How to look after curly hair when you’ve never had it before

I didn’t curl my hair. My hair, you might say, curled me. It was a stealth re-style, ordered by nature and art directed by a hurricane.

We know that the emotions connected to hair are rarely simple. It’s usually the first self-directed physical marker of significant change – the post-divorce chop, the big birthday colour job. And I should address the elephant in the room from the off: any black woman who’s had to face the dreaded, ignorant ‘professional hairstyle’ commentary can tell you about the politics of hair much, much better than I can. Here’s just one of many occasions when black women have done the education for us. As a white woman of reasonably copious privilege, my hair wasn’t something I needed to think about very much for a long time. This was partly because straight fine hair flies under the white beauty radar, and also because I had a fair amount of it (female baldness, both voluntary and involuntary, also being the cause of much comment). But over the years I’ve lost quite a lot, and that’s often been tricky to come to terms with, even if my carefully chosen Instagrams hide it well. And along the way, it also changed look entirely, and that had a strong impact on me. If that seems superficial to you, head back to read something else another day. I usually write about films and books and occasionally food.

For now, it’s a hair story. My hairmoir, if you will. Continue reading →

Matchy matchy: vintage BFI London Film Festival looks

As I might have mentioned at the end of each of my BFI London Film Festival posts this past week: I’m an enormous nerd.

That means I have really nerdy ideas. Like, say, thematically matching what I was wearing to each of the three galas I was lucky enough to snag tickets to. But since I know I’m talking to a similarly nerdy audience – at the point at which my photos of frocks overtook my admittedly grainy photo of the actual Tom Hiddleston on Instagram I knew it wasn’t just me that thinks this shiz is important – I thought I’d share the looks together here, too.


Green, white and (almost) purple for Suffragette

Green, white and (almost) purple for Suffragette. I don’t know why I look worried and I hate that my hair was wet.

Well, I don’t have any turn of the last century dresses, and if I did I’d probably be too terrified to wear them (and frankly too tall and broad around the waist). But I know my women’s movement colours, and I really like green. This Collectif checked dress – a couple of seasons old, but a version is still available – offered a bit of a bluestocking twist. Together with a white scarf and a hint of purple eyeshadow, the only thing I regret was missing the opportunity to throw in some pin curls.



All “model’s” own, including the comedy pose.

This was a bit of a struggle. Until the last minute I had my Tomorrowland black 1940s sheer dress lined up, but it didn’t feel quite right. For one, the film is late enough into the 1940s that a 1950s look felt more appropriate; for another I just wanted an excuse to wear a different dress. The day before this gorgeous shirtwaister arrived from Cheshire Vintage, and I knew its moment had come. What’s not clear from the photo are the gorgeous gold threads running through the red (not actually intended as a reference to Communism at the time, but hey…).


Look of mild panic on the streets of London.

Look of mild panic on the streets of London.

I don’t really do 70s. But I will do glam. This 1960s lurex dress felt exactly right, particularly as the fabric actually has starbursts and swirls in it on close examination. Topped off with a blocky statement necklace but tamed with thick tights and a cardi, it turned out to be pretty well-judged as a summary of the film: a brash, violent message tempered by nuanced, sometimes muted performances.

I feel rather delighted to have gone three for three and seen films that were vastly different but all thoroughly enjoyable. I only have one festival experience left, right at the other end – a selection of short films for young viewers with which I’ll introduce our daughter to the festival. This year was actually my first ever attendance because I always thought of it as something I’d never get a chance to do – but with patience, a glacially slow website and a BFI membership as a Christmas present, diving in was one of the best decisions I ever made. I intend to take Ramona every year and make her every bit the nerd I am; I only look forward to the day when she might be persuaded to dress up with me.

Five things that have changed since I started wearing more vintage

Those of you who have read this blog before probably know I’ve become far more into my vintage in the past year – to the point of writing all about how it’s not impossible for bigger girls to do so.

