Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Women We Love: Diana Vreeland

Hurricane Diana

I never understood the fuss about Diana Vreeland. Yes, she was lauded as a Great Fashion Editor. My experiences with good editors were that they knew how to get the job done calmly and cooly, inspiring others to do their best along the way. They didn't make a fuss, and for the most part toiled in silence (Helen Gurley Brown excepted). I knew of Diana's long tenure at Harper's Bazaar, her decampment to Vogue and her work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute. I had read her quirky bon mots in the "Why Don't You...?" columns collected from her days at Bazaar. I even enjoyed the autobiography, "D.V.", not knowing whether to believe all of it but enchanted anyways. It wasn't until I read the recent "The Eye Has to Travel" by Lisa Immordino Vreeland (her grandaughter-in-law) that I understood her greatness for what it was.

I have a feeling she never stopped talking

Diana (or Dee-Ah-Nah as she pronounced it) Vreeland was a force of nature. A true original, her enthusiasms knew no bounds. She believed in every amazing project she undertook or pronouncement she made. There was no stopping her, though a few tried (most notably Alexander Liberman at Vogue). Never a beauty herself, Diana nevertheless had Style and a 1,000 watt smile that could crack a safe. She knew style is unable to be purchased— let alone defined— but is a precious commodity. She believed in herself, which is beguiling in itself. She communicated whether by written word, actions or by Being There.

Lisa Immordino Vreeland never met her grandmother-in-law but great research and insight make Diana pop right off the pages. Imagine trying to find out about someone so important to your life whom you never knew? That task must have put those commercials to shame. I met Lisa this summer at a book signing for "The Eye Has to Travel" and was happy to tell her I shared the air with her grandmother during the time we both worked at Conde Nast.

The lady liked red

One thing in particular that I read surprised me. "Funny Face" was a 1957 Stanley Donen musical about a bookstore clerk (Audrey Hepburn) turned model/muse by a fashion photographer (Fred Astaire). His character is based on one of Diana's favorites, Richard Avedon. The editor of the fictional fashion magazine is played (a little over the top) by Kay Thompson. The opening scene has Kay and her assistants singing "Think Pink" while marching around the office. Evidently Diana was not amused, let alone flattered, and remarked after attending a screening, "Never to be discussed". I loved that movie and have probably seen it fifty times. It inspired me to become Audrey Hepburn and to work at a fashion magazine, only one of which I accomplished.

Flash forward to 1965.  "Glamour" and "Vogue" shared office space on the 19th floor of the Graybar Building at 420 Lexington in NYC (the other Conde Nast titles were on floors above and below). The only time I actually saw Diana Vreeland she was passing through the double doors into the Vogue office, followed by her minion of young women, hanging onto every word— just like the opening scene in "Funny Face".

"Pink is the navy blue of India."— Diana Vreeland

A documentary based on the book is due soon. The trailer looks delicious, and we get to hear Diana Vreeland speak. The release date is set for September 21. Do yourself a favor, though, and pick up a copy of "The Eye Has to Travel". It's a trip worth taking.

Lisa Vreeland: Grandmama would be proud

Monday, August 27, 2012

Brooching the Subject

Brooch targeting a trend

To borrow a phrase from Heidi Klum, in fashion one day you're in, the next day you're in... storage. Thanks to a comment from the lovely blogger Heather about some old rubber bangles, I am reminded that Everything Has a Season. But that is no reason to chuck it. If you love it, save it.

Amazingly many of these friends begin with the letter B:
> Brooches
> Beads
> Bangles
> Berets
> Bees and Butterflies (as in motifs)
and last but not least
> Belts (never throw away a good one)

Fashion and the Boomerang Effect go hand in hand. It always comes back. As surely as prairie skirts looked so yesterday's "Little House" in 1992, they looked so fetching in 2012. In fashion one must know which way the prairie grass blows.

Today's long-lost buddy would appear to be the brooch. Defined as "a relatively large decorative pin or clasp", the brooch makes a statement. You can't miss it. If a pin is described as the size of a nickel, a brooch is the size of a half-dollar. I know, there may be more brooches in circulation than fifty-cent pieces.

The brooch is never really "out". I don't think the Queen is pulling hers in and out of the safe deposit box. But look what's happened:
Good way to get your mother-in-law to like you
If Duchess Kate can wear a brooch sans irony, so can the young and restless. Thus we all follow.

