Influences: Cheetah Chic

Phyllis Gordon with her cheetah, shopping in London, 1939

I came across this image of actress Phyllis Gordon out shopping with her pet cheetah a number of months ago, but it's been on my mind ever since. I'm enchanted by the inherent insouciance of it all. Imagine trotting out to do a few errands in the neighborhood and bringing along your favorite big cat just for kicks! This is the essence of luxury and chic.

I'm not at all what one would term a "cat person". I'm cool with cats, but wouldn't choose to have one over a feisty and funny terrier. I've been known to cat-sit here and there which isn't altogether unpleasant, although I'd prefer a cold wet nose over a sandpaper-tongue. So it is interesting that I find myself completely jealous of those eternally-stylish women who through history have sported cats as an accessory. Not just any cat, but a full-grown cheetah or leopard. Hands down, this is beyond stylish and everyone knows it - no Yorkie in a Louis Vuitton bag could compete.

As Jessica Kerwin Jenkins writes in Encyclopedia of the Exquisite, "by the twentieth century the cat's sexy, slinky reputation was appreciated by bohemians, intellectuals, and some extremely glamorous women, who upped the ante by taking in leopards as pets...As they proved, no animal makes a more stunning sidekick than a glowering great cat."

Women casually strolling with a cheetah on a leash sounds like something out of an old Hollywood urban legend. You know the scene: fur coat to the floor with a sharp cloche hat and five big cats on a chain, preferably while walking briskly down a train platform with the steam rising and a porter trailing with a mountain of trunks. My whole life I've longed to be this woman.

Marchesa Casati with her leopards, by Paget-Fredericks ca. 1920s

When I first started reading about the Marchesa Casati, I became enchanted with her pet cheetahs. According to legend, the Marchesa would take her private gondola across the Grand Canal late at night just to walk her pets through the Piazza San Marco. True to form, she would perform this ritual while completely naked but for a fur coat. Imagine running into that after too many Bellinis at Harry's Bar!

Marchesa Casati with her pet cheetah, 1912

Josephine Baker was also known to sport a leopard named Chiquita around Paris in the 1920s when she was the most flamboyant act in town. Diana Vreeland saw the pair out at the movies once and loved how Chiquita pulled Baker into her white Rolls Royce in a single bound: "Ah! What a gesture!...I've never seen anything like it. It was speed at its best, and style."

Josephine Baker & Chiquita

Gloria Swanson also seems like the type who would have had cheetahs close at hand. In Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond seems to be surrounded by leopard skins in one way or another. Even the seats of her Isota-Fraschini are upholstered in leopard skins. This detail in the production lends itself to the once-glorious past of Norma Desmond, recalling glamorous days of dancing the tango with Valentino.

Desmond's character probably had some basis on one of the original movie starlets, the great Pola Negri. Although she made her mark in early silent film in Europe, Negri signed a contract with Paramount and came to Hollywood in 1922. (It was she, not the fictional Norma Desmond, who met Valentino at a classic Davies-Hearst costume party at San Simeon a few years later. The two became lovers until Valentino's death in 1926.) Like the Marchesa Casati, Negri also had a weakness for cheetahs and walked hers frequently down the real Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood's heyday.

Negri's love of cheetahs came full circle much later on when in 1964, Negri starred with Hayley Mills in Disney's The Moon Spinners as Mrs. Habib, a character with a pet cheetah named Shalimar. While filming this teenage caper flick in London, it is said that Negri caused a sensation walking the cheetah nonchalantly through a hotel lobby. It sounds as though Negri not only knew the essence of glamour, but that she also had a true sense of humor too.

Hayley Mills & Pola Negri in The Moon Spinners, with a cheetah in the background.

To seal Hollywood's fascination with the luxury of keeping a big cat, there's also Bringing Up Baby - an entire screwball comedy devoted to the antics surrounding a rich woman's pet cheetah.

Film stars with cheetahs seems to be a classic combination. If they didn't keep them as pets they were certainly photographed with the cats as props; I would guess it is because of the wild, exotic, and animalistic connotations. You can't really argue with that. Indeed, the earliest Hollywood stars seem to have been photographed with cheetahs time and again in their ultra-glamorous, fantasy-driven publicity stills.

Bebe Daniels and a cheetah.

Joan Blondell and a cheetah.

I suppose that it isn't entirely practical to aspire to keeping a cheetah in this day and age. But was it ever practical? No. It's their impracticality that makes them so very stylish. All of these women seem to have been a bit "unleashed" while accompanied by a big cat on a leash. The sexy, outrageous, glamorous, diva-ish behaviour just seems to go hand in hand with this type of indulgence. Anything that's so truly luxurious as a pet cheetah could only be utterly, exuberantly beautiful in itself.

For more images of starlets & cheetahs, be sure to visit this post from the Pictures blog.

All images from internet searches.

Picasso, The Steins, and Modern Art in San Francisco

Pablo Picasso, Paul as Harlequin, 1924. Musée National Picasso, Paris

One of the highlights of my Spring reading included Amanda Vaill’s Everybody was So Young, a fantastic biography of Sara & Gerald Murphy. Their presence is at the very core of the Occidental art world after World War I. They supported the artists that created the “Lost Generation” culture not only financially, but also with their loyal friendship. The Hemingways, Dos Passoses, Picassos, Porters, MacLeishes, and Fitzgeralds all met together around the Murphy family. As it usually happens, this book was just the beginning of this year’s fascination with this time period in art, writing, and culture. It seems Woody Allen is also obsessed with this time period, and luckily a few San Francisco art museums are too.

The only glaring flaw I found in Woody Allen’s charming new Midnight in Paris, was that of the omission of the Murphys. How could all of these other wonderful artists and writers come to life without a mention of them? (It is thought that Picasso even may have had an affair with Sara Murphy, having drawn her a number of times on the beach in the south of France. Hemingway was also known to have a crush.) Personal criticism aside, the film provides a lovely glimpse into the Parisian art world of the 1920s and gives lively form to the relationship between Pablo Picasso & Gertrude Stein. If you’re even awake in San Francisco this month, you’ll surely be aware of two major art exhibitions involving these two. Picasso – Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris is now open at the de Young Museum, while The Steins Collect graces the walls at the SFMOMA.

Just as Balenciaga & Spain was heightened by its neighboring “fashion” exhibit, Pulp Fashion – The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave, we now have an entirely new dialogue between masterpieces, collections, museums, and even between one singular artist. The fact that the two museums showing these exhibits are only a few miles apart makes it all the more wonderful for the city of San Francisco.

Both shows provide a unique perspective on Picasso, but it is when the shows are taken together that the artist becomes even more complete.

The Picasso exhibit at the de Young draws from the Musée National Picasso in Paris. In 1968, France passed a law that allows inheritance tax to be paid in works of art – as long as the art is important to the French national heritage. This law, called dation, was perfectly timed for the death of Picasso in 1973. The bulk of the collection was amassed in 1986, upon the death of Jacqueline Picasso. It was then that Picasso’s heirs – Paolo, Maya, Claude, and Paloma (the jewelry designer) – made a new dation to the French state from their father’s own collection.

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Dora Maar, 1937. Musée National Picasso, Paris.

Because the collection from the Musée National Picasso is comprised of the artist’s own personal collection, it is vast but also a little overwhelming. As anyone who’s studied Picasso knows, his great works are so momentous that it’s difficult to see anything else in the room. However, when his works are mere attempts or not pushed far enough, they show their battle wounds right at the surface. While some of the great Picassos are among the collection of the Musée National Picasso, the collection shows the artist’s preferences for smaller, quieter, more personal work. Some of the works are even unfinished sketches, or mere gestures made by the artist’s hand. Is this why he kept them? Was there something in a line, a form, a figure, or a sketch that though only hinted at, it was enough for Picasso to want to hold onto it his entire life?

In this regard, I think the exhibit is the perfect classroom for art students and lovers of the creative process. It shows how Picasso worked, how he developed ideas, and how he experimented. It also provides an overall timeline of his career, showing how his work changed while it still remained inherently Picasso.

Two of the best paintings shown are presented in a genius pairing right next to each other. The famous Portrait of Dora Maar is hung with Seated Woman in Front of a Window. The two women appear to be talking to each other, from their respective chairs but each shows an incredible difference in style - remarkable given that both were painted in the same year, 1937. Here are two paintings in which Picasso is fully realized.

Apart from these, I also loved the examples of Picasso’s Analytic Cubism with Sacré-Coeur from 1909-1910, as well as Man with a Guitar and Man with a Mandolin, both from 1911.

Although I understand the exhibition’s curators wanting to focus exclusively on Picasso, the Musée National Picasso’s collection also includes works that the artist collected from colleagues such as Cézanne, Degas, de Chirico, and Matisse, among others. It would have been nice to see some of these pieces included in order to give the collection greater context.

Of course, The Steins Collect at the SFMOMA is the perfect opportunity to gain such a perspective. Showcasing the collections of Gertrude, Leo, Michael & Sarah Stein, and tracing their roots directly to the SFMOMA, The Steins Collect is not only grand, but also moving in its intimacy.

This exhibition not only shows the works the Steins gathered during their years among the Parisian avant-garde, but also their own paintings, drawings, letters, and family snapshots. It is truly mind-boggling how many major works passed through the Stein family over the years. As collectors, they purchased the best of what they could afford, creating a collection of remarkable and daring pieces for their time. This makes the exhibition less of a jumble and more of a tightly focused journey through early modern art. Works include Renoir's Study, Torso Effect of Sunlight from 1876, a minor, but charming Manet entitled Ball Scene from 1873, Matisse's Joy of Life from 1905-06 now at The Barnes Foundation, as well as his remarkable Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra from 1907. Other artists in the collection include Gauguin, Cézanne, Manguin, Weber, Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Vallotton, and of course, Picasso.

Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The Steins' early support of Henri Matisse and his Woman with a Hat from 1905 (now the darling of the SFMOMA’s permanent collection,) made the Steins the center of modern artistic circles at the time. So many people came to see the scandalous Matisse that they had to hold open houses on Saturday evenings for years to accommodate requests. The Steins' support of Matisse was loyal and steadfast, carrying on for decades. I was particularly charmed by a series of lithographed Matisse nudes from the mid-1920s, shown in a series.

Here too is Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein from 1905-1906 (which features prominently in Midnight in Paris,) as well as some truly remarkable works from his blue and rose periods.  Indeed, Strolling Player and Child from 1905 from Sarah & Michael Stein’s collection is considered to be the transitional work between Picasso’s blue and rose periods. Young Acrobat on a Ball and Boy Leading a Horse, both from 1905 also show this exceptionally beautiful time in Picasso’s oeuvre, and echo back to sketches seen at the de Young exhibition. It is also in The Steins Collect that one sees a series of heads Picasso created after seeing an African mask Matisse brought to the Steins one afternoon. These heads then found their way into the masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon from 1907, Three Women from 1908 (at the SFMOMA), and Three Figures Beneath a Tree from 1907-1908 on display at the de Young. The Stein collection also includes work from Georges Braque - Picasso's significant counterpart in the development of Cubism.

Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, 1905-06. The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York

The beauty of The Steins Collect is also in the way its curators re-created the Steins' spaces. Lfe-sized images of their apartments show exactly how the family hung their collection, while the associated exhibition room has those very works on the walls. It’s a simple presentation, but it makes perfect, cohesive sense.

Between these two exhibitions San Franciscans currently have a rare treat to experience some exceptional artwork. Indeed, I think that the shows are made even better by their juxtaposition to each other. Taken together, there is an even more intense dialogue created about art, society, family, and the creative process, and from some of the most important figures in the 20th Century’s cultural history.

In other words, do not miss these!

Picasso, Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris is at the de Young museum until October 9, 2011. Tickets are $25 for adults; advanced reservations required.

The Steins Collect is at the SFMOMA until September 6, 2011. Tickets are $25 for adults.

Hamish Bowles talks Balenciaga & Spain

Opening on March 26th, Mr. Hamish Bowles' new exhibition Balenciaga and Spain brings over 100 pieces of priceless haute couture to the de Young museum. Expanding the retrospective from its showing at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute in New York (that exhibit offered only 50 pieces), the exhibition will highlight the master couturier's work through traditional Spanish themes.