I don’t wear vintage – or even repro – every day. I don’t stick to a particular decade, either, though I’m broadly mid-century. But bit by bit, I wear more and more vintage or retro pieces or shapes, and it’s started to have an effect on me in ways I didn’t necessarily anticipate. I’ve noticed quite a few things are changing. For example…

My hair

All the hairpins at the Tomorrowland premiere

All the hairpins at the Tomorrowland premiere (with the ruffle of a 40s dress just visible under my Haunted Mansion scarf…)

As a child, my hair was straight. As an adult it is still straight… up to about the tops of my ears, at which point it suddenly turns into tumbling ringlets, as if mirroring the kind of vertiginous take off and stomach-churning spirals I always avoid in a theme park ride. But it is also very fine, breaking easily and up until recently it was only through copious usage of L’Oreal Elvive Fibrology Shampoo that I could get it to do anything at all.

Then my vintage-enabling friend (her again! I love her) suggested a bit of pincurling. Now… I love me a luscious set of Victory Rolls – more at the side than the front; that sort of hair-bagel fringe thing unsettles me – but I’m also well aware of my lack of both talent and patience when it comes to hair styling – not to mention being very wary of using harsh or heavy products on my special snowflake tresses. Still, there are plenty of ways to pull off a bit of vintage inspired pincurling while still rocking a more modern look – usually by flattening the curl against the scalp and securing loosely with just one or two pins. I even experimented with popping on a scarf and sleeping in them once, though naturally the only time I ever pull off impressive mid-century glossy curls afterwards is when I pin up carelessly at 6am out of bad hair day desperation, leave it in all day and am quickly unpinning just before bed – so only my husband sees it. Typical.

Moody face is moody.

Moody face is moody.

Best of all, my hair has much more volume since I started pinning it regularly; constantly lifting the hair at the root but not pulling it into a hairband means it seems to have more body through the crown. I use a touch of curl-supporting mousse if I’m leaving it to air dry, or a bit of straightening heat protector if I’m blow drying (the curls half fall out under a hairdryer, so I tend to blow dry straight). If I’m pincurling for all day, I will usually liberally spritz on some super strong hairspray, which keeps in the curls after unpinning but also has a slightly drying effect which can increase volume too – though it’s perhaps not as great for the hair.

One of my typical pinned looks can be seen in this very moody post-theatre shot in Angel – I ❤ that 1960s gold lurex frock, too.

My makeup / skincare routine

I’m not sure this can entirely be attributed to wearing more vintage, but the fact is when you’re wearing a nice dress you do seem to end up wanting to do up your face to match. I do, anyway. I’ve never been big on heavy foundations etc, and I’ll probably do a separate post on my experiments with BB creams and the like to achieve a smooth but not heavily made up look. I have, however, branched out into richer, more colourful lipsticks; I’ve wanted to for a LONG time, but somehow didn’t really have the confidence to go for it until I was more confidently owning my whole look(s).

With that, came the desire to properly remove strongly pigmented reds and more regularly painted on eye flicks from my face every night, as opposed to cleansing a bit more… haphazardly. Again, I’ll likely blog separately about my favourites and things I’m trying out, but I will say that Clinique’s Take The Day Off balm cleanser and Pixi Glow Tonic are both permanent features.

My shoes

There’s a scale of soul-sapping shopping experiences for every person, I think. For me, jeans were near the top until I discovered Uniqlo and Lady K Loves, who fulfil my high street and retro needs perfectly respectively. The current second place on the list belongs to coat shopping, which is nearly impossible (like the old joke, you can have something fast, good and cheap if you pick two; with coats it’s seemingly impossible to go for stylish, properly warm and decent length all that the same time). Shoes are – have always been – at the very top. As a child my feet were wide and flattish, and I ended up with arch supports; as an adult, I’ve inherited the b-word (can’t say it, too hideous) from my father’s side of the family and everything that isn’t a super-cushioned trainer will hurt eventually. I don’t really go for heels heels (at almost 5’9″ I’ve long been told I ‘don’t need to’, as if height is all that heels are for), so the majority of my footwear BV (Before Vintage) was trainers or plain, flat Ecco boots and the odd pair of low heels worn mainly indoors to reduce pain.

