Flying South

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I happen to be one of those rare Northern California natives that actually likes Los Angeles. (Caveat: Dodgers fans are not included in this fact.) It’s beautiful there, truly. It’s colorful, bright, kitchy, retro, warm and fun. It’s everything inherent in that notion of uncharted American expansion: the promise of the golden west, the edge of the continent, orange groves, palm trees in every backyard, sunshine, beaches, swimming pools, movie stars…The Coast.

This is the proverbial end of the line.

Descending into LAX, the Malibu beach houses start to hug the cliffs, contouring their lots to the jagged coastline. The PCH traffic is light, and I strain to see the fabled spot where Marion Davies’ fabled Ocean House once stood, although I know it’s long gone. The Getty Center comes into view as a shining white legoland at the top of a hill, as does the strange cylinder of the Hotel Angeleno at its base, hugging the 405 freeway. Then come the buildings sprouted along Wilshire – a weirdly arranged line of high towers stretching for miles; a long cut repaired with badly-sewn stitches. The famous Hollywood hills host curving, luscious streets of houses that I’ll never get to see inside of, and I begin to think of songs by Bob Seger and The Eagles. What is it like to live above the lights after all?

The plane floats downward, ever-deeper toward the Inland Empire, over Dodger Stadium, the skyscrapers of downtown, and the famous Dragnet pinnacle of City Hall. Banking right and changing direction, we parallel another plane on its way into landing. The cement-lined Los Angeles river is another scar running north-south this time, as far as can be seen. The perfect oval of Hollywood Park signals final descent. Even the runway seems to be lined with palm trees.

Our hotel, The Chamberlain, is nestled on a quiet street above Wilshire and is designed as a boutique Hollywood Regency-style chic spot. Shiny silver and ice blue are paired with black lacquer, heavy gold trim, and unusually shaped chairs. It is not until I get to my room that I realize the place must have been a former apartment house converted to hotel. Here, the palette is grey on grey, the bathroom is pokey and dark, but there’s a fireplace and a deck, and some of the most luxurious sheets I’ve ever slept on.

The morning comes too quickly (especially where those sheets are concerned,) and the early news features traffic reports that take longer than the weather and camerawork from news helicopters of police actions. As Snoop Dogg says: "Los Angeles...where the helicopters got cameras..." I pull back my curtain to see a streak of orangey-green dawn banding a navy blue night sky, punctuated by the perfect sharp silhouette of a singular palm tree.

Just another perfectly beautiful So-Cal morning.

In fact, the sky remains perfectly blue all day, not a whisper of smog, and the hilltops and snowy peaks are always in view. A walk along Robertson at lunch gets me creating wishlists at Kitson and Madison, so much so that I don’t even notice the paparazzi stalking the curb outside of The Ivy.

My sunglasses get dug out from the bottom of my bag after weeks of rest, and I point my face toward the sun with eyes closed. My bones even begin to feel warmer. Not heated, just caressed by the warm light after so many days of damp. The light is different here – the sun is lower, more golden, bright and permeating.

Perhaps it shows too much, for despite the gleaming towers and sexy billboards along Sunset, there is still that undercurrent of strangeness. There’s something sad about the odd storefronts, dying restaurants, and the harsh flaking-stucco on scary Day of the Locust apartment complexes with aluminum windows. For each pocket of glamour there’s a jar of cold cream.

Flying out is nearly the same as flying in. The PCH and its spindly palms pass under the plane as we leave land and head over the Pacific. Banking right at the Channel Islands, we pick up the coast again just north of Santa Barbara. It’s only a few minutes before the unrolled-cotton clouds of our fog bank begin to appear over the water in an even coastline of its own. San Francisco's light is misty, mysterious, fleeting at this time of year. Our wind is ever-present and chilly; my coat, stripped and forgotten in L.A. is now immediately necessary.

But I felt it – that promise of warmth on my skin, that perfect comfort of a 72-degree day, and my soul and body are somehow refreshed. There is something to be said for flying south…

Influences: It Happened in Hamburg

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Astrid Kirchherr, self-portrait, 1960Can one woman’s personal style actually change a generation? In the case of Astrid Kirchherr, it did. Yesterday’s episode of Fresh Air on NPR featured an interview with Ms. Kirchherr which should not be missed.

In 1960, Astrid Kirchherr met a group of young (some even underage) boys who were playing in a rock band on the Ripperbaum in Hamburg, Germany. According to Kirchherr, this was not an area of town where nice girls went out at night, but she went with her then boyfriend Klaus Voormann. The band she saw was The Beatles – popular culture and fashion has never been the same.

Kirchherr was attending art school at the time and was practicing as a photographer. The story goes that she gathered up The Beatles one morning, took them out to an abandoned fun fair and took the famous iconic images of the band in its early days. The Beatles then featured Harrison, McCartney, and Lennon of course, as well as Pete Best on drums, and “the fifth Beatle” – Stuart Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe was a painter by trade and talent, but sold a painting to buy a bass guitar at the request of John Lennon who really wanted Sutcliffe as part of the band.

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The Beatles by Astrid Kirchherr, 1960 - Best, Harrison, Lennon, McCartney & SutcliffeAfter a few weeks in Hamburg, Sutcliffe and Kirchherr fell in love and became engaged. Sutcliffe left The Beatles, McCartney moved over to the bass, and a few years later Pete Best was replaced by Ringo Starr.

Kirchherr is credited as giving The Beatles their “mop top” hair styles, which she insists wasn’t so unusual in Hamburg at the time. She states that she originally gave Klaus Voormann the haircut to cover his protruding ears. Stuart Sutcliffe liked the style and was the first of the group to adopt it – Kirchherr says that the cut was relatively easy for him as his hair was already long to accommodate the Elvis-style rocker pompadour. It was simply a matter of washing out the brylcreem and even-ing things up. The next Beatle to get the style was George Harrison, who had such “beautiful hair that it turned out great and he was very pleased.”

