Bilkish Vahed

The Allure of Individuality

Category: STYLE & CULTURE (page 1 of 5)

The Double Bind of High Heels


If, every day, I could slip my feet into beautifully made shoes with elegant 6cm heels, I would. I’d walk in them through the mall, to work, to café’s, on the sidewalks – everywhere. But I don’t. Because I can’t. 

Because I can only tolerate them for an evening out, or a day here or there. Anything more, makes me ache and hurt. Sleek they make me feel, but sore. That still doesn’t stop me lusting after the day that some genius gets it right and designs a chic and sharp high heel so beautifully balanced and structured that I buy a dozen pairs for every day, and more.

Until that day though, my allegiance is with the #KuToo (a play on kutsu, meaning shoes, and kutsuu, meaning pain) protest movement in Japan, against the mandatory wearing of high heels by women in the workplace. What torture to be forced into heels every day.

High heels, they say, can be traced back to 15thcentury Persia, where soldiers wore them to secure their feet in stirrups. Later when the trend reached Europe, aristocratic men (who performed no manual labour) wore them to appear “taller and more formidable,” I read. Formidable? Fancy that!

Draping the Body, Veiling the Soul


Riffling through a pile of old magazines, a photograph in Vogue caught my eye, arrested my glancing attention.

Four women, quiet, contained, in grey-black clothing, draped in a shaded white room, languid yet alert. eyes hooded but bright, they speak to me in mysterious tongues.

Jean Muir & friends photographed by Deborah Turbeville,
with essay by Stacey D’Erasmo,
Vogue August 2004

British fashion designer, Jean Muir’s fluid tailoring in plain dark colours blur the outer contours of the body and seduce the onlooker to feel inwards. A plethora of storylines – fragments suggest themselves.

Long open delicate fingers – a pianist’s sensuous touch? Brooding eyes – of sadness, existential weariness, or sated passion? A firm hand in a pocket, decided and resolute. The day to day turbulence of restlessness and clanging desires steadied in the volumes of rich, dense, dark fabric. Thoughts held in polished check – brimming but private – under the elegant curve of an inky fedora.

“They were so strange, like long birds, and the expressions on their interesting European faces… were deep, still…. Obviously they were thinking. They were feeling.”

stacey d’erasmo

Dark eyes liquid, these creatures have mastered the art of draping the body to their own taste, veiling the inner world of thoughts, feelings, and sensations, which nevertheless still spark and animate the still silence.

“I am my own self”, they seem to say, “I am me.”

Tailored Self-Possession


Is the magic in the specifics of a polished camel coat, a crisp trench, sheer polka dot blouse, two-toned shoes – these certainly have their appeal – or is it in some mysterious, total effect?

Chancing upon Dior’s Pre-Fall 2018 advertising photographs, I’m seduced by the elegance of clean-lines and refined silhouettes. Ensembles that scream: soignée. Luxurious fabrics and sleek tailoring that drape the body. An air of confidence and self-possession oozing from every frame.

Jennifer Lawrence photographed by Brigitte Lacombe for Dior Pre-Fall 2018

The words rolling around fashion magazines to describe this collection are – tailoring, menswear staples, gender fluidity, androgyny and identity – suggested of course by the idea that the muse for this collection was none other than French photographer Claude Cahun whose self portraits were an on-going, layered de-construction and re-construction of self, gender and identity.

Though some of the fashion commentary strikes me as a stretch, what I am nonetheless clear about is this:

Clothes, or better said style is intimately woven into the narrative of the self.

Jennifer Lawrence photographed by Brigitte Lacombe for Dior Pre-Fall 2018

Jennifer Lawrence photographed by Brigitte Lacombe for Dior Pre-Fall 2018

Françoise Sagan, 1954


In  Sagan, Paris 1954  Anne Berest delicately weaves multiple narrative threads. The events of early 1954  that led up to the publication of Bonjour Tristesse, and the reflections of a woman who is going through “one of the most painful periods of her life” since being separated from the father of her daughter – Berest herself.

