Sunday, August 28, 2016

"80 Years of Fashion": Part One

What follows is part one of the complete, unexpurgated essay I wrote for English class during the school year of 1954-55, age twelve. This is what I meant when I told you "I've always been this way". I assume the attempts at humor were intentional, but it was too long ago to know for sure.

This got an A from a very generous teacher. She did wish the material could have been "a bit more condensed". 


Have you wondered who wore the first clothes? The caveman was probably first. His wardrobe consisted mostly of sheep and tiger skins, maybe some mink if he was wealthy.

Now I'll skip a few thousand years and begin at 1850. This year approximately begins the Victorian era which was perhaps the ugliest period of the centuries. Meaningless ornament and veneer were applied to a design of already poor taste. Colors were crude; bonnets frankly hideous.

It was necessary to wear heavily padded petticoats until the steel-rigged crinoline, or hoop-skirt, was invented. Horsehair and crin stuffing were used. The crinoline got its name from this stuffing. Since its invention in 1530, designers have tried to revive the crinoline about the middle of each century thereafter, but it never quite reached its exaggerated shape of the 1850s.

Often it took 1,100 yards of material to make a dress in vogue at this time. Materials were cheap and gauze-like. The Empress Eugenie of France popularized silk from Lyons, but it was too heavy and you couldn't take the preferred short gliding step when walking. Most dresses were worn only once because its beauty depended upon the freshness of the material.

Style star Eugenie
Many petticoats were worn, and this is a list of what you'd have to get into before you put your dress on:
1) Lace trimmed drawers
2) Horsehair lined under-petticoat
3) Flannel petticoat
4) Three and 1/2 yards of horsehair
5) Calico petticoat stiffened with cords
6) Wheel of thick plaited horsehair
7) Three starched muslin petticoats
Rather bulky, wouldn't you say? All this weight was a terrible threat to good health.

Billowy skirts with flounces upon flounces were popular. Sleeves got larger until they were very wide at the elbow. Another popular type of sleeve was called the "Pagoda" sleeve. Dresses were adorned heavily with the customary junk and bric-a-brac.

It was impossible for ladies to get into overcoats, so shawls and mantillas had to be adopted.
Poke bonnets and leghorns made of straw were popular. Heavy gold jewelry was worn by both men and women, and so were vests. These vests were worn with a Russian Zouave coat by women. Kid slippers (especially black) were very popular. No heels were worn on ladies' shoes.


There were many difficulties in wearing these clothes. Actresses had to wear them even in medieval and Greek plays. This was thought to be the cause of the skirt's downfall. These dresses were too thin and inflammable. At one great church rally over three thousand women were burned alive when the place caught fire, because the dresses were so thin.

Empress Eugenie is said to have taken 250 dresses with her to the three-day opening of the Suez canal.

Men wore frock coats (especially plaids and checks) and a starched shirt with a little frill. A huge bow tie was popular for evening, along with very tight trousers. Silk top hats were popular, also the straw boater. The bowler hat was first introduced.

Children's clothes were much like that of their parents'. Boys' clothes were very un-masculine. Styles for children were fancy and frilly. However, simpler clothes were designed for the country. The girls wore hoops and crinolines too. The pantalets didn't show yet, but a bit of petticoat sticking out was considered fashionable.

Boys wore skirts to the age of nine. Older boys wore feminine laced pants.

Frolicking in the fifties
to be continued...

Friday, August 26, 2016

French Without Tears

Sonia Rykiel flashing a rare smile
Sonia Rykiel died in Paris this week at age 86. I came of age in the '60s and Sonia Rykiel spoke to my generation of young women, full of confidence in ourselves to handle careers, husbands (or lovers), chidren and family (if we wanted) or complete independence. We felt like pioneers because we were.