Kirchherr states that Stuart Sutcliffe matched her in height and build; when he moved in with her he began to wear her clothes and adopt her style. She states that at the time in Hamburg there were many different youth subcultures designated by their different uniforms – “the rockers, the exis, the mods…” Influenced by Jean Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau, she and Klaus Voormann were a part of “the exis” – short for existentialists – styling themselves after Parisian university students with capes, berets, long scarves and lots of black. Kirchherr recalls “we had to do our own clothes if we had weird ideas,” - knitting the long maxi-scarves herself since no one sold them, and stealing an over-sized sweater from one's father to try and look like “the Sartre people in France or Juliette Greco.” Kirchherr states: “we looked a bit weird, but we all thought it was great to be different.”

Sutcliffe went on to borrow a collar-less corduroy suit from his girlfriend which she had made herself after seeing a high-fashion version by Pierre Cardin in a magazine. John Lennon initially made fun of the look, but later on adopted it along with the band to create one of their signature styles.

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Klaus Voormann's "Revolver" cover - 1966Klaus Voormann went on to create the famous cover art for The Beatles’ Revolver album in 1966, and The Beatles went on and became history.

After leaving The Beatles, Stuart Sutcliffe went back to art school in Hamburg. In 1962, Sutcliffe collapsed and died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 21. Astrid Kirchherr states that he was, and is, the love of her life. She says that she still wears black, cuts her hair short, wears long scarves and leather pants, and is looking forward to her 70th birthday this year.

Imagine it: the contents of your closet, your personal style, one day gets “borrowed” and blown up by some close friends who become mega-stars. How would your style change the world?

Listen to the full interview between Terry Gross & Astrid Kirchherr on NPR. The story of Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart Sutcliffe and The Beatles is captured in the 1994 film Backbeat with Stephen Dorff as Sutcliffe and Sheryl Lee as Kirchherr.

The Fashionable Oxymoron

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Oscar de la Renta Fall 2007 - This bag is not "affordable"...as it shouldn't be!A post for Coutorture Salon on Luxury and Accessibility... 

“The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” - James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story

Affordable luxury: two words that really don’t belong in the same description. In sixth-grade English class we would have learnt that this was an oxymoron – a paradox of two words, or the bringing together of two opposites. Sometimes oxymorons are successful, such as in the case of “eloquent silence” or “eccentric elegance,” however “affordable luxury” just doesn’t work.

Luxury is also the opposite of “necessity” – no one really needs a $2000 handbag when the free paper sacks from Whole Foods have convenient handles and lots of cargo space. Our modern consumerism has us brainwashed into thinking that the “It Bag” featured in Vogue actually is a necessity, but that’s just the magazines and marketing people getting into bed together to the detriment of our bank accounts. Once we turn the page and breathe normally again the intelligent person realizes that said “It Bag” falls under the “nice to have” category rather than the “need to have.”

True, no intelligent, style-minded, self-respecting person would actually use a paper bag to carry their everyday items, but the notion is worth considering.

During my tenure within LVMH, I learnt what luxury really meant, both concretely and abstractly. Concretely, the term has to do with design, craftsmanship, and quality. Abstractly, “luxury” is ethereal, aspirational for 99% of the population, and a semantic carrying the caché of exclusivity. I appreciate both sides of the coin: I understand the incredible beauty endowed in these products, while I also know the thrill of possession.

Ownership of luxury products should always be a privilege. By creating an “affordable luxury” market, the privilege becomes less thrilling, less exciting, less luxurious. Luxury brands used to be limited to the rarified air of Fifth Avenue, Rodeo Drive, Post Street, Worth Avenue, and the like. Everything inherent in a "luxury brand" connotes something that is hard-to-get, limited, and rare; today, luxury houses are popping up everywhere, even secondary and tertiary markets like suburban malls.  This then begs the question: if it’s so easy to get, is it really luxury?

Yes, the internet and ecommerce has widened the market – average Jane housewife in northern Minnesota can order up some expensive confection and have it delivered to her door, but what is this kind if accessibility doing to the brands? Some would say that due to the expense the items really aren't accessible, which therefore leads to the counterfeit industry. It's nice to know that for the sake of crappy knock-offs (ie: "affordable luxury") people are supporting child labor and terrorism. Doesn't that make you all warm inside?

During my time in luxury fashion I also saw the dangers of the maddening “must-have” mentality of consumers. I witnessed customers splitting the cost of a handbag across three and four credit cards, counseled the sobs of teenagers who were thought “uncool” because they didn’t have the bag that all their friends had, and heard the frustration of time-honored customers who vowed to never buy the brand again because they were sick of seeing it on every girl in the country. You see, to them the brand once meant “something” – it meant that they were privileged, that they were the “haves” and the others were the “have-nots”.

Sorry to make this a class issue, but when you get right down to it, that’s what luxury is all about – it simply isn’t mass-market, it’s exclusive. Let’s go back to the 1% of the population for whom luxury is NOT an aspiration, it’s a way of life. They have multiple homes, private planes, Bentleys and Maseratis. These people know luxury inside and out – they have the best of everything: clothing, hotels, toys, vacations, services… THIS is the luxury demographic, and it’s not for everyone.

If the luxury brands want to preserve their power and caché, I suggest that this is the group they target. Stop opening so many stores, stop targeting teenagers, stop dressing pop stars, stop being affordable. Already, some luxury brands are so watered-down that they are losing the affluent customer base that made them so aspirational in the first place. Is this what the brands want to happen?

