Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Won't do this very often, but it seems apropros: if you like it, become a Facebook fan . . . no, not of Aretha, the HAT.

Hidden Treasure: Wearing Vintage Medals

Have just had a splended ten minutes cruising around the heavy medal division on eBay. Keywords: militaria, collectables. For a woman who likes to think laterally in terms of her adornment, these gorgeous decorations, previously retired with honors, can once again serve active duty as pendants or pins.

Here's one of the prettiest: a WWI Order of Leopold of Belgium, whose price reflects the detail and distinction of its enamelwork.

But there's no need to push out the boat on price . . . just a few dollars or quid can win you something winsome, like this wonderfully graphic version from an English shooting club . . .

Bear in mind before you buy:

1) If the link is at all dodgy, your beautiful piece may be lost to the trenches. A firm squeeze with a pair of pliers will ensure a secure hold on a chain.

2) Real pearls will be scratched if you pin a medal in between. If you want to create a Chanel-style pearl necklace-with-central-brooch effect, take her example and use fake pearls instead, preferably glass.

3) Most importantly, military medals are symbols of high valor, religious medals are demonstrative of faith, Masonic medals are filled with mysterious secret cult powers that emit lightning bolts if worn by the uninitiated (not really, but they'd like you to think so). The point: don't offend somebody needlessly by taking their medals in vain (unless they're Belgian! I'd risk it for the one above!). As a general rule, the more obscure the medal, the better.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Now That's What I Call Fierce: Part I

A couple of entries back I got testy about the fashion industry's bogus merchandising of "fierce"--meaning riveting--via surly-looking models, aggressively angular poses, in-your-face flaunting of acres of youthful skin, and accessories that would make Torquemada smile in recognition.

I don't like this commoditization of fierce because it's bullshit. True ferocity, of the kind Tyra and panel so enthusiastically espouse, isn't something you can fake. You throw it because you have:

1) Great natural beauty and--critically--belief in it. This faith in the equipment is what allows a supermodel to soar while others mill around on the runway.

2) Finely-tuned physical prowess. Check out sprint- and middle-distance runners as they move up to the blocks. These women can't help but strut, testosterone is coursing through every muscle. Plus, they know that throwing a ripple here and there will initimidate the lessor competitors in the lineup.

3) Intellectual chops. Camille Paglia (whose theories I'm not fond of, but who cut an incredible figure). Michelle Obama. Zaha Hadid. These women look amazing because the strength of their mind has molded their bearing in a way that demands, and rewards, your attention, just as the more classic notion of beauty does.

This is a very roundabout way of getting to today's subject, Renata Adler, here photographed by her friend and colleague Richard Avedon.

Adler's credentials would fill an entire issue of the New Yorker, for which she was a longstanding contributor. Movie critic, prizewinning author on legal affairs, novelist, and usual suspect in that rarified realm of intellectual heavyweights writing for a popular audience, when it really mattered, in the 1970s and 80s.

What I love about the photograph, though, is that this fiercely brainy woman is also radiating serious style. Not in the haute sense, of course, but in the everyday way that most of us long to attain when we've got five minutes to dress and a dayful of mixed obligations that make statement dressing impractical.

While the look is extraordinarily simple, its minimal elements are deliberately managed. Take a pair of jeans. Add a great white linen shirt, cut close to the body. Style with front placket buttons casually undone, and long sleeves very carefully rolled to short-sleeve level. Accessorize with a watch whose plain band matches the shirt. Tan at your own risk.

Anybody can do this, on any sort of budget, and look pretty damn good. But to look fierce as Renata if you're not a natural beauty, or athlete, hit the books. You'll eventually look indominatable, in a way that time can't touch.

(Photo 1978 by Richard Avedon, reproduced in Woman in a Mirror © 2005 The Richard Avedon Foundation)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Patches Not Included

I won't name names or publications, because my intent is not to snark on an otherwise well-written, thoroughly-researched fashion supplement piece, BUT.

In what possible universe does it make sense--in an article on the new austerity and the need to buy well considered, long-wearing clothes, which furthermore cites that British WWII classic on hiding the tatters on the six items of clothing you own, Make Do And Mend--to use these Warehouse jeans as illustrative material on what to buy now?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Take the Veil

Read a wonderful anecdote about Isabella Blow yesterday in Sarah Lyall's hilarious A Field Guide to the British.