As Mr. Bowles' was in town this week to prepare for the exhibition, I was lucky enough to sit down with him and learn more about the inscrutible designer and Mr. Bowles himself.

Balenciaga, Bolero jacket of burgundy silk velvet and jet passementerie embroidery by Bataille, winter 1946.

Collection of Hamish Bowles, photograph by Kerry Komer.

P&C: Allow me to begin by reading you this quote from Francine du Plessix Gray's novel October Blood, which is overall an enteraining satire on Carmel Snow...

"In the center of the living room there sometimes sat Cristobal Balenciaga, Mother’s best friend in Paris, dolorously sipping chamomile tea. Infrequently exposed to clothes other than his own, he mostly came to curse at the vulgarity of the costumes being paraded in Mother’s suite. He was a thin, depressed, nomadic Spaniard with perennial dark glasses and some twelve houses spread over the map of Europe, all of which he hated. He would spend a few days at his hacienda in Seville and leave it, complaining of the noise, go to his chalet in Switzerland to cure his sinuses and sell it the following morning, complaining of the insects. His only passion besides his work was looking for antiques, and he could spend a month piling up Renaissance tables and Persian rugs to furnish a flat in Barcelona which he’d leave after a night because he disliked the Gaudi building across the street. He traveled everywhere with a long-haired dachshund called Zurbarán and carried in his pocket several immaculate linen handkerchiefs with which he wiped the dog’s bottom after each sidewalk performance. When he and my mother greeted each other every summer he would scrutinize her dress with a tragic air, hands on her shoulders, to be sure that she was wearing one of his originals, and then tug at different parts of her collar, sleeves, waistline to show that she was not wearing it properly.”

Is this an accurate description?

Hamish Bowles: (Laughs) Bettina Ballard does describe him as obsessed with antiqueing, piling up antique rugs... yes, that he was constantly working on apartments in Madrid, and then not being able to sleep there because of the noise… It is very true to say that he could not understand the clothes produced by his contemporaries. By extension, couldn’t understand why his friends & clients would choose to wear them.

There is a story in Bettina Ballard['s autobiography In My Fashion] – about an occasion where Balenciaga was accompanying Ballard to an event and she asked him to do up the back of her Dior dress, which had 30 buttons up the back… He kept muttering "Christian est complétement fou!"- "he's completely mad!" So, there are some very funny resonances. But he (Balenciaga) disdained from involving himself in the public side of the house, focusing on the technical, behind the scenes work & producing the clothes themselves… For special friends he would be involved in the fittings.

In fact, it was sort of a nightmare! He shared with Chanel this obsession with the way a sleeve was set. He would sort of torment his tailors – they would have to take sleeves in and out time & time again. Bettina Ballard has a funny story about this suit that she was having made, [it] was so battered & bruised by his constant thing, that she ended up wearing the perfectly made, line for line copy that was made by Ben Zuckerman – one of the very high end 7th Avenue copyists – she wore HIS suit, and Balenciaga never noticed.... He was a fastidious technician.

Cristobal Balenciaga circa 1952, copyright Bettmann/CORBIS images

From your description in the intro, it was more about how reclusive he was; I find that’s so common when you read about Yves Saint Laurent, or Chanel, - these people were sort of crotchety, and known for being in their own bubble of a world. Is that a factor for being a design genius in a way?

I don’t think so. I think a lot of Balenciaga’s contemporaries were extremely… they flourished in social situations. Jacques Fath gave endless parties, Dior even. I certainly think that Chanel in her day was extraordinarily social, and sort of a lynch-pin of a certain kind of artistic society in Paris in the old days. (I mean she did become sort of a crotchety old woman late in life,)… Saint Laurent had his own demons to contend with.

Balenciaga was naturally quite shy. He had an intimate circle of friends, mostly people he was involved with through his work. He just didn’t have time for a mundane life really, or the inclination for it. His great partner in life – D’Attainville, died in 1948, and Balenciaga became sort of increasingly retiring after that.  But I think his focus was just on his work, perfecting & honing his craft.

I loved what you said about how he would use his client’s physical quirks to develop a specific design detail…shortening the sleeves, doing a special collar. Today, when you see designers work on Project Runway for instance, they’re stumped when faced with a "real" body type. Do you think that that is something that can be learned, or did Balenciaga have a natural talent for it? Can you practice at that and learn how to design for your clients in a more specific way, using not the standard stick-figure model?

I think that Balenciaga’s whole apprenticeship and training was as a tailor and then as a dressmaker. In that capacity, his entire working life would have been one-on-one interactions with clients. Day-in, day-out he would be making clothes to fix specific body types, and you know for clients that would each have strong opinions about what their physical assets (and debits) were, and they would conspire together to enhance or minimize those as the case might be. That was his whole training.

When he opened his own couture house in Spain, he would go to Paris to buy the sample garments of the designers whom he admired, and he would bring those back to his couture establishments in San Sebastian and Barcelona and Madrid, and he would adapt those to the needs & demands of his clients. So I think that he’s constantly aware of different body types, and I think that in his collections he was careful to put in things that would suit, that would be adaptable to clients with different needs and looks and body types.

It’s a different world today. He was making – he was doing couture. Each garment that he made was made specifically for a client. So, it’s like made-to-measure.  In ready to wear, it’s not so easy to do that. And I think also body types have changed in a way, but it’s just a different craft; it’s bespoke and ready-to-wear and they’re just worlds apart.

Balenciaga, house photograph of evening ensemble.

Dress of black silk crepe with "chou" wrap of black silk gazar. Winter, 1967. Balenciaga archives.

What do you think about the end of couture? Do you think it will ever disappear? There’s a lot of fear about that today, I know that Chanel has been buying up a lot of the different craft houses like Lesage and opening the schools…Do you think that there will always be a couture market?

I think there will always be clients that want very special pieces and can afford to acquire them. I think that couture, like everything, will mutate. I think there are a lot of younger designers who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves to be couturiers per se, who’re certainly using couture techniques and maybe a couture approach in their work. And, I certainly think that, now more than ever there’s a real interest in embroidery and embellishment and the possibilities of pleating and all those kinds of techniques that are very very couture-based. I think there are lots of young people who are very keen to learn those crafts. It’s very striking to me, going into couture workrooms now, and going to Lesage and those great couture suppliers and seeing how many young people there are there that really want to learn those crafts, and that might not have been the case a decade or two ago. So that kind of gives one hope for the future.

And I think just the general kind of global engagement and fascination with fashion now that’s come thru the kind of television programs you’ve spoken to – and just the instantaneous dissemination of information through the internet I think has really widened the world of fashion and I think made people more intrigued by all kinds of different areas of fashion. I certainly think haute couture and special pieces are very much a part of that.

Balenciaga. Detail of cocktail dress of fuchsia silk shantung, black lace and black silk ribbons. Summer, 1966.

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Eleanor Christiansen de Guigne Collection. Photograph by Joe McDonald/FAMSF

Even with the expense of those kind of details? I remember in the Valentino documentary where he was going through his archive and he found this beautiful piece that had been done by Lesage and he said “You’d have to sell the bank of Italy to make that now”! The expense of it is getting astronomical, it seems.

Yes, it is. But there will always be women who just want that special thing and can afford to pay for it. You know, it’s like a custom sports car, or a rich-person’s toy…or art. So, I think there’s always a place for it, yes.

It is of course a very costly thing to do. Despite the cost of these garments, it’s a major loss-leader for any house. I think there are new ways of doing embroidery. I think there are incredible embroideries coming out of India that will change some of the pricing levels of that particular craft. And China, and so on. There are all kinds of approaches. And the wonderful thing about fashion is that it constantly mutates and reinvents itself – that’s the point of it. I think an approach to couture is something that will change like that too.

With that in mind, I was thinking about what you said about how long the shows were for Balenciaga. There were 200 models and they would take about 2 hours. Whereas today, there’s a maximum (usually in ready-to-wear only) but a maximum of 35 – 40 looks, they’re on and off the runway in 15 or 20 minutes, and then the line gets edited further before it ever goes to market. So, what do you think about that? Is there room for these designers to create and develop given the constraints of the season?

You have to think that in a Balenciaga show like that he’s basically showing his collection, his pre-collection, he’s showing everything that would be today in a designer’s showroom. It would be the options for the buyers that exist in the showroom off the runway, but he’s just showing the entire collection.

It’s so funny watching the videos of some of those shows, which luckily exist from the 1960s – I think 1960 – 1968, because clients get up in the middle of a show. You know, they have a hair appointment or a lunch at the Plaza D’Athénée, they leave and then sometimes come back…you know, for evening dresses or something. Or they’re just there because they need a coat or something, so they don’t need to stay for the cocktail dresses. It’s really funny – they sort of come & go. But you know there was no music. It was very austere, certainly couldn’t take photographs, you couldn’t sketch. You could just write down the number of the dress the mannequin was holding in her hand.

Gruau for Balenciaga, 1949.

I was thinking about the sketching and fashion illustration…I’m a big fan of Gruau, and he did a lot of wonderful images of Balenciaga; I feel like fashion illustration is something you don’t really see any more. It’s still taught, and it’s something that people dabble in, but it’s not really the art form used the way it was 50 years ago - as a commercial art form. Everything is photography-based now. So do you think that could ever come back – the fashion illustration?

Ah…I think it’s unlikely myself. I think great fashion illustrators will emerge and hopefully their work will be showcased in an appropriate way. I think that in the 20s & 30s often a detailed line drawing was a much more exact and precise way of describing an outfit than a photograph that might have had indeterminate reproduction in a magazine. So, informationally it had a different weight. We just live in a different world. I love illustration, fashion illustration myself – I’m very excited to see it.

I come out of the luxury fashion world, and I wondered what you think of this new world of the corporate fashion of LVMH and PPR group, and would a brand like Balenciaga have survived that?

Well, Balenciaga always resisted any kind of licensing agreement. Where Dior, Balmain, Jacques Fath all had licensees in America doing sort of high-end American ready-to-wear lines, he refused ever to do that. He refused any kind of endorsement. But still, his business was run along remarkably sound lines, so he just didn’t feel the need to do it. So I can’t imagine that he would want to be involved in the kind of corporate structures that now exisit, but he certainly had a very keen business sense and his business was very very well run and very profitable.

He had a hard-scrabble background, he was very pragmatic in the way he set up his companies. You know, clearly careful and scrupulous with money, to where it managed the way his businesses were run. He had business partners early on. The histories of those relationships are not that well documented…

Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard", 1963

I was recently watching The Pink Panther, and I found out that Yves Saint Laurent did the costumes for the principal characters.

Only for Claudia Cardinale. I think Givenchy did Capucine, and Saint Laurent did Claudia Cardinale...

I was wondering if Balenciaga he had ever received movie offers? Because you’d think he would be ripe for partnering with Luis Bunuel, or …

He did the costumes for Arletty in a 40s movie called Boléro, and...a couple of his actress-clients wore his clothes in their movies rather than him actually costuming them. It just wasn’t something it seems to have interested him. It was something Dior and Balmain did, Jacques Fath did, Chanel did. I think he just wasn’t interested, really.

So, what film do you go back to over & over for inspiration that you find interesting each time?

The Leopard – I love The Leopard. As sort of fashion movies, I really like The Red Shoes – it has great costuming. L’Année Dernière à Marienbad… I could always watch The Women...

Do you have more film projects yourself coming up? I know you were in Marie Antoinette, and Gossip Girl most recently…

And Wall Street 2… I don’t have any plans, but it’s always fun to be asked.

Do you ever think about writing or directing?

That would be intriguing, yes. Both of those options would be intriguing, yes.

And what about Oscars? Do you watch them, at home, or do you go?

I certainly watched the Golden Globes, I was much engaged. I’ve never been no, but I enjoy watching them.

What about the Royal Wedding coming up in April? Any thoughts on Kate Middleton? Are you a fan…?

I think she’s played it all very well, indeed. She’s stayed inscrutable which is a great challenge this day and age.

Do you think she’ll go with the Emmanuel’s?

