Sunday, May 31, 2015

How to Find a Necklace

I always follow recipes and usually the beaten path but love to improvise when it comes to clothing. Although I've bought many beautiful necklaces, some of my favorites are those re-purposed or cobbled from the stuff of everyday life. Feel free to run with the ideas, but don't trip.

The Bangle-adore
Lightweight plastic bangle bracelets on a leather thong. What's not to love?

The Plumber's Helper
Copper elbow pipe threaded through heavy cord. The knot is hidden inside.

The Rag Picker
Shredded fabric tied over cord, mixed with a few hanks of folded seam binding knotted at the ends. I've made mini versions of this for little girls.

Necklace on a Shoestring
Literally. My sister brought back these amber beads attached to a shoelace as my souvenir from her trip to South Africa. Never bothered to restring them.

Too Much of a Good Thing
Have a necklace that's just too long? Fold it in half and secure at the back with a length of chain pull from the hardware store. Love that stuff.

Then There's Real Art
My talented friend Jo-Anne Myers made this from picture hanging wire, bead and a champagne cap (Domaine Ste. Michelle of course).

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Women We Love: Frida Kahlo

Frida as a magnet

Frida Kahlo is having a moment, according to the New York Times. Another moment. As the Times says, "She was a genius before she was a refrigerator magnet." It's true that as fashion icons go, we take Frida for granted. For one thing, she doesn't need a last name.

Also from the Times "... she was an ace manipulator of society and media nearly a century before social media came into existence." Stripping away her fabulous paintings tinged with pain, her tempestuous relationship with Diego Rivera and her ardent Communist beliefs, she dressed to make a statement. When she wore gorgeous folkloric Mexican outfits she did so without irony and as easily as we throw on a pair of jeans. She even donned men's clothes on occasion, and did that ever say something.

Frida's earlier moment was a long time coming. I wrote a college essay on the painter Diego Rivera back in the '60s. Why not Frida? She would have been far more interesting, but her work sat in a very neglected niche of Latin American folk artists. When the world suddenly discovered Frida late in the last century, she did become that refrigerator magnet, t-shirt and shopping bag. Hers had all the elements of a great story: tragedy, triumph, doomed romance, political intrigue, that unique appearance and yes, she sure could paint.

Two museums are showing off Frida this summer. Detroit's Institute of Arts has "Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo" chronicling time spent there while Rivera painted a massive mural in tribute to Labor.  The NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has "Kahlo, Rivera and Mexican Modern Art". The cherry on this sundae is "Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life" at the New York Botanical Garden. The inspiration is Frida's Mexico City home, Casa Azul. I've been to Casa Azul; it's a magical place.

Casa Azul in Mexico City...
...and in the Bronx

A new book, "Frida Kahlo: The Gisele Freund Photographs" promises 100 rarely seen candid photos of Frida and Diego. As they both illustrated so well, their art was their life.

We're having another Bohemian fashion moment as well. That makes me happy as I love a bit of let's pretend. As we layer on the printed maxi skirts, embroidered peasant blouses and ethnic jewelry, it might be wise to remember that very fine line between homage and oh-my-gosh.

Here's to looking at you again, Frida

Friday, May 22, 2015

Summer Book Club: London Society Fashion 1905-1925

A surprise early birthday gift (thank you, DG) brought me "London Society Fashion 1905-1925". The book is subtitled "The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank" but should be sub-subtitled "Who She Was, What She Wore and Why".

Heather Firbank, age 20

"In 1926 Heather Firbank packed away her extensive wardrobe of fine clothes, bought from London's very best dressmakers and tailors. These treasures lay undiscovered for the next thirty years, until they were given to the V&A [London's Victoria and Albert Museum of the decorative arts] after her death, laying the foundation for the Museum's world-famous collection."

