Saturday, February 28, 2009

How Not To Sell a Vintage Frock on Ebay, Part 1

To the right is Steven Klein photograph I love--a gorgeous haute couture dress covered with silver-bead sea urchins, by Lagerfeld, ethereally styled by Tonne Goodman, worn by Cate Blanchett. I find it transportive. It lives on the side of a file cabinet just alongside my terminal. I look at it several hundred times a day and imagine being in that world, in that dress, that beautiful.

Meanwhile, back on the screen, are scans of the offerings on eBay's vast closet. As often as not, I decide to click away from particular vintage dress, not because of any flaws or sizing problems, but because it's being worn--modeled--by a nonprofessional. To post any examples would be unkind . . . they're easy enough to find. The models are typically vintage store owners, or the owner's sister, or the owner's babysitter, somebody who has been told that they're cute enough to model. Most of them are attractive. The thing is, in the pictures, they look way too much themselves.

When I see the pictures, I think "oh that's a cute dress on them," or "that doesn't quite work on them," and cannot make the perceptual leap to imagining the dress on me. This is because so much of their personality infuses in through their appearance, stance, tattoos and piercings, hairstyle, distracting bric-a-brac in the background. I've spent much of my professional life in pursuit of other people's old clothes, and yet. The clothes become tainted by the reality of who is wearing them.

Roland Barthes remarked about fashion magazines, and photographs such as the one of Cate above, "Printed fashion functions . . . as a true mythology of clothing . . . one could say its Utopia."

EBay scans featuring an amateur model are less Utopia we'd all love to live in than the neighbor's backyard, strewn with the neighbor and her things.

My advice: if you want to sell old clothes successfully on the internet, invest in a nice, faceless dress form.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Fashion DNA: Gucci Bamboo

I'm always interested to see how those at the helm of today's great design houses employ the motifs and signature materials of the brand's past. Karl Lagerfeld famously sketched out the handful of emblems that inform Chanel, including the camellia and the cross-backed Cs. I've talked earlier on this blog about Celine's linked chains.

Today, the spotlight is on Gucci, which has made bamboo a signature element of its bags since 1947, when founder Guccio Gucci first used it as a handle on a leather purse. The question: why would a Florentine saddle purveyor employ a material far better known in the Far East as a decorative element?

Initial digging around the internet doesn't yield much. I suspect there's a good story here (fashion historians get on it!). The little I've found: bamboo's natural beauty, ready-finished natural state, low cost, pliability, and extreme strength means it can be used for pratically anything. In Scandanavia, for example, bamboo has been used for ski poles. In the Far East, stouter versions of the grass are used as scaffolding in construction. Centuries ago, Hindu royalty boasted their rank through the length of the bamboo handles on their umbrellas. In Bangladesh today, 73% of the population lives in houses made of bamboo. You can fish with it, walk on it, wear it, tattoo with it, even eat it: bamboo shoots are tasty, and not just for pandas.

But back to the question. How did Guccio Gucci first hit on the idea of using it as a handle for fine handbags? A guess: at some point, maybe during his formative stays in London and Paris, he saw some Japanese Ikebana baskets, which make an art out of woven bamboo strips and gracefully curved bamboo handles. These would have been displayed as art objects in Europe with "Japonisme", the love affair with Japanese design, that swept through the capitals in the early part of the century. And so a signature emblem was born. Maybe.

As for the practicality of bamboo handles on bags, there's a hilarious discussion on the subject over at The Fashion Spot. The upshot: beautiful but unyielding bamboo and fashionably bony shoulders do not get along! The moral: as long as you're not a panda, a little bite of bamboo goes a long way.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

All I have to Say About the Oscar Dresses

While Penelope Cruz won an Oscar for her role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, her gown had a more mixed reception. Cathy Horyn, blogging for The New York Times, felt the 60-year-old Balmain creation "wore her." Others deemed the style too bridal, due to the white color and heavy overlay of lace. Tim Gunn, trying to be complimentary, noted that it belongs in a museum, which some proceeded to twist into slight on Cruz herself . . . miaow!

In private, in the glow of my screen or terminal, I'm as guilty as the next fashion lover of nitpicking stars and their stylists' fashion choices. But I don't see the point of scolding them publically into the refuge of safe, columnar frocks--cool and conventional as a carton of popsicles--which may be perfect lens candy for the paparazzi but betray little personality or subtlety of detail beyond.

I think the gown is perfectly lovely, and its critics overly harsh, especially given that the dress is vintage and not ready-made for the Oscar mill. What's more, its virgin-queen propriety ought to be viewed as counterpart to the far racier slashed white number Cruz wore to the afterparties.