“Watered-down aspirational” – now that’s an oxymoron!

Film: Don't You Forget About Hughes

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What makes a classic? Everyone has a different answer to this question; for myself, I think of something being "classic" when you can come back to it again and again over many years and still find something exciting, enjoyable and provocative about it. Like a great romance, they never really leave your heart - the proverbial "long and winding road"... Classic literature is easy to spot. The books that were a chore to complete in high school are, as an adult, page-turners full of nuance and beauty. I grudgingly completed Madame Bovary in my AP English class, but now it is one of my favorite books that I re-read every few years. Film is the same - we all know which films are given the "classic" label and can usually see why.

But what about classics of one's own generation? Is it presumptuous to call something you grew up with a "classic"?

The case in point is John Hughes' The Breakfast Club. I watched this movie again recently after many years of avoiding it's many censored editings on cable television, and found the original to be even more compelling than when I was young.

Young? I was a child when I first saw this film. It hit the theatres in 1985, and I think I actually saw it in 1986 or 1987 during one of the first summers when I went to "overnight" camp. I was about 11 years old - 5th grade, I think. About 100 kids packed into a large rec room watching the breakfast club on a rather small TV. No one complained. For the first time I felt like I was seeing an adult movie, and it was the funniest thing I had ever seen.

Now, a bit about John Hughes before I go too far. Of course, the entireHughes oeuvre of mid-eighties teen angst films are now over twenty years old and still just as fantastic as always. They are part of our lexicon, our zeitgeist even. Everyone of a certain age can quote entire scenes from these films and everyone has an opinion of their favorite. (While most would say Pretty in Pink or Ferris Bueller's Day Off, I'm still a big fan of Weird Science. Does that surprise you?) We watched them through high school when we had nothing else to do. In college they kept us entertained late-night when we had a belly-full of crappy beer and had to laugh it off. As adults, we still come back to them and they make us smile. Let's face it, the 1980s and 1990s would not have been the decades they were if it weren't for the films of suburban-Chicago-teenage life as explored by John Hughes.

I grant you, at that first viewing of The Breakfast Club, a lot of it was way over my head.

High school was some unimaginable continent that I never thought I'd reach at the time. I was fairly content in my world of shadow-plaid uniforms, soccer practice and piano lessons. The idea of wandering through massive hallways, answering to a bell and having a locker were beyond me. So, it is understandable that a lot of the nuance in The Breakfast Club is only just coming to me now.

Don't get me wrong, I have the film memorized - seriously, word for word. I know every detail of the thin, art-deco-1980s font in the opening credits, to the rosy-pink shade of Molly Ringwald's nailpolish when she folds her diamond earring in Judd Nelson's gloved hand at the end. And don't even get me started on Don't You(Forget About Me) by Simple Minds - let's just say it was the soundtrack to an entire decade of my life. But during my recent viewing there was something I noticed that I hadn't bothered with before: the quote from David Bowie's Changes that starts the film.

"And these children that you spit on/As they try to change their worlds/Are immune to your consultations/They're quite aware of what they're going through..."

When I first saw the film I didn't know who David Bowie was, much less know the song being quoted. (We were a Henri Mancini/Burt Bachrach kind of family.) Seeing it now made my heart pound. All the times I've listened to Changes and never realized how perfectly it applies to the high school experience.

It's true that at my first viewing of The Breakfast Club I didn't understand a lot of the dialogue, but found the retorts and zingers incredibly funny and entertaining. Just what is a "neo-maxie-zoom-dweebie" anyways? I was forced to catch up on a lot of the new vocabulary though. I'd never heard of calling someone "a defective", and I was completely lost on the meaning of "tease". I didn't know what a "lobotomy" was, nor "anarchy", nor a "varsity letterman"...and as far as I knew, a "cherry" was a fruit I didn't really like. I thought Molly Ringwald's still incomprehensible line: "like this whole big monster deal - it's enless as a total drag," was the epitome of clever-coolness, and I loved it.

It wasn't until I got a little older that I began to understand what these quips and verbal slams actually were, just as I began to understand all of those incredibly racy things Judd Nelson says to Molly Ringwald. My hormones had been lying dormant until: "...Calvins in a ball on the front seat, past eleven on a school night..." Comprehension was beyond me, but I knew I wanted him to keep talking. It's an intense scene; all of their scenes together are intense - dressing each other down constantly while trying to ignore the electric chemistry between them. Her pale, rosy prettiness and his dangerously intelligent attractiveness made for a great combination that everyone wanted to come together. (While Michael Schoeffling as Jake Ryan in Sixteen Candles was "the IT" when it came to fantasy boyfriends through my high school years, it is now that I see just how hot John Bender really was with all his edgy appeal. Here is a boy who knows what to do with a girl!) When she finally kisses his neck later on in the storage room it's a relief to everyone.

This dialogue was more raw and more real than anything any of us had heard before. It thoroughly exploited our teenage fears and hinted that they might never leave us. Ally Sheedy's tearful "When you grow up, your heart dies," was exactly what we all thought at the time. That, and the idea that we would eventually turn into our parents. John Hughes was intrepid in this exploration, going into areas of teen angst we'd never seen. When Anthony Michael Hall's character talked about a gun in his locker, we were all shocked into silence. Today...alas, this is always a little shocking, but no longer surprising.

The Breakfast Club is a film that I, and most of my generation, will come back to again and again over our lifetimes. When it first debuted it was simply cool and clever, but it's grown up just like we have. It's writing and nuance is just as electric today as it was upon first viewing, and like an old friend it still offers some surprises every time we hang out. Who would disagree if I dared to call it...a classic?