But I simply can’t wear a pretty, tight-fitting pencil dress and clumpy boots.  There are women who would WORK that look; I’m not one. So, gradually, my shoe collection has expanded. I’ve found a small number of Sensible Shoe Brands that don’t look quite as orthopaedic as they feel in various heel heights up to 3″ (Ecco features quite a lot, as do some M&S wider fit and the occasional Clarks). Each has had to go through a staggered, extensive and plaster-ridden breaking in programme, and each has had to be fully justified as to a regular, recurring role in my wardrobe or it’s simply not worth the effort.

The sporty slip-ons. The gold ballet flats that go with virtually anything. The 6-year-old M&S brown shoe-boots still being pressed into regular service. My first pair of clogs which were chosen specifically for the stretchable leather and are still undergoing the foot-moulding process. Some high-school Geography teacher sandals (sorry Ms. Hall, but you know it’s true). I was overjoyed when my mum gave me these super soft Parex summer peep-toes which didn’t fit her comfortably but worked on me and erred on the side of retro rather than retirement. Gradually, all the types of shoe I thought I’d have to give up on for good are working their way back in, largely due to the freedom of going for more old-fashioned designs (because they go much better with my old-school or just plain old clothing). By changing my look, I have more scope to once again be both comfortable and stylish.

I’m not quite ready for Hotter yet, though. I’ll get there.


My undergarments

I swore blind I was never going to wear a slip. I grew up observing my mum’s very 1960s approach to layers, which always, always includes a simple slip because she never wears trousers. I am always cold, so I don’t mind an extra layer, but I’ve spent years trying to come to terms with properly fitting, snug clothes and I wasn’t about to go adding an extra layer of BULK.

Except I’m an idiot, because slips do anything but. In fact, every dress looks sleeker and better with the addition of a basic slip – I prefer cotton, but also have non-static artificial fibres and they’re very slinky too. They’re also a dead cheap undergarment to buy, unlike bras.

And speaking of bras… look. If you’re buying a dress made to fit over bullet bras and girdles then the least you’re going to have to do is embrace the pointy boob look. If you head strait for vintage favourite What Katie Did (and I suggest you do) please read their fitting advice. Old-style bras do not contain elastic, and therefore your usual back size may well be out by up to 4″, which has a knock-on effect as cup size is not static but relative to the back measurement (if you didn’t know, 32A, 34B, 36C and 38D are all the exact same cup size – it’s the broadness of the back that’s different and may in turn make the bust appear bigger or smaller). It is simply incredible how much better a 1950s fit and flare dress looks when you put the right body architecture under it. This is nothing to do with being bigger here or “flattering” there – it just makes your body shape correspond much better to the darts and lines in the cut.

My feelings about myself

I’ve mentioned before that buying clothes by measurement, rather than by massively variable size, has a quite extraordinary effect in helping to divorce clothes from self-worth. I can’t pretend that I look in the mirror and love every bit of me every day, but I do know that I can be a fair bit more dispassionate than I used to be – and that I feel far more confident sharing photos of myself, trying new looks out and generally taking up space. It’s not something, I think, that can only be attributed to vintage – I’ve also come a long way professionally and personally in the last few years, and being a mum does seem to automatically reduce the number of, erm, ducks you give about anyone else’s opinion – but starting to more carefully select the way I look and what that says about me to the world is weirdly powerful. It feels like all this is a bit fluffy until you say it out loud and think: well, what could be more important for a sense of self than to afford it a language of expression? I feel very privileged that I have both the means of attaining this language and a crowd of family, friends and colleagues who are receptive and supportive, which I don’t think one can take for granted… but now I am sounding a bit melodramatic, so we’ll draw a line there.

I’d love to know if anyone reading this (is anyone reading this?!) has felt the same in taking those first steps into the vintage world and presenting themselves differently. Or are you a longtime addict who can relate to any of this? Or perhaps you just think this is very personal to me, rather than in any way universal. Whichever way, it would be great to hear what you think.

No disclosure: there are no PR samples or gifts included. L’Oreal has been a client of my workplace; never one of mine.

