Thursday, 30 June 2011

Sun, shadows, cats

Masa and Illusia show how it's done.

Believe it or not, Masa is actually sleeping in the picture above. When I adopted him three years ago, he was wild, scared and angry. He has finally learnt to relax and to even accept affection.

On style blog inspiration and consumerism

I have been meaning to write a post about my Finland thrift finds, but this post by RK (listed in Sal's Lovely Links last week) really got me thinking about the problem of style blogging vis-a-vis consumerism. I, like many others, feel like style blogging encourages other people to buy more clothes, be it second hand or new. I, for one, often get the urge to go second hand shopping after I've seen a favourite blogger post about her new thrifted treasures.

I have started to feel increasingly uncomfortable listing where my clothes are from. I don't want to be a walking advertisement for any brand or clothing store. But even if I skip all outfit details, aren't I still potentially inspiring people to go out and spend money on clothes, just because that is sort of the crux of so many style blogs? After all, style inspiration often leads to spending money. I've actually noticed that I very rarely read other bloggers' outfit information listings, but if I see something I really like, I'll just go on Etsy or eBay to see if I can find something similar. (Shey's gorgeous harness boots are the latest item that I've been searching for online.) I try to keep a balance between blog-induced inspiration and to-be-consumerism, but sometimes it is hard to draw the line between the two. I wonder if style blogging exists at all outside the framework of consumerism.

Everything I am wearing is second hand.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Paging all jewelry lovers!

My friend Lynn is now selling stunning vintage jewelry and handcrafted pieces at her newly-opened Etsy shop. High-quality beading supplies are also for sale.

Pictures from JBLChicBoutique at

Friday, 24 June 2011

How much is second hand worth?

Out of all the things I thrifted in Finland, this skirt was by far the most expensive. It cost 18 euros in UFF, a chain of second hand stores linked to helping developing countries. UFF's prices have been going up steadily within the past couple of years, but 18 euros (even on their scale) was a little crazy. The reason for the high price: a tag on the skirt that says Lanvin. I thought about the price and how much I liked the skirt, and found myself annoyed at the fact that I had to pay for vintage Lanvin even though all I wanted was the skirt. I grudgingly paid the 18 euros. I figured that I couldn't get a skirt I like as much at the high street for that price.

I have no idea what the prices of second hand clothes are based on. A lot of times people assume that clothes with a nice label should automatically be more expensive. At flea markets in Finland it is common for sellers to hike up their prices if they have brand clothes, no matter how old, ugly or in poor condition they might be. Is anyone going to pay 15 euros for a moth eaten, stained Diesel cardigan? I sure hope not. I do think it is okay to pay more for timeless quality pieces, or ones made with excellent materials, but a brand label is not a guarantee of that.

While thrifting, I often try to put myself in my old shoes - I'll think back at the time when I bought most of my clothes new. It has slowly started to occur to me that I have spent a whole lot of money on clothes in my lifetime, and putting my second hand purchases in that perspective helps me get my head around what my clothes are, or should be worth. I think of the times when 50 euros was an acceptable price to pay for a new dress, 100 for a pair of jeans, or 150 for a new coat. I try to remember the actual clothes I have in my closet, how much I paid for them, and if they've ended up being worth the money. Very few newly-bought clothes in my closet pass that test. Some of my second hand clothes don't fare well either, often because I've bought them because they were so affordable I didn't think twice about whether I was making a good purchase. Now that I feel I know more about what types of clothes I actually end up wearing, I can more comfortably focus on the price factor.

I think the most I've ever paid for a new t-shirt is 20 euros (now in hindsight 20 sounds awfully high), but considering what every time I've worn those t-shirts is worth to me now, I'm more comfortable putting my t-shirt limit at 1 euro at flea markets, and $2.99 at Salvation Army. (I accept the fact that thrift- and second hand stores sport higher prices than flea markets.) I've paid around 20 euros for many of my vintage dresses, but to be honest, I am more comfortable with the range of less than 10 to 15, if the dress in question is something spectacular. If it's any more, my thoughts on worthiness start to make me feel that I am paying for something I don't really need. Usually I refuse to pay more than 10 euros for a coat or jacket, or 5 euros for a skirt. But there are exceptions. And funnily enough, many of my second hand purchases have been exceptions. They will always end up being worn.

