Monday, December 29, 2008

Things to do with a single clip earring

Every so often, especially when I'm in a rush, I'll pick up a pair of clip earrings in a secondhand shop without trying them on. The lesson that never gets learned: one will have some sort of problem -- usually a clasp that's too loose to hold the earring snug, making it unreliable to wear.

Instead of chucking both of them out in frustration, I try to think laterally. Is it possible to use just one in another way? Clip it onto a gold chain and wear as a pendant? Is its clasp secure enough to enable its use as a scarf ring? Would it work on the band of a hat?

If you decide to experiment with a solo earring, whatever you affix it to, make sure it's secure. If you'd like it in place permanently, consider bonding the clasp closed with epoxy glue.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Queen as Style Icon

Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana raised a few eyebrows in their homage to Queen Elizabeth's sturdy, moor-ready style this past autumn, but they've got it spot on: The Queen is exemplary--always appropriate to her role, and in staying well away from trends, eventually setting a few herself.

Her annual message to the Commonwealth yesterday held an unexpected fashion lesson: the everlasting rightness of pearls. You don't need to watch the entire speech below, but do note that the pearl necklace she wears as senior monarch has been going strong since Charles was a toddler (the last thirty seconds).

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Xmas Style

Some hard-core fashionistas will argue that a major holiday involving lots of food and good cheer (especially of the alcoholic kind) is the best possible occasion to roll out the wardrobe big guns. That organza hostess apron as gossamer as the down off a thistle. A long taffeta skirt that rustles and crackles like the logs on the yule fire. A shimmery sequin top that outglimmers the star in the east.

I beg to differ. I think there's no time like a family gathering than to indulge in flaming fashion kitsch. Flashing LED earrings. Candy-cane striped stockings. Or, most delightfully dreadful of all, a classic Christmas sweater. Colin Firth, I'm staring at you. If it's too late for you to pick up one of your own, feast your eyes on the following website, and plan ahead for next year . . .

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Why a Scarf Costs £203/$375, Part One

Is it possible to justify paying this much for a silk scarf, even one from the most famous manufacturer in the world? The prices above are the going rates, taken from the Hermes websites in the UK and USA. What you get for your money is a 90 cm/36" square of heavyweight silk, screened with designs in multiple colorways. The designs are issued in a limited number, changing by the season.

All well and good, but heaps of scarves offered for sale are exactly the same size. Many use silk of similar quality. Their designs are equally beautiful (though perhaps not as varied in color, more on this in another post).

What else could justify the extravagant expense? Hermes itself vaunts its "hand-rolling", which means the edges of the silk are rolled under by hand, and then hand-sewn to create a plump edge.

The stitching is visibly irregular. It may seem odd that a process that builds in imperfection would be considered more desirable than the precision of machine sewing. Until you look at the corners of a scarf from Hermes (and other manufacturers that bother to hand-sew the hems). Since they are finished by a human, not a machine, the corners can be joined with exactitude--mitred, to use a term from furniture making.

The photo below illustrates the corners of two different scarves, both silk. The yellow one is Hermes, the brown an anonymous maker. In the Hermes scarf you can see the uneven stitching, but more importantly, a corner that approximates a 45 degree angle. In the other scarf, the edges only kind-of-sort of meet up.

So is this sort of handiwork worth that sort of money? That's a question only you can answer for yourself. But just so you know, eBay routinely offers up gorgeous and genuine hand-rolled scarves selling for less than half the cost in the headline above.

How to Wear It: Antique Brooch

What's a modern woman to do with an antique brooch? Even the word is a bit troublesome and old-fashioned, I'm never quite sure if I'm pronouncing it properly. Turns out, it ought to rhyme with "approach." OK! But how can you wear this emblem of Victorian rectitude--its role being to pin the collar of a high-necked blouse firmly closed--in a totally up-to-date way?

This beautiful pin belonged to my grandmother: sterling silver, with a glass bead and arts-and-crafts motif. I never saw it anywhere but at the neck of one of her white linen or cotton blouses:

I want to wear it, lots, to honor her. But I don't own any high-necked blouses. What's more, its pin is thick, and would punch a big, permanent hole through any fabric it's attached to. The solution? I've got a leather bomber with a neck collar tab and somehow the brooch works perfectly on it.

As long as a vintage pin is firmly attached (I've reinforced it by hooking a safety pin through the closed bar as an invisible backup), wearing it on a coat is a great, easy way to get it out there, admired. I especially like the juxtaposition of leather and decorous femininity--two ways of being a woman complementing each other.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Words to Dress By

"I also find that [fashion] idiocy creeps in when you don't have time to really get things together and you go with something that is untested. That's why it's best to stick with your signature looks for the important things, I think. Still, I cherish moments of fashion idiocy and think you sometimes have to risk looking like a fool to really make magic happen." -- Simon Doonan, Eccentric Glamour

"You don't look rich because you have a rich dress. When you look at a person, do you see the spirit or sexiness or the creativity? Just to see a big diamond, what does it mean? It's all about satisfaction. I think it's horrible, this judgment based on money. It's all an illusion that you look better because you have a symbol of luxury. Really, it doesn't bring you anything." Miuccia Prada, quoted in Dana Thomas's Deluxe

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Using Versus Keeping

I love handbags, but with reservations. The current trend of satchels big enough to suit itinerant peddlers escapes me, as does the recent fancy with padlocks, heavy chains, lariats, and anything else weighty or dangly enough to cause bodily harm if you bend the wrong way. Nope, at the moment I'm besotted with old-fashioned frame bags like our grandmothers carried in the 50s and 60s; geometric, neat, pretty enough to attract attention but not so showy as to overwhelm the rest of your look.

