Friday, July 31, 2009

Born to be Styled: How to Retrend a Vintage Motorcycle Jacket

Ordinarily I'm very keen on function in fashion. But sometimes the off-kilter works in a way that makes me say "damn what it's supposed to do, that looks fantastic."

Such is the case with this cropped bomber from Phi's 2009 ready-to-wear collection. (This boutique brand is slowly growing presence around the world, showing in hip outposts like Colette in Paris as well as in their own shops in L.A. and downtown New York. If you want haute urban edge, and have handfuls to spend, this is the label you want.)

What I love about this jacket is the cropped sleeves. Which is hardly news in ready-to-wear, but to do it with a motorcycle jacket is audacious, because the whole genetic code of riding leathers is about protecting skin and joints against the very unlovely road rash in case of knockdown and slide.

So, clearly this one's for display purposes only, but what a display. The black-on-black proportions sing.

In terms of reality, most of us can't afford this piece off the rack. But what we can do is work those same proportions on the cheap. Motorcycle jackets are all over charity shops/thrift stores, and they're equally findable, and affordable, on eBay. Below is a nice looking one in a boy's large, for a petite lady . . . obviously size up to suit your own shape.

How to get the fashionable cropped sleeve, if you want it? Before buying anything pay a call to your local alterations person, and find out if they can work with leather (most industrial sewing machines can, but do ask). If the alterations folks can't do it, maybe there's still a shoe repair outfit nearby with the equipment and gumption to do the fairly simple job of cutting and hemming the sleeves.

The entire operation--jacket + nip/tuck--shouldn't cost more than dinner and a movie. You'll be able to ride the jacket right through the fall. Start looking now! As soon as the season turns, others will too.

(Phi jacket illustrated in British Vogue Catwalk Report, August 2009©The Condé Nast Publications Ltd)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Shut Yer Eye Hole: Hats At No Risk of Revival

Am finding it difficult to work fashion's haute front lawn on a midsummer Thursday. Consequently, am spending some time out back, with the disused fridges, junked cars on blocks, and random stuff that the cat dragged in. Specifically, an ultra-arcane style of headgear, with eyeholes cut in. You know what I'm talking about, don't you? Not balaclavas, which are protective in nature. I mean hats designers thought actual people might wear absent a snowstorm or a bank robbery.

Exhibit A, above: this clipping courtesy of Glamoursplash, highlighting a tendence that captured at least one photographer's attention in Paris' glory years as a fashion capital.

Who could possibly think that was a look worth reviving? A milliner in 1984, apparently, who sent his mum off to Royal Ascot Ladies' Day in one of his creations. Mum, bless her, looks like she's loving it (photo © Bettman/Corbis).

And whatever did happen to the veil/monocle ensemble so admirably trendspotted in the Modern Mechanix blog (click on image to behold)?

That same fascinating retro blog gives us this, a more fittingly practical version of the eyehole concept (again, click on the image, but deep breath first). What? That didn't catch on either? Really?

Truly, no-one with a scratch of design sense could think this notion would work, even for the most modern of women. Right? Right?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Well Trompe My Oeil: Bags To Make You Look Twice

The minute I saw this season's "Shadow" Birkin from Hermès, I thought, that one makes sense. Because as surreal as its embossed horizontal locking straps may be, they seem far less fiddly than the traditional arrangement of leaving the real, "working" ones open to dangle.

This bag got me wondering. Was it the first true example of the trompe-l'oeil bag genre?

The answer: Nope, not at all. There is a longstanding tradition of design houses issuing handbags under faux pretenses.

Some nice vintage examples:

This YSL tote

A lovely Roberta di Camerino velvet number (she made these a trademark)

A more recent Marc Jacobs example of a cleverly stitched clutch.

So who knows what creativity lurks in the minds of luxe bag designers? Not only the Shadow knows.

(top photo from, by Toby McFarlan Pond)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fly Girl: The Aviatrix's Cap High Fashion Again

Jean Paul Gaultier, designing for Hermès, has seen the style potential of the aviator's cap, and used it as a recurring theme in his Autumn/Winter '09/10 line.

The question: was his inspiration helped along by the fact that Hillary Swank will be portraying Amelia Earhart in a forthcoming film? The wardrobe for the movie promises to be amazing, and it will be interesting to see how closely Hermès comes to replicating the leather-and-pearls élan of this incredibly stylish adventuress.

To give an idea, here's an photo of the lady herself, in a custom-made white leather flying cap.

If you'd like to get an early jump on the look, leather flyer's caps are available on eBay -- but this may be a little too authentic for anything but a costume party.