I am wearing a thrifted silk top and skirt, a second hand pendant and shoes from Asos.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Unexpected lengths

I am really getting into awkward skirt lengths. At first I started finding just-below-the-knees length appealing, then came mid-calf, and now the total no-no of all style gurus, just-above-the-ankle, is looking fresh to me. I bet this linen skirt is actually meant to be a maxi skirt, and when I bought it at Salvation Army this spring, I had every intention of hemming it. As I found the skirt today in my fix-up pile, I figured that I actually really like the way it looks with a bit of heel. I got the shoes at Hietsu fleamarket in Helsinki.

Come to think of it, everything I am wearing today is second hand. Yay for all-second-hand outfits! (Sorry about the wet hair, btw. I don't like blow-dryers.)

Two more things: first, really insightful and interesting comments have been coming in about cultural appropriation, so do check them out! And second, is anyone else having major trouble with Blogger not co-operating with Internet Explorer 9? I can't edit my posts at all, or even send out posts (!) with IE 9, but Firefox works fine. It seems like Blogger and IE 9 are not compatible, even though I've reset my compatibility settings.

Monday, 20 June 2011

On Cultural Appropriation

English sailor, ca. 1900, photographed by F. Urakawa, in Ethnic Photographs of the Nineteenth Century

I happened to come across the style aspect of cultural appropriation recently. Sandra, a Finnish fashion blogger living in London, wore a Native American head dress to a photo shoot and got some very aggressive feedback about it. Wanting to know more about the beef people had with her, I visited several blogs (see end of post for links) discussing the question of cultural appropriation. I got to thinking about whether I am just a burglar, breaking into the house of sacred beliefs and cultural history by occasionally wearing dream catcher earrings, a kimono jacket or a Saami witch drum pendant. It seems that according to many, I am a lowlife ignorant hipster trying to act cool at the expense of minorities. I mock people who have faced genocide, and I deeply offend the representatives of "real" traditions that go deeper than the blank canvases of white sad-excuses-for cultures. According to some, as a white privileged female, I actively participate in imperialism by wearing moccasins, prints inspired by ethnic designs, or by hanging onto my said dream catcher earrings. Thank goodness I don't have henna tattoos on my body, or I'd really be nailed to the wall.

This whole issue reminded me of a Finnish ice dancing duo, who decided to wear ice skating interpretations of native Lapp costumes in one of their performances in the mid 1990s. The majority of Finns were thrilled (how original, how pretty!), the Saami minority appalled. To this day, every time I see a "neljän tuulen hattu" ("the hat of four winds", as worn by the male ice skater Petri Kokko above) in a trendy Helsinki thrift store, I think of the ice dancers and their good intentions, and the handful of Saami minorities who got upset.

Picture taken from here

I guess it is obvious that some things should be left alone; I can feel it in my bones that the picture above is probably offensive to many Native Americans. But when it comes to wearing culturally specific jewelry or clothing as style statements (when we do so without sitting our legs crossed in front of a mock teepee), where are we supposed to draw the line? Who owns the rights to traditional prints or symbols? In our multi-layered, troubled and troubling multi-identity-filled melting pot of a world, can we even talk of cultures belonging to their representatives anymore? Isn't mixing of cultures in the heart of mankind? Haven't we always done it? Is it even possible to wear anything without making direct, sometimes uninformative references to (or stealing from) some culture or another? Are kimonos off limits? What about Ikat prints, China red, Celtic symbols, Navajo jewelry, the star of David, Peruvian blankets or Turkish evil eye pendants? What about saris, or Thai fisherman's pants? Does silk belong to the Chinese? Is "Egyptian revival" costume jewelry offensive? Which Native American tribe has the right to make or wear dream catchers (they were originally made by the Chippewa, but were later adopted by the Sioux and the Navajo)? What about sub-cultural appropriation? Should someone like Donald Trump not wear jeans or a Sex Pistols t-shirt?

"Indian chiefs who counciled with General Miles and settled the Indian War", 1891, in Michael Lesy: Bearing Witness - A Photographic Chronicle of American Life, 1860-1945

Personally, I would not wear a Native American head dress as a fashion statement, even if I felt drawn to them for whatever reason or another. I wouldn't feel comfortable wearing one because I've read about a warrior's need to earn the right to wear one; the cultural context of a head dress would weigh way too heavy on my shoulders. I've also seen too many fashion magazine editorials where a white model wears some culturally specific gear in a purely eroticized manner, or poses next to indigenous people of colour in an "exotic" location. That type of stuff just makes me feel uncomfortable. (The issue falls in line with the Westward-Ho!-cowgirl rhetoric in American Vogue earlier this year, which I posted about at the time.) When historically and culturally sensitive issues are portrayed as being cool, trendy and disposable, yes, I have a problem with that. But if this means that I can't wear my dream catcher earrings without someone labeling me as a trend-driven, mindless, exploitative imperialist just because I happen to be white, I have a problem with that, too.