No. I can’t imagine she would want to associate herself that closely with her late future mother in law. You know, it will be interesting to see. I think she’s made very sensible choices so far. So it will be intriguing. I wait with breath baited.

As we close, what do you recommend for any kind of a young designer, or even a writer, who writes about fashion & culture and things like that…What’s a good way to develop your visual sense, or your aesthetic sense? What’s a good way to gain exposure?

I think it’s just sort of saturating yourself in what’s going on in contemporary culture and going to museums and art galleries, and going to the theatre if you can, and certainly going to the cinema. I think it’s just being open to all kinds of cultural influences and zeitgeist – that’s how the zeitgeist is created. So, just being sensitive to that.

Balenciaga. Suit of mustard yellow linen; Summer, 1950. Collection of Hamish Bowles.

Photograph by Joe McDonald/FAMSF

And what was your first exposure to Balenciaga?

My first exposure, well, I was aware of him, and then the first piece I bought for my collection I was about 11 or 12 I think, was an early 60s Balenciaga suit at a charity sale. And, at the same sale there was a bolero – it was for a ballet company. A bolero had been donated by Margot Fonteyn, the great prima ballerina, and it was auctioned and sold for 60 pounds which was far more; it was 120 weeks worth of pocket money – so I couldn’t afford that.

But, incredibly enough, about 5 or 6 years ago I went to a vintage store in Los Angeles and found the same – I found the jacket there, and it’s going to be in the exhibition. It’s a wonderful matador-inspired bolero and a detail of the embroidery is the dust-jacket for the catalog. So you’re going to see it in all its glory!

Balenciaga and Spainopens at the de Young museum on March 26th.

The Great Shoe Wake

I died for beauty, but was scarce

Adjusted in the tomb,

When one who died for truth was lain

In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?

"For beauty," I replied.

"And I for truth, -the two are one;

We brethren are," he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,

We talked between the rooms,

Until the moss had reached our lips,

And covered up our names.

- Emily Dickinson, 1862

I've been planning this funeral for months, years actually. Everything short of wreaths of roses and readings from the Psalms. If I had hardwood floors instead of carpeting I'd be pouring my shot of whiskey right out in honor of my fallen heroes - all six of them, in fact. To be fair, not all of these heroes are entirely fallen. Some are merely in ICU or in desperate need of hospice care just to manage the pain a bit. Is it their pain, or mine? I wonder.

I suppose I should tell you what I'm talking about here: shoes. Very beautiful, expensive, adored, and in another time frequently worn, shoes. Back when I worked in the luxury fashion industry I gathered together quite a collection. I'm not one of those people that builds a collection and then hordes it for myself alone; no, I share it with the world and display my affection (and appreciation) openly. Thus, these shoes have served me well and are now very close to death, if not entirely dead.

In all honesty, some of these do have some life left in them but I am concerned that if they emerge from the cryogenic stasis of my closet that they will disintegrate once they hit pavement. So what to do? How do you honor the life of a much-loved, once-luxurious set of footwear? Do you bury them in the shoe cemetary, burn them and scatter the ashes above Union Square, or perhaps commit sati upon their blazing pyre? I have no idea. But before I do anything, I think I should give them a mention here...

The Lou-Boos above are my very first pair from that illustrious house, and unfortunately I never wear them. This despite the fact that the style was on an episode of Sex and the City back in the day. (One of the few when Carrie was in Paris with Baryshnikov - can you imagine those stilettos on cobblestones? Me neither.) They're about a half-size too big for me and even with the anti-skid sole they are always precarious on the foot - like any second they could potentially go flying and impale the handsome head of a gentleman caller. This looseness makes them more than a little uncomfortable, and while I lament giving them up, I'm afraid they are just using up precious closet space.

These gold Celine sandals are likewise mere space-suckers in the armoire. Glittering, Grecian, shapely, sexy, and strapping, these shoes always garner compliments galore. This is a good thing that my toes appreciate because they hurt like the dickens when worn. Dickens? More like having a pair of rubber bands around your foot just below the arches, cutting off the blood-flow. Despite only having worn these all of three times, the insoles are completely unglued, rippled, and serve as a useles layer on an ultra-thin lower sole. I've been dying to throw these away, but my heart collapses at the thought of putting anything named Celine in the garbage.

Back around 2004-2005 chunky heels were in style and I definitely participated in this trend. Enter the next two pairs: a Mini-Damier Mary Jane and Mini-Monogram Cerise Pump, both by Louis Vuitton. I cannot tell you how much I adored these two in their time. The Mary Janes' straps are connected by small pieces of elastic which are now so overstretched that they could snap at any moment. Meanwhile, the pumps are scuffed, scratched, and stained with the residual damage of many many adventures, at play and at work. Both pairs are as loose as bedroom slippers (even with the heels) but are now beyond wearable. They're just embarassing. As far as disposal goes, these two are my Velveteen Rabbits.

Another oddity is this ultra-fabulous pair from Marc by Marc Jacobs. Entranced by their colorful polka-dots I had to have them so badly that I paid full-price for them, around $250, which was a LOT of money for me back then. (Hey, who am I kidding, it still is!) It wasn't until after I'd purchased them that I found that they were also in an episode of Sex and the City, but I can't remember which one. Retro, fun, and sexy, I still love the compliments I get on these shoes. They're still in really good shape, outwardly, but inwardly there's a few little issues. Okay, so I snapped one of the heels at one time; you wouldn't know it but for the six-odd angry-looking nailheads that the shoe repair drove right through the instep. I would have forgotten this myself if that shoe still had its insole, but it doesn't. They're also barely comfortable after about an hour, so they too go unworn.

Finally, remarks for the best pair of kitten heels that ever came out of the House of Dior. A saucy mini heel and a long pointy shape are paired with lush black leather, making these versatile and easy to wear. At least that used to be the case. The little "Dior" metal embellishment on the right shoe has come unhinged on one side so it starts to swing around as I walk. The overall condition is good though, but these too feel more like slippers than shoes and tend to flop on my feet. They've been re-soled and re-heeled umpteen times, but they're so lovely and adorable! It breaks my soul to conceive of stuffing these kittens into their dust bag and drowning them.

Has anyone else faced a similar predicament? How does one dispose of no-longer-wearable designer fashion? It cannot be restored or recycled or given away at this point, and belive me, no museum would want them. Apart from a sacrifice on the altar of fashion, I'm not sure what to do. Plus, I'm not sure the Gods would care - they aren't virgins after all!

Here's a drink to all my shoes, past, present, and future...

Bang Envy - Juliette Gréco

Juliette Gréco with her Daschund near St. Germain des PrésJuliette Gréco has always intrigued me. Her throaty voice and peculiar beauty are far too unsettling to be considered classically beautiful, but she created her own type of glamour and style by virtue of being against the norm. Her idiosyncratic lifestyle among the famous artists and thinkers of the mid-20th Century has made her a true Bohemian icon.

A friend of Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau, Boris Vian, Serge Gainsbourg, and the great love of Miles Davis, Juliette Gréco is the original cool chick. Her signature fringe of bangs with a long hairstyle became the look of Existentialist girls the world over (and still is!), especially when paired with all-black clothes and a smoky café. This is the look Astrid Kirchherr was going for when she started wearing capes and tailored suits.

An actress and singer, Gréco is usually known as the chanteuse who sings "Bonjour Tristesse" at the very beginning of the film of the same name. But it was almost ten years prior that she appeared in Cocteau's haunting film Orphée as one of the evil Bacchantes.

While her film roles were few but significant, Gréco still continues to record and perform her music today, at the age of 83!

Juliette Gréco by Studio Harcourt Paris - the classic Existentialist look of the late 1950s.

Young and alone in Paris after World War II, Gréco started to sing in the cafés and jazz clubs in the St. Germain area. It was here that she met other existentialists, artists, and musicians, including Miles Davis. While I knew the two had been friends, I didn't realize that they actually had a romance too. I tracked down this excellent piece from The Guardian that Gréco wrote about Davis in 2006 that tells their story beautifully.

"And there I caught a glimpse of Miles, in profile: a real Giacometti, with a face of great beauty. I'm not even talking about the genius of the man: you didn't have to be a scholar or a specialist in jazz to be struck by him. There was such an unusual harmony between the man, the instrument and the sound - it was pretty shattering...... In America his colour was made blatantly obvious to me, whereas in Paris I didn't even notice that he was black. Between Miles and me there was a great love affair, the kind you'd want everybody to experience. Throughout our lives, we were never lost to each other."

Emerging from her dark hipness of the 1950s, Gréco's look adapted seamlessly into the pop glamour of the 1960s. Her hair became bouffant and her smile finally emerged. In 1965, she starred in the famous French mini-series called Belphégor, showcasing her elegance and grace.

Two images from Philips Records, and two stills from 1965's Belphégor.

Most recently the film An Education featured a few of Gréco's songs in the film, using them as a symbol of the bohemian freedoms that awaited just across the channel in Jenny's mind. (The short sequence of Jenny and David's trip to Paris is set to "Sur les quais de vieux Paris", making it a picture-postcard of the city in springtime.)

Despite their modernity for the time, Gréco's chansons have become tunes as ubiquitous to Parisian romance as anything recorded by Charles Trenet or Edith Piaf. Her famous hit of 1963 "La Javanaise", written by Serge Gainsbourg, is now considered a standard, being covered by both Jane Birkin and Madeleine Peyroux. Her strange and throaty style is indeed an enduring sound!

Juliette Gréco in 2009 from Pure People.

All images found online; final image from Pure People.

Film: Orchid Glamour

I've been pondering orchids lately. Not just the phalanopsis plants I have on my desk, which I love, but the big cymbidium orchids that are much more bold and old-fashioned. You know which ones I mean: they're big like an alien bird and colored all shades of pink, magenta or mauve, with maybe a little yellow mixed in. They look like a cross between a star and a monster - lots of shapely dimension and crazy color, especially in a group.

These days you've probably seen them on the shoulder of a happy mother or grandmother-of-the-bride, because weddings are when the fancy orchids seem to emerge from the florists' back rooms. It wasn't always this way though.

Back in the 1930s - 1940s, these orchids were the epitome of glamour and exoticism. I think this comes from the Victorian-Edwardian eras when orchids were extremely exotic and coveted as a luxury item. They had to be cultivated in hot houses, and their tropical beauty were the height of extravagance. As the world moved into the 20th Century, orchids became slightly more plentiful but still just as special. They became the standard of courtships all across the land.

left to right: Dolores Del Rio, Carole Lombard, & Greta Garbo

Because of their exclusive connotations, orchids were the perfect accoutrement for Hollywood starlets. Beautiful and rarified, the orchid became a symbol of the unobtainable woman. This whiff of the "ever-out-of-reach" gave them a dangerous appeal too, making them the chosen prop of gangster molls and bad girls. In other words, the orchid is the Madonna-whore of the flower world, and their inherent language speaks volumes.

A Harlequin pulp novel shows the *other* type of orchid girl.

Yes, if you were a man who wanted to impress a lady, you'd send her orchids. (If you really wanted to impress her, you'd put a diamond bracelet inside the box with the orchid, but that's another story.) Got it? Orchids = Woo, at least they did about 70 years ago.

But there are ladies and there are ladies, and when it comes to giving a lady orchids there are three types of recipient: one who is starry-eyed and appreciative of their novelty and beauty, one who has received so many orchids she's immune to their charm, and one who is right in between these two. The former is usually a younger girl who is still enchanted by the gesture, while the latter is usually a wizened older lady who wears them as a mere accessory. In the middle is the girl who is most like an orchid: sexy, alluring, expensive, and grown in a hot-house -  I'm sure the associations are obvious.

Carole Lombard wears orchids to marry William Powell in 1931

Sending orchids to a lady usually happened in the evening right before a date. Then, she'd wear the fresh, dewey flowers out on the town with her fella, usually pinned to her dress somewhere on the bodice. The look of a simple and slinky charmeuse gown embellished by a cluster of extravagant blooms always brings out the vamp in anyone. Later on, a gigantic cluster of cymbidiums on a fur coat showed elegance and luxury during the 1940s. Orchids weren't just for special occasions either, they'd get worn any time one needed to glam it up a little and look nice for a luncheon or day on the town. The orchids would come in a clear plastic box, nestled inside some plastic gras or paper shreds. The whole thing would be tied with an elegant ribbon and served with a little bon mot.