Happy Birthday Grandma!

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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.

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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?

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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...

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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

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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?

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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...

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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.

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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. 

Footnotes

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Yes...these are the ones...Sheesh! I've been looking at my posts, and so many of them have been so self-indulgently...well, non-style-oriented, that I felt I needed to get back to some fashion. And while nothing current is really racing my motor, I thought I'd dig out one of my favorite old stories...

This post was originally written about a year ago, about a real evening I was having with my friend Lee... This is a true story, every word, and it's so good that I've dug it out of the archives to share with the current P&C crowd. Okay...so P&C wasn't even around a year ago, but I was doing some writing, and it was good! This one is actually about some really great shoes - the kind I can't wear lately, so it's indulgent just to think about...

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On Friday night I was sitting in Gold Alley, just outside of Bix, having a cocktail with a close friend. People were gathered for the after-work drink, and since it was a nice night for February, people stood, drinks in hand, on either side of the narrow alley. On the opposite side, a group of friends enjoyed each others company, and soon a fabulously chic couple approached and were welcomed by all.

“Look at those shoes she has on…” my friend said to me. The woman in question was wearing incredibly steep stiletto heels, very bare – just a toe strap, and for that extra bit of sex, a strap of leather circling the ankle. Either the shoes were steeper than her usual, or this woman was a bad heel-walker – she could barely make the five steps from the cab to her friends without showing her shaky, uncertain footing to the entire street.

“Well, she can hardly walk in them.”

“Yeah – but look at them!”

“Yeah, they’re hot, but someone should have told her they’re the kind of shoes one only wears at home.”

“YEAH! With NOTHING ELSE on!”

“Exactly!” We both laughed. “I have a pair of shoes like that – my first *real* high fashion shoes I bought at a sample sale when I first started with the company. A pair of John Galliano corset-pumps. Remember those? They lace up the toe? So hot.” Ah yes. My John Galliano corset-pumps in sultry soft black leather with a delicate, skinny, little sharp heel. Sex on a stick. I went on to tell my friend the story of the shoes. The John Galliano pumps were in size 9 ½ and had been worn by a model during a fashion shoot, and due to the scuffs, could not be sold. But they could be sold to me at an employee sample sale for only $40.00. I admitted that I was afraid of them at first – they were so high, such skinny little heels, so vampish, I didn’t know quite what to do with them. I was new at my company and this had been my first sample sale, and my first pair of uber-expensive shoes (albeit purchased at considerable discount.) I think I may even have blushed at the thought of not only having them in my closet, but actually putting them on and wearing them. Our in-house fashionista-shop-aholic giggled at my uncertainty about the Galliano corset-pumps.

“You know,” she whispered to me with a conspiratorial smile, “they never even need to leave the house!” At the time the idea made me blush even harder, but I was younger then, and didn’t know so much.

Somehow or other, this shoe-y anecdote led to another and another, and I fondly remember some shoes I had purchased when I was studying in France, almost ten years ago. The first was a pair of Sketchers sneakers. Yes, I will admit to owning and wearing Sketchers in my student days – I’m not above it. (I also had Airwalks when I fancied myself a “skater girl”, but let’s leave that out, shall we?) Well, these Sketchers I bought in London, somewhere on Carnaby Street but I don’t really remember. They were lavender, but opalescent lavender, and very shiny. Sneakers were huge in the late 90s, and I saw these and had to have them, my “Euro-Club Barbie” sneakers.

Obviously, being the girl that I am now, and was then, I shopped a great deal when I was a student in Paris. I knew where to find stuff, like the best selection of vintage leather jackets on Rue du Temple. The Temple area is the part of town where one shops for either vintage clothes, club clothes, or drag queen clothes. It was at this time when the trashy club girls at the Sorbonne were wearing these crazy sneaker-pumps one could purchase in the Temple area. Huge sneakers with big wedge heels. All the girls were wearing them. I thought they were the ugliest things I'd ever seen.

I met a good friend while I was there, Lora, who introduced me to all of the sophisticated Bohemian things I truly needed to learn about while living in Paris. Things like hashish, great sex, clubbing, and Miles Davis. For hours we would sit in each other’s rooms and talk about culture, politics, our friends at home, books, music, and men. All while smoking endless Marlboro Lights, drinking wine, and listening to “Ascenseur pour l’echafaud” – even to this day, I cannot listen to that album without being completely transported. Lora and I had a friendship of the kind that develops in these kind of study-abroad situations. Deep, rich, fulfilling, and intense. She knew me so well, while hardly knowing me at all. The shopping was therapy for me, she could see it, and she disapproved. Lora had also seen the sneaker-pumps in the Rue du Temple and warned me that if I ever came home with a pair, she would be slapping me on the first flight out of CDG so fast my head would spin. "If those ever start to look good to you, it's time to go home!"

It was a difficult time for me then, I was sad to be away from my friends, and I was going through a heavy-duty 20-year-old dose of “what does it all mean?” while lodging in a large, empty, old dorm room of the Cite Universitaire. (Lora dared me to pull myself out of my funks *without* going shopping…sometimes it worked.) I grant you, this dorm room was larger than my first apartment, but never so warm. It did look out on the Parc Montsouris, but it was full of drafts and street noise. I do think of it fondly though, just as I think of our fellow dorm residents from around the world. There was Mehdi – an Algerian living across the hall from me with a collection of hookas that were put to good use on the weekends, and also Lora’s neighbor Kuaku – an utterly stunning African man who nearly puts Taye Diggs to shame. Kuaku was from Central Africa, although I don’t remember his country, but he had also lived in London, and practically everywhere else. Lora also had an in-dorm boyfriend at the time who lived the coolest of cool lives: photographer by day, DJ by night. At one time on a rainy day he asked me if he could take a nude photo of me. He said he got inspired, me, the rain, he couldn’t resist. Of course, Lora would come with me for moral support. I thanked him, but demurred. It was a strong will I had to resist a charming French photographer, asking to take sexy photos of me. One of the biggest regrets of my life. Why wouldn’t I want pictures of myself, naked, in the middle of a parc in Paris at age 20? Like I said, I was much younger then, and didn’t know so much.