What truly interests me about the Balmain gown is that it appears to stem from the time in his career when he was still very much in step with his rival Dior's New Look, and embraced a heavily embellished style that was to diverge markedly in the 1960s into a more clean-lined approach, harkening back to his formative training as an architect (a background he shares with Armani). "Couture is architecture in movement," he once said. I'd love to know more about the exact history of this dress (where Cruz got it, who originally wore it) but this seems unlikely, given that professional fashion critics are tasked to provide instant analyses over longer-form follow-ups.

Anyway, if you happen to hanker for a vintage Balmain of similar elan, here's a link that you'll love. The Frock is a San Francisco vintage house with a spectacular array of gowns, wedding dresses, and old-school LBDs. All wonderfully photographed and expertly researched . . . feast your eyes, and learn a little more about what Hollywood queens wore to the Oscars before the entire world had something to say about it . . .

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

This Old Dress: Hymn to a Battleaxe

I'm currently selling a used tank on eBay. Not an actual Panzer, of course, but a dress. Specifically, the kind of dress that rendered its wearer socially impermeable. Able to soldier through charitable ball planning meetings, or lunches with visiting royalty, or trips to showrooms with the decorator, in full knowledge that she was correct from wrist to neck to kneecap.

The actual frock is an early 70s (I reckon) coat dress from the house of Galanos. Trained in Paris (Piguet), perfecting his trade in New York (Carnegie), James Galanos became one of America's greatest dressmakers, famed for using couture level details in the garments he fashioned for high society dames. The fact that he, along with Arnold Scaasi, was one of Nancy Reagan's go-to dressmakers says it all about the kind of lady who sought his work out.

The dress is an A-line with flap pockets, french cuffs, domed beaten brass buttons and a slight wrap effect. The fabric is a wool tweed, so heavy that it literally feels like body armor. The dress is lined in silk. What really puzzles me is that it came out of Dallas. How somebody could wear something this substantial in that heat is beyond me . . . but as my brother-in-law likes to say, with a heavy fake Greek accent: "sometimes it eez better to loook goood than to feel goood."

I'm selling the dress because the sleeves come up short. The original owner must have been elfin, like an Olsen twin, but none of this sloppy, droopy, hide-in-a-pile-of laundry-look favored by Mary Kate and Ashley. Nope--military bearing, helmet hair, alligator bag locked and loaded. Sister of the travelling Galanos, I salute you.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Spots On

Clothing, as we all know, sends messages, some less subtle than others. Take, as an example, animal prints, especially the feline variety worn by tigers, leopards, and cheetahs.

Decades ago, owning an authentic big-cat coat was a sign that in fashion terms, you had arrived. Check out Edie Sedgwick in this YouTube clip. Though clearly seeing triple at the time, she delights in putting on "the most beautiful coat in the world."

Bob Dylan, a lover of Sedgwick's, was less enamoured of the fur, and of the girl who wore it, when he wrote these lyrics:

Well, I see you got a new boyfriend
You know, I never seen him before
Well, I saw him
Makin' love to you
You forgot to close the garage door
You might think he loves you for your money
But I know what he really loves you for
It's your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat

Couturier Christian Dior, in his classic The Little Dictionary of Fashion, hinted ever-so-discreetly at the trouble wearing the fur could cause: "to wear leopard you must have a kind of femininity which is a little bit sophisticated. If you are fair and sweet don't wear it."

Today wearing the actual skins is a no-no due to issues of endangerment and anti-cruelty. Faux versions are the default, at prices that make them an option for most everyone. Still, a certain kind of woman tends to wear animal print. Fashion writer Hadley Freeman gets her claws out and rips: "Animal print clothing is even more grating because the message is so embarrassingly obvious and so cringingly stupid. Yeah, we get it, babe -- you're just wild, you are. In the sack, yes, yes. Like on Discovery Channel -- we got it!"

Well, she's got a teeny point here. All the ladies I know who frequently sport jungle spots and stripes do like a prowl and are big into toying with their prey. But so what? They're also great company, and a helluva a lot more fun to hang out with than their more tasteful counterparts in a pastel twin-set and pearls.

And not every woman wears feline print solely to catch some game of her own. One of my heroines is Georgie White, an adventuress who became the first person to run white-water rafting in the Grand Canyon as a commercial business. Her style signature was a leopard-skin swimsuit--not because she was looking to get lucky on the river (which, considering, she probably had to beat them off with a paddle), but because the spots "disguised the oil stains" from the boat! Great company, for sure.

