Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The 99¢ Stocking Stuffer

Or rather the thing to stuff stockings into

Do you live near a TJ Maxx? There are 1,079 in the USA and Puerto Rico. Mine is less than half a mile from home. It's all I can do to keep my visits down to once a week.

Today I found, and could not resist, this glorious coated plastic shopping bag for 99¢ hanging by the checkout counter. We're not talking a tote to carry lunch. This bag measures 20" wide by almost 18" high with a capacity of 8" deep. It's made of a substantial-weight coated plastic with the most charming reproductions of vintage fashions from the Victorian era through the '50s (both sides the same).

Yes, a giant TJMAXX is printed down the sides when the bag opens up, but for this beauty at a bargain basement price, I'll be happy to be their bag lady.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Service with a Smile

"How may I help you?"

For the first time ever I am avoiding holiday shopping in the stores or at least plotting how to get in and out with the least hassle. I've taken stories of traffic jams at the mall and no place to park to heart. The pragmatic side thinks, yes, this is a very good thing for the economy. The other side is loving no shipping fees at Target and J Crew.

I'm also aware and have been the victim of rude, uninterested salespersons who couldn't seem to care less all I've gone through to get there. This is a double-edged sword as I am also in the service industry myself, and retail is my bag. I know that whatever the service it needs to be delivered with a smile, eye contact, some positive chit-chat and a meaningful closure (not just a "have a nice day").

I carry out my duties sincerely and enthusiastically. A ham at heart,  I love the fact that all the world's a stage. The more my efforts to serve you are appreciated, the better I perform— the more balls I will throw in the air, the more cherries added to the sundae.

The other day at the Lovely Boutique Where I Work a customer remarked, "You've been here a long time, haven't you?". "Since you were in elementary school," I replied.

Not true of course. I might have been in college when she was in elementary school. The fact that she acknowledged I was even there endeared me to her as no other. Suddenly she was a friend. I gave her even more of my utmost attention. Although my shift ended, I ran about gathering camisoles and cardigans for her.

I know you've had a hard day. I know you blame me when the button is missing or your size is gone. I would blame me too. I know you've waited in line way too long for your sale t-shirt. I know you are second-guessing yourself on that holiday gift before it's even been rung up. But do you really have to check your emails while you're checking out? Or talk on the phone so our only contact is gestures and nods? Some interruptions are unavoidable, I know. But it's nice to know that you know that I notice.

There is a lot we service folk can and should do to make your experience outstanding and not merely tolerable. We are never off the hook on that. My suggestion is that this is really a dance that takes two to tango.

A little kindness to your local shop girl goes a long way. To riff on Sally Field, "You seem to like me, you really seem to like me". We will jump through hoops for that.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Bring Back the Four Seasons!

They had their seasons too...

The vocal group split up many years ago, about the same time I first came across "Color Me Beautiful"— the book, the theory, the game changer.

Discovering my color palette based on skin tone, hair and eye colors was such a lightbulb moment. I remember literally saying "Duh!" when I realized why my favorite color— shocking pink— never looked good on me. I bid a fond adieu to shocking pink (next to the face) and carried the chart of flattering colors in my wallet.

Buy the bottle not the blouse

For me (pale-skinned redhead and an Autumn) no blue tones, ivory or ecru instead of stark white, greyed notes of bold colors, ixnay pastels. Teal is the one color that flatters everyone. Black is not my friend. I also learned I am a rule breaker; it's not been possible to say goodbye to black.


"Color Me Beautiful", first published in 1981, was the brainchild of Carole Jackson, a color consultant with a little art training who had briefly worked for a color separator in the printing industry. She never claimed to have originated the concept. Similar color theories were part of the Bauhaus school in the 1920s as practiced by Johannes Itten and Josef Albers. But she made it fun and relatable. "Having one's colors done" became something of a cottage industry in the '80s. You could choose to ignore it, but a few passes with scarves or color cards next to your face in a mirror, and the evidence was pretty compelling.

Look familiar?

I could be a dear and reproduce the other seasons for you. But the book, available on Amazon, is worth reading, the theory (obviously) holds water, and Carole Jackson deserves to reap some rewards.
(Many thanks to M.H. for the suggestion)

Sunday, December 7, 2014

By Bye Barbie?