Case in point:

How I love this bag. Found on eBay for under $20, labeled "made in Italy for Franklin Simon", a great old Manhattan department store.

I was initially drawn to the scan because of the absolute perfection of the bag's proportions--the bag looks monolithic, but it's only about a handspan tall--enhanced by the deep, almost patent-y gloss of its black leather. There's something about the ratios of lines and curves that is hypnotic.

Here, in a McCall's pattern from the 1950s, is how it might have been worn back then . . .

But it wasn't. It came to me completely unused. Not a smudge, not a scratch, not a mark on its lovely suede interior. What I suspect happened is that she bought the bag, and then, possibly hypnotized by its perfection and not wanting to mar it, put it away, to be used "for a special occasion."

How many of us do exactly this thing with our best pieces? It's understandable, but nuts. Do you have gorgeous things that may find their way into somebody else's hands, unused? Don't let it happen to you!

Chaos Theory Meets Thrift Store Bargain

I'm no expert on chaos theory, but I do know that the most commonly used image of its workings is this: a butterfly beats its wings in one part of the world, eventually resulting in a hurricane in another. In other words, small effects at one point can have unexpected and seemingly unrelated effects in the future.

So it happened with a traffic jam in Paris in 1972. Fashion designer Celine Vipiana was stuck in the famous roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe. Bored, impatient, she found herself seeing as if for the first time the heavy black iron chains that ring the monument. She saw in their oblong links the ideal new logo for her fashion house, Celine. The "Blazon Chaine," as it's known, superceded the house's previous interlinked "Cs," (which were perhaps a little too similar to rival Chanel's).

Celine the fashion house began in 1947 in as a children's shoe store, but by the 1970s was dressing the mamans as well, in comfortable, classic, travel-ready separates that embodied the relaxed chic of ready-to-wear. Up against competitors like Rive Gauche and Chloe, Celine would never be at the cutting edge of fashion, but was instead producing clothes of reliable quality and "correctness" so dear to the French haute bourgouises (this would all change when the company was bought by conglomerate LVMH in the '90s, bringing in Michael Kors to infuse it with his brand of haute glam, but that's another offshoot of the story . . . )

Mine began a few days ago when I was in for a quick browse through my beloved local Oxfam charity shop/thrift store. I was there to drop a bag of clothes off, not pick anything new up, but I can never resist going around the corner to the ladies' section when I'm in there, because you never know.

The situation was not hopeful. I'd had a quick scan down the rails and nothing was leaping out, until I caught sight of a bit of metal near the bottom of a garment. Metal on garments that doesn't have a direct functional application like a button or a zip is usually not a good thing, because it's almost invariably a cheap bit of embellishment that would have been better off left off.

But this was different. A short chain, like half a bracelet, sturdily sewn onto a pocket of a gray cabled cardigan, one of a pair at hip level. Heavy links, nicely plated, and, best of all, enameled with cabochon rounds-- an expensive process that resulted in a subtle effect. The chains matched the buttons, which were also enameled, and bore at their centers interlocked backing "Cs".

The label? Celine. The vintage? I can't be sure, but I imagine it dates to sometime in the 70s, when the interlocked Cs were still heavily in use and the idea of a "blazon chaine" as a new logo coming to the fore.

The cardigan, by the way, is gorgeous. Classic, chic, and an outright steal at £6.99 (about $10.99).

And it just goes to show that a traffic jam that happened in Paris decades ago gave metal links an unexpected role in design history, just as metal links on an otherwise unexceptional rack of clothing found another unexpected but very happy place in my wardrobe.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What is Fashion Preserve?

I love the idea of finding, restoring, and wearing beautiful old clothes. Not necessarily old in the temporal sense--I'm as happy to discover a wonder from 2008 as I am from 1908--but old in the sense of previously owned, and let go. To me a great old skirt, or coat, or scarf--made with care and fine materials--is as valid an object for preservation as is an Old Master painting, or a '58 Mustang. 

So in one sense, this blog will act as an interactive gallery of great stuff found after decades of trawling through charity shops/thrift stores, vintage stores, markets, and other repositories of previously owned clothes.

Fashionland--my term the world of mainstream garment design and media--has grabbed onto the idea of vintage fashion and clung for dear life, especially over these last ten years when the relentless churn of looks and trends has compelled the utter ransacking of fashion's attic in the name of finding fresh looks. Yet when it comes to promoting antique, vintage, and retro clothes, Fashionland seems primarily interested in valorizing the already-known. Dior, Chanel, Pucci are what's featured and captioned, while lesser-known geniuses like Fath, Traina or Goldworm are ignored. Not to mention all the home dressmakers of the 50s and 60s whose often ravishing pieces are of course unlabeled, and therefore not worthy of even a look.

The thing is, though, it's crazy to ignore outright beautiful clothes and accessories simply because there's no brand name attached. What I'd like to do in this blog is highlight anything and everything marvelous that I find, from haute couture to whipped together on your grandmother's foot-pedaled Singer . . . the basic criteria for inclusion being that it posseses something absolutely special--something beautiful--that can act as a signpost for you, in your own searches . . . 

Fashion Preserve won't be about dead fashion, however. Another important criterion for a given garment appearing here is that it's absolutely wearable in some way right now. I'm fascinated by how ladies in the past styled themselves and will be discussing that with given items where I can, but I'd also like to demonstrate fresh ways of wearing old clothes: style tip takeaways that will help get these pieces back out there in public, where they belong. 

Finally, wearing clothes is an act of expression. As a consequence, clothing and accessories often hold wonderful stories. Whenever I can, I'd like to tell them, to help preserve the hopes and dreams and loves and daily business of all those fashion lovers who paved the way for us. 

I'd love to hear your stories as well . . .