Madeleine Albright knows a thing or two about brooches
As does Margaret Thatcher
Michelle Obama has fun with fashion
Ann Romney prefers pearls
Is the brooch, in this election year, a portent of the results? The last time we saw a brooch bandwagon was around 2004. What started as one piece of vintage costume jewelry perhaps perched provocatively on your jacket grew to a gaggle of expression which must have imploded from all that weight on one side.
Today I will tiptoe gingerly into brooches. I'm excited because I do have a few (dozen) lying about in the jewelry drawer. If I decide not to revisit the brooch, what a great craft project is this?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

In Praise of the Girdle

Girdled loins

Never did I think I would write an ode to the girdle. The girdle was a right of passage. If you were grown up enough to wear stockings, you wore a girdle. Garter belts were for—well— trollops. Imagine encasing 16-year-old flesh in elastic. A crime against nature!

I'm not sure the last time I wore a girdle. I doubt if it was beyond freshman year in college. The bra went next. Did you smell all that burning rubber?

Last week, after the purchase of a Helmut Lang sheath dress, I decided to try a "body shaper" (i.e. girdle) and was amazed at the results. A sheath is not a shape that matches my curves. Let's face it, there are a lot more bends in the road than there used to be. My Marilyn Monroe brand (did Marilyn even wear a girdle?) pull-on lycra-spandex waist-to-thighs number not only compressed the lumps and bumps, it made me stand taller and feel more "dressed". Sitting, eating, all those good things were not affected. Strange to say, I felt like a lady.

Like gloves and stockings and hats, I'm glad the girdle is a choice and not required. Fashion today is freedom of expression and freedom of compression!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Tickled Oxblood

Here come the models bearing oxblood

Oxblood is on the menu this fall. This is the first time I can remember the color oxblood getting a big play. I guess burgundy is so last year's wine. Oxblood must have a great press agent, because who would want to sport a color that name? Defined as "a dark brownish-red color" with origins in the late 1600s, it no doubt spurted forth from the blood of oxen. Yikes.

No oxen were harmed in the manufacture of this product

I've always hated the color because it reminded me of stiff-as-a-board back-to-school shoes or chairs in stuffy office waiting rooms.
School shoes never looked this good
There must be a National Geographic nearby
Not quite brown and not quite red, oxblood actually looks good with all neutrals (grey, navy, brown, black) and is almost universally flattering.
The kiss of...?
I just cannot get the image out of my mind of a poor ox being stuck with a spear and bleeding all over. Could we not call it "mulberry"instead?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

La Belle Label

Jean Paul, it's been fun
I will admit to being something of a label snob. Never ever will I wear anyone's logo or initials on my person. That goes for LV, RL, YSL or even CC (sorry can't do entwined Cs on the computer but you know who I mean). Next to my person— as on a lovely sliver of embroidered satin ribbon discreetly sewn at the seam? Well, that's another story. Until yesterday the closest I have come to owning a piece of clothing with a label to brag about is a Jean Paul Gautier skirt I picked up at a thrift shop for $40. The skirt is black crepe with a gazillion brass zippers with pull chains that can be zipped up and down to give the skirt more or less swing. Despite the fact that the chains get caught in everything, it's a fun piece and very Gautier. Couture it's not.
Dangerous when wet
I did own just a label once. My older sister was getting married and "trousseau shopping" at Bonwit Teller. At age 13 I was a reluctant participant, though I loved the Bonwit Teller in downtown Cleveland.  It was small enough to feel like an atelier and quiet enough to feel like a museum— there were even gilt-framed oil paintings on the back stairwell landings. While feigning complete boredom in the fitting room, I noticed a Nettie Rosenstein label on the carpet behind a chair leg. I pocketed it, but should have known that label was cursed.

Nettie Rosenstein was an American designer of the 50s who was part of the Hattie Carnegie/Adele Simpson/Pauline Trigere school of ladylike clothes worn by fashion conscious but not usually fashion forward women. They were brag-worthy designers if not very innovative. Mamie Eisenhower was a Nettie Rosenstein fan. Stifle that snicker— so was Jackie Kennedy.
The girls wearing Nettie Rosenstein
Next day I sewed my pilfered prize into the neckline of a plaid cotton shirtdress. I now had my own designer dress! A few days later the Nettie Rosenstein label ran in the wash and ruined my dress. That could be why I've approached label lust very cautiously. Until now.
Worth waiting for
Finally. At last. A Helmut Lang is mine. OK, it's from TJ Maxx and was only $79, but it's an original, unworn gen-u-ine serious designer dress with Helmut Lang hangtag stating $450, and it's divine. It's some kind of slurred dull silk, with shredded edges and an asymetrical hem, quite unlike anything I've ever worn or owned. OK, it looks a little like a school project that never got finished, but it's NOT, and that's what counts. I wore it last night with black laced sandals and an armful of black rubber bangles. I intend to wear it everywhere except, maybe, to bed.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Desperately Seeking Sanity

Welcome to the Jungle

The first of the September "big books" arrived in my mailbox today. At 2 1/2 pounds and 652 pages, InStyle magazine took up so much space there was barely room for the bills. Flipping through it had me thinking of fall, though the temperature is sitting squarely in the mid 90s. Fall in Houston is generally a state of mind. The Galleria Mall, eternally 72 degrees, is more like it. So I spent some time tonight checking out what's in the stores as they begin to unveil their fall selections.

