Happy Birthday, Number Seven!

Number Seven is a make-up brand, found in Boots chemists, which is celebrating its eightieth birthday this year. In celebration, Nottingham Lakeside Arts has an exhibition on the history of the brand. It’s a fascinating thing, not least because it really offers some insight into the history of women. Lisa Eldridge details this overlap in her book (which I reviewed here).

The exhibition showed the sort of society that the 1930s make-up brand came in to for context. Some awful misogyny was on display here from over the years, but it was so awful that it became funny. Here’s the lovely George Saville, in 1688, writing a guide for his daughter:
‘She doth not like her self as God Almighty made her, but will have some of her own Workmanship; which is so far from making her a better Thing than a Woman, than it turn her into a worse Creature than a Monkey.’
Firstly, what does George have against monkeys?! I suppose he wouldn’t have been aware that we are descended from them. I have heard echoes of this sort of thinking being repeated today, which saddens me, but it is important to know that make-up has always angered some men.

So, back to actual Number Seven products, which arrived in the Britain of 1936. 1930s products were more skincare-based, so as not to appear obvious. The following decades would subtly allow for more make-up / make cosmetics almost mandatory.  It was perfectly okay for women to wear non-obvious make-up in the 1930s then, but obvious make-up was for stage actresses (gross!). Look at this dainty box set, one of Number Seven’s first:

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Beautiful 1930s #numberseven #makeup #boots

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My favourite thing at this exhibition was the tower of make-up, seen at the top of this post, with 1930s products at the bottom and going up to today’s products at the top (which I, sadly, couldn’t fit into one photo). You can see how the products became less “natural” and skincare based.
I loved seeing things from the distant past, but also loved seeing things that I could remember. My mum had some of these products as I was growing up, which made me feel comforted for some reason. These simple lipsticks and mascaras can be deeply personal. Also, when you’re doing your make-up you’re concentrating on yourself, which many women are unable to do for the rest of the day. We can become intimate with the cosmetics we choose to put on ourselves.


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Vintage make up at #lakesidenottingham #no7

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My only quibble with the exhibition is that it wasn’t big enough. I would have liked to see more pretty pieces of the past. And I would like to see something of the brand’s little sister, Seventeen, which I used when I was younger (I had a green lipstick from them. They’re still going though!).

This exhibition made me want to buy a red lipstick (which I did). I had always thought that an un-made-up face was giving the middle finger to society, but it’s far more complicated than that. Who would have thought that lipstick could be so loaded?!
As you may be able to tell, I have conflicting feelings on this whole issue. Cosmetics have consistently been ignored and seen as frivolous, or condemned in a slut-shaming way. Choosing what make up to wear, or even wearing none at all, is and always has been fairly political. But, crucially too, these products are beautiful aesthetically. Perhaps I am overthinking a beautiful exhibition, but it has stayed on my mind in the weeks since I went. This is surely the intention of any good exhibition.

‘Inspiring Beauty: No.7’ is on at Lakeside Nottingham until April 17th.


On Beauty and Feminism

I recently finished two books about beauty and make-up – Sali Hughes’ Pretty Honest and Lisa Eldridge’s Face Paint. I find these books very easy to read. I have always seen beauty and make-up as something fun, probably beginning when my grandma gave me a box of blue eyeshadow when I was eight (which I then used to emulate Victoria Beckham (!) when we put on a Spice Girls performance for our entire street, but that’s a different story. I wonder what I looked like…). I understand that many people have a problem with make-up, and I certainly do like to go bare-face because Patriarchy, but I love the glamour and fun in make-up. I go through phases with it, not being bothered sometimes and then lusting after fancy products. But then I think about capitalism and am put off again. But I like painting up my face and isn’t that what feminism should be about? – is the point of this paragraph.

So! To Pretty Honest. I love Sali Hughes’ writing for The Pool and The Guardian so was eager to read this. It’s no-nonsense advice – telling you who makes the best and worst particular products. She tells you what you really don’t need, and which products are a con, which was enlightening and is rare in beauty writing. Everybody seems so intertwined – products are highly praised and forgotten about when they have sold their quotas. Hughes really knows her stuff – which method of hair removal is most effective / painful; which brands make the best certain things. If you enjoy makeup but want to experiment or learn more, this is the book for you. Also, since following the advice in here, my skin has never looked better.

Lisa Eldridge’s Face Paint was also amazing. It detailed the history of make-up, from pre-history to Hollywood to now. I found it interesting that (obvious) make-up was frowned upon when women had little to no rights. Red lipstick was worn by suffragettes in defiance of men who wanted them to look natural. I went through a vintage Hollywood-obsessive phase in my teenage years, so loved the chapters about those eras. The history of brands we know and love and popular brands that disappeared. Prior to a certain point, as well, men wore make up. People all over the world have painted their faces throughout history. It deserves to be explored.