Anyways, back to the shoes. I visited London and of course went to Carnaby Street and got my Euro-Club Barbie Sketchers. I also went to Underground Shoes and purchased an absolutely TO DIE FOR pair of funkadelic London swinger shoes. Picture it: stacked four-inch heel with a slight flare at the bottom, a half-inch platform, and a lace-up Oxford style…and, wait for it, they’re pony leather, in a zebra print. So fabulous. (This was a good few years before Austin Powers too, so it wasn’t like everyone was buying them then.)

I still have these shoes, by the way. They’ve made it though the past years tucked safely in their original Underground Shoes box. They’re so outrageous and utterly precious (and not to mention slightly small) that I never wear them above once a year.

I returned to Paris just before flying back to the States, and quickly went to Lora’s room to show her my new shoes from London. Instead I found Kuaku. I was so excited about my new shoes I had to show him…

“Look Kuaku, I bought them on Carnaby Street!”

“Well, I could tell you bought them on Carnaby Street…”

“What do you think – aren’t they great?” I asked him, whole-heartedly and eagerly waiting for some kind of validation on the outrageous shoes from the beautiful African.

“Well, Ann Marie?” He began in his sweet accent, “Well, they’re zebra…” I waited a beat and considered what he was saying. He held one of the shoes in his hand, staring at it in semi-horror. I didn’t put two and two together to realize that he probably thought I’d killed his childhood pet from the bush and made a pair of shoes out of them. Being the oblivious and insensitive budding fashionista that I was, I replied with:

“Yeah! Aren’t they fabulous!”

Luxury: Our Stinky Semiotics

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I am often asked where I get the inspiration or ideas for my posts. I'm never organized enough to keep a notebook or anything, so I rely memory, and this is usually fine because my ideas come together in layers. I think about one thing, see something else, and then another thing comes along and all three of them seem to just come together in a (more or less) good way. Of course, sometimes things get sent to me too, and then by the mystical powers of the universe something else comes along almost immediately and the two marry perfectly...hence this posting.

This morning my friend Randall forwarded me a car crash of an article from the London Daily Mail, (I say "car crash" only because it was altogether fascinating, funny, messy, and disgusting at the same time...and I just couldn't look away) entitled "The £23,500 Handbag". The article concerns the obscene amounts of money designer handbags are costing these days, and how having enough money to actually collect them seems to mean one loses all reason in the bargain. Discretionary incomes and intelligence quotients seem inversely proportional where "It" bags are concerned. It is indeed a frightening state of affairs.

This afternoon, I read Julie Fredrickson's latest (and totally brilliant) post honoring the death of Jean Beaudrillard - the French philosopher best known for his work on semiotics, and Western culture's "procession of simulacra". (Don't worry - I looked this up...Julie is way out of my league on this type of thing! No wonder she's my blog-crush...) I don't pretend to have a fluent comprehension of post modernist philosophy, but from my limited knowledge of Beaudrillard, the irony of his passing during the season of our most expensive arm candy trend cannot be overlooked.

Just what does a £23,500 handbag looklike? View the Louis Vuitton "Tribute" bag - a patchwork hodge-podge of different handbag pieces from other Louis Vuitton collections. Looking at it, it doesn't really seem that much design was involved in this item at all, that the pieces were merely thrown together and a chain attached. The Bag Snob wrote a post about this very bag this past February, stating: "Is this a joke?...Tribute to what? Marc (Jacobs)'s insanity?" I love it. Finally, someone other than me thinks that Marc Jacobs is the sometime equivalent to the Emperor's tailor. Twice-yearly, I am convinced that Mr. Jacobs knowingly sends unflattering, unwearable designs down his runways because he knows that no matter what he sends out, people will buy it in bulk and call him "a GEEEENious...", and he can then laugh about our consumerist myopia in the privacy of his Paris apartment. And now we have a Tribute Bag costing, as the Daily Mail article stated: "nearly £3,000 more than a Mercedes C180 Coupe SE."

Because what kind of status symbol is a fancy car these days anyway?

Enter Monsieur Beaudrillard. Our fashion objects (mainly handbags, shoes, and other accessories,) are more invested in symbolic communication than ever before. Past societies relied mostly on costume to define the social distinctions, yet in our era where ready-to-wear and contemporary brands are affordable by all, (and designers have lines at Target,) it is left to the accessory items to carry the weight of symbolism. Today we call someone "well dressed" if they have an important handbag and shoes - never mind the bespoke. Even still, most people can scratch together enough funds for your less-expensive designer pieces such as your basic Louis Vuitton Monogram bag, so those that can afford the more exclusive items pay a pretty penny to acquire them - just because they can. Then they buy another, and another, and another. Consumptive society isn't just consuming, it's acquiring. If you buy one of what I have, I'll buy five others in different colors.

If you push this far enough, the fashion trend trickles down to the late adapters who cannot get the must-have item, either because it's too expensive for them, or it's no longer available. Enter the counterfeiters, and Beaudrillard's four orders of similacra:

  • the era of the original
  • to the counterfeit
  • to the produced, mechanical copy, and through
  • to the simulated "third order of simulacra" whereby the copy has come to replace the original.