Vogue Italia, photo by Steven Meisel

A blogger's guide to avoiding cultural appropriation in style issues claims that if you are drawn to culturally specific items for aesthetic reasons, you should not wear them. Just by definition, this is a little troublesome; aesthetic pleasure is inherent in the way people all over the world have always dressed. That, of course, is not to say that whatever spiritual meanings might be associated with the items in question are trumped by their physical appearance - I, for one, like the look of dream catchers, but their origin and meaning only make their beauty more interesting and inspiring. Do I have the right to wear dream catchers, then? What if I had no clue about the meaning of dream catchers? To the latter question, the blog posts I consulted say absolutely no, obviously. Wearing culturally specific, sometimes sacred items can be insulting and hurtful if the wearer is not aware of the meanings attached to the symbol by others. (Think of a crucifix worn as a fashion statement by someone who doesn't know who Jesus is, in an environment where Christians are a suppressed minority.) But when it comes to the first question, the bloggers seem to think that as long as you know the cultural and spiritual significance of the item you are wearing, you are not automatically doing something wrong, but - and this is a major curve ball- if a representative of that culture calls you out on your choice, you have no right to defend yourself. If they say you are diluting their traditions, there is nothing you can do. If they say that you are practicing imperialism, regardless of your origin, their word is what goes. I don't know about you, but I have a serious problem with someone, anyone, telling me what I can or cannot wear.

On the one hand, diluting the meaning of cultural iconography is, of course, awful from the standpoint of tradition and cultural conservation. Being a representative of a nation whose own indigenous cultural traditions were wiped out in the Northern Crusades and only live in one awkward chapter in the comprehensive school's history book, I get it. But on the other hand, cultures and cultural symbolism are living and breathing entities, and they are known to have their ebbs and flows everywhere. The fact is that cultures mix and overlap. They have always done so, often at the expense of spiritual traditions and "purity". Cultures don't exist in a vacuum, they never have. And the unfortunate fact is that some cultures die, too. The indigenous culture of the Finns is long gone, dead, buried. What remains is an awkward collection of folk stories bound in a national epic, and a handful of de-spiritualized traditions like the sauna. The Finns' ancient god of the water and fishing, Ahti, is now a brand of pickled herring on the shelves of the supermarket, dressed in Poseidon's costume. That's the way it goes. But of course, this does not mean that we should consciously try to destroy whatever symbols of threatened cultures are still out there, and the cultural appropriation bloggers feel that that is exactly what the Western world (I use the term loosely here) is doing.

When we are talking about cultural appropriation within the framework of style, clearly the role of fashion and multinational clothing retailers is huge. It is pretty obvious that companies have no interest in securing traditional understandings of potentially sacred symbols or culturally specific pieces of clothing. They, of course, are only out there to make money as quickly as possible. Fashion is notorious for this-that-and-the-other-culture-inspired fancy collections that then get reproduced cheaply by mass-market manufacturers, only to be forgotten when the next season arrives. It might have been Ikat prints last year, Navajo the next. The cultural or in some cases spiritual connections are lost. For most consumers, they are nothing but cool prints. As if that wasn't bad enough, these types of fashions are often portrayed in a horrible way. Like I wrote earlier, fashion magazines continuously set their editorial photo shoots in "exotic" locations. What we often see is a pretty white girl in a Versace jacket next to a child who doesn't have shoes. Some magazines are worse than others - sometimes reading British Vogue is like taking part in a one-on-one lesson in Orientalism.

Vogue UK, photos by Mario Testino

An often-heard argument for fashion/style-related cultural appropriation is that what looks like appropriation is actually appreciation: that whoever chooses to wear a culturally specific piece of clothing is actually doing a favour for the culture in question, out of respect, or that portrayal of indigenous cultures in desirable settings can also create awareness for cultures and their symbols, prints and pieces of clothing that might otherwise be lost eventually. The cultural appropriation bloggers would be horrified to even suggest anything of the sort, and I agree with them completely. Labeling indigenous cultures "exotic", "exciting" or "erotic" and portraying them in the light of superficial consumerism is demeaning, no matter what the intentions might be. But I do wonder whether there might be at least a handful of teenagers wondering where the design of their cool new H&M feather earrings comes from, and if so, perhaps one of that handful will go online to look for information on feather use in jewelry. Perhaps they might buy their next pair of earrings from a Native, and perhaps they might educate their friends on the importance of supporting handcrafted Native pieces rather than getting a quick fix at the high street. But I guess that's just wishful thinking.