I report thus: The state of the agora is... desperate. I was assaulted by a hodge podge of styles, sensibilities, silhouettes and fabrications. Granted there are still bathing suits and sundresses on the racks in a riot of colors and patterns, but the cacophony didn't stop there. It's as if the designers or buyers or whoever makes these decisions have thrown up their hands to say, "We don't know want they want. So let's give 'em everything."

Normally you'll have the Preppy look "in" one year and "out" the next. Or there will be a Folkloric feel. Or it's first cousin, Tribal. One year will be Minimal; the next will be Animal. There will be a Good Idea replaced by another Good Idea. What I saw was all of it at once, and that's a Bad Idea.

Too much pep for its own good?
Remember peplums and how fresh they looked last winter and into spring? Now, everything has a peplum. And not just a blouse. Got a skirt? Add a peplum. Pants? Peplum it. Sweater? Peplum! This is way too much pep for me.

And where to stash this abundance of apparel? There were not enough racks in Macy's to contain it all. The fractured floor plans of most retail stores make shopping difficult enough. Designer sub-shops mean you have to cover the space of a football field to see all the black cardigans. Just try to make sense of the styles when even the sub-shops have sub-shops! I was drowning in a sea of plenty. I couldn't see a tree for the forest. Just as I am overdoing the metaphors so was I undone by the flotsam and jetsam of unedited plethora.

It was clear that if you were not a Dedicated Follower of Fashion you would run from the mall, straight to the nearest Jamba Juice and forget the whole thing. Or you would head home, fire up your computer and fill your shopping cart on L.L. Bean's website. So peaceful.. so organized... so... boring.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

It's Clear it's Claire

Clare was claire-voyant
If you were to put a finger on who was the number one force behind creating American Style, the clear choice would have to be Claire McCardell. Not discussed much today, she is such a part of my own fashion-think I sometimes forget that. Thanks to The Vintage Traveler blogger, who is having her own Claire revelation, for the reminder.

Claire McCardell may soon be having her moment in the sun. The collective talents of Isaac Mizrahi, Anna Sui, Marc Jacobs, Michal Kors and Donna Karan have long referenced Claire McCardell. The proliferation of self-help tomes, television runway and makeover programs, personal shoppers and multitudes of bloggers (myself included) endlessly clogging up the stratosphere with fashion may have led us back to this creative, all-inclusive and commercially successful talent.

Claire was born in Maryland in 1905. After two years of college, she moved to New York to study at what is now Parson's School of Design and graduated in 1925. She had spent a year in Paris and was a fan of the innovative designer Vionnet, master draper and queen of the bias cut. From the start Claire was a pioneer in what was a male-dominated profession— the commercial dress designer. She became the anonymous head designer for Townley Frocks in 1931. Following some ups and downs, she returned to Townley in 1939 with her name on the label, thus becoming one of the first American designers to have label recognition.

She continued to create and innovate through the restrictions of WWII. She showed her line with models wearing fabric ballet slippers and set off a footwear trend that is still going strong. She saw the opportunity to promote American fashion as its own style based not on the dictates of Paris but our way of life. She died at the top of her game in 1958 and on the cusp of the modern era of personal creativity in fashion.
From 1934 but could be today
Claire as her own best model

Besides the obvious timelessness of her pieces, these are some of her innovations:
> Using humble fabrics like denim and gingham in dressed-up ways
> Finding inspiration in traditional American style (workshirts, bloomers)
> Emphasizing ease of wearability— ie a bias-cut jersey dress that could be belted or not, called "The Monastic"
> Creating a wrap dress called "The Popover" that could be a cover-up, house dress or party dress depending on fabric
 > Embracing comfort as opposed to stiff construction and/or the need for uncomfortable foundation garments
> Creating a couture line that dressed well-heeled customers as well as manufacturing popular-priced apparel— Lord & Taylor sold a version of The Popover in the 1950s for $8
> Being one of the first to license her name for a variety of products— accessories, eyeglasses, car interiors, paper dolls, sewing patterns and children's wear
The gingham sundress
The bloomer bathing suit 
The Popover
The paperdolls