It's hard to believe that until the 1950s fashion was not considered an art form and rarely exhibited in major museums. The Heather Firbank collection of over 400 items (not acquired in total by the V&A) was comprised of day dresses, gowns, coats, suits, blouses, lounging wear, undergarments, shoes, hats, etc. as well as bills of sale from dressmakers and emporiums she favored, clippings from the contemporary fashion press, sketches of things she wanted made and photographs of her wearing many of the outfits represented in the treasure trove.

It's also surprising that the V&A has only just published this book in 2015. The "why now?" is "Downton Abbey." Although we're into the mid 1920s in the upcoming (and last) installment of the series, it began in 1912 when the real Miss Firbank was 24 and on her way to spinsterhood (why is part of the Downton-esque intrigue). Ten years later she was very much unmarried for life and struggling with less income and less importance in British society— though she kept a lady's maid throughout and "reduced circumstances" forced her to reside in a luxurious seaside residential hotel.

The photographs are beautiful and detailed. The snippets of ephemera are charming and enlightening. What bowled me over was the wealth of information about why and how all this stuff was worn and the time-consuming importance of one's wardrobe for this segment of the population. There are the almost forgotten society dressmakers of the early 20th century, such as Lucile, Redfern and Kate Reilly. We learn how clothing was designed, marketed and manufactured and how "ready-mades" turned into the department stores of today. "London Society Fashion" is a great read for anyone who loves fashion, history... and "Downton Abbey".

The acquisition of Heather Firbank's wardrobe enabled the V&A to mount its show, "Lady of Fashion" in 1960 and opened the doors for all the amazing exhibits which followed. Currently showing is Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (below)— through August 2, 2015.

It all started with Heather...

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Iris is an Eyeful

I just saw "Iris", the documentary by Albert Maysles. I had to do it quickly as it's scheduled to end its one-week run today. There were few people in the theatre, so that might be why. All eight of us enjoyed it immensely. I was the first to leave. The others stayed as if there might be more.

This won't be a movie review although in general the reviews were positive. "Iris" won't change your life or inspire you to give it up and move to Park Avenue. Her life is unique and in many ways charmed (as in charm bracelets).

I did feel like I spent 90 minutes with a wicked-smart woman who was not in any way playing to the camera. She is not a delightfully daffy Diana Vreeland type. I call that the Holly Golightly effect— she honestly believed all that crazy stuff she believed. Iris is calls it like she sees it, and is self-deprecating enough to soften any sting.

The gift of Iris Apfel is that at 93 she is still sharp as a tack with the confidence to be exactly who she is. Most of us spend a good part of our lives searching for that. As children we just assume we will grow up into someone. As adults we realize we never "grow up", and life is a journey of learning and experiences— or should be. With the luck of good health, favorable finances and some undefined fairy dust, Iris has that.

We don't learn much about her early life, other than she was an only child whose parents both worked and she bought her first bracelet in Greenwich Village when she was 13. That's really okay as Iris sprang to life in 2005 after an exhibit of her clothing and accessories at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. That was an interesting story recalled by Harold Koda of the Met in the film.

An (unnamed) sponsored major exhibit dropped out at the last minute, and the Met needed something to take its place— fast. Harold knew Iris socially through her work as an interior designer and owner of Old World Weavers, a firm specializing in replicating historic fabrics for little cottages like the White House. She had always been a thoroughbred clothes horse with, as he said, "one of the top two collections of couture costume jewelry in the world." The idea was to show her collection with a few examples on mannequins wearing her clothes. The rest— as they say— is herstory. The show broke records, travelled to other museums and made Iris into "a geriatric starlet".

Iris at the Met, 2005

So I love her and loved the film. You got that, right? Here's where I hesitatingly admit two things I kept thinking throughout. Iris has time to do everything but eat. She is so painfully thin that some of her wonderful clothes just kind of flap around on her. She is in remarkable physical health for 93 but just looks so frail... I wondered if perhaps she doesn't enjoy food, which would be a shame.