Adventures in vintage when you’re size 12+

IMG_5152At the beginning of last year, I had no items of vintage clothing, and I didn’t think I ever would. One of my best friends in the world is a massive vintage hound, and she came over to visit over that Christmas and New Year; still I wasn’t entirely convinced vintage was for me. Wasn’t it all a bit… difficult? And only really for thin people? (Even though my friend and I are similar sizes, we’re different shapes).

I began 2015 with a small but growing pile of vintage, from a lovely 1960s fuchsia Lane Bryant suit to a trio of classic black 50s wiggle dresses. And along the way I’ve learned a fair bit about how to shop, what to look for and why most of the things I believed about vintage were nonsense. I share these now for anyone curious about buying vintage clothing, but especially for those women who, like me, sit on the periphery of clothes sizing – neither plus nor standard, neither big nor small – but for whom vintage might turn out to be the answer to their fashion dreams…

So here are some things that I thought I “knew” about vintage clothing:

  • It smells
  • Nothing is in a washable fabric
  • It’s cut on a different body shape, so all the waists are impossibly tiny
  • It looks mumsy

IMG_5168As you might imagine, it turns out I knew absolutely nothing. I suspect the first point was sheer second-hand snobbery and can thoroughly be avoided simply by shopping from trusted sellers; the last point applies just as much to modern clothing if you pick a style that doesn’t suit. The second point simply isn’t true (I now have a number of cotton items that prove otherwise, though you will likely have to do more hand washing to preserve more delicate garments) and the third point… well, the third point bears some proper examination. Because it’s both true and nonsense.

The true part is that the assumed body shape for clothing does change over time, and anything pre-1990s is largely different from what you’d find on the high street today – other than in reproduction specialists like Collectif or Vivien of Holloway. My areas of interest – broadly speaking mid-40s to mid-60s – see plenty of variation even across 30 years, but one thing that does stand out is that where dress shapes are fitted (in 50s wiggle dresses, for example) the differences between bust, waist and hip measurements tend to be bigger than you might find now. I frequently come across dresses that are around the 40-30-40 mark (my current measurements being 39-29-39) which does assume a considerable hourglass. However, assuming that means that the right shape for you doesn’t exist would be a mistake; just taking a look through some of the key styles within a single decade should indicate that it’s more a question of finding your style than assuming ‘vintage doesn’t fit’. Also, while I tend to be cautious about radically changing the size or shape of a garment and prefer to set it free for a woman who does fit it perfectly, small, sensitive alterations to let out a waist or tuck in a hip – particularly if they’re done in a way that can be reversed – are perfectly possible.

The other point to raise it that yes, people tended towards smaller sizes. These days I’m a size 12-14 in most stores, but in vintage and repro I could be anything from a 14 to an 18. On the whole, I would assume you’ll need to go up at least one dress size in numbers, because sizes were classified differently and bodies have, taking the whole population into account, got a bit bigger. But – and this is, if you’ll forgive the pun, a sizeable but – that’s largely irrelevant, because you never shop for vintage by dress size.

Here’s the thing: before you set foot in a single vintage store or browse a single online swap-and-sell group, you need to get familiar with your measurements. At minimum you need to know your bust size (over bra), your waist (literally the smallest part / natural waist) and your hips. And then when you look at individual pieces, you need to allow for breathing space, depending on the fabric. For example, a foxy 60s lurex dress could probably be bang on measurements, but a tightly tailored number in a non-stretch fabric like taffeta probably needs up to 2″ breathing space or you won’t be able to sit down or eat. But do also ask questions; one of my wool suits has a nipped in 30″ waist, but 1.5″ of fabric excess where the button is placed – so had it felt too tight, I could have given myself a better fit in ten minutes with a needle and thread. I’m no seamstress, but even I can move a button. Also, some fabrics are very forgiving, and a good seller will both go the extra mile in giving you detailed measurements and carefully describe the stretch and texture of the fabric.

Tip: Many vintage sellers give measurements by lying the item flat out and measuring across. So if you’re a 32″ waist, you want to look out for 16″ measurements, or at least 15.5″ with a bit of give.