Blow was the leading style visionary of recent times. Fashion editor of Tatler magazine, muse to McQueen and Treacy, she was instantly recognizable for her flamboyant millinery. I had the good fortune of seeing her in person twice--on one occasion she was wearing a towering pair of purple platforms, well before every girl on the street was tottering along with head in the clouds and blister remedies in handbag. The lady stood out, in the best possible way.

If only I had witnessed the instance Lyall recounts, when Blow met Nicholas Coleridge for lunch.

"She had once shown up for lunch with her boss, the managing director of Conde Nast UK, wearing a pair of antlers. When he asked her how she intended to eat, given that swooping down from the antlers was a heavy black lace veil that obscured her face, she replied, 'Nicholas, that is of no concern to me whatsoever.'"

EXACTLY. An object lesson in how to wear a veil. Do it as though it is the most natural thing in the world. But do it in the appropriate setting. A veil is correct for a funeral of course, but it is far more effective in jollier situations. Like a really swank cocktail party, where people are actually wearing cocktail dresses (the women, I mean). Or a late-afternoon tea, if you are ever so fortunate as to partake in one. Or a night out at a tremendous cabaret.

One thing about a veil that is important to know: it devastates the right kind of man. The wrong kind of man will have an impulse to mock, because he is made insecure by that which he doesn't know. The right kind of man rises to its challenge and will long to lift it from your face. As long as you're not wearing it with antlers.

(photo by Henry Clarke for Vogue Paris, 1955)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Classic To Be: Ferragamo's Vara Shoes

When you're obsessed with vintage clothing, it's fascinating to observe as a particularly distinctive example of past-era design emerges into popular fashion consciousness as a classic. To actively seek out these underappreciated paragons is a form of trendspotting where the trend has been around for decades, and frequently scorned as fusty and old-fashioned. But eventually enough people realize that the garment, or shoe, or even printed pattern, is singularly beautiful in a way that transcends its era. From that point, it becomes part of the collective fashion conscience: museum-worthy, and highly collectable.

Such has been the case with Norman Norell dresses. Chanel 2.55 quilt bags. Roger Vivier pilgrim-buckle shoes.

I think it will soon be true as well with the latter's Italian counterparts: Ferragamo's Vara shoes. These demure, correct, surpassingly ladylike pumps, with their moderate chunky heel and brass-buckled grosgrain ribbon bow, have been reissued by the company every year since their debut in 1978. They are beloved of a certain type of woman: well-off but not flashy, uninterested in extreme trends, devoted to quality and craftsmanship. In short, your grandmother, if your grandmother lives on the Upper East Side or the 18th arrondissement or in a modest villa overlooking the Arno.

But grandmas like these knew a good thing when they saw them. Without them, there would be no Chanel quilt bags, or Norell dresses, or pilgrim-buckle shoes.

Ferragamo Varas, I've got my eye on you.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Dress Code

A bit behind the curve on this one . . . today the blogosphere celebrated the achievements of Ada Lovelace, who is vaunted by science/techie sorts for having taken one of the first-ever passes at writing a computer language. Its aim was to calculate Bernoulli numbers, the hardware being inventor Charles Babbage's proposed Analytical Engine. (Babbage rather schmoopily called her an "Enchantress of Numbers".)

All this is, of course, secondary to what she is wearing here in Margaret Carpenter's magnificent 1836 portrait.

This currently hangs at 10, Downing Street but will move north shortly to hang in a Byron Museum (did I mention? Ada was also the only legitimate daughter of Lord Bad-Mad-and-Dangerous-to-Know, which makes her math abilities even more impressive, considering his strong inclinations to the verbal).

Anyway, she is outfitted in typical 1830s evening garb, never mind that it is clearly daytime in the manor. Displaying a vast expanse of shoulder and bosom, her shimmering white satin gown is accentuated by a fantastic tangerine crossover cape pinned at the shoulder and belted at the waist. Contrary to information dispersed elsewhere on the internet, her gigot (leg-of-mutton) sleeves are not of the sort known as "imbecile" or "idiot" sleeves (due to the latters' resemblance to evening garb at Bedlam Infirmary)--they do not extend to the wrist because this was the style for more formal dresses of the period.

