Sunday, 31 March 2013

But Why Cherries?

The humble cherry has always been an iconic symbol of 1940s kitsch, reproduction adornments, fabric, household items from this time are festooned with the little red spherical fruits, 40s fashion-lovers cover themselves in cherry designs, either as clothing and jewelery or as tattoo ink. It has remained synonymous with the decade without debate.

But is this belief misplaced? And anyway...

There seem to be many contrasting arguments and no real answers to this question, but one thing does hold up; the motif of cherries, although historically and fashionably linked to the 40s, most likely originates way back to the early 1930s, even taking inspiration and cultural reference from the previous decade's design.

It was in a report for a Paris fashion show of 1932 that dresses were described as "black silk crepe stamped with clusters of cherries and leaves", and a Milgrim day-dress was featured in a copy of Vogue from 1935, silk printed with cherries, accessorised with a patent leather belt with a cherry clasp. The 30s once again.

One rather salacious conclusion to this conundrum is that the cherry is a very sensual object, they are said to represent the voluptuousness of a woman's pout, or the curve of her breast or buttocks. Usually presented as a pair, the cherries are represented as plucked and stripped of most of their leaves, and it doesn't take Freud to analyse that one!  Cherries are a super food, said to improve fertility and virility, and although 'superfoods' wasn't a household term back in the early 20th century, the cherry was already being recognised for its Viagra-like benefits for women, and can be still found in natural female sexual enhancers today .

Although sometimes thought to represent virginity and purity, it is clear from cultural perspectives that this is not always what the cherry is being used symbolise. In artwork, either on canvas or on skin, cherries are presented in a very different light. The early Renaissance artist  Hieronymus Bosch used them as a symbol of sexual appetite and temptation, and tattoo aficionados would argue that the position of the cherry reflects the virtuosity of its owner. They also say that the redder the image of the cherry, the less virtuous the women  - and a plucked cherry represents a total loss of innocence!

Now, Americans would probably state that the cherry motif originates from the symbol of their 'President's' Day', a day dedicated to the memory of their past leaders, and celebrated annually on the 3rd Monday of February. Every American school child knows the story of George Washington, who cut down his father’s cherry tree, inspiring a day that sees Americans around the globe reaching for their pastry cases and black cherries to create that perfect pie in readiness for the celebrations. And to this day the cherry is used as a symbol of honesty, the lesson learned from the parable of Young George and his hatchet. 

During the 1930s, after the end of WW1, came a period called the Great Depression, a time where the world was going through a international economic slump. Millions were out of work and times, being hard for most, designers felt that something was needed to brighten up the mood. Art Deco, a style often characterised by rich colours, bold geometric shapes and lavish ornamentation,  was very fashionable and in popular demand during this period. For those who could afford them, bold colours such as red and green where worn in contrast to the mood of the day which was... well... depressing! The cherry fitted this brief well with its bold, lush and vibrant pallet and simple design,  it encompassed all that needed to boost the crumbling social morale of the period.  In 1923 the glass designer Lalique had created a Deco carved plastic box featuring a tangle of cherries, could this have inspired designers to adopt the fruit as a parallel to the horror of the depression? We may never know.

The last, and most plausible reason for 'why cherries?' that I have discovered during my research into this unfathomable question, is the Anglo-Japanese and American-Japanese alliances of the early 20th century. Whilst the country was still in deep depression, Western society embraced Oriental culture and its influences. Designers such as Callot used Chinese design for inspiration, loving the shapes and cuts and their use of symbolic references in their imagery, including cherries. The Chinese referred to cherries as 'the fruit of heaven,' and believed that they represented the fleetingness of life, it is even said that Japanese Samurai warriors would use cherries as a symbol to illustrate their readiness to die. Maybe Western designers, such as Martha Gale, didn't approach the symbolism from the exactly the same perspective, but the creations and textiles they produced utilised and manipulated the images to create stunning and contemporary designs. 

So the next time you think of cherries and the 40s, think of its cultural references, its sensuality, its depressing historical influences, and of course the 1930s.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

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Monday, 18 March 2013

Fancy a Bourbon?

I walked into the club. Though the haze of the smoke filled room I saw her, the cool drink of water sitting at the small table in the corner. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, she stood out like a swan in a bag full of pigeons. The cigarette fell from my mouth, it wasn’t often I was presented with such beauty, legs that didn’t stop and a body of a Greek goddess, her skin was like alabaster, her lips like rosebuds and her hair tumbled down her back like a chocolate waterfall I longed to dive into.

She noticed me, I saw it and she knew I saw it, and I knew she knew I saw it. She raised her hazel brown eyes slowly until they met mine, our gazes remained locked like two prowling big cats as I crossed the room to the bar.

The barman was busily washing glasses, but he was watching her too, it seemed every man in the bar was. “Hey fella, what’s that dame's story then?”  I enquired with urgency in my voice. “Bourbon?” he replied, I guessed he was referring to my order “Yeah, hit me” I replied, “but who’s the girl?” 
“That’s Bourbon” he replied with a grin “Beatrix Von Bourbon, hottest burlesque dancer to hit this side of town”. He poured me a drink. Burlesque dancer eh? The very term warmed my loins like a pair of thermal underwear.

