Frocks for the memory II

Grandma Esme’s kid gloves and evening bag

So – we’ve come to the end of my first Frocktober, and the unbearable triteness of being fashionable (with apologies to Milan Kundera and Lee Tran Lam).

Over the past month, I’ve tussled with all manner of cloving quandaries, as Bill Shorten might say. Not least of which was what to wear to see Cody ChesnuTT at The Metro a couple of weeks ago.

WhYY, Cody, whYY?

Who cares. Cody can have three capital Ts if he wants, because he’s that damn good. What’s not to love about a bloke on stage wearing a soldier’s helmet and a watermelon-coloured cardigan (or any coloured cardigan, in fact) who sounds like Marvin Gaye and then some.

And whose dad hasn’t shot him yet.

And what’s not to love about a couple of hours singing along and shaking your cake like the backing singer you’ve always wanted to be when you grow up. There’s not enough room at the Metro to make a complete tool of yourself by actually dancing.

SATURDAY NIGHT!

IN THE CITY!

As we paused in a middle-aged huddle on a curb among the purposeful throng in Chinatown, my friend, Nerida, wailed, “So many people with lives…”

The cloving decision for me that warm Frocktober night was kitten heels and bronze lurex – far less foxy than they sound. In fact, it was my husband who got his bottom pinched later on Oxford Street (by a girl, oddly – my, how times have changed).

The silver fox has always loved a cardigan.

He wore one to a Mardi Gras party back in the late 1980s. “Mmmm… cardie… ” miaowed one drag queen, as she swished past him into the Hordern Pavilion.

It was one of many Pringle knits we’ve received as gifts over the years (and one of the many Mardi Gras parties we’ve been to, come to think of it). His parents were originally from Hawick (pronounced ‘hoick’) on the Scottish Borders, and their families worked at the Pringle factory in that “gree awld toon”. His mother was a seamstress there before she escaped south with his father – a shift as far from their home and life as their son’s and mine was to Australia decades later.

Which brings me to the second instalment in this vaguely fashioned-inspired memoir. As promised in my last post – I wanted to touch on shop window mannequins, and the painting thereof.

The reason I’m here at all (in Australia, that is; not existentially per se – that’s too deep for me) is due in part to a small, very weird South African woman called Adel Rootstein. Her eponymous company had its global HQ in Shawfield Street, off the Kings Road, when I started there in 1976 (my first proper job after dropping out of university).

I’d answered an ad in the Evening Standard for a trainee make-up artist: ‘must have experience in oil paints’. I didn’t really, but, like every job I’ve ever had since, managed to bluff my way in. For my interview I had to paint a mask, copying a mannequin in front of me (perhaps Cher or Joanna Lumley – both of whose likenesses were used in collections at the time).

Joan Collins and her alter egos

Adel Rootstein mannequins were the first of their kind. In-house sculptor John Taylor moulded full-sized sculptures of each live model from clay. From Twiggy through to Lumley and Joan Collins (just prior to her renaissance in Dynasty), and beyond, Rootstein had an uncanny knack for predicting the look that no one had come up with yet.

They were dizzy times for a nice(ish) Jewish girl from the sheltered end of the Jubilee Line – working and playing around the Kings Road, Chelsea, as Punk, New Wave and the New Romantics spat, strummed, tore, warbled and pirate-sleeved their way through our consciousness. I’d ride my bike from Bushey Heath, where I lived in a loudly (and swiftly relinquished – praise be) dysfunctional relationship, through the dappled lanes of Stanmore Heath to the station and emerge, 45 minutes later, in the edgy, upmarket cacophony of Sloane Square.

Our glass-walled studio was built around a whitewashed courtyard, all the better to receive maximum natural light. There, we make-up artists would sit in a row with our backs to the windows, clasping the cold fibreglass torsos of blank-eyed beauties in a tango-like dip, as we painted them to haughty life – teeth, gums, eyes, eyebrows and all. We wore calico smocks, which would stiffen over time with thick layers of dried oil paint along one shoulder and arm (depending on whether we were left- or right-handed) as we slicked off the excess from our brushes.

We smoked furiously and left mugs of tea to go cold as we daubed and feathered to the music of The Stranglers, Roxy Music, Elvis Costello, Adam and the Ants, Ian Dury. And we cleaned our brushes with turps in the bathroom sink; we hadn’t heard of pollution then.

Upstairs, the wig girls (and they were all girls – all qualified hairdressers), wearing masks against the fumes, fashioned incredible, gravity-defying constructs from some sort of nylon fibre, spraying and teasing, and spraying again, then baking the wigs in ovens until they set like stone.

The showroom – where the glam and giddy sales team held sway, using mysteriously obtuse phrases such as “Simple, but there” to describe a make-up style to clients – was refurbished every six months or so, frequently with a new collection of mannequins added, but always with fresh costumes, make-up and wigs. Walk, Talk, Leisure, Pleasure is one early catalogue that springs to mind… Or ‘Plump and pretty – nine large ladies who exude confidence, poise and plenty of glamour for all their excess inches…’

Something for me to aspire to at the time – what with my eating disorder and all. But I’ll save that post for when you’re stronger.