I found it interesting that both of these books emphasise women. They are written by feminists who both love make-up, something that feminists (including me) seem to feel the need to confess. Surely, the more preferable thing is what Eldridge and Hughes are already doing – unashamedly basking in their love of make-up. Traditionally feminine things, such as make-up, are often ridiculed as being non-intellectual, as if that is important. Traditionally feminine pursuits are not bringing feminism down, internalised misogyny is. We all care about how we look to other people. Why ridicule people for it? It seems an old fashioned thing to do.

There’s No Place Like London…

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City of #London

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This is the last of my posts centring around London and Virginia Woolf’s The London Scene. Woolf is astute in this collection. Her various thoughts about St Paul’s, the Houses of Parliament and the bustling streets stayed in my mind, shaping my view of the place. A lot has changed in London since the 1930s but much has stayed the same. This is, to my mind, what makes cities so exciting. They evolve over time but they never fully shed what they were before.

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Queen Victoria judges you #StPauls #London

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There are timeless quotes in the book, observations about a London which has changed in so many ways. But at heart, it stays the same:

‘Once there were colleges and quadrangles and monasteries with fish ponds and cloisters; and sheep grazing on greensward; and inns where great poets stretched their legs and talked at their ease. Now all this space has shrivelled.’

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'The Lovers' statue in St Pancras station #London

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New and exciting things will continue to grab our attention while the space in London shrivels. I was amazed at how roomy my house felt when I got home. How wide the streets felt. It seems like they tried to pack everything into one city. But, at least, they’ve been doing that for a long time.

South of the River

I recently came back from a long weekend in London. I find London so interesting and I love it but, after a while, it can start to feel overwhelming. This is because I try to fit too much in. I managed to read a very short book on the train which stayed in my mind throughout the trip. It was The London Scene by Virginia Woolf. In it are collected essays she wrote about London for Good Housekeeping magazine, in the early 1930s, so they are a bit more informal than her usual stuff.

The first short essay in The London Scene is called ‘The Docks of London’. The London Docks were once part of the world’s biggest shipping port and they closed in 1969. Woolf says that ‘the only thing that can change the routine of the docks is a change in ourselves’. And we did change: our demands for things have increased, we want more and we want it now. Boats aren’t quick enough for us anymore. The pace of life has changed; we are sped up. ‘We demand shoes, furs, bags, stoves, oil, rice puddings, candles; and they are brought to us’, wrote Woolf. Now they are brought much faster.

Woolf takes the reader from the sea, down the Thames, to the docks. The docks aren’t there anymore, and the area around the docks has changed dramatically since Woolf wrote about them. On this trip I spent a lot of time south of the river, in Greenwich. From the top of the Royal Observatory (up a steep hill) the view of what would have been the London docks is amazing. Skyscrapers housing corporations and banks dominate the skyline. We just stayed looking at the view of Canary Wharf for a while. I think it looks better by night.

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View from Greenwich at night #London

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I love Woolf’s imagination and artistic thoughts but there’s often a distasteful undertone to a lot of what she wrote. When describing the many different ships arriving from all over the world; she declares that ‘nobody in the docks has ever given a second of thought to’ the ‘element of beauty’ contained there. Naturally, the working classes aren’t equipped to appreciate beauty. Echoes of her snobbery still reverberate around our radically different society.

‘The Docks of London’ is an interesting read. It contains a view of a world which has completely disappeared, a world the writer imagined would last forever. Other essays in this book touch on sights which are more familiar; various old buildings and historical bustling streets that have stayed with us. London is a fascinating combination of the old and the new and it is wonderful to explore it.

Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Reasons To Stay Alive is amazing. Matt Haig writes honestly of his experience with depression and his ways of coping with it. I know this is often said, but I really couldn’t put this book down.

Today, we are far more open and accepting of mental illness than we probably ever have been. But we tend to want to hear survivors’ accounts; we want to know that the person is all better now. But most mental illness isn’t something as easily overcome-able as that. Mental illness often lingers; it can return when you least expect it, often taking you by surprise. This is all covered here. Haig talks us through his recovery from his first deep depression, and talks about days when he thought he was getting better, only to find that there was still a long way to go.

I hadn’t given much thought to masculinity and mental illness until fairly recently. I had read a lot about women and hysteria and a lot of mental illness being attributed, and in some cases invented, to keep women quiet. But for many men, even now, talking about how they feel and feeling down are things that aren’t supposed to happen to them. Men are told that they are the ‘do-er’s in life. What happens when they suddenly can’t do anything? Haig states that suicide is ‘the leading cause of death among men under the age of thirty-five’. Men are conditioned not to talk about these things. Men are conditioned to act. We need to rid our society of this mentality.

I enjoyed the darkness and the light here. Haig writes short chapters, which are great for people who are feeling low and probably aren’t able to concentrate well. There are heart-breaking lists, pinpointing these messy thoughts and feelings precisely, such as ‘How to be there for someone with depression or anxiety’ and ‘Things depression says to you.’

