Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Chukkas then and now

Seen all over in London: trainers/sneakers with low-gloss black uppers and blinding white soles. Here, some Vans Chukkas, in the style.

The name alludes to desert boots, which these shoes seem definitely not. The reason? Guessing here, but believe it's because with their thick soles, Vans and other board shoes share style DNA with brothel creepers, a casual shoe popular among the Teddyboys in England in the 1960s. These themselves had their origins in the desert boots worn by soldiers in North Africa in WWII--both having suede uppers and a thick crepe sole that enabled manoeuvres in the Saharan sands and, later, back home in the alleys of London's Soho. Chukka boots, to complete the circle, are similar in appearance to desert boots given their suede uppers, but fit more loosely around the ankle, and don't have a crepe sole. Got it? I really don't either, but love the idea of a shoe called a brothel creeper.

(photo of brothel creepers from Retro To Go, many thanks)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Not Your Granny's Granny Boots

Slightly off topic today, but I came across this little item over the weekend and it got me thinking.

First: "that is the naughtiest bar tool I've ever seen." Seriously, think about it.

Then the combination of calf-length black leather boot and high-kicking thigh set off other recollections of this particular look and how it's appeared past and present.

As in: Toulouse-Lautrec prowled the Parisian dancehalls, painted what he saw, and made their characters immortal. Below, a dance at the Moulin Rouge, where an lady gives a gent what amounts to a private show. When the can-can girls got on stage, the audience met with a lineful of short leather boots, petticoats, and little else beneath, most spectacularly when the dancers did the move known as the rond de jamb, in which the knee lifts high and the lower leg twists below.

More recently the look lept from the dancehall to the burlesque stage, and to the Cabaret. Below Liza has ditched the petticoats but is still doing loads of ronds de jamb, this time with a chair as an excuse to get a leg over (YouTube won't let me embed the Mein Herr vid, have a look, it's amazing).

Even more recently, pop stars looking to assume some old-school showgirl cred will likewise stick on some boots, limber up their hips, and work a chair, case in point the Pussycat Dolls in Buttons, below.

Is it a look? It's a look. And considering its staying power, that corkscrew--even though it's an antique--won't be out of fashion anytime soon.

Monday, March 29, 2010

How to Buy: Vintage Huaraches

It's the time of year to start thinking about shoes for spring and decisions must be made. Another pair of ballet flats? Yawwwwwwn. Glads? On their way out. Glads with fabric cuffs around the ankles? Ultratrendy! And where ultratrendy goes, there's always victim potential. Finally, there's the fierce high-heeled sandal option, which, forget it, we've got places to get to.

Back on the ground, I think the time has come again for an 80s favorite, which, before that, was a several-millennia-in-Central American favorite, the huarache. Which, quite simply, is a sandal with a flat or low heel and an upper of woven leather strips. It is properly pronounced wha-rah-chay, but some of you will insist on pronouncing it hurrah-chee.

Authentic retro versions abound and they're all selling for great prices. Here are some tips on how to buy them:

1) Go for a new or barely-worn pair (this is of course the usual advice for vintage shoes but is extra important with sandals, for the obvious reason that there has been no barrier between foot and shoe).

2) Bear in mind that the leather will stretch to an extent, so be extra careful in the size/measurement regard.

3) Determine in advance how wide the shoes are. If they are too narrow, your little toe will try to escape through the weave and this will drive you nuts. If they are too wide, your toes will not be able to curl properly, you won't be able to walk naturally, and subconsciously you'll reach for another pair of shoes every time.

4) Look for quality old brands and intricacy of weaving. Ask the seller politely but firmly about whether any part of the shoe appears to be structurally unsound.

Now, on to the happier subject of how to wear your huaraches . . .

Easily enough, the answer is pretty much any old way you choose. Their native comfort and dress-down style make these go-to shoes in the summertime. As long as they fit right, you will want to have them on all the time.