An more interesting and highly wearable option might be a hat like this one, a vintage wool cloche inspired by the idea of taking to the sky but more realistically stopping short at penthouse level.

(Hermès collection photographs from the Telegraph Online, by AP/EPA/Reuters)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Rainy Days and Mondays: Vintage Umbrellas To the Rescue

As the rain pelts down this morning in London, I'm getting a sense of déja vu. From last summer, and the summer before, when "summer" seemed a hopelessly optimistic term for the ongoing conditions outdoors.

So! You can't change the weather but you can brighten your sightlines with a fantastic vintage umbrella. Pop one of these babies open and the world will know who's great company in a storm:

(n.b. Umbrellas, like suspects, are best shown mug-shot style, profile and head-on)

Top: A graphic beauty with a red bakelite handle . . .

Center: A secret garden umbrella, with the floral riot hidden inside a plain white exterior . . .

Bottom: Umbrella as scarlet petticoat, doing the can-can against the showers . . .

If it ain't gonna rain on your parade, baby, brollies like these are the way to go.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

What Are They Talking About: Cavalier Boots

According to the fashion machine, thigh-high boots are the way forward this autumn. (There's a great image roundup of these boots here). British Vogue is calling them them "cuissardes," which roughly translates into "thigh-huggers". Other style arbiters are calling them cavalier boots, which sounds dashing, but isn't quite right.

Authentic Cavalier boots are something different. They were originally made popular in the 17th century by the noble siders of King Charles I during the English Civil War.

The original Cavalier boots had wide, slouchy tops (not terribly practical in a rainy country but this was an especially foppish bunch of guys), wide toes (their foes, the Roundheads, favored pointy), and high heels, which had longstanding associations with the noble art of horsemanship, dating back to Genghis Khan, who stormed into the West with heeled boots holding his feet firmly in the stirrups during the bloodcurdling charge. Apart from the footgear, the Cavaliers were distinguished by their flowing, curly locks and the lace socks that draped prettily over the boots' tops.

Here's a picture by Van Dyck of Lords John and Bernard Stuart, decked out in Cavalier finery. Not quite what we'll all be wearing come fall, but you cannot argue that the boys don't have style.

(painting in the National Gallery, London)

Friday, July 24, 2009

What Do Scottish Men Wear Under Their Kilts?

I've been misinformed.

(photo, Getty Images)

How to Wear Denim Shorts over Leggings

OK, this post is hardly vintage-centric, BUT, since the denim-shorts-over-black-tights trend found its legs legs last summer, and since the shorts in question (or fair-substitute denim miniskirt) can be found in charity shops/thrift stores the world over, I'm going to go with it.

Also because in the span of twenty minutes on the street yesterday, I saw at least eight girls in some variation of the outfit.
Here's a few of them.

Now, they all look quite cute, but nowhere near as together as the girl on the Tube I gave directions to earlier that day. (Unfortunately I didn't have a camera at the time, so bear with the detailed description below):

She was Italian, I think, and wore the shorts/leggings/top/shoes in a way that made me think "wow, she looks fantastic" instead of "here's another trend clone".

The key points:

1) The shorts were dark denim, and very neatly hemmed. No ratty white strings emerging from the bottoms. They fit close to her leg, but not tight.

2) She wore matt black leggings that came about two inches above her ankle.

3) She wore a fitted black sweater/jumper, v-neck, over a muted red t-shirt.

4) The killer element: shiny, bright, adorable red patent flats. They could have been any bright color but the red really worked.
These, now on eBay, are the right sort of idea.

A note to older readers (meaning anybody over 25). Even if you can pull it off brilliantly, leave this look to the girls. If Katie Holmes can't manage it without looking like she's trying too hard, nobody can.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Darling That Dress is a Masterpiece

Whoever this lady was, she impressed the spats off Cole Porter:
. . . You're the top!
You're Mahatma Gandhi.
You're the top!
You're Napoleon Brandy.
You're the purple light
Of a summer night in Spain,
You're the National Gallery . . .

But you too could have an ultrasophisticated homosexual writing timeless songs about you--if you strive to be a one-woman National Gallery. This is actually easier than it sounds. All it takes is a few clicks of your mouse (and a couple zeros knocked off your Paypal account . . . )

Check out these tours de force currently up for grabs on eBay:

A Mondrian dress--not the classic issued by Yves Saint Laurent in 1965, but a very cute knockoff, and all but the most clued-in fashionista won't know the difference anyway.