 In 1939's The Women, Mary Haines receives a box of orchids from her husband along with a note saying "What can I say?", as an eleventh-hour gesture before their divorce. Just a few minutes later, the Comtesse de Lave wears a lavish spray of orchids while on the train to Reno, in joyful pursuit of her next legal separation. 

Paulette Godard, Mary Boland, and Norma Shearer in The Women.

In the lighthearted Fred Astaire-Rita Hayworth musical, You Were Never Lovelier from 1942, Rita's character Maria starts to receive orchids from a secret admirer. Little does she know that it's really her father sending them to her to launch her on the road to romance with Astaire's Robert Davis. Once Maria discovers the ruse, she wants nothing more to do with orchids at all, but Robert keeps sending them. Ultimately, the orchids win.

Rita Hayworth is SO the type of girl you'd send orchids to, let's be honest.

At the other end of the spectrum is the saucy Jean Harlow. Her white dress and orchid ensemble worn on the red carpet for the premiere of Hell's Angels is so famous that the look was replicated by Gwen Stefani in The Aviator. This extraordinary ensemble was the embodiment of fantasy and imagination for a country that had recently plunged into the Great Depression.

Jean Harlow at the Hell's Angels premiere in 1930, Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow in The Aviator

It's interesting that while our love of orchids as house plants has increased, our love of orchids and other flowers as adornment (at least outside of weddings) has decreased. Pat Field tried to make a corsage comback a number of years ago on Sex and the City, but I think we all got over that trend right quick. I just have to wonder why no one opts for this type of glamour any longer. Orchids are far more eye-catching and far less expensive than fine jewelry, no? Plus, they instantly give the allure of old Hollywood to any ensemble, and what's so wrong with that I'd like to know?

I am a big fan of flowers as a fashion accessory and orchids are a classic choice. It's too bad that these days the orchid corsage is relegated to the dowdier members of the wedding party. They certainly didn't start out that way!

As I see more mentions & clips of orchids I'll do more posts of this type. So, keep your eye out and let me know if you have one in mind.

All images from internet searches.

Influences: Bauhaus

Givenchy Fall 2010

Even more interesting than the presence of the Arts & Crafts movement on the runways for Fall 2010, is the presence of one of its contemporary aesthetic movements: Bauhaus. Long a favorite and familiar influence across all tenets of design, The Bauhaus has been seducing fashion designers for decades. Most notably (to call out the obvious) in 1965 with Yves Saint Laurent's Mondrian collection. So what more is there to say in 2010?

Meaning "House of Building", The Bauhaus was a German design school that pursued a unification of art, craft, and technology just after World War I.

Founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar, Germany in 1919, the school drew parallels to the Arts & Crafts Movement, expanding on William Morris' adage that "form follows function". It differed from Arts & Crafts however, in that The Bauhaus considered the machine to be a positive element, making industrial and product design important parts of the school. Likewise, the aesthetic of The Bauhaus style (also known as The International Style,) was a complete departure from that of Arts & Crafts; here the stylized details and natural materials gave way to clean lines and a complete absence of ornamentation.

Two designers on the Fall 2010 runways claimed influences drawn from The Bauhaus: Donna Karan for DKNY and Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy. Done in different ways, both designers have created crisp, modern collections that seem to celebrate The Bauhaus in its efficiency and practicality.

DKNY Fall 2010. Images from Style.com

DKNY utilized warm neutral shades and colorblocking to showcase The Bauhaus influence, creating glamorous and breezy pieces that look very wearable for all types of bodies. True, colorblocking in fashion is not new especially not colorblocked dresses with tendencies toward Mondrian. However this group looks sufficiently refreshed and kicky for this year's party girl.

(As a side note, I want to mention that Piet Mondrian was not, in fact, a "Bauhaus" artist per se. He did lecture at The Bauhaus, but his own artistic theory was Neo-Plasticism, more commonly known as the Dutch artistic movement of De Stijl - a contemporary of The Bauhaus.)

Givenchy Fall 2010. Images from Style.com

The collection offered by Givenchy turned up the Mondrian element even more with a stark mix of black, white, and bright red throughout. Riccardo Tisci specifically cited the Bauhaus palette, characterized by neutral grounds with pops of primaries, as his inspiration. While I didn't care for this interpreted in Fair Isle knits and oddly-cut lace, I believe the collection held together best when the strong colors were paired with strong, architectural silhouettes.

While The Bauhaus' influence on Fall 2010 isn't nearly as whimsical and lush as the influence of the Arts & Crafts movement, it does offer some interesting ideas. Perhaps in our world of fast fashion and new media we can incorporate more art and craftsmanship? I'm not sure what the exact lesson is, or why designers have come back to The Bauhaus again for this year.

It is ironic though, that The Bauhaus school never provided design history courses to its students. It was thought that everything should be designed according to principles rather than precedent.

Influences: Arts & Crafts

Detail from Anna Sui Fall 2010 with Rycroft Tile necklaceFashion, like art, repeats itself over and over. A cultural thermometer of sorts, the fashion world reflects and responds to the social climate faster than any other produced consumable product. Designers reflect our own fears and uncertainties and mix these with a heady cocktail of beauty, luxury, and desire.

It’s clear that with the current economic and social outlook, the era of bling and the gaudy counterfeit it created have faded away (thankfully). In its place there seems to be an inherent appreciation of craftsmanship and creativity. At its most obvious, this appreciation is found in the collections of Anna Sui and Duro Olowu, both of whom found inspiration in the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th & early 20th Centuries.

A reaction against the Victorian era’s penchant for “reviving” historical styles and the soulless production of the Industrial Revolution, the Arts & Crafts Movement sought artistic reform, both in its process and product. Aesthetically, the movement sought simplicity of form without superfluous decoration, often exposing the construction of an item. As many of the studios were in rural areas, Arts and Crafts motifs were inspired by the flora and fauna found out of doors.  Seeking an “equality of arts”, the movement revived traditional crafts, and created the role of the “master craftsman” at the heart of production and design. Ironically, by placing greater importance on handicraft, the resulting products were too expensive to be purchased by anyone but the very rich.

Anna Sui Fall 2010. Images from Style.com.

Perhaps designers’ looking to this era and design philosophy portends a resurgence of true luxury goods? I doubt that this idealism will trickle down to the Canal Street shoppers, but it’s nice to know that it’s there.

“If you cannot learn to love real art at least learn to hate sham art.” – William Morris

For her part, Anna Sui took her inspiration in the design motifs and crafts of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Citing the artistic furniture of Charles Rohlfs, her Fall collection was adorned in architectural, but colorful, floral prints and geometrics. Small Roycroft tiles mixed with natural wood to create simple necklaces, all designed by Erickson Beamon. The result was classic Anna Sui hippy girl, but with a dash of sophisticated craft.

Duro Olowu Fall 2010. Images from Style.com.

With a more modern take, Duro Olowu drew inspiration from Hidcote Manor, home of England’s great Arts & Crafts garden, which is now part of the British National Trust. Hidcote’s lavish topiaries and outdoor rooms led to cozy knitwear, mod geometrics, and just a whiff of floral print. 

I realize that these are but two designers among hundreds, and while fashion is always looking to the aesthetic movements of the past, I found it interesting that the Arts & Crafts Movement in particular found its way onto the runways at just this time. Going by the fashion thermometer, it seems we need more simple luxury, beauty, and craftsmanship in our lives. What do you think?

Bang Envy - Elsa Martinelli

Elsa Martinelli might be the very definition of Italian bombshell. Sexy, curvy, bubbly, glamorous - she was the perfect thing for the varied character roles she played throughout the 1960s. On the flip side, she was also a great actress; this combination of sex-appeal and talent made her one of Orson Welles' favorites. She appeared with him in The V.I.P.s along with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as well as in the masterful Welles interpretation of Kafka's The Trial.

The big eyes with heavy brows were framed perfectly by a band of bangs, both long and short at different points in time.

As with most women, the shorter coiff makes Martinelli appear especially youthful, and more than a little similar to Liza Minelli. Perhaps in another decade she'd have been the perfect Sally Bowles?

From the opening credits of The Trial, in which she plays a spooky courthouse clerk.

Glamour like this only happened during the 1960s. Likewise, the hairstyle.

I just had to include this one - a priceless candid. Elsa Martinelli is second from the right next to the great Marlene Dietrich. At the far left, is Barbra Streisand wearing fabulous leopard from top to toe. I'm not sure who the other two ladies are, but all of them are in the front row at the Chanel fashion show in 1966.

Bang Envy - Anita Pallenberg

Anita Pallenberg seems to be one of those mythically "cool" women of the 1960s and 1970s that everyone talks about but no one really knows these days. Most people know her as The Great Tyrant in Barbarella, but that role is a little misleading because her famous blonde hair is covered in a scary, dark wig. But otherwise, her body of work is a little obscure. Where did she disappear to after the years of decadence and drugs?

There's the whole "dated not one, but two members of the Rolling Stones" thing which is always hot - even forty years later. Pallenberg first dated Brian Jones and then left him for Keith Richards, with whom she spent about twelve years, having three children with him. There's always the question of an affair with Mick Jagger too. Since that whole time was such a soup of sexuality and non-existent boundaries, I'm neither judging, nor ruling anything out. Pallenberg helped to shape the Rolling Stones - guiding them with musical input and ideas, and ultimately serving as one of the band's great muses, along with Marianne Faithfull. By this same token, she is also the one who led the band down the rabbit hole of drug addiction and wildly bad habits.

Brian Jones & Anita Pallenberg

Pallenberg with Keith RichardsPallenberg & Richards

The picture above is just awesome. She's in leopard pants and a man's shirt, while he's in striped pajamas. They're both totally fey and adorable.

Pallenberg and Mick JaggerIn bed with Mick Jagger, by Cecil Beaton

An artistic bohemian with inherent contradictions, what is agreed upon is that Anita Pallenberg was and is one cool bitch. Her style was slightly toussled, boyishly sexy, fun, and nymphish: loose blouses, a touch of menswear, a fur coat, a feather boa and big hat. A lean stringbean with a big smile and maybe a hint of lingerie, she reminds me of one of my current favorite it girls: Alexa Chung. Mod, adventurous, artistic, and at the eye of a cultural storm - who wouldn't want to know what her life was like, even for a moment?

As The Great Tyrant in Barbarella

A pair of birds: Pallenberg (right) with Marianne FaithfullPallenberg - She's got legs

Bang Envy - Monica Vitti

I don't usually dedicate my posts, but Randall Todd, this one's for you...

The Italian actress Monica Vitti is best known for her starring roles in Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura series. Her quirky face features cat-like eyes, a broad mouth and a sprinkling of freckles, while her amazing mane of hair is always just-so-sexily-toussled.

Her hair is also the thing that makes her a chameleon onscreen and off. At times red, light brown, dark auburn, and blonde, her hair helps her disappear into her roles with appropriate depth.

With a hip fashion sense, Vitti isn't one you would call a fashion icon so much, but she definitely knew how to make her clothes suit her style. Usually quite simple and elegant, her clothing choices truly enhance her sex appeal and personality.

While I don't have a date for this picture, I would estimate that it's about 1965 - 1966. Why? Because Dirk Bogarde (center) appeared in Darling with Julie Christie (left) in 1965, and in Modesty Blaise with Vitti (right) in 1966. I love the swoopy bangs she sports here, as well as the many strands of pearls.

How much do I love this last image? Elegant and dapper nonchalance - French cuffed white shirt, velvet blazer, and a smoke. I die. Image above is from 1974, as if the shoulder bag and eyeglasses didn't tell you that already. But isn't it great the way she sports that rose corsage? Some accessories never go out of style.

Perfect Bang-o-Rama that I'd kill for... This bottom picture is from a film called "La Fate" from 1966.

As a sultry brunette from Red Desert - the final film of Antonioni's L'avventura series.

I have no idea what this hairstyle is all about, I only know it's super-fabulous.