1) If you're planning to shop into this summer's military trend in a big way, go for brown or tan.

2) If you insist on clinging to your black leggings (don't do it!!) black ones are the way forward. Do not fool yourself into believing that these will be more formal than the brown ones.

3) White ones are adorable, but you've got the issue of keeping them clean. Dingy white huaraches look nasty/manky.

4) They're out there and they're cheap! Go for all three.

5) Socks would be a bold move with a huarache, but since they're otherwise trendy with sandals this summer, do some experimenting. To up your chance of getting it right, wear a sock whose tone acts as a transition between your skin tone and that of the shoe. Ankle socks preferable to anything higher.

4) The open-toe versions looks more contemporary, but a nice pair of closed-toe ones can be quite elegant.

Good luck, muchachas. You'll be thanking me come summertime with those happy feet.

photo of huaraches at top from the Susie G. Collection, many thanks!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Chevalier of the Round Tummy

Ladies, it's not just us. Just came across this delightful reminder that the menfolk could be as donkers as the women in the pursuit of looking young and slim. Amazing wrap-around band! Doh! It's elastic!

Be that as it may, the codger in the ad looks like Charles Atlas's buffer older brother, so I'm not sure why he's gone for the Chevalier. That will remain his little secret--and his wife's--and very probably all the rest of the wives in the neighborhood, because how could she possibly keep that tidbit to herself. Just thinking about this makes me laugh. Have a great weekend!

(Image from Christian Montone's photostream on Flickr, many thanks!)

Handbag à Trois

When ingenuity from Mars meets vanity from Venus, the results can be a vintage novelty that absolutely deserves to be out and about again . . . have you ever heard of 3-in-1 bags, whose clever hardware and reversible, detachable panels convert a simple frame handbag into three different looks?

The genius behind the technology--and I don't use either term lightly--was Edward R. Lowy, who obtained US patent 02809685 for the system in 1957. The 3-in-1 bags were marketed at different times under the name Lowy and Mund, Edwards, and L & M. All featured the double-sided sheath that could be removed and/or flipped to reveal a surface of leather (sometimes stamped), cloth faille, and a more elaborate covering, possibly needlepoint, tweed, or metallic vinyl.

Others followed, namely the Andre bag company in the US and Elgee in England. All three makers show up with some regularity at online auction sites and shops, and they're worth looking out for, because the prices are typically quite low. I'm especially fond of the bag pictured from Etsy seller quirkyworkstudio, especially since the instructions (above) come along.

Practical, functional, versatile, cute. Where have these great old values gone?

(Many thanks to the always comprehensive Bag Lady Emporium for the Lowy story--here you'll find other examples of Edwards bags, representative labels, and everything else you need to know about vintage bags totalement).

Update: It doesn't stop at three! EBay seller VivalaFrance kindly provided these scans of her mint Lowy Bag, which offers five different looks in one. Up for auction here.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Closer Look At: Lappets

What is a lappet, you might reasonably ask. And the answer would change, depending on whether you ask a biologist, a student of ecclesiastical garb, or a vintage fashion fan.

Let's get the biologists out of the way first, for in their world lappets are loose folds or flaps in an animal's anatomy--for example the wattles on a turkey's neck, or the ruffles trailing down from a jellyfish's bell.

In church, a lappet is a band of cloth or lace that is attached to the inside of ceremonial tiara or mitre of a pope or bishop, with ends left to hang down the back. According to Wiki, it is believed that these were originally devised as a kind of sweatband, lending added dignity to the proceedings during the scorching Vatican City summers.

For our purposes, a lappet is a length of material, quite often gorgeously intricate lace, that might have been attached to a cap, or worn as a collar. The intricacy of the handwork would bring additional splendor to a costume already encrusted with lace, or might act on its own as the sole bit of frippery in an otherwise dour outfit of black and white.

