Sunday, November 23, 2014

When Fashion Was Flights of Fancy

And only $25!

I discovered a gem tucked away in a used book store — Harper's Bazaar dated December 1936. The Art Director was Alexi Brodovitch, Cassandre painted the cover, Man Ray, Munkacsi and Louise Dahl Wolfe took photographs, Herbert Matter turned photos into faux travel posters. Those names are pioneers in their fields of design and photography. They still had to pay the rent.

Slightly battered Bazaar

There are ads from Tiffany for an emerald cut diamond ring at $960 ($16,398 in today's money), a 16mm Kodak movie camera for $125 ($2,135), a 27-day cruise to South America on the Italian line, starting at $325 ($5,551 a bargain really) and a shiny red 1937 Cadillac for $1445 ($24,683). An editorial feature on affordable dresses ("I Don't Want to Spend Much") highlights a fabulous long black net gown with pussy cat bow and puffed sleeves for $25 ($427), a price I don't think of as affordable even today.

No question about it

Diana Vreeland wasn't on the masthead yet, but her "Why Don't You" column (two-page spread continued in the back) was in full swing. Diana became famous (or notorious) for this column that she wrote (she says) tongue in cheek. Those who knew Diana disagree. It would not be unlike her to "wash your blonde child's hair in dead champagne" (one of the most quoted and outlandish "Why Don't You"s). According to Diana, she questioned the advisability of publishing such frippery during what was still very much the Great Depression, but flipping through this Bazaar leads to the conclusion not everyone had lost everything.

Diana in the 1930s

Diana wasn't Fashion Editor yet. She'd been hired by Carmel Snow as Diana not only had style, she traveled in the society that was Bazaar's intended audience. Carmel made her the Paris Editor, which suited Diana just fine. She got sent to Paris to report and would continue to have her clothes made there until WWII changed everything. You might assume Diana would crumple having no access to her beloved Paris, dealing with clothing rations and general hardship in time of war. She not only turned lemons into lemonade, she swirled them in a silver cocktail shaker. Diana championed American designers, literally bringing many out of the back room for the first time. She paved the way for an American style of dressing— sportif, practical, comfortable, appropriate and always chic.

But that's another story. In 1936 Diana was still tripping to Paris and tripping out on what she found there. No one but she could have written these "Little Ideas from Paris":

"Make a little Juliet cap of net and encircle its edges with a wreath of multicolored ostrich tips— but the tiniest, brightest tips you can find."

"A black velvet peasant cap embroidered brightly in silk like the cap of a little Norwegian peasant girl. To wear in the evening."

"Or while tennising or golfing or hiking, just for fun, tie a cotton hankie around your wrist— a nice wild decorative one. Or try a chiffon one for evening." 
Voice from 2014: that last actually sounds like a nice idea.

"A blue fox coat, soft and shaggy, over a gown of smoky, taupe paillettes with a tiny velvet cap, also taupe, perched on your head, and short green gloves."

"Choose a simple gown, and with it, a huge cabochon emerald in one ear and an equally large sapphire in the other."
Voice from 2014: another fun idea though my jewels will be faux.

"Tuck a bright velveteen scarf under your black evening coat and wear it all night tightly rolled in the high neckline of a plain black dinner dress."

Is it my imagination or was there more fun to fashion back then?

Little ideas from Paris

Friday, November 21, 2014

What to Wear to Your Own Party

Can you spot the hostess?

Oh, the slippery slope of party dressing! Unless you are invited to an Ugly Christmas Sweater party, most invitations deliver not a clue.

As in any fashionable situation there are three goals:
1) to feel pretty
2) to feel comfortable
3) to feel appropriate

Notice the emphasis on feelings. Something thought of as "pretty" may not make you feel pretty at all. Even pajamas aren't comfortable if they are made of crappy fabric that keeps riding up. And appropriate? There is no worse feeling that realizing you are the most over- or under-dressed guest.

What if you are the hostess of this event? You have a double burden because you set the mood for your party but can't be a dictator, demanding all guests reflect your mood board.