What Fresh Heel is This?

OK, back at the desk after a week in fresh mountain air. Thanks to the childrens' slavish devotion to their DS, I was able to use the flight time to sink into the glossy depths of my own drug of choice, the fashion magazines. Having more time than usual to contemplate the front-of-the-book ads only reinforced how deeply silly, and out-of-touch, the coming season will be. This is nowhere more evident than at the ground floor level--the shoes.

Much to blame: last year's Balenciaga's gladiator sandals-cum-shin-guards, and Prada's (admittedly pretty) piranha-plant heels. These set dizzying heights for fellow designers to match, which they have met this year with stilt-like heels and even more outlandish design.

Take, for example, the footgear offered by Yves Saint Laurent. It's been described as "iconic" in several places, which is apparently code for hideously expensive and essentially unwearable. What was the genesis of the design? I've gotten a stiletto stuck in a grate more times than I can count. This seems a nightmarish extension where the entire foot gets embedded, and the grate somehow vacuum-molds around it. More likely--the shoe was designed using a computer-aided grid; some smartyboots thought it looked cool without a structural skin, and voila, your feet are trussed like a round of beef ready to roast (and blister in an unusually decorative way, if you're walking much farther than a couple yards).

The photo actually makes me laugh. If the poor model took two steps to the left or right, the sticks, burrs and sand of the Hollywood Hills would get so deeply embedded in the latticework that the shoe would look less like a sleekly modernistic structure than beaver's dam.

Now on to even more egregious little numbers from Dior. At first, the heels seem similarly architectural, though in this case more Frank Gehry than modernist grid. But look closer (click on the picture) and you discover that the heels actually take a human form. Like the female caryatids at the Acropolis acting as columns for a pediment, these little figures support the superstructure of Giselle Bundchen.

The problem? With their pendulous breasts, ripe stomachs and ample backsides, the figures harken to the primitive, fertility-goddess sculpture most commonly associated with sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania. Hard on the heels of an outcry over the lack of non-European models on the catwalks and fashion-magazine pages, John Galliano has seen fit to put the inarguably Aryan Giselle hard on the heels of a totemic Black figure, a figure which, needless to say, would never pass muster at a high-fashion casting call.

To me, it's emblematic of the deep cluelessness of the fashion establishment. And why, given the option, most women would rather wear flipflops.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Vintage Philosophy: Roland Barthes

On the cycles of fashion:

"Every year fashion destroys that which it has just been admiring, it adores that which it is about to destroy. Last year's fashion, now destroyed, could offer to the victorious fashion of the current year an unfriendly word such as the dead leave to the living and which can be read on certain tombstones: I was yesterday what you are today, and you will be tomorrow what I am today."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

How to Wear It: Vintage Bracelets

If you're a typical fan of vintage accessories, you can't stop at one. Your delight with finding a wonderful example fuels the urge to find more, and before you know it, your cupboards overflow with floral scarves, or alligator clutches, or venetian glass chokers.

If you collect watches, bracelets, cuffs, or bangles, you have an advantage over the rest of us. You can display a substantial selection of your horde at one go. There's just something so atavistic--primitively attractive--in a mass of adornment at the wrists. What's more, it hews perfectly with the coming season's trend to the tribal.

The sole risk (unless you work with heavy machinery) is that you'll look like a seven-year-old who's just raided mom's jewelry box. Here's how to keep the look from spiraling into chaos:

1) Be sure your adornments fall into the same general family of materials. Wooden bangles, Swatches, studded leather cuffs, or metal watches (as seen gloriously here on stylist Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele). If you mix your media too much, the look will be less Tiffany's window than kitchen sink.

2) Unless you're fully buying into the schizophrenia of the tribal look, keep the rest of your outfit fairly quiet. The point is to highlight your collection, as though against a gallery's white walls: a simple blouse, as seen here, is ideal. A black polo/turtleneck/tee would be an equally fine.

Pile on!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Vintage Porn

While this title will surely win Fashion Preserve more hits than usual I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that there is a site out there that, for vintage lovers like ourselves, is the ultimate in online seduction.

Do you love high-end vintage? Do you wish you could be shopping for treasures right now instead of sat down at your desk surrounded by work? Then I urge you to link, link at TOP SPEED, to Decades' store blog.

This L.A. shop, founded by Cameron Silver, has long been the go-to destination for Hollywood princesses aiming to look like queens come awards night. Which is far easier to do in vintage Valentino, Desses, Azzaro, Halston, and all the other great names this store stocks.