Sonia was one of the few French designers whose work reflected this new freedom. Her designs were more wearable and affordable than French couture. Most notably her innovations (the poor boy sweater, culottes, flowing lines in knitwear, subdued but romantic dresses, minimal ornamentation) were widely copied and filtered down to those of us who, sadly, could not quite afford to shop at her left bank boutique.

Early Rykiel

It has always surprised me that French women have the reputation for being austere and disciplined dressers. While her designs eschewed frippery, they were always easy and playful. Sonia came up with innovative touches like reversible dresses and jackets, exposed seams and hemlines with frayed edges. She whipped up delicious inky hues one year and switched to hot tones the next. She always chose basic black for herself, capped with a head of flaming red hair worn with her trademark "fringe". We also have Sonia to thank (or blame) for being first to add words like mode or amour onto her designs.

Sonia's La Belle Parisienne

Sonia Rykiel embraced womanhood and designed her clothing to be worn by women of all ages. Interviewed in 1987, she said "We are working women. Also we have the problem of children, of men, to take care of our houses, so many things. I try to explain that in my clothes. They are clothes for everyday life." It probably sounded better in French.

Although she retired in 2009, Sonia's daughter Nathalie had long worked with her and the brand is still going strong.

Fall 2016 campaign

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Weighing in on the September Issues

The blessed event that is the September fashion magazines weighs in at 12 pounds this year. In my world that's qunituplets. The fashionable five are Vogue at 800 pages, Harper's Bazaar at 584, Elle at 528, Marie Claire at 316 and Glamour, the runt of the litter, at 304 pages.

The health of a magazine is determined by its number of pages, signifying many or fewer ads. Could you hear the clink of glasses down at Conde Nast as they toasted easily besting all rivals (especially Harper's Bazaar)? Things may not have been as happy at Glamour.

I haven't looked inside yet. I must Do Certain Things First (like get dressed and feed the cats), but my fingers are itching.

There are those who feel there will still be nothing for a WOACA* to wear. That's a good possibility. By what I've seen in preview, there may be nothing for anyone to wear. Style seems to be going through a meat grinder right now. What interests me most in the magazines is seeing how events and culture play into our notions of beauty and fashion.

And maybe finding one or two things to buy.

*Woman of a Certain Age

Saturday, August 20, 2016

"I'll Have What She's Wearing"

Further proof that beautiful is forever, this is a 1954 photo of Audrey Hepburn modelling a dress in Amsterdam. That's all the info I have.

I thought I'd seen every photo of Audrey ever published as I've been following her since 1954. Guess I missed this one.

That beautiful face! That gorgeous smile! That dress! Couldn't you wear it today (or next month when it's cooler)? I don't know the fabric or the color, but I'm guessing it's a burgundy and black brocade. That's what I want it to be. Not sure if I'd add the long black gloves, but Audrey has no problem wearing a dress-up dress with a pair of black flats. Copy that.

Lanvin does brocade
This winter, lovers of the Boho look will be doing it in brocade. Dolce and Gabbana are the modern masters. Brocade makes any silhouette look dressy. "Brocade" is from the Italian "broccato", meaning embossed cloth, and it turns up in textiles of many cultures. And yes, "broccoli" has the same word root.

Whether Audrey's Dutch dress is actually brocade or not, check out the simple shapes of the A-line skirt, dropped shoulder, short sleeves, high jewel neckline. A woman of any age could wear this dress. It's a dress for the ages (on the perfect role model).

Does lace with brocade = brocace?


Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Fashionable Burger

This, my friends, was the (loaded) cheeseburger I enjoyed at RL, the Ralph Lauren restaurant in Chicago. I did not take the photo as nothing would have persuaded me to be so gauche in such a beautiful place. And the light wasn't this good.

For $17, fries included, (tack on another $4 for bacon and cheese) I enjoyed one of the best burgers ever in the serene elegance of Ralph Lauren magic. Who else could conjure this gracious version of Downtown Abbey?