If you are lucky enough to find a vintage lappet like the one at top in good order for a reasonable price, it would make one of the most brilliant summer scarves going: airy enough to wear on warm days, and absolutely gorgeous against bare skin. A lappet of sufficient length and strength could also act as a wonderful belt for a linen dress. Old lacework can be worn in such lovely ways, and it's nearly always underpriced, particularly at vintage and antique fairs.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fashion Checkmate: How to Work Brown and White

When the seasons are changing and the weather can't hold it together ("Summer in the light, winter in the shade", as Dickens so brilliantly put it), it's really really difficult to get a handle on what to wear.

In decades past, by accident or by design, fashion arbiters made the elements' mood swings work for them with the traditional pre-May pairing of navy and white. Some sober dark to keep things real, a flash of brightness that holds the promise that summer isn't all that far away.

I love this pairing any time of year (and have written about it before) but just recently started clocking its less-frequently-seen counterpart, brown and white. Costumer Theadora van Runkle shows us how it's done in Faye Dunaway's costume above, from The Thomas Crowne Affair. (And doesn't poor Steve, trussed up in the trenchcoat you know he doesn't want to wear, look like he's ready to deck her . . .)

Anyway, you can find some great examples in the vintage department, case in point this fine pair of old Florsheims, or the patent bag that is an almost match.

Feeling fashionably bipolar and need a remedy, quick? Those old-school designers knew, and can help you with a fix . . .

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

For Health, Comfort, and Beauty: the 1930s Corset

Even crunches seem preferable to wearing this rig for 8-10 hours every day, no matter what the "Hidden Values".

I love the brisk tone of the instructions, and the notion that the wearer and the girdle must work in cooperation to "enhance the beauty of the figure." The vow that there is ample room for the diaphragm only reinforces how restricted earlier generations must have been, no wonder they were such a bunch of swooners. Click on the photos to read more closely.

Many thanks to seller Image Unearthed on Etsy.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Closer Look At: Face Screens

Am SO excited about today's entry, which opens a door to a realm of domestic history I hadn't encountered before.

The round screen above, currently up for auction on eBay, originated in Venice. Unlike most of the handheld fans we know, it was not used to cool the face by displacing the air. Instead, it shielded the face from the direct heat of a fire, which, not too long ago, was the only way to keep a house warm.

A fire could redden the carefully cultivated pallor of upper-class women--and worse. The caption that describes this pair of puzzle-inscribed face screens (from the Puzzle Museum) elaborates the extent of potential damage:

"200 years ago, most of your makeup was wax based. If you warmed up your face, your make-up will run and you will look like a mix between a zebra and a strawberry-slice. So these face screens were invented for when your neighbour came round for a girly chat. Using them you could protect your face from the direct heat while the rest of you kept warm; and at the same time you could solve the puzzles."

How inviting is the idea of hanging around in front of a cozy fire with your friends, gossiping and playing guessing games . . . according to the seller, the Venetian screen's conversational prompts were the figures depicted on it. Virgin Mary in the middle is easily i.d.'ed thanks to her blue robe, but as for the rest, especially the little guys with the shears . . . perhaps an early-19th-century Italy expert could write in.

Just as evocative, in a different way, is the wonderfully shabby floral on the reverse of the fan, reminiscent of lush Venetian velvet tapestries that have withstood centuries of rising damp and fog . . .

(with many thanks to the Puzzle Museum and especially to Anti-qs for providing the wonderful photos of the Venetian screen.)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Dim Bulbs

The Dutch still-life masters handled tulips beautifully, for the obvious reason that they were masters.

More recent attempts by fabric designers haven't fared nearly as well. In fact, this is an understatement. Because if 17th-century Holland had treated its bulbs with anywhere near the cackhandedness of many, more recent printmakers, the tulip boom would have been a bust before it even got off the ground.

I'm not going to post any pictures of wretched tulip prints on dresses, blouses, and scarves, because they are so easy to find, and because they hurt my eyes. It is interesting to consider though, why so many are so very bad. Possibly because simplicity of form--and tulips are among the most austerely elegant of floral forms--is difficult to render accurately, while complexity is a lot easier to fudge.

