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In a recent episode of the greatest show on TV (Mad Men of course), Don Draper’s daughter Sally cut her long blonde hair one night when Don had left her with a babysitter. A furious Don sacked the hapless babysitter as soon as he clapped eyes on the resulting hair atrocity. His reaction was mild compared to that of his ex-wife Betty. She slapped little Sally hard across the face when she saw the damage done to her lovely golden tresses. And the poor child had only cut it to bob-length.

When I was slightly younger than Sally (about 7 I think), I nagged my mother for months to have my long fair hair cut short. She was extremely reluctant but eventually gave in to the pestering. The poor hairdresser was similarly reluctant and kept saying what a shame it was and asking if I was really sure about taking such a drastic step. I was, and with a single snip of the scissors the ponytail finally came off. My mother has kept it to this day.

Kate rocking the short hair look

I never regretted it. Over the years I made various half-hearted attempts to grow my hair but it never got much beyond shoulder length. It was always a relief to go back to the salon and emerge with a crop of some kind. Looks I have tried include slicked back like the women in the ‘Addicted to Love’ video in the eighties, a rockabilly style quiff and a full on Sinead O’Connor-esque scalping in the early nineties. I grew it before my wedding in 1996, only to scrape it all back off my face, Eva Peron style, for the day itself. In childhood I was sometimes mistaken for a boy, and had the so-called insult of ‘lesbian’ shouted at me occasionally when I was older. I was never remotely bothered; I never felt unfeminine just because I had short hair.

On Twitter a while ago, someone was bemoaning the fact that some women give up on longer hair as soon as they have children, and that it’s all part of ‘letting themselves go’. But in my view many women cling on to their long hair when they would look infinitely better with a chic crop. I can think of many celebrity women whose finest hour came when they had a radical haircut – Victoria Beckham, Emma Watson and Carey Mulligan spring to mind. And as for style icon Kate Moss; to me she never looked better than when she had her dirty blonde locks cut into a short (and brunette!) elfin style.

It is said that most men prefer long hair, but I doubt that’s the reason women grow it long. I don’t envy the work involved in maintaining long silky tresses – the endless blowdrying, conditioning, GHD-ing – so you must be doing it because you love it. Right?

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The sea, Mam, the sea


My mother recently had a significant birthday. To mark this fact, my sister and I took her on her first foreign holiday.

I would tell you which significant birthday it was were it not for the fact that Mam’s next ‘first’ is to conquer The Internet. No doubt her first mission will be to google her youngest daughter and find out what secrets and lies she has been disseminating about the family on the worldwideweb all these years. If I say what age she is, she will find out, she will brain me and she will eat it with one of the small, scallop-patterned soup spoons she keeps for “company”.

Let me instead present something only slightly less revealing: my mother in her swimsuit. She is very, very cute in it. It is purple with a neon-pink trim and it only took us three shopping trips and a very heated half-hour in the dressing room of Marks and Spencers to find it.

This is also a first. When we were children, Mam found she couldn’t look at any large body of water without feeling dizzy. Not a swimming pool, not any river bigger than the stream up the road; certainly not the sea. My sister and I didn’t learn to swim and neither did she. I don’t know why deep water inspired such vertigo and nausea in her. It was just a fact and a given. By the time I wanted to ask, I was afraid to. My fear of asking was as irrational as her fear of the water itself.

I know her seasickness was fear-induced because somewhere between my sister and I leaving our landlocked county in our late teens and all three of us going on her first sea-and-sun holiday as adults, she was able to shed it. Last week, she waded straight into a warm Atlantic up to her waist, laughing as the waves knocked her off her feet.

“Isn’t it amazing to think I haven’t done this before?” she said, a huge smile on her face.

I was further out, floating, shielding my eyes to look back at her big achievement. She was proud of herself and I was proud of her. And from somewhere else I felt sadness, and entirely unrelated to the sea I was floating in, I tasted salt.

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When women, especially high profile women, get married everyone has an opinion. Chelsea Clinton, daughter of you-know-who wed Mark Mezvinsky over the weekend, which spawned this sniffy piece in the New York Times. The writer critiques everything from her dress (“not an especially high-styled choice”) to her updo (“betrayed the Clinton women’s complicated hair history”). Why should a smart, educated woman who has made her way in the world – a world where your parents have been two of the most powerful/famous people on the planet – have to endure a such a high-profile fashion post-mortem on her “big day”?