I like to think, without any authority at all, that her tiara displays an Ancient Greek motif, in honor of her illustrious daddy's adventures during the Greek War of Independence.

Way to crunch, Ada.

How to Fake a Balmain Outfit

Ugh. I may have to take it all back about the current issue of Vogue Paris (see ranty post below). I'm getting ideas from it, and I can't very well be ripping out pages at the same time as I'm ripping the editorial content for lack of inspiration. So . . . pardonnez moi, les redactrices!

Anyway, here's something I found that I quite liked. No, not the damn acid-bleached, shredded jeans, Christophe Decarnin, I could whip up my own pair with a bottle of bleach, some sharp scissors, and a pair of ultracheap jeans from the thrift store. Nor the shoes that make the arches stretch tight as a legionnaire's bow.

But I do rather fancy the look of that transparent striped top under the jacket. Sexy, but not so extreme as to scare the kids during reading hour at kindergarten. And since I am in no way capable of shelling out the sort of euros it would take to acquire such a lovely garment new, I turn, as ever, to eBay, which will source me something rather similar, and leave me enough change left over for a flight to New York, where I could fool fashion fiends into thinking it was actually Balmain. Or maybe I'll forget to bid (this happens a lot), so you can get it instead. Bonne chance!

(top photo: Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin for Vogue)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Fashion DNA: Seeing Stars at Chanel

This blog has been very Chanel-centric in recent days. Excuses: a) in terms of pure fashion history, between Coco and Karl and all the hangers-on in-between, the well never runs dry, and b) a little mystery got solved this weekend and I couldn't resist stirring the old girl's bones once again.

You may recall those archaic times of Spring/Summer '08, when Lagerfeld covered his runway with a star print, which was subsequently adopted by Kate Moss for her 30th birthday dress and, along with the gold glitter star with which she painted her face, spangled all over the style headlines.

At the time the motif seemed peculiar. Stars? Of course the house had long associations with camellias, lion's heads, pearls, and the ubiquitous cross-backed "Cs", but this was a new one. Apparently likewise for the small army of fashion editors covering the shows, who promptly ascribed the motif to a newfound American patriotism on the part of Herr Lagerfeld.

Then as now, this seemed a most unlikely story. Thanks to a lucky discovery of an old copy of Jewelry By Chanel in a great old used bookstore in the neighborhood, the truth can finally be told. It may even be a scoop, though it is such ancient history in chronological and fashion years (ratio approximately 1 : soooo totally over) that I'll settle gratefully for keeping it entre nous.

In the 1930s, Coco Chanel teamed up with Basque jewelry designer Paul Iribe to create a line of luxury baubles for her clients. As ever, she wanted to do it her way. In 1932, she said:

"My jewelry represents first and foremost an idea! . . . I wanted to cover women with constellations. With stars! Stars of all shapes and sizes to sparkle in their hair, tassels and crescent moons. See these comets, their heads resting on a woman's shoulder, their shimmering tails slipping behind the shoulders to fall in a shower of stars on the breast . . . "

Americana! Nope, a bit more universal than that. Karl must had a good old laugh, all the way to the bank.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Fashion Icon: Ines de la Fressange

Older models have been gracing the fashion pages with increasing frequency, and one of the best possible comebacks is that of French model, muse, and designer de la Fressange, who walked for Jean-Paul Gaultier's haute couture show in January.

I'm especially fond of her because she started a fine fashion house of her own in the early 90s, offering chic and cheerful everyday wear for a primarily French following. In what seems to be a particularly snakey maneuvre, her investors fired her while she was on maternity leave, but she took them to court and won damages for unfair dismissal.

So welcome back, Ines! The photo here, from 1984 (from Bettina Zilkha's Ultimate Style), is an object lesson in how to look amazing even when you're just running around, doing stuff on the weekend. You have your casual basics: ribbed turtleneck, whatever dark trousers below, bags filled with whatnot slung over a shoulder.

BUT, you also have a great hat, which is not going to crease and smoosh and look a wreck, even after you accidentally sit on it. You have an Hermes belt, which costs a mint but you throw on with a Gap turtleneck because you're French (come to think of it, this is probably the only way to stylishly wear an Hermes belt). You have a fab pair of bicolor driving gloves, ditto.