The book ends on the chapter ‘Things I have enjoyed since the time I thought I would never enjoy anything again’. It wonderfully begins ‘Sunrises, sunsets, the thousand suns and worlds that aren’t ours but shine in the night sky. Books, Cold beer. Fresh air. Dogs. Horses. Yellowing paperbacks…’ Haig here details his reasons to stay alive, which reminds me of a great little book called The Sweetness of Life by Françoise Héritier. Héritier’s book is essentially a book-length list of things she enjoys. Taking time to realise what makes you happy in life is very useful, particularly when you feel that you won’t be happy again.

Reasons To Stay Alive is a book that demands thought and kindness in a world which can shun those things as unimportant. It is brilliant and I think that everybody should read it.

Seasonally Disaffected

Winter always affects me. I feel that I become a different person when the nights start to draw in; I’m more tired, irritable. Everything seems more difficult. I often feel like I’m on standby, just waiting for spring to arrive. Minor inconveniences and mistakes become amplified in my brain. Dinner burning slightly, somebody saying something totally innocuous which I then overthink. Small things. I can’t read because my mind is racing. I can let my mood overtake me, and it makes me feel worse because I let it. Particularly at the very start and at the end of winter I feel desperately that I want to hibernate.

I think that Seasonal Affective Disorder is probably a natural thing for humans. As we get less daylight, it makes sense that our energy levels drop. But contemporary life doesn’t really allow for this: our winter schedules look similar to our summer schedules, demands placed on us don’t disappear because everything’s cold and dark. We still have to go outside and pretend to be adults.

The 5th of February is Time to Talk day on social media. Organised by Time to Change, an organisation that helps fight mental health stigma through social and political ways, it is asking people to initiate conversations about mental health. On Thursday I’ll be posting a list of things I do to make myself feel better – things that can help me when I’ve had a slightly bad day to when I feel like I’m on the edge of falling into a depressive black hole. I don’t think it’s a surprise that (thankfully) the only time I suffered from full-blown depression was over winter.

I think it’s important that, as a society, we talk more about mental health. And not in clichéd ways. I have shared how I feel at certain times of the year and other people go through far worse. Very often when we talk and read about mental health, the person doing the talking has overcome their illness. There are many ‘I beat depression and so can you’ kinds of articles. Because it is hard to describe how you feel when your brain isn’t working properly. But I think that conversations should be actual conversations, and not lectures. Maybe as a society we need to listen more and talk less. Maybe we should see mental health as more of a continuum and not a well/unwell binary. Maybe we should allow for more complexity. I look forward to hearing a lot of different voices on Thursday.

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

What a book! MaddAddam rounds up all of the loose ends of Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood in fantastic style. Most of this book is told from the perspective of Toby, who we met in The Year of the Flood, as she and her fellow survivors decide how best to attack the dangerous survivors of the ‘waterless flood’. Atwood touches upon so much here: religion and belief, science and technology, the good and bad instincts of humanity. Everything, just everything.

In MaddAddam we get a lot of backstory from Zeb, who Toby is in love with, and information about the formation of the God’s Gardeners. I really like how Atwood plays with the idea of storytelling, especially in this final book. One of the Crakers, Blackbeard, is transfixed by reading and writing. In the Crakers, Crake thought he had formed the perfect people; they apparently have no need for metaphor, for violence, for sexual related strife. They are less complex than humans, humans with the chaos removed, and are less harmful to the planet and themselves. But these people love to hear stories – he couldn’t remove this aspect of them without turning them into ‘vegetables’. Atwood experiments with the ways in which stories are told throughout the trilogy. She plays with reader expectation and narrative perspective in complex ways.

This series contains so much that it has restored my faith in literary fiction, which had been dwindling slightly. The humans have to survive in this new world – a world which is certatinly possible – but Atwood covers the small things as well as the big things. Toby is jealous of another woman and this is portrayed wonderfully. Toby thinks envious thoughts and tries to rationalise them because she is not used to having a significant other. The pettiness of surviving humans is well-observed, as well as the bigger questions of life and death.

Speaking of which, there were a couple of times near the end that I nearly cried, and again this returns to storytelling. Blackbeard, the Craker, narrates some of the more horrifying parts, and his understanding of it feels sadder somehow than if it actually had been narrated by a more emotional character.

There are problems with writing about this book because I don’t want to spoil anything. There are surprises and twists that it would be unfair to reveal, I think. It is a wonderfully written series. Above all, I think it highlights that people, both humans and Crakers alike, need stories. Yet in the world before the waterless flood, and increasingly in this world, we forget about stories in favour of other distractions. I have been playing on the internet less in the past few weeks because I have been spending more of my free time reading this series. I just really loved reading these books, if you can’t tell.