Bang Envy - Françoise Hardy

I have serious bang envy. I have bangs cut into my straight hair, but they just never seem quite right. Every hip girl with bangs that I see sets off a sad envy inside of me, beggin the question: why don't my bangs do THAT?

With this in mind, Françoise Hardy (an orignal bang-girl)'s Tous Les Garcons et Les Filles just played on my stereo, and I decided to go back and check out the bangs that have launched a thousand haircuts...even 40 years later.

This odd little video of the song is really well done. It's perfectly French: a little melancholy, a little racy, and a little romantic all at the same time. The motion of the rides is perfectly suited to the rhythm of the song - no accident, surely - and the whole thing looks like something Sofia Coppola could have shot yesterday... And then there's the bangs. J'adore!

 

Film: Tea for Two

Grey Gardens, 1975I’ll tell you the whole thing, you might as well face it…

It’s not my favorite thing to jump into the fray of commentary whenever a topic is so fully absorbed by the quotidian, but since I’ve never written about Grey Gardens before, I thought this might be a good time to enter the palaver. In case you’ve been under a rock lately, HBO is showing its much-awaited film of Grey Gardens this coming Saturday night. This film is based upon the lives of the eccentric mother-daughter team of Bouvier Beales, whose antics were originally showcased in the Maysles’ 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. The Bouvier Beales, known commonly as Big and Little Edie, were the aunt and first cousin of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and Lee Bouvier Radziwill. So, to recap, it’s a movie named Grey Gardens based upon a documentary named Grey Gardens which was named for the house Grey Gardens which is where two women named Edie lived most of their lives. But you didn’t need me to tell you that, did you?

The HBO film will feature Drew Barrymore as Little Edie, with Jessica Lange as Big Edie, and Jeanne Tripplehorn as Jackie Onassis. This film is drawing upon the cultish popularity of the Maysles’ original documentary, and liberally filling in the blanks with gorgeous period flashbacks. Suffice it to say, I can hardly wait to see it.

So, why Grey Gardens? What is the big deal anyways? I was once told by a close friend of mine that this film was an essential for anyone remotely interested in today’s fashion. Understood to be a “fashion touch-stone”, Grey Gardens shows a real dose of the Miss Havisham-ish tattered elegance celebrated (and imitated) by Peter Som, John Galliano, and Marc Jacobs. Not sure what to expect, I first watched the documentary years ago, and almost had to turn it off I was in such a state of shock. After all this time, the film is still more than a little shocking to me – that two formerly well-to-do women of such high intelligence would allow themselves to live in such uncomfortable squalor – but I am still fascinated with each subsequent viewing.

Little Edie's famous swimsuitThe look is so incredible that even the most talented designer could only "interpret" such style. But, is it really style when it’s so unconsciously done? Once one gets past Little Edie’s “best costume for today…” the first visual to note is the palette. The washed out grays, greens, and faded pinks of the house are the perfect foil for Little Edie’s psychedelic floral print swimsuit, patterned knits, and vibrantly colorful ensembles. Or how about Big Edie’s famously off-kilter spectacles and striped sun hat? Then there are the real mementos shown: sepia-tinted studio portraits from bygone days, a stately painting propped in a corner, antique records, brooches, and dress clips. These glimpses of past luxury, along with moments of painted furniture, faded wicker chairs, sleeping cats, and newspapers spread on every surface, create the splendor and squalor that is so unsettling.

“It’s very difficult to keep the lines between the past and the present…You know what I mean?” – Little Edie Beale

It’s so clear that these women know, or once knew, a world of beauty, wealth, parties, society, and comfort. More than this, a world of education and discourse. Little Edie quotes poetry throughout the documentary, and even goes so far as to write some lines of Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam on a bedroom wall. Obviously, Convent of the Sacred Heart and Miss Porter’s School (called “Farmington” by Little Edie) made their mark. Why then are these women eating ice cream with plastic knives and boiling corn on a hot plate next to their bed? Is this style, or just cockeyed tragedy? Even as the viewer grows in discomfort watching this charade, the Beales adamantly defy you to pity them. They have fun: singing, dancing, sunbathing, swimming, redecorating rooms, feeding raccoons Cat Chow, and generally antagonizing each other. It seems as though they wouldn’t have it any other way.

Grey Gardens, 2009The Maysles brothers show this counterpoint so beautifully. It is difficult to reconcile that the women in the old photographs are the same women in the film. Who were they then? What choices did they make? Who did they love? What happened? It’s a bit like finding one’s own old family photos and wondering if those long-past, never-met relatives had anything in common with who we are today. Perhaps this is the appeal? That mystery of life and its many everyday choices is common to everyone, but here it’s more genteel, more privileged, and played out to an unfortunate end with the cameras rolling.

But I’m pulverized by this latest thing: more unfortunate than the Beales is the way that the cult following of Grey Gardens has turned into a commercial free-for-all. It seems that every one of Little Edie’s idiosyncratic sayings has its own associated product, from “STAUNCH” t-shirts, to red shoe paperweights (“You know they can get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday.”), to the replica Grey Gardens brooch. While the Edies would laugh at this type of thing, the entire point of Grey Gardens was the entirely singular, unconscious look of the entire thing. The Edies weren’t trying to be anything other than themselves, and that is always the best style to have.

Of course, with the new film on HBO coming this weekend, the myth will continue to be sold off in pieces at an even faster pace.

For Grey Gardens images and mementos, visit Grey Gardens Online.

A fabulous post full of Little Edie images from The Errant Aesthe.

A post from the W Editor’s Blog, interviewing Sally Quinn, who (with her husband Ben Bradlee) purchased Grey Gardens from Little Edie in 1979.

Eric Wilson’s article on the style of the Grey Gardens HBO film from today’s New York Times.

A New Millenium Werkstatte

Pendant, Josef Hoffmann c. 1905, silver, gilt & semi-precious stonesTo quote the great Shirley Bassey: "It's all just a little bit of history repeating..."

One of the reasons I left the luxury goods industry a few years ago had to do with the way it made me feel overall. After years of excitement in the fashion fast lane, I found myself overwhelmed by its shallowness that left me increasingly empty. Even the "luxury" brands were losing their core of craftsmanship and selling out to the mass-market, driven by the need to satisfy stockholders. In the storm of marketing, messaging, editorials, and bling, I started to feel sick. When you witness someone splitting an "it" bag across three credit cards for the hundreth time, it starts to get to you. I asked myself: "How long can a brand remain "aspirational" and "white hot" before it burns iself out?"

The question still hangs over me when I take a look at the luxury fashion world these days - from a lot further out, happily, which usually gives some great perspective. Perspective, or common sense?

Consider the current unpleasantness of the economic world; there are a lot of people in big, expensive homes all over the country, homes full of clothes, electronics, cars, shoes, and it bags, who are wondering if they're going to have jobs next week. This, is a big portion of the "new" luxury market, and the rose-colored glasses have been lifted recently. Now comes the dawn of perspective: is any of that stuff really lasting and fulfilling, or is it just stuff?

Belt Buckle, Kolo Moser, 1903, silver, opal & rubyLast week, The Cut by New York Magazine published a post entitled " 'It' Bags ARe About to Be So Embarrassing". In it, there is a quote from Claire Kent, a former luxury analyst from Morgan Stanley who now works as an industry consultant, from a speech at the recent London Luxury Briefing conference. Kent mentioned a "luxury fatique", that people were afraid of debt and that customers would be steering clear of aspirational brands. She also said "An 'It' handbag will become an embarassment - a clear sign that you don't have your own view of fashion." Well, we all knew that was the case...

Today, Jezebel published a post about "Luxury Shame" - the phoenomenon of rich people feeling bad about throwing money around. They cite certain luxury shoppers telling others that their gown is an "old Phillip Lim" as opposed to a new Balenciaga - because that makes it okay. (I say, if you have the good stuff, wear it proudly! Don't lie to people, just maybe...buy a little less?) Jezebel also cites ecommerce sites like Gilt Groupe whose big appeal is the discretion of anonymous delivery boxes - so no one will know you're dropping your now-diminished 401K on Jimmy Choos. Yes, assuage your shopping guilt and extravagance in a nice brown wrapper...it's shopping porn!

Brooch, Josef Hoffmann c. 1910, silver & semi-precious stones

Brooch, Josef Hoffmann, 1908, silver, partly gilt & semi-precious stonesBrooch, Josef Hoffmann, 1910, silver, gilt & semi-precious stones

All of this guilt about shopping and high-priced products has put me in mind of one of my favorite periods of art and design: the Wiener Werkstätte. Also known as the Vienna Succession, this brief period of design began at the beginning of the 20th Century and continued until just before World War II. Vienna was the epicenter of the arts, being led by a group of artists that wanted to fuse graphic and applied arts - seeking a union of form and function in design. The Werkstätte was formed in response to increased mass production of products and overall industrialization. They sought to return art and design to fine craftsmanship, logic, beauty, and usefulness. The most famous Werkstätte artists are likely to be Gustav Klimt and Josef Hoffmann, but the group included hundreds of artists across all aesthetics.

Left - Emilie Floge in 'reform' dress & necklace by Kolo Moser c. 1910, Right - Necklace, Kolo Moser, 1903, silver, white chalcedony & carnelian (This necklace was given to Emilie Floge by Gustav Klimt.)I have been thinking of the Werkstätte lately because of their jewelry; it perfectly suits our current climate and I'm sure it will be only a matter of time before we return to this kind of aesthetic. Simple, elegant, modern, colorful, and beautifully crafted.

The most significant Werkstätte jewelry was designed by Josef Hoffman and Kolo Moser. While most worked with silver and gold, the focus of the work was on the metal designs and the unique arrangements of semi-precious stones. You see, during the early part of the 20th Century in Europe, times were tough. Economic depression, wars and revolutions... It was all pretty unsettling, and it was considered to be in bad taste to wear real gems. (Remember, this was also the time when CoCo Chanel invented costume jewelry too.)

Does any of this sound familiar?

Luckily for the patrons of the Werkstätte, their pieces were usually custom-made by hand as individual art pieces, which made them beautiful, tasteful, and lasting. Luckily for us, they are still as modern and wearable today as they were then! Perhaps with all of this luxury guilt going on, designers will take some cues from the Wiener Werkstätte and make things that move away from mass-market bling and into hand-crafted, wearable art... After all, history is repeating these days.

All images scanned from "Wiener Werkstätte - Design in Vienna 1903-1932" by Christian Brandstätter

Yves Saint Laurent at the de Young Museum

It's here! The 40-year retrospective of Yves Saint Laurent is now happily and beautifully displayed at the M.H. de Young museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. I have been looking forward to today's press preview for months, and the whole morning was well worth waiting for!

I learned a few days ago that not only would the international curators of this exhibit be attending, but also some of Saint Laurent's best couture clients, close friend Betty Catroux, and one-time love and long-time business partner, Pierre Bergé. This was going to be quite the preview - as it should be! The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts collaborated with the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint-Laurent to create this comprehensive gathering of Saint Laurent's most iconic fashion ensembles, direct from the company archives.

Of course, the passing of Monsieur Saint Laurent earlier this year puts all of this into much higher relief, making the show not merely a simple a retrospective, but a celebration of the life and vision of this singular designer. Speaking so softly as to barely be heard above the snapping cameras, Monsieur Bergé opened his remarks by saying he wanted "to talk about Yves." It is clear that his own sadness at the passing of his friend and companion is still very close to the surface, with this gathering being especially poignant for him. Bergé and Saint-Laurent met in 1958 and opened the Maison Yves Saint-Laurent in 1961, with Bergé managing the business and operations end of the company. While the pair's personal relationship has sometimes been called "rocky", Bergé and Saint-Laurent remained in close for fifty years, with their mutual fondness and solidarity remaining steadfast.

Bergé said "Is fashion art? I don't know. I doubt [it]. What I know is to create fashion, you must be an artist."

The exhibition is arranged within four themes that truly celebrate Saint-Laurent the artist: Masterful Pencil Strokes, The YSL Revolution, The Palette, and Lyrical Sources. The arrangements show the different facets of his design and its far-reaching influences. Ensembles are grouped by similarity, not in chronological order. This allows the visitor to see how Saint-Laurent returned to the same inspirations throughout his forty years of design. The different themes could be called out to the viewer more clearly in the exhibition space, but the essences of color, shape, texture, and art are easily seen.

