Thursday, April 30, 2009

Does My Bum Look Big in This?

Have just gotten the Victoria & Albert Museum's reissue of classic Hollywood costumer Edith Head's How to Dress for Success
To my great surprise, she has something to say about the Playboy Bunny:

The key figure in these key clubs is the Bunny, official name for the exotic handmaidens (you just can't call them waitresses) who welcome and serve the customers and take those photographs that are proudly shown off back home or furtively destroyed as incriminating evidence.

A Bunny can't look like an ordinary mortal--and she doesn't. Every Bunny is custom-fitted with rabbit ears and a thigh-high satin costume that combines all the best--and I mean the best--features of a glamorous corset and a brief swimsuit. Well, in fitting these outfits some very intersting figures have come to light, in more ways than one.

It was soon discovered that Miami Bunnies are tiny, averaging size eight and wearing a B-cup bra. Chicago Bunnies have the biggest derrieres of those yet covered by the Clubs, and New Orleans Bunnies wear C-cup bras and are big all over.

Observations: a 60s eight would equate to a contemporary American four, British six. Small indeed, but nowhere near the 0-2 expected of today's Hollywood starlets. And isn't it something these ultimate sex symbols of mid-century America could be "big all over" and still get the job! Playboy: you had it right the first time. Viva the original Bunnies!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Life's a Catwalk, and Somebody's Watching

So from up here from my window over the High Street, I see it all. A battalion of moms pushing strollers (wait! it's England. Mums pushing prams). Real-estate agents telling lies down their mobiles in sharp black suits. And, getting to the point now, lots of young ladies on their first-ever outing in this season's moonlaunch heels.

Girls, girls, girls. There's a right way and a wrong way to walk in these shoes. At left, the wrong way:

Whether it's John Cleese in brogues or you in new or vintage Louboutins, the silly walk is much the same: exaggerated knees-up and careful plant down, with a stiff backward lean, as though imitating a wading bird on the prowl.

The right way to walk in heels, here in a useful video from YouTube.

You're welcome!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What's That About: Hound's Tooth Pattern

I've been saving this image of Jackie Kennedy, which I love because she looks so happy. I believe it shows her deplaning in Paris for their May 1961 state visit--the happiness was understandable. She was an avid Francophile, adored French literature and especially Malraux, who was due to give her a personal tour of the arts, even preferred to be called jah-KEE to the more traditional English pronunciation. Her visit to France was a triumph. According to Vanity Fair:
Jackie’s star power proved irresistible. Beautifully regal, she impressed onlookers by answering questions from reporters in superb French.

She would have thought very carefully about her costume. Here she's immaculate in a hound's tooth check suit. Some things about hound's tooth: first widely popularized by the Prince of Wales, the pattern is said to derive from the Scottish lowlands, and is akin to plaids (especially Glen Plaid, which Edward also favored). Ian Fleming dressed James Bond in a hound's tooth suit, worn with a navy-blue shirt. Back in those more sartorially sensitive 1960s it would have imparted a casual air to a traditionally cut garment--something you'd put on in the country, on the weekends, or on a transatlantic flight.

The woven pattern is deceptively simple to create on a loom, with alternating bands of four dark and four light weft threads. Despite the simplicity, it can bring on a migraine due to the eye's attempt to resolve dueling identical shapes. In this, hound's tooth is strongly similar to Escher motifs (which are also deceptively simple to create).

The lesson here is that if you want to wear hound's tooth in the chicest possible way, keep the pattern size fairly small, or else it will start wearing you. Allow Jackie to show you how. If her dress sense could wow the Parisians, she was doing something very right.

Monday, April 27, 2009

How to Wear It: Vintage Butterfly Brooch

I love this 1967 Paris Vogue cover of Twiggy, by Henry Clarke, looking as though spring has just flown in and landed on her shoulder (and sleeve).

Wearing vintage pins on knitwear, especially a loose-weave summer top, makes so much sense--the pin will leave no mark on the fabric and, if well-positioned, won't snag. An instant shot of style on an easygoing look.

