I’ve gone all the way back to 2001 for this Mid-Week Archives Special. Because I can.
I’m having a Japanese moment. Not as in Comme, or Issey, or Yohji (the world’s sexiest man, but that’s another story), but Japanese as in The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon.
I know the whole Pillow Book groove was really some time ago (when the Peter Greenaway film came out in 1996), but I just happen to have read several books in a row with a Japanese theme, and that Shonagon style is very infectious. You start thinking in her voice. Or trying to.
Let me give you some examples of things she wrote in the Imperial Court a thousand years ago:
‘Things That Give a Pathetic Impression: the voice of someone who blows his nose while he is speaking. The expression of a woman plucking her eyebrows.
Unsuitable Things: a woman with ugly hair wearing a robe of white damask.
Elegant Things: a white coat worn over a violet waistcoat. A rosary of rock crystal.
Squalid Things: the back of a piece of embroidery. The inside of a cat’s ear.’
Isn’t that all heaven? Sei Shonagon’s style statements are as self-confident, outrageous and spot on as Diana Vreeland’s, and everything she wrote – in the 10th century AD – is still fantastically relevant in the twenty-first century.
Things That Are Oddly Disturbing: a man who wears a suit and has his hair tied back in a ponytail. A mobile phone attached to a belt. Rings that are worn on the forefinger. Hair that is longer than a certain length. All-white outfits. The look and sound of false nails on a computer keyboard.
Things That Always Delight: a folded cotton T-shirt that has not yet been worn. The smell of a shirt that has been worn for one day by a man you love. The small horizontal crease that appears above the upper lip of some people when they smile broadly. A child aged about two-and-a-half with very pink cheeks, who is wearing a hat.
Things That Are Highly Irritating: when one is trying on a garment and a salesperson comes into the changing room. The garment is half on and half off. One’s face is red. The salesperson smiles. Or when the shoe one has been searching for is found, but not in the right size. A very expensive cream which brings out red splotches on the cheeks.
Things That Are Always Unappealing: the thought of wearing pantyhose underneath trousers. Pantyhose worn with open shoes. An outfit that is too obviously new. A leather suit. Jumpers worn tucked into jeans, which are belted.
Things That Are Strangely Attractive: men whose legs are slightly bandy. Women whose teeth are not quite perfect. A scar in a young man’s eyebrow. A short-sleeved T-shirt worn over a long-sleeved T shirt. Strong male bodies that have gone slightly to seed.
Sometimes the most unattractive person has a beautiful smile which makes you forget their less fortunate qualities. This induces a warm feeling.