Saturday, April 30, 2016

Sleuthing for Style

Nancy Drew changed with the times
It never ends, this hunt for dressing as the "real you". I so admire those who know their style. The best I can say when asked about mine is "eclectic".

I always purchase something that is "my style" when I buy it. In the past that style could change from week to week, even day-to-day.  Putting out what-to-wear the night before could be an exercise in futility.

I used to buy what I thought I should, what was in fashion, irregardless of body type or lifestyle. I was that person always hoping to be "in style". Why else read all those fashion magazines? At first I tried dressing like girl crushes (Audrey, Grace, Diana). That ended when I realized the expensive Lady Diana Tea Party Dress was languishing in the closet, unworn and definitely unloved.

Not invited to her party

Over time I discovered bargain hunting, discount shopping, thrift shops and waiting for good sales. This gave me more more more with less self-control and less guilt. It didn't always make me better dressed. 

Minimalist Lyn Slater, the "Accidental Icon"

There was a certain woman that I didn't think I could ever be: the minimalist. Beautiful fabrics, simple cuts, understated accessories. Misappropriating Chanel, I felt the need to add one thing more before leaving the house.

"But can I stand up?"

Now that I know I'm too old for some things, I also know I'm finally old enough to pull off simple and sophisticated. I will always add enough "me" to personalize it— interesting shoes, unusual jewelry, oddball color combos. I like feeling fashionable (and really really like being the first to try a trend).

I'll probably always be sleuthing for style, but I'm getting better at deciphering clues and coming to conclusions: Less is more, more or less.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Multitudes of Millies

I got to thinking about all the Millies I've known. None was a friend or relative, but I loved each one.

The first (and most fashionable) was Millie the Model, on the Marvel Comics team from 1945-1973, making her their longest running humor character. She was a New York model with a photographer boyfriend. The humor was broad (pun intended) and went completely over my nine-year-old's head. What I love-love-loved was Millie's appearances in the Sunday comics. "Millie's Fashion Pin Up" asked readers to submit their fashion ideas for Millie to wear. I never did because I was sure my designs wouldn't be good enough, and honorable mention would never do.

Millie on Sundays

Then there was "Meet Millie", the sit-com that ran from 1951 to 1954. It began on radio, starring the sultry Audrey Totter. Tv's Millie was the more wholesome Elena Verdugo. Millie was a secretary (what else?) in New York City (where else?) and lived in Brooklyn (of course). Her adventures were often around the kitchen table in the apartment she shared with her loveable-but-meddling mother (surprised?). Alfred Prinzmetal was the platonic friend who dropped in. Of course Millie had a very cute boyfriend (the boss's son) (natch). It all seemed original at the time...

Millie (right) on tv

Who could forget Laura Petrie's best friend and neighbor, Millie Helper on the "Dick Van Dyke Show"? Millie was played by the now 87-year-old Ann Morgan Guilbert. Laura was too perfect. I could identify with Millie.

Millie and perfection

First Dog Millie was a mother, a published author and a boon companion.

Millie with her posse

Designer Michelle Smith's ultra feminine clothing line, Milly is an honorary Millie— fun and pretty, just like all the Millies I've loved.

Michelle Smith of Milly
Milly by Michelle

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Would You Buy it Again?

Closet cleaning time is here. I have read (and written) umpteen articles about the twice-yearly try on-sort-cull-pack up and deliver ritual. It's not always fun because...

> You realize how much has gone unworn or under-worn and how little of your wardrobe you really wear.

> You may experience first-hand the phenomenon known as The Mysterious Shrink— how clothes laying packed away can grow smaller during their down time. This is why you must try on everything (more about that later).

> You get to judge what a poor shopper you may be, owning too much of one thing and not enough of another. I believe we women fall into two camps— those who buy too many basics and not enough pizazz or those who are pizzaz-overloaded with nary a basic anything.

> You will certainly come to the conclusion that you don't need more clothes. Remember, need is not the issue. It's in our nature to refresh and greet the change of seasons with our best foot forward. And what would the American economy be if we all decided not to go shopping?

Back to the job at hand. Try to do this in little bites. Tackle pants one day, skirts the next, tops then dresses, etc. Some things stay in the closet year-round of course (depending on where you live).

Once you've de-hangered everything, count the hangers as you shouldn't put in more than you took out (no room and probably not enough hangers).

Pull the new season's goodies from their winter slumber (ie giant tubs or underbed chests or whatever), and try on each piece. Some things may not fit. Has that happened for more than a year? It's time to toss...