The blog is wonderfully descriptive of what frocks are on offer and, more importantly, how to wear them. A girl can dream . . . and, if she's really motivated, make further inquiries . . . have a look, and see if you don't want to browse for hours . . .

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pink, Hot, and so is Tangerine

On Saturday night, I went to dinner at an Italian restaurant called Scarpetta with my niece Roberta and a small group of my close Italian friends . . . I ate spaghetti con pomodoro and basilico — and, here, I must interject something for your benefit. Americans overcook their pasta. Always. And there’s too much sauce. Too much of everything! Please, try to control yourselves.

Giorgio Armani, ladies and gentlement, writing for The New York Times's fashion blog, T. He's talking about red sauce. The wisdom is equally applicable to the season's fashion equivalent: the colors hot pink and orange.

(haha stretching a metaphor! indulge me) Pioneered in high fashion by Yves Saint Laurent, who was reputedly inspired by the tropical blooms in his Morocco garden, they are an exceedingly dangerous pair in the hands of amateurs. Not given to natural harmony (unless under a searing blue sky), baneful to many skin tones, and far from restrained, fuchsia and tangerine are best worn together in small doses. Like the lovely Paloma Picasso does here, against black . . . or as you might do, once it warms up, with bright accessories against khaki and white . . .

Monday, February 16, 2009

How to Wear It: Vintage Shawl

Frida Kahlo knew a thing or two about aesthetics. Just look at the swagger with which she wears this shawl, folded into a triangle, then the tips crossed and thrown over the opposite shoulders. This elegant little bit of origami directs the eye square onto her amazing face. Experiment in front of a mirror with a shawl or large scarf of your own, and see if it works for you too.

Friday, February 13, 2009

How to Wear a Short Skirt (if you're not sure you can)

What to do if you love a trapeze silhouette but don't have the legs (or the gamine air) to pull off an above-the-knee skirt?

American Vogue here shows an answer. While the tangerine crinoline is part-and-parcel of this Vera Wang dress, you can hunt down something similarly gossamer in a neutral color (taupe, pale pink or cappucino) and wear it layered under a patterned skirt or dress. We layer tops all the time, why not bottoms as well?

Do You Have What It Takes to Shop Secondhand?

Patricia Marx, who once wrote for Saturday Night Live, brings some wicked observational humor to her pieces on shopping. Here's a sample, from an article in The New Yorker. Substitute "vintage" for "discount" and it may sound very familiar . . .

"Are you certain you have what it takes to shop discount? Do you have the patience to excavate heaps of finery that is frayed, smudged, stretched, faded, pilled, ripped, mis-sized, unstylish, out of season, or never was in season? The grit to see yourself in the glare of flourescent lighting--if you can even find a mirror? The confidence to have an opinion without being told what it is by an encouraging salesperson?"

I sport-shop in circumstances like these and always enjoy it. It's as close to hunting-and-gathering as you can get in a modern urban environment. If civilization equals swanning around posh boutiques on Sloane Street or Madison Avenue, that's splendid as a rare treat, but on a routine basis I'd rather forage.

Glamorizing your Closet

Through painful experience, I've come to realize that one's wardrobe is only as good as how well it's kept. Sanity and good vibes emanate from a closet that is orderly and--really important--scannable in one glance.

I don't have a trophy walk-in like Eva's. But all my clothes are organized by type on identical hangers. It's amazing what a difference this has made. No more jumble of wire, wood, and plastic. The pieces hang evenly, making a display. I can open up the doors and think "this little corner of life is under control."

If you can organize your clothes in a way that replicates a shop, or --think big-- a gallery, these are the benefits:

1) More clothes get put into active circulation because you can see them.
2) You have a clearer picture of those pieces that just aren't working, and ought to be recycled.
3) You value what you have more.

Don't have anything to wear? Oh yes you do. It's in there.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Fringe Magnet

So fringe has gotten so much coverage as a trend for S/S '09 I predict every moving part of every girl in the mall is going to be flicking and tossing like My Little Pony come June, because this is such natural trickle-down from Jil Sander, Alexander McQueen and the others who are doing at the high end.

A humble suggestion. If Sander and McQueen are beyond your budget (tragic but true for most of us), instead of going out and buying some indifferently-made, rushed-to-market cheapie just because it goes swish, why not have a ramble through a vintage shop or eBay and see if you can find something betasselled that's also REALLY NICE.

Like, say, this killer sequin & fringe poncho that's going down for sale tomorrow on eBay. It's great--the kind of thing that you can pull out for a party year after year, and won't show its age. But you might have to outbid me for it.

