Wednesday, October 21, 2015

My Dior

For the last couple of months, I've immersed myself in the enchanting world of Dior. I've read the autobiography Christian Dior and I; I've reverently turned the pages of the mighty tome Dior published by Assouline and I've watched Christian Dior: the Man Behind the Myth and Dior and I.

Little did I imagine that one day I could legitimately use the phrase "my Dior." I've never had a glimmer of a thought that I would ever own a dress by Dior. But now I do.

My lifelong friend, Holly, inherited a collection of couture clothes from her mother-in-law, Marjorie Stern. Most of the collection was donated to the San Francisco de Young Museum, but recently Holly and I were chatting and she mentioned there was one dress the museum didn't take and that I was the only person she thought it might fit. We set a date to meet at her textile studio in Sausalito for me to take a look at the dress and try it on. I had a restless night before our meeting. I envisioned one of the earlier Dior's from the 50's, when women wore heavy foundations to achieve the wasp waist and I worried that my waist would not wasp. But I reasoned with myself, even if it didn't fit, at least I would have the thrill of being up close and personal with a Dior dress. 

But as soon as Holly lifted the protective covering, I was thrilled to see that the dress might actually fit.   I stepped in to the dress and happily the zipper zipped without me having to suck it in too much!

Since it's from 1964, the dress was designed by Marc Bohan. Christian Dior died in 1957 and Yves Saint Laurent was appointed artistic director, but only for two years. He was drafted and due to a mental collapse was placed in a military hospital. In 1960, while Saint Laurent was in the hospital, Bohan was appointed artistic director. Bohan remained the artistic director for the next thirty years, until 1989.

I'm fascinated by the stamped model number on the label, 124646. I contacted the Textile Arts Council at the de Young museum to see if they had more information. I wondered if each dress has a unique number and if it's possible to track the background of a dress. They responded quickly, suggesting that I contact the company directly. Last Friday, I popped into the Christian Dior Boutique and explained my story to the very attentive and understanding manager. He is a wealth of Dior knowledge and offered a couple theories; before ready-to-wear was so available, high-end department stores would buy the patterns from couture designers and have the dresses made for their clients, so it could be the stores model number, or, it could be a customer number specific to Mrs. Stern and her measurements. The manager offered to send the photos of the label and dress to another Dior contact to get their ideas. I'll let you know what I find out.

Marc Bohan with his models, 1966, copyright RDA/Rue des Archives. 
From Dior by Farid Chenoune and Laziz Hamani

The dress is quite wearable, the wool is soft and airy and completely lined in silk. There's an additional silk lining, so the dress easily slips on and hangs effortlessly with a beautiful drape. And I adore that it has pockets - large and deep silk lined pockets that are completely invisible on the exterior.

Adding to the significance of my Dior dress, I admire the woman who wore it. Marjorie Stern is known for her philanthropic work in San Francisco, especially as one of the founders of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, an organization I've supported as a donor and volunteer for years. Now that's what I call dressing with personal style and meaning.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"Cheap Chic": own this book and own your style

My original copy (40 years old!) and my brand-new copy.

What a thrill to have Cheap Chic available again and I wholeheartedly recommend that you buy a copy for yourself. I received my first copy when it was initially published in 1975. In all my various apartments and homes, it has been front and center on my bookshelf ever since, continually providing style inspiration. I first wrote about it here. The book has been out of print for years and used copies were offered online for up to $300. Now, on it’s 40th anniversary, it’s been reissued, preserved in it’s original form with the very appropriate addition of a forward by Tim Gunn. Warm and wise Professor Gunn says "I love this book!"

Written by Caterine Milinaire and Carol Troy, both journalists, photographers and friends of fashion insiders, they didn't waste time documenting the trends. They looked at the heart and soul of style. In the introduction they write, "The basic concept of Cheap Chic for both men and women is to have a few clothes that make you feel good rather than a closet full of mismatched fashions. Find the clothes that suit you best, that make you feel comfortable, confident, sexy, good looking and happy...then hang onto them like old friends." By the photographing and interviewing of people who follow this mantra, the reader realizes that personal style is as varied as the people they present. Style is suddenly seen as very democratic. With some thought, care and creativity, anyone can express their authentic self by how they dress. There is great power in that.