I swung round to face her, Bourbon eh? Yeah, I could add some ice to that and drink it down.

I took a swig of my whisky, it burned my throat. I’m sure Beatrix Von was smoother than this moonshine. It was now or never I thought, I ordered another glass and started to cross the room. As I got nearer to her she stretched out a high-heeled foot and pushed the chair across from her toward me, I took it as an invitation.

I sat down and removed my hat, a gentleman should always remove his hat when greeting a lady. She leant closer to me, the smell of Chanel Number 5 and Jack Daniels was intoxicating.

“So tell me about yourself, Beatrix Von,” I said.

She leaned back in her chair, slipped her manicured fingers round her glass, took a sip of her drink and started talking.

Whilst nurturing my interest in 1940s/50s fashion aesthetics (and 1950s/60s music) I stumbled upon some State-side imagery from the Golden Age of burlesque. I was intrigued by the imagination injected into burlesque acts and their capacity to allow for personal exploration and growth. My first burlesque performance was at a now defunct event called "Hot Sauce" in Southampton, May 2006.”

I hung on every word and continued my questioning, asking her about her clothes and costumes for her shows.

“I'm currently inspired by a lot of fashion designers rather than burlesque performers. I like the playfulness of designers like The Blonds and Jeremy Scott. I like fashion-as-spectacle and enjoy seeing how fashion houses create shows from their garments. I think burlesque can take a lot from this. I watch a lot of the Victoria's Secret shows and loved the Louis Vuitton Spring 2012 show. I also enjoyed looking at the national costumes from the 2012 Miss Universe contest.
Now I tend to make my costumes myself. I make a lot from scratch, but also adapt off-the-peg pieces occasionally.”

The barman had tipped me off that Beatrix Von had been voted one of the top 50 burlesque dancers worldwide, quite a feat, and you could tell why. The way she leaned back in her chair and swayed to the rhythm of the piano playing softy in the background, you could see that here was a dame who knew how to move. I wondered if she had any influences.

“I think it's important to forge your own path, rather than emulate someone else. You can only be truly successful if you're original, and tread a path untrodden. It's very flattering to hear that other performers are inspired by my work. When I'm feeling down and a lack-lustre about my work, kind words can work wonders to reconnect me with my craft.”

I was sure I could reconnect her with her craft, but I carried on talking, asking about where she liked to dance.

“I love a variety of venues for different reasons. I love working at CellarDoor in London mainly because it's such a friendly venue. I consider all the staff friends and often chat to guests after my spots. I find the opulence of member's club Crazy Bear divine, the venue pushes me to ensure my own presentation matches that of the venue. I attach a lot of romance to venues with a long cabaret history, such as Cafe De Paris.
Ultimately, though, nothing beats a theatre stage with a live band. I like to work with theatre technicians to add dimension to my acts via grand stage entrances and lighting shows. I also own a snow machine which I can only use at large venues like theatres – I love dancing in the show.”

She continued,

Burlesque isn't everyone's cup of tea, if it were, it wouldn't be burlesque. Historically the art form has been boundary-pushing and of questionable taste. The soul of burlesque lies in being risqué and subversive. This said, I think burlesque's edge has shifted after second and third wave feminism. Where previously it was controversial in tone and decency, now it leans a little more toward being boldly assertive in relation to both sexuality and gender, sometimes asserting queerness over tradition.”

Sat before me was a strong, beautiful  woman and she knew what she wanted. I knew what I wanted and it was her, so I decided to get personal.

“So, how far do you go? What’s behind the feather fans at the end of your act?” I asked, turning my head and waiting for a slap. But, to my amazement and admiration all I got was an answer… As a rule, my acts finish with me revealing small pasties and a small thong.” I could feel my temples burn with pleasure at the mere thought.

Maybe a drink was on the cards? She seemed open to suggestion, and I wondered what her perfect date would be and who would be there. Her answer surprised, impressed and amused me.

She said Jedward for colour and charisma, Michael C Hall for eye candy, Zachery Quinto... for extra eye candy, David Duchovny for flirtacious charm, Dorothy Tennov and Vivienne Westwood for conversationLena Dunham for wit, Lada Redstar, simply because I don't see enough of that girl and I find her attitude toward her art utterly inspiring. Music from Beethoven and food imported from Cafe Relax in Dusseldorf”

She obviously didn’t do things by halves, but the dame was worth it.

I was ready to make my move when as suddenly as our conversation started, it was over. She stood up ready to leave, and I’ll tell you her back was every cent as lovely as her front. Then, as I prepared to watch her walk out of my life forever she turned and leaned towards me, her ruby red lips forming a pout. Was this it? Was I going to get what I had wanted all along? I started to lean my face toward her's but then she spoke.

“...although, this all said, I'm lucky to have a strong, supportive group of friends around me (and around the world) and couldn't really ask for more than I already have.”

And with that she turned and left. Would I see her again? Who knew? Who cared, I could die a happy man. She’d left me with a great memory, some words of wisdom and half a bottle of Jack Daniels… I was one lucky guy.