If you're feeling crafty, go for vintage suede or ultrasuede, which you can fringe yourself with a pair of sharp scissors (it won't fray).

Or if you're feeling achingly delicate, search out one of the many examples of gorgeous beaded and fringed vintage bags from the twenties and thirties . . .

Because there's nothing quite as satisfying as a trend that keeps on giving, long after the cheap versions are put out to pasture.

Stealth Brands: Krizia

The sun's out, the daffodils are stemming, and despite the chilly air, spring is edging in. One of the first things I'll put on as soon as it's warm enough to bare arms is this silk top from Krizia.

I found it for less than ten pounds in an upscale charity shop/thrift store. Silk chiffon with beautiful edging, a cream silk lining, graceful design: all hallmarks of a beautifully made garment (click on the pic for a look at details). It was undervalued by the shop because the name isn't as well known as its compatriots Prada, Gucci, and Armani.

Krizia was founded in 1954 by former schoolteacher Mariuccia Mandelli. If its clothing is rarely as spectacular as the better-known Milanese designers, it is a highly respected brand in Italy, and is one of the few remaining independent designers. Perhaps best known for its often riotous knitwear, it has also produced lines of mens and childrens clothing, perfume, bags, and houseware.

Anyone who follows the fashion industry knows that designers jump from house to house in order to gain experience and credibility and a solid platform for their talents. In 1999, Krizia hired a the Israeli designer Alber Elbaz as a consultant. He left a year later, and today is the genius behind Lanvin's relaunch as a megabrand.

Did he have a hand in the design of my top? It's impossible to say. And frankly, I like it so much on its own merits it doesn't matter.

If you love to hunt for great secondhand finds, it helps to know your fashion history. It's even better to know quality when you find it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Fewer, Better Things

Our lives are full of things. Disposable distractions, stuff you buy but do not cherish, own yet never love. Thrown away in weeks rather than passed down for generations.

Perhaps things will be different now. Wiser choices made with greater care. After all, if the fewer things you own always excite you, would you really miss the many that never could?

It's a recent ad from De Beers, for diamonds. It's capitalizing on bad times. But the words are no less the wiser for it. We can't expect clothing to last as long as diamonds, but it too ought to excite us, for as long as it's in our possession. Or, at the very minimum, convince with every wearing that the choice to acquire it was right.

How to Wear It: Brogues

British style weekly Grazia has annointed brogues/wingtips as a women's wear must-have for the coming season. Given the alternative--stratospheric heels that seem perfect for car-to-bar-to-trauma-center rather than a full day out--this makes a lot of sense.

But these traditional men's shoes, typically bearing decorative patterns of perforations and scalloped edging, can be difficult to wear too, unless you think being called a "handsome woman" is the highest form of flattery. They're impossible to pull off with lightweight skirts. With skinny-leg trousers, your feet risk looking enormous. In their most flattering incarnation they're worn with slightly rumpled linen-y trousers with a fairly wide leg, and possibly a turn-up/cuff. With this as an Annie-Hall style bottom, you can go quite a bit more feminine on top to counter the sensibility at ground level.

While it would be perfectly lovely to splash out a couple hundred on brand-new brogues, vintage examples are worth the hunt. If you're amply-footed, you'll be delighted to find that you can finally find vintage shoes that fit, because men's feet back then size up perfectly with our feet right now.

Look for names like Church's, John Lobb, or one of the countless Italian makers of fine footgear. These latter very often have detailing like braidwork, exotic skins, and fancy stitchery that further feminizes the shoe.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

TimeWarp: 60s London

If you've got 9 minutes to spare, take a quick tour down the King's Road, Soho and Carnaby Street, where the birds and blokes have got it all going on.

And possibly the best fashion advice ever at the five-minute mark: "Op Art spats: ideal for camouflaging the larger foot . . . "

Quality Details: Working Cuff Buttons

It's simple: the more workmanship involved in creating a garment, the finer it tends to be, whether you discover the piece in a designer boutique, in a dress agency/consignment store, or at a flea market.

A cheaply made, fast-fashion jacket would never feature working cuff buttons--ones that can be eased through finished buttonholes, as opposed to decorative buttons that are all dressed up but nowhere to go.

These days, a working cuff isn't terribly useful on a jacket. It's not there to be used but because it's part of the tradition of fine tailoring--a standard to be met and appreciated.

It's also a very good indicator that a given piece of clothing isn't a counterfeit. An earnest counterfeiter could easily sew real Chanel buttons onto a faux Chanel jacket, but a working cuff is simply too complicated to fake.