A gorgeous silk jersey Van Gogh print by Goldworm. If you've never heard of him, remember the name (how hard is that?) because he's a stealth designer of the first rank. One of the maestros of slinky, sexy, late 60s jersey dresses (see also Pucci, Paganne) that don't look like much on the hanger (or here on the mannequin) but indeed become bombshell casings when on an actual body. With this one you get the added poignancy of Van Gogh's tortured genius. A lot going on in one dress.

But is it anything compared to the very creation of man? I love this homage to Michelangelo, mostly because to see it you have to tilt your head in an entirely different uncomfortable angle as you do when you look at the actual Sistine Ceiling.

And last but not least, an actual museum-quality work: a paper dress by Warhol [the Souper Dress!] embellished with cans of you-know-what. If I had a spare thou I would buy this beauty and frame it . . . actually wearing it to anything but the Met Costume Ball would seem a flagrant act of cultural vandalism. Oooooh how I wish I had a spare thou.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bagosaurus Rex

School's out for summer, which means it's time to deploy the evacuate-the-house-before-they-tear-it-down maneouvre more politely known as "Kids, let's go to a museum!"

The British Museum it was. Having viewed the mummies (linen is very hard wearing!) and the Parthenon Marbles (Lord Elgin has been relieved of his nominal claim--they'll be in the new museum in Athens by the London Olympics, I promise you . . . ).

Anyway, we were hustling toward the exit through the Roman Gallery 70, and there is was. Snacks would have to wait. Because never in my wildest dreams would I expect to see a suit of armor made from a crocodile skin. Awesome in the fullest sense of the word. A third-century AD ritual garment crafted by the Crocodile Sect of Manfalut in central Egypt. Presented to the museum by a no-doubt equally fearsome 'Mrs Andrews', who discovered it in a cave filled with mummified crocodiles and the cultists that loved them.

Which of course got me to thinking of whether there might be a modern (or at least retro-modern) equivalent. And oh yes, there most certainly is.

It seems that pre-Castro Cuba had quite a nice little line in souvenir alligator bags crafted with the heads and feet of wee reptilians still attached. These fall into the category of Taxiderm-Chic, which has in recent decades fallen so deeply into disfavor. If you need a reminder why:




There are many such examples on eBay and other vintage vendors. Bidding is light. I can think of no better deterrent against pursesnatchers. See you later.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

One Small Step for Man: A Whopping Payload of Giant Moon Boots for Mankind

Catwalk, schmatwalk. For today's woman, it's all about the Moonwalk, because it's good to be relevant, even when you're 24 hours late with the launch. So in honor of all those brave men, etc. the blog proudly presents the enduring fashion precedent set by the Apollo missions:

Moon Boots!

No, not those above, those are actual lunar boots worn by Commander Eugene Cernan as he bounded around the craters Up There. The National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC has them proudly on display and is not likely to be having a closet clearout anytime soon.

However, authentic 80s classics by Tecnica of Italy, as well as other lesser-known imitators, are available on the usual online resale sources.

For example: a pair of authentic Moon Boots™ (above), and a pair of really quite striking Let's Call them Ganymede Boots for Trademark Reasons (below), also Italian, in a men's small, which just might fit a lady with Rover-sized feet.

Monday, July 20, 2009

I'll Huff and I'll Puff: Inflatable Bras

Was on the phone with Mom the other day. Hard on the heels of her reminiscences of her white Mod go-go boots, the subject of vintage fashion (hers) came up again.

". . . and you know, I also had that bathing suit, where you blew up the cups for more oomph"

"Uh, blow up as in explode?"

"No! Blow as in puff. It was made for gals with dainty figures."

(Friends of mine: Shut. Up.)

Needless to say I was Googling posthaste. And getting nothing. The keywords "blow up" and "bathing suit" insisted on calling up childrens' floaties, or latex dolls gussied up in beach togs. Not what I wanted.

Finally some joy over at the delightful GlamourSplash site. Not inflatable swimwear per se, but bras themselves, a product of Frederick's of Hollywood known simply as "BLOWUPS", which came with "their own straw".

Incrementally, the information expanded. A blow-up bra surfaced in a Canadian regional museum. It was name-checked (somewhere, can't find it now) in the Walcoal Museum of Bras and Bra History in Taiwan (whose energetic English translation makes for great reading).

As I searched, I couldn't help but think that an inflatable bra (as opposed to a inflatable bathing suit, which might have useful bouyancy value-added in case of accident at sea) is trouble just waiting to happen. Not only due to the threat of a slow leak (a flat that needed fixing twice over . . . )

No, I'm thinking about the actual blow-up potential of the blow-up bra. I'm not alone in the apprehension, for more Googling turned up an actual urban legend involving a a lingerie model, a blow-up bra (the "Tres Secrete Airup") and a depressurized airplane cabin. The teller swears it's true. Sciencers (among them an MIT professor of aeronautics) with time on their hands have consulted their calculators and gas-expansion formulae and are saying impossible.