The cover reads "Hundreds of money saving hints to create your own great look," but the practicality of that description belies the mystery and exoticism within. Like opening a book of magic potions, it describes all the ingredients for creating your own great style by using inspiration from around the world, movies, historical eras and most of all, it features people who are proudly, fiercely and resourcefully inventive and original with their style. 

 In one chapter, Ingeborg Day describes her "Cost Per Wear" method of shopping, a technique that I still use today. If something costs $300, but you wear it 100 times, it's only $3 a wearing. But if you buy something on sale for $20 and only wear it once, it becomes much more expensive than the $300 item. Remembering the CPW factor in the dressing room has stopped me from a number of buying mistakes. She advised wearing a work uniform, black in winter and white in summer. Rather stringent, but the trim all-black outfit with a black T, pearls and Guatemalan bag Day wears in the photo above would be just as chic today. A strange side note, I just looked up Day to learn what she's currently doing and read this disturbing and fascinating story.

What’s magic about Cheap Chic is that it so purely captured the zeitgeist right when a fashion revolution was just bubbling to the surface. Up until then, dressing rules were rigid; wear white only between Easter and Labor Day, no sequins or sparkles until night and no black to weddings. And shocking to remember, but due to strict rules, I wasn't allowed to wear pants to school until 1973! Consequently, in 1975 when I saw these stylish, smart and independent women featured in the book I saw another world of possibility and it was a world I wanted to be a part of.

What was revelatory back then is gratifying today. Forty years later, so many of the looks are still relevant and timeless. 

Inspiration for personal style is not limited to fashion magazines and definitely not shopping malls. It can be found everywhere.

I realize that even though my old copy is always within an arm's reach at my desk, I haven't really read it for years. I thumb through, glance at the photos, grab an idea here and there (wide-legged trousers are suddenly looking very appealing again!) and put it back on the shelf. But now I'm re-reading it and it's like the pleasure of running into an old friend and the conversation is like no time has passed. Cheap Chic and I still have lots to say to each other. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

An early fashion editor

I took advantage of the long weekend to tear into my files and do some purging and organizing. Not the most exciting activity, but there were little rewards during the process. I found things I'd completely forgotten about. One of them was this report I did in third grade. As soon as I saw it, I remembered cutting, pasting, writing and how completely absorbed I was in the process. I clearly recall the pleasure of  selecting the outfits, describing them, imagining the girls wearing them and imagining me wearing them.

Over the years, I've taken classes and seminars about "what do I want to do when I grow up?". The instructor usually asks attendees to write about a time when we were in the zone or in the state of flow. This elementary school report would be an example of that for me. It's amazing to feel the power of being in the zone; the focus, the fun and the satisfaction came back to me so distinctly after many years.

Writing for my blog gives me a similar feeling.

Something for me to pay attention to.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Beauty, inspiration and debauchery, in that order

Fashion films and documentaries are like rare jewels. Sparkly and beautiful they appear infrequently and when they do I look forward to seeing them with unabashed excitement. And some I have watched many times, such as Bill Cunningham New York or Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel. I relish the behind-the-scenes glamour and the inspiration I get from these fabulous colorful and creative people.

At this bountiful moment there are three fashion films showing and I recommend seeing all of them for various reasons.

This movie documents the arrival of Raf Simons as the new artistic director of the Christian Dior fashion house and follows him as he creates his first Dior haute couture collection in the Spring of 2012. Simons has only eight weeks until the day his designs walk down the runway. And he has to prove himself. Since he is known for his minimal design, many wonder if Simons is the correct choice for Dior.

The vulnerability of Simons is sensitively shown by film director, Frédéric Tcheng. Tcheng also wrote and directed the excellent Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel and edited Valentino: The Last Emperor. 

It's curious, who is the "I" of "Dior and I"? It is the man himself, Christian Dior, and it is Simons. During the film, a voiceover reads from Dior's 1957 biography, "Christian Dior and I". Dior sees himself as two people, the private person and the famous designer. Simons begins reading the biography as he starts to design his first collection, but the similarities between his experiences and Dior's are so close, he has to put the book down and focus on the collection.  