In the end it comes down to personal decision making, and the role of the consumer. It is unlikely that any free, thinking individual is going to let a stranger (regardless of what his or her cultural heritage might be) dictate what he or she can wear - in this sense, the cultural appropriation bloggers are the ones who engage in wishful thinking. It is individuals who eventually make the final decision as to what they want to wear and what they feel comfortable with. It is us who create meanings to our style choices: we pick, choose and wear our clothes to show the world who we (think we) are. Whether it is choosing eco-friendly materials or recycled clothing, whether it is all bought at H&M on the cheap, whether we are aware of the cultural references behind our clothes or not, choosing what to wear can be a pretty tricky enterprise. A lot of people in the Western world don't care about anything but looking cool, but others feel the need to make their clothing choices emotionally meaningful: we might wear our parents' old clothes or jewelry, for example, or religious symbols, or styles typical of where we are from. Our clothing choices can also represent a spiritual quest, an attempt to show that we are looking for ourselves. I am sure that these polar opposites exist in all cultures.

But there is one more question I haven't asked: why are we "Westerners" drawn to culturally specific and indigenous fabrics, jewelry and pieces of clothing? It is just because we are greedy thieves and imperialists? Or are we looking for beauty? Is it only human to be attracted to something that is different from what we know? Or perhaps our quest for indigenous cultures and their spiritual symbols and fabrics is telling of the lack of meaning and spirituality in the lives of many Westerners today. What many cultural appropriation critics see as "one destructive, white, void Western world" carries with itself a tragic, torn history of many complex, destroyed or disappeared cultural heritages that we, as citizens of the world, sorely miss.

So, any thoughts?

My Culture is Not a Trend (blog about cultural appropriation)
Oi With the Poodles Already (posts tagged "cultural appropriation")
The most abrasive bitch of them all (post about hipsters wearing head dresses)
The Sadness of Pencils (post about cultural appropriation)

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Finland bye-bye / Back in the USA

These are, I think, the last pictures from my trip to Finland. I've been back in the US since Saturday, but as always, it has taken a while for things to get back to normal.

On my second-to-last day in Helsinki, I grabbed a portion of fried vendace at Hakaniemi market.

I also went to the beach with Minni and her kids. This is Aivi, running into the freakishly cold sea. I don't know how kids do it.

And this is what I am wearing today. I bought the top last year at a flea market, the jeans are from Gap. Chris got me the copper pendant and the bracelet from a yard sale while I was away.

The weather this spring and early summer has been very challenging on this side of the Atlantic. It has been colder and a lot rainier than usual, and my gardening project has got into a very rough start. After having come home to bolted radishes and lots of unsuccessful germination, the sight of healthy, perky peas was more than welcome.

Thank you so much, all of you, who have been leaving comments and visiting No Signposts in the Sea while I was in Finland. I haven't had the time to respond to comments or visit anyone's blog in almost a month. I promise that I will get my act together very soon!

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Hair, as of today

There are very few things that I am willing to spend money on. One is a good haircut. Sometimes a good haircut changes the way you feel about yourself, the way you see yourself. There are moments when I feel silly for spending money on something as fleeting and frivolous as hair. Every time I have a haircut I realize that it is worth every penny.

Maybe it has something to do with my hairdresser Teea, who time and time again finds new ways to transform my look.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Memories of the Sea

My sister thinks that people can be divided into two groups on the basis of what kind of body of water they identify themselves with: there are lake people and there are sea people. My mother is a lake person; she even lives right by one and calls the lake in question "the scenery of her soul". My father, my sister and I are drawn to the sea. My father has lived at sea in some form or another for as long as I can remember. Even if he hasn't exactly resided next to the sea at all times, he has traveled to it often and taken my sister and I with him.

These days my father lives on a small island off the coast of Helsinki.