So, going back to the world of those of us who have some scars from navigating tiny high street sizes, does that mean that as someone with a waist size of 30″ or up, you’re screwed? I thought so, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. You will often find anything with a waist of 29″ or higher referred to as ‘volup’ – so yes, plus size generally starts at around a modern size 12-14. But there is plenty of it, particularly for women in modern sizes 12-18, who will be able to find beautiful pieces with 44″ or 46″ busts, 31″-35″ waists and more. It turns out that, just as now, though the thinner women might have been the ones in photographs, there were plenty of women of all shapes and sizes who left behind some truly beautiful items for a vintage-hunter to pounce on.

So, some more tips and a bit of a summary for getting started:

  • Take your measurements.
  • Watch out for customs; many amazing vintage stores are in the US, and you will need to assume you’ll pay a customs and handling charge which is calculated based on the whole cost, including P&P, so make sure it’s worth it!
  • Seek out friends who can recommend you to private groups – my aforementioned vintage-loving pal made me a member of a couple on Facebook and they’re great places to get lower prices and friendly, direct service.
  • Ask, ask, ask. You’ve every right to ask for extra measurements and details of any flaws (and how significant they might be), stains or smells before you commit to a purchase. Many items are in perfect condition but some are sold ‘as is’ and that’s fine as long as you know what you’re getting and how you’re going to fix / treat / wear it to account for that. Note: smells will come out of many fabrics, but rayon crepe is a serious challenge, so think twice before committing to that…
  • Haunt Etsy (a couple of my faves below but I’m also now building up a purchase list of UK based sellers and a wishlist for each of ‘my’ decades).
  • Check out UK based specialists like Rokit.
  • Don’t assume this means no repro or modern fashions or that you’ll be shunned for not going “true vintage” – dabblers are welcome and mixing and matching pieces is great. However, you might be eaten alive if you radically alter pieces or use the word “upcycling”; people in vintage communities are very, very passionate about the preservation of fashion history.

Some fab Etsy stores:

Concetta’s Closet – I’ve only actually bought once from Dana because her massively high quality pieces mean they are generally out of my budget (with shipping from the US and customs factored in), though they are unquestionably fairly priced; it’s not her fault I don’t earn enough to indulge my habit! She offers really inspiring, beautiful looks, plus she’s a lovely woman who always has time to answer questions or interact on Facebook. And she does at least two big sales a year!

Fab Gabs Vintage – similarly high quality, with regular sales and some stunning pieces; I’ve not yet splurged on a piece from Julie, but hope to one day not too far away. Her specialism is the 1940s and some of the pieces she finds – and the astonishingly good condition they’re in – make me want to cry.

Dipping my toe in vintage waters has done nothing but improve my appearance, confidence and approach to dressing. It really has put a spring in my step in a way that – as someone who has a complex relationship with her body – I didn’t think I could really experience. So I highly recommend that you leave misconceptions at the door and get searching or rummaging; there’s a real rush to finding that perfect item.

Though you will now spend the rest of your life cursing the high street for not selling everything by measurement.

Details for all the clothes in the photos:

Picture 1, l-r:

Actually nothing vintage in the first pic (though the dress was second hand Wallis from a relative) but all vintage-inspired shapes and ideas mixed together | Red Polka Dot 1960s Dress (Concetta’s Closet), Jo Bluebird Cardigan Black (Collectif), Martha Plain White Belt (Collectif) | Black 1950s Cotton Dress (FB Group), Red 2″ Cinch Belt (Vivien of Holloway)

Picture 2, l-r:

1960s Gold Lurex Dress (FB Group – and yes, it needs more era-appropriate undergarments!) | Mustard Retro Wiggle Dress (Di Brooks OuterLimitz sample obtained through a group – still available but only in other colours) | Balloon Shirt (Zara), 1960s Suit Skirt (Rokit – also have the jacket), Red Leather 1970s Belt (Absolute Vintage)

No disclosure needed as this is just my stuff, paid for by me, and things I like.