So, the ingredients: one casual knit top. One gorgeous vintage butterfly pin/brooch (use exactly these keywords on eBay and you'll turn up a wide range of beautiful, inexpensive brooches, like these. In fact there are so many on hand, try to match it to your eye color). Pin onto your collar, and let the sun shine in.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

R.I.P. Bea Arthur

While she'll likely be better-remembered for Golden Girls, to me Bea Arthur will always be Maude. What a funky show that was--Arthur's bald-eagle hauteur and contemptuous growl put the lip in Liberal and, for a very brief while, made bra-burning, abortion-getting, bonehead-men bashing seem normal, if not strictly necessary, behavior.

What I'd like to highlight, however, is the excellent use of the tunic vest on the part of the show's costumers. This unusual garment was the character's trademark--sleeveless, solid color, open-fronted, running down to the knee. You sometimes see the like in clerical garb or ethnic ceremonial wear (I'm thinking now, without much research, of the Balkans). No matter what its derivation, it's a serious piece of clothing befitting a lady whose physical and political stature did not stoop.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Heels You Could Read Through, If It Weren't So Dark

OK, parental warning on this one, because it involves Chris Rock--and if it involves Chris Rock, it's going to be hilarious, but you might want to wash your ears out with soap after the show.

Last night, jet lagged, flicking around the higher altitudes of the cable box, I came across Rock's comedy performance Never Scared. It was great, he's a genius, everybody knows this. To my amazement, he did a riff on fashion:

"when did clear heels become the new whore uniform.... was there a big old hoe convention and all the hoes got together and said we need something new something that just says nasty, then one girl said 'I got it, Clear Heels'--ooo girl you disgusting".

It's funny because it's true. Saw it with my own eyes one afternoon in Mexico City, in a raffish part of town after a lunch of armadillo and fried agave worms (long story). Anyway, making my way back, I passed through a market section where the doorways were lined with girls, on the job. Every blammed one of them was wearing clear-heeled shoes, and at the time, I thought, "when did clear heels become the new hooker uniform . . . "

This was not always the case. Ten years ago, I was at a wedding (Greek=very long), and became fascinated by the shoes of one of the attendees from the bridal side: these amazing lucite heels with sparkly silver balls embedded within them. They looked cool, like that brand of Swedish crystal that has the airbubble trapped down at the base.

But the heydey of clear heels had to be the 1960s, when plastics found wide use in fashion, the vogue for transparency was at its height, and the youthquake culture ensured that playfulness triumphed over restrained and tasteful granny chic.

Here's a pair from eBay, which has loads of them. Some, like these, so stunning that even Chris Rock wouldn't dream of making jokes.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Polka Dots: What's That About?

Recently in Disney World, I saw quite a few polka dots worn by Minnie, because that's her trademark. Also by my friend Heather, who likes them "because they're happy." And like the dance for which they're named, they do have a jumpy, bouncy air that echoes old-fashioned favorites of childhood: gumballs, marbles, dominos.

I've often wondered, though, why flamenco dancers from Andalucia also traditionally wear polka dots. Surely not a neglected historical invasion by accordian-hefting Poles playing "Roll Out the Barrel"?

No indeed. A different tribe, and a much earlier migration: wandering peoples from India, gypsies who settled in Andulucia and gave rise to the culture of flamenco and classical guitar that still flourishes in the region today. They believed that sewing small round mirrors on clothing would help avert the evil eye (round mirrored sequins remain very popular in Asian traditional costume). In Spain, the mirrors (called "lunares", little moons) were eventually supplanted by dots. In high fashion, Venezuelan Carolina Herrera has made them a trademark. Why Minnie wears them -- Spanish or Polish or simply happy allegiance -- remains a mystery.

(Flamenco costume image from Raquel Lopez Designs)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How to Wear It: Summer Scarf

I love this photo of Picasso, his wife Jacqueline (with necklace), and Jean Cocteau (in tie) at a bullfight, as much for the casual elegance of the dress of the onlookers as for the attention lighting their expressions.

Of note: have a look at Picasso's daughter Maia, one row behind, and how she's done her scarf. It's a tricky look to pull off if you don't have an oval face, but if you do, it's worth trying on days when the hair isn't cooperating. Another, similar version here, in a fashion shot by Richard Avedon.

(top photo, Brian Brake:
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, gifted in memory of Brian Brake, by a friend of the artist, 1989)

(bottom photo: Richard Avedon, published in Woman in the Mirror, copyright © 2005, The Richard Avedon Foundation)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Live in Glass Houses

My favorite ad campaign of the spring: this series from Burberry, which seems to capture an essence of Britishness that is spot on target with the brand's image and intended customer.