Of course, by the time we get to the fourth order, the fashion is generally two seasons ahead and no one notices that much. It's like street fashion becoming high fashion, and vice versa. The whole thing creates that wonderful creative soup known as style, individuality, and trend - don't think Marc Jacobs doesn't know this!

I believe in the original; call me a Luddite, but as an artist I firmly believe in the beauty of hand craftsmanship. As someone who knows luxury goods inside and out, I know they are worth their high prices, especially if one appreciates this kind of beauty. The Daily Mail article was upsetting to me (and to the seventy-odd people that left comments) because it was about people acquiring these objects not for their beauty, but because of their symbolism as compared to their fellow consumer. It's as though the handbag is talking, saying, "My owner must be doing something right if they can afford me...and yours? Well...best of luck!" The inherent communication is brutally frank, and comes across with little appreciation for the object - just appreciation for the acquisition.

What can one do? This seems to be the way business gets done in this industry - and this isn't exactly new. Costume and adornment have always been the way society divides itself, it's just that now the division is a little murky due to the indiscriminate power of the almighty dollar, or Pound, or Euro... But there it is, the internationally stinky semiotics of modern fashion.

Image from The Bag Snob 

TV: Whole Lotta Giada

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La Giada - Please don't look down her shirt!There is one favorite pastime among my circle of friends that seems to come up consistently when we know we need a good laugh: imitations of Giada De Laurentiis. How it’s done? We shake out our hair, pull down the front of whatever shirt we’re wearing, and instantly work our way into the vocal cadence and pronunciation of La Giada. You know, complex Italian food word, followed by two words of description…

“No no no – it’s “spa GHEE TEEE” spaGHEETEE – tender and light…”

“Ah mah RAY tee – crunchy and sweet…”

“PAY korEEN oh – mild and flavorful…”

With this pronunciation, we add the distincting hand gesture of the finger-tips coming together and pointing upwards with emphaisis...you know what I mean.

When we’re really having fun, we go for the imitations of “Giada tasting food” which includes taking the absolutely most miniscule taste of whatever foodstuff she slavishly spent an episode creating, feigning the orgasm of a lifetime at the taste, and then listing the layers of flavor discernible on the palette for the viewers at home…

“UUUHmmmmh!!! Ohhhhh! Ummpfffh!…. … I can taste the dry white wine in the sauce, the brightness of the fresh herbs, and the salty essence of the ocean from the scallops…” Give us another eye-rolling “uuummmh-oooohhhhh”, a huge toothy smile for the camera, and then dive in for second bite with a shrug of naughty decadence.

Is anyone believing any of this?

The one thing you can’t do when imitating Giada is the soft-porn aspect of Giada in the kitchen. Never mind that the hair is flowing and that the woman has the most-perfect French manicure that ever chopped garlic, but it’s the shots of the bra cups runneth over into the kettle of sauce that are priceless.

Giada De Laurentiis is a very attractive woman; petite, stylish, and a beauty in the classic Roman way, one can certainly see the extension of the De Laurentiis movie-making glamour in this girl. However it is this very “Italian” voluptuousness that is so played-up by her producers that I venture that it has become a detriment to her talent. When one says “Giada” the next says “Boobs.” Freud? Pavlov? I’m not sure, but it’s a conditioned reaction of the most primal kind.

My friend Kat told me a little story about her sister bringing home Giada’s Everyday Italian cookbook. Her sister had left the book out, and her daughter (5) and son (3) were looking at the cover…

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Giada's "Everyday Italian"Daughter: “Mommy – you told me her name, but it’s a hard word – how do I say it again?”

Mom: “You’re right it is a hard word. Her name is Giada… Gee AH DAH”

Son: ...says something incomprehensible

Mom: “What did you say? I couldn’t hear you…”

Son: (with a shit-eating grin) “I like her boobies…”

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that were I to be offered a show on the Food Network, the producers would most likely take one look at my own bustline and determine that this would be my best selling-point in production. So, with this in mind, I am in full support of women on television utilizing their natural assets to best advantage, however, enough is enough. It’s fairly clear to everyone by now that Giada’s producers are milking the cleavage for everything it’s worth. In fact, I found this hilarious post on the blog Foodie NYC about being Giada’s cleavage stylist. Apparently no one is fooled by Food TV’s efforts at soft-porn styling all of Giada’s shows. Hello? The whole point of soft-porn is to make things desirable in a subvert, smoke-and-mirrors, sort of way – not to put it right out there in front of you in overwhelmingly clear messaging. The key to soft-porn marketing is the “partial extreme close-up” – like those used by Apple, or Mercedes, or Budweiser Select. Mystery is the whole point; you don’t know what it is really, but it’s shiny, luscious, exciting, and you have to have it. There isn’t a lot of mystery inherent in Giada’s low-cut tops.

Even the great Anthony Bourdain mentioned this in a recent guest-post on Rhulman.com. The entire post is ruthlessly direct and side-splitting in the best Bourdain way, as it pointedly breaks down the daily lobotomy that is the Food Network. I highly recommend the full read, but here’s what he said about our girl G…

“What’s going on here!? Giada can actually cook! She was robbed in her bout versus Rachael Ray on ICA. ROBBED! And Food Net seems more interested in her enormous head (big head equals big ratings. Really!) and her cleavage--than the fact that she’s likeable, knows what she’s doing in an Italian kitchen--and makes food you’d actually want to eat. The new high concept Weekend Getaway show is a horrible, tired re-cap of the cheap-ass “Best Of” and “40 Dollar a Day” formula. Send host to empty restaurant. Watch them make crappy food for her. Have her take a few lonely, awkward stabs at the plate, then feign enjoyment with appropriately orgasmic eye-closing and moaning..Before spitting it out and rushing to the trailer. Send her to Italy and let her cook. She’s good at it.”