And most important of all, you have a wonderfully soft cashmere scarf, that you loop and knot artlessly around the neck. This is a trick any woman, with any sort of budget, can easily replicate, because it doesn't have to be cashmere, any good fine woolen one will do. It's important, though, that the color does wonderful things for your skintone. You can wear one like this even when it gets warmer, in linen rather than wool. It instantly takes a casual top from unremarkable to stylish.

(memo to self: find a pair of bicolor driving gloves . . .)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Drawing on the Past

Sometimes, if you're trying to get the flavor of a particular vintage style or period, the most direct route is through fashion illustration. Why? Because the artist must distill the the silhouette, motifs and flow patterns to create an effective rendering, leaving you the very essence of the look.

Case in point: this wonderful illustration from 1913 by Georges Barbier. It shows the tubular-style frocks instigated by Poiret, influenced by the orientalist motifs that stormed Paris thanks to Leon Bakst's costume designs for the Ballet Russes. Takeaways: the empire waistline, the floor length, the close-to-the-body but-not-tight flow of the fabric, and of course the glorious large-scale pattern.

Another example, from Cecil Beaton (click to enlarge): a drawing of Mademoiselle Coco herself, with the soft waist-length jacket, contrast piping on jacket and skirt, tweedy sweater, pearls, and most importantly, a big show of white cuffs and pussy bow at wrist and collar. Shears optional.

A flip through a fantastic book on fashion illustration, or acquisition of David Downton's superb journal Pourquoi Pas?, will help sharpen your eye (and whet your palate!).

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Femme en Fleur in Cuir

Used this excellent book for some research yesterday. It was sitting on the floor, next to the desk, and my eye kept wandering back to the cover. Yes, Nadja Auermann is extraordinarily beautiful, but it was the leather jacket that kept me looking again and again. And then I realized why.

Its cut is New Look, via Dior (illustrated here a follow-on suit by Hattie Carnegie), one of my favorite silhouettes ever, with its wasp waist, ultrafeminine rounded hips, and jacket hem that hits below the pelvis. Three-quarter sleeves and artfully placed pockets add dynamism to its iconic (in the fertile-female sense) form.

Why not revisit in leather? It's a reminder that when he's not totally occupied with brandvertising, Karl Lagerfeld (the jacket is Chanel, '95) can be a genius.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Strike a Pose

Just been through the latest issue of French Vogue and tossed it away, bored. Apart from a couple arty black-and-whites by David Sims, editorial was bereft of nourishment . . . the same old same old, models in ultrashort skirts (or none at all), sky-high heels, starkly lit and angularly posed.

The edict, surely, on the part of editorial director and step-in stylist Carine Roitfeld, was "fierce". But thanks to the critiques of the teenagers on America's Next Top Model, hasn't fierce already become self-parodying, a commodity as cheap-jolt predictable as a Taco Bell spicy chicken wrap?

I'm just so tired of seeing professionally beautiful women wearing thousands of dollars worth of merchandise styled like hookers and clowns in the name of cool. It's an insult to both, who aspire to a finer, more beautiful world. Come on fashion, you can too.

How to Read a Great Vintage Label

Secondhand shoppers are highly adept at flicking past a collar or waistband to check out a label; on a rail crowded with a motley range of vintage or other castoff goods, labels are beacons in the fog, waymarkers of era and worth.

With vintage labels in particular, it pays to be able to spot subtle markers of quality . . . especially if the brand is unfamiliar. That way, you can detect a lesser-known name that has produced a treasure, one that might be bypassed by less attuned browsers.

Case in point: this label from a wonderful black lace Hardy Amies cocktail dress.

American readers might not recognize this great name in British tailoring and dressmaking. The son of a vendeuse (couture saleswoman), fluent in French and German, during WWII he ran Belgian resistance agents as a Special Ops officer in the Intelligence division. (This was in addition to his committee duties overseeing and supporting the British fashion industry during the ration years). After the war he made the not entirely unnatural leap from spymaster to tastemaker, founding a couture, tailoring, and ready-to-wear house on Savile Row, and was appointed dressmaker to the Queen in 1950, best known for whipping up gowns for her Jubilee year.