Ralph Lauren in my kind of town, Chicago

Service was impeccable. No one cast us a hairy eye for ordering burgers. The people watching was superb. I hated to leave. Fortunately the store was then closed.

Midnight at Ralph's in Paris

The Paris restaurant ups the fantasy even more. It's housed in a former 17th century chateau on the Boulevard St. Germain. There the hamburger comes with cole slaw and a silver bowl of caramel corn with the coffee service.

Caramel corn with your coffee

I haven't made it to the New York restaurant yet, dubbed the Polo Bar and adjacent to the Polo store on East 55 Street. I understand it's a hard reservation to come by.

I'm not a Ralph Lauren gal. His clothes are not my style, though I often wish they were. He's one of the Good Guys, deserves every wonderful thing he has, and I wish him all the best. One of these days I'd love to tell him, too. Preferably over a cheeseburger.

Your table is waiting at the Polo Bar...

Monday, August 8, 2016

Finding Art in the Museum

Call me crotchety, but I'm sick of seeing tourists in a big city dressed as if they were visiting Disneyworld. And it might just not be tourists either. This includes those who should know better (ie anyone my age).

While it hardly ruined my vacation in Chicago (a great city by the way), I was greatly relieved to see that the crowd visiting the Art Institute had all Made an Effort.

This is not to say there was a fashion parade going on. It wasn't the Met Ball, nor should it have been. People were dressed appropriately (and comfortably) for enjoying the art and being in that great space.

I even saw a young woman evoking Audrey Hepburn and looking as lovely as the art herself.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Riddle me Retail

"I hear there's a good promotion going on."
Yesterday at the Lovely Boutique Where I Work I found myself trying to explain why I couldn't give a customer a price adjustment on an item she had bought on promotion, now that we were having 30% off all sale. Her eyes were beginning to glaze over as I tried to make clear the difference between promotion and sale. I realized how much this must have sounded like gobbledygook.

None of it is meant to pull the wool over your eyes, but I can see where it's confusing. Herewith a glossary of retail terminology. It all makes sense-- to a point.

On Sale. A Martian landing on earth and needing a wardrobe would surely think "on sale" meant you could buy things in this place. No, that would be "for sale". "On sale" means the item has been reduced from a previous price. This is often called "hard-lined", "hard-marked" or "red-lined"  because we once took a red pen, drew a line through the original price and wrote a lower one in red ink. Nowadays you are more likely to find a sticker or even no reduced price, just a sign reading "40% off regular price".

Promotion. A promotion means the item, usually a group of items, are temporarily reduced to "promote" them to the customer. The price will revert back to normal once the promotion is over (thus they are not hardlined). Nordstrom, which has a limited amount of sale events, famously hold its Anniversary Sale in July. New fall merchandise is temporarily marked down for the duration of the sale. Nordstrom shoppers consider this a big deal.

30% off Sale (actual percentages may vary). Some stores always offer an additional percentage off sale merchandise. It's true, we consumers have come to expect that and are disappointed when we don't find it. Other stores only slap on an additional discount when they really really want to move the merch and/or bring shoppers into the store.

Loyalty cards. These may or may not be actual credit cards, but store loyalty cards often come with an extra perk, such as a percentage off to celebrate your birthday. Depending on the store, this may or may not be able to be combined with % off sale items or promotions.

Shopping passes. I only know one store that has them around here, Macy's. Macy's is a behemoth so there's probably one near you. The shopping pass allows you a certain percentage off store items (with a laundry list of exceptions) for a certain day, often with more savings when used in the morning. This was once found in newspapers but today are more likely an online coupon or app. 

Price adjustments. To bestow fairness to the above proceedings, stores will often allow price adjustments of a certain duration. What you purchased may go on sale, on promotion or be further reduced. The time frame is usually two weeks to receive a credit for the difference. A store really doesn't want you returning, turning around and then buying it back at the lower price, so it doesn't hurt to ask if you've missed the deadline by a little (not a lot).