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Dressed for Success

Like many people, I have a work uniform. But in my case, it’s sort of accidental. You see, I work from home, and like a lot of people who technically don’t have to leave their house every day, I can wear whatever the hell I like.

Nancy Mitford and her desk, living the elegant working-from-home dream

And on summer days when I’m not going into town to meet anyone, that tends to be the following: a fitted t-shirt, usually from Threadless, American Apparel or Buyolympia, elderly jeans or needle cords, and an American Apparel hoodie. Oh, and Birkenstocks. Glamorous, no?

That’s the thing about working from home. You imagine you’re going to be some sort of elegant figure in a neat frock sitting at a lovely, perfectly neat desk adorned, perhaps, by an art nouveau vase with a single flower in it. You possibly look a bit like Nancy Mitford. Instead, you end up sitting a desk covered in iPhone cords, hand cream, digital voice recorders, notebooks and a wobbling pile of book proofs that match the several wobbling piles of book proofs on the floor next to the desk. And you’re probably wearing pyjama bottoms.

I should make it clear that I don’t wear actual rags when I’m working at home in the suburbs – I do actually leave the house to go for a walk and go to the shops every day. And I wear clothes I genuinely like. It’s just that they tend to be very, very casual and not especially flattering – the worn old Threadless t-shirt rather than the fancy top, the battered, sagging, ancient Wrangler or Topshop jeans as opposed to the nice new Acne ones.

This Sarah Utter shirt from Buyolympia.com is one of my working-at-home staples. It is not really very sexy.

So I’m well aware that there’s a definite difference between how much attention I pay to my clothes on an at-home day and on a day when I’m actually venturing into the outside world. Which is why I can really identify with this excellent post on Jezebel by Anna North, an even scruffier fellow at-home worker, who says

And since I’m a feminist who’s occasionally claimed that I get dressed up “for myself,” it’s a little troubling that I only try to put together a decent outfit when I’m going to see other people.

Yes, I’d like to convince myself that I only dress up for myself, but if this were really true I would wear my contact lenses every day, and not just when I meet up with people. I would never wear the ridiculously faded Topshop jeans I was sporting yesterday. And I wouldn’t be writing this at my kitchen table with my hair unbrushed and my feet sporting a pair of woolly hand-knitted socks under a pair of Birkenstocks.

So, what about you? If you work from home, could you leave the house right now and go and meet friends without changing your clothes, or would you have to change into something a bit less manky? Do you dress completely presentably every day, whether you’re stuck at your desk all day or not? And if you don’t work from home, do you let yourself go at the weekend?

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I wrote a post about literary tattoos on my writing blog last year, featuring the tattoo site Contrariwise, where people display photographs of their writing-inspired body art. The photo from Contrariwise I used shows two lovers hand-in-hand. The woman has Sylvia Plath’s ‘I am. I am. I am.’, from The Bell Jar, tattooed on her inner arm, from elbow to wrist; the man has Marlowe’s, ‘Fly, o man’, from Doctor Faustus on his. Interestingly the Plath phrase also appears in her poem ‘Suicide Off Egg Rock’:

‘And his blood beating the old tattoo
I am, I am, I am.’

Most of the traffic that comes to my blog as a result of this post uses the search string ‘Sylvia Plath tattoo’. Plath’s introspective but direct poetic style clearly has huge appeal to younger readers and the variety of Plath tattoos on the Contrariwise site is testament to this. One of the tattoos on display use three lines from Plath’s poem ‘Tulips’; the lines are winding tattooed stems that hold up three scarlet tulip heads. It looks beautiful.
Another young man has ‘by a mad miracle I go intact’ on his chest from Plath’s ‘Street Song’:

‘By a mad miracle I go intact
Among the common rout
Thronging sidewalk, street,
And bickering shops;’

That poem continues quite bloodily – ‘heart and guts hung hooked / And bloodied as a cow’s split frame’, but I suppose that’s not pretty or profound enough to be inked forever on the skin. Other favourite poets for tattoos include ee cummings, Longfellow, Poe, Frost and Ginsberg. It’s an American-based site.