I have a new mantra for deciding what's worth keeping:
So simple I can't believe I've not heard it before. If you took that piece back to a fitting room while shopping, would you say yes to the dress?

Take a good look in the mirror, from all angles. If you were to slap down hard-earned real money for it, would you? Or would you pass? Most of us are pretty decisive in a fitting room. We know right away if it's worth the spend or is better-looking-on-the-hanger. Don't see yourself as you were last year or many years ago. Everything has a season, and sometimes that is reason enough for tossing.

By "toss" of course, I mean give to a charity, feed those big bins you see around, try your luck at a resale shop, gift a friend with something special, donate to Dress for Success please if your town has one. You get the idea.

As daunting as this task may seem there is something exciting about thinking where your newly-in-place wardrobe will take you this year, whether it's across the world or across town. Happy Summer!


Sunday, April 17, 2016

Cinema Verite: Is Fashion Art?

The question "Is Fashion Art?" is answered for sure in the new film, "The First Monday in May".  This documentary reports on the Met's spring 2015 exhibition of the costume institute, "China: Through the Looking Glass". It turns out the show was among the top eight Met exhibits of all time and bested the attendance record set by "Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty" in 2011.

In the galleries

Fashion isn't always Art (sometimes it's just clothes). In bringing together incredible high fashion creations influenced by Chinese culture, surrounded by the original influences in art, it is.

Anna, arriving

Just as "The September Issue" was very much about Anna Wintour, so is "The First Monday in May." The Met's costume institute is now the Anna Wintour Costume Center of the Costume Institute. Her power and sphere of influence have given the Met millions of dollars in donations wrapped up in these shows. She has the clout to choose or veto everything from the event's table settings to furniture in the reception area of Vogue, and she's not afraid to use it. On the other hand you can see she knows how to let people do their jobs.

Queen Rihanna

Much is made of snagging Rihanna as a "get" and as the entertainer for the evening. I was woefully ignorant of Rihanna as anything but tabloid fodder and had never heard her sing. She's a rapper, duh. Amazing how 21st century the moment became when she started performing.

DV at the Met

Diana Vreeland was the first to elevate fashion at the Met. I remember some wonderful exhibits she put together, but they were literally in the Met's basement and never given the freedom to roam through the main galleries. The venerable photographer Bill Cunningham remarks on this to the exhibit's curator, Andrew Bolton. I can only imagine what Diana might have dreamed up had she the space and funds. I have a feeling it would be very much like the "China: Through the Looking Glass" we see here. I looked at the film as a tribute to Diana Vreeland's remarkable "traveling eye." She would have been delighted that finally— at last— fashion was shown not only as art but as art that is very much alive.

My favorite "dress"

There's a lot to take in— for museum lovers, art lovers, fashion fanatics, the celebrity-obsessed, cultural observers and visitors from another planet. You may find yourself asking if it was really necessary to construct a 20-foot high vase from 250,00 white roses for one night only, but you'll probably answer, "Yes."

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

"Rags", the Epilogue

Issue No. 1— not one of mine

Last fall I wrote about an unusual effort at publishing a fashion/lifestyle magazine for the hippie nation. You can read the post by cutting and pasting this link:

Someone took me up on the offer to purchase my collection of seven "Rags" magazines from 1970-71. The publication had a short life— from June 1970 to June 1971, so these issues represent a good chunk of its existence.

I'm happy to say they have gone to a scholar, a textile/costume curator at a major American museum. I couldn't be happier.

For years they took up (very little) space on a closet shelf. As a former magazine designer, I have quite a collection that I wouldn't part with: from the first issue of "People" to an early Beatles fanzine. I was never really attached to those copies of "Rags", though I certainly kept them long enough. 

Part of the problem

Now that they are out of my possession, I am wondering what there was that I didn't treasure and want to keep always. I think what bothered me most was that a commercial publication for counter-culture fashion now meant it was a firmly entrenched enterprise, with retail and manufacturing establishments, bottom lines to meet and  percentages to sell-through. "Hippies" had morphed from a vile social movement (according to the establishment) to acceptance and a desire to emulate.

The greatest proof of that might have been my brother-in-law, who put hippies down at every chance early on but sported a moustache and sideburns by the mid '70s.

Today "boho" is just a look and maybe a nostalgic look back to a more naive time when those who wore them really believed love beads could change the world.

Waving them goodbye...

