Sunday, February 28, 2016

And the Oscar Goes to... Toni!

Grace Kelly, l955

Because it was a school night, I was never allowed to watch all of the Oscars. The year Grace Kelly won hers for "The Country Girl" was the first. Once the precedent was set, it was Oscars ever after.

I always had a hard time staying awake to the end. They seemed longer and even more boring at times back then, but I was determined to make it. Not only were (and still are) the best awards held back till last, I had to see how the home permanent turned out.

For several years (no exact data available) Toni Home Permanents were a sponsor of the telecast. An announcer for the product would introduce a pretty young model who was going to have her hair permanently waved with a Toni home permanent during the Oscars!!! There was real excitement in his voice. The model looked like a lamb being led to slaughter.

I'd never had a permanent, home or any other. My mother and sister both hated their unruly curls. My hair was stick-straight and something to be envied. But even then I sensed the transforming power of Change.

We were treated to the work-in-progress during commercial breaks. The poor girl tried to keep a smile on her face though she was done-up in hideous rod curlers. After all the awards were given, the results would be shown to the nation, most of which had turned off their tvs and gone to bed.

I had to see for myself and pleaded for "one more minute". Sure enough the victim would be revealed in all her curly 1950s-style glory. She looked relieved. I hope she went to an after-party and not straight home.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Cheerio, Downton Abbey

Downton, the early years

Not aloha, shalom, salut or ciao— this is goodbye. After six seasons (that's six real years not the tv version of "seasons"), Downton Abbey will bid us adieu on March 6. At this writing there is one episode left. Wisely, PBS doesn't wish to conflict with the Oscar ceremony on February 28. They know their audience.

Downton Abbey will be missed on so many levels. Not only do I adore a good soap opera, this was History Come Alive. What I really loved, of course were the fashions.

Life imitating art

Note I am not calling them costumes. From the beginning the cast of Downton Abbey (especially the upstairs ladies) have worn original period garments, shored up or tweaked if necessary but honoring their integrity. This could not have been an easy task. Fabrics, especially delicate silks and embroidery, just don't hold up. That's one reason so little 1920s clothing remains. As the period was gossamer and fleeting, so it seems were the clothes.

We began our time with the Crawleys in 1912 and are leaving them in 1925. That was an amazing 13 years in the world and for women. Victoria had been dead since 1901, but women were still encased in corsets, their skirts hitting the ground. Those clothes were pretty to look at, but I never gave wearing them today a second thought. Not so with the fashions of 1925.

Hats off to Mary
No one but Sybil...
Cora, not showing off

Each character's personality is reflected in her clothing. Mary is gorgeous no matter what she wears. Interestingly she seems to get harder as the era's silhouettes loosened. Sybil, who dies young, shows her spunk by being first to model Poiret's "new look". Although young for a matron, Cora remains tasteful as she adopts to newer fashions. Isobel is fashionable and age appropriate, while her friend (yes they are friends) Violet barely changes her style (likewise her opinions).  Then there's Edith (more on her another time) who became a successful working gal and woman-of-the-world. Was it the clothes? The more styles relaxed the more she came out of her shell.

Isobel not baring arms
Violet not budging
Edith, who are you wearing?

Those in service had uniform changes through the years. We even see more of them in "street clothes" in the later episodes. Did modern conveniences mean they had more time off? And those clothes are predictably understated and practical as befitting a limited budget. If you only had one "good dress" it wasn't going to shout.

Daisy, blending into the furniture

Only Mrs. Patmore never seems to change or change frocks. All that cooking, baking and meddling has kept her from aging.

Mrs. Patmore, preserved

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Alice and the Sage Green Sweater

Long lost love?
Alice and I became friends the first week of freshman year in college. She was older (almost 20!) and had spent a year at another school before transferring and starting over. She was worldly to my naive. She had her own apartment! I lived at home. She smoked and drank! I didn't do either.

