I am myself again

A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life. So said Mademoiselle Chanel. I  had my hair cut short last Friday, after two years of trying to be a long haired person. I am not. Half my hair was gone and looking at myself in the hairdresser’s mirror, I just saw happiness looking back at me. I was back to being myself.

I had my hair cut on the last Friday of the year as a way of celebrating an ending and just start moving forward. Again. I came back home to reread Joan Juliet Buck’s essay on short hair.

Women with short hair always look as if they have somewhere else to go. Women with long hair tend to look as if they belong where they are(…)

My life most probably will not change radically after a radical haircut, my perception of myself always does. I am no longer standing still, fitting others’ perceptions, I am taking back my story. This what a bare neck feels to me.

Back to black

I have a closet just for black clothes. I also have another one for all other mainly dark colours and reds but these never feel so true to myself as black does. I can’t remember why I started wearing just black but for a long time it felt like the most stylish and comfortable solution to the morning rush of getting dressed. Chic, sophisticated people tend to wear black,  so I’m told by a million glossy magazines, books and film imagery.  Apparently, I also tend to look smarter dressed in black.  I can always try to project the existentialist intellectual that lives in me since my teenage years. I grew up during the post-punk, Gothic 80s and have never managed to be Goth even though I still nurture a special admiration for the whole commitment that kind of aesthetics entails. Some of my most glorious errors are a nod to this sumptuous dark world.

Albeit all the experimentation and character creations around my “cinematic self”, I have never been truly convinced that my clothes could become the visible form assumed by the way I chose to define my public persona. At least not in the sort of spectacular, larger than life way I envisaged.

As a spectacular sub-culture, Goth provides a unique insight into the experience of extraordinary “self-authorship” because of the dramatic and unconventional nature of the external self-constructions of individual identity through dress and personal grooming. Whether or not you are drawn to the “dark side of the human heart”, it is almost impossible to remain indifferent to the dramatic manipulation of appearance and the fantastic narrative that accompanies Goth fashion as an illustration of the  extraordinary dimension the stories one writes for oneself can attain, allowing space for the creation of a “historic utopia” as far removed as possible from everyday life.

As superficial as it might seem, fashionable self-construction is not only about “the look”.While designing an aspirational self, fashion “props” allow the individual to construct a personal “bricolage” which gives the access to their extraordinary self via their ability to transform, and in some cases contest conventional social categories through their glamorising discourses (Thompson and Haytko, 1997). While this might not be a characteristic of the Goth subculture alone, both its cultural pervasiveness and the recurring concern with the distinction between authenticity and depth on the one hand, and a fascination with surface and performance on the other, make Gothic a postmodern archetype of “stylistic resistance”. An is this very stylistic resistance that perpetuates its fashionable allure.

Late capitalism produces the desire for an aura that is felt to be prior to or beyond commodification, for a lived authenticity to be found in privileged forms of individual expression and collective identification. For as long as goth seems to answer that desire, it will thrive as an undead subculture: forging communities on the margins of cities, suburbs, campuses and cyberspace; defying constraints on gender and sexuality; and imbuing the stuff of everyday life with the allure of stylistic resistance.

Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Michael Bibby

While Goth as a subculture has not faded away, the increasing heterogeneity in styles and fashion and a world that seems to no longer produce a coherent dominant culture or the cultural values against which resistance might be expressed, have transformed subcultural style in an ideologically vacant performance of over substance (David Muggleton, 2000). The incorporation of a subculture in mainstream society through commodification is not exclusive of Goth but its enduring resonance with contemporary fears, desires and anxieties might have exhausted itself: where once Gothic provided a space in which the dark dreams of the Enlightenment could be realized, now it simply exposes the void at the heart of an advanced consumer culture. The seemingly inescapable Gothic now functions as the perfectly protean postmodern commodity

All of the varied elements that once defined street style are now high fashion’s greatest source of inspiration. At Jun Takahashi’s Undercover and John Galliano’s Margiela in particular, they have been incorporated in dazzling and inspiring ways. But sometimes the embrace of street chic comes across as a mere flourish tacked on to spice a bourgeois brand with a bit of danger, to make a woman with a coddled existence feel a bit more in touch. It is an attempt to buy cool.