Online versus retail price. In an ideal world, they should be the same and usually are. But I've seen where they are not, and there doesn't seem any way around it. If the price is lower in the store, it may be because this was an item returned from online that the bricks-and-mortar would like to get out of its system. I'm not naming names, but one place I've noticed this has the name of a fictional country, beginning with B that stands for a tropical fruit.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, but I sense your eyes starting to glaze over as well. I haven't tackled discount merchandisers or big box stores, but surely a little knowledge is better than none. Oh and all this is, of course, subject to change.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Everyday Birthday Thoughts

I may need a few boxes...
While I joyfully celebrate what looks like trying to burn the house down (should all those candles actually be on the cake), I'm also aware of the implications of time passing. Here's a trick I use every year (and have used for years)— I tell myself I'd rather be a young old person than an old young person.

If that isn't obvious let me explain: nothing is so futile as trying to hold onto what isn't there. Unless you are well-practiced at deception, you are not even fooling yourself. Clinging to what's behind you is negative and paralyzing.

It surprised me to learn that legendary beauty Elizabeth Taylor wasn't bothered by aging. That's apparent in candid photos taken over the years by a good friend, Firooz Zahedi in the new book "My Elizabeth". What concerned her most was her health, and she had some cause to worry. I loved Elizabeth even more when I read that.  

You can do this with three Oscars
On the other hand there are great benefits to age (wisdom and grace for starters) that you will never realize unless you welcome it. As you discover you can say what you feel (with tact and humor of course) there is the most delicious boost to your self-confidence. When people actually listen? Over the moon.

Remember for a minute just how little you knew back when you thought you knew everything. It's a wonder any of us survived Youth!

Last, in the immortal words of Satchel Paige: How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?

Hhmmm... I think I'd better re-read this every July 23.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Hanging On... and Up

A friend posted this on her Facebook page. It turned up in a closet of her late mother's home, long forgotten by the friend, obviously long treasured by the mother. Now it's part of her life, one of those things you just can't throw out though its original purpose is long past.

I realized I've been hanging on to a few hangers, too. This one belonged to my Aunt Sally. It's hand painted, but I don't know by whom. She gave it to me when I was about nine. It was my "favorite hanger". I hung only special clothing on it. As years went by I just displayed the hanger by itself as a piece of found art.

Another favorite is this blue hanger. Obviously old but no provenance that I can recall. "143" is scratched into the paint near the hook. Do you suppose there were 142 others like it???

Then there are the myriad hangers taken from hotels back when hangers weren't nameless and bolted to the closet rod. We didn't consider it stealing, more like taking a souvenir. I guess we assumed the hotel would appreciate the advertising. We used them for coats in the guest closet.

Besides being darn sturdy and an endangered totem, I grew to love the hangers for their graphic typography. Over time they made their way from my mother's house to mine.

Crocheted hangers were actually a thing back in the craft-crazy 1980s. Fortunately I realized that would be a lot of effort for little gain.

Athough they have a bad rap (from yours truly as well), wire hangers can become art.

There's not one wire hanger in my house. I drop them back off at the dry cleaner. Keep the plastic, take back the hanger!

"Leave the guns; take the cannolis"

PS A reader below wondered what to do with a collection of hangers. Why not hang them (on tiny nails) cheek-by-jowl on an empty wall? If you have one, that is.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Women We Love: Lois Lane

Noel Neill aka Lois Lane
She was only playing a role, but Noel Neill was my role model. She played Lois Lane in tv's (and to my mind never equaled) "Superman". Noel died last week at age 95.

Lois was a valuable reporter on the Daily Planet. Although there were never other women on staff, she was not relegated to the women's pages. Lois worked for the blustering editor Perry White, was boon companion to Clark Kent/Superman and benevolent mentor to cub reporter Jimmy Olsen. Please don't tell me the "great metropolitan newspaper" was meant to be anywhere other than New York City.