On another site, Every Tattoo, I found a woman with the words ‘Virginia Woolf’ tattooed in large letters on her breastbone, like a torc. There is also a quote, on a woman’s foot, from Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’:

‘It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.’

Most tattoos on these sites are introspective and life-affirming. They follow the dictum of the tattooist Carmey, in Plath’s short story, ‘The Fifteen Dollar Eagle’: ‘Wear your heart on your skin’.

I’ve been wondering what an Irish poetry fan or writer even might get inked on their body. Maybe Séamus Heaney’s squat pen in the form of an arty quill? Or the line ‘Hunting words I sit all night’ from Flower’s translation of ‘Pangur Bán’?

Tattoos are not the rebel yell they once were; it’s probably more unusual now to find a thirty-something without a tattoo. But they often have deep meaning for their owner – and probably even moreso when they are taken from a much-loved poem.

My favourite book on tattoos is Dorothy Parker’s Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos. One of its editors, poet Kim Addonizio says: ‘It’s natural that writers and literary readers would be drawn to commemorating some bit of language that has moved or changed them – or that maps a direction they want to go.’ However, although she has five tattoos already, none of them are text-based. She says, ‘As soon as I find the right words, they’ll be inked somewhere on my skin.’ I’m in the market for a new tattoo but I think I’ll follow Kim’s lead and take my time choosing the words.

(A version of this post first appeared in the Poetry Ireland Review newsletter.)

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Does being sexy, or even a sex object in some mens’ eyes and by your own doing, automatically make you a bad mother?


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Justify My Shopping

I don’t like shopping.

Okay, that’s a total lie. I love shopping for books. I love shopping for art, knitting and sewing supplies. I also, strangely enough, love shopping for make-up. I just don’t like shopping for clothes. I like having lovely new clothes; I just hate the actual process of acquiring them.

Yes, I bought it! You can't judge me more harshly than I judge myself.

I hate queuing up for changing rooms with my arms full of garments in different sizes (because these days no shop seems to have any sort of consistency in their sizing policy) and then trying them on under unflattering lights while my face gets redder and redder and my hair gets messier and messier.

And I really hate having to wrestle with my conscience. It’s not that I regularly go on shopping sprees; my fear of consumer debt and my desire to buy stuff that wasn’t definitely made in a sweat shop, combined with my hatred of changing room cubicles, have saved me from that bad habit. I genuinely don’t go clothes shopping very often, I don’t shop casually, and I only buy stuff if I actually have the money in the bank to pay for it.

And therein lies the problem. I have what could be described as mildly extravagant tastes. I don’t seriously crave things that are clearly insanely priced. I can lust after the new Miu Miu collection (and I do – oh, it’s so pretty), but I can accept that these garments are completely and utterly beyond my price range. I know there is no way on earth I can ever afford them, and I have no desire to get into debt in order to buy them. That would be crazy. I also think it’s essentially wrong to spend £3,000 on one skirt. If you have a spare three grand lying around, there’s got to be something more productive you could do with it. And anyway, not being able to afford these lovely things doesn’t bother me, just as not being able to fly doesn’t bother me. There’s no way on earth I’d ever be able to do it, so why waste time wishing?

My problem is my yearning for the stuff that is expensive, but not totally and utterly out of my grasp. It’s the stuff I could technically buy and still have money in my bank account to buy food and pay rent. I crave clothes from labels like A.P.C. and Built By Wendy, the sort of brands whose garments, when their sales are on at least, are usually under €150. I don’t give a shit about Creme de la Mer or that Sisley moisturiser that costs about 200 quid, but I do like Origins and Nars. I can buy these things every so often and stay out of debt, and I’d rather do that than buy lots of cheap shit. But should I really be buying anything at all, even in the Built By Wendy sale? I mean, it’s not as though I’ve literally got nothing to wear otherwise, much as it might feel like that when I’m flinging things all over my room in an attempt to get dressed to my own satisfaction.