The other thing is I was — gulp— rather taken aback by her over-decorated homes. Not over-decorated with treasures, mind you, but "junque" like cheesy stuffed animals and Christmas decorations left up for 8 months. Sometimes it was hard to tell if we were in her apartment or storage facility. She actually has another apartment just for clothes. And maybe— just maybe— there are too many. Iris is able to curate an outfit so perfectly— what to add, what to remove— that I was a trifle disappointed she isn't able to do that at home.

I love you, Iris, and love that you let us into your amazing world. So why do I feel like the child who cried out that the emperor wasn't wearing any clothes?

It was a trip, Iris

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Staple in My Stable

What's a wardrobe staple that's been around forever and is still chic and more popular than ever? Did you say leopard? That would be one. I spy the French sailor's t-shirt aka Breton fisherman t-shirt. Chanel wore it with a knowing wink to menswear. Picasso wore it (when he wasn't going shirtless). Bardot was— well— very Bardot in hers. Audrey, Jean, Jackie, Paul, James even Liz wore one as did the gone-too-soon Oliver Reed. Jean Paul Gaultier practically built a business around his favorite top.

Jean Paul

This is the perfect example of how style can churn up from the street. It's so ubiquitous today that it's obvious influence appeared on three diners within my camera range having lunch at Neiman Marcus the past weekend. Believe it or not, there were three more in the other direction, but the light was not in my favor. No designer on high ever declared this the "it" shirt. Like leopard spots, fisherman stripes just keep bouncing along.

Fisherman's stew was on the menu

There can be many variations and colors, but black-and-white seems the most popular. Mine is most similar to the one at the top and was from Land's End. The heavier weight fabric washes and dries like a dream, though it may be more suited to summer in Wisconsin than summer in Texas.

Dressier than a t-shirt for men, they are less formal than either a polo or a sport shirt. My husband does not believe in costumes (unless dressed to watch football) but loves being a French fisherman (though only at the seaside).

Black and white goes well with other colors and patterns. Love love love pairing the striped top with a striped skirt as shown in June's InStyle magazine.

French sailors still wear theirs, but the Breton fishermen themselves opt for a more modern look.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

I Jumped for the Jumpsuit

Getting ready to jump

Yep. I bought a jumpsuit. After vowing I would never buy another. My first/last was in 1972 and was a Biba bottle green jersey that buttoned halfway down the front. What a pain to deal with and the least practical piece of clothing I ever owned. Plus the knees bagged out.

I've managed to stifle a knowing giggle at the new popularity of jumpsuits and their summer cousins, rompers. Caveat emptor! Then I saw this little number at TJ Maxx and fell for its chic possibilities and practical fabrication. It's heavyweight black polyester stretch jersey and looks indestructible. Bateau neckline, long sleeves that can be pushed up, tapered legs that puddle in an elegant way, gathers above and below an easy waistline and— wait for it— pockets. Can you tell I'm in love?

Better yet, as I modeled it for the husband (who has a kind way of telling me I am out of my mind), the first thing he said was, "very Audrey Hepburn". Sold!

I see this dressed up for evening or tailored down for day. Sure would be comfy and chic on a plane. In fact, as I tried various belts (a black leather wrap looks good) I really didn't want to take it off.

I also knew this purchase would make the blog filed under "Never Say Never". It's happened before; it'll happen again. My mind is set against something, and I have a change of heart. I'm learning...

Looking for a photo to share, I made an interesting discovery. My jumpsuit, by Lauren Ralph Lauren, has a manufacturer's hangtag listing the price as $164. I paid $79.95. There is an exact same jumpsuit in the Ralph Lauren Black Label line, available at Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman. Price: $1495. No doubt the fabric is lovelier and the stitches smaller, but for $1415 I'll forego the black label. Ralph Lauren was annointed my first Man We Love, and now I love him even more. It's not unusual for designers to be ripped off. It's not the usual for one to rip off himself. Ralph was so happy with this jumpsuit he wanted all of us to own one.