Not withstanding, if there's ever an excuse to over-dress, let it be the hostess. Dressing special shows you are serious about this party thing. Who hasn't encountered a hostess in jeans and a t-shirt when the doorbell rings? This implies our hostess is so frazzled she hasn't had time to think of herself. And I'm frazzled for her.

If what your guests wear is integral to your party's success indicate that you are, indeed, throwing a 1950s-Mad-Men-themed soiree or a Hayride Hoedown. You can't insist on compliance— the generous hostess cares about her guests and not what they wear— but you can play the part to the hilt. Entertaining is a theatrical event after all. You are the producer, director, set designer, caterer and— to some extent— the lead actor. Playing your part well insures that guests feel comfortable and pampered and in the mood to have fun.

Here are suggestions what to wear to your own party and why:

> Headband, jeweled or with a bow— keeps hair out of your eyes and/or the dip, can replace a dangly necklace or floppy earrings as adornment

> Velvet slippers (ballet or tuxedo)— most comfortable footwear on earth. Substitute delicate flat sandals if local weather permits.

> Long skirt or maxi dress (not too full)— essentially ends the footwear dilemma, is comfortable and lets you swish like Loretta Young (if reference is obscure YouTube "The Loretta Young Show")

> Palazzo pantsas above and for a more sportif look (try a brocade pair with a chambray shirt)

> Caftanbe the one who brings this back!

> Ethnic-minded outfitfrom a Chinese embroidered jacket with easy pants to a sari

Beware long and/or floppy sleeves, tops that need to be tucked, bracelets and bra straps. I'm not a fan of the "hostess apron" unless tongue is very much in cheek. A cute little apron protects nothing and a real one risks looking like you are wearing a hazmat suit.

This post brought to you by the Dry Cleaners Association of America.

Sure you want to throw that party?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

My Life on Paper

The drinkers

Paper Dolls are very much the fabric of my life. Back in the dark days BB (before Barbie) grown-up dolls were few and far between. Paper dolls, on the other hand, fueled that fantasy, whether for Hollywood stars, wedding parties, or the land of future enchantment (I was sure), the teenage years.

The wavers

The end of WWII brought on intensified marketing to teenagers. During the Depression many teens gave up dreams of college— even of high school graduation— and worked to help the family. They grew up fast. WWII saw great numbers of 17- and 18-year-olds shipped off to war, where they grew up fast. Prosperity and the promise of peace after 1945 signaled an optimistic future. Bobbysoxers became viable consumers. My sister was about 15 at the time, and she seemed to be having a lot of fun. I could hardly wait for my turn.

Original rough sketch— so cute

I've held forth about paper dolls in the blog before. I played with them; I made them; I was one. For years Merrimack reproduced original paper dolls— cardboard covers with die-cut dolls and newsprint pages of clothing. B. Shackman was a favorite store in New York City to carry them. Alas, Shackman on 16th Street and Fifth Avenue turned into an Anthropologie some years ago, and Anthropologie doesn't sell paper dolls.

Along came laser copiers and the internet. Vintage paper dolls became easier to find, though a laser-copy doesn't evoke the same nostalgia, I recently gave in to one as I was pretty sure this was the first paper doll book I owned, "The Coke Crowd" from 1946.

Coke was literally "it". I don't remember anyone in northern Ohio drinking anything else— not Pepsi, not Dr. Pepper, not ginger ale (unless you were sick). Coke was Coke. The orange or red stuff was "pop". The paper dolls were not sanctioned by Coca-Cola. Who knows if they even granted permission? Four of the eight dolls are holding bottles of coke (with straws). That was actually a little annoying as it meant their hands were permanently raised.

Moonlight serenade

I remember coming home from downtown with "The Coke Crowd" in a flat brown paper bag that perfectly fit its size. I would have been 5 or 6. I still see myself sprawled on the living room carpet, after dinner, cutting. This was as much a Norman Rockwell moment as I remember having. We were all there— my father reading the paper (or falling asleep), my mother sewing at something, my sister playing at doing homework, the radio on. It was a small apartment with a small living room. We were separated by no more than a body length.

