How often have we heard that, or said it ourselves? Yet so many do that very thing all the time. The image makers depend on this in order to sell all sorts of commodities including people as well as, quite literally, books.
When I first started off in the Craft there were very few books around specifically about witchcraft or other occult practices. The ones that were out there had very lurid, sensationalist jacket covers which at first put me off from going anywhere near them. Then I learnt that in those days authors didn’t have any say over what form the covers took as it was all in the hands of the in house designer/artist. This led me to ignore what was on the cover and to at least open up the book and view both the contents page and the general synopsis to get a better idea of the quality of the information within. I have to admit that this was often done with surreptitious glances around in case anyone caught sight of the dodgy book covers!
Nowadays there is more autonomy granted to authors in the choice of cover designs, but it’s still a case of buyer beware, because there is now another factor at play. Clever branding has produced a certain glamour to witchcraft subjects in the publishing world. This is even more apparent when it comes to independent publishers. Modern advances in photography and CGI have created very evocative, as opposed to provocative, images that draw the reader in to the subject matter, but specifically in the area of witchcraft. So you may be presented with darkly romantic images promising secret and arcane knowledge, only to find the literary equivalent of ‘fool’s gold’ within. Classic examples of style over substance exist on line and within the book market.
So, I’ve touched on the literal sense of ‘judging a book by it’s cover’ in its positive and negative sense, but we also do this with people. We often will judge a person purely by what they look like. That includes their physicality as well as what they choose to wear. This is such a vast subject which could go in so many directions including, race, disabilities and umpteen other potentially contentious issues. However, for now I am going to concentrate on what we choose to wear.
Over the last few decades I have had quite a few references to how I look, and my appearance and demeanour have been questioned and sometimes misrepresented. It happened again quite recently so it set me thinking about the question of how much importance people place on how people look, and the connection between that and their identity.
Let’s get one thing straight – I have never had good dress sense. Plenty of others around me did, and occasionally I would try and pick their brains as to what would maybe suit me, especially when I was younger. However, I never really got the hang of fashion and in the end after a few disastrous and embarrassing forays into trying to be fashionable, in the end I gave up completely. Fortunately I had to wear a uniform at work, being a nurse for most of my working life, so what I wore at other times was less significant. It was only when I went to Dartington as a mature student for my Theatre Degree that I realised how important dress/costume was and how it was linked to the persona/personality which made up the identity. Ironically most of the students wore comfortable, loose clothing in many colourful and ethnic styles which I really liked a lot. No-one stood out as looking odd or incongruous because diversity of dress was celebrated and there was a lot of freedom to explore different ways of being.
Once I had relaxed into this bohemian lifestyle I found that I truly felt authentic, whereas before I didn’t feel like I fitted in anywhere because I was constantly trying to be like everyone else in my particular peer group at any given time. I think I learnt how to be an individual and feel OK with being a bit different. It has to be remembered that I also had started my in-depth training into witchcraft a few years earlier as well. It also helped that when people realised that I was a Dartington Graduate they almost expected me to look a bit of a hippy as the college had a reputation for alternative lifestyles.
It was also here that I wore a dinner jacket for the first time as I was playing a cross-dressing character in someone’s production. That was a pivotal moment for me. I felt so at ease and I realised that not only did it suit me and I looked good, but that it was functional too. There were useful pockets everywhere but it didn’t alter the tailored line of the jacket. There was nothing like it in women’s fashions – sure they had trouser suits, but no handy pockets on the inside – or even if there were pockets, they were always on the outside and either fake, sewn up or so shallow as to be deemed useless. From that moment on I tended towards men’s jackets and coats. You see, I have never been a handbag person as all too often I tended to lose them by leaving them behind and completely forgetting I had them. So this type of garb was ideal for me.
There was also another reason why this discovery suited me so well. I was born with a spinal curvature that gradually grew worse the older I got. This led me to have major surgery in my early thirties to correct and fuse my spine involving nine of my spinal vertebrae. Even following the operation I was always going to have a small hump on my back, and thankfully, men’s jackets disguised this deformity far better than women’s. However, this also meant that as I began to wear this style more, together with the fact that because of my fixed spine, my stance was wider than is generally acceptable for women, a lot of folk assumed that I was gay.
I can quite understand why some would think this way, but I do wish they would think beyond the box they’ve just plonked you in occasionally. Anyone who bothers to actually ask and not just assume would find out that I’m not actually gay. As a child I was absolutely a little tomboy and was forever running around the countryside, climbing trees and getting into scrapes. I played football with the boys throughout junior school, never played with dolls – they gave me the creeps – and developed crushes on school friends, both boys and girls. However, never at anytime did I want to be a boy or a male, I just thought that they had better games and opportunities in life, whereas what was on offer to girls and females at that time was very limited. I rarely wore skirts or dresses unless I had to as I found it much more comfortable to wear shorts or jeans.