The setting: a greenhouse, arguably the best possible hangout at an English country manor (certainly the warmest). Home to seedlings, gardeners, spiders, and of course the sons and daughters of the titled nobility, sheltering under its glass panes to escape the natter in the main house (and in the spirit of that rural classic Withnail and I--indulge in some understandable altering of mood). The fashion (seemingly bedraggled trenchcoats, and hats that look like they're sodden, even bone dry) is of course the entire point, but in that brilliant English way, here seems somehow not terribly important at all.

Only one thing is missing. Where are the Wellie boots? The black patent footwear seems too urban for the setting. And by all means not the recent crop of "fashion" wellies. Now past their sell-by, these polka-dotted, rainbowed, and otherwise overly sunny versions are streaming to a glummer end in charity shops.

In this photo, only the proper, authentic green pvc gumboots would do. Made possible by Charles Goodyear's vulcanization process, first mass-produced by the French company Aigle, made ubiquitous by hard duty in the trenches of all sides participating in WWs I and II. They're the most sensible footgear ever worn by Kate Moss, who used them to brave the mud at Glastonbury, with microshorts. Wellie boots: a classic. Garden variety? Not at all.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Top Flora

As lovers of Herm├Ęs scarves and Ossie Clark/Celia Birtwell vintage dresses know, patterns can have as significant a history in fashion as the garments themselves. One of my favorite pattern stories is that of Flora, Gucci's now-emblematic array of delicate garden blooms scattered across a white (or less commonly, black) ground.

How it came about: as the story goes (many thanks to the delightful scarf-specialty blog Musings on things That Matter to Me), decades back Grace Kelly rushed into a Gucci shop in search of a floral scarf as a wedding present for a friend. The house did not make any at the time. Rodolfo Gucci went on to commission renowned illustrator Vittorio Accornero to design a sublime botanical in honor of Grace, who had then become Princess of Monaco.

Here's a wonderful photo of her daughter, Caroline, wearing the pattern created for her mother. (well done American Vogue picture editors!)

With 37 different colors and a garden's worth of delicately rendered blooms, the scarf became an enduring favorite. When Frida Giannini became Gucci's head designer in 2002, she revived the pattern on bags, shoes, and dresses.

Vintage Flora scarves are still highly affordable on eBay. Here's a lovely example, with a navy border, that I was able to find a few months ago for about £35 ($51).

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Hands that Bead

If you love the ethnic style that is a hallmark of this spring/summer's looks, here's an idea. Instead of relying on the High Street for a dodgy imitation, go to the source. Shops that sell FairTrade items and eBay offers an excellent range, from new to antique. The earrings above are made by the Tuareg, a nomadic people of the Sahara.

Or from the Transkei in South Africa, come beads like these.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Once again this is off topic--pop fashion rather than vintage--and rambling, but I can't resist. I'm in the States, which happens 2-3 times a year. It's odd being a native who now only returns for a few weeks at a time. The tiny cultural shifts that Americans take for granted hit me like the changes in the old neighborhood must have hit Rip Van Winkle.

For instance. They say people don't really read any more. Given the demise of great newspapers and the dismal state of the book publishing industry, the statement seems pretty accurate. So why is it, and when was it, that t-shirts became so damn wordy?

Last week at Disneyland I witnessed several Encyclopedia Britannica sets worth of verbiage splashed across the capacity crowds' fronts and backs. Since I naively read what's in front of my eyes, I learned about the Blankenship family's 2007 reunion, complete with the names of all forty family members. The great Guys and Dolls production of Carthage High School commemorative t-shirt, once again listing all cast and crew. 10-K race t-shirts. I ♥ Shih-Tsu t-shirts. A huge number of fire department t-shirts that, given the physiques of the wearers, were more likely purchased than issued.

T-shirts have always borne slogans but back in the day, the point seemed more to make a general statement, or to be funny, than to self-identify in such excruciating, 9-point-font detail. It's cool that you were in the school play, or have a great family, or support your local fire department. But, as I mentioned before on this blog, the language of clothing is immediate and extremely evocative. You are what you wear. And most people are a whole lot more interesting than these "this is me, check it out" billboards let on.