By taking the style, trends, dress, music etc of the subcultures and popularizing them so that they lose their exclusivity and gradually become mass-produced commodities made available to all, the mainstream cultural industry dilutes or annihilates specific meanings transforming authenticity in “ready to wear” commoditized lifestyles subject to the same cultural logic of “self-help narratives” and consummerism impulses. Being authentic, as La Agrado would say, does not come cheap and  you are all the more authentic the more you resemble what you have dreamed for yourself . And this is a rare gift.


References

P.S. While I am selling my 80s vintage gothic errors, a part of me is still reluctant. But then I am not sure if “Gothic Chic” is authentic in me.

Radical Authenticity

On forts and churches 

This is my first trip to India. I spent two and half days in Kochi in the state of Kerala, site of the death of Vasco da Gama who had arrived in Calicut (now Kozhikode) 26 years before. In 1510, led by Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese conquered Goa and here they stayed until December 19 1961. I spent two days here, fulfilling what has been a dream ever since I was a kid. To visit Goa.

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And while trying to fight whatever is left of my jet lag self, I am trying to both understand where I am beyond the imaginary place of countless life fantasies and the real place. This is, of course, an absolutely delusional ambition. How could I ever understand anything in two overwhelming days.

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I always felt History was not easy to explain. Not even to thode who share it with you. There’s always a sense of invaders guilt at the back of my mind and then people tell me ” you should come to Iran and see the Portuguese fort in Hormuz” or ” you really need to come to Sri Lanka and see the Galle Fort” or maybe go to Thailand or Oman or Indonesia. And then I realize there’s nothing to be explained. It’s a common memory .

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The minute I got in the car for a tour of Goa, the guide starts talking about Augustinian and Jesuit churches and nuns baking Bebinca, and reliquaries and Saint Francis Xavier and how much knowledge came together in the XV century to make all those churches and forts rise and still stand.

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It is impossible, for me at least, not to feel that those stones and paintings and that relic are part of who I am. They are my cultural DNA.

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The next day I decide to walk on my own through Fontainhas, the Latin Quarter of Panjim and get lost, as I normally do. Since I have no wifi I ask the girl carrying her dry cleaning carefully wrapped in newspaper where June 18 street is. She walks with me because she is going that way. Where are you from, she asks. I tell her.

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Eu também falo português (I also speak Portuguese) she tells me.

This is my unfinished journey. Where my sense of belonging comes from.

One is always at home in one’s past…

Vladimir Nabokov

Nostalgia

On the shoulders of giants

In December 2001 Salman Rushdie visited Porto for one of the final lectures in a series of conferences about the “Future of the Future”.  In 2001 Porto was, with Rotterdam, European Culture Capital  and the discussion of a post future at the end of a year that forever changed the collective perception of our present seemed appropriate. “The Middle Ages trying to destroy the Third Millennium”, he said.

Three months after 9/11 and 12 years after the fatwa on him, Mr. Rushdie walked alone in Porto. No bodyguards. Carefree.

On the last week before Christmas shops in downtown Porto stay open at night for people like me who can’t plan their shopping in advance. As part of our mini-tradition, me and my best friend went out for some late night shopping that December of 2001. We stopped at a deserted Café Majestic for tea. In 2001 there were no lists of “the most beautiful coffee shops in the world”, there were no lines of tourists at the door, there was no Maître d’ trying to bring some kind of order to the process of sitting down. In 2001  you could actually go in and sit and be almost alone. It was late and the gentleman sitting at the far end table by the piano paid his check and got up to leave. As he made his way to the door, Mr. Rushdie walked past our table and looked at the incredulity on my face and winked and left. I was brought up in a house of books, my father is a Literature professor and  meeting or just seeing one of these “giants”in person, still makes me feel as over the moon as a teenage girl coming face to face with her favourite rock star would.

