On Modern Memoirs, Alexa Chung And The Concept Of The ‘It’ Girl

Memoirs are totally subjective - so they may twist facts to make a story more entertaining or to show themselves in a more flattering light, but that's part of the fun!
Publish date:
September 9, 2013
books, fashion, memoir, alexa chung

Alexa Chung has just published her first book, a memoir-come-scrapbook-come-essay-on-‘It-ness’ called, unsurprisingly, It. I haven’t got my hands on a copy yet, but from reading reviews and hearing her talk about it on Women’s Hour, I gather that it gives an insight into her world with doodles, photos and scribblings from her notebooks, as well as musings on her style inspirations etc.

I love reading autobiographies and it’s interesting to see how this genre is always changing to reflect contemporary culture. Right now we live in snippets – 15 second videos, 140 character 'insights', status updates giving tantalising snapshots of our lives. This is the 21st century version of scribbling in a diary, sticking gig tickets and club flyers in scrapbooks and trotting down to Boots to get your roll of film developed, then putting the photos in an album.

But it’s all public and immediate – the step between collecting those scraps and sharing them with the world in an edited memoir or autobiography has vanished. We’re editing as we go along now (well, some people more than others.) Mindy Kaling’s memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is more of a conventional memoir than Alexa's, documenting her life from geeky kid to successful comedy writer in chronological order, but the pages are peppered with grainy photos, random digressions, emails and texts.

Is this the way all memoirs are going to be from now on – bitesize chunks to stop our stunted attention spans from wavering? Mindy is actually quite explicit about this: "This book will take you two days to read. Did you even see the cover? It's mostly pink. If you're reading this book every night for months, something is not right."

Some of my other favourite memoirs are: DV by Diana Vreeland, Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie, Wait For Me by Deborah Mitford, A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell.

What I like about some of these books is they're totally subjective - the writer talking about a particular period in their lives from their own perspective. You can't worry about objectivity or impartiality, you just enjoy their version of events and make what you will of it. So they may twist facts to make a story more entertaining or to show themselves in a more flattering light, but that's part of the fun!

Biographies will carry just as much bias, but in a more subtle form - any biographer brings their own agenda and perspective to their subject - just think of Sam Johnson and Jimmy Boswell. So you might as well go straight to the horse's mouth, so to speak.

And let’s think a little about ‘It girls’ for a moment. I’ve almost finished reading Judith Mackrell’s Flappers, a fascinating book that tells the stories of six women who were most definitely ‘It girls’ in the 1920s and defined the fast-living ‘flapper’ archetype of the time. Nancy Cunard, Tamara de Lempicka, Diana Cooper, Josephine Baker, Zelda Fitzgerald and Tallulah Bankhead all came from very different backgrounds and had diverse talents, but their lives overlapped as they rode the precarious waves of fame in the ‘20s and ‘30s.

They were beautiful, daring, intelligent and witty, but there was something more to these women than those conventional attributes; they had that indefinable quality – call it charisma – that is ‘It’. It ensures all eyes are on you when you walk into a room, the mysterious X factor that makes any party that little bit brighter when you’re there, and feel rather flat and dull if you’re not (I imagine Edie Sedgwick had it too). Both men and women were fascinated by them and they were conscious of the power they held and probably enjoyed it enormously.

But I think there is a downside to being an It girl. Women in the ‘20s wanted jobs and the freedom to earn and spend their own money, the right to sexual fulfilment and true love – in short, independence. And while Tallulah had her career as an actress, Josephine was famed as a dancer and Tamara an acclaimed painter, Nancy, Zelda and Diana couldn't quite manage to establish themselves as career women.

They were dabblers, playing at being poets, publishers, writers, ballet dancers and actresses, but never succeeding at convincing the world – and perhaps themselves – that these professions were true vocations. Perhaps it’s because they didn’t, strictly speaking, need to earn their own livings to survive – despite their very real talents, they couldn’t prove their worth absolutely.

I wonder if this might be how Alexa could feel as she is labelled with the ‘It girl’ tag – she works as a TV presenter, model, DJ and writer (this is her first book, but she’s also on Vogue’s masthead as a contributing editor) – but her USP seems to simply be her ‘It-ness’ and that vaguely defined role of ‘style icon’.

Young (and not so young) girls want to dress like her and follow her observations on Twitter and Instagram, just like Tallulah’s obsessive fans screamed from the cheap seats every time she uttered one of her trademark witticisms (they disapproved when she played more serious parts, preferring her as the archetypal party girl). Is that suffocating adoration frustrating or liberating?

Please suggest some more memoirs I should read! I love collected letters too (eg. Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, Debo Mitford and Patrick Leigh Fermor).