$1415 less

Thursday, May 14, 2015

When the Price Wasn't Always Right

You would think no one could take credit for this, but someone did invent the price tag. Until that time the price of goods was often determined by haggling.

Wannamaker's, once upon a time

John Wannamaker of Philadelphia opened his Grand Depot (aka department store) in 1876 on the site of the former Pennsylvania Railroad train station. This was Philadelphia's first department store and one of the first in the country. Wannamaker's was home to many "firsts" over time (first in-store restaurant in 1876 and electric lights in 1878) but the first first was that the prices of goods were clearly marked. He was the inventor of the "retail fixed pricing system" to eliminate bargaining. Wannamaker, though not a Quaker, may have been influenced by the many Quakers in Pennsylvania who thought haggling was undignified and not conducive to a fair transaction. Dearly beloved by Philadelphians, Wannamaker's lasted until 1995, when it was absorbed by Hecht's, which was itself taken over by Macy's.

Whether an actual price tag was affixed to each item or there was a sign in the display case is not clear. No one takes credit for the tags with odd encryptions for sku, class, vendor, style, etc. that dangle from garments these days. All we want to know is THE PRICE (and maybe the size). With all the promotions and discounts going on, it's hard to know even that. My local Macy's (yes they are everywhere) has "tag readers" situated throughout the selling floors like those penny arcade fortune tellers. Scan the price tag and the reader will spew forth today's price.

"Take an additional 25% off the lowest price."

We will wait to buy till we think we can get the lowest price, and we'll shop all over town for it. We insist on "price adjustments" if we missed out and take advantage of "loyalty awards" and competitors' price wars. We've barely stopped haggling, haven't we? It's just become a sport of the passive-aggressive.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Women We Love: Ida Ruskin

Ida Ruskin, 1962

A few months ago Lynn Mally suggested I write a portrait of my mother's style for her blog, "American Age Fashion". My mother's style was well-defined, and she encouraged my love of fashion and design. I'm republishing it here because I haven't mastered the technique of getting you to another website with one click. Please enjoy, and if you can, call your mother.

* * * * * 

If I could describe my mother's fashion life in one word it would be disciplined. While that may sound strict, the thoughtful restraint she showed in dress served her well as she handled life's twists and turns. Her two favorite expressions were, "God helps those who help themselves" and "No use crying over spilled milk".

My mother was not born a beauty but became beautiful as she matured. She was trimmer and more stylish in her 50s than as a young wife and mother. And she never let herself go. One of my last memories before her death at age 89 is bringing new blouses to the nursing home for her approval. There she was something of a fashion star, known for always wearing a tailored skirt and sophisticated print blouse. And my grief after her death was never greater than when I would spot a blouse I knew she would have loved. How many people mourn their mothers at TJ Maxx?

But let’s back track. Free association…

She favored tailored separates— shirts or blouses or jersey tops, pencil or a-line skirts, dressmaker suits. She was not a “boyfriend” anything or a “girlie” anything. She liked a “good cloth coat” and small pieces of costume jewelry and couldn’t care a fig about precious jewels.

She knew how to tie a scarf, a trick I never mastered. She used the girl scout knot.

She put her stockings on with an old soft pair of white gloves so they wouldn’t run.

In her 40s (divorced and working as a private secretary) she started a subscription to Vogue (and cancelled Better Homes & Gardens). She never lusted for anything except a red leather clutch she saw in Vogue in the spring of 1954. My sister and I chipped in and bought it for her. It was $10.

She liked brown and white or navy and white spectator heels in summer. At some point these were replaced by black patent leather (probably when spectators were no more).

Before I came along, wearing spectators

She never wore old clothes to do chores. She didn’t own any. Everything was in good condition, clean and pressed. That meant wearing a house dress for housework with sometimes an apron over that.

I never remember her wearing black. Her basic color would be brown in fall/winter and navy in spring/summer.

In the 1960s she had a color epiphany and wore kelly green or bright yellow. She had a little more fun with fashion after that.