Monday, February 9, 2009


Got a spare $3300 sitting around in the change jar? Then this lovely python bag from Tod's can be yours, and you will have the satisfaction of knowing you are smack on trend. Python, and its cousins in the snake kingdom, are the ultimate asp-irational buys for the spring and summer.

Most of us, though, find prices like these rather constricting. If you'd rather eat lunch from now until August than spend the equivalent on an authentic skin handbag, have a look at vintage sources, where they're still within reasonable price ranges.

But tread carefully . . . not all snakeskin is created equal.

Exhibit A: this beautiful clutch purchased for about £40 on eBay. Its small, flat, glossy scales create a pattern to inspire the natural fantasies of Alexander McQueen.

Exhibit B: this vintage purse, also from eBay, which may look alright in scans (why I bought it originally), but features scales so dry, brittle, and rough-textured it's like carrying a satchel crafted from psoriasis. It is the monster in my closet. I need to get rid of it, but the thought of handling it again to get it ready for sale gives me the creeps, and so it sits in the dark, waiting to scare and scare again.

The lesson: if you're buying any kind of reptile product off the internet, ask to see as many scans as possible. Look for scales that are flat, glossy, and arrayed in a lovely clear pattern (a photo taken in raking light is the best for this). If you're buying a vintage snake bag in person, look especially carefully into the folds, where friction might cause the scales to lift. Once you own it, condition it regularly with an appropriate product, to keep it looking deluxe.

Lastly, if you happen to see these two bottom scans on eBay in the coming months, it means I've worked up the courage to pack up the horrid thing for some unlucky winner. Don't bid. You don't need any monsters in your closet.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Hairloom Jewelry

I was amused to see this photo of Elizabeth Moss in this month's American Vogue . . . she's a beautiful woman and her necklace is simple but stunning.

But doesn't it bear a startling resemblance to this little wonder crafted in 1941 by Anni Albers, artist (and wife of the famed modernist painter Josef Albers)? Take a very good look at the components, and decide whether or not you could make one yourself . . .

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Best-Dressed Scarf in Paris

I love vintage souvenir scarves. They're affordable, add shots of color and pattern without being overwhelming, and often bear designs so skilled and charming it's a shame not to hang them on the wall.

A favorite of mine is this chrome-yellow silk scarf, from eBay. It shows about 175 sketched dresses, coats, suits, and gowns, all different, the silhouettes appearing to date to the late 50s. The names Balmain, Schiaparelli, Dior, Rouff, and others run across the garments. As it's unsigned, it would take a fair bit of research to dig out the scarf's background (or a kind commenter to come to the rescue).

Is it deliberately evocative of Louis Slobodkin's jacket for the 1944 children's classic, The 100 Dresses? Maybe, maybe not, but like the book's young heroine, I also like to imagine that I own all of them.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Here Comes the MOB

Bridesmaids' dresses are the classic one-shot-wonders of the occasion-wear world. But another fixture of bridal-party fashion likewise tends to get only one outing before a life sentence in dry-cleaner's plastic: the MOB (mother-of-the-bride) dress.

They tend to follow a fashion idiom of their very own: almost always a solid color, modest in cut, and lavishly encrusted with decoration of some sort: brocade, sequins, passementerie work-- if it's truly to be reckoned with, all three. No matter what decade it is, the MOB dress evokes the heyday of the Dynasty costume department. Or modern-day Bollywood. Great names in MOB design include Jovani, Bob Mackie, Badgley Mischka, and the granddaddy of them all, Oleg Cassini.

Cassini lived an incredibly eventful life that really ought to be made into a film--naval officer, bon vivant, briefly engaged to Grace Kelly!--but he won everlasting fame as the designer annointed by Jackie Kennedy to dress her for her role as First Lady. After many successful years, he lent his name to a line of gowns that have been beloved by MOBS.

I happened across one during a thrift shop outing and was immediately taken with the exuberance of its embellishment. Buckets of sequins weren't enough for this floor-length dress. It also featured bugle beading, shoulderpads you could serve whole hams off of and best of all, a huge bead/sequin/fabric flower thingy at the hip. It was pretty much unwearable as was. Something about it called, though, so I decided to ask my long-suffering tailor to take out the shoulder pads and shorten it to hip length.

And it kind of works, especially with big hoop earrings. But it must be worn with jeans and an unassertive shoe. Anything dressier on the bottom fights it, a bad fight for the bottom to pick.