Perry White, Superman aka Clark Kent, Jimmy, Lois

Noel originated the Lois Lane role in the 1948 Superman movie serial. The first tv Lois (1952-53) was actually played by Phyllis Coates (still with us at age 89). Phyllis was very pretty in that 1950s-Ozzie-and-Harriet kind of way. Noel returned to the role for tv and stayed with it through 1958. They looked similar, but as if Phyllis had a spunk makeover.

Phyllis as Lois 1952

Noel as Lois 1948
There was always that twinkle in Noel's eye. She was up for anything and not afraid of danger. I'd have to re-watch the old shows to be sure of this— and I just might— but I remember thinking Lois knew Clark was Superman but liked him enough to keep his secret. She also realized it was foolish to think their relationship would go any further.

So this 1950s working gal was in it for the job, not to meet Prince Charming. Although her character insisted on wearing hats a little longer than most women around me, I liked her no-nonsense tailored suits. I liked her even more when she stripped down to that white shirt and pencil skirt when the action called for it.

Business casual

Noel was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota to a journalist father. Although she showed early promise as an entertainer, her first job out of college was as a reporter (of all things) for Women's Wear Daily. She was a popular photographic model, whose "pin-ups" rated #2 among GIs behind Betty Grable. Small roles in movies followed, then the series of early Superman serials starring Kirk Allyn as Superman. Noel joined the tv cast in 1953 and stayed with the show through 1958, when it was cancelled due to the death of actor George Reeves, the tv Superman.
Noel as the #2 pin-up

Although acting roles became few and far between, Neil never shied away from her connection to Lois Lane. She had guest parts in several of the Superman cinema reboots (one as the dying wife of Lex Luther) and often appeared at Superman-related events— with a great sense of humor, stories to tell and more of that spunk. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Do You Blend in or Stand Out?

This little gecko appeared in my garden the other morning. I was so happy to see him. Aside from that beautiful color, geckos are practically fearless and will stare you down before disappearing into a flurry of matching leaves. This guy preened and posed a bit before he took off. Green geckos are rarer than when we first moved to Texas. Most of them now are another breed— basic black (chic but boring).

So it occurs to me that we probably can hitch our paths to that elusive star, Style, by determining if we like to blend in or stand out. Trying to be one when you are really the other will get you nothing but a closet full of mistakes.

Something else about green geckos: When feeling threatened they can change color to a mousey brown and disappear in a flash.  Perhaps you like to stand out only when you feel confident or are in control? Is there something conservative that you wear when you're unsure how far to go but want to look fabulous? I own a very simple burgundy dress. Sometimes I wonder why I have it, but I know it's a go-to for that very reason.

I've mentioned before I once turned down an otherwise interesting job because the staff all wore uniforms. The job required me to be creative. I just didn't think I would be if I couldn't even pick out my own outfit. For that— and many other reasons— I wouldn't have made a good nurse, airline pilot or brigadier general.

So let's hear it for the green geckos, ladies who stand out (but not enough to be in danger of being ridiculed). And hurrah to stylish women who also know how to do it quietly. Kudos for anyone who puts some time and effort into figuring out who they are...

...or at least who they want to be that day.

Today I might be a leopard gecko...


Sunday, July 3, 2016

Granny Takes a (Shopping) Trip

Since becoming a grandmother-to-be some traits have developed. I've suddenly taken up a long discarded interest in knitting— so long ago that I gave away all my needles, yarn holders and stitch counters. I also give myself license to bill and coo over little babies. Okay, maybe I make a few comparisons for the future. I'm only human.

But what does a woman who loves the marketplace and loves to shop do when she has someone else to shop for? Go shopping, of course. What I've discovered, in the world of kids' clothes, is eye-opening.