The Rootstein collection launches were the stuff of London fashion legend, as were its Christmas parties, where the Chelsea set, models, hangers on and other glamerati would gather – along with all of us in our outré second-hand get-ups, supping on a seemingly endless flow of champagne. I’m sure there was plenty of cocaine too, although I didn’t ever get offered any.

My painting colleagues were all art school graduates – talented and eccentric to a man and woman. We’d fossick (though I’d not come across that word yet) Chelsea Antiques Market; flick through the clothes at Sex or Seditionaries or World’s End (I never could keep up with what McLaren and Westwood were up to, nor did I have the hair to try; curls never cut it in those days, and were one of my many long-held sources of low self-esteem). We’d lunch on sausage and mash and cups of tea at the Chelsea Kitchen, and pick up a morning coffee at the Picasso. It’s still there, though it’s probably far less louche than I remember it.

We wept through Ian McKellen’s performance in the original London production of Bent at the Royal Court Theatre, and one night we all piled into the Curzon cinema across the road and fell in love with Sigourney Weaver in Alien, gripping each other’s arms and jumping out of our skin.

Jed at work

And then there was Jed – ghoul-thin and pale, with a thatch of shiny Hugh Grant hair, sitting on his own in the middle of the room. Contrary from the start.

We bonded in the Rootstein bathroom as we cleaned our brushes – me, a galleon in full sail in my vast, paint-crusted smock; him swamped by his, despite the multiple layers of T-shirts and jumpers he always wore underneath. He was critical, fierce, opinionated, bursting with outlandish ideas – always challenging me to overstep the mark. I still have no idea why we became such great friends – but for nearly all the time we were, we were inseparable – a daunting and inviolable unit to our other friends and family.

I was flown to Sydney in 1980 for two weeks, to repaint all the mannequins’ faces at Grace Bros (as it was still called then) in Chatswood. Me and my oil paints were stuck in a changing room behind a curtain, a queue of chipped torsos with crooked wigs lined up outside. There I’d sit and paint all day, watched and fussed over by Danny, self-anointed display queen and consummate shoplifter of high-end homewares. Danny was my first Australian friend, whose drag persona was Beautiful Jenny – a tiny, wasp-waisted chick with a collection of “fehbulous” wigs and clothes she frequently ran up herself at home in Bondi Junction, where she lived with Ronald/Fanny, another display/drag queen of some repute. Danny took me shopping at Paddington Markets and dancing at the Midnight Shift in Oxford Street, and explained what the smell of rotten eggs was on the dance floor.

A return was on the cards, really.

First summer at Palm Beach

So that’s what we did, Jed and I. Packed our paints, our brushes, our portfolio of mannequin photos and our hair products, and arrived in Australia for a year’s working holiday. A sudden waft of frangipani still takes me back to our first week in Sydney, in November 1982.

And my first Golden Gaytime, melting down my arm as I walked through Kings Cross.

We painted our way round Australia – from Sydney to Darwin to Perth via Broome. In 1983, all there was on Cable Beach were a handful of camels and a campsite at one end. You could sunbake naked next to a bleached-out piece of driftwood and watch stingrays hovering motionless in the shallows of the Indian Ocean. We’d hitch rides on people’s bicycles to get into town for a beer at the Roebuck Hotel and stare at the glass-bottle mountain by the side of the road.

I’ve never had any desire to go back there – I know I’d hate it now.

Mannequins in the Perth ‘studio’

When we finally both got our permanent Australian residencies, we settled for a while in Perth, where we set up our own mannequin restoration company in a dusty, fetid, pigeon-infested warehouse out the back of what was then Jack Sue’s diving shop in Murray Street. While he was at work as a journo at The Australian, I’d drive our friend and housemate Andrew’s maroon Morris 1100 Van den Plas, packed to the gills with legless dummies, between godforsaken scrubby suburbs on the edge of the desert and our plastic-shrouded spray booth. “We could have been in Rio,” snarled Jed, one day, as we stood outside a shopping centre in the desiccating Perth sunshine.

Jed died 20 years ago, in a hospital bed back in London, a victim of his astonishing, old-soul beauty, insatiable curiosity and his doctors’ then ill-conceived (albeit well-meaning) misuse of drugs such as AZT.

One of the thousands of attitudes and idiosyncrasies he still haunts me with is his standard dismissal of a poor choice of attire: “Proportions, dahling, proportions.”

And just as I’ll never be able to wear navy and black together without summoning (and ignoring) that brief flicker of disapproval in my mother’s eyes, so, too, I’ll always consider (and follow) Jed’s unassailable rule of thumb when I’m dressing: do you really want to look as though you work in the glove department at David Jones?