For this reason, it seems to me that the fabric designers who have had the greatest success in treating tulips have emphasized their geometry while downplaying their organic idiosynchrasies. And there is no mode of fashion that worked geometry better than Mod, and its groovy follow-on Op.

That's why these scarves, by Geoffrey Beene up top, and this one recently sold on below, could be stretched and framed and do a good imitation of a mid-century fine art print.And even the humble housedress below, whose tulips look to be straight out of a mid-sixties cartoon, lends the flower more simple dignity than countless other renditions in finer fabrics and more intricate designs. It may not be a masterpiece, but as good design goes, it is very easy on the eye.

(Still Life, 1669 by Maria Oosterwijck, Cincinnati Art Museum)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Round and Round: A Closer Look at Circle Skirts

First, a big thank-out to Adore Vintage for clueing me in to Nina Leen. The Russia-born, animal-loving lenswoman became one of Life magazine's premiere fashion photographers, noteworthy as much for her brilliant compositions as for the wit with which she arranged her pictures.

One Leen shot selected by Adore featured a fashion item I'd never heard of before. An array of "conversation skirts," opened out to full circumference like passionflowers to the sun:

Conversations indeed! Check out especially the Georges Braque down south and the bodybuilder just barely visible at right. But honestly, a conversation skirt by any other name is a circle skirt, and that's how you're more likely to find them sold secondhand.

You'll find a fascinating and detailed history of the garment at Here's Looking At You Kid, which also ran the advertisement above, from Jet, featuring a skirt by Juli Lynne Charlot, one of the best-known designers working in the style.

The circle skirt's popularity in the late 50's and early 60's derived from a variety of factors. If a woman couldn't afford to buy a designer version, the ultrasimple pattern made it easy even for novice seamstresses to make at home. The skirt was modest, and looked great on all shapes. Finally, circle skirts--especially hand-painted versions--became associated with the souvenir trade in Mexico, and were brought home by Americans and others on holiday as a festive reminder of south-of-the-border flair.

If you're considering a circle skirt today, in particular ones that are guaranteed to start conversation, you could hardly do wrong with . . .

This one, in which the souvenir theme goes international to include the Arc de Triomphe and the Taj Mahal . . .

. . . or this one, which is about as festive as it gets minus the actual mariachis and margaritas.

And finally this treasure featured on Lulu's Vintage. [When wearing this one, ensure that the burro is oriented around front. You're welcome].

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Berets: Soft and Hard

As apparel goes, there is no item as emblematic of a renegade faction within the working masses as the beret. For berets, no matter what their color, are the ideal camouflage.

They have been worn to keep the head warm by ordinary people, men and women, for centuries in France, Spain, Scotland (as the tam), and elsewhere. Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts have worn them as part of their dress uniform. At the more rarified level of high fashion, the style has cycled in and out so repeatedly that its latest incarnation is unremarkable. Under most circumstances in rural and urban life, a beret rarely merits a second look.

And yet . . . it has also given cover to the most subversive members of society's rolls. The French resistance adopted the beret as an unofficial insignia. Bonnie Parker wore one as she wielded her shotgun in the face of terrified bank tellers, giving Faye Dunaway the opportunity to make the headgear iconic in the costume realm.

In the paramilitary arena, Che Guevara managed exactly the same thing with his black version blazed with a gold star. John Wayne's Greet Berets might have little political ideology in common with the guerrillas in Cuba's jungles, nor the Black Panthers for that matter, but in style terms they were brothers in arms.

And so snipers and schoolgirls wear the beret with equanamity, as it is just right for both. Is there any item of clothing with the same kind of crossover appeal?