First of all, they are expensive. I mean really, really expensive. Sure, a t-shirt for $10 is not much, but this t-shirt is 6" x 8". In other words, it uses 12 cents worth of fabric. Is shipping from China that expensive? Is it made from organic cotton? Make that $18.

Just for the record, organic cotton is "grown from non genetically modified plants... grown without the use of any synthetic agricultural chemicals such as fertilizers or pesticides." Are you trying to tell me that non-organic cotton means you are wrapping the baby in a bundle of pesticides?

I am reminded of raising my own child what seems like 150 years ago. The only thing we were cautioned about was making sure the pajamas wouldn't catch on fire. Just how that was to happen was always a mystery.

Small but deadly...

Realizing the cost of baby clothes I now head to the sale racks to stock up on out-of-season-greatly-reduced items for the future. However at this point there is no way of knowing how Baby will relate to the newborn, 0-3 months, 6-9 months, 9-12 months sizing. If I remember correctly, my child skipped 6-9 months entirely.

Our mother-to-be has received heaps of lovely clothes, outgrown or otherwise not needed, from her friends. Thank goodness for that. I noticed some things still had their tags, other looked like they might have been worn only once.

And one more thing: Why do manufacturers think they have to add a ducky, a frog, an owl or a puppy applique to everything? If they've resisted the cutesy doodad, there is a good possibility we will get "Mommy's little devil" or "I need a nap" emblazoned across the front.

As a shopper with high standards and a budget, I have my work cut out for me.

Like the sentiment though...

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Bye Bye, Bill

Photograph by Durell Godfrey
Bill Cunningham died on June 25 in New York City. He had been hospitalized after recently suffering a stroke. He was 87 and the only New Yorker ever declared a "living legend".

To call him a street photographer would hardly be accurate. Bill Cunningham never editorialized, but his exquisitely trained eye told the story. He was self-effacing to a fault, almost ascetic in his personal life.

I can't do an obituary justice. A lovely one was written in the New York Times, where he photographed fashion and its foibles for over 40 years. A link is here. Sorry that you must copy, cut and paste:

Photograph by Durell Godfrey

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Come One Come Kimono

This summer the trend flying out of The Lovely Boutique Where I Work are kimonos. We call them that, but really these bits of frippery are shawls-with-sleeves, summer ponchos or wrappers (the "w" is important). They are not negligees or peignors or anything boudoir and not strictly Asian-inspired. The T shape is their unifying link. Think soft instead of structured. Most look like giant scarves until you try to fold one. They are hip-length or long but certainly not boleros.

A kimono is not going to keep you warm. It will barely stave off the arctic chill of air conditioning. Throw one on over practically anything and you've created an ensemble. If three pieces make an outfit, this would be three easy pieces.

Kimono in the city

The kimonosizing began about two years ago on the music festival scene. Coachella has nothing to do with the iconic leather goods emporium and everything to do with Coachella Valley in California. Yearly concerts there feature music (rock, indie, hip-hop and electronica) along with art installations. Dressing for the event has taken on a Woodstock vibe— deliberately Bohemian blessedly not encrusted with mud. There is more freedom and bare bits than we saw in the 60s. Back then you either wore clothes or you didn't.

The "Coachella uniform" is t-shirt, cut-offs, kimono, fedora and lace-up sandals. All of that has trickled down to the masses. So how does a WOACA* wear one?

> You can do white t-shirt and denim, but make yours skinny jeans and not shorts

> Go with minimal jewelry so you are not channeling Ming the Magnificent

Styled a little too Advanced

> Wear one over a jersey jumpsuit or a t-shirt dress

> Try with a close-fitting top and soft palazzo pants

> Make one your bathing suit cover-up. Who isn't always wanting one of those?

> You should look like you just threw this on. Don't make it all stiff and perfect. Thus it's not for dress-up occasions.

> You needn't break the bank either. Fast fashion versions are as decent as those at upper crust boutiques. This could be the first time you ever step into a Forever 21.  

* Woman of a Certain Age