As children my sister and I spent countless weeks during our summer vacations with our father on the beaches of Southern Finland. The beaches there are not your typical pretty sandy paradises - the landscape is rugged, torn, rough. I remember vividly the prickly, mussel-shelled dunes with crookedly grown pine trees and the small pine cones in the sand, scattered around like stones, as well as the smell of salt and wind in my hair at night. I remember what it felt like to walk on the barren ground barefoot, how the dry pine needles sometimes stuck to the soles of my feet with sap.

After a day spent on my father's island, I took a little trip to Hanko, the most southern town in Finland, where many of my childhood summer trips with my father took place. I can't explain why I wanted to travel there after all these years - I hadn't been back there since the days of my childhood. My husband and I have been entertaining thoughts of moving to Finland one day, and I had an odd gut feeling that I should go see what Hanko looks like these days.

The affinity I felt with Hanko today was immediate. I got out of the car, and there were the dunes, the pines, the sea; I felt a strange, almost primordial rush of memories, all in one neat package, focused in and around this small town by the sea. In an instant, just like that, I could see my husband and I living there happily ever after. Moving to Hanko wouldn't necessarily be the most rational choice: the town's economy is bad, and it is considered by most people "a nice summer town but just wait for the winter"-type of place. But there is something about it I can't quite explain, something that made my heart almost skip a beat today as I stood on the beach and gazed out at sea. It was the type of breathlessness you feel when you encounter a place (or a person, or a piece of art) so beautiful but so heart-wrenching, that you almost have to look away.

So call me crazy, but I think I might want our family to move to Hanko. I guess there have been sillier things people have dreamt about, and there are sillier things to base one's dreams on than childhood memories.

I am wearing a second hand dress and necklace, both bought at the Hakaniemi market. Second hand sunglasses and belt are from Hietsu flea market, the shoes are from an online store.

Sunday, 5 June 2011


My sister lives in the Kallio area. It is the old workers' district in Helsinki, a short tram ride away from the tourist-y centre of town, but a lifetime apart from it in spirit. I always get confused when I try to figure out what actually counts as Kallio; the area around here has many sub-districts and each one has its own characteristics. The long-term inhabitants tend to get very defensive about what area their particular street actually belongs to. As I am writing this, my sister has noted out loud to me that she lives in Alppiharju, not Kallio. Oh well. The tall building in the first picture is the Kallio church, and it is about three blocks away from where we are in my sister's apartment. I could try to differentiate between Alppila, Alppiharju, Harju, Sörnäinen, Hermanni, Vallila or what have you within ten minutes' walking distance, but I am going to use the more generic Kallio. The name means bedrock, by the way.

Kallio and its nearby area has a lot to offer: interesting architecture, bars and music, ethnic restaurants, small shops of all sorts. Kallio is notorious for its public drunkenness (the old drunks wandering the streets in daytime are sometimes called "professionals" by the locals) and sex shops, but those phenomena live side by side with old grannies, families with small children, vintage stores and organic cafes. It is an odd mix.

I feel comfortable in Kallio. The sometimes pretentious-seeming hipsters of the rich parts of Helsinki are mostly absent, except in the weekends, when they flock here to get drunk. Most of the people who live here don't seem to have the need to leave Kallio much. Compared to Kallio, the centre of Helsinki and the fancier parts of town seem impersonal somehow, even sterile, a little lifeless. Kallio has a certain roughness to it, a real character. Kallio is an old lady who tells a story. She has her ups and downs. There are days when she is horribly achy and angry, sometimes she gets wasted. Sometimes she has to line up for her dose of daily bread from a church charity. But then there are days when she looks young and beautiful, full of vigour, full of poetry and song.

I am wearing a second hand t-shirt, belt, sunglasses and earrings from the Hietsu flea market, Gap jeans and random online-purchase shoes. Oh, did I mention that the Kallio area has great second hand and charity shops..? Hakaniemi's Fida and UFF are the best charity stores in Helsinki.

Vaasankatu has a couple of good second hand stores: Keisarinviitta's selection is mostly sort of newish second hand, and Hoochie Mama Jane offers awesome real vintage. Last year the latter was chosen by a local paper as the best vintage shop in Helsinki.

Another great vintage shop, Ansa, is located on Fleminginkatu.

Alongside the charity shops and the vintage stores, Hakaniemi market, Valtteri flea market in Vallila and numerous small flea markets in Kallio make it, in my opinion, by far the best second hand hunting area in Helsinki. It has been almost a little too handy for me to be staying here with my sister for the past two weeks. I've bought enough old gems to last me for the entire summer and long into the fall.