She moved to New York City in her 50s and retired from her office job at 62, then began dressmaking for editors at Condé Nast and for an ad agency with a fabric account. She worked part time at Lord & Taylor and discovered her wanderlust. She planned travel wardrobes as thoroughly as itineraries.

She wore pants first in the late 1960s when she began going on cruises. They were not for day. Her pants were evening slacks, and I suspect she never felt comfortable in them— or on the cruises.

She never met a leopard she didn’t love. She once had a leopard belt made from the genuine animal— about 3 inches wide with a square leather buckle. It’s stunning; I have it but can’t bear to wear the real thing.

She purchased shoes, gloves, girdles and bras (custom made by Edith Lances as she was hard to fit) and bought nightgowns but sewed everything else, even her bathing suit.

One of my fondest memories was of the two of us spending a weekend sewing. We’d cut, mark and baste on Saturday and sew all day Sunday. The machine was in the hall, the ironing board in the kitchen. Meals were taken on the run, but we were each wearing new outfits on Monday.

Shoes played a major role in her life. She met my father when she saw him working in a shoe store and finally went in to try him on for size. She wore 7 1/2 AAAA, very hard to find, so she was always looking for shoes (not more husbands). And shoes did her in. She tripped on a sidewalk in New York City and broke her foot badly. It never healed and put her into Sensible Shoes and a lot of pain thereafter. She was wearing beautiful Delman pumps at the time, so padded for comfort that her feet barely sat in them. She was 75. If I learned anything from that, it is to wear flats.

Ida Ruskin, 1972

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Marc Jacobs and the Mystery Woman

Who's that gal?

The past week New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its annual major fashion exhibition with an event known as the Gala. I mention that in case you've been living under a rock. The fashion-possessed know to look for this each year as it churns up a lot of press— who was wearing what or what was wearing whom, who was with whom and— oh yes— the exhibit. This year's theme is "China: Through the Looking Glass", set to explore "the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion, and how China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries".


Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue and creative director of Conde Nast, is a big deal in all this. The galleries are even named The Anna Wintour Costume Center. She looked stunning in her Chanel gown. Can't say the same for everyone. There were a lot of "costumes" as opposed to "fashion". The exhibit itself was meant to be a combination of art and fashion and has left reviewers thinking the art didn't get a fair shake. This will probably always be a question: Is Fashion Art?

Winning Wintour

On to Marc Jacobs. His date for the evening was Cher. They are not BFFs, and he was nervous as hell to squire her to the Gala. The New York Times reported on date night in Thursday's Style Section.  Marc Jacobs has often been one of fashion's bad boys. He looked great this year in a classic tux, but three years ago wore a black lace dress over white boxers to the Met Gala. Shame on him; those should have been black boxers. Cher, who can be delightfully outlandish herself was very elegant (but still Cher) in her Marc Jacobs dress.

Marc meets Met, 2012
Marc meets Cher, 2015

The image at the top appeared in the print edition of the story. Marc, who was early to pick up Cher, has stepped outside the Four Seasons Hotel to have a cigarette. The woman in the foreground stopped me cold. What a great-looking New York City WOACA (woman of a certain age).

At first I thought she was stylist extraordinaire Polly Mellen (not thin enough) or the always-fabulous Gloria Sharp (who lives in Toronto). Marc Jacob's other date (for this photo at least) looks coolly elegant in a simple poncho-like topper and statement necklace. She's beautifully groomed, has great posture and is carrying one hunk of a leather "shopper". She's on her way somewhere and couldn't care less that Marc and a photographer are in her path.

Guess who?
Sharp Gloria

Wouldn't it be funny if she had been asked to walk back and forth while the picture was taken? Kind of like the famous photo by Ruth Orkin of the young woman being ogled on a street in Italy. That wasn't exactly staged, but the model was a friend of Ruth's, and she did repeat the walk a second time.

Ruth Orkin's iconic eye view