I didn't punch out the dolls but carefully cut them from their cardboard placenta. I disdained those dull metal scissors with the rounded edges that were deemed appropriate in school. We had sharp scissors at home. I manicure-scissored the clothes as neatly as I could with no background allowed. For expediency I kept only the top tabs and felt rather naughty lopping off the rest.

Dolled up for the barbecue

Playing with them was secondary to bringing the dolls and their wardrobes to life. I may have dressed them a few times according to the scenarios in the pages— barbecue, school days, prom, the big game, movie date— or mixed and matched the outfits. Mostly they were cut out and set aside. I was always ready for another book.

And this is finally the point. I believe my life in paper dolls set the foundation for my relationship with fashion. It's not just about having clothes to wear, it's about the inspiration, the creativity, the curiosity, the search, the discovery, bagging the trophy... then repeat.

I just laser-copied my laser copy of the Coke Crowd kids. As I cut them out I see my style has really never changed or may be reverting. Below are clothes I would wear today! And who doesn't love a man in a tuxedo?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

He Ought to Know

Valentino was the subject of a film, "The Last Emperor". Although retired from design, he is still referred to as the Emperor. I'm not sure if it's the Emperor of Style of the Emperor of Fashion. Either way, Valentino rules.

An emperor seems a little too close to a dictator— imperial power and all that. One of the contradictions in fashion is that women can't simply be told what to wear. One size in Style does not fit all. Nevertheless Valentino comes across as a benevolent emperor with a reputation for creating beautiful garments to flatter the ladies who can afford them. He's also a charming, soft spoken gentleman of the old school. His reputation as a host with the most is further upheld by publication of a book, "Valentino: At the Emperor's Table". Methinks it will spend more time on the coffee table than the kitchen table. At $150.00 it's cheaper than dinner at many four-star restaurants and might even be tastier.

This is not a book review, but a recent review of the book quoted him as saying being a guest of Jaqueline Kennedy's was the first he realized style is not just about fashion, it's about everything we do in life. Food for thought.

He also said he hasn't washed a dish since he was 22.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Something Fishy About "The Fund"?

I know reality tv is as real as, well, imitation crab. Not to be crabby about it, but how gullible do they think we are? "The Fashion Fund" has begun its second season on Ovation, and we already know the winner. That was announced at the CFDA's annual award presentation the day before the series' premiere episode.

In it's purest form, how much fun is it to watch a contest when you already know the winner? This is why my son strips black masking tape across the bottom of the television so he won't see results of football games he has yet to watch. Makes sense to me, and masking tape doesn't really hurt the screen.

Of course, all reality tv has elements of the surreal. Contestants on "Survivor" talk to the camera "in confidence" that they know will be revealed to all once the show airs. Some of them are unhinged enough to let everything fly anyways. That makes for good television and is why nice, normal people make up a very small number of players.

Contestants on "The Amazing Race" share the challenges with an unseen camera person, in the car with them as well as slogging across the Alps. I once unexpectedly glimpsed a cameraman in an episode and was quite taken aback— for a second.

"The Fashion Fund" dispenses with reality in a grander fashion. We are asked to believe that the ten finalists haven't a clue why there are camera crews in their offices the day the CFDA is due to give them good or bad news. What a surprise— they were all accepted! To tell the truth, I would have liked to see someone get bad news. That makes for good television.

And how do these ten contestants get picked out of the hundreds that must apply? It only ever looks like ten are in contention. Methinks they were chosen; then the producers back-tracked, following them to their homes, studios or offices. At least on Project Runway Tim Gunn visits the last few finalists before the penultimate runway show and not sooner.

One of the judges on "The Fashion Fund" is Diane von Furstenburg, a powerhouse of a designer and a personal favorite. Diane has her own reality series running concurrently on E. Alas, I smell some shenanigans on this one too, beyond questioning why do it all. The first episode had a group of young women (competing to become a DVF "brand ambassador"), let loose in her boutique, trying on accessories, twisting turbans into scarves and generally making a mess of things. They were, however, so self-consciously doing this, I could almost hear the off-set prompt to "mess it up more, girls!"

Only one real brand ambassador here...

I know who won The CFDA Fashion Fund Award, but I won't spoil the surprise for you. 

Judges with three of the CFDA finalists

Thursday, November 6, 2014

When Do You Get Dressed?

Proper attire for walking a poodle?

Not dressed up— dressed. As in real clothes. As in sleepwear doesn't count (even the kind you could walk the dog in). The act of putting on clothes often determines what we make of our day.

Oviously, you are thinking. I get up, maybe have time for breakfast, a cup of coffee, feed the pets, hug the kids, water the plants, make lunches, get dressed and go to work.

But what about the days you aren't working? And what if your non-work days far outnumber your work days?

The sooner in the day I get dressed, the more I will physically get done in the day. The later I dress the more I will accomplish mentally. Like writing this blog (am in my bathrobe). If I've given myself a "snow day" (a day to recoup mentally or physically from previously hectic days), it's much more fun not to get dressed.

In the past I've made promises to "dress before breakfast", "dress after breakfast", "dress before noon"— sometimes all in the same day.

Of course it matters what you put on. Changing from pjs to ratty old "junk clothes" may get you moving, but it won't get you out the door. Put on real clothes and don't you want to go somewhere? Once upon a time I thought the solution would be something nice to wear at home that would straddle a private and public persona. I may have been trying to emulate my mother's house dresses— neat and trim for the "business" of housekeeping, not worn to relax in or be seen in outside the home. So I bought a rainbow-striped turtleneck and black pull-on knit pants—cheery and comfortable but not very stylish. This swiftly became the fashion equivalent of purgatory: can't sleep in it/be seen in it.

The Victorian proper lady could change her clothes upwards of 5 times a day. She had a wrapper to breakfast in her room, a morning dress for taking care of household matters, an afternoon outfit for going about, an ensemble for when she arrived home for tea and evening dress for dinner. Any sporting activity required its own meticulous get-up as well. No wonder she had help. All that dressing and undressing, putting away and pressing would be exhausting!

Anyone under that petticoat?

Think about it— when do you get dressed, and are you stressed about it?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Madame Predicts: Little Jacket Love

You can love a sweater jacket too

Flummoxed by what to buy this fall? Get in line. If there's nothing new, why do your clothes seem old? If you can barely wrench anything out of the closet, why do you feel compelled to squeeze in another something?  This is the quandry in which Fashion, the retail juggernaut, hopes you will find yourself. The compulsion to buy new at the change of season is deeply engraved, even though the seasons themselves are changing very slowly (still in the '80s in south Texas). Your better nature has no place in this equation if your fashion willpower is weak.

What to do?
While eyeing what goes into the closet and what stays in those cardboard boxes, I realized what excited me most were the little jackets I've collected. Some are pretty old; two were purchased last year. Each acts as a style maker— paired with a simple skirt or pants and something underneath, it's a finished look.

Reminder: Three pieces make an outfit, and a jacket is an easy piece.

I've never been a blazer kind of gal, so my jackets all have personalities. Printed, pieced, woven, tweedy, plaid— none of them are "basic". But the rest of my look can be. I like necklaces, so a number of my jackets have necklines that will complement one. The colors are those that look good next to my face. Thus no mustard jackets, but I do have mustard pants.


None of us need any more clothes. We know that. That's not the point. What is the point is that we scratch that "new clothes itch" with pieces we will wear at prices that won't rack us with guilt. A little jacket is a great excuse to go shopping as you'll have to do some hunting to find one you love. You'll also know when you see one, because your little jacket will speak to you.

The Chanel jacket is such a classic it's a cliche. There's a reason. It's easy to wear, doesn't look like it's trying too hard and signals you have good taste. I doubt even Mademoiselle Chanel would mind that her iconic design has been ripped off a zillion times. She cared about how women look, and not just her women.

One of the Originals

The "dressmaker" jacket is the feminine version of a man-tailored blazer. It has softer style details which rely on cut, not fancy fabric or ornamentation:


A little jacket can also be a coat, one that won't keep you warm but will still cover you. I pat myself on the back for snapping up this Giambattista Valli leopard number from his Macy's collection some time ago. A hundred bucks, and I feel like a million:

Valli of delights
Here's one I have my eye on for a better price. Note the hi-lo aspect of dress-up, dress-down. Little jackets are good at that:
Got my eye on you...

