Brain Food: My Top Five Podcasts

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I love podcasts. Unlike Netflix or YouTube, they’re completely digestible forms of learning and entertainment while you’re doing other things; and keeping your brain well-oiled makes for a more satisfying life.

The medium has experienced huge growth over the last few years, transitioning from a fairly niche practice among subject-specific enthusiasts to something mainstream journalists, magazines and bloggers are all engaging with. Brands have seized on this momentum too: think ASOS’ My Big Idea, which interviews female entrepreneurs and asks them all the great, nosey questions about how they go about their day.

If your job, like mine, involves working on detailed, fairly solitary projects for hours at a time, podcasts are perfect brain food. And even more so when you’re working remotely as a freelance and need to hear human voices (however distant) every now and then.

Here are some of my favourites:

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Desert Island Discs (BBC Radio 4)

Radio 4 was the soundtrack of my A-Levels. The measured, mostly RP tones of Women’s Hour and radio dramas kept me awake as I did my art homework, right up until the Shipping Forecast closed out my evening (alright, I was deep into World Service territory by the time I’d finished).

Desert Island Discs could be seen as the granddaddy of podcasts: since 1942, personalities from all over public life have chosen eight records that they’d take to a theoretical desert island, revealing some of their meaningful life experiences along the way.

The picks can be surprising. I was tickled to see ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’ among current PM Theresa May’s otherwise classical selections.

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Invisibilia (NPR)

NPR is the US equivalent of Radio 4 and offers a whole slew of intellectually engaging shows in its Podcast Directory.

I was introduced to Invisibilia via Luke Leighfield’s awesome ‘Ten Things’ newsletter, which linked to an episode on the relationship between our emotions and what we wear. Invisibilia explores human behaviour in a narrative storytelling format, melding research, psychology and personal experience within one totally absorbing hour.

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You Must Remember This

Like Blindgossip.com? You’ll be thrilled/horrified to discover all the celebrity dirt that existed before the internet aired everyone’s dirty laundry in real-time.

You Must Remember This is about Old Hollywood, that glamorous monochromatic era of cocktails before dinner, Edith Head gowns and ambitious film sets. The podcast bills itself as exploring “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century“, mining myth and factual reports to uncover the stories behind the filmmakers and performers of the time.

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Digital Human (BBC Radio 4)

As a digital media professional, its easy to get wrapped up in the minutiae of the industry – the specifics of Facebook’s algorithm, the penetration of smartphone usage in world markets – without thinking about the human motivations behind our interactions with technology.

Digital Human is another narrative-style podcast, voiced by US-born, but UK-based, internet academic/geek Aleks Krotoski. Listening to her is oddly soothing. I love the show’s approach to content, cutting to the core of each digital topic with episode titles like ‘Maps’ and ‘Isolation’.

One of my favourites is ‘Nostalgia‘, which explores the paradox of using modern technology to engage with the past. In other words, weirdos like me who use their smartphone to check out 50 year old dresses on Etsy and listen to podcasts about 1930s Hollywood.

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The Bowery Boys

Cities are rich storytelling territory and NYC history podcast The Bowery Boys knows all the best ones. I devoured this podcast’s archives to prep for a week in the city during 2015, learning about its birth as New Amsterdam in the 1600s up until more recent events like the Stonewall Riots.

If all these don’t quite quench your appetite, the Guardian has an excellent podcast roundup.

And drop me a line in the comments with your favourites – I’m always on the hunt for new stuff to listen to.

 

An Etsy Experiment

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The wardrobe of a vintage fashion enthusiast can be a little overwhelming. Tightly packed with dresses, skirts, blouses, hatboxes and garment bags, its a minimalist’s nightmare. And that’s before you take into account sharing it with a partner, and the lilliputian amount of storage space offered by most urban living spaces.

It’s a dilemma I can certainly empathise with. As a frequent online shopper, with many of those purchases shipping from overseas, I also have a dedicated ‘Stuff I Bought While Being Overly Optimistic About My Measurements’ section of my wardrobe, a dark and dusty corner where many a nice frock languishes that is an inch too small. Even so, its pretty obvious we all have too much stuff: research by design firm California Closets in 2013 revealed that people wear just 20% of items in their wardrobe, making a spring clean a solid option for vintage and non-vintage fans alike.

What to do? Stick those unworn items on eBay? Take a quick snap for Depop? Some items are just too nice to be bought as a throwaway eBay purchase, and that’s what led me to open my little Etsy shop.

I initially reserved my shop name in late 2014 when the idea to sell vintage on Etsy first germinated, but didn’t make much progress until buying a dressmaker’s dummy to model clothes on sometime last year. A pretty important purchase when you can’t fit into your prospective stock, don’t have a willing friend/victim to model stuff on, or simply don’t want to fill the internet with photos of your bad poses. Luckily, Etsy allows sellers to use mannequins; other retailers like ASOS Marketplace require shops to showcase their products on flesh & blood models.

So this year, I’ve become more committed, overhauled my photos, written my shop story and started thinking about social presences. Its still early days, but a couple of insights stand out.

1. Product photos can make or break your shop

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It sounds obvious, but appealing product photos are vital: according to BigCommerce, 67% of consumers consider image quality “very important” when making a purchase online. Potential customers browsing through hundreds of listings need to see a primary image that stands out, communicating all the item’s plus points (i.e. showcasing it in its entirety, not an artsy photo of a collar), is well lit and has good colour saturation without misrepresenting the product.

Ensuring photo quality is as high as possible will also save time when using social media to reach consumers beyond Etsy. Lighter, deeply saturated images attract more repins on Pinterest, for example.

2. 1940s vintage rules, at least on Etsy

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Checking out my own shop stats, 1940s vintage items are overwhelmingly popular. Keywords like “1940s dress” and “1940s evening dress” are driving views, though this is obviously dependent on the items for sale.

Taking a more holistic view of the web, 1940s vintage styles are the second most popular category by search term, attracting an average 9,000 searches per month. Incredibly, this is still 80% less than searches for 1950s vintage clothing! So stock up on 50s styles if you’re a vintage buyer.

3. Fridays are the most popular time for consumers to browse (slackers).  

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Ever wondered what your work colleagues are doing after beer o’clock on a Friday? Apparently Fridays are the most popular day for visitors to my shop, making it a good time to promote listings. Conversely, business and pleasure, respectively, seem to be keeping people away during the first half of the working week and on Saturdays.

4. If you want to drive traffic to your shop through social media, don’t use Instagram

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Instagram is one of the most popular outlets for vintage-related imagery, and I’ve seen many style bloggers move away from websites to focus on the platform. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be particularly effective so far as a referral medium: I’ve identified just one click-through to the shop from Instagram since setting up a presence a few weeks ago (despite using lots of calls to action in copy – marketing people: you know what I mean).

At this early stage, I’m just being impatient. However, taking a cue from Mary Meeker’s 2016 Internet Trends report, I’m planning on building a more Pinterest focused strategy: 55% of US Pinterest users specifically visit the site to find and shop for products.

Wish me luck. And follow my Pinterest board. Please?

Modern Equivalents

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Lately, I’ve been guilty of it: listening to the same 20 or 30 songs on repeat. Skipping some half way through when the hook becomes redundant or my favourite verse passes, or when I’m afflicted by that lack of focus that’s supposed to characterise Millennials (perhaps there’s some truth to that?).

Each month, £9.99 of my hard-earned cash is debited out of my bank account for my Spotify Premium subscription, giving me access to over 30 million songs. I must listen to about 0.0000000001% of these. When I’m feeling more adventurous I check out the Discovery page, but after a few songs the comforting familiarity of the Rolling Stones, Bowie or Cab Calloway creeps suggestively into my mind.

But it shouldn’t be this way, right? There are fresh and interesting artists out there, sweating their guts out for our attention. There are many, too, who draw on some of those old favourites for inspiration and deserve a listen.

Here’s a couple worth listening to:

Back in the day: Ella Fitzgerald
Today: Hailey Tuck

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Ella Fitzgerald is a staple of the 20th century song box. Newcomer Hailey Tuck is a full 74 years younger, but similarly nails the ballsy, piano jazz ballad. Originally from Texas, but now Paris-based, you can sometimes catch her performing in London at venues like the Crazy Coqs.

Back in the day: Pink Floyd
Today: Eternal Tapestry

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Pink Floyd’s appeal spans many demographics: Dark Side of the Moon, boasting some of the world’s most famous cover art, is beloved by students, while The Wall is your dad’s favourite rock opera.

Beyond that, Pink Floyd are known for their protracted multi-instrumental music, not unlike Portland band Eternal Tapestry. If you like disappearing into an eight minute sonic wilderness, give their most recent album Wild Strawberries a go.

Back in the day: 13th Floor Elevators
Today: Night Beats

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There’s nothing more evocative than psychedelic rock for capturing the spirit of the 1960s, and The 13th Floor Elevators’ ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ is one of the classics of that age and genre. Perhaps there’s something in the water in Texas (where the Elevators hail from), because our 21st century equivalent, Austin band Night Beats, have a similar bluesy psych rock thing going on.

Their latest album Who Sold My Generation – a 1960s referencing title if ever I heard one – is great for adrenaline-charged songs like ‘No Cops’, about police brutality, and ‘Egypt Berry’.

Back in the day: The Ronettes
Today: Cat’s Eyes

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I first stumbled across Cat’s Eyes in 2011 after hearing the title track to their eponymous debut album. Having appreciated The Horrors, Faris Badwan’s main band, I was intrigued by this more leftfield collaboration with classical singer Rachel Zeffira. Cat’s Eyes is a lot more chilled out than The Horrors: all orchestral finishes and ethereal vocals, bolstering classic melodramatic girl group lyrics.

It’s this and Zeffira’s soft, almost saccharine vocals that create parallels with 60s girl groups including The Ronettes, as well as ‘call and response’ passages in songs like ‘Face in the Crowd’.

Back in the day: Alice Coltrane
Today: Hiatus Kaiyote

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The weirdest of the bunch. Alice Coltrane was an avant-garde jazz pianist who hit her zenith in the 1960s and 70s with eastern influenced albums like Journey in Satchidananda. While nobody today quite captures Coltrane’s eclectic sound, Hiatus Kaiyote make a good effort in producing blissed out genre-busting music.

Is it R&B? Soul? Dance? Listen to ‘Swamp Thing’ and let me know. However, Nerdist‘s description that they sound like “a double rainbow all the way” is pretty accurate.

How to Score Good Vintage on Etsy

 

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Once you’ve dipped your toe into the money-sucking quicksand that is Etsy, there’s no escaping. It is, without doubt, the best place online to source vintage clothing or offbeat handmade items.

When buying vintage clothing, a few sites come to mind: there’s eBay, whose heyday for quality items was probably ten years ago – more often now flooded with spammy listings and so called “vintage” items that actually turn out to be H&M from three seasons ago – and ASOS Marketplace, which tends to be dominated by 80s & 90s threads. On Etsy, product quality is generally high and the pool of clothing is wide. 20s, mid-century, mod, it’s all there.

I’ve a bit of an Etsy veteran, having bought a lot and sold a little on the site over the years. Here are my tips for finding the best stuff.

1. Know your measurements by heart.

tts007_tape_measure_Like all online shops, there’s a big risk of impulsively buying something that looks great on the model, but isn’t necessarily right for your body.

Before clicking that ‘Add to cart’ button, check the item’s measurements. These should include bust, waist, hip and length specifications, and can be listed as either halved (measured by laying the item flat) or doubled. Multiply any halved measurements by 2 to get the full sizing.

Check these against your own measurements (here is a good guide on how to measure yourself correctly) and add an inch or two for a comfortable fit. You can be more generous with coats as you’ll likely be wearing chunky layers underneath.

Bear in mind different silhouettes: for 50s dresses, accurate waist measurements will be particularly important, while the right hip measurements – often forgotten when looking at dresses – are vital for 60s shifts. Stick with the kind of shapes you know suit you, as returns are rarely accepted by Etsy sellers.

2. Bookmark interesting shops, but don’t discount less popular sellers or dodgy photography.

There are many incredibly professional shops on Etsy that rival even WilliamVintage for quality. Equally, there are some that haven’t really nailed how to take attractive, well lit photos of their stock.

I’ve found great pieces from shops that displayed their stock on coat hangers, hung on the back of bathroom doors. Well-respected brands as well, which brings me to…

3. Read up on labels

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Vintage shopping rewards those who do their research. It helps to have a good grasp of the silhouettes, fabrics and colours associated with different eras, which will prevent you ordering a mis-labelled 80s dress advertised as 40s, and allow you to hone in on styles you really like (e.g. “30s crepe evening dress” if you’re looking for something long and flowy).

Every so often, you’ll come across an item with a visible brand label that hasn’t been factored into the listing description or tags. I’ve discovered pieces by Emma Domb and Pauline Trigere – both very collectable labels – this way.

4. Follow your favourite shops on social media, particularly Instagram.

Many shops promote their stock on social media, often providing glimpses of upcoming pieces and sales before they hit Etsy. Instagram is particularly good as some shops run Instagram-only sales, offering steep discounts on small batches of clothing.

5. Take into account import fees and taxes before you buy.

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A warning to UK buyers: you’ll be charged customs fees on any items you buy from Etsy shops located abroad. These amount to an additional 20% of your order’s value if it costs more than £15 (so basically everything really), and then the post office will whack a nice £8 handling fee on top.

Sometimes shops will be generous with their value declarations, but don’t count on it. Make sure you factor in the cost of fees if you’re buying something expensive.

6. I’m sold. Where do I go for vintage eveningwear/30s earrings/70s maxi dresses?

Did I mention my Etsy shop? Here are some of my favourite sellers, but I’m just skimming the surface.

Antique, 1920s & 30s:

Petrune / Unforgettable Vintage / FabGabs / Antique Historika / Guermantes Vintage

Mid-century clothing:

Dear Golden / When Decades Collide / Simplicity is Bliss / Dethrose Vintage / SwaneeGRACE / SmallEarthVintage / Dalena Vintage

Party dresses:

KittyGirlVintage / Butch Wax Vintage

1960s mod & 70s clothing:

Neon Threads / Fivestonevintage / ModVibeVintage / Things of Splendor / ShopExile

UK sellers:

Atypical Girl / Miniola Vintage / Veramode / HepCatVintageUK / Sartorial Matters

Accessories:

Foulard Fantastique (scarves) / YesterdayTime (watches) / JemimaJay & Leola Revives (beautiful antique jewellery)

Happy shopping!

Five Great Fashion Documentaries

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Is there anything more intellectually energising than a good documentary? Its the same feeling as when you visit the bookstore and emerge, jubilant, having engaged in a rare guilt-free capitalist act. Exchanging cash for knowledge.

Of course, documentaries of the History Channel variety can be an acquired taste; we don’t always want to come home from 9 hours in the office to learn about World War II for 90 minutes. That’s where fashion documentaries come in: they’re inspiring, indulgent, and promise lots of visual porn.

One of my favourite things about this genre is seeing proper old-fashioned craftsmanship in action. Its reassuring to see that intricate, analogue skill still exists through couturiers and in the production departments of fashion houses, in our fast-moving world.

There’s been some incredible fashion documentaries over the last few years. Here’s a couple of my favourites.

Bill Cunningham New York (2010)

“The best fashion show is on the street. Always has been, always will”

Bill Cunningham might just be the original street fashion photographer. This disarmingly humble 87-year-old wanders the streets capturing bright and interesting ensembles worn by regular people for the New York Times.

The 2010 documentary on Cunningham follows his daily life, from his tiny ‘apartment’ (read: box room) in Carnegie Hall, crammed with filing cabinets of his work, to the office where he oversees photo layouts with an eagle eye, via his bike rides around New York City searching for inspiration. Cunningham is a refreshing change from many of the more ostentatious fashionistas you see in these kind of docs. Watch it.

Advanced Style (2014)

Ari Cohen’s Advanced Style blog was revelatory when it first landed, proving that fashion wasn’t just for the under 40s. The documentary based on the blog in 2014 further opened a window into the lives of glam seniors in NYC. I was actually lucky enough to attend a screening with a live Q&A session ahead of its premiere, attended by some of the stars of the documentary, who were just as colourful and inspiring in real life as behind the camera.

In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye (2012)

Released to coincide with the magazine’s 120th anniversary, In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye celebrates the vision of Vogue’s fashion editors across the decades, beginning with Babs Simpson in the 1940s up to Camilla Nickerson, Phyllis Posnick & Tonne Goodman today.

Aside from the individual backgrounds of each editor – how they got into the biz etc – this doc is rich with anecdote, giving viewers glimpses of fashion history in the making. Not to mention a second opportunity (after 2009’s The September Issue) for viewers to fall in love with Grace Coddington, American Vogue’s Creative Director. 

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel (2011)

If you know anything about fashion history, you’ll know about Diana Vreeland. She’s probably Vogue’s most celebrated editor to date, ushering in an era of huge creativity and originality between 1963 – 1971.
Vreeland is one of those fabulous characters – storied, cosmopolitan, full of imperious & witty turns of phrase – that you don’t often see in real life. Granted, she’d probably be hard work too. 

Dior and I (2014)

Back to the present day, Dior and I is a fascinating look behind the scenes at a fashion company. Of the list, this doc is best for showcasing the incredible work of the craftspeople who actually create the clothing, as well as following Raf Simons’ initiation into the grand old house of Dior.