"Normal Barbie" on the right

At The Lovely Boutique Where I Work, petite sizes are called "petite", and the others are called "standard" instead of "normal" or "regular". You could still interpret "petite" to mean "sub-standard" or "below normal" if you wanted to take offense. No one has.

Make way for "Normal Barbie". Her real moniker is Lammily after her creator,  Nickolay Lamm, a Pittsburgh-based "artist and researcher" (also a man). She is based on the average proportions of a 19-year-old.

When shown to a group of seven-year-old girls, some of the girls said the difference between Lammily and Barbie was Lammily was "wider", though some did say she was "fatter". She does wear less makeup, still has incredible Barbie hair and that weird pelvis.

Lammily is quite pretty. I would never have complained if I looked that good at 19. There is plenty of room to have many different styles of dolls. What bothers me is that Barbie is being trashed in the process.

Has anyone seen high fashion models in the flesh? I certainly have. Many are young and haven't sprouted the womanly attributes that show up later. They really do look like colts or giraffes or gazelles. Perhaps in another age we would have felt sorry for them. They are real women, just not like the rest of us. And right or wrong we've all gotten used to seeing clothes modeled on very thin forms.

The gazelle Giselle with her
sister, Patricia (left)

Barbie's not real and to think that's not obvious is a little unfair— to her creators at Mattel and to little girls who have loved Barbie for generations. They know she's not real as much as Rapunzel's hair wasn't twenty stories long and Cinderella couldn't wear glass shoes. Barbie is fantasy fun. Poor Barbie has been blamed for all kinds of self-esteem issues, including anorexia.

Barbie has had over 130 careers in her 55 years, from a doctor to a rapper. As befitting the times, perhaps, her latest incarnation is "entrepreneur". She's had a boyfriend and a wedding dress but never been married.

Too much bling for an entrepreneur?

Think of dolls throughout history. They were totems, not meant to be mini-mes. There were rag dolls, china head dolls, impossibly delicate bisque dolls, cartoon characters, even "church dolls" fashioned out of hankies so they wouldn't make any noise during the Sunday service.

Hanky doll
"Poor Pitiful Pearl" doll arrived
 dressed in rags

I would have loved to have played with Barbie (born too soon). I don't think it would have warped my expectations of adulthood. Instead I drafted the most sophisticated of my "little girl" dolls (she with the upswept hairdo) to be a grown-up. She was alternately a WAVE, a stewardess, a nurse and an archeologist. I became none of these and have no regrets.

As for Barbie's fate in this PC-world—in the immortal words of the late Joan Rivers, "Oh, grow up". And little girls will do that, just fine.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Jump Start


Turning a sleeveless dress into a jumper is a trick that's been around forever. A black turtleneck never earned its keep better than this look. I might have switched to black opaque tights though.


The pussycat bow on this blouse helps further unify the two pieces, in this case a faux three pieces. Good job.

The other day shopping I came home with one lonely purchase. By the time I arrived it seemed desperation might have been doing the buying. I didn't need another blouse, but it had looked nice under the jacket I wore that day.

Lonely blouse sat around in its plastic bag for quite a while. I couldn't see another trip to the mall anytime soon. Do the words "black" and "Friday" also bring terror to your soul? So I played around with it instead and came up with 4 more ways to wear this quite attractive blouse (that came out of living in a bag for two weeks with nary a wrinkle).

Blouse from H&M
And as a jumper again

It's much too nice a day to stay inside playing dress-up on Blossom Dearie all afternoon, but you get the idea. And, yes, I am fortunate enough to have found a Wolf Dress Form Model 1951 in my exact size. She's called Blossom Dearie in homage to the artfully named cabaret singer and in tribute to a silent but important character in "I Capture the Castle", Miss Blossom. Honk if you've read the book.

The dear Miss Dearie

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Fly Me to These Sandals


Won't someone please rip these off and make them cheaper? How can I possibly shell out $125 for plastic jelly sandals (though jellies are incredibly comfortable) just because someone cleverly added wings? I mean, how adorable are they?

Here's the leather version at $230. Somehow not as adorable.



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.

Show-off

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:

Well-suited

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