, who is transsexual. To be accepted as a woman, Jacques not only had to learn a new way of dressing but new mannerisms, a new voice – even a new way of sneezing. “Women are socially policed to behave with more restraint,” she tells Heti.

Clothes are a language and it’s only because we are so well trained to read them that we don’t notice. The nuances of historical dress are quickly lost to us but we can easily tell the difference between a City slicker and a goth, a hippie and a hipster. Women in Clothes addresses one of the hoariest questions in fashion: who are women dressing for, anyway? It’s surely mostly for other women, who are far more adept at reading the tiny inflections of meaning in a cut or a label.

To attract men, the rules are simpler, though that crudeness brings its own problems. Here’s one contributor, Augusta Lee: “I feel like it’s a meat market and a fashion show when I go to church. Girls dress up to try and get married.” And here’s Sasha Grey, who used to make the kind of pornography that other people in the porn business worried was too extreme. “I like to dress up and be wanted, but at this time [after ending a long-term relationship] I didn’t know what I wanted, so I didn’t want to project myself in that way. I guess I have a disdain for young women who dress half-naked but scowl when you glance their way.”

Grey’s comment underlines the idea of women’s fashion as plumage. In previous eras, there was a more straightforward class division in dress: the 16th-century aristocrat was just as gorgeously clothed and jewelled as his wife, in contrast to working people of both sexes. But a series of social shifts, including the advent of mass production in the 18th century and Beau Brummell’s creation of the three-piece suit around the turn into the 19th, put paid to that. Now, the male CEO wears ostensibly the same outfit as his graduate trainee. It is left to subtle details such as watches, or an expensive cut or fabric, to reassert his dominance.

A woman photographs one of Margaret Thatcher's dresses at the Design Museum's exhibition.

 

This approach to power dressing leaves women handicapped. As the Design Museum’s exhibition demonstrates, some women adopt a kind of “man camouflage” – think Angela Merkel in her Pantone three-buttoned suits, or Hillary Clinton’s severe business wear. Others head in the opposite direction, hamming up the femininity while swearing blind that uncomfortable cantilevering leaves them feeling “empowered” (possibly in the same type of interview in which they claim to “just be really good at multitasking” or boast about getting up at 4.30am to do an hour’s Pilates before the children wake up).

The old double bind is on full display here: women are judged on their looks but also judged for caring about their looks. You can be decreed either dowdy or vain. For women in politics, the choice is particularly depressing: the Daily Mail devoted a double-page spread this summer to the “Downing Street catwalk” as new female ministers were appointed. Baroness Stowell, the new leader of the Lords, was described as “a bit mother-of-the-bride”, while Anna Soubry was chastised for having “the air of a Mrs Thatcher tribute, fake posh voice, tough manner and everything”. Esther McVey, meanwhile, was a “thigh-flashing vision in grey check by Vivienne Westwood . . . She needs to tone it down a little for attending cabinet meetings.” No wonder this exhibition quotes Miriam González Durántez, the wife of Nick Clegg, saying that she has little idea how much she spends on clothes but it’s “much more since Nick is in politics”.

The strongest section of the show addresses the quagmire that a powerful woman in a man’s world has to navigate every morning. The 26 women who have contributed an outfit are from very different backgrounds and cultures but many face the same struggle: finding the Goldilocks point of fitted but not too fitted, feminine but not too feminine, attractive without being overtly sexual. Little wonder that so many, when they find a formula, stick to it rigidly – in the fairground mirror logic of fashion, if you wear the same type of clothes long enough, it goes through frumpy and out the other side into “a signature style”. (Cue a picture of the Queen in black heels and a block-colour coat, with matching hat and bag.)

The saddest part of the exhibition, however, is its circularity. It begins with 19th-century corsets, nipping the waist to waspish proportions, and then charts the history of the “land girls”, in their practical overalls, and 1960s women ditching starched tailoring for free-and-easy miniskirts. We get zips and nylons and high street labels that make fashion accessible to everyone.

Then we finish with three sets of Christian Louboutin heels – none lower than six inches. These are “limousine shoes”, hard to wear if your job involves anything other than tottering in and out of cabs or being rented by the hour by oligarchs. No matter how hard we try to break down the walls that imprison women, someone will always stick a Swarovski crystal on them and sell them back to us as fashion. 

“Women in Clothes” is published by Particular Books (£24). “Women Fashion Power” is at the Design Museum, London SE1, until 26 April 2015

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser