Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Who's Afraid of Summer Clothes?

I have had one of those strange strings of days when nothing and everything happens. I have taken part in a local craft fair, caught up with the current season of Lost, dealt with some serious plumbing issues at our house, gone shopping and bought things, suffered from headaches, heard from a long-lost friend, and written reading lists for myself, thanks to all the wonderful suggestions you guys have sent my way regarding my research on mental institutions. Thank you, and keep them coming!

The weather has been horrible for the past few days, and to my amazement, the temperature is supposed to go up this coming weekend, from the current 4 degrees celcius (40 F) to 24 celcius (76 F). This means I am already a) getting way too excited about having warm weather, and b) starting to stress out about the revealing nature of summer clothes and the difficulty of layering in warm weather.

Every summer I go through the same silly routine of worrying about my bony limbs and pale skin, and every summer I eventually end up dealing with my imperfections just like everyone else. Come the weekend, I'll be changing in and out of random ensembles for an hour, only to come up with an outfit I am unhappy with, walking my arms glued onto my sides so that no one can see how bony my elbows are. (If I could, I would insert a little unsettled emoticon rolling its eyes, right about here.)

There are times when I wonder whether there is something profoundly insecure about the female existence to begin with, something more than the pressure from the outside. Could it be in our genetic make-up to have to struggle with our body image so much? At the end of the day, we do know better. We know that our bodies are there to stay for as long as we live, and we know that the stuff that really counts in life is not tied into these fragile castles of sand our souls live in. Yet we spend so much time worrying about how others see us, and the only things that often stare back at us in the mirror are our imperfections. Why, I really don't know. I refuse to accept that my mind is brain-washed by our societal norms, even though it probably is. It is frustrating and silly, it insults my intelligence and my inner strength, and I wish I could somehow escape the whole ordeal, to be above it. Anyway, one of my warm-weather-contenders is this dress, which I bought at Target's Liberty of London collection (and yes, I felt too insecure to wear it for the photo - how sad is that!):

I also bought these Liberty-print-beauties:

and some costume jewellery at the local craft fair this past weekend:

And there we have it. For today at least, I can still dive into a huge wool sweater. Summer body image issues - here we come. Watch this space.

Norwegian wool sweater: second hand / UFF

Blue silk top worn as skirt: Zara

Tights: Noa Noa
Shoes: Kurt Geiger
Scarf: Chris's

Friday, 26 March 2010

Age Appropriate

As this skirt (which is actually a dress) caught my eye at Salvation Army yesterday, my first thought was "wow, I am in love with the pattern". Second thought was "but is it too childish?" My own thoughts really caught me off guard, because I never waste my time thinking whether my clothes might not be age-appropriate. There was something about this particular shade of red and the tie-dye stars that shook up my style instinct. I had seen this before, in my own closet, or on my class mates fifteen years ago.

Last week in New York City my friend Heidi and myself paid attention to a particularly huge amount of clothes we saw in stores that appeared childish to us. This was coming from two women interested in what works for our style-eye and our bodies, not our age per se. I figured that our concerns about child-like clothes came from the current fashion, and that the clothes out there now remind me of the time when I was 13. I have reached that age when my previous fashion statements have come full circle and back from the attic to the store.

I am not a huge fan of the "if you've seen and worn it once, don't do it again" rule. There are certain things about the early 1990s that can be worked into a modern wardrobe, like Doc Martens. But the types of tiny pastel floral prints that Kelly wore in Beverly Hills 90210 will never again enter my wardrobe. They make me cringe and think that I would look like a desperate 30-something trying to look like a 13-year-old, even if I didn't. My instinct just says no.

As for the red star-print skirt, yes, it could look as if I raided my own pre-teenage wardrobe. But since my favourite style rule of all time is HAVE FUN WITH CLOTHES!, I decided to go with my first thought, the one I had at Salvation Army: I am in love with that pattern, and yes, I will wear it, childish or not.

Stripy sweater: second hand / Salvation Army
Cardigan: Urban Outfitters
Star-print skirt: second hand / Salvation Army
Tights: H&M
Shoes: Diesel
Earrings: second hand / Fida

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Trying to Make Sense of America's Political Landscape

Okay, so I look like a crazy nomad today. I don't care. I am comfortable and warm. What I do care about today is American politics. Once again I finished reading my morning paper with way more questions than answers regarding the way things work in this country. Perhaps it is because of the recent debate regarding Obama's health care plan, but the political landscape here has been looking a little scary to me lately. I'll go ahead and confess that I have very limited knowledge of American political history, and I don't have the tools in my disposal to write balanced analysis, nor do I really want to. What I am interested in writing about, at this moment anyway, are my personal impressions as a foreigner.

I never realised (before living here) how divided the United States really is, politically speaking. You'd think that that is what you get when you have a two-party system, but I don't recall a division this strong in the United Kingdom (although I guess the LibDems don't quite make it a two-party system anymore over there). It is not just about politics either, about how to use public funds and how to create a powerful society - the political debate here is incredibly value-based. Issues of morality come into domestic politics here every day, sometimes via religion. The language of politics is very harsh as a consequence of this. There is an awful lot of distrust, and even pure hate in the political climate, which seems to lead to a strange mix of agressive populism and we-are-above-debate type of rhetoric.

When I became aware of politics in Finland in my late teens and early twenties, my country was run by a coalition government of five parties, and those parties in question ranged from the Left Alliance to the Greens, to the Social Democrats and the right-wing National Coalition Party. Perhaps it comes with having a relatively young multi-party system that politicians don't have a choice but to discuss issues in a constructive manner, and that political alliances must cross party-borders. There are political divisions in Finland just like everywhere else, but it still seems to me that for the most part, the parties are trying to do the same thing: to create a prosperous nation where democracy and human rights are important. No citizen is to be left behind. The state is there for you, and for your own good, as a citizen, you pay taxes. Parties don't have a choice but to co-operate. Of course politics is more complicated than that. People do get left behind, and parties have their own particular interests, ideological and material, everywhere. It would be naive to think otherwise.

To me, a citizen of a country where universal health care and free education have existed longer than I have, it has seemed awfully odd to listen to American politicians debate about the "communist nature" of a public health care system. Why would anyone oppose a new public health care plan if the current disfunctioning one is more expensive per citizen than the huge, entire-nation-covering programmes in Scandinavia, which seem to work pretty well? I try to get my head around these things by reading the newspapers, but even they are leaning heavily on one side or another. Neutral information is really hard to come by, because it seems that everyone has a political and/or moral agenda. This extends to decision-making processes regarding school curriculums. It seems really scary to me that dentists and real estate agents get to decide school curriculum issues from the basis of their own political beliefs, as the recent Texas Board of Education did. Perhaps this type of stuff happens everywhere, but there is just more transparency here?

Trying to understand how any country's political system works is difficult. I spent an entire year trying to make sense of Hungary's party system while living in Budapest many years ago, and at the end of that year I just felt even more puzzled. There are cultural and historical aspects to every political system, and I am sure many Americans would be horrified to see how things work in Finland. For now, all I have to say is that the atmosphere of hatred over here scares me. Why can't people just get along?

Long dress: Urban Outfitters
Tie-dye t-shirt: second hand / Salvation Army
Cardigan: men's H&M
Green scarf: souvenir from Dusseldorf fashion fair in, sheesh, 1999?
Gold scarf: ?
Boots: second hand / Salvation Army

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Thai Dye, Spring Fever

Today is one of those days when everything seems rather topsy-turvy. The weather looks great, but it is really, really cold out. The cats are having some sort of a nervous breakdown today. Audrey has been crying and yelping non-stop for the past two hours for no apparent reason, chasing and tormenting the other kitties. Illusia keeps asking for food even though it is not food time for another four hours, and she has plenty of dry food in her bowl anyway. Cassiopeia's outdoor adventures included her chasing squirrels this morning (I didn't even know she could run) and her insisting to rub her face on my shoes as I was trying to get pictures taken. She is not the most affectionate kitty, so I don't know what has got into her.

I am also having one of those days when nothing I wear feels right. I keep wearing this same cardigan all the time, and know that this outfit would have looked so much better with heels as opposed to flats. I just couldn't find a pair that would have worked. I think about the clothes and the shoes I have back in Finland, and how there are so many things in my storage unit in Helsinki I'd want to wear now, but can't.

Who knows, perhaps it is the arrival of spring that is making both kitties and myself feel on edge - I always feel a desperate need to renew myself, my wardrobe and style at spring time. I am also still upset about not being able to travel to Finland, and it is not just because of the clothes I have left behind. For those of you who asked, it is because of my status as a visa holder waiting for a green card that makes traveling without a specific permission impossible. I was hoping to go at the end of this month, but I haven't received a travel permit. As far as I know, I have filed my applications correctly, but it seems that my case has been filed in the "there-is-no-hurry-because-there-has-been-no-death-in-the-family"-pile. I am angry at myself for not doing the paperwork earlier (I could have), and for not having stated my case for wanting to travel in a more adamant manner.

What I really need to do is go thrifting to cheer me up.

Tie-dye t-shirt: second hand / Salvation Army
Cardigan: second hand / Salvation Army
Thai silk skirt: second hand / Fida
Tights: H&M
Shoes: Office
Cat: Cassiopeia, feeling the spring fever

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

One day New York Shopping Experience

As I was just downloading today's outfit pictures onto the computer, I had one of those "what on earth are you wearing?" moments - you know, when you end up looking totally different in the picture as opposed to what you thought you saw in the mirror? Oh well! Moving on, to the title of this post! I spent last Thursday in New York City, and wow, let me tell you: one hectic day in a big city takes a toll on you, not to mention when you spend the entire day browsing through the countless shopping options.

My friend Heidi, her boyfriend Tommi and myself didn't have a specific plan; all we knew was that we wanted to spend time together and go shopping. I had visited NYC twice before, but the first time was close to seven years ago and the second when I first met Chris in person. Neither of those trips was really about shopping at all. Really, I don't know NYC, not for one bit. We decided to stop by at Century 21, the huge designer outlet store, and afterwards we just played it by ear, and ended up in Soho. In other words, we didn't even try to look for secluded boutiques or vintage stores - we only had about 8 hours to kill, and our budgets were limited anyway.

I had been to Century 21 before, but I did not remember how crazy the place was, or perhaps there weren't too many people there the previous time. Dozens and dozens of people were running around like headless chickens, browsing aggressively through stuff, pushing and shouting out random designer names to each other in the hopes of scoring something special. It really was a scary experience. I felt like the place was so chaotic that I couldn't even stop to really look at anything. I tried on a beautiful pair of Dries Van Noten shoes, but the store was way too busy for me to even sit down and think if I really wanted them. There was also a gorgeous Kate Spade straw handbag, which I also left behind, just because I couldn't deal with the buzz around me. I left the store empty-handed, while Heidi bought a black parka and some kids' clothes for her niece.

Needless to say, Soho was busy too. I have worked in clothing retail before, and I have no idea how people do it in NYC. There are just so many people. I am sure there is a huge amount of wonderful little stores tucked away in small streets, but with our limited time and knowledge, we stuck to the main streets and browsed through your usual Urban Outfitters, Uniqlos, Topshops, Aldos, Victoria's Secrets and the likes. There were so many clothes in every store that I felt dizzy. There were pretty clothes and nice clothes, awful ones and not-so-awful ones. I just didn't find anything worth while. If I found something nice, I couldn't help but think that I could find something way more unique on Etsy or Salvation Army for 1/10 of the price. I realised that I have truly become a thrifter. Ready-made clothes just don't appeal to me the way they used to, and everything seemed awfully expensive. The only pieces worth considering were all shoes, and I came home with three pairs, all flats (!):

I had been looking for black-and-white shoes for a while, so I decided to go for these ones at Steve Madden. The beige straw brogues are also from Steve Madden, although I accidentally named them to be from Office in my previous post.

Now these velvet ballet flats are from Office.

And that's it, folks. Of course, the best thing about the day-trip was seeing Heidi. She is one of my best friends and I love her dearly. Since Homeland Security is not letting me leave the country, being able to hang out with her was everything I could have hoped for. Next time I go shopping in NYC I intend to do some research before, and not even bother with the usual high-street stuff, unless there is something particular I want to find there.

Blue print top: Sears
Cardigan: second hand / Salvation Army
Shorts: Object / Only
Tights: Sears
Shoes: Converse

Sunday, 21 March 2010

In the Neighbourhood

After being told by the US Homeland Security that I was not allowed to leave the country to visit my family and friends in Finland, Chris and me took a little trip to the countryside yesterday. We visited a small local maple farm.

I have always had a soft spot for goats, and was thrilled to see some, as well as a two-week-old calf called Cow.

We also visited an old cemetery in Sanitaria Springs, which was once a thriving location for a sanitarium, whose sulpho-phosphate springs and homeopathic treatments were immensely popular in the late 19th century. I guess the sanitarium no longer exists - I wasn't able to find any information online as to what happened to it. The town itself is tiny and run-down.

Dress: Tuuli's old
Cardigan: Noa Noa
Tights: H&M
Shoes: Office
Earrings: JBL

Saturday, 20 March 2010

It's all mental

A couple of years ago I came across a book called Levoton Nainen (The Restless Woman) by the Finnish historian Anna Kortelainen. In this fascinating account on the bizarre late 19th century mental condition called hysteria, Kortelainen traced back the millenia-old prejudice against women and the medicalization of their societal frustrations and their hopes of being treated equally. The book got me hooked immediately, not because it was perfectly written (it isn't), but because the narratives of the countless women and the degrading treatments they endured (including forced sexual stimulation by a doctor) told a story of something big and dark that resided in the heart of the humankind. For centuries, especially Western societies have constructed frameworks of power over people who for one reason or another were considered unfit to suit either the moral standards or concept of normality in any given period. Last year I saw Klaus Härö's film Den nya människan (The New Man). It is about the horrendous treatment of the mentally ill in the 1950s Sweden, where "bad stock" was subjected to institutionalization and sterilization programmes. The film shocked me profoundly, and it made me ask questions: how did this happen? Who did these people think they were - God? Why was confinement the answer? Did they believe they were doing the right thing? And most importantly, how did we get there?

When I moved to the US last August, one image that haunted me almost daily (and still does) was the huge, neo-gothic abandoned state asylum and its grounds that overlook our entire town. Being here and seeing the asylum every day forced me to start looking for answers to my numerous, growing questions. The asylum is located on top of a big hill, and its presence reminds me every day of the peculiar theories and practices that have mapped out the philosophical framework of "insanity", and the complicated ways madness has been dealt with in different times and societies.

Currently I am working on quite a few research topics, and I'll just say it for the record: my research is personal in nature, heavily narrative-based and cross-disciplinary - I am not all that into "proper" supervised academic research, and never have been. First and foremost, I am looking into the cultural concept of madness and its aggressive construction from the 17th century onwards, and second, the institutionalization of insanity in the form of "mad houses" and mental asylums - especially our local one, and other state asylums in New York (there were many). With these topics comes a lot of baggage: one cannot avoid reading horrific accounts of bizarre theories on insanity, countless inhumane treatments, and destinies of the individuals who were locked up, by their families (mostly husbands), for the sake of conformity, over the years when mental asylums were at the peak of their popularity. What will come out of my research, I don't know, it is too early to say. At this point I still have more questions than answers.

The biggest problem I have faced doing this research has been the unavailability of balanced histories. Old patient records and annual documents prepared by the asylums in question are, of course, off limits due to privacy acts. Most works on the history of psychiatry are written by proponents of the anti-psychiatry movement, and for the most part, these works are biased and very aggressive in tone. The occasional attempts by the people in the field tend to reject the dark history of the discipline as meaningless, albeit unfortunate. They treat history as if it was just a big mistake. I am certainly no expert, but for now, the field reminds me of that of international relations, which I know rather well. Uncomfortable realities and questions of morality tend to be rejected or tucked in nicely in separate disciplines. Mental asylums in psychiatry are like colonialism to international relations - dark, embarrassing baggage that fits the discipline's basic framework, but can never be fully discussed. When theory, practice, history and morality collide, it is never pretty, but if the collision is avoided for the sake of convenience and in the name of science, it produces a field of discipline that is essentially rootless, and it has no foundation in the human existence. It tells us nothing of who we are. To me, self-protecting disciplines like that are awfully frustrating.

Visiting the remains of our local asylum grounds, the voices of the thousands and thousands of locked up men and women become alive somehow, but a question begs to be asked: what happened here? The unmarked graves in the cemetery, the abandoned dormitories, halls and barns tell a dark, silent tale of a factory-like existence of this place. It also whispers something almost inaudible about the story of humanity. Here a woman was locked up for decades because she wore men's clothing and lived with another woman. Here patients became forced labour that kept the institutions going. Here a former nun was torn away from her religion, her devotion mocked, and after her death, her body dissected in the name of science instead of a proper burial. Here lobotomies and electro-convulsive shock treatments were performed, without anyone's consent. The remains of old asylums give not a distinct name, but a blurry signature to what we have once considered, or perhaps still consider, insane. Parts of our local asylum are going to be demolished in the near future, and with the buildings gone, a big chunk of uncomfortable history will no longer be told. They are going to start building a nursing home here. Once upon a time we locked up our mad, now a similar fate awaits our old.

I do research on this field, and on our local asylum, because with the supposed victory of psychiatric drugs and de-institutionalization, the voices of those who were once locked up seem to have become useless to the discipline of psychiatry. They should be meaningful to us human beings, though. In the back yard of our civilized cultures, these institutions once tucked away and weaved out the unfit, the mad and the dangerous. Those people tell us an awful lot about the society we live in today, and the way we have become what we are. Books and movies like "One flew over the cuckoo's nest" and "Girl, Interrupted" are important because they remind us what once was, but it takes a little more to fully realize how many, to what extent and with what cost, people have fallen, and still fall, under the catch-all phrase of "insanity", and what the machinery behind all that was, and is.