Friday, October 19, 2018

Stylish Read: "Fashion Climbing"

"We all dress for Bill."
Bill Cunningham was New York's most popular party guest. He never ate or drank and didn't stay long. He mingled with guests but said very little and had more invitations for an evening than he could ever attend.

Bill Cunningham divided his time between photographing the stylish of New York society and the stylish on New York City's streets. It was his third, fourth or fifth career.

His posthumously published memoir, "Fashion Climbing" is about those early careers—stock boy for Boston department stores, army tour guide extraordinaire, hatter and all-around madcap, then fashion reporter for Woman's Wear Daily and others. The photography gig that made him famous is barely mentioned.

Reluctant to talk about himself, he participated in the wonderful documentary "Bill Cunningham New York", but revealed little. It was quite a surprise when relatives discovered this unpublished memoir. Even more surprising is how warm, funny and chatty a read it is.

Young Bill the Hatter

It's not clear when "Fashion Climbing" was written. It seems to end mid-60s when Bill was still reporting on fashion but no longer for Woman's Wear Daily. St. Laurent has taken over at Dior but Balenciaga is still alive and designing.
The term "fashion climbing" is one I had never heard; he uses it to represent social climbing with clothes. I might take exception as he states that this began after World War II, when women no longer "wore lovely clothes for the sheer pleasure and joy of pleasing their friends." I would think status dressing has always been a thing, from the days of the House of Worth to having a "store bought" as opposed to a "home made" dress.

For one who first became aware of fashion when women really did still wear hats, his stories of New York City, late '40s through '50s, showed me how much I missed. No other American city was so tuned to the power of fashion. What a show it was, and Bill Cunnigham relished watching every minute of it.

Editta modeling a hat for Bill

He doesn't always name names, but it's easy to figure out a few of the unnamed. I immediately recognized Editta Sherman, his long-time friend and neighbor at the Carnegie Hall Studios. A photographer herself (that's her on page 231), she would rent her studio to visiting foreign photographers. By the mid-'60s I would often be sent to pick up processed film as part of my duties at Glamour Magazine. Unfortunately I never saw Bill there.

"Fashion Climbing" could have used a good editor in places, but then it wouldn't have been like having a conversation (over tea and a sandwich at Schrafft's) with such a wise and slightly wicked charmer.



Thursday, October 11, 2018

Jane Arden, Fashionable Girl Reporter

I wish I'd known Jane Arden; looks like I really missed something. Jane was a "spunky girl reporter" who romped through the comics from the '20s through the '60s.


Jane differed from her girl reporter comics rival Brenda Starr in that readers were able to send Jane designs for her (very extensive) reporter's wardrobe. No simple, sensible suit and white blouse a la Lois Lane for her. Jane's wardrobe is a fanciful yet insightful look at what women wore (or dreamed about wearing) for over 40 years.

Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane

First syndicated in 1928, Jane Arden appeared in newspapers and comic books, movies and paper dolls. She never achieved Starr status in the United States but was quite popular in Canada and Australia.

The Beyonce of the comics

Katy Keene was a comic queen with reader-inspired dresses, but she was too much of hot tamale for my taste. I would have sent in contributions for Jane, earnest girl-with-a-job and on a mission, many missions.

The reader contributions never took up much space on the comic pages (about 5" x 6"), but they must have been lovingly saved by generations of readers. Many page clippings are listed for sale on ebay. There is also a reproduction 1942 paper doll book. I'm eyeing that. Never too late for fun with paper dolls.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Dress Like Florence...for $9.99

I'm still on a high after seeing Florence and the Machine in concert last Sunday. I've written about Florence before. You can find it here:

Florence has been a muse of Gucci for several years, and the brand's Bohemian style suits her. That night she performed in a dreamy chiffon Gucci dress. Florence twirled and danced on and off the stage (barefoot); it was no surprise to see raw skin on her knee and smudges of blood on the dress. Not missing a beat, she said, "You know it's a good night when you get blood on a Gucci dress!"

The latest H&M collaboration was unveiled today.  No, it's not with Gucci, but this textured chiffon blouse reminded me of Florence. Amazingly it's only $9.99!

H&M has partnered with Morris & Company. The British wallpaper and fabrics brand was started by William Morris and some fellow pre-Raphaelites in 1861. The style was known as Arts and Crafts; Morris' intricate nature-inspired patterns surely influenced Art Nouveau.

Although the firm officially closed in 1940, the designs are still popular. Liberty of London, custodian of the archive, worked with H&M to create the collection. I would suggest you get to your nearest H&M fast, because it won't last. Everything is wearable; the quality is decent, the prices are fair, and there is that incredible $9.99 blouse.

I really think Florence would wear this, maybe on a non-Gucci day. Certainly you could too.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Madame Predicts: Turn Up the Volume


Though I've quipped and quibbled in posts past about the crazy notion of multiple layers and football player shoulders, it's fair to say I think this is where we are heading—volume. It's also camouflage and protective layers. I have not a doubt in the world that this is in response to a primal need to dig deep and burrow, the polar opposite of reveal and flaunt. Could a thing like fashion possibly be influenced by politics and world order? Oh please, this is the real reason I loved history. Early on I saw the connection.