While his name is important, what his label looks like would tell you something like that anyway. Have a look at:

1) The beautifully designed main label, in elegant black and white script on a silk backing.
2) The word "boutique", which, with vintage clothing especially, often indicates clothes of a higher quality level, as the designer could support his or her own shop.
3) The address of the shop is on the label, indicating that the brand is established enough to have a home in a posh area.
3) The fact that the label is hand-stitched to the garment.
4) The different types of hand-stitching visible in the supporting size label. Obviously this is a designer that values tailoring and handwork.

Most if not all of these quality indicators are typical of vintage clothing from well-respected design house. Train your eye to see them, and you may find the wonders that others pass up.

Monday, March 16, 2009

How Not to Buy a Fake Vuitton Bag

Let's start the week with a cautionary tale. If you happen to be in a street market (or any other downscale environment where upscale goods are on offer) and are suddenly swept over by the helpless desire to acquire some gaudy fake purse to shock your neighbors and awe your girlfriends, take some deep breaths of fresh air. Because even in the dodgy-merchandise world, there are good fakes and bad.

For me that hit home thanks to a visit to the Cao da Jie market, hard by the train station in Guangzhou, China. This is a Valhalla of counterfeit goods, from watches to clothes to shoes, with three buildings selling three levels of Schmada, Schmolex, and Schmacobs as far as the eye could see.

Foot-weary from trudging through so many alleys of glitzy goods wrapped in protective plastic, I finally saw it. The It Bag. A half-moon shaped Louis Schmuitton in quilted leather festooned with the LV logo. The leather was real, as was the lovely suede interior, all sealed up with heavy metal clasps. As a final, perfect, arriviste touch, it was embellished with ruff of fake fur around the zip. It was a stonking bag, no question about it. As fakes went, it was as good as the Romans copying the Greek Venus de Milo: if you couldn't have the real thing (which I couldn't), this very fine copy would do nicely.

So I set about haggling with the stallholder. It was a vicious back-and-forth; at one point she was literally snarling at me. It took a very firm walk-away on my part to convince her I didn't want to spend $20--$18 was my final offer.

Done. Suddenly all smiles, she took my money, went into the cramped cupboard in the back of the shop, and emerged with a pristine version of the purse, wrapped in heavy plastic. "This one doesn't have a scratch on the clasp like the demo model," she mimed.

OK! Until I was 7000 miles away, unwrapping the bag and taking out the paper stuffing. It was then that I learned with quick and cruel certainty that I (recently billed by my publisher as an "expert shopper") had been had. By an Olympic-calibre ripper-offer, but still. The lovely suede interior of the bag? In my version, it was mere sueded cloth. The lovely metal clasps? Faulty after two closings.

The bag still got me quick service when I slung it in certain kinds of shops, but I always resented its smug moralizing faultiness and so got rid of it after a month or so.

The thing is, I realize now that I wouldn't have kept it much longer than that even if it was in perfect nick when I unwrapped it. There's a huge difference between acquiring something that's old, authentic, and undervalued at a bargain price, and acquiring something brand new and innately deceptive on the cheap. The former takes skill, experience, discernment. The latter takes only the willingness to haggle viciously. When I pretended to walk away, I just should have kept going.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Packing Quarters

News flash! According to an article in today's Telegraph, fanny packs/bum bags are back in style! But wait. When were they in style in the first place? Did I miss a phase when Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour tripped through the streets of Paris safe in the knowledge that their cash was safely nestled in ripstop nylon, down in the latitudes otherwise occupied by hernias?

Somehow I think not. Bum bags were and will always remain a utilitarian piece of kit that designers thought would be cute to co-opt and throw logos on. This is one trend that has always been driven by huddled masses on up.

Not that it hasn't had takers at the higher end. Case in point: this little number now up on eBay. If you don't want to shell out £1500 for a new one (the mind reels), secondhand is, as ever, the way forward.

Max Headroom

Every once in a while a photo shoot comes along that blows me away. Such is the case with Paul Wetherell's work for the current issue of Another Magazine. Styled with brilliant restraint by Mattias Karlsson, the model wears Gucci, McQueen, Sander and the rest of the best with lots of bare skin and a broad metallic cuff worn outside the sleeve, mid-upper-arm.

And one more thing: the hair. This is big hair. Pumped up, combed smooth and shellacked into queenly proportions, alternately reminiscent of geisha and Nefertiti. Completely and literally over the top, but it works thanks to the elegant cut and thrust of the garments. The headwear devised for the shoot is equally striking, as you can see . . .