Anne Berest ©SIPA

What emerges is an exposition that criss- crosses genres: the novel, biography, fictionalised autobiography. Events are imagined – Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is placed on the night table of the young Sagan, only to be tossed in the air later after a conversation with Sagan’s best friend, Florence Malraux. “Do you think that in 1954 Françoise might have had A Room of One’s Own on her bedside table?” Berest asks Florence. “I don’t think people read Virginia Woolf until quite a bit later. In 1954 we were reading Proust, Dostoyevsky… but Woolf, I don’t think so.”

Françoise Sagan

Anne Berest had been immersed in the writing of her third novel when Denis Westhoff, the only son of Françoise Sagan, approached her. In his “soft, staccato tone,” he asked her to write a book about his mother. “We will soon be marking the tenth anniversary of her death… and I would like people to remember just what the publication of Bonjour Tristesse represented for society back in 1954.”

Chapitre Premier  – Bonjour Tristesse

“Sur ce sentiment inconnu don’t l’ennui, la douceur m’obsèdent, j’hésite à apposer le nom, le beau nom grave de tristesse. C’est un sentiment si complet, si égoiste que j’en ai presque honte alors que la tristesse m’a toujours paru honourable. Je ne la connaissais pas, elle, mais l’ennui, le regret, plus rarement le remords. Aujourd’hui, quelque chose se replie sur moi comme une soie, énervante et douce, et me sépare des autres.

Cet été-là, j’avais dix-sept ans…”

Bonjour Tristesse written in six weeks and published almost immediately was a literary triumph. It is a refined story told by a young sophisticate about boredom and love. What is arresting is the tone, the voice.  The cool, clear eyed, sure footedness of the young woman narrator. Her steady nonchalance.

It is probably Sagan’s abiding fearlessness, intimately wound up with her recklessness and voraciousness that pulses through her text and her life, catching her public’s attention. Hers is the glamour of both a Paris Match style combined with a real love of books. “My mother was never afraid,” Denis Westhof tells Berest. “No, she wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone… It was one of the things she taught me. Not to be afraid.”

In the end, this is not a book primarily about a debut novel. It is an encounter between two women, both French writers. Berest creates a kind of mystical space for this when she makes an appointment to see a clairvoyant, overlaying Sagan’s own visit to a fortune teller.

“Yes, I can see that you’re writing a book on someone’s life,” the clairvoyant says. “It’s the life of a woman who lived as a man would…. She was a woman who had experienced everything. She did whatever she wanted to do.”

Then with certainty she says, “I am seeing Françoise Sagan – that’s correct, isn’t it?”

The clairvoyant alerts Berest: “You are sometimes going to want to do certain things that you are not used to doing….. go ahead…. You have nothing to fear, she is watching over you.”

Berest encounters Sagan. Sagan moves through Berest, altering her.

Amour & Art


The Michael Haneke movies that I’ve seen – Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, and The White Ribbon – I’ve not liked. Amour which won a Palme d’Or at Cannes (2012) and an Oscar for best foreign language film (2013) is the story of an elderly couple – Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) – both retired piano teachers whose lives are shockingly altered when Anne has a stroke. We watch Georges, as suffering caregiver, and Anne as she progresses into into debilitating paralysis and dementia.

Haneke’s signature style is the grotesque depiction of that which is often painful, shameful, awful, confusing and difficult in life. He has a knack for finding the underbelly of human situations and poking away with a steely gaze. Of course life dishes out to each of us – suffering, pain, agony and degradation ; but bubbles of joy, laughter, fun, hope and love also permeate reality.

Art that shows only the sordid and the suffering, and fails to bring forth also the other – a glimmer of the ever-present transcendent, that only art is capable of showing us, is a hollow art. Hank’s obvious brilliance means that he could have gone further, he could have found the silver lining that is always there – then Amour would have been transformed into an extraordinary film.

‘Amour’ Trailer
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