Alice never fell over backwards when a boy called or asked her out. She skillfully juggled all the boys buzzing around her. Perhaps she enjoyed my innocence and rapt fascination with her sophisticated life. More likely she realized I could use some sisterly guidance. We did what many good girlfriends do; we exchanged clothes.

I switched a goldenrod-yellow cardigan for her sage green pullover. My sweater wasn't new. I'd bought it the year before, straight from the pages of August 1959 Glamour. I wore it that senior year, marking time till I could escape the horror that was high school. I was happy to give up my sweater in favor of Alice's. For one thing yellow wasn't a good color on me (but looked great on her). I loved Alice's sweater, and the sage was far more flattering (looked good on her too). Besides, that sweater may have held a little Alice ju-ju.

Alice decided to leave school at the end of that first semester. She'd fallen in love and was ready to get on with her life. Before she left we exchanged sweaters back. It was my idea, which in retrospect was a stupid one. I was probably punishing her for leaving me, though I was the one who suffered.

I've never given up looking for that sweater. I've bought numerous garments in close proximity to the color. My bedroom is even painted a restful shade of soft sage. I quickly gave away the goldenrod cardi and never missed it.

Alice loved photography and took a favorite picture of me. I think she captured an 18-year-old's blank canvas of a face.

Alice, if you're out there, please know I've never forgotten you— or your sweater.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

What's a Granny to Do?

Can a granny dress "granny-style"? I mean, if you are actually granny-age can you wear this look and still be ironic as opposed to Iron Lady?

Meryl and Margaret

What is it? Granny-style emulates the classic staples of any well-dressed granny's wardrobe, but today's young women have grandmothers who could be my age, and I don't dress like that. Granny-style is really what my mother and grandmother wore: fur coats, structured handbags, pleated skirts, brooches, ladylike but sensible shoes.

Gwyneth as Margo

There's a bit of granny-style in Gwenyth Paltrow's character from the  Royal Tenenebaums.  The new movie Carol, set in 1952, oozes Granny-style. A pair of gloves left on a counter sets the story in motion. Granny-style is ladylike, everyday formal— clothes you don't think about once they have been perfectly put together.

Cate as Carol

I'm all for the return of dresses and skirts. A young woman at the Lovely Boutique Where I Work told me she doesn't wear trousers or jeans anymore. I didn't question her reasons; she seemed pretty happy with the decision. As a WOACA I may have a problem with the look of my bare legs, but I still like feeling femme in a skirt or dress.

It's the other stuff— the pearls and polka dots of my mother's granny-hood, the full coverage cardis and pastels of my grandmother's. Wouldn't it be far better to choose what you like (this fun granny cardigan perhaps) without naming it a style?

"A rose is a rose is a rose". Gertrude Stein— now that's a granny to emulate!

Gertrude in Granny/Boho/Menswear

Friday, February 12, 2016

When the Postman Brought Dreams of Fashion

When I was a kid mail-order catalogs arrived fast, furiously and unbidden.  I doubt my mother ever ordered from one. We lived in a metropolitan area. She preferred to go downtown to shop, as much to get out of the house for a day as to purchase anything.

Those from Best & Company were probably because we had a charge account. But others were from Florida or California. "Surf" or "sun" fashions were very big in the '50s. "Serbin of Miami" was as exotic as "Versace of Milan".

Let me take you back to those early days when I would not even have fit into the clothes. Catalogs were my gateway to a love of fashion. Who knew I would have a career in magazines and even one day become a personal shopper at Nordstrom? That was all in the foggy future.

I poured over those catalogs, marveling at the tiny wasp waists of the models (major retouching I later learned). I knew most of the clothes were cheap imitations of the nicer things downtown and priced low even for the '50s.  

I'd forgotten about them until a page from one of my favorites popped up on Google Images.  This one had a name like a Hollywood starlet, "Lana Lobell". Printed on cheap glossy newsprint, it came out of Hanover, PA (not a hot bed of fashion in any era).