Too bad I couldn't form the same bond with math.

We expect New York Fashion Week to give us an idea what we may be wearing as we expect what's shown (or reasonable versions thereof) to be in the stores. We give London Fashion Week a bit more leeway, as I think there is a lingering question where it falls. The Brits were never known as Fashionistas, but then everything went global. Paris would be disappointing if it didn't seem far out. This time (Spring 2019) the Paris shows have struck a nerve and their outrageous does not seem that impossible. Be prepared.

Dies Van Noten

It wasn't all volume, but there were still signs of belted repression and hidden identities:

Ann Demeulemeester

Nevertheless I see plenty to love without giving up on society entirely. This dress is dreamy, though I would ditch the belt-worn-as-necklace and go for some sandals instead of boots. I already have a straw bag.


Monday, September 17, 2018

Bye Bye Bendel's

Many notable New York stores have toppled since I moved to New York in 1964. Though I left the city in 2003 I will still be a New Yorker, wherever I go. Besides, I'm married to a boy from Brooklyn.

Best & Co. was already gone in '64, as was Russek's, an upscale specialty store most remembered today for being owned by photographer Diane Arbus' parents. Over time Stern's closed, then Ohrbach's, Bonwit Teller (of all places), Gimbel's (Gimbel's!!), then B Altman (unthinkable). A few years respite and even discount paradise Daffy's was no longer.

I still take each store closing personally and have had to mourn two big ones in the past year. In June Lord & Taylor announced it was closing 10 of its remaining 50 stores. Among them is the iconic flagship store on Fifth Avenue. I wrote about that here:

Now comes news of Henri Bendel closing all its stores, which is sad but almost a relief. For the past six years Bendel's has given its name to a collection of accessories stores that bears little resemblance to Henri Bendel on Fifth Avenue or the mecca that was Bendel's on 57th Street. I've written about that here:

I can't let Bdndel's go to the happy hunting ground without relaying one last story. I've been incredibly lucky in my career, most notably because I didn't get the jobs I was totally unqualified for. That was not the case with my very first job. You might think I would have learned a lesson, as I suffered there for many months before moving on to something I was better prepared for. Alas, I would still fall for what sounded exciting.

Geraldine under the Bendel's awning

Such was the case when a former editor at Glamour, a friend of Bendel's president Geraldine Stutz, suggested me for the position of Bendel's art director. Why I thought I could be the art director of one of the chicest retail outposts in Manhattan is anyone's guess. I had no retail experience, no training in visuals and still a rudimentary knowledge of publishing. I loved all those things, mind you, but I didn't yet know how to do them.

I was in my early 30s and somehow just thought I could do it—until I walked into her office. I don't remember being nervous before the interview. I should have been. I would have been today, for goodness sake. Geraldine had a large, bright office and sat across from me at a very large desk. I suddenly felt quite small. I showed her my portfolio of layouts and drawings. She asked a lot of questions and told me what the job entailed. I wanted to run screaming from the room shouting, "I'm not worthy! No, really, I'm not worthy." I didn't because it dawned on me that this very bright, very smart woman could see I wasn't qualified and was a class act. She was incredibly gracious and never let on that she knew what I knew.

I think I loved Bendel's even more after that.

The "Street of Shops" in the 57th Street store

Thursday, September 13, 2018

What I Won't be Wearing #1: The Prairie Dress

What do they say about a bad penny? It always comes back. As if the 70s and 80s weren't bad enough, we now have the return (revenge???) of the prairie dress. According to the NY Times, it's b-a-a-a-c-k,  with a vengeance.


I can see how this happened. Spangles and shoulder pads are hard to pull off, just adding to the circus-like atmosphere many of us feel we are in. Westward ho? Now that was a time when we were were all blissfully ignorant and physically overworked.

"Little House" love...

This season's prairie looks hark back to "Little House on the Prairie" as filtered through the tv show's popularity and late '60s hippies. They are, however, costumes, and I'm not buying it.

I'm already in costume, as a 76-year-old-woman trying to look chic, attractive and relevant while wearing flattering clothes that reflect my personality. They also say you should never wear a look from an era that you've worn before. I summered in the Summer of Love and had my fair share of prairie skirts, Victorian nightdress blouses and (non-combat) boots. Worn traversing the streets of New York City, I might add.

Batsheva Hay in a field of flowers
Just so you know, this reincarnation did not sweep down from the actual prairie. The wizard of the look is Batsheva Hay, a New Yorker and former lawyer with two young children who has always loved vintage clothes. Married to an Orthodox Jew, she had already adopted a modest style of dressing. Two years ago she wanted to remake a vintage Laura Ashley dress. Since that required the expense of making a pattern, she decided to have several made in vintage dress and upholstery fabrics she found on ebay. Once others start copying you, and the Times writes it up, this is fashion worth noting if not wearing.