Does any of it translate into something you could carry off on the street? The swirled confection shown here nicks from the similarly massive head dresses customarily worn in Nigeria, but I venture few of us could get away with this kind of volume on the streets where we live. Probably true even with the more restrained versions offered up in Ralph Lauren's current ads . . .

If a turban isn't your thing, there's still a way to style your inner queen: wrap and knot a scarf around your head, then top with a wide-brimmed straw hat. It's a great summer look that isn't extreme, plus an excellent way to keep hair behaving at the beach.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Country Road, Take Me Home

Was running errands yesterday and had 15 minutes to kill so I popped into a charity shop for a quick browse. And found a fine Country Road summer-weight suit, marked at £12 ($16).

Country Road is an Australian brand specializing in what you could call "coach plus" business wear, comparable in quality to Ann Taylor in the US and Austin Reed in the UK. In other words, the workmanship is reliable and the fabric is decent (in this case much better than that), and it won't crumple helplessly after a few hours sat down at the workstation.

It fits, but not perfectly, and I won't put up with less than perfect anymore. So, I'll have my tailor swap out the shoulder pads for bigger ones, to eliminate the slight concavity outside the shoulder seam, where it meets the arm. He will then take in sides and back about an inch, so that the jacket skims across my torso rather than simply falling straight down from the shoulder. He will also tighten the waistline by about a half inch, so there is no question of the skirt sliding when I move. I will swap the buttons over for mussel-blue mother-of-pearl.

This tailoring work will cost about £40. It will get me a nice suit that fits beautifully, which will help to offset the fact that it's not of the most ultra-deluxe materials.

What caught my eye about the suit in the first place was the "hard" quality of the wool finish, meaning very little fuzz, a sign of a high-worsted fabric coming from the finest quality fibers. Also, there was an ultra-subtle pinstripe. Usually, with the better clothes, it's the tiniest details that bespeak quality. Leave the huge, trendtastic logos to the trashy celebs. You'll look better in clothes that whisper their quality, and will do so for you for years.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Spectators Only

I'm feeling spring in a major way, which always gets me thinking about spectator shoes. These are interesting, gender-bending footgear in that both men and women can stylishly wear them, given slightly different rules. For men, they must be oxfords or brogues (or most commonly, golf shoes), and they can be worn all summer. According to the lengthy and fascinating history offered at Atomic Magazine, the distinctive contrasting leather at cap and heel may have originated to disguise grass stains picked up while on the links or otherwise enjoying life outdoors.

For women, spectators -- or co-respondent shoes, as they're known in the UK -- are likewise sporty but in a more theatrical than practical way. Heeled and open-work versions are an alternative to the more masculine styles. You imagine them worn on the decks of a luxury liner, or on a Sunday stroll with the Borzoi hounds, or some other activity that Daisy Buchanan and her flapper friends might have enjoyed on a sunny day out. Like daffodils, they have a brief seasonal window -- that special navy-and-white period that runs roughly between the switch to Summer Time and Easter.

What I didn't know before this morning: the word co-respondent means the "other man" in a divorce case! So these shoes, which seem so quaintly old-fashioned today, had a racy reputation in the Jazz Age. Maybe you can find a cool pair in a vintage shop. They deserve a wider showing than on the back nine.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tippet, Tippet Good

Am so very taken with Lanvin's Fall 2009 take on an age-old accessory, the tippet. Traditionally a fur pelt, worn around the shoulders, it is an incredibly effective face-and-shoulder framing device, here used to striking effect.

Interesting, I think, that this garment has a long history in a more spiritual realm, as ecclesiastical wear, notably among the archbishops of Canterbury: here is Thomas Cranmer . . .

No matter where you come down on the ethical aspects of wearing fur, this look is so easy to replicate. With an actual or imitation black, glossy pelt (easy to find at vintage or secondhand), sling it low along the shoulders and attach a clasp (hook and eye, or pin ends together with a sturdy but subdued pin or brooch).

The key is to keep it monochrome, in Lanvin's case the silhouette is all . . . happy wrapping!

(Photo: Marcio Madeira)

Monday, March 9, 2009

Reticulated Retailing

And here, courtesy of the newly opened Prada The Iconoclasts boutique in Paris, is my worst nightmare. A display teeming with snakes, the need to rummage through them to get to a destination, in this case the cash register, new clutch in hand.