The statement jacket tells everyone you are quirky, artsy or well-traveled. This jacket can be a:
> Japanese kimono
>  Chinese embroidered jacket
> Appliqued Mexican jacket
> Pendleton plaid
> Ralph Lauren NA (Native American)
> Kantha quilted jacket.

Some statements are getting a little tired these days: the motorcycle jacket (moto style and the Happy Days variety) and the denim jean jacket. Give them a rest if you wish your statement to say you are not one of the pack.

Hard to find, worth the hunt
Super-sized Kantha jacket on
Supermodel Heidi Klum

Watch what you wear under.
> Simpler is better— a tank, a silk shell.

> Consider the sleeve length. You don't want shirt sleeves sticking out of a bracelet-length sleeve.

> Consider the weight. This jacket is meant to stay on. If you work in a hot office, forget the idea.

> If it's vintage, check for stains and moth holes. Just cause it's old does not give you a pass from good grooming.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What I Read: The Biba Years 1963-1975

For those of you hesitant to plunk down $60 to add this to your collection but interested enough to read on, here's more about "The Biba Years 1963-1975" than I posted in my "look what I just got" blog of October 2.

As expected, this is the most complete Biba compilation to date. And that includes "From A to Biba", Barbara Hulanicki's autobiography, and "Big Biba", all about the last store. The latter goes into more detail on that particular one, but I still think the two years of Big Biba were a questionable experiment. The loss of it was not so much the loss of a building than the end of Biba as a presence.

"The Biba Years" meticulously traces Barbara's history. She was born in Poland in l936. The family, fleeing the Nazis, emigrated to Palestine in 1938. We learn the circumstances that brought her widowed mother and three daughters to Brighton to live with a half sister. Once and for all, Biba was not Barbara's nickname. That belonged to the youngest girl, named Biruta. Art school in Brighton, a move to London, a career as a fashion illustrator, a meeting with her future husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon, the advent of a small mail-order business ("Biba's Postal Boutique"), a store, another store, a bigger store yet, international success, a gigantic store, an implosion, picking up the pieces.* As in most real life, you can't make these things up. Even if Biba had never touched many of us, it would still make a compelling story.

Why the enduring fascination with Biba?

Biba as a "thing" was the sum of many parts:
* Timing (the emergence of youth culture in the '60s)
* Inspiration from the past (the first time the thirties and forties were mined for their appeal)
* Head to toe vision (by one designer)
* Limited availability (not many stores, few mail-order offerings)
* Affordability (without any loss of cache)

It required a commitment. You couldn't just add a piece of Biba to your outfit. When you wore Biba you had to attempt the total look. The colorways were unique, as were the fits. She uses the term "matchy-matchy" unapologetically. Of course I cringed a little. In these days of mix-and-match being modern, it surprised me to learn that Barbara believed in matching everything— hats, bags, shoes, the whole shebang.

Biba was a state of mind. As an American it meant you'd been to London; you knew what was hip and where to find it; you led the life to wear it (something in the arts for certain).

Does Biba still resonate? When you look at pictures of the clothes photographed on standard mannequins and precisely lit, it may be hard to see what the fuss was about. There are some pieces I would indeed die to own, but others are simplistic and seem familiar. Familiar perhaps because we've seen those silhouettes over and over since the '60s. Revolutionary then = old-hat now.

It was a grand idea that failed. What went wrong? Are there lessons to be learned? Don't get too big? Don't sell out to corporate interests? Never give up? Barbara has had an amazing life since, full of successful projects that have taken her talents to new directions. Not in this book, but she is quoted as saying, "Now whenever I finish something I take some photographs and say 'goodbye'. When you lose everything, you realize that the only thing you have is what's in your head."

"To Michelle from her friend Barbara"
(don't I wish...)

*Despite many revivals of Biba, Barbara Hulanicki has had nothing to do with any of them. Presently House of Fraser carries a whole line, using original logos and all. Barbara and her husband (true partners in all things Biba), lost control of the rights when they took on investors to create more capital in 1969. They were never able to get them back and were forbidden to use "Biba" in any venture. Barbara continues to design under her own name. 

Thanks to online magazine "Betty" for neat shots of the book

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Play's the Thing

The little book that started it all

It's short— 144  7" x 9" pages— and will take you 45 minutes to read. The play based on the book has been performed thousands of times around the world. I saw a delightful local performance this week. It resonates.

The premise behind Ilene Beckerman's 1995 memoir is her life in clothes. Through simplistic, childlike renderings and poignant text, the clothes rekindle memories. Some were related to an event in her life. Some were the clothes that defined a person, like her grandmother. Originally written for her children, with copies given to a few friends, Ilene was completely surprised at interest from a publisher. The book is a constant seller and has been followed by four others in a similar vein.

Ilene Beckerman
A "self portrait"

"Love, Loss and What I Wore" was configured into a play in 2008 by Nora and Delia Ephron, with multiple speaking parts. Ilene's nickname is Gingy, and that's her character. Four other actresses assume multiple roles in mini vignettes and perform as a Greek chorus in segments tagged "Clotheslines", riffing on everything from the color black to what goes on (or doesn't) in fitting rooms.

Ilene's technique was such a simple premise with which to reflect on your own life. We don't all have her gift of recall, but photographs can trigger remembrances. I challenge you to pull out a handful of random photos from the scrapbook. Were the clothes themselves important to you? A special dress for a special occasion? How did that play out? Was the photo taken on just an ordinary day? What do you remember about yourself that day? It can be a revealing exercise.

Here's two from me. I've never forgotten what happened the night I wore that dress. I'd completely forgotten about the snowsuit, and I think you'll understand why.

June, 1948
I was almost six. 
The occasion was a party celebrating my 15-year-old sister's Confirmation, a practice meant to replace bar- and bat- mitzvah's in Reform Jewish congrgations. It entailed a party the size and scope of a Sweet Sixteen. Hers was held at the Wade Park Manor in Cleveland. My parents were not party people— givers or go-ers— so this was a big deal. The dress was a silky jersey fabric (like a good nightgown). Pale, pale blue with a pale pink bow appliqued across the bodice. Beautifully done as I remember not being able to see the stitches that kept it attached. Pale blue silk socks (that kept slipping down), white shoes and, yes, that's a bow in my hair. I was always squinting in pictures as of course you had to face the sun. That night, at the party, I chased an older boy into the men's room. I guess he was trying to get away from me. Or else he really had to go. That incident was the stuff of endless family retelling— and some embarrassment when I was introduced to said "boy" (now 19) years later.

Winter, 1948
Age six and in the first grade.
Squinting but happy. Why? I hated the cold. Maybe I had just gotten out there or maybe it was time to go in? The snowsuit was red and green plaid with yellow accent lines. The matchings pants were green and padded. Fat pants. "Stadium boots"— brown rubber, zipped up the front with a fake fur collar around the edge. Lined in something furry too. I liked them as they looked just like the boots my sister and mother wore. What I had completely forgotten was the buttons. Look closely. A snow suit would have zipped for protection from the elements. But I hated the zipper and could never get the two prongs to line up at the bottom so it would zip up. My teacher got so tired of zipping me in for recess, lunch and going home that she sent me with a note to my mother instructing her to replace the zipper with buttons. Which she did. To this day I kind of sort of hate zippers. At the Lovely Boutique Where I Work I still feel a mini ping of panic when a customer asks for help with a zipper, and I often call for assistance, for someone's "magic touch".

All the world's a stage, and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.
— Sean O'Casey

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Michelle Obama's First Oscar

The winning Oscar

No, Michelle Obama has not received an early award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences— yet— but she did wear Oscar de la Renta for the first time this week. The uber-successful New York-based designer's clothing had not made it to the Obama closet until now. He was becoming conspicuous by his absence, despite Michelle having worn a custom made cocktail dress designed by Oscar's son Moises five years ago. Ironically she wore the Oscar to a cocktail party at the White House where the senior Mr. de la Renta had been invited but declined to attend.

