Write Foot Forward


Wordplay and cryptic references were a signature of Hawes’s models. ‘Serena Blandish’ silk dress, Elizabeth Hawes, 1933. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. Accession no: 2009.300.1036

The frequency of my blogging has slowed up just a little since the turn of the year.   This is because I am busy with another writing project – a journal article of epic proportions – and am racing towards a publication deadline.  I’d like to claim that beautiful, erudite prose falls effortlessly from my fingertips but the reality is something of a harder slog.  I thoroughly enjoy writing, and always have.  But, in contradiction, I also find it to be a mind bending and angst ridden process, and I even have to be scraped off the ceiling from time to time.

In more recent years, I have found that my job has involved a mentoring role and I have been helping (perhaps hindering?) others on their own academic writing odysseys. I find myself increasingly inhabiting the ‘there’s no great secret, you just have to sit down, shut up, and write’ camp.  That isn’t meant to be as harsh as it sounds: it is genuine, realistic, advice. Just one of the many grand resources out there for academic writers wanting less stark instruction may be found on the University of Durham’s website in the form of its ‘Writing Across Boundaries’ project.  Run by the Department of Anthropology the target audience is postgraduate students, and many excellent, inspirational and productive-sounding writing residentials are operated with thesis-writing in mind.  The section on the site called ‘Writing on Writing’ is also worth consultation.  Several high profile – and, most importantly, prolific – academics share their thoughts, secrets and demons.  If you’re short on time, head for the contribution by Professor Bryan S Turner on ‘How to Write Practically’.  He details his own writing regimen and how it succeeds in delivering 14,000 (yes, 14k) words for him per week.  I’ll have some of that!  Bring on the porridge (which he assures us is vital).

And what of Liz Hawes in all of this?  She was the most fantastic wordsmith, and one of the reasons I find her so alluring is due to her use of wordplay and punnery.  I have a penchant for the corny.  During my archive searches, I have enjoyed finding the puns (or, indeed, the more serious political commentaries) hidden in the names given to her models (‘models’, in this instance, being the contemporary term for garments).  There’s the ‘Wearwithall’ cape, for example.  As well as dresses named ‘Serena Blandish’, an outfit titled ‘Public Enemy No. 1’ and a skirt suit ensemble comprising ‘Would You Like to Take a Walk’ skirt and ‘Hug Me Tight’ jacket.  And so the list goes on.

My inkling is that Hawes, too, enjoyed writing. She certainly took every opportunity to practise the literary craft, and produced vast amounts during her career, ranging from her own advertising copy to books, cables, magazine articles and daily newspaper columns.  The Fashion Institute of Technology holds the preparatory drafts of some of her writing.  Viewing these, one gets a sense of her process.  I was stunned, for example, to discover a bundle of handwritten, sparse, notes, jotted down on torn little scraps of ‘Hotel Chelsea’ (where she resided for a time) notepaper, the notes being reflections by Hawes on (none other than) JC Flugel’s The Psychology of Clothes (that fashion theory classic, and hardly bedtime reading).  Her notes on the book are cursory.  One scrap reads ‘Masculinity/Clothes are symbols of work and duty/No softness or self-indulgence/Moral, muscular, phallic’.  Flugel’s Psychology of Clothes was, of course, first published in 1930, so his work was contemporary to Hawes’s most intense period of design and formed part of the broader socio-cultural backdrop of influences against which she was working.  I was also reminded when recently re-reading Valerie Steele’s Paris Fashion that psychoanalysis was a keen influence on Surrealist artists of the 1930s and their attempts to exploit the unconscious.  The influence of Freud was significant on educated Europeans and Americans of the day also, and Hawes makes notes on him too.  Ah ha!  There you have it.  And so, another piece of the jigsaw falls into place.