Take That, Paris

Yes yes yes vintage fashion is amazing, but sometimes a girl's got to work the trends. And if I were thirteen, and wanted to look the business on the way to home room, these are the shoes I'd be wearing. Talk about high tops. Apparently they are the look to have if you're in junior high in North Carolina. If only, to have an excuse to wear these awesomely fine shoes.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

All We Need is Glove, Glove

It's unusual to find truly antique fashion pieces that also seem absolutely wearable today, but here's some I think are great: these gloves from the Directoire period (post-Revolutionary France, characterized by a restrained, classical style heavily influenced by Ancient Rome and Pompeii).

They're made of calf or kidskin, and have been printed with motifs typical of the period. They'd be perfect with an otherwise simple white or black suit. I've never seen their like in any vintage shops or on eBay--this seems to spell opportunity for a glovemaker (or fashion student) to do something truly special.

Crocks Carla's Way

Am currently in gator country in the American southeast, and have seen quite a few of these armored beasties lazing in the local canals and lagoons. They're impressive in life, but at the risk of getting savaged by animal rights activists, I think they're just as beautiful (and far better behaved) in handbag form.

Here's a fine specimen on the arm of Madame Sarkozy. It's from Dior, a line she wears quite frequently. I wouldn't be surprised if Galliano himself hadn't given her the most gorgeous exemplar in their stash, knowing the subsequent publicity to be priceless.

This bag costs well into the thousands. But a clever girl can find a superb vintage version on eBay for far, far less. Brands to look for include Lucille de Paris and Vassar. Before you bid, examine the scans very carefully, and know that most professional sellers of vintage reptile bags have trained a very bright light on the item for photography, to make the scales look as glossy as possible.

(photo from Harper's Bazaar UK, © The Picture Library)

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Art of the Heel

Maybe it’s the cumulative effect of magazine image upon image of soaring stilletos and platforms that reach for the sky, but I’m starting to think that maybe I want some serious party heels after all.

If only I could find a pair like these. How cute are these shoes? And funny. Forget Vuitton’s fertility goddess heel, I’ll take a giraffe every time. These were designed by Stephane Bonnaire in ’96.

Here’s another pair that I love: from Thea Cadabra, a British designer whose art-to-wear designs are now featured in many museums. She started out creating disco shoes for friends in the 1970s and later went on to work for Charles Jourdan. Talk about pulling shoes.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

How to Wear a Vintage Shawl, courtesy of Hermes

Feel very fortunate to be, temporarily, in a part of the world where I could consider wearing a shawl to dinner rather than a parka. Too bad I forgot to pack one. If I had, I would take advantage of this page from an old Hermes giveaway catalogue on how to tie one of their meter-square scarves. Last time I asked, the catalogue was out of print, which is too bad, because the instructions obviously apply to any great vintage shawl--of silk, wool challis, chiffon, or some other fine fabric.

The instructions here couldn't be simpler: fold the scarf/shawl in half, knot the two upper corners together, put arms through and wear as a capelet. Perfect for keeping shoulders and back out of the chill, while leaving arms and decolletage glamourously uncovered. Thank you Hermes, and please reprint that catalogue; I'd pay for it.


I mentioned the great allure of veils a few entries back, and am returning to the subject, mainly as an excuse to run this photo by Willy Maywald, illustrating a Jacques Fath hat from 1951. Exquisite, no? It’s also the perfect illustration of how a net veil should sit on the face, with the lovely angles at work in the net given full play against the curves of the face.

Let’s backtrack a second, and talk about how a net veil should not sit on the face. This was made clear by a certain British A-lister who recently opted to wear a veiled hat to a photocall, and frankly, it let her down. (I won’t say who it was, because this isn’t that sort of blog, but if I did you wouldn’t be at all surprised).

Anyway, her veil was bunched and matted and generally misbehaving. It looked vintage, in the worst sense, meaning old and crumpled. To look incredible, a veil needs to be arranged so that it sits in full but not overstretched extension, with no holes, snags, or ratty bits ruining the gorgeously graphic shadow it will cast. In other words, exactly like this.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Hot Plaits

This image has been driving me mad for weeks now. Not on account of the dress, which is gorgeous, in a Nikki Beach glamazon kind of way. Or the pose, which is sheer poetry, kudos to the model and photographer.