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In June 2010 Sir Salman Rushdie was the keynote speaker at a conference I was attending in Kansas City and spoke about freedom and the media and the power of Literature and novelists  “who are able to probe the truth without being beholden to facts.” After his plenary address, I and few hundred others waited in line to have our books signed. Holding my copy of The Ground Beneath Her Feet, I approached his table and didn’t ask him if he remembered that night in December 2001. That was the fantasy conversation going on in my mind.

These line focus on Salman Rushdie because of a cold night in December 2001. They could easily be about Borges, Coetzee, Murakami, Pessoa, Auster, Cortazar, Sontag or many others. These are my superheroes. The ones with no x-ray vision but that are able to pierce into your soul and help you discover yourself. The ones that can’t fly but still make your imagination soar and plant the seed of invincibility in your heart. The fearless ones that keep fighting for their truth in a world that so many times keeps telling us that intellectualism is frivolous as if, paraphrasing Orwell, the only goal was to keep ourselves alive when the ultimate objective should be to retain our humanity. Or as Flexner, ten years before 1984 was published, questioned whether “there would be sufficient opportunity for a full life if the world were emptied of some of the useless things that give it spiritual significance; in other words, whether our conception of what is useful may not have become too narrow to be adequate to the roaming and capricious possibilities of the human spirit.”

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And because I am not superhero myself, I will keep borrowing the words

The old idea of the intellectual as the one who speaks truth to power is still worth holding on to. Tyrants fear the truth of books because it’s a truth that’s in hock to nobody. It’s a single artist’s unfettered vision of the world. They fear it even more because it’s incomplete, because the act of reading completes it, so that the book’s truth is slightly different in each reader’s inner world. These are the true revolutions of literature, these invisible, intimate communions of strangers, these tiny revolutions inside each reader’s imagination. And the enemies of the imagination, all the different goon squads of gods and power, want to shut these revolutions down and can’t. Not even the author of a book can know exactly what effect his book will have. But good books do have effects and some of these effects are powerful and all of them, thank goodness, are impossible to predict in advance. Literature is a loose cannon. This is a very good thing.

Salman Rushdie, The Power of the Pen

Such is the power of Literature and the super power of writers. They may not be the kind of hero that braves  against the violence of the natural world but they are of the same kind of the ones that “do the useless, brave, noble, the divinely foolish and the very wisest things that are done by man. And what they prove to themselves and to others is that man is no mere creature of his habits, no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine, but that in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky!

References

George Orwell, 1984

Abraham Flexner, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

Salman Rushdie, The Power of the Pen

Walter Lippmann, Amelia Earhart – Herald Tribune – 7/8/37

 

Superhero

At the end of the sidewalk 

I like cities where you can walk almost everywhere. In my case this would be almost any city I have ever visited. I have walked an average of 10 km a day in Barcelona, New Orleans and Boston. I have walked along the river in Dubai under a blazing 49 degrees Celsius. I have walked the boarder to get to Tijuana and walked around the city trying to look relaxed. I used to walk home both in Porto and London so I didn’t need to cope with overcrowded buses or subways. I have walked in  Los Angeles and got lost around Chinatown trying to walk back to somewhere. I had to follow a couple of tourists with a map in Venice after getting irremediably lost walking along narrow alleys. I can’t read maps.

I have walked all the way from downtown Atlanta to Georgia Tech even though there were no real sidewalks. Where Atlanta did have sidewalks, me and some friends where told by a screaming police officer that we couldn’t just stand there waiting for a cab. We were loitering. It was a new word in my English vocabulary, describing some kind of illegal activity that I didn’t even know I was engaging in. All four of us that night, waiting for a taxi to show up after our farewell dinner, had grown up in countries with past military or other forms of dictatorships. We all remembered stories told by our grandparents or parents about how it was forbidden to stop on the sidewalk for a chat just in case it would turn out to be some kind of conspiracy. It stroke us as really odd that this was happening to us in Atlanta.