(girl scout photo here at Flickr, many thanks; photo of Milliciana, Female Revolutionary, by Alberto Korda, 1962, here at, many thanks; more pics of Bonnie Parker here.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Clomp this Way: A Quick Appreciation of Clogs

Don't know about you, but when fashion, in its necromantic way, revives a shoe style that was a fixture of my past, I think about the old shoes with the same sort of affectionate nostalgia that farmers must have felt for hardworking plowhorses that have since passed on to happier pastures.

Such is the case with me and clogs. Whatever the reason, this shoe in particular (rather than trainers/sneakers or some other form of walking shoes) were my absolute favorites. And so, a tribute to the clog past and present, with a special focus on a couple of styles in between.

It all started in simpler times when peoples of the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and elsewhere in rural Europe discovered that shoes carved from wood--also known as sabots--were a cheap way to elevate the feet off cold flooring and mud, protect them against accidental blows, and--once the feet were broken in to their contours--provide good support for long days walking, standing, and labor. This latter reason is why chefs still wear clogs in professional kitchens, though today's versions are as often as not plastic Crocs (about which no more will be said). In France, clogs came to be worn by factory workers during the industrial revolution, and disgruntlement with management might cause one to be tossed into the mechanical works, hence the term sabotage.

Closed-toe mules, which are essentially clog-style shoes with a lower vamp of fabric or leather, had a style heyday as a boudoir option among glamorous gals in the 1950s, and cyclically thereafter, especially in the early 80s, when Candies were the way to go if your Jordache jeans could use an extra hit of Lolita at the food court down at the mall.

But it was clogs per se that had their first major period of fad-dom in the US in the late 1970s, most especially the Swedish versions produced by Olaf's Daughters. These shoes, with their rounded toes, moderate wooden heels, and suede or leather uppers became de trop amongst preppier sorts of girls, typically worn with Levis cords and Fair Isle sweaters, and no socks ever, because if it was cold/wet enough to need socks, you wore your duck boots instead. What's more, a flying clog was a missile to be reckoned with, and bare toes prevented accidental launch. I would kill to have my taupe suede pair today, and do a periodic scan of eBay to see if any will surface, but they never do. However, Swedish manufacturers like Ollson continue to make like versions, if this is the sort of thing you're after.

Come the late 80s, clogs reappeared in an under-the-radar way as go-to footgear for a busy day around town. These had the contours of a cowboy boot, with a more pointed toe, an underslung heel, and tooled or otherwise decorated leather up top. Lucchese makes some of the coolest current examples, but a host of other manufacturers produced them back in the day and they are relatively easy to find under the keywords "cowboy clogs" or "cowboy slides."

And now, roll on Spring 2010 and its revived fascination with clogs as fashion, although this season's incarnations alternately have heels so high they are reminiscent of the Candies of yore, grafted onto a pricetag that is galactically higher still, or embellishments so trailingly odd (that's you, Louis Vuitton) that there might be some risk factor riding escalators in them.

As much as I love clogs I won't be going for the trendy versions, but if I can find a pair of taupe Olaf's Daughters (mine, mine!) that's another story.

(Olaf's Daughters clog image from this awesome gallery of Swedish and other clogs; Lucchese clogs on; Louis Vuitton clogs below from Fashionologie, many thanks.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Fashion Plates

Vintage fans often find that the wardrobe is simply too full to contemplate another great find.

In such cases, the urge to acquire should be channeled into a different direction. Like the kitchen.

Because aren't these plates, part of the Les Femmes du Siècle series (1977-79) by Francoise Ganeau for D'Arceau-Limoges just great? One hundred years of French fashion, charmingly inscribed with the names of the models and their signature traits.

I love the little details. Like the cork-soled shoes on the intrepid Hélène, authentic to the limited resources of the war years. And the Isadora-style scarf and Fitzgeraldian name of flapper Daisy. Meanwhile Françoise goes for a walk in view of jet-set starting point Orly.

If you've got a fair amount of disposable, the entire series can be had here.

If you're minding the pennies (and who isn't these days) keep an eye out on the usual online outlets, for individual examples come up fairly frequently.