Saturday, 23 November 2013

Cuban Fashion: Tight, Bright and Sometimes Blindingly White

This month's travelling took me to Cuba, for a week of sunshine, museum visits and surprisingly nice beer. Whilst not everything was plain sailing, particularly as I was robbed on my first day in Havana, I did have plenty of time to check out Cuban style and try to define the looks that locals tend to go for. Here are the Havana fashion notes I came up with.

Havana portrait of old man selling food by a market 
A street seller sporting a denim shirt.

  • Showing how totally unaffected they are by the heat, locals wear loads of denim and quite often will be seen in warm hoodies or cardigans. Meanwhile you'll be struggling to cool yourself down in skimpy layers and looking for the nearest bar with air con - all part of the experience! 
  • Despite the unrelenting heat, lycra and polyester make frequent appearances in the wardrobes of Cuban women. They favour skin-tight clothing and are not ashamed to show off their figures, whether they're a size 6 with a glaring thigh gap or size 20 with a little more to love. You're most likely to find leggings in candy pink or turquoise teamed with stretchy vest tops and boob tubes - think Jane Norman and Primark in the UK.
  • In markets you'll see plenty of leather bags, sandals and belts, not just in tan but in a wide range of colours. If you've got money to burn then they make great souvenirs (or presents for yourself).

Young man in sleeveless top beside the water in Havana 
A striped headscarf makes an appearance.

  • Headscarves are worn by both men and women and they tend to be very colourful and patterned. Hats are popular too, but headscarves are a better choice for surviving the often strong tropical winds that blow through the city and avoiding a ruined hairdo.
  • Sweat doesn't seem to be a problem here - however synthetic the uniforms of officials, you're lucky to spot one moistened brow, let alone an emergency requiring copious amounts of Right Guard. However, if you're from the UK, you'll be the one doing enough sweating for everyone, so it's essential to invest in mattifying moisturiser, lightweight layers of clothing in cotton and linen, a decent deodorant and plenty of sun cream, which should be applied regularly.
  • Unlike my visit to Thailand, where locals proudly showed off designer labels and recognisable brand names emblazoned on their t-shirts, from Jack Daniel's to Prada, Cuba is clearly less exposed to designer culture. Clothing may have slogans or intricate designs, but it won't necessarily have a brand attached; many items are plain or carry a simple pattern. As a visitor, you should be mindful of the animosity between Cuba and the USA and try to avoid packing items covered in blatant US slogans or logos, such as the US flag (plus you don't want to draw attention to your tourist status!). 

Hair scrunchies in bright colours

[Image via]. 
The scrunchie makes a comeback here...
  •   Women wearing uniforms add a touch of personality through their tights, which can be anything from lace print to fishnet or leopard print; the only rule is that the tights have to be black. Another area of self-expression is their nails, where crazy colour combinations and patterns reign supreme, and their hair, which can be adorned with 90s-era accessories like flower-shaped clips and scrunchies in bold hues.
  • Some ladies ditch the skin-tight bright outfits in favour of a blinding all-white ensemble in cotton, with tiered maxi dresses or wide skirts and lacy white vest tops, finished off with white pumps or sandals and a co-ordinating parasol. This type of clothing is widely available on market stalls and in the small shops lining Obispo.
  • Wearing white for fashion is not to be confused with a national protest movement known as the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco), campaigning for the release of 75 political prisoners held by the government after voicing their views about human rights. The women wear white to Mass each Sunday and walk through the streets to promote their cause.

So, that's pretty much Havana style in a nutshell. If you've ever been to Cuba and you want to add anything to the list, let me know by leaving a comment below. I'd love to hear your tips!

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Fashion Book Review: Coco Chanel - The Legend and the Life, by Justine Picardie

Coco Chanel was, like her fashion house's logo, a mass of contradictions. Just as the interlocking but equally opposing letter 'C's could have more than one meaning, their creator often had more than one state of mind, recollection or opinion, depending on who she was addressing and why. 