When I spoke with Jill D'Alessandro, associate curator of textiles at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, she said that her "favorite" part was difficult to define, but that she was most fascinated by the contrasts and dichotomies he always explored. "Masculine/feminine, black/white, or how he took a painting - something flat and static - and put it onto something that moved." Certainly the three Mondrian dresses that are shown look as fresh and fabulous as the first time they appeared on the cover of Paris Vogue in 1965.

In a measure of true classics, truly timeless haute couture, there were many pieces that were many decades old but would still be very chic today. I spoke with Diane Charbonneau, exhibition co-curator and curator of contemporary decorative arts at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, while standing in front of two gorgeous evening gowns that were designed in tribute to Henri Matisse. We both agreed that while the ensembles were at least 25 years old, both of us could wear them this evening and be the chicest women in town. It was this visionary design that made Saint Laurent a master, and all of this is on display from the cheetah prints to the stacks of bangles - the trends are still with us today.

Diane Charbonneau and I also agreed that the next greatest thing to see in person is the incredible craftsmanship. The opulent textiles and embellishments such as Lesage embroidery are a feast for the eyes. If anything, the exhibition could be seen as a celebration of fading handcrafts and subindustries of the world of haute couture. Houses like Lesage have been creating embroidery with thread, beads, riboons and sequins since the Belle Epoque, but are now among a dying breed of artisans that serve a clientele that is getting more and more rare. It is on the clothing of Yves Saint-Laurent that one can see this craft up close: an evening gown with appliques of Schiaparelli-inspired lips shows that no two sets of lips are identical - they are each shaped differently, with individual silhouettes and materials. It is this type of detail and collaboration between designer and craftsman that brings the greatness to this oeuvre.

As we visited the final group of literary ensembles, (a velvet tuxedo in tribute to Oscar Wilde would look perfect on Blair Waldorf if she were trying to dress like Chuck Bass...) I was introduced to Monsieur Bergé. I began by saying "Bonjour Monsieur!" and then quickly became tongue-tied as I realized that I should probably NOT embarrass myself by trying to speak French in that moment. So, I got nervous and sputtered something about enjoying his stay in San Francisco. I had always heard that he was ruthless in business and more than intimidating to his underlings - so who was this cute smiling man in front of me? He was warm, kind, and when he squeezed my wrist in farewell the gesture was unexpected, gentlemanly, and affectionate. I was completely flummoxed. It's not every day that I meet a living legend, and certainly not every day that they're actually nice about your being nervous around them.

Fans of Saint-Laurent can be fanatical, talking of the designer with a bit of a frenzied adoration and almost proprietary love. Once a devotee, always a devotee. My mother has always loved Yves Saint Laurent, which is why, as I've mentioned before, this was the first designer I ever knew. She still talks with fondness of her trousers, skirt and sweater purchased at the Boutique in Dallas years ago, and how she wished she'd had that odd $300 then to buy the peacoat too. I felt it was only appropriate then that I bring my Mom with me to this preview. Her favorite ensembles were from the 1976 Ballet Russes collection; when approaching a full-skirted mannequin with a fur vest and hat she said: "THIS was the one I always wanted..." This is definitely a show to feed everyone's closet dreams.

In a final note of cleverness: I loved that the museum put the entire press kit onto individual memory sticks, packaged into cute boxes with pink labels. They looked like slices of cake on a tray - delightful and smart. I also loved that we were each given the museum's own edition of the "Yves Saint Laurent Couture Coloring Book" - a very fun party favor for kids young and old. A very special thank-you to Jill Lynch at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and a huge congratulations to everyone involved in bringing this very special exhibit to our beautiful new museum - the exclusive venue for this exhibit in the United States. Do not miss this show - you will regret it!

Yves Saint Laurent at the de Young Museum

November 1st, 2008 - April 5, 2009

50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive

San Francisco, CA 94118

www.famsf.org

Please visit my Flickr feed for even more images from the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition. For my other posts on Yves Saint Laurent, please visit Master Class from June 2007, and Going Gauche from October 2006.

Pink & Black YSL Sketch by Yves Saint Laurent

Photo of Yves Saint Laurent & Pierre Bergé, Alice Spring 1983

All other images shown are by Poetic & Chic

Influences: La Casati

I finished Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino's book Infinite Variety - The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casatilast evening and, true to form, I've spent this morning furiously questing for additional imagery and information on the fascinating Marchesa and all of her far-reaching influences. Luisa Casati Stampa di Soncino, Marchesa di Roma is truly a non-pareil that could hardly be summed up here, but I did want to celebrate her miasmic life in art and fashion.

I mentioned this book a few posts ago in the Lit Tag, but now that I've read the entire book I have to say that I'm really haunted. I cannot tell if I even like the Marchesa as a person, but I am completely enthralled by her ceaseless devotion to art and creativity - both in herself and others. So, the whole snakes and monkeys thing sort of creeped me out, but how shockingly fabulous would it be to wear a little coiled snake as a dramatic necklace at a dinner party? Or to walk a pet cheetah or alligator like they were the family Jack Russell? As the authors did state, the Marchesa's quest to always out-do herself got a bit stale over the years; her profligate lifestyle becoming almost insulting during political and economic crises, while her overbearing eccentricity hid an ever-growing personal insecurity. As a quote from Maurice Druon said in the book: "Eccentricity is tolerable only in its first freshness. Cherished until it has gone stale, it becomes unbearably pathetic and at the same time alarming."

Eccentricities aside, the Marchesa did accomplish exactly what she set out to do: become a living work of art. Her personal style of medusa-like curls dyed bright red, large black-rimmed eyes, sleek gowns, and hats swathed in veils have influenced many fashion designers, writers, and film directors. Even toward the end of the Marchesa's life when she was forced to live in poverty, her tattered elegance recalls everyone from Dickens' Miss Havisham through to Big and Little Edie from Grey Gardens. While one cannot help but feel sorry for one of Europe's former glitterati in her late-life squalor, looking at the reach of her influence you can see this is not how she is remembered.

In 1998, John Galliano for Christian Dior Haute Couture created a masterpiece of runway theatre when he presented an entire collection honoring the Marchesa Casati. Shown at the Paris Opera Garnier, the show was said to be surreal, haunting, and overwhelmingly elaborate. After trolling through the internet, I was able to find this news clip covering the show from so long ago...

688982-1740615-thumbnail.jpg
688982-1698949-thumbnail.jpg

The Marchesa Casati by Augustus John

La Marchesa Luisa Casati with a Grehound by Giovanni BoldiniFollowing-up on some of Luisa Casati's portraits, I learnt more about Augustus John and Giovanni Boldini, both of whom painted significant images of the enigmatic woman. In 2003, London's Royal Academy of Arts held an exhibition Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters: The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection, which included Boldini's 1908 portrait of the Marchesa with her Greyhound. Art historian Christopher Wood stated: "The staggering Boldini portrait of the legendary Marchesa Casati is surely the greatest portrait of the Belle Epoque." Augustus John's 1919 portrait is considered a twentieth-century masterpiece, and was purchased by the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1934, while the tripe-eye photograph of the Marchesa taken by Man Ray in her hotel suite at the Paris Ritz is considered the first and most important of Surrealist photographs. Even the Marchesa's famous ruin of a home in Venice, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, was purchased in 1949 by Peggy Guggenheim and now houses the prestigious Guggenheim Museum.

Thought to be lost, another major portrait by Romaine Brooks has recently been recovered and is in a private collection. Hopefully an image will become available sometime soon! Having never seen any of Brooks' work, (now impossible to believe) I have enjoyed looking at her paintings, finding them incredibly odd, yet beautiful, and certainly very modern for their time. Likewise, the work of Giovanni Boldini is now among my favorites for its romantic yet impressionistic style. I've learnt that a handful of Boldini's pieces even reside in San Francisco!

marchesa_by%20Vosges.jpg

Her influence is not limited to art and fashion, however. Vosges Haut Chocolat created a special collection of Marchesa Truffles which are available only in December. "Black sea salt caramel ensconced in 85% bittersweet dark chocolate and real freshwater pearl dust." A very fitting tribute.

My friend Michael Mattis wrote a piece about this book and La Casati on Dandyism.net a few years ago, wondering if the Marchesa could be considered "a dandy"; if she were a man then no doubt the term would apply, but as a woman? According to Mr. Mattis, even if the Marchesa were a dandy, being androgynous, masculine, and beautifully dressed as she was, she wasn't elegant enough for the term to apply. True, the Marchesa was heavy-handed with everything from eyeliner to pearls to gold lamé, but I would hold off on the dandy label anyway. To me, the Marchesa's androgyny and aggressive extravagances set off her distinct womanhood, I don't find her masculine at all. This, like Marlene Dietrich or an Yves Saint Laurent Smoking, make the true woman. The Marchesa's style was all about NOT being manly, but being every bit the independent, entitled woman that she was born to be in this world.

As another fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli, stated about La Casati: "Tall and gaunt with heavily made-up eyes, she represented a past age of splendor when a few beautiful and wealthy women adopted an almost brutally individualistic way of living and presenting themselves to the public."

The rest of us should be so brave... 

Portriat of Marchesa Casati, Man Ray 1922

The Marchesa Casati, Augustus John 1919, Art Gallery of Ontario

The Marchesa Luisa Casati with a Greyhound, Giovanni Boldini 1908, collection of Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber

Film: Know Your Hitchcock Dames

I've had this post brewing in my head for a little while now, and it seemed like actually writing it would be the best way to get back into action. Especially since it has to do with some of my favorite films and their delicious, inspiring, and ever-exciting style.

The first film that really turned me on this way (and inspired my life-long love of fashion,) was Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. This was the very first film my family rented when we unwrapped our brand new video player way back in the 1980s and it's just as fascinating to me today. This was the first time I really came to notice just how much costume could tell the story; in Rear Window it serves as another character, setting up the main characters' relationship in a film that is sparse on sets and changes.

As I've come to know the rest of the Hitchcock library, I've realized that all his films feature women who are as equally alluring and stylish as Grace Kelly playing Lisa Fremont. They're all strong, unusual, backed into difficult corners, full of flaws, and yet still able to land the overwhelmingly attractive leading man. Hitchcock always made certain his women were on an equal standing with their men, creating complex and tightly controlled characters that are all designed by the same hand, yet remain wholly unique. So, with inspiration from my friend Sophia at Chic & Charming, I've put together a little look at some of the Hitchcock dames with all of their modish victories, wacky neuroses, strengths, fragilities and foibles...

Rebecca

year: 1940

actress: Joan Fontaine

role: The 2nd Mrs. de Winter

leading behaviorism: mousyness

weakness: rich, lonely widowers with suicidal tendencies

sartorial inspiration: whatever's hanging in the gallery

iconic fashion: English country chic - tweed skirts and cardigans

favorite food: scrambled eggs

beauty tip: a new haircut and permanent will be just the thing

accessory: a priceless, but broken figurine, hidden in a drawer

essential prop: big, spooky house on the coast of Cornwall

essential atmospheric film effect: thick, low-lying fog

aversions: Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper

breakthrough moment: "I am Mrs. de Winter now." 