If you come across a dress like this that once tasted the high life but has been a shut-in for a while, think about creative ways to give it new life. The wedding may be over, but the party in dresses like these never dies.

Why I Love Ebay, Part 4

Sometimes it's not entirely mercantile. Sometimes I love eBay because it's the best visual resource going for mysterious bits of fashion history.

Example: My mom recently dug out this sepia portrait of my grandmother Else, which I'd never seen before. It was taken in Germany in 1908. She (left) and her sister Flora (right) are dressed in exquisite Edwardian style (had they been American they would have been Gibson girls). All the hallmarks of the period are here: the beautiful pintucked, high-collared, lace-embellished "lingerie" blouse on Elsa. The pigeon-breasted, tightly sashed silhouette of her sister, curved into an "S". The lofty, broadbrimmed hats on both.

But one thing I didn't recognize. What was that small rectangular object dangling from my grandmother's waist? I knew eBay could help. At first I thought it might be a "reticule", the precursor to women's handbags, a little kit to hold sewing tools and whatnot. Keywording this turned up little of direct use, but one of the lots for sale mentioned the word "chatelaine". That rang a bell. I vaguely knew that a chatelaine was the name of the chain women could hang useful objects off of--things like needle cases and perfume bottles and even little silver pencils. So in the keyword "chatelaine" went, and I found it. A near-exact replica of the object my grandmother wears.

It's called an aide-memoire--an "aid to memory", or a little notebook, with clasps on the side for a pencil. In the days pre-Blackberry, ladies could carry one of these to keep their thoughts handy, in a safe place.

I'm so glad I have this photograph of my grandmother. I long to know what was written in that little box, but her aide-memoire is no longer in the family. I hope whoever has it now treasures it like I would.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Burn This

Recently I won the eBay bidding for a vintage shawl by French couturier Balmain. Not the revived, sexed-up version of the brand now under the helm of Christopher Decarnin--this shawl is of indeterminate vintage but surely dates from the period when Balmain was the label du choix of aging European royalty and old-school Hollywood icons, women who liked their interfacings sturdy and hem length well south of the kneecap. No matter. It's workmanship I'm after, and this onetime rival to Dior and Balenciaga had that in abundance.
The eBay bidding never got over $10, largely, I think, because the seller described the fabric as "terry-like". Nobody's going to break the bank on a beach towel. But I went ahead because the scans looked great: the label dead-authentic and the weave design unusual and interesting.
I thought the moment of truth would be unwrapping the shipping packaging, but even pulling the shawl out, I couldn't pinpoint exactly what sort of fabric it was. There was no contents label attached. It looked good and felt good, like wool, but its more lowly synthetic cousin, acrylic, does a very good imitation. As much as I've trained my hand to find great fabric blind, it can't always tell the difference.

There was only one thing to do. Something I've wanted an excuse to do for a very long while. Set the thing on fire. Actually just a strand, in a burn test. If the fiber were wool, it would singe. If it were acrylic, it would melt.

Who says there's no mad science in the fashion biz? Burn it I did. And the resulting wisp of smoke smelled . . . like a bad home perm. It was natural hair for sure. Score!

And now I'll treat that shawl with nothing but kindness, for it will surely keep me quite warm during this weekend's snowstorm.

Take it From Coco

Coco Chanel began her career as a milliner, making hats that were sleek and close to the head, a typical rebellion against the unwieldy belle epoque confections then in fashion. "How can the brain function under those things?" she said. Zing!

The lady herself, always thinking, started out by adorning plain bonnets bought in a department store with fancies of her own devising.

If you love hats but can never find one that suits you perfectly, why not follow her example? Charity/thrift stores are the retirement homes of perfectly functional old hats. Find a nice plain one in good condition that fits not-too-snug, get hold of some glue suitable for fabric, and get trimming. You can buy all sorts of wonderful trim from dedicated online stores. Ebay is also a source. Or have a good rummage in the shop that sold the hat: costume brooches, odd bits of glitter or feathers, applique on bags, belts, and garments all can be cannibalized to good use.

For more information on how the original numbers were made and worn, have a look at Fashion Era's excellent site here. For great visual inspiration, check out the Coco blog here. Happy hatting!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Quality Details: Fine Buttons

All buttons are not created equal, especially the little white ones that you find on dress shirts and blouses. They come in two versions: mother-of-pearl, or plastic that has been cunningly treated to imitate mother-of-pearl.

The pearl ones are, of course, finer. They have minute, subtle gradations of color that only nature can confer, and gleam as if lit from within.

The plastic ones gleam too, but in a uniform way, like pearlized nail polish.