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Women We Love: Frida Kahlo

Any woman worth her folkloric peasant blouse and ethnic jewelry loves Frida Kahlo. Beautiful and deeply personal paintings aside, Frida was no mere clothes horse. She deliberately chose to wear an old-fashioned style of Mexican dress as both a tribute to her country and a protest against losing its identity in the name of progress.

Frida was very good at protesting. She cut off her hair and painted herself wearing men's clothes to rail against her husband, the painter Diego Rivera. She suffered unresolved health issues that necessitated wearing a body cast as a brace. Frida didn't let that get her down; she painted her cast. The infamous uni-brow and moustache come and go in photographs and paintings. I think she used those too when she wished to Make a Statement.

Frida has been "homaged" so much she can easily become a caricature, but interest in her never flags. There is a Frida Festival going on now in Houston which includes a Frida look-alike contest, art, vendors and performances in her honor.

The promotional poster makes the point of Frida exactly: "You can do it", whatever the "it" is. And don't forget Diego.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Reigning Violets

Treasure chest
Once upon a time that shopping bag was new and contained a treasure. It doesn't matter what it held— a scarf, a handkerchief, a pair of gloves or stockings— it was a treasure because it meant you had been shopping at Bonwit Teller.

Nothing said "good taste" in Cleveland as much as Bonwit's. The local department and specialty stores could try and had their fans, but Bonwit Teller also said "New York City". At 550 miles away (most of it endless stretches on the Pennsylvania Turnpike), we didn't get to New York often. In Bonwit's I could pretend I was there.

Bonwit's is to Holly's right

The backstory: The New York City Bonwit's was founded in 1895 by Paul Bonwit. The first store was located on 18th and Sixth as part of the fashionable "Ladies' Mile" streets of shops. Two years later Edmund Teller became a partner. Bonwit Teller specialized in high-end women's apparel and was known for providing its workers with good salaries. Bonwit's moved uptown over the years, and by 1930 was at 56th and Fifth Avenue. That location (next door to Tiffany's) remained the flagship until Bonwit's finally closed.

Bonwit Teller began opening small branches in 1934, with a "seasonal" shop in Palm Beach. Eventually there were 19 branch locations, usually located in exclusive shopping centers of wealthy cities. How Cleveland got one I'll never know, but I'm eternally grateful.

Camp life never looked so good

Although luxurious, Bonwit's was never off-putting. It was the place to go for a good party dress or my sister's trousseau.  They sold little bibelots for the home but not much else in the way of "hard goods". From the scent of freshly sprayed perfume at the front door it was fashionfashionfashion.

I recall spending a lot of time there as a fifth wheel on family shopping trips. Bored, I would pick up loose pins from the carpet in the fitting room. I once found a Hattie Carnegie label and sewed it into my black watch plaid cotton dress. The label ran when my mother washed the dress. I guess you didn't wash your Hattie Carnegie.

Bonwit's, Cleveland, Ohio

The Cleveland store was four selling floors. Although there were elevators I preferred to take the stairs. They were carpeted in red plush with a large oil painting on each landing. It was like visiting a private museum. I was sure the paintings were spectacularly valuable.

I met my friend Barbara almost 60 years ago when she was working in Bonwit's "deb shop" and I was snooping around. We discovered we were both about to start the same art school that fall.

After years of begging for one, I finally got a Lanz dress (blue cotton dimity print) and from the Bonwit's in Boston— a spectacular location in a former mansion. I have never forgotten either one.

The Lanz dress
And where it came from

Although a poor church mouse of a working girl-to-be, I bought the dress I wore on all my first-job interviews at Bonwit's. With even less money as a working girl in New York, I wouldn't dare go into the fancy stores like Saks and Bergdorf's for fear they would sniff me out, but somehow still felt welcome in Bonwit's.

As for the violets, they had been around for a while in a fusty, old fashioned way. Bonwit's premier illustrator in the 1950s was Jay Hyde Crawford. Fashion illustration was then an important element in advertising and editorial (alas no longer). In 25 minutes he "updated" Bonwit's violets in a free-form, modern way, and they became synonymous with the store. Bonwit's violets appeared not only on bags and hat boxes but bloomed on everything from playing cards to umbrellas. I'm hard pressed to think of any other store with a mascot like those violets.

For April showers...

The history of Bonwit Teller is fraught with economic downturns and subsequent saves. Alas the bell tolled its last in 1990 when a greatly diminished Bonwit's shut its doors for good. By that time it had been relegated to a small presence on the 57th street side. The main building had been bought and demolished by a brash young developer making his name in New York City real estate. Today Trump Tower stands where Bonwit's used to hold court.

A Trump card like no other