 

Notorious

year: 1946

actress: Ingrid Bergman

role: Alicia Huberman

leading behaviorism: binge drinking

weakness: American agents

sartorial inspiration: lots of draped jersey

iconic fashion: Euro/Latin - black evening gown with a deep V back, accessorized with a lace fan

favorite food: chicken and champagne with a view of Buenos Aires

beauty tip: a health spa in the Andes Mountains

accessory: key to the wine cellar

essential prop: bottles full of uranium ore

essential atmospheric film effect: the extreme close-up

aversions: mother-in-laws

breakthrough moment: realizing that there's more in the coffee than cream

 

Dial M for Murder

year: 1954

actress: Grace Kelly

role: Margot Mary Wendice

leading behaviorism: naivete

weakness: American crime writer ex-boyfriends

sartorial inspiration: your ordinary London housewife

iconic fashion: quietly wanton - a red lace cocktail dress

favorite food: just cocktails

beauty tip: going to jail can ravage a girl's looks

accessory: a silk stocking that needs mending

essential prop: missing housekey

essential atmospheric film effect: camera angles from up high and down low

aversions: High Court judges

breakthrough moment: finding the scissors on the desk

 

Rear Window

year: 1954

actress: Grace Kelly

role: Lisa Carol Fremont

leading behaviorism: clotheshorse

weakness: cantankerous invalid photographers

sartorial inspiration: whatever just got off the Paris plane

iconic fashion: Park Avenue perfection - cocktail gown with black bodice and embroidered tulle skirt

favorite food: lobster, french fries and a bottle of Montrachet from The 21 Club

beauty tip: "a woman going anywhere but the hospital would always bring makeup, perfume and jewelry..."

accessory: Mark Cross overnight case

essential prop: binoculars

essential atmospheric film effect: a complete Greenwich Village city block

aversions: knives wrapped in newspaper

breakthrough moment: breaking into the neighbor's apartment

 

To Catch a Thief

year: 1955

actress: Grace Kelly

role: Francie Stevens

leading behaviorism: being a rich, headstrong girl

weakness: retired jewel thieves

sartorial inspiration: Louis XV and a Texas oil well

iconic fashion: something icy-looking but no jewelry: "I don't like cold things touching my skin."

favorite food: picnic of chicken and beer overlooking the Mediterranean

beauty tip: light makeup but always suntan lotion

accessory: silver roadster convertible

essential prop: black cat

essential atmospheric film effect: fireworks

aversions: younger French girls

breakthrough moment: "The Cat has a new kitten."

 

Vertigo

suit_vertigo.jpg

year: 1958

actress: Kim Novak

role: Madeline Elster/Judy Barton

leading behaviorism: trances

weakness: retired detectives

sartorial inspiration: "You're looking for the suit that she wore for me. You want me to be dressed like her..."

iconic fashion: a plain grey suit from Ransohoff's

favorite food: dinner at Ernie's

beauty tip: get a full makeover...twice

accessory: vintage necklace

essential prop: mini bouquet of roses

essential atmospheric film effect: rapid zoom & reverse zoom: the "Vertigo" shot

aversions: California Missions

breakthrough moment: "Don't you see - it wasn't supposed to happen this way..."

 

North by Northwest

year: 1959

actress: Eva Marie Saint

role: Eve Kendall

leading behaviorism: flirtatiousness

weakness: advertising executives on the lam

sartorial inspiration: the quiet side of blonde bombshell

iconic fashion: little black dress and a handgun

favorite food: brook trout in the dining car

beauty tip: just be a big girl in all the right places

accessory: pearl choker

essential prop: Mount Rushmore

essential atmospheric film effect: wide open spaces

aversions: The Cold War

breakthrough moment: "I never discuss love on an empty stomach."

Psycho

year: 1960

actress: Janet Leigh

role: Marion Crane

leading behaviorism: secret sexpot with a desire for "decency"

weakness: divorced hardware store clerks

sartorial inspiration: office girl - button-up shirts and pencil skirts

iconic fashion: torpedo bras and slips

favorite food: one of Norman's sandwiches

beauty tip: long, hot showers

accessory: $40K

essential prop: getaway car

essential atmospheric film effect: a Bernard Hermann score

aversions: taxidermy

breakthrough moment: pulling off the highway to find a motel room

The Birds

year: 1963

actress: Tippi Hedren

role: Melanie Daniels

leading behaviorism: practical jokes and compulsive lying

weakness: tall, handsome lawyers

sartorial inspiration: the chic suit will take you anywhere

iconic fashion: green tweed sheath and jacket for three days straight

favorite food: martinis on a hilltop over Bodega Bay

beauty tip: toothbrush and granny gown from the general store

accessory: cigarettes

essential prop: caged lovebirds

essential atmospheric film effect: bird's eye view

aversions: crows, gulls, finches, sparrows...

breakthrough moment: Seeing the crows gathered on the jungle gym.

 

Marnie

year: 1964

actress: Tippi Hedren

role: Marnie Rutland

leading behaviorism: compulsive behavior derived from childhood trauma

weakness: horses

sartorial inspiration: unobtrusive, elegant

iconic fashion: what the neurotic wife of a rich man wears: dramatic white evening gown with white fur trim

favorite food: a quiet, family dinner at the country house

beauty tip: lots of hair dye: red, then blonde, then brown, then blonde...

accessory: beauty case

essential prop: a disapproving mother

essential atmospheric film effect: flashes of light and flashbacks

aversions: the color red

breakthrough moment: "You don't love me. I'm just some kind of wild animal you've trapped!"

To catch up on your Hitchcock Dames watch Turner Classic Movies tonight, April 1st, for "Hitchcock in the 60s". The lineup includes The Birds, Marnie, and Psycho...

Happy Birthday Grandma!

Ida.jpg

This coming Sunday, April 8th - Easter Sunday, would have been my Grandmother’s 102nd birthday. I can hardly believe that it’s been eight years since she passed away – where does the time go? I can still hear her voice as clear as day, especially the way she’d answer the telephone or shout for me, my sister, or my Mom – mixing all three of our names together until she found the one she wanted, and then bellowing that one name alone for emphasis. She was funny, tough, bossy, and very stylish. I still use all of her cooking supplies (and I like to think my food tastes better because of it,) and I love setting the table with her wedding china. I also have her cookbooks, which while caked with a million ancient batters, hold the secrets to classic mid-century party fare like aspics and ambrosias. I also have her red fox fur collar, which ingeniously has a pin on the inside to attach it to any coat. The collar is probably about fifty years old, but it still looks like brand new. I always love vintage pieces, but this one is family vintage – showing the long, proud, lineage of style in our family. The red fox collar, a few pieces of costume jewelry, and these pictures are the "evidence" I have left of her own fashion and style - it makes a case for a stylish family tree.

And on that note...I bring you my Grandma: Ida Anglebeck Haughey.

This first picture must have been from around the time my Mom was born - maybe early to mid-1940s? I love the rich print on the dress, as well as the gathered V-neckline and gathered sleeves. I wish I could have seen the rest of the dress! I also love that this is a studio shot, obviously taken to mark some milestone. It's funny that today we don't do studio portraits unless it's at school, or when the little kids are in their new Easter outfits. Studio portraits were normal in the early part of the century, and there is a part of me that wishes we could go back to this polished tradition.

688982-755116-thumbnail.jpg

Ida (at right), Grace (top), Eileen (left), Grandma Nellie holds baby Anita - don't know the dog's name, and I'm guessing this is about 1913-1914 - love the hair bows!Eda Maria Anglebeck was born on April 8th, 1905 to Nellie and Fred Anglebeck, their first of four girls. While her name was Eda, this later morphed into the more Irish “Ida” when she met my grandfather, Joe Haughey. Despite this, her sisters and cousins continued to call her “Edie”. The younger three girls were Grace, Eileen, and Anita, each just 22-months apart, and between the four of them, one can only imagine the squabbles that must have run through the household. But there is one thing no one knows for certain: which one was the most beautiful. My Mom says it was Grace, with Eileen running a close second, but my Grandma always held her own, and Nini seemed to have more beaux than could be counted. So, who is to say?

4brunettes.jpg

This picture is one of the few we have of all four girls together. I love it because of the finger-waved hair, and also the dresses. I love the large plaid on my Grandma (center), as well as the beads on her & Eileen (bottom). This is actually a funny picture becuase  our Aunt Nini (right) always had blonde hair - at least in my lifetime. While she freely admitted that "blonde hair comes from a brown bottle," this is the only picture I've ever seen of her with her natural hair color.

Of course, I am partial to Gram, but for more than the obvious reasons. She always claimed me for her own, saying rather cheekily: “you look like me, and was beautiful…" We certainly do look alike (so much so that a family friend now calls me "Little Ida",) - I didn't ever notice, but now that I've grown into my features it's definitely there. These pictures show her to be a role model too: I see how my Grandma made the most of her beauty, which was both glamorous and flawed. (The reason she didn't like to smile in pictures was due to imperfect front teeth that didn't get remedied until many years later. I have an old photo-booth strip of her and my grandfather who clearly loved to make her laugh, despite her best-resistance to hide the crooked teeth.) She was tall, big, muscular, and athletic, but knew how to choose looks that flattered her and enhanced her strongest features. Despite the imperfections, she walked with a very attractive certitude and grace. She also seems much more occupied with having fun than worrying about her looks!

We also seem to enjoy a lot of the same things. I love the pictures of her in Yosemite, Santa Cruz, or the Russian River where she would go with friends as a teenager. Every time I go to Yosemite I think of her being there, watching the Firefall, going on the same hikes with her girlfriends that I go on with my girlfriends. It’s true, Ida seems to have been one of the original California girls. My Grandma frequently went to Yosemite, probably staying at Wawona or perhaps Curry Camp with friends. The pictures always show them wearing  knickers, jackets, long scarves, little berets, and these great, tall lace-up boots for hiking or the snow. Looking at them, I wonder if they'd look very different from today's average Marc by Marc Jacobs girl...

688982-755127-thumbnail.jpg
688982-755133-thumbnail.jpg

Ida at Glacier Peak in Yosemite - yes, that is Half Dome in the background! 1925

Ida - at right - with friends on the beach at Santa Cruz, 1922

688982-755143-thumbnail.jpg

The famous Treasure Island photo - 1939Every time I look at the old photos of my Grandma and her sisters, I go crazy over the wonderful coats – why don’t we wear coats like this? A great coat would show you were well-dressed in those days, and you never left home without one. My Grandma prized the picture taken of her in 1939 at Treasure Island. She claimed that because of her beautiful coat and smart hat that the photographer thought she was a film star and rushed to snap her picture. Perhaps this is why I too am a sucker for a beautiful coat. I love this picture - the movement in the background, the hat, the gloves, the coat, the bag...the fur collar. Who wouldn't take a picture of this lady?

688982-755137-thumbnail.jpg

This picture shows the family gathered in the backyard to capture some rare snow in San Francisco. While I absolutely love the coats, I love that my Gram's handwriting is on the back saying: "Dec. 11, 1932 - snow in backyard" while on the front she lists which house is which. My Grandma is in the center with her beloved wire-haired terrier, Rowdy, while my great-grandparents Nellie and Fred are flanked by Nini at left, and Grace at right. I can only suppose it was Eileen who took the picture. I'm sure her coat was amazing too...

688982-760076-thumbnail.jpg

One of my favorites...This picture is absolutely one of my favorites - it's framed in a little corner of my apartment. It's clearly an out-take, something that would have been edited out of a digital camera, but got captured forever on the old Kodak. The composition is all wrong, but that is why it's magical. Here, Gram holds the hand of my Mom, who is probably about two or three years old. This is another fantastic coat that looks to be trimmed with shaved beaver, or some other type of curly fur; the solid black coat with the bright white of the moment is an incredible contrast. I love the brooch, her perfect lipstick, and her peep-toe platform slingbacks with a bow...clearly, it was indeed the 1940s. I love that my Mom is totally preoccupied in her own dress, but won't relinquish the string of her wooden pony-cart. The strange framing, the details, the contrast - this little snapshot captivates me every time I look at it!

As I grew older, whenever I paid a visit to Gram’s house, if she liked something I was wearing, she’d ask me to come closer so she could feel the material. I suppose it was out of habit - an easy way to determine the quality of a garment, and while a bit old-fashioned, it got right to the point. She would rub the material, and know instantly whether or not it was the good stuff. She was also entirely open-minded about the newest trends going on in the world. When I was in high school, I always trimmed the bottom edge of my jeans so they’d fray; I wore these to Grandma’s house once, and my Aunt Nini was horrified.

“Edie – your granddaughter is wearing rags! Did you ever see such a thing?” My Grandma barely looked up from her knitting to say coolly: “Well, that’s the style Nita…” This vote of confidence emboldened me to keep making the edgier style choices – at least, within reason.