In Porto, sidewalks have become wider, probably because the city got used to being voted “best destination” of this and that over the past few years. Wider sidewalks accommodate more tourists and make people feel safer. They are, I suppose, also more efficient, there’s more space to move quicker. According to James Petty, “all urban architecture or urban design has a level of control built into it,” pedestrian crossings and sidewalks exist to  guide the behavior of the public. The sidewalks in Brasilia have no corners. This avoids impromptu meetings that could disrupt the efficiency of the city.


I had never really thought about this before Atlanta. I’m absolutely urban, I have tried to live in the countryside for a few months and even though I enjoyed the quietness, I also missed the noise and the people and the new discoveries you make when you experience a city, your own or somebody else’s, just by walking. Even if there’s no sidewalks. It’s just easier to be a dilettante walker when the sidewalks are there. You don’t really get to understand where you are just driving around getting from point A to B. Walking allows you to stop and look, it creates a common space and it helps to experience cities beyond their efficiency, just as places of history and stories. I like cities, I like their “inclusive” character but, as Petty also notes, “you’ve got a point where that kind [urban planning] of controlling becomes direct, explicit, and targeted against certain groups and not others.” Cities with sidewalks still seem to avoid this, at least they make you feel more welcome.

Photos: my own

Sidewalk

At home with Fátima

I first started buying vintage and second-hand clothes while I was studying in England, when I moved back to Porto, after spending a couple of months in Mozambique, I met Orion (António Júlio). I remember him driving some sort of purple American convertible when I was still in high school and being mesmerized at this dark glamorous kind of Gothic urban cowboy and his entourage. Entering Amsterdam Underground, at the time on the first floor of the (now) iconic Centro Comercial Stop , I felt like an intruder arriving home. I was not Gothic, or underground but the empathy and the sense of belonging was immediate. I have spent many hours there, preparing for possibilities, sharing outrageous eccentric dreams and plans to transform a dormant city into a rainbow, checking architectural plans for his castle up North, admiring the stained glass that would decorate the windows, lusting after the Afghan rug coat that survived the 70s pilgrimage to Kathmandu and, again, missing a life that had not been mine.

In 2012 António Júlio died. Orion didn’t because constellation stars never burn out.


Being unique and unrepeatable, António Júlio had this ability to jump generations, to go against the norm, to insist, to create diversity by making our urban routes  amazing, and surprising . It is the sum of lives like this, in different areas, which make the wealth of cities

David Pontes


Fátima I met when her store, Rosa Chock Vintage,  looked like a psychedelic cloud at Rua Oliveira Monteiro, close to my former high school. I bought an amazing green 80s batwing leather jacket that still lives in my closet and gets a lot of compliments every time I wear it. “It looks so vintage” said the girl behind the counter at the coffee shop. Well, it actually is.


Fátima’s store then moved to Rua do Almada at the center of Porto’s new life but it kept it’s difference. It was never about following the retromania hype of curated new stores made up to look old and selling imaginary “retro vintage” items.


Fatima’ s store, now at Rua Formosa, is curated to the T. Curated for each individual that crosses her door and shares her love for detail and her passion for clothes with history ready to be used in new life stories. Curated for treasure hunters who enjoy the apparent chaos of the hundreds of scarves and necklaces and dresses and sequined tops and ruffles and leopard prints and stuffed animals and the old movie advertising posters bought from Orion.


Curated for all of us that still believe that a wardrobe door can be opened to enter a different dimension.


Fátima is a true vintage dealer who has worked with clothes all her life. She knows what she is selling, she knows the history, the context and she knows that clothes are never just clothes.  Like Gaultier, she knows that they are about “what you look like, which translates to what you would like to be like.”


A common friendship and a common sense of loss make me feel at home with Fátima at her larger than life albeit tiny shop but it is her expert eye, her understanding of how to match the right piece to what I have dreamed for myself that keeps me coming back. And this always feels like the truth.