Seeing as my teenage years were in the Swinging Sixties and the Twiggy look was all the rage, I was on a losing streak from the word go. I have always been what I describe as compact and sturdy which was a long way from the tall, willowy look proscribed by the Mary Quant fashions of that time. Nevertheless I persevered, through my early years of marriage, which I found out very rapidly was not the life for me and wondered if I was indeed gay. So I explored that lifestyle and eventually came to the realisation that mixing with the gay scene was not beneficial for me and left that behind. It was only when I reached my early thirties that I decided that maybe I was bisexual. I experienced a ‘Goldilocks Moment’ by acknowledging this and from that moment on described my lifestyle as ‘dancing up both ends of the ballroom’. It genuinely suited my nature well. As far as I was concerned I had found my niche as I always had celebrated diversity and I knew that I was free to feel attraction towards people, whatever their gender. I never really discovered what it was that attracted me to some folk and not others, there was never a ‘type’ that I went for but at least now the their gender was irrelevant . People were just people and I either got drawn towards them or not.
Oddly enough, I then experienced resistance from a considerable amount of people, both straight and gay, who questioned my lifestyle. Comments usually accused me of being indecisive, greedy or not having met the right man yet. A saying often cited was, “You can’t have your cake and eat it”! To me it gave me a welcome freedom, so I shrugged off these unhelpful comments and embraced my new start in life. Shortly after this I began my spiritual journey into the world of witchcraft which I have remained in since. Perhaps the two decisions were linked – it certainly connected me to the liminal or maybe I had always been there and had only just recognised it as such – as my destiny.
My predilection towards male jackets and coats stood me in good stead when it came to being a cunning woman or wisewoman. Even as a child I had schoolboy contents to my pockets which contained bits of string, pebbles, feathers, wax, putty, penknife and so on. There isn’t a world of difference when I now walk the land wearing my old wool overcoat with very similar contents in the many pockets, except perhaps the addition of a hip flask to offer rum to the spirits. In addition there has been added a very important and now iconic component to my attire that I haven’t talked of until now – my hat.
That hat came into my life purely by happenstance. As usual with most things to do with me, there is a story behind it. The year was 1997 and involved myself and the Museum of Witchcraft. We were approached by a woman who worked for Essex University. She was in the process of organising and creating a Witchcraft Exhibition to be held at the university and wanted to see whether the Museum would be prepared to loan some exhibits. As well as this she asked whether there was a modern proponent of the art who would be willing to create an exhibit especially for the exhibition, and this is where I entered the equation. Following consultation I agreed to make a Witch’s Ladder to be displayed later on that year. When the time of the Witchcraft Exhibition arrived we were invited to the private viewing, but as Graham King, the then owner, was too busy to make the trip he asked me to go representing the Museum, as well as in my own right. So off to the wilds of Essex I went.
I arranged to stay with some friends who I had handfasted in the past who lived in Chelmsford. I stayed in their spare room and as it was also a workshop, on a shelf near my bed I espied this hat. As it turned out I found out something I didn’t know previously, which was that she was a milliner and was trying out a new design. I impulsively asked whether I could borrow the hat to wear to the university the next day, and she agreed. I can’t tell you how right that hat felt sitting on my head – it was like it was made just for me.
The Witchcraft Exhibition went well and on my return to my friends’ house I asked whether the hat was for sale. To my delight I was told I could have it as a gift as it was only an experiment with a certain style and as far as I know, no other similar hats were made by her.
Ever since then that hat has stayed with me and has attracted all sorts of comments. It’s been called ‘infamous’ and ‘disreputable’, and I remember on one occasion a man asking me why it wasn’t a pointy hat – to which I replied, “Because there’s no point..!” He laughed and said that there was something about it that reminded him of a pointy hat, even though it wasn’t one – it just evoked that sort of response. I quite liked that as it was nicely ambivalent. Others say that it reminds them of the Artful Dodger, and although I can be a little mischievous I’m certainly not a thief. Once again it seems there is an illusionary aspect at work if this energy is invoked by a simple hat.
My hat has never been worn by anyone else, and it never shall be – in fact, it’s going to go with me when I die to make sure – I wouldn’t want be responsible for the consequences should anyone else attempt to wear it anyway. Over the years it seems to have become my trademark look for what I do being a village wisewoman along with the rest of my distinctive attire.
Afore I go I just want to add that on a few occasions there have been a few folk who have attempted to emulate how I look, which I find somewhat disconcerting. Many say, ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’. Well all I can say to that is, it obviously has never happened to them, as I find it not only uncomfortable but rather irritating!
So you see how my appearance evolved over the years. There was no deliberate construction of an image, no studied persona – just me evolving slowly over the years as an individual, much to the frustration of the media I might add who expected me to be dressed in robes, dripping with magical accoutrements. This is who I have become, and who I am, and I am well comfortable with that. Vive la difference!