688982-755190-thumbnail.jpg

I have no idea why this fabulous pink suit did not make it to me - it breaks my heart, to be honest. It would be so chic, even today! This picture is of my Grandma and my Mom at someone's wedding, but I'm not sure whose. I love this picture on so many levels. The pink suit is an utter gem especially with the schrunchy kid gloves, but the blue bridesmaid's dress my mother is wearing is also worth noting. It's simple, sweet, and totally Sixties. It's funny how one outfit still looks fresh, while the other is so clearly of its own time. I absolutely LOVE my Mom's little bouffant with a bow though! All the activity in the background perfectly shows the wedding antics, especially the odd capture of the bride - where is she going? The whole thing looks like something out of The Graduate, or some other late-1960s middle-class-angst technicolor masterpiece. I love it.

Looking at all of these pictures, I begin to realize that there is something to be said for style being "bred in the bone." I know it is in my family, so much so that for years I simply took it for granted.  Some of us steer more toward the old-world glamour, while some of us are so avant-garde that Prada, Yohji, and V&R don’t make us think twice. I am of the first group; I glam it up, make things pretty, complete the look. I never really thought about why, but I suppose it’s because it’s a family tradition.  

Happy Birthday Grandma! Thank you for showing me how it's done... I miss you every day. 

Film: Queen Pinkie Marie!

wp1_800.jpg

I have an Austrian princess on the brain. She’s in my head, singing me songs, diving through my closet and crawling out of my handbag. She’s everywhere, and I might as well get used to it. I’ve been immersed in Caroline Weber’s Queen of Fashion – What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution for weeks, and now I’ve seen what all the fuss is about: Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette.

Like that other sumptuous period drama of a few years ago about a big boat meeting an iceberg, we all know how this movie is going to end. Yet who knew it would be done with this exuberance, decadence, and style? For a brief few seconds in the opening credits, you’re treated to the ultimate summation shot: la reine, in dishabille, coiffured with an extravagant pouf, having her new pink shoes put on her feet as her fingers dive into a gigantic pink cake. Cakes, coiffures, shoes, and pink. The end.

While Caroline Weber’s book paints a more realistic portrait of the misunderstood queen, the confection on film is much more fun to endure. Barring a few slip-ups in casting and cut-aways, (do we really need the fantasy shot of Count Fersen on a rearing horse? I mean, he’s hot, but that’s a bit heavy-handed Mademoiselle Coppola…) the entire thing is a gluttonous delight of striped nosegay silks, little dogs, glittering gems, ruffles, ribbons, and feathers. A whole film of not a whole lot, but when it looks this good and is set to a soundtrack of punk rock, who cares?

The crowning achievement of this film is that it was filmed at Versailles. Once one visits that indulgent place, one sees exactly what the revolution was all about. The immediate impression is that someone simply went to town on the gilding of every surface, while the slow-to-apprehend reality of Versailles is that there is practically zero private space anywhere in the entire monstrosity. This is what Coppola captured: the wedding night and later childbirth in the queen’s bedroom absolutely packed to the rafters with people. Imagine that – two of the most intimate moments of your life, and there you are on display for people you don’t even want to talk to when you have your clothes on. The procedures, the protocols, the honors of the toilette – Marie Antoinette was said to have hated all of this pomp and formality of Versailles, preferring the casual informality of her native Hapsburg household wherein she could dress herself.

And boy, could the woman dress! The panniers, the robes a la françaises, the jewelry, the chapeaux… “Which do you like, the sleeve with the ruffles, or the plain?” she asks her advisor from Austria. Every girl dreams of wearing a dress like this, just once, because after five minutes you realize its pure torture. The queen herself preferred a loose-fitted gaulle dress of simple muslin for her days in the fields at the Petit Trianon, yet eventually this attire was deemed inappropriate for the queen. How very different from her earliest days as dauphine when upon her arrival at the French court, her beauty was noted by all with more than a little envy. It seems her natural complexion was so fine that she did not need the enhancements of the usual powders and rouges. Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, who painted the queen more than twenty times described her thus in her memoirs of 1835:

688982-514339-thumbnail.jpg

Marie Antoinette en Chemise, 1783 - E. Vigee-LeBrun“ But the most remarkable thing about her face was the splendour of her complexion. I never have seen one so brilliant, and brilliant is the word, for her skin was so transparent that it bore no umber in the painting. Neither could I render the real effect of it as I wished. I had no colours to paint such freshness, such delicate tints, which were hers alone, and which I had never seen in any other woman.”

This kind of youthful vitality is perfectly captured in Kirsten Dunst as the young queen, especially when presented in counterpoint to Asia Argento’s delightfully disgusting Madame du Barry. Yet, by the end of the film, the queen has barely aged, and seems overwhelmingly poised in the faced in inherent dangers and terrifying unknowns. The one time Dunst’s dauphine is allowed a well-deserved crying jag is only after the little ladies in fichus cast aspersions on her barrenness. This, on top of her mother’s complaints about her “waistline” takes her over the edge. Caroline Weber talks about Queen Maria Teresa’s harangues about this waistline issue as an ongoing one from years of correspondence between the mother and daughter. Too little a waistline shows the dauphine is still child-less, while too large a waistline is unbecoming a proper lady of the court. In other words: get yourself pregnant, but don’t stop wearing your grands corps - a highly-restrictive corset. (It is always refreshing to hear that the motherly badgering of “you’re too thin, you’re too fat” is one that’s gone on forever.)

Caroline Weber’s lengthy tome discloses all of the ins and outs of Marie Antoinette’s sartorial evolutions. Newly-invented styles turn into maddening fads among the aristocracy who ape the queen to their own financial ruin. A few years later, the queen’s fashion choices lead to her derision and downfall. It’s a familiar story to those of us who know the history of lady politicos. A later French queen (since the French can never decide if they want one or not,) Empress Eugenie, was nicknamed “Empress Crinoline” because of her clothes-horse ways, while years later women such as Eva Peron, Jackie Kennedy, Imelda Marcos, and even Nancy Regan were derided for their closets-full of excess. But Marie Antoinette is the woman whose indulgences taught everyone else how it’s done, the singular point brought home by Coppola’s film.

The film’s tagline of “The party that started a revolution,” is indeed true: much of the film is devoted the party Marie Antoinette is having while she spends years simply waiting for her husband to touch her. Once the Versailles party of the century begins to wane however, Coppola’s film accelerates and tends to overlook the ravages the queen faced late in life, not to mention the ravages of all-night parties. According to Caroline Weber, the fresh-faced girl that had arrived in France had gained a hardy amount of weight due to finally delivering three children, and had also lost the better-part of her hair. These physical manifestations of the stress of life at Versailles are glossed-over completely, and well they should be in order to keep pace with the film. However, the woman’s life was no fairy tale, so the ending pathos in the golden dawn is lost on most of the audience – we never really bought that it was all fun and games anyway.

Gentlemen be warned: this is one helluva girlie flick. Not a chick-flick per se, but girlier than girlie. The montage of Marie with her two best gal-pals the Princesse de Lamballe and the Duchesse de Polignac (viva Rose Byrne!) going shoe shopping to Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” is absolutely visceral in its brightly-colored indulgence. I’ll just say it, the sequence is girl-porn in the best way: shoes that Manolo Blahnik would weep for, diamonds, fluffy pink pastry, you and your best girlfriends downing magnums of champagne along the way. Sofia is no fool – she knows what girls want. (Is that why Marc Jacobs loves her so much?)

Despite its little fumbles, Marie Antoinette is my new favorite film, and I’m already pre-ordering the DVD from Amazon. I’m a sucker for a costume piece, and this is one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen in years. Perhaps because real life for la reine Marie *was* such a costume-drama, the frothy interpretation in film cannot rightly be classified as a guilty pleasure. A pleasure it is, but who is guilty of enjoying it? It brings a smile to your face, quickens your pulse, and makes you want to paint the chateau pink.

Great Gruau

LongLegs1.jpg

It is October, and bookstores are beginning to stock their collections of next year’s calendars. I try to change up my calendar each year to keep things new and get new images to ponder one month at a time. Some people swear by the travel calendars so they can get a dose of "tropical isles," or perhaps celebrate their allegiance to a particular dog breed. I typically choose something artistic, inviting, and something I can look at every day for a year and still find something new in the images. I typically mix different images between the wall and the desk, so that I don't get bored. For 2006, however, I actually broke my rules of variety, and purchased the same wall calendar and desk calendar, but with good reason: René Gruau. I have gazed wistfully at his heroines of chic fashion illustration for nearly a year, and I am thinking I may just have to re-buy the same calendar for 2007. What can I say? The images just make me happy.

I have always loved the media of poster art and graphic illustration. The simplicity and economy of design communicates so much with so little. It is the perfect example of designing effectively within constraints. Fashion illustration in particular is becoming a lost art form, with companies relying almost entirely on photography to communicate their branding. One of the last of the genre was Gruau, who illustrated well into his nineties, finally passing away in 2004, after creating iconic imagery for Dior, Balenciaga, Ortalion, Air France, and International Textiles. His later work for Moulin Rouge and the Lido de Paris helped to promote the classic Parisian cabarets to a new generation of tourists, yet with an old-world aesthetic. Gruau was the son of a French socialite (whose surname of Gruau he later adopted,) and an Italian Count. His real name & title?: Count Renato Zavagli Ricciardelli delle Camminate.

Miss October is this image for Ortalion stockings which I adore. I want her sexy ostrich chubby, and above all her legs that are ten miles long. (Truth be told, this is how you’re taught to illustrate fashion, as taught in fashion school. The average human proportions are “eight heads” high, but a fashion croqui is meant to be stretched to nine heads. The stretching most elegantly manifests in the legs. If only I could be proportioned to nine heads high!)

688982-509998-thumbnail.jpg

Miss Dior Aside from their incredible height, Gruau women are flirtatious, sensuous, saucy, and innocently invite the voyeuristic gaze – that is, when they aren’t confronting the gaze directly. They are beautifully dressed, their smiles are knowing, and their limbs, like their eyelashes, are long and luxurious.

688982-509992-thumbnail.jpg

Lingere Christian Dior 1966The lingerie advertisements for Christian Dior are particularly voyeuristic, but are frothy enough to remain adorably appealing, rather than tawdry and “through-a-keyhole.” Every so often, you can find original lithographs of these graphics being sold in some of the bouquinistes along the Seine. One summer my sister and I spotted some, but she prevented me from buying them due to their expense. Coulda shoulda woulda.

688982-509994-thumbnail.jpg

Air France Cote D'Azur - 1963One of the more iconic images includes the “straw hat” girl for Air France’s ad for travel to the Côte D’Azur in 1963. This is the one my friend Emi loves the most. It instantly conveys the simple romance of a summer on the beaches of France.

dancer1.jpg

Other than Miss October, my other favorite Gruau images are from his cabaret advertisements. This sketch for a Lido poster from the early 1950s conveys the classic glamour of the can-cans, while it celebrates the traditional poster-art graphics of Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec, who created this form of illustration during the Belle Epoque. Yet this art derives its hard-line aesthetic from the influence of Japonisme, and it’s flattened, cartoon-ish forms. His use of diagonals and vertical compositions, as well as empty spaces to contrast with thick lines, create an illusion of movement and lightness rooted in Japanese wood-block prints. Gruau mixes both Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec’s images in this sketch, with the single black line delineating a crowd of onlookers, while the froth of the dancer’s feathers trails away like champagne foam.

688982-510003-thumbnail.jpg

Chat BembergGruau also illustrated textile advertisements, and captured pattern and texture with a few strokes of the brush. Always, his same economy in bright colors and rhythms that are compelling and unforgettable.

With the exception of Michael Roberts, fashion illustration has hit an all-time low. Of course, The New Yorker still leads the way in classical illustration, with only a few periodicals reaching for creative graphics every now and again. Advertisements are hard, dark, and more often than not, a bit vulgar and difficult to look at for any length of time. Gruau created images that you wanted to hang on your wall - their sheer simple genious and elegant draughtsmanship served to transport you to other eras and other moods.  It is with a heavy heart that I will relinquish my Gruau calendars at the end of the year - what other images could I possibly find that will take me so far away from my daily grind with just a brief glance? Where to find the same freshness, the exuberance, the bubbly enthusiasm that carries me on an effervescent wave of chic? Who but Gruau offers this kind of happiness with just a paper calendar?

www.renegruau.com