Legendary Chanel wearing costume jewellery
 [Image via Wikimedia Commons - credited to Time/Getty].
The designer photographed in 1920.

She demanded simplicity, yet was often surrounded by ceremony and grandeur, living at the Ritz when the mood took her, or building a haven on the French Riviera, heading to Hollywood and regularly partying on her lover the Duke of Westminster's yacht - so far, so glamorous. But her humble beginnings were more like a fairy story, as the young Chanel (known then as Gabrielle rather than Coco) dealt with her mother's death and her father's reluctance to be a parent. She was placed in an orphanage, along with her sister, though later she would describe this period of her childhood as being raised by strict aunts, rather than the nuns who actually ran the orphanage and taught her to sew. 

It's clear very early on into the book that Chanel was like the classic unreliable narrator in literature, forever changing her story and her circumstances; she would regularly lie about her age and her origins, tailoring a fantastical beginning of her own that could induce jealousy or sympathy at the drop of a hat. Fortunately Justine Picardie replaces the unreliable narrator's tales with as many of the facts as she can muster, interviewing many people who were close to the great woman and her world. 

Vintage designer Chanel earrings with logo in gold
 [Image via].
Vintage earrings featuring the instantly recognisable logo.

Picardie's detective work and her fluid descriptions bring this biography to life, despite all of the twists and turns and the regular stumbling blocks of Chanel's little white lies that the writer encountered whilst trying to unravel the reality behind all those myths. One of the most bizarre anecdotes involves the designer's favourite childhood haunt - the cemetery at Auvergne. 'If Chanel's own account is to be believed, by the age of six she was spending as much time as possible in a graveyard... she became attached to two unnamed tombstones, decorating them with wildflowers' (p.16). Imagery like this stays with the reader and helps to peel back the layers in her personality. 

The graveyard ties in nicely with the love of wearing black that she brought to the public, taking it out of the state of mourning and into the everyday, 'wearing black as a symbol of strength and freedom' (p.85). Conversely, she also pushed white clothing as a trend, to suggest 'candid innocence' in the wake of the Great Depression (p.179), and her all-white collection of spring 1933 went down a storm. Chanel even wore white to one of her friend's funerals, though she never wore white as a bride, staying unmarried throughout her life, despite numerous all-consuming love affairs up until her 50s. She emerged from every broken relationship a stronger and more resilient person, often staying close to her ex-boyfriends (much to the chagrin of their future wives). 

The famous French designer in her pearls
[Image via]
Still glamorous in later life and getting the wear out of those pearls.

Of course, not every moment was a bed of roses, and Picardie does shed light on the most scandalous boyfriend of all - a high-ranking Nazi, albeit one who could have potentially been a double agent. Unlike many of her couturier contemporaries in the city, Chanel closed her atelier during the war, and the only German she was seen to spend time with was her lover, Baron von Dincklage, but still the rumours about her being a Nazi collaborator persisted. This was obviously a tricky area for Picardie to research, but it does feel like the weakest section of the book, given the strength of those rumours, which persist today. I would have loved to see more investigation and depth in this part of the  biography, as there are still so many unanswered questions about the designer during this period. 

Essentially, this biography provides a huge amount of insight into the complicated life of Coco Chanel, from her humble beginnings as Gabrielle, to her stellar reputation and her line of properties along the Rue Cambon in Paris. It explores the dizzying heights, but also the pitfalls that she encountered, such as the poorly received comeback collection of 1954 (the ever-strong Chanel 'faced the critics with her lips and nails in brave warpaint... the reviews were savage enough to have felled a woman less sure of herself', p.269-270). This is not a lightweight coffee table book, least of all because of its slim line photo sections at the expense of more text; it's a solid and engrossing profile of the great designer, written with Picardie's own insider knowledge and contacts in the fashion industry to hand. If you're keen to learn more about this fashion icon, The Legend and the Life is a great place to start your education.

Disclaimer: I was kindly provided with a review copy of this book, courtesy of the publishers, Harper. However, the views expressed in this post are my own.
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