A Moises not an Oscar

The party was part of a White House Fashion Education Workshop that brought together students and fashion pros including designers, business people and journalists. What fun and hooray! Although Michelle Obama has been a First Lady fashionista of a high order, the event "took this to a new level, embracing the importance of fashion as an industry for the future."*

Mrs. Obama's tenure may be "winding down" (with only two years and two months to go), but she has established herself as a first and foremost first lady of fashion. Yes, we all wanted to look like Jackie, but Jackie just wanted to look like herself. Michelle is aware of the attention she draws and the power she has to direct it. Then there are the first daughters, Malia and Sasha, who are growing up before our eyes and always look well groomed and appropriately dressed (hopefully without too much nagging from mom).

Photogenic and fashionable First Family

Michelle uses her visibility both to promote new designers and ensure the credibility of the old guard. Among those she's worn:
Jason Wu
Prabal Gurung
Duro Olowu
Alexander McQueen
Tracy Reese
Thom Browne
Narciso Rodriguez
Diane von Furstenburg
Maria Cornejo
Naeem Khan
Georgina Chapman
Natalia Koval

Whose is that last name? Natalia Koval is a Ukranian student at the Fashion Institute of Technology whose dress Michelle wore on October 9 as part of the fashion workshop. Natalia was one of 26 students at the school asked to design a dress for an unnamed celebrity. This was a spot-on choice as it shows off Michelle's great arms and flatters her hipline. Natalia, go directly to the head of the class.

* Vanessa Friedman in the New York Times, October 12, 2014

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Fashion's Name Game

Who'll revive Poiret?

You've heard of musical chairs? Fashion is a game of musical hangers. A piece in The New York Times (10/5/14), aptly titled "Split Seams", set forth the news that Peter Copping is leaving the French couture house of Nina Ricci (possibly to go to Oscar de la Renta in New York), and Guillaume Henry is leaving Carven (possibly to go to Nina Ricci). This was on top of Jean Paul Gautier closing his ready-to-wear line. That last comes almost as a relief, because nowadays it seems he would just get someone else to do it.

This isn't only happening in Paris, of course. Thomas Burberry himself hasn't designed a raincoat for years. He died in 1926. Burberry is designed by Christopher Bailey. Calvin Klein retired in 2003; Francisco Costa is his replacement. But that's Fashion as Business. French fashion has always seemed above the fray, but now you truly need a scorecard. The names of the French couture houses are dripping with history. Some of the greats have shuttered (sadly no more Paul Poiret), but many are just being designed by other people. To wit:

Dior  Raf Simons
Balenciaga  Alexander Wang
Chanel  Karl Lagerfeld
Ricci  Peter Copping*
Lanvin  Alber Elbaz
Givenchy  Ricardo Tisci
Balmain  Olivier Rousteing
Valentino  Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri
Ungaro  Fausto Puglisi
Carven  Guillame Henry*
Vuitton  Nicolas Ghesquiere
St. Laurent  Hedi Slimane
Vionnet  Hussein Chalayan

Does the length of this list strike you as a little screwy? Many of these designers are so talented they surely deserve to helm their own labels, not be linked with someone else. But would you rather own a Valentino or a Chiuri?

With the exception of Karl Lagerfeld, who has picked apart and tortured Chanel for the past 31 years, the work of many bear little resemblance to that of the masters before them. I shudder to think what Valentino, Givenchy or even Calvin Klein must think when they see what their names are serving up. Perhaps they're like me when I saw my old house again for the first time in ten years. They don't completely look.

* Stay tuned

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Women We Love: Norma Shearer

Norma, not Moira

When I was a kid, and ballerina-obsessed on account of "The Red Shoes", the only Shearer I knew was the star of that 1948 film, Moira Shearer. A gorgeous, delicate redhead, Moira was originally a ballerina with Sadler Wells and was no doubt responsible for millions of little girls begging their mothers for ballet lessons. I was one of them, but the request fell on deaf ears. Possibly because my mother could see my two left feet; most likely because lessons didn't fit the budget.