How to tell the difference with one quick glance? Flip the button around. The back of the true mother-of-pearl button will be rougher, unfinished, or may show evidence of the darker outer shell from which it was punched.

Who notices such tiny details? You do, once you start paying attention. And once you start paying attention, you won't stop.

How to Wear It: Oversize Flower Pin, Revisited

Japanese hairstylist/origami master Katsuya Kamo got universal acclaim at the January '09 Chanel couture show for his magnificent headpieces. The coolest thing about them is that they were constructed with plain old office paper.

Inspired by this creative use of an all-too-familiar material, why not configure something fresh out of an overworked, overplayed accessory, a.k.a. Carrie Bradshaw's signature flower pin, circa 2000.

So many of us have one of these flowers sitting sad in a drawer (much like Carrie herself, after that hound Big jilted her at the altar). Here's how to get it out and about again: securely attach about 4 inches' worth of sturdy wrapped wire (pipecleaner, florist's wire, improvise) to the pin. Pull your hair back into a low ponytail and affix the flower to the band by wrapping the wire around it. Alternately, wire the flower to a narrow hairband and wear it to the side of the head (as long as the flower is fairly small and not too bright. Otherwise you'll look like a refugee from a touring company of South Pacific).

Give it a try on your next night out, and see how it attracts attention.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

How to Wear It: Vintage Hats

Or, really, any hat, but isn't it more fun if it's Lilly Dache or Mr. John than a cheap felt number from "one size fits all"?

Left, the modern take, a shot from the February American Vogue by Stephen Meisel. The models' stylized strut is perfectly complemented by the tilt of their hats. The angle is everything. The dynamism of a diagonal brings vivacity and interest that acts like a magnet on the eye.

Below, in the vintage version, is the same principle at work. Check out the gal center, back row. Her angle is spot on. Looking good, Mom!

There is nothing at all wrong with standing in front of a mirror and experimenting with hat pitches and yaws until you find the one that best suits your face and the shape of the brim/crown. It's not vanity, it's aesthetics, and that counts.

Baby It's Cold Outside!

So here I thought that I was leaving frigid Connecticut for the comparatively balmy climes of northwest London, but no. Marooned for hours on the only working runway at Heathrow by the worst snowstorm in 18 years. Weather, eh?

Now that I'm laughing again, how about a quick look at fashionably old ways to conquer the cold?

As bad as it gets for most of us in the northern hemisphere, it will never be quite as dreadfully cold as it was for Josephine Peary, here looking fetching in a caribou-skin parka. She was the wife of Robert Peary, the Polar explorer, and accompanied him on his North Greenland expedition--primarily to keep him out of trouble with the Inuit ladies. Her journal makes for fascinating reading; she doesn't stint on descriptions of what she wore while harpooning walrus and jumping crevasses.

On the other side of the New World, on the Northwest coast of North America, bitter cold rains were kept at bay by textiles made from woven cedar fibers. This picture illustrates a noblewoman wearing a cedar cloak, possibly lined with sealskin or other fur, a basketry hat and some fairly spectacular abalone earrings.

Zipping through the decades to the 60s, here's a photo of a winter nymph frolicking with Rudolf in her maxi-coat and hood. Never mind that the photo shows the trees in full leaf and the grass verdant on the ground, it's winter! In catalog land, anyway.

Of all these looks, a vintage maxi is by far the most appropriate for us now. It's a fantastically dramatic option for cold-weather wear, especially when a parka or a puffa is just too casual. I found a wonderful cut-velvet black maxi-coat at Portobello and rely on it completely when the weather gets fierce. Just one caveat: when you hunt for one, be sure it's not so sweeping that it's as gritty as the pavement by the time you get home.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Why I Love Ebay, Part 3

I can't bring myself to post the pic so here's the link, which also could have been headlined "Vintage Trends Best Left Behind".

Honestly. What were they thinking, our great-grans, flouncing around in stoles and wraps with little headies and feeties still on the pelts?

While in the States over the weekend, I got to examine one like this up close, in the wonderful vintage shop Tova's in Old Saybrook, CT (best for fantastic gowns of all periods). I had an interesting chat on the subject with the lady who was minding the store. Her take: back in the day when head-on stoles were popular, people were far less attuned to animals' rights. If you're executing your own chickens out in the yard, you'll not be overly upset by a bit of taxidermy around your neck.

I suppose this is true. And, as a wearer of vintage fur, I suppose my issue with the head-on pelts is less squeamishness about the animal origins as the sheer unattractiveness of those ratty little heads.