Laura Ashley 1986

Please don't let me keep you from your prairie dress. If you are young (in my book that's under 50), go ahead and do it. Turn off your cellphone. Bake some bread. Smell the roses. Just don't call this one Fashion That Must Be Obeyed.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Hung up on Hangers

Have you ever bought a book for its cover? A bottle of wine for its label? A blouse for its hanger? Faithful readers of the blog know I have a thing about hangers.

I've written about them before, waxing rhapsodic about the circa 1940s-50s wooden hotel hangers my parents brought back as trip souvenirs.I've looked back fondly on the set of flower printed quilted hangers that was a gift for my tenth birthday. I still use the skirt hangers I bought at Woolworth's for 10 cents, though their 60-year-old hinges are hell to open.

There are no wire hangers in my house, save the ones coming from the cleaners with my husband's shirts. Instead of returning them as I should, I enjoy twisting the little devils out of recognition before throwing them in the trash. Heaven forbid we should need to fish keys out of a drain or unlock a car door.

Some years ago I got rid of all the tube hangers (good for nothing) and retail-style plastic hangers  (too bulky) and invested in those black felted velvet skinny hangers called "Huggable Hangers". I never seem to have enough.

This hanger story is one of those I'm-sorry-I-couldn't-help-myself moments. TJ Maxx held its seasonal Runway Event this week. Certain TJs have a section devoted to high-end designer apparel. They are the real deal with offerings from Versace, Pucci, Valentino, etc. as well as high-end American brands like Diane von Furstenburg, Tory Burch, and St. John. The price points are not necessarily in my playing field, but I do love to look and feel and admire. Sometimes I will splurge on a piece. Occasionally I will even find a real bargain.

Lately I've been in a silk shirt frame of mind and did find a nice grey one by French brand L'Agence. At $69.95 it was not exactly a steal, though L'Agence shirts sell for between $250 and $350. It was a very nice shirt...on a spectacular hanger. Someone had put it on a glossy black hanger reading "SAINT LAURENT PARIS". It's a shirt I could use. I HAD to have the hanger.

At checkout I innocently asked the clerk if she would mind to leave it hanging. She did not and covered it (shirt and hanger) with a clear plastic bag.

I won't keep the shirt on the hanger. St.Laurent deserves something special (if I hide it away in the closet at all). And I won't return the shirt and keep the hanger. The hanger gods would not be happy. They are still annoyed at my parents.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Weighing in on the September Issues

If it's possible to judge one's health soley by one's weight, I'd say fashion magazines are ailing a bit. This year's September issues top out at 9.5 pounds, compared to last year's 10.6. My Fab Five are Vogue (the winner in pages by far at 646), followed by Elle at 412. Nipping at its heels are Harper's Bazaar (398), followed by InStyle (322). Marie Claire wafts in at a mere 226.

I've eliminated Glamour from the mix this year. Glamour has decided to rebrand itself for Generation Z. This may be the next wave of fashion (never say never, remember?) but right now it all looks anti-fashion—a sad step for what used to be the go-to what-to-wear publication for real women. Instead I added InStyle, which has become increasingly all-fashion-all-the-time.

Can I report on what's inside? No. I have a tradition of waiting till the meal is served (aka they are all delivered) before I start to feast. Elle was the last to squeeze into my mailbox. I caught it, half sticking-out, before today's next showers.

Subscription covers may vary from those on the newsstand, but not one of these screams FALL FASHION at me.

Beyonce on Vogue is in her best Mid-summer night's dream. Kanye West and his two kids on Bazaar seem to have been caught while waiting in the studio for Mama Kim Kardashian to finish up (at least she's not on the cover).


Jennifer Anniston, Vendaya and Emma Stone beg the questions Why do we still care?, Who are you again?, and What of your movies will be opening soon?

As I read this back I'm rather shocked for sounding so catty. Really it's just disappointment. I see fashion these days as too much about business and celebrity. It feels less aspirational, less interested in me as a person and how I can look my best. If anything goes (as it seems to) how long before we all decide just to go with anything?

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Bad Mood Board

While waiting for the resounding thud of the September issues to hit my doorstep, I have had a sneak peak of fall fashion, and it's definitely putting me in a bad mood. Fashion magazines—that includes advertisements and editorial—are increasingly taking me places I don't want to go, down ugly street, and I don't know why.

Fashion editorials have long indulged in some fantasy and interpretation. That's fine as long as what they show has even a hint of being wearable. Grace Coddington earned her well-deserved reputation as a stylist for Vogue by creating some of the most elaborate examples. Who doesn't want to be Alice in Wonderland at least once?

Truth be told I've always enjoyed the ads as much if not more than the editorials. I'm a shopper, and I want to know what I can really buy. This year, though, I don't think I want any of it.

Last week the Sunday New York Times Style magazine unleashed its women's fashion issue. I don't want to look like this, do you?

The ads were not much better. I'm disappointed in you, Michael Kors and Calvin Klein, not the least bit surprised, Gucci and Prada.

Lighten up, you say? No one expects us to mimic these looks, but I can't help thinking, "What if we did?" Isn't there enough crazy disarray in our world today to welcome some pretty or at least some calm? I say let's try.