‘You see that girl over there in the sequinned top, she’ll be able to wear that until December 31st, max.,’ my friend whispered to me, a note of urgency in her voice. We were in a trendy bar in Stockholm, looking over a long table of tastefully glistening beaux and belles. There was something balletic about their lustre, a harmony of brill cream and shoe polish, light brushes of glitter on their hair and eyelids and sumptuous, loose-fitting velvet. Nothing that could possibly offend – and yet in modishly conformist Stockholm, if a girl refuses to shed her scales at the stroke of 2017, she will be ostracising herself from social convention. ‘Don’t think you’re better than anyone else,’ is a Swedish proverb; sparkle is set within the parameters of fashion. If you don’t like it, emigration is an option…
I wouldn’t last in Stockholm- I like things that sparkle rudely, even out of season. Bolshy blossom in December that competes with Christmas lights; hold the sequins for grey January; snowy pearls in summer; the wink of candlelight all year round. Things that reflect light, deflect my shadows. I look for the spark in people, a quality that goes far beyond adornment. It’s a light in their eyes that says they’re alive, interesting, present. Yogis teach that sparkle comes from within, from vibrating at a frequency that makes your soul glitter; Brooklyn author Colm Tobin, on the other hand, suggests that it’s situational and comes from interaction with the outside world. While his heroine Eilis Lacey views herself as ‘submerged’with melancholy, others find brightness in her. Isn’t this the greatest kindness you can grant someone, to put them in the light?
Early on, I (mis)learned that sparkle was feminine. While women gravitated towards light and aesthetics, real men had gravitas and commanded respect. Dad slinks off to his study. Mum goes out on the hunt for bright green ceremonial Izu Matcha to stop the japanned Christmas cake from tasting like dust (all the while fancying Gordon Brown). But this is reductive: we are all bright and dull, shallow and deep. Every man I’ve ever been attracted to has sparkled- from the mischievous glint in his eyes, to the way he seeks and holds the limelight. Ultimately, depth retains my interest, but it’s the manipulation of light that catches my attention in the first place.
Most of us, (Swedes included!), want to sparkle in at least one aspect of our lives – we can’t quite bring ourselves to think we’re the same as everyone else. We go through life with a whole mythology of why we’re unique, why we should stand out from the crowd. It’s a natural human need to be seen, noticed, chosen. The shadow side (ironically) of this desire to bask in the light, is narcissism.
People sparkle at different brilliancies. Some prefer the conker-like sheen of professional respect, others the jade green glow of followers’ envy, and others still catch the light of the moment, whatever it brings.
Social media ‘brilliants’ remind me of old-fashioned butterfly catchers. They pin down the moment, document its colour and shape, but miss its flutter by a wide margin. Weirdly, for a technique that is meant to capture passing lustre for eternity, endless documenting and posting puts the moment’s joy out of reach. What you have instead is cramped vital organs and aching gums as you hunch over an I-phone and grin into a flashbulb.
For some, formal dress-up occasions, the rituals of proscribed behaviour, whether in a night club, conference or gala dinner are a chance to shine. They thrill to the eyes and ears of an audience; grow vibrant on the knife’s edge of proving themselves. Others feel their lustre grow woollen when there are too many rules and expectations. These folks are starriest in irregular, natural daylight; in places where they can improvise. I remember once reading about a postwar Frenchwoman who framed a perfectly ordinary trip to the fish market as an adventure. I imagine her going out there with a sharpened sense of curiosity; receptive to what comes her way. Maybe she wears sequins and smiles out of season.