Photos:

Featured image from: http://rgp-journal.ru/users/Amsterdam_Underground/page/1

Photos 3 and 7  courtesy of Fátima Leite

All others, my own

Expert

Conflict and Costume

Revisiting one of my favourite books this Africa Day

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Jim Naughten’s wonderful book Conflict and Costume: The Herero Tribe of Namibia, tells the tale of the surviving descendants of the Herero whose 1904-1908 genocide at the hands of German colonialist is considered the first of the 20th century.

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Each image, a portrait of Herero tribe members of Namibia,  reveals a material culture that harkens the region’s tumultuous  past: residents wear Victorian era dresses and paramilitary costume as a direct result and documentation of its early 20th  century German colonization. Namibia’s borders encompass the world’s oldest desert. Bleak lunar landscapes, diamond mines,  German ghost towns, rolling sea fogs, nomadic tribes and a  hostile coastline littered with shipwrecks and whale skeletons comprise the region’s striking and haunting natural features.  Namibia’s geography has witnessed a turbulent and little documented history of human settlement, upheaval and war within a particularly brutal period of European colonization.

Lutz Marten

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The history of Herero clothing is extraordinary. Rhenish missionaries first introduced Victorian dress, which the tribe gradually accessorized by adding, for example, cow horn headdresses. Later, during the 1904 war with Namibia’s German colonisers, Herero tribe members claimed the military uniform of dead German soldiers.

herero-cavalrymen

 

Dressed in the costumes that have been appropriated from their colonial past, the men, women and children are taking part in a modern re-enactment of their peoples’ bloody history. The tribe’s now traditional costumes are seen by anthropologists as a fascinating subversion of their former rulers’ fashion, showing how the tribe survived a concerted effort by German colonialists to wipe them from the face of the earth.

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All photos: Jim Naughten

Conflict and Costume: The Herero Tribe of Namibia
By Jim Naughten

Introduction by Lutz Marten

Published by  Merrell Publishers (February 19, 2013)

Coloring by words 

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink Life to the lees

This was beautifully handwritten inside a birthday card given to me by my summer course English teacher in Cheltenham the year I turned 18. These words (and the card) have stayed with me since then and I even had them embroidered on a dress. Who wouldn’t want to live like that? These words felt like the perfect “how to” to life at that time.

They were also responsible for the immense love I feel for a language which is not native to me but has always understood me better than my own.

Before these words, all the poetry in songs, from Morrison to Morrissey, the texts of disquiet, the Stranger’s paragraphs all seemed to work as companions to a growing existential hole, some sort of solace to an awkward confrontation with reality. And then these words, out of their natural context, as quotes are usually presented, showed a sunny alternative and I still tend to hold on to them as way of seeing a brighter tomorrow.

Other words, other poems, other texts have found their way to me because of their music when read aloud or because they are the words that I wished were mine and because, in a way, I still need words as a compass even when those same words make me feel overwhelmed and scared that in the midst of all the quotes living in my head I will not be able to find words that are mine. And again I borrow, from Beckett when I try and fail and vow to fail again better, from Jung while trying to take control of my own narrative, from Emerson while I try to go on being myself, from Camaron de la Isla when trying to come to terms with all the anger and honey that I too seem to carry with me.

And still none of those words have resonated as strongly as the realization that

tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
I carry them on me. So I don’t forget.

Quote Me better late than never

A different way of letting go

“Women [seem to] have a dynamic relationship with their clothes that can be grouped around three co-existing views of self; ‘The woman I want to be’, ‘The woman I fear I could be’ and ‘The woman I am most of the time’.These three views illustrate women’s attempts to achieve satisfying images as they engage with clothes to create, reveal or conceal aspects of their identity.”( Guy and Banim).

They can also help explain why we keep the clothes that we no longer wear or even those that we have never worn. These clothes laid to rest are somewhat magic both because they connect us to our memories and they keep the promise of possibilities, of a different future.  Letting them go is also letting go of past and future, at least of the one we no longer see ourselves fulfilling.

Why open an online shop instead of just donating everything? This would not allow me the necessary reflection time to understand the process of revisiting myself and, above all, I could not tell the stories of how the Closet came to be.