These are the thoughts that plague me on my way to the cash register, or at least haunt me on my way back from it. Take my most recent purchases. Two weeks ago I was passing by Harlequin, the well-known vintage clothes shop on Dublin’s Castle Market, when I saw a flash of a gorgeous ’50s floral print. I ran over to behold a perfect ’50s cotton day dress whose price-tag revealed that it was – oh, what a miracle – a size 8. I love cotton frocks from the 1950s and ’60s and have quite a lot of them – they’re pretty, flattering and incredibly easy to wear. Alas, they are also very hard to find, let alone in sizes that fit someone unwilling to wear an authentic ’50s-esque padded bra, so whenever I see one I leap on it like a lioness who’s just caught sight of a particularly lazy antelope. And so I grabbed this dress and ran for the changing room, hoping that the tag (which was an estimation) was actually right.

It was. The dress fit perfectly. It was beautiful. It was an amazing pattern in flattering colours. I had to buy it. When would I find another dress like this? It was about three years since I’d last found a decent ’50s frock, and that was in Paris. However, that Parisian dress, I recalled, had cost me about 25 quid. This dress was €85.

Now, that isn’t an insane amount of money, at least if you have a job. I mean, high street stores sell dresses for that price. It is, however, more than I can just throw away on a whim on something I don’t technically need. If I was a bit richer, maybe I could spend that much on fripperies every week. However, I am a freelance journalist, and so every time I spend that amount of money on one thing I have to ask myself two questions. One is, “Can I afford it?” And the other is “Do I actually need to have it?”

This would be sensible if I answered those questions, well, sensibly. But I don’t. When trying to justify buying a Chanel lipstick (Rouge Coco in Mademoiselle! Most flattering colour ever!) or yet another hipster craft book I won’t make anything out of, I’ve developed a ridiculous habit of telling myself things like “well, if you still smoked regularly, you’d spend this much every week on cigarettes.” I tend to forget that the most I ever smoked was about 4 a day, and that if I had continued in this vein I would spend, at most, about 15 quid a week on fags, which wouldn’t even buy one Chanel Rouge Coco lipstick. Then I expand it beyond my own personal history and think things like, “well, plenty of people smoke 60 cigarettes a day. My dad used to smoke about 40 a day! Look how much I’m saving by not being an emphysemic chain smoker!”

As well as fags, here are some of the other things I don’t do that I’ve used to justify spending money on stuff I don’t need:

“I know people who get taxis everywhere. I always get the bus and I only ever get taxis home if it’s really late. I’m saving loads of money! I can easily afford this over-priced moisturiser!”

“I never go on fancy holidays. At most we go for a few days via Ryanair to a European city where we rent an apartment and eat lovely cheapo cheese and wine in a tiny kitchen instead of eating out every day. We even did this for our honeymoon. Other people, and not just billionaires, go and stay in hotels in the south of France. I never do anything like that! I’m saving a freaking fortune.”

“I don’t drink very much. There are people who drink, like, ten pints whenever they go out. On an average night out I drink three, max. I’m saving loads of money! Give me those jeans.”

“If I was a drug addict, I’d spend this much every day on crack. This is NOTHING.”

It has dawned on me that regularly justifying my expenditure by comparing myself to drug addicts and shameless spendthrifts is probably not a good idea. I never ask myself whether chainsmokers and drug addicts can actually afford to fuel their addictions (I suspect in many cases the answer is no). I should ask myself whether I, based on exactly what I earned last month, can afford to buy this and still have money in my savings account so that I don’t end up as a bag lady in my old age (my pension currently looks as though I’ve been throwing money into a black hole every month for five years).

Anyway, I bought the dress. Come on, when was I going to find another one? And then last week I bought a pair of Acne jeans. They were even more expensive than the dress, although they are gorgeous and well-cut and also fit ridiculously well, so technically they should last me for years and years, unlike cheapo jeans which start sagging around the arse after one wash. But that’s it. I’m not buying any more clothes for the rest of the summer. I can’t afford it, for one. Although….. I do work from home, so I’m saving an awful lot of money on lunches and bus fares and that sort of thing. If you put it all together it really does add up. Doesn’t it?

Doesn’t it?