Bourdain knows a thing or two as we all know, and in this he is absolutely right. Giada has talent. She’s a fantastic cook, and I admire her pared-down kitchen essentials that rely on fresh ingredients and the layering of flavors. She’s classically trained, creative, charming, and loves building on her heritage to develop her own modern culinary signatures. This past January, Time Magazine offered a concise interview with the cooking star which I found admirable and honest. There is nothing to dislike about La Giada, yet why does she prompt such mocking hilarity from viewers like me and my friends?

The answer lies in the nature of food television in the new millenium overall, specifically the shows on the Food Network. There are two types of people who watch the Food Network: people who cook, and people who don't. It's universally appealing, and this is where the network is faltering. Their shows and personalities are entirely formulaic, leaving classic and modern successes in food television (Great Chefs, The Frugal Gourmet, Julia Child, Jaime Oliver, Gordon Ramsey, Two Fat Ladies...etc,) by the wayside for no viable reason. With the exception of the always entertaining Alton Brown (Feasting on Asphalt is a joy!) and practical Ina Garten, the Food Network makes one want to park it on the couch with a fistful of valium and drool the afternoon away. They've invested too much in the tagline "Much more than cooking..." - it's true, it's everything BUT cooking. It's background noise.

Food television should inspire, motivate, and teach-to-the-top. The Food Network is all about the lowest common denominator. The only thing remotely inspiring about the Food Network is Paula Deen's annoyingly-twangy absolution for using pounds of butter, breading, and lard. Even still, there is no way in hell I'm ever going to assemble a slop of bananas and cream and call it a guest-appropriate desert. If this is supposed to be the kind of dish that exemplifies the generosity of the modern hostess, then I'm afraid American hospitality may be seeing a decline. There's nothing elegant about bananas-and-cream - I don't care what they say south of the Mason-Dixon.

Giada De Laurentiis is beautiful, appealing, and popular from coast-to-coast. She's basically Italian royalty, but she's also very much the California girl. What could possibly be wrong with this package? Nothing. And the Food Network knows it. In order to maximize this money-making appeal, they have her lined up with newer, dumber shows, and an exclusive marketing campaign. Giada is a winning brand, and her bosses are working her. She's clearly being groomed to be the next lifestyle brand-product pushing machine: A few more dumb shows, a few more books, a restaurant in the latest Vegas hotel, a line of K-Mart products, and a magazine. It's so boring it gives me swift pain.

I sincerely hope that Giada De Laurentiis finds a way to the exciting future in food programming that is surely ahead of her, at least if she's ballsy enough to get out of her current contract. I envision her own production company, better cookbooks, bigger projects, a home-studio in Italy, and the list goes on. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, so when my friends and I imitate Giada we don't make fun of her, rather the formula she has become. We know there's something talented underneath the curls and low-cut tops...there's the TV star we all want to be: young, talented, and having fun.

A Little Light Plumbing

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I do my own repair-work; I have a set of wrenches, screwdrivers, and even a power drill with complete set of drill bits. Most of the time I simply hang pictures, make things, change light bulbs, and do whatever needs doing to keep the home in one piece, however this weekend my talents in the DIY department went to the next level: plumbing. My toilet has been doing strange things lately - running extra water, dripping and swishing in the dead of night. The float ball was out of whack and the flapper chain kept disconnecting. What’s a single gal to do when there’s no burly-but-ever-so-adept-at-fix-it-chores boyfriend in the picture? I wanted to stamp my foot and be petulant, although I knew that wasn’t going to get me anywhere. But this is plumbing! This involves water valves, and washers, and shanks, and levers, and this is serious…and in the meantime, the water kept running. Something needed to be done, but was I really the girl for the job? Straightening my shoulders I realized that no one could rescue me but myself, so I did some research.

Through the magic of the internet I was able to determine that not only are toilet repairs common, but they’re actually quite simple. Don’t bother with replacing parts, replace the entire mechanism in one go and totally improve your household plumbing experience. Luckily, there’s an amazing hardware store just around the corner from me. Hardware Unlimited is a neighborhood place, still independently-owned, where you can buy everything from a tea kettle to an elbow join. The staff is uncommonly kind and knowledgeable, and no request is beneath them – even when I need an ultra-miniscule screw to reattach a one-of-a-kind button on my Paul Smith handbag, they are happy to find just what I need. So, a-hunting I went for a complete toilet repair kit.

And voila! There they were in the center aisle. There’s the basic, old-fashioned kind, but reading the packages like I do at the grocery store, I found that the newer kind are better. What’s this? Not just plumbing, but modern plumbing? Oh yes. Don’t go with a float ball when the all-in-one float cup is a better option. It precisely regulates the water level in the tank, which is just what I need because I determined that my overflow pipe was taking in too much water. (My what is taking in what? Wow, I'm smart. And handy.) Victory! Now all I had to do was swap out the old with the new. Here’s where things got tricky.

I turned off the water well-enough, disconnected the supply, drained the tank, etc., but I thought the old valve would simply come right out on its own. Little did I know that old toilet valves are very stubborn things that don’t like to move – especially when they know they’re being replaced. Mine took a severe beating, and more than a little truck-driver-esque profanity, before giving in to the physics of its threaded shank. Make no mistake Mr. OldValve, you will be moved.

