I’m not personally a fan of nostalgic regressions into the past. Themed 1950s rockabilly bars with mandatory poodle skirts and busty cardigans? No thanks. Insisting that eating wartime rationed diets and rag rolling your hair into victory rolls is far superior to what the 21st century has to offer? Not for me.
And yet Port Eliot Festival with its bucolic ideals, lack of 3G (there’s a three metre square patch near the campsite where you might just be able to check an email or two) and its elevation of activities such as camp fire building, wild water swimming and stargazing doesn’t grate me in the same way as those aforementioned nostalgic retro-fests do. Sarah Mower, who presides over Port Eliot’s ever-growing Wardrobe Department, housing all the fashion happenings at the festival, decided to christen this year’s proceedings with a theme, that could well sum up the appeal of the festival in general. Medievalism, or specifically a Game of Thrones-inspired bout of Medievalism, was in full swing this year.
Never mind the fact that the house itself dates back to the 12th century or that you can walk into an 11th century chapel on a Sunday, but everywhere you go, you’re reminded of a pre-industrial and pre-internet way of life. Whether it’s a survival workshop manned by, Skye Gyngell of Spring advocating you to eat according to what comes out of good English soil or the numerous crafting sessions, which have grown thanks to the magazine Hole & Corner bringing indigo dying, clog making and pottery to the festival’s fray. This particular strand of neo-Medievalism never veers into costume or role-playing territory. It’s about glimpsing into the aesthetics and the practises for a few days of escapism. With the benefit of distinctly un-Medieval comforts like ace food (Angus & Mitchell’s porky offerings and The Oyster Shack‘s seafood were this year’s standouts). And when balanced with Port Eliot’s idiosyncratic line-up of progressive speakers, creatives and musicians (Ron Arad talking about his design process, electronic outfit Stealing Sheep and street poetry in the Ways of the Weird tent were my personal highlights), even with some nostalgic elements, it’s clear that free thinking reigns supreme here.
The madcap and yes, perhaps retro-tinged elements are all still there at Port Eliot. The Vintage Tea Ladies, who call you “Luv” and faux smoke their fags. The village fete-inspired Flower and Fodder show with people competing in jams, cakes and Alice in Wonderland themed flower and veg displays.
Renowned film costume designer Sandy Powell – a longtime friend and frequenter of the festival – brought her thousand layered dress and Swarovski glass slippers, created for this year’s live action film version of Cinderella, to the Port Eliot House. The dress in particular looked magnificent in the similarly blue-hued central drawing room. When she spoke to Tim Blanks, she asserted that absolutely no CGI magic was involved in the dress’ magical wafting properties, as it was just down to “good old fashioned dress making.”
A much welcome new addition to the festival was the beautiful craft magazine Hole & Corner‘s collaborative stand with Plymouth University, where daily workshops took place, led by people like bag designer Bill Amberg and paper artist Zoe Bradley. The craft portion of the festival as a result was substantially beefed up, pleasing a crowd that were eager to get their hands dirty with pottery classes and woodworking.
The Anthropologie tent is no more and in its place, Port Eliot kept it local with Cornish lifestyle brand Seasalt coming in and enticing the crowd with deckchairs, a free-to-play piano and marinière shirt customising workshops.
In the bigger and better Wardrobe Department thanks to the voluntary support of members of the British Fashion Council, Port Eliot regulars like Stephen Jones (donning his Fashion Police cap), Barbara Hulanicki and Jenny Dyson running her Pencil Atelier were all back. Other notable illustrators like New York Times contributor Damien Florebert Cuypers came in to conduct lessons. Piers Atkinson was also back to help festival goers create their own permanent headbands and hats with synthetic flowers. The emphasis this year was on teaching the process of a milliner as opposed to just handing over a ready-made headdress to someone.
The Wardrobe Department got a real space boost this year with the adjoining garden, dubbed the Theatre of Fashion. This meant more talks, more workshops and more activities that stick to Mower’s aim of simultaneously adding substance to the subject of fashion as well as making it look fun. “At heart, I think of everything we do here is to return fashion to a state where everyone can rediscover – or actually discover for the first time- the absolute delight in being creative, making things, talking, thinking and working together,” said Mower. “That sounds soppy, but I will fiercely defend it as more and more important as the fashion system has morphed into such a rigid, corporate, harsh and relentless machine which is not generally kind and inclusive – and rarely ever laughs and lets its imagination off the leash.”
Central Saint Martins MA graduates Luke Brooks and Beth Postle, who are still enjoying the process of their own unbounded creativity took to the Theatre of Fashion with their screen painted t-shirts with festival motifs and their own take on new ageism. And the bigger they were the better as sizes went up to 8 XL.
The Theatre of Fashion meant I could also get involved too this year as I was joined by knitwear designer Katie Jones to talk about sustainability in fashion. The original plan was the crochet and chat. Turns out, it’s really much too hard to crochet and chat about a weighty subject like sustainability, at the same time. According to Katie, you can watch Eastenders, whilst working the crochet hooks. She also conducted crochet workshops on fruity leather patches, where people surprisingly excelled in. It might not have been seasonally correct to talk about Katie’s AW15 Let Them Eat Cake colourful knits but they certainly came in handy, when Katie and her crew could keep warm in the chilly Cornish night time temperatures.