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A recent edition of German Vogue features Claudia Schiffer. No surprises there. But Claudia Schiffer styled as Frida Kahlo? Why? What’s the point, or the correlation between the two? Is it about paying homage to a great artist or merely slapping a fake monobrow on a famous model? More images here:

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Megan’s post about bygone Hollywood fashion reminded me of an upcoming theatre project called My Life in Dresses. Created by Sorcha Kenny (winner of Dubline Fringe Festival’s 2008 Spirit of the Fringe Award for The Woman Who Left Herself) who is both playwright and vintage  zealot, MLID is about clothes and the potential stories they have to tell through memory and association.  Elements of the play will involve input from anyone who owns a piece of clothing with a history.  Some of the narratives Sorcha has collected will be incorporated into the play, which premieres at the Fringe Festival in September. I interviewed her about it recently and the people she had spoken so far had fascinating stories to tell . One man, a widower still grieving for his late wife, had kept her entire wardrobe, including the going-away outfit she wore on their wedding day. There was also the fateful story of three unmarried sisters, all in their late 30s, who lived in 1930s New York. Their family deemed them spinsters who had collectively failed to “snag” a husband, only for all three women to get married in the same year, in the same venue and wearing the same dress. My Life in Dresses is not just confined to vintage clothes –  Sorcha spoke to a 30-year-old friend who had had a daughter when she was very young. Her story focuses on a simple night-dress, which has a huge resonance, because she wore it the night she gave birth.  Yvonne Nolan also contributed a wonderful tale about her grandmother’s wedding dress.

If you, or anyone you know, has a piece of clothing with a story to tell, get in touch with Sorcha at mylifeindressesATgmailCOM.

Link: My Life in Dresses

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Being the unfashionable fool that I am, I gave up buying glossy ‘lady mags’ a few years ago after determining that I’d wasted enough money and brain cells on them. However, recently a friend of mine gave me a bag of old glossies and, well, it would have been rude not to read them before chucking them in the recycling bin.

While idly flicking through the 8 March issue of Grazia I saw a number of ‘tips’ that had me spluttering into my glass of vino. It turns out that all this time I had been ignoring lady mags, I had been missing out on some priceless advice for us women who worry about being fat and old all the time.

Luckily for Anti-Room readers, I’ve included some of these tips for your information.  You’ll wonder how you ever survived without these gems, such as this one included in an article on the highlights of London Fashion Week:

How simple – feeling fat and worthless? Just unpick the stitches in your favourite dress and then hold it together with bulldog clips. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? Such an easy way of distracting people from my hideous figure.

So, if you get sad every time you see an unused bulldog clip sitting forlornly on your desk, now you know what to do. Unpick your shirt, pop on a bulldog clip and voila! Instant, fat-covering glamour. If anyone in the office asks why you have a clip stuck to you, or sniggers as you walk past, assuming you’re the victim of the company prankster, be assured that you are in fact being extremely fashion-forward.

“All the gals were doing it at LFW, darling!” should be your reply, “Kate, Lara and even Cheryl!” Then flounce off smiling – just be careful the clips don’t ping off mid-flounce, showing rather more of your body than you had intended. Oh, the perils of high fashion.

I used to think that nail length is only indicative of whether you are a nail-biter or not, so imagine how stunned I was to discover this tip:

Silly me, thinking that nails were, well, nails, and have nothing to do with body shape. Hell no! I can’t believe that for the past 27 years I could have been disguising my shape by growing my nails to a certain length.  Consider me a changed woman, Grazia. No one will guess I’m a size 12 once I’ve redone these glamorous talons!

Finally, if you’re sick of your crow’s feet but fear the frozen expression that Botox tends to afflict on its users, then worry no more. The trick, according to Grazia, is using white eyeliner. Lots of white eyeliner.

Will you look like a rabbit trapped in the proverbial headlights? You may well indeed, but everyone will be so distracted by your white eyes that they won’t be looking at your crow’s feet. And as we know thanks to Grazia, anything is worth doing if it means looking thinner and younger.

Now if you don’t mind, I’m off to stick bulldog clips to my arse – I’ve heard it will make it look instantly thinner! Thanks for the inspiration, Grazia.

What are your favourite tips from women’s magazines?

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