Mythbusters indeed. Now if only I could locate a bathing suit with this function -- presently, the inflatable cup quest is half full.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Style Icon: Elsa Peretti

It's possible to say Elsa Peretti is having a fashion moment--an exhibition at the British Museum, new issues of old pieces--but this would demonstrate a crashing disregard for the timelessness that suffuses her designs for Tiffany. While the beans and open scroll hearts and molten silver amphorae serve as shorthands for 70s style, there's not a whiff of retro about them. Like the work of O'Keeffe (who also loved bones), her work hovers above fashion, enigmatic and untouched by the whims of the market.

So it comes as a bit of a shock to discover this image, by Helmut Newton, of Peretti in her modeling days. The bunny suit is by Halston, she's got killer looks, but still.

And I don't know about you, but when I saw this image, all of a sudden a certain middle-age pop star's decision to go with bunny ears at the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Ball suddenly became dreadfully referential. She should have gone with the cuff bracelet instead.

(Helmut Newton, 1975)

One Bag's Story: How to Restore Patent

Notice how I didn't say "patent leather." Because this bag, which I'm guessing dates to the late 60s-early 70s, is plastic all the way, making it "pleather," which is so much fun to say I just did, out loud.

I hadn't really thought about the difference before starting this entry, but of course all patent, while similarly glossy, is not created equal. Patent leather was created for the first time in 1818 in Newark, NJ by one Seth Boyden, who thought it would be a good idea to apply several coats of linseed oil-based lacquer to leather to improve its finish. This proved a hugely popular fashion invention. Men's formal shoes, military dress boots, and all manner of ladies' accessories took a shine to the new treatment. Patent was not only pretty, it was practical. The coating (now a thin plastic film) made the leather impervious to rain: all that was needed to remove watermarks was a quick buff with a soft cloth.

Which brings us to my wonderful Mod bag. Of pleather. Either the purely synthetic PVC, or the older Corfam, which is plastic-coated cloth.

The bag was a bargain at a fiver ($8) at my favorite local retro vendor, Jackie of Flask Walk. It was inexpensive because a bit of vintage gunge (for lack of a better term) marred the shine of the left side of the bag (see above). (Dried gunk on patent sounds repulsive but it shouldn't be a deal-killer, for it's likely to come off. Scratches, however, are difficult to impossible to erase).

To remove dried stains, a gentle swipe with some mild soap (dish soap, baby shampoo, Woolite) will clean without messing with the coating's molecules (as an alcohol- or solvent- containing product might).

Now, on to the style part. If you're buying any sort of retro bag, by all means buy cheap, as long as the bag meets the following criteria, which this one did splendidly.

1) A great shape, meaning the proportions of bag/handle/flap or clasp (if visible) work some magic on the right side of your brain.

2) Nice details (like this bag's faux tortoise handles and fab Dalíesque lips clasp)

3) A nice lining--clean (and in this case, flashy red)

So, in a nutshell. Restore your patent with a damp cloth, using mild soap if necessary, and wipe dry. If you insist on falling in love with old patent (leather or plastic) that's scuffed rather than simply dirty, you will bring back some of the gleam with a thin dab of petroleum jelly, but the results will never be quite like new.

Finally: keep any patent accessory well away from prolonged contact with heat, as this may crack the coating.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Madras Men: How Plaids Have Taken Over the Suburbs

It seems a mere instant ago when every self-respecting Dad in the American suburbs wore combat shorts -- as if, to paraphrase the marvelous Hadley Freeman, they were expecting to wage war with the barbecue tongs and garden hose.

Just back from this mosquito-ridden theatre, I can report that combat shorts are over and out. America's menfolk have found a new (old) bottomwear option: madras plaid shorts. But they're definitively not your father's madras plaid shorts, which had their last spell of popularity in the preppy-mad early 80s. Nor are they your grandfather's madras-plaid shorts, which ruled the decks in the late 50s and 60s, when American WASPS wore them because Brooks Brothers sold them, which made it ok.

The big difference? Today's madras is easy-care. Pop it in the washing machine if the ketchup spills over, no problem.

The early issue madras was another story altogether. I'll quote from the bible on the subject, The Official Preppy Handbook (1980):

If there is one fabric that is quintessentially Preppy, it is madras. True Madras. of course. the real thing is one of the oldest fabrics in the cotton trade, a fine, hand-loomed cotton that is imported from Madras, India. What sets true madras apart from imitations is that it "bleeds"; the murky colors, navy blue, maroon, mustard yellow--of its distinctive plaids are imparted with vegetable dyes that are guaranteed to run.

