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Oxfam Fashion: style inspired by our favourite books

Posted by Rosalind Jana Oxfam Fashion Blogger

31st May 2012

Talking Books

Amelia: In fashion I impersonate different characters daily; I dress in preparation for many an adventure and I escape into a whole world of my own design. 'The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter' was one of my earliest reads and it sticks with me to this day. It is full of fun and mischief and I believe fashion should always be fun!

Authors are often inspired by their surroundings and circumstances - think of Dickens' evocative descriptions of London or Austen's acute observations and send-ups of society at the time. In a similar vein, the choices we make about our clothes and styling can sometimes be influenced by outside factors: perhaps in the colours of the landscape, the cinematography of a film or the images in a book. This latter source is particularly rich in the stimulus it provides. As the range of lovely Oxfam bloggers have demonstrated here, characters from Miss Marple to Arietty (from The Borrowers) can be easily re-interpreted with the help of a dressing up box and some carefully chosen props.

Teresa: I love the fact that [Miss Marple] is so quintessentially English in her demeanour and her attire… Although she appears superficially to be this charming old silver-haired lady, she has a steely determination and tenacity that remain undaunted by the most impenetrable of mysteries.

Nonetheless, perhaps a distinction must be made between specific examples of the clothes that characters wear, and the overall aesthetic of a book. Sherlock Holmes was (and still is) defined by a cape, pipe and deerstalker hat (despite this piece of iconic headwear being an invention of illustrator Sidney Paget, who interpreted the idea of an "ear-flapped travelling cap" to great effect) while James Bond cuts a dash in a dinner jacket. By contrast, Angela Carter's sensory world of gothic castles and shadowed forests or Thomas Hardy's Wessex are inspirational as part of a cohesive whole. Amelia's take on the world of Beatrix Potter with a People Tree dress and second hand shoes is sweet and rustic - much like the beloved childhood books. A further extension of inspiration can be found when one embodies a whole genre or movement. The Bloomsbury Group provided a very different set of ideals to the Beat Poets, but arguably both could now be used to as a starting point for a dizzying range of outfits.

Sherlock Holmes' appearance is hugely iconic from the hat to the autumnal colours. I'm not sure if he would have approved of the heels though…

There seem to be certain books, authors/poets and characters that transcend their pages to take on a life of their own. What they come to represent is something beyond the original work. Someone who is a "bit Brideshead" could be thought of as part of the privileged aristocracy, an Oxford-ian or aesthete perhaps, or simply a religious noble with a little too much appreciation of champagne. Furthermore, 'Byronic' and 'Heathcliff-like' seem to have become rather interchangeable when it comes to dark and brooding types. Such phrases, among countless others, are indicative of one of the ways that literature has infused day-to-day life. Books become bywords for certain moods or settings. A fashion shoot somewhere wild could be deemed as having a 'Wuthering Heights' feel, while anything even vaguely whimsical is assigned an 'Alice in Wonderland' comparison - regardless of whether or not blue dresses and Cheshire Cats are involved. Although these book references can become more repetitive than the adverts one sees on the London Underground, there is a certain joy in using words and descriptions as a creative stimulus.

Tara's outfit - Inspired by Brideshead Revisited - perfect for an afternoon of strawberries and wine.  Tanya's outfit - Taking style notes from The Witches with black lace and a wide-brimmed hat

The use of clothes within books can also be richly symbolic and interesting. Lear's stripping back from wealth to nakedness is a metaphor for his loss of power as he becomes 'nothing', while Pip's acquisition of fine garments in 'Great Expectations' show his rise in status. The clothes described can also be indicative of the time of writing, often showing the spirit of the period. Hemlines rose in hedonistic twenties, and one needs to only think of the party scenes in the Great Gatsby - the feel of the book demonstrated beautifully by Laila.

 Virginia Woolf once observed that: "clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath". Characters can dress to express their personality, or sometimes to hide or disguise it. And so, when we take on the role of a fictional character, it is the ultimate form of theatrical dressing up.

Laila: [The Great Gatsby] focuses on the extravagant parties thrown by Jay Gatsby every Saturday, where the rich and beautiful of New York convened. This was the era of flapper fashion… Pearl necklaces often adorned necks, and headwear including feather headbands, turbans and cloche hats were popular amongst the affluent.

Many of the literary-influenced ensembles I have worn have their origins in charity shops. Alongside supporting independent bookshops, a good proportion of my reading material is purchased in Oxfam, who are holding a book drive between the 1st and 21st of June to raise the level of donations. I'm one of the many consumers who contribute to the £1.4m worth of books bought every month in their shops, but it's worth remembering that Oxfam are always on the look out for more books to sell - whether they're classics, thrillers, childhood favourites or arts volumes. Then, when books have been found, bought, read and enjoyed, where better to start sourcing clothes for some literary-style ensembles than in a favourite charity shop?

 Lydia:  I have taken inspiration from one of my favourite books, The Borrowers. They make use of anything they can 'borrow' - a small button would be huge for them! This quote sets the scene perfectly, 'All round the room, underclothes hung airing on safety pins, which Homily used like coat hangers.

Blog post written by Rosalind Jana

Oxfam Fashion Blogger

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Headshot of Roz Jana, Oxfam Fashion Blogger