(Oddly, I'm not afraid of snakes during waking hours. But at night, all those Indiana Jones set pieces start to brew in the brain, and it's a carpet of vipers to get through before dawn.)

I've got a notion about this. Airport duty-free boutiques have proliferated and profited hugely until the recent downturn. It's due to many factors. One is the captive audience, but also in play is the fragile psychological state of the soon-to-be-flier. "What the hell," the thinking goes. "The plane might go down. And I really deserve that £700 bag. I'll take it."

It's hard to replicate that subliminal-panic-driven luxury-goods acquisition away from the smell of jet fuel . . . unless another element of danger comes in. Snakes in the Boutique! It'd make an amazing movie . . .

(photo from Wallpaper)

All a Flutter

Certain accessories, like jewelry and sunglasses, have their shape-shifts and periodic retools, but they never really go out of style. Such is not the case with others: parasols, white kid gloves, or chatelaines.

Fans fall into the latter category. Apart from special circumstances like flamenco dancing, burlesque, or kabuki theatre, they are well and truly period pieces: to carry one is to signal a deep affiliation with times past.

It's a shame, because back in the pre-air-con days when they were carried as a means to keep cool, fans also had a flirtatious language of their very own. A lady going to the opera, for example, could spot a paramour in the balcony opposite and launch into an elaborate series of covert glances, flicks and flutters (example: resting the fan on the heart meant that the heart was breaking). The subtlety made the bellowed drama on stage elephantine in comparison.

Today arcane, vintage fans abound at fairs, markets, and in shops specializing in Victoriana. More surprising, they can also be found in the accessories department of one of London's poshest department stores, Fortnum & Mason. The gorgeous black and white lace versions there are sold primarily as bridal accessories, but, as a saleswoman explained, they could also be carried outdoors, when it's warm, to picnics, open-air theatre, even rock festivals. Given that it's England the "when it's warm" part was optimistic but you could see fans such as these gorgeous Habanico versions making a dramatic counterstatement to the usual Kate Moss tripwear at Glastonbury.

To my delight I've learned that there is an entire museum devoted to fans in Greenwich, a tube ride out of London. The museum holds fanmaking seminars one Saturday a month. It sounds like a wonderful opportunity to while away an afternoon, amid all those sultry memories. Especially if outside, there's a chill rain.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Column Inches

Went to a glamorous party last night, where lots of ladies were wearing very beautiful, extremely high-heeled shoes. It got me thinking . . . 4-inch platforms aren't meant to engage in anything as pedestrian as actual walking, apart from the precarious journey from car to bar. No, the role of these shoes is to act like twin plinths, or pedestals, lifting the wearer up toward the sky like a goddess.

Interesting, I think, that in their long history high heels have also played a practical role . . . see Edward Penny's 1764 engraving of a housemaid cleaning the sidewalk -- she wears high-heeled "pattens" to lift her skirts away from ground level, to keep them free from mud.

(I'm not sure why the gentleman to her right seems so alarmed, but maybe he's recalling a rude encounter with the carpet-beater she holds . . . the engraving is English, after all . . . )

Friday, March 6, 2009

How To Wear It: Vintage Chain Belt

Thinking laterally is important for those of us who like to wear vintage treasures in fresh new ways. Sometimes, thinking vertically helps too. Example: I have a nice silvery circle-link belt I'll wear on a LBD, but otherwise it sits underused and underappreciated in the closet.

Then I realized that I could move the belt two feet up and wear it as a necklace. Ching ching!

Next time you're in a vintage/secondhand shop, have a look at the belts with your waist not in mind. Would anything work, doubled or tripled up, at neck level? Happy hunting!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

How to Wear It: Tone-in Beads

What a gorgeous cover shot of Jane Fonda, circa 1960. Have a good look at the beads, the way they amplify the colors of her dress, adding tone and texture.

Now consider what Alber Elbaz is doing at Lanvin this Spring/Summer. Simple, isn't it? While you won't be able to find Lanvin's fab bead shapes at a thrift store/charity shop, color toning like this with simple round plastic beads is so easy to do.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

How to Wear It: Summer White

A quickie: I just LOVE this Henry Clarke photo of Millicent Fenwick, Vogue fashion editor turned politician (former representative from New Jersey), who is said to have inspired the Doonesbury character and WASP icon Lacey Davenport (with Uncle Duke in the background? Hard to tell without the hat.)