It’s the the braid filler thingies. Those hair ornaments with all the claws (click on image to see closer). I’m fairly sure that they are traditional Indian hair jewelry, and I’m certain I’ve seen their like in high fashion before, in some 60s Vogue shot of Marisa Berenson or Veruschka or some other Diana Vreeland go-to girl. But after Googling my fingers to the bone I can’t come up with an exact name or image match. Roberto Cavalli, who is the king of if-ya-got-it-flaunt-it school of design, is accessorizing in a most mysterioso kind of way. If any reader has any idea what they are and where they're from, I'd be so obliged if you'd let me know.

Working the Angles

Single-shoulder dresses and tops are a significant style trend for the summer to come. This is an eyecatching, dramatic look—-but if you’re not convinced about this kind of exposure for day, here’s an idea.

Take the inherent dynamism of a diagonal slash and shift it down, via a tunic with a strongly slanting hem. It will instantly convert a workaday top into something rather more interesting. How to do it? Either knot at one hip, or go the extra mile and cut a past-it long top (or mini) to shape, hemming the raw edge down underneath. Knotting is easier, cutting and sewing will look less beachy.

Pictured here is a girl-on-the-street showing just how fantastic a look this can be. Check out the lovely proportions of top/capris/flats, the structural tote in a punchy color, the cool sunnies, and the slash of red at her lips. It’s such a simple look, but how chic, all the more so because it looks effortless.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Clan Obama

I swore that I wouldn't get caught up in the Michelle Obama fashion hagiography that's currently inflaming the British dress press, but she's gone and done something provocative . . . a red cape aflutter . . . in this case the fabric is emblazoned with an Argyle pattern.

In her much-hailed talk at a London school, Obama wore a sweater bearing the familiar pattern of diamonds criss-crossed with diagonal lines. Americans associate this with classic East Coast prepdom but, like most things WASP, the pattern dates to the Olde Worlde, not strictly Anglo-Saxon but Celtic.

The origins of the Argyle pattern, according to the excellent summary on Squidoo, saw the burly-calfed members of the Campbell clan of the Argyle region of northern Scotland cutting apart their tartan and using it as foot coverings. (If you've ever been anywhere near Scotland in any month of the year except middays in July you'll understand this impulse exactly.) Eventually, socks came to be knit in a similar pattern. As the centuries passed, golfers fresh from tramping through the Scottish rough disseminated the Argyle diamonds on on a wider scale; the president of Brooks Brothers adopted it as a fitting motif for the tribals of Wall Street, and currently, England's newly revivified Pringle is doing its damndest to make Argyle look cool.

On Michelle, it seems less cool than a nod to the poor girls across the land who must wear patterns like this (or even blander) on a day-in-day-out basis as part of the mandatory public school uniform. Kind of an "ich bin eine British Schoolgirl" move. Yes, the speech was great. But she's communicating brilliantly with her clothing as well . . .

Thursday, April 2, 2009

On the Cuff

Women who are in responsible positions and/or conservative professions have limited options when it comes to jewelry. A statement necklace may work -- or not -- depending on the culture; pearls are a safe option but can be boring; brooches and pins risk looking too retro.

But there's one item of jewelry that's almost always safe to wear, in as wild a style as your suit-smothered heart desires. What prevents them from drawing notice is that they're small, and live in the hinterlands down the arm. Cuff links!

No, they're not just for boys, although the blokes down the trading desk know well the stealthy, anarchic (as it goes) potential of these little gems.

But for you, they don't have to be at all masculine. Silk knots, gorgeous enamel, diamond-sparkly, and yes, even Monopoly Scotties are a possibility. It's possible to find nice nice nice cuff links in any charity shop/thrift store in the land.

It's harder to find the dress shirts to go with them. English shirtmakers like Pink routinely issue link-friendly styles, but probably the best option is eBay. In America, keyword "french cuff", in the UK, "double cuff". Happy hunting!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

La Bolsa Loca

Gwyneth, Gwyneth, Gwyneth. Yes it must be exhausting schlepping the organic pesto, the straightening serum and self-tanner, the yoga mat--the bag is so capacious little Apple would also fit, with room to spare. A huge bag just begs for a huge payload. No wonder you need a nice lie-down.

A modest suggestion. Why not trade in the massive hold-all for a lovely ladylike bag like this one, currently up on eBay? So much prettier on the arm, and no risk of developing biceps like a certain good friend . . .