Since the colors are so unstable, madras has to be treated very carefully. Shirts, shorts, and items that are not going to be dry- cleaned must be soaked in cold salt water for at least twenty-four hours before they are washed the first time. This sets the dyes. Then they really should be washed separately for months thereafter, because the colors will still run. Old madras takes on a lovely soft look and feel with many washings (the crux of the fabric's appeal to Preps), though jackets, of course, must be dry-cleaned to maintain that sharp plaid.

If you want more background, check out this fascinating exploration of the history and national significance of madras.

If you want an actual, authentic, vintage madras shirt (for ladies!), check out online vintage purveyors for the raggedy real thing. But if you buy it, don't forget the salt soak before you wash. If you don't, it will run harder than Usain Bolt, and don't say I didn't warn you.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mama Wore Go-Go Boots

Was chatting with mom on the phone the other day when she dropped this bombshell:

"Do you remember my white boots?"
"White boots? What white boots?"
"Well they were white, and had a square toe. And I wore them with miniskirts. But I didn't show much thigh."

silence ensues, as I think you had a pair of white go-go boots and didn't keep them? . . . and then . . . you showed thigh?

Anyway, mom didn't recall the boots' material--if they were directly inspired by the ones pictured, by Courreges, they were most likely vinyl or plastic, either calf or knee-high, with a low heel. He designed the original versions as part of his spacewalk inspired Fall 1964 collection. As this interesting history on Wiki details, pre-go-gos, women didn't wear high boots as a fashion item; they were more typically used in foul weather or for horseback riding.

The word go-go, by the way, came from France, where it meant something along the lines of "till you drop", as in bop till you drop at club Whiskey à Go-Go.

As far as I know, mom hasn't been there.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Malarky is the New Black

One of my favorite aspects of a brand-new fashion season is the statements issued by the various design houses which are meant to capture the spirit of the new collection. This is the one realm of high fashion where recycling is held in the highest esteem, the vocabulary being some theme or variation of the words:


Ralph Lauren, quoted in the July American Vogue, did manage to avoid all of the above. Only to produce this oracular wisdom: "Specialness, excitement, and emotion are what will resonate with women right now".

Really? Mundanity, tedium, and Vulcan sang-froid have no place in the wardrobe? Damn, the man is a VISIONARY.

Kate Mulleavy, one half of the sister duo behind Rodarte, is having none of this nonsense, bless her. She pushed the boat right out with this:

"It is inspired by the deconstructed body and Boris Karloff in 1931's Frankenstein." (Which, when you think about it, are much the same thing, but points to Kate for namechecking Boris, whose neck accessories have never been bettered).

(pic from

How to Wear a Scarf, Part IX

Take a cue from Marilyn--who looks so happy here with husband Arthur Miller--and tie a kerchief under the neck. To avoid the frump factor, make it a whispy chiffon, as here, or a gorgeous silk. Team it with cool sunnies, like Marilyn's Wayfarers.

Most importantly, smile like you're in love. The worst hair day in the world is no match for a heart wide open to happiness.

Friday, July 10, 2009

What's That About: Spring-O-Lator Mules

Am spending some time with my lovely in-laws, and unexpectedly learned of a vintage accessory that I had never heard of before.

The story is poignant--a Christmas day come and gone without a hoped-for engagement ring. The sad lady in question was my mother-in-law, who had so hoped that Santa (in the form of her boyfriend) would leave a sparkly diamond under the tree. But it was not to be, even though she had dressed to kill, in a pretty holiday frock and her best "shoes with the spring in the sole."

At this point I said "huh?"

"Oh, you know," she said. "Those mules. The ones with a special spring on the bottom so they wouldn't slip off while when you walked."

I jumped on eBay as soon as discretion allowed to see if I could find a pair of these mysterious mules. And lo, within 30 seconds, there they were. Spring-O-Lators, patented in the mid-50s and, according to this interesting history, and this fabulous photo gallery, the must-have shoe of every glamour gal in the country. Everyone from burlesque strippers to Mary Tyler Moore (above!) to the girl next door.

The mind reels. A mule that stays on the foot, doesn't slip off, or go clack-clack-clack as you walk across a wooden floor. They're only available on secondhand, on eBay and other specialty sellers.

Why have they been jilted by the contemporary shoe world?

(BTW, my mother-in-law finally did get that ring, from that very boyfriend. Nobody knows what happened to the shoes.)