Following the overwhelming, but still somewhat readable directions of my new Fluidmaster 400/AK Complete Repair Kit, I disengaged washers, lock nuts, and couplings, and connected tubes, angle adapters, gaskets, and valves. It is more than a bit disconcerting to look at your only toilet and see it completely disemboweled, knowing that you will probably need to use it sometime soon. The trepidation inherent in this realization certainly helped to spur me forward. I was tough but gentle, improvising but precise – I was a home improvement surgeon. The whole procedure took about an hour, and no sports fans, no “plumbers crack” was shown to anyone. (Oh, and don't worry, I have since treated myself to a manicure...)

My toilet now sits silently, flushing beautifully with a simple press of the finger.

I am proud. One of my colleagues warned me to never let a man know that I can perform this task on my own – they would surely want to marry me instantly.

Image from Getty Images 

Film: Queen Pinkie Marie!

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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:

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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

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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!)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 

How to Host a Happy Hour

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HOORAY! It’s Friday. The gang is coming over for cocktails after work to help me celebrate the P&C launch. Am I worried? Not at all. I’ve done this before, and it’s very easy. I know those magazines like InStyle try to encourage the hostess in everyone, but they make it so complicated! I’m here to break it down for you, impart my happy hour knowledge, and show you the brighter side of a simple get-together. With this advice in the pocket of your Sevens, everyone will wonder how you’re so relaxed, collected, and full-of-fun!

First of all, the word “Happy” is in the title of this event, so that is the very mood you are trying to create by hosting your friends for cocktails. You should be the root of the “happy,” happy to be around people you dig, happy to have them in your home, happy that it’s finally time for a Friday cocktail. The other word in the title is “Hour” – 60 minutes, maybe 90 or 120 if you stretch it into another round or two, but it’s really not that long! This is an event for minimal fuss, stress, and even effort if you follow a few guidelines…

  1. Clean Up – Okay, you don’t need to do a white-glove check on all of your surfaces, but do a quick sweep of the kitchen floor and clear the counters of clutter. Make the bed (if you can remember how,) and run the vacuum, but don’t worry too much. Approach this like a triage unit with your highest priority on the bathroom – this is where you absolutely must have a spit-shine. Make it sparkle, and make sure there’s TP and soap. (I know it’s obvious, but you wouldn’t want to overlook it.)
  2. Be On Time – Happy Hour should not start any later than 6:30 or 7PM (if it’s in your home.) You should be coiffed, lipsticked, and rouged by this time. You can put out chips and light candles, etc., while you wait for your fashionably-late friends. The hostess is never fashionably late.
  3. Be Classy – Show your worldly insouciance by putting out a few books or magazines that will be conversation-worthy once people arrive. Nothing pretentious (hide your Paris Review archive,) but a mix current and classic tomes. Vanity Fair, bien sur, WWD Scoop, Blahnik by Bowman, and Michael Roberts’ monograph are all cultured, but not-so-serious choices that I currently have on the coffee table. If you’re a lit-head, don’t be too intimidating…Hey, who put that copy of War and Peace over there?
  4. Be Classy Part II – Be a good host. My mother sometimes asks me: “do you need hostess towels?” And I never say yes, but then I find that I need them. Hostess towels are those artistically adorned rectangular paper towels that you put out in the bathroom for when people wash their hands. In vintage stores you may find some that are fabric with some fun embroidery, but these generally come out around Christmastime. Go with the hostess towels. I know this is a bit adult of me, but do you really want people wiping their hands where you wipe your face? If you don’t have any, simply put out some dinner napkins, but hang them up on the towel bar so people will know they’re supposed to use them.
  5. Be Classy Part III – Ixnay on the lasticpay. This is Happy Hour, not a barbecue with kegs. Leave the plastic cups and paper plates in their bags for another time. In these modern times, you can buy a cocktail glass for $2.00 at Cost Plus World Market. Do so. Happy Hours don’t generally involve more food than a few nibbles, so don’t even put out plates – if you do, put out real ones. I have my grandma’s china cake plates which I love, and you could find your own set of inexpensive china at Goodwill or the same vintage store where you’re going to buy your hostess towels. Paper cocktail napkins are of course, completely fine and can be great fun if you find some odd ones.
  6. Keep it Simple – If you sent out an email stating “cocktails” then that’s what you do. Don’t worry about buying up all kinds of beer, wine, & champagne. Folks will know what to expect. As a non-alcoholic option, go with San Pellegrino. If you’re uncertain of your mixing abilities (I know, people get snobbish about shaking up cocktails, but puhleeze,) then make them ahead and have them ready when people arrive. I have done this many times and found that guests are relieved – they see a big pitcher of a ready-made libation and they know they don’t need to think about it, just grab a glass and drink. If you are mixing, don’t do anything exotic like mojitos or sidecars. Leave the mottled mint to the experts and just go with martinis, or something equally minimal – they get the job done.
  7. Finishing Touches – Light a candle. Or ten. We all love flowers, but they’re pricey. I recommend investing in an orchid or a potted flower (big, pink hydrangeas at Whole Foods are $16.99) that will last you a month or two. Fridays are a good flower day though, since many vendors slash their prices. One near my office sells them for $1.00 a stem and blows out two-dozen roses for only $8.99. Treat yourself if you like – it’s Friday. Put on music – like your reading choices it should be a mix of current and classic. The new Jurassic 5 album is fantastic, but since it’s a sunny day I may choose the tropics of Bossa Nova and go with Elis Regina and Toots Thielemans’ Aquarela do Brasil – one of my favorites.
  8. Enjoy Yourself – It’s your house, your friends, your booze. Enjoy it! Don’t worry about the dishes, and don’t start to *do* dishes while your guests are still there. After an hour or two, everyone will want dinner, so leave the glasses and go eat. Happy Hour is now Friday night, is now the Weekend…go big.