Moira, not Norma
Checking out Norma

At the library I would repeatedly check out a picture book of old Hollywood stars. Norma Shearer was among them, but I thought she might have been Moira's mother. It wasn't until advanced adulthood and the birth of Turner Classic Movies that I got to see Norma in the flesh, so to speak, on celluloid. My first exposure was the fabulous "The Women". The story pretty much revolves around her, though she is surrounded by a glorious gaggle of co-stars acting their hearts out. Not to forget gowns by Adrian— in color— as the finale of this b&w movie. Since then, I perk up at the mention of "Norma Shearer" and try to catch her films when they appear on TCM.

Norma Shearer's appeal is her grown-up-girl-next-door good looks. She's wholesome but not saccharine with a twinkle that lets you know she'll try anything. She was the girly-girl women would love for a friend and men would just love. She was not a comedienne or tragedienne but injected a lot of life into dramatic parts. Norma was one of very few who transitioned from silents to talkies. The charm she gave her role in "The Divorcee" (1930), portraying a "good-girl-gone-bad", earned her an Academy Award and more sophisticated parts.

Conrad Nagel as mesmerized by the divorcee Norma

It didn't hurt that she was Mrs. Irving Thalberg. He was the charismatic head of production at MGM studios. You may recognize the name from the Irving Thalberg award presented at the Academy Awards for exceptionally high standards in film making. Norma and Irving skirted around a romantic relationship for years before going public and marrying in 1927. His untimely death in 1936 is part of Hollywood history.

Mrs. and Mr. Thalberg

As for Norma, she always worked hard to overcome supposed physical limitations ranging from "bad legs" to a "cast eye" (me, I see none of that). Some of her later films were not great choices. "Marie Antoinette" had her wearing a silly blonde wig and "Her Cardboard Lover" in 1942 was her last film. She did know what camera angles worked best, and she felt she knew when it was time to leave the spotlight.

Following her retirement she married a 12-years-younger man and "withdrew from the Glamour side of Hollywood, preferring anonymity". Janet Leigh credited Norma Shearer for mentoring her during her early days in Hollywood as well as helping many other aspiring actors. But quietly. She died in 1983 at age 80.

Heard but not seen, 1951

Hollywood, where there are "more stars than there are in the heavens"*. And more than you may know. Norma Shearer is worth discovering.

*According to Louis B. Mayer of MGM

Thursday, October 2, 2014

What to Read: The Biba Years 1963-1975

Published only a week ago, I received my copy this morning and flipped through it immediately to make sure I didn't buy a pig in a poke. I'm happy to tell you this one just might be the Biba book to have. Written by Barbara Hulanicki (Biba herself), that means she has finally embraced the amazing event that was Biba and fully acknowledges its legacy.

Barbara Hulanicki has skirted around this for years (fashion pun— sorry). Who can blame her? The demise of Biba was tragic and life-altering. She survived by embracing another profession altogether, and is a quite successful interior designer of commercial properties whose sunny, whimsical work is light years from the misty, Gothic romanticism that we associate with Biba. Her co-author is Martin Pel, curator of Costume and Textiles at the Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove. Bibaphiles know that Brighton scores high in the Biba story. It's where Barbara grew up and attended art school. The book is published by V&A Publishing of the venerable Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In other words, this one has street cred.

Vintage Barbara...
...Barbara today

For those of you who need the facts, "The Biba Years" measures 10" x 11 1/2" and comes in at 248 pages of heavy, semi-gloss stock. The hard cover is printed with the cover image, so there's no paper one to become dog-eared. It's a "coffee table book" with great pictures— of the clothing, store interiors, sketches, etc., but there seems like plenty to read as well. As promised there are facsimiles of the six Biba mail order catalogues (of which I have one actual in my possession), but they are matchbook size and hard to decipher. I'll see if a magnifier reveals the prices, which will make you cry by today's comparison. Not considered cricket to call it "Biba", I guess, but a last chapter covers Barbara's work from 1975-2014.

I've put my copy down, for now, as this one will be a Treat of the first order to dip and delve into— with clean hands!