Claire McCardell became my very own Finery Godmother at the tender age of fourteen (my age not hers). That is when I discovered her book, "What Shall I Wear". I read and re-read "WSIW" incessantly. It opened my eyes to a future I didn't know I had— dressing creatively, yet appropriately, for all the occasions of my grown-up life to come. After false hopes a few years ago, word is that "What Shall I Wear" will indeed be reprinted this October. The book is charming, still relevant today (maybe more so). In an age when we are both urged to be individuals and to be "in", finding your happy place can be tricky.

"What Shall I Wear" 1956 version
 2012 version due out in October

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Black Goes the Distance

It will be a feat of Olympic proportions to pack for our invasion of London early this fall. For starters I have bought a smaller suitcase. The thought of lugging Big Bertha up and down those stairs from Heathrow into London by tube fills me with fear. Because I intend to do some serious shopping whilst across the pond (TopShop, H&M, Miss Selfridge, Liberty, Mary Portas at House of Fraser and a pop into Primark), I have to leave room for the spoils of war.

So I am stripping down to the basics. And of course, the basics are black. Here's my theory (based on "Speak softly and carry a big stick"): Wear a great coat and that's all anyone will see. And a great coat I have. It's a muddy-olive and spoiled-milk-shade-of cream oversized houndstooth check swing coat with belled 3/4 sleeves and a notched collar. It's a LOT of coat.

Statement-making coat (not mine)

I predict it will be cold in London. Since moving to Texas, anything under 70 is cold. This coat is heavy enough to ward off the chill but light enough to tote around all day. It needs nothing more than:

> 2 black pencil skirts— double knit for day and lace for night
> 2 pairs of black pants— dressy and casual
> 2 fine gauge wool sweaters— turtleneck and jewel neck pullover
> 2 black blouses— one tailored and one dressy
> black and cream Chanel-esque jacket
This jacket makes anything more elegant (in case my invitation arrives from Her Majesty).
> plus the various bits and bobs and camis and tights
I'm not afraid of running out of underwear because Marks and Spencer carries the best in the world.

All this ebony requires a few pieces of bling of course:
> black link choker for the jewel necks
> some kind of brooch
If you didn't know, brooches are "in" again, Possums.
> not my best gold hoop earrings in case they get lost
Why do the best ones never fasten properly? 

And shoes:
> black suede loafers
> black leather ballet flats
> the most comfortable mid-high black heels I can unearth from the closet
(still on the fence about boots as they take up so much room)
> some kind of waterproof footwear in case of rain (have heard it does that sometimes)

I'm looking forward to going from Blackpool to Blackfriars and black again in style. My modus operandi in traveling is to see but not necessarily be seen. But who doesn't like the nice compliment occasionally from a complete stranger?
One should try to dress as well as the locals

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Women We Love (Only One is Real)

What is it about the best female impersonators that delights us girls? Is it the whimsical mom/aunt/sister we wished we had ? Are we hiding our own Auntie Mame-ness in the closet? For whatever reason, these ladies who speak their minds are a joy:

Dame Edna
Milton Berle... or is it my Aunt Jean?
Tony Curtis (Josephine) and Jack Lemmon (Geraldine) in "Some Like it Hot"
Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie"
Mike Meyers as Linda Richman on Saturday Night Live (looking verklempt) 
Robin Williams in "Mrs. Doubtfire"
Virginia Graham— the real thing
Alan Cuming as Desrae, marvelous in little seen "The Runaway"
Tyler Perry as Madea or is it Madea as Tyler Perry?
Ru Paul and the entire cast of every season of "Ru Paul's Drag Race"

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Calling all Bad Girls

What is it about the Bad Girls? I don't mean good girls gone bad (ie Whitney Houston). That's sad. I mean those girls who for better or worse have made daring and dangerous part of their persona. They may actually be very nice in person. I understand Joan Jett is a vegetarian and has done USO tours for over 20 years. They're all beautiful— and they probably shouldn't be emulated— but do they ever have Style:
The" innocent" bad girl— Louise Brooks
The sultry bad girl— Ava Gardner
The French bad girl— Francoise Hardy
The modern bad girl— Jean Seberg in "Breathless"
The bad little rich girl— Edie Sedgwick
The blackhearted bad girl— Joan Jett
The material bad girl— Madonna
The good-time bad girl— Blondie
Who is the baddest of them all?