To mark Mower’s theme, tv and film set designer Derek Brown together with Port Eliot’s creative director Michael Howells created this impressive central Medieval banquet tableaux as well as a recreation of the boat in John Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott painting.
The tie in with the Wardrobe Department’s theme carried through to the talks. Fashion historian NJ Stephenson and Mark Butterfield of C20 Vintage Fashion were back to talk about 140 years of Liberty Prints in lieu of the upcoming exhibition at the Fashion and Textiles Museum. It was less about the inception of those original prints and their associations with the Arts & Crafts Movement but more about the way they wove in with the visual identity of 1960s radicalism in Swinging London and the Medieval Revivalism, popular in the 70s.
Bumble & Bumble also took a hair cue from the Medieval period with braids and plaits a plenty thanks to both the Braid Bar and Bleach hair whizz Alex Brownsell teaching people how to recreate the styles of 14th and 15th century hair muses.
I too got my complex braid on thanks to Bumble & Bumble stylist Sven Bayerbach.
M.A.C. Cosmetics were also back with daily moodboards creating Pre-Raphaelite or tribal tattoo inspired looks on demand, which is where my black dotty and gold face came from. I do miss Louise Gray’s more freehand face painting antics though.
Mower’s Medieval theme definitely culminated on Saturday when the biggest draw of the festival had Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie, former costume designer for GoT Michele Clapton (she just resigned after five seasons) and former production designer Gemma Jackson who worked on GoT for the first three seasons, in conversation with Mower. Christie provided the comic relief as well as impressing us with her armour and sword welding skills in clips from the show, and Jackson and Clapton shed much insight into the level of detail and craftsmanship that goes into the costumes and sets of the show. For example, I had no idea Sansa’s wedding outfits were imbued with so much meaning with their embroidered lions and corseted discomfort. For GoT fans, this was a mega treat. For those that weren’t, hearing about Jackson and Clapton’s work process is nonetheless inspiring.
The GoT panel was followed up by a demonstration of how the show has refracted its way into fashion and into another bout of subconscious Medieval revival. Mower and Alexander Fury came together to discuss the influences of both the show and a Medieval mood on fashion designers, both contemporary and from the past. “I thought the resonances of Thrones are really profound – the idea of medieval fantasy, with all that horror, brutality and bloodshed involved, seems like a mirror held up to today, in my mind,” explained Mower. Accompanying them was a staggeringly ambitious fashion show – casted from the crowd as well as featuring the photogenic Warren family – Port Eliot’s unofficial models. Mower was initially afraid of reaching out to designers but it turns out they were unbelievably accommodating. Sarah Burton lent her Anglican church-inspired pre-fall 2013 Alexander McQueen collection. Dolce & Gabbana’s Norman invasion of Sicily A/W 14-5 collection featured heavily too. Mary Katrantzou, Giles, Rick Owens and Gareth Pugh also popped up with their whiffs of Medieval. To show that this bout of Medievalism isn’t just a fuelled by Game of Thrones, pieces by Zandra Rhodes, Laura Ashley and Thea Porter from the 70s and 80s also featured. Styled by Ed Marler and Matthew Josephs, the outfits had a weirdly contemporary resonance especially with surprise additions like recent RCA graduate Hannah Williams’ latex pieces and J.W. Anderson’s debut collection for Loewe. The context explained and discussed by Mower and Fury brought these Kings, Queens, knights, ladies and serfs to life. “One of the girls who we randomly cast for the Medieval show came up to me and said ‘I love wearing these clothes but listening to the talk was even better. I had no idea fashion could be so deep!'”
Away from fashion historicism and contextual analysis, Port Eliot is still faithful to giving children the opportunity to make and create. “The children’s fashion show is a highlight of the festival and not just because it’s cute,” said Mower. “Underlying all this is a mission to plant the idea that you CAN make things with your own hands, and it’s fun! Now that art in schools is practically being stamped out it is really moving to me to see how many really young people just are naturally dying to be creative – and this is something I would like to take beyond Port Eliot as part of the BFC Education campaign.” Whether Mower and the BFC accomplishes this missive, it is still lovely to see kids expressing themselves with their fashion show outfits and similarly seeing people get silly with their Port Eliot prom outfits.
Despite the Medieval slant, Mower has added yet more New Gen designers to the festival to showcase what is actually happening in the here and now of fashion. Marta Marques and Paola Almeida came down to talk about the attitude and the mood of the Marques Almeida “girl”, embodied once again by the Warren Sisters and make-up looks by MAC. It’s a celebration of imperfection – night bus hair, chalk dust eye shadow and smeared on eyeliner. It’s the kind of fashion and attitude that might seem blindingly obvious to those in the industry but to the average festival goer at Port Eliot, it’s a message that is worth repeating. With the support of the British Fashion Council (who tirelessly worked on the festival from dawn till dusk), Mower has fostered a spirit of inclusivity, intelligence and spontaneity in the Wardrobe Department and the Theatre of Fashion. It’s one of the few places where the fashion activities and programming, doesn’t replicate the shallow and cut-throat cliches that are perpetuated about the industry in the media. Long may this continue.
With thanks to Yurtel for providing accommodation at Port Eliot.