One source marks Lana Lobell as the brainchild of a store owner named Boris Leavitt who wanted to get into mail order. He named the catalog for his daughter. Other research (more plausible) was that Lana Lobell sprung from Seventh Avenue garment manufacturers in an attempt to have a mail order business and skip the middle man. Prominent display of Kay Windsor, Kay Junior and Jonathan Logan brand merchandise give this theory some weight.

My idea of summertime fun was hanging out on a shady screened-in porch with one friend, playing paper dolls or board games, accompanied by a pitcher of lemonade made from the frozen slush that came in a can— pink and sticky with high-fructose something. After a while I might suggest we play a game where we would look through the catalogs and choose which outfit we would buy on each page. While I thought this was great fun, I sensed my friend usually tired of it before I did. No doubt I was even a little bossy when we played, defending my choice while not exactly denigrating hers.

I still look at catalogs and magazines that way. I imagine what I would buy if I were buying, only it's a game I play with myself. Cue the screened-in porch and pink lemonade.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Was She Barbie's Muse?

No I am not Barbie-obsessed. I never had even one. Perhaps I am Barbie-deprived. Barbie was born long after I shuttered my dolls in their eternal tomb, my toy box. And, yes, I always thought I missed something.

The other day my husband ceased channel-surfing long enough to settle on a TCM film, 1950's "The Black Rose" with Tyrone Power. In passing I caught a scene featuring an elfin-faced young woman speaking with a musical French accent. She was Cecile Aubry, and I remembered the name from the days of soaking up movie magazines.

What ever happened to Cecile Aubrey? She was indeed French and won a Fox movie contract after starring in the French film "Manon". Her Hollywood career was short-lived. After she appeared in "Blackbeard" it was revealed she had been secretly married for six years to the eldest son of the pasha of Marrakesh. That sounds like part of the plot of the Coen Brothers "Hail Caesar" about a Hollywood "fixer" and set in 1951.

She went on to become a successful writer of children's books and children's television programs in France. She is most noted for the book, "Belle and Sebastian" about the adventures of a boy and his dog. Cecile Aubry died in 2010 at age 81.

While doing this bit of in-house research, it struck me that Cecile Aubry may have been the inspiration for Barbie, born in 1959. What do you think?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

"45 Years" and Nothing to Wear

One of the most downbeat films I've seen in quite a while is "45 Years", a British melodrama directed by Andrew Haigh, starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. Charlotte has been nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Kate Mercer, a 60-something retired teacher married (nearly) 45 years to a retired factory manager, Geoff.

This is not to say "45 Years" wasn't good. It was, and Charlotte Rampling's performance is riveting. She's in almost every scene. The movie is uncomfortable to watch at times and seems to end on a question mark. Nonetheless "45 Years" is outstanding, serious film making— just not a barrel of laughs. But we're here to talk fashion, and her clothes are so nondescript it's a wonder costume design gets a credit.

Charlotte's character is not easy to read but is perfectly defined by the non-fashion she wears. She has an enviably slim figure and is strikingly handsome even without a lick of makeup, but her choices are boring. We suspect she is unmoved by fashion and would rather read a book. You sense this as she aimlessly flips through a rack of clothing in a boutique, possibly looking for a dress for her upcoming 45th anniversary party. What she turns up in is so beige and bland her equally unfashionable husband becomes a peacock in his tux.

Kate's clothes are so ordinary they're not worth noting, yet I found myself wondering what made her choose a white parka or how long she'd had that classic leather shoulder bag. This is where the costume designer (Suzie Harman in this film) has a job to do. Anything colorful or trendy would not have been true to her character. By exaggerating how unmemorable her clothes are we know what Kate is saying even when she speaks little.

Charlotte Rampling is one of the most interesting actresses around. The word that comes to mind is "honest", the phrase— "true to herself". She's kept a low profile for years, turning out superior work only rarely because that's as often as she wished to work. Lately we've seen more of her, all the better.

Early in her career she was celebrated as much for her beauty as her acting. Here she is 45 years ago and wearing nothing.