It's so simple to look great in all white. As long as it's crisp, clean-lined, mildly accessorized (skip the ciggie) and worn with a huge smile.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A resounding "oh no" passed through the lobes upon reading the news that Madonna wants to take on the role of Wallis Simpson, marryer of Edward VIII and despoiler of his chance to warm the British throne.

Granted, there are aspects of absolute symmetry between the two. Examples:

1) Egos that can sight a target and summit it -- be it a pop chart or a royal tree.

2) An appeal to men that is, at its essence, sexually cruel.

3) Material girls to the core.

And yet. Wallis Simpson knew she could bewitch balky conquests and scandalized observers alike with her immaculate dress sense. "I'm nothing to look at," she famously said, "so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else."

And here's where the problem rests. With all respect for Madonna's accomplishments (seriously) I have never once seen her looking anywhere near chic, red carpet emphatically included. And as much as I'd love to see Simpson's wardrobe brought back to life on the screen, I just don't think Madonna is the lady to do it.

Now if she wanted to take on Peggy Guggenheim, another maneater who wore expensive clothes in a similarly couldn't-give-a-shit way, then we'd be talking.

You Can't Take It With You, So I'll Take It Instead

"Those who wear dead people's clothes will live a long time"

So goes a Turkish superstition, one of a long list of fascinating beliefs compiled by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism. (On the same list: "if a person steps on a cat upon entering the wedding chamber, the person will not succeed in his duties").

I'm glad to see the Turks so sensibly condoning the wearing of secondhand clothes, because for other, strenuously vocal opponents, the creep factor surmounts all. This is certainly true for the Guardian's otherwise brilliant fashion writer Hadley Freeman, who writes:
Vintage came into fashion when lots of models (aka Kate Moss) started wearing it, models being the only species on earth who have sufficient time to trawl through racks of dead people's clothes to find the occasional nugget, the funds to buy them, and the bodies to make anything - even dead people's clothes - look good.

Simon Doonan, creative director at Barney's and the author of several superb style guides, is less concerned with the skeeve quotient of other people's things as the restless nature of the ghosts that haunt them. He writes:
Spirits love a nice bit of schmatte [Yiddish, "tat"] as you or I: Does the phrase "Shroud of Turin" mean anything to you?
In a column for the New York Observer Doonan provides a listing of vintage purveyors in New York City, as well as a roundup of spiritual guides, psychics, and exorcists to give the garments a precautionary laundering, in case you feel it important to dispossess your new possessions.

There is a small cadre of secondhand fans that actually appreciate -- even relish -- the notion that you can walk a mile in a dead man's shoes. Matt Lucas did a sketch along these lines on Little Britain:

Customer in a charity shop: "Did anybody die in this?"
Shop owner: "Yes, I'm afraid so."
Customer: [brightening] "Ooo! I'll take it then."

If you don't mind skating close to the rim of the Great Beyond, as many creative individuals do, you're less likely to be put out by the idea of donning the mantle of one who has since passed on. Novelist Stona Fitch recalls:
"I had a friend in the Fenway (Boston) who ran a secondhand shop called Dead People's Things. He would call me when someone my size died. And suddenly I'd have a dozen white shirts from the 50s that actually fit. And smelled like someone else."

Anybody who enjoys shopping for secondhand things has reconciled to the fact that the molecular remains of the lives of others may jolt us into considering the mortality of our own. The cigarette fug, the waft of faint perfume, the scent of effort. Or, casting farther back, anointed oil. Because I have heard of the Shroud of Turin. And I wonder which of the lucky apostles wound up wearing Jesus' old robes.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Way it Was in Westport

I've been cruising through vintage advertisements this morning, on a mission to find out how handbags were sold decades ago. What a nostalgic trip it has been. OJ selling Dingo boots. Some ultrasexy 60s bra ads. Guy Bourdin's fantastic work for Charles Jourdan shoes. And this classic from Life Stride.

Fascinating to catch a real-life glimpse into the Mad Men era when "mother-daughter" dressing meant daughters dressing up, rather than mothers dressing down.