With a critical and worried eye, Simons studies his designs as they come to life. 

And the talented people I admire so much, the "petite mains" in the workroom. They are the women and men who bring the sketches to life with great mastery.

When getting dressed in the morning I make an effort at a bit of self-expression. I’ll add an oversized silk flower to my lapel, wear a mix of prints or a piece of heirloom jewelry. But all that seems feeble and pale now that I’ve seen the powerhouse of original style, Iris Apel, in this documentary. 

There are few people with her joy for self-expression, intense esthetic pleasure of dressing  and sheer life force energy.  All this is fed by her hunting and gathering clothing and accessories from all over the world. She shops everywhere on the fashion spectrum from the heights of couture to a discount shop on a side street in New York.

Iris Apfel in IRIS, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo credit: © Bruce Weber

If you go to the official site for the film, click on the trailer to get an idea of the fabulousness of Iris and this documentary. Iris has her 94th birthday this August 29th. And I just had a great idea.  Wouldn't it be fun to celebrate Iris and the expression of one's personal style by having a dress like Iris day on her birthday? Let's do it!

Here are a few of her pizzazz-packed quotes:

"It’s better to be happy than well-dressed."
"I like to do things as if I am playing jazz."
"Life is gray and dull; you might as well have a little fun when you dress."
"I’m not pretty and I’ll never be pretty, but it doesn’t matter. I have something much better. I have style."
"More is more and less is a bore."

And my favorite:
"When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everyone else."

And now for something totally different. Not to be confused with the film Yves Saint Laurent that came out last year, this is not a feel-good movie. See it if you have a passion for the designer and to get a glimpse of glamorous and decadent Paris of the '70's. But be prepared for some depressing scenes of Yves getting too deeply involved with drugs and alcohol. There are some fabulous individual views in the atelier and on the runway, but the movie as a whole is long and feels emotionally empty. And beware, if you are a dog lover, there is a heartbreaking scene with his bulldog, Moujik. 

Saint Laurent is too much about the designer's excesses. Yves Saint Laurent featured his original creations, but the film feels stiff with minimal style. I suppose that's the downfall of fashion biopics. They often feel forced without the depth that I imagine the featured person would have. For that reason I prefer documentaries. If you are interested in Yves Saint Laurent, I recommend His Life and Times and 5 Avenue Marceau 75116 Paris. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

There's a sucker born every minute

And two weeks ago I was one. Feeling sassy after just having my brows tinted and shaped (free because it was my birthday week!) at the Benefit Cosmetics store on Sutter Street in San Francisco, I rounded the corner on Grant Avenue and a nice-looking guy stepped towards me and offered a sample packet of hand lotion. He smiled, I smiled back and accepted the sample. Before I knew it, I was sitting on a stool looking at a mirror as he applied eye cream to my face.

Had this happened at the San Francisco Centre mall, I would’ve had my radar up for those aggressive kiosk sales-type people. When I see them, I make a wide berth and no eye contact. This downtown encounter caught me off guard. Grant Avenue has high-end luxury shops like Anne Fontaine, Prada and Hermès and I was not prepared for huckster tactics.

He talked quickly, interspersing descriptions of the wondrous qualities of Adore Cosmetics with too many personal questions; Did I just get off work? Where did I work? What did I do for a living? Was I married? My first internal alarm went off, I was not comfortable with all the questions. And as he dished the compliments, alarm number two rang -- my eyes were beautiful, my skin looked great. He wanted to guess my age. I would be celebrating my 57th in two days and I looked at him with trepidation holding my breath as he guessed 40. In a split second my voice of reason said that must mean he thought I looked 50 and said 10 years younger to be flattering. But my voice of vanity said Yes, bring it on! He said I needed just a little something more and began to apply layers of lotions to my face and neck. Alarm number three, he was getting a little too familiar with my neck. Holding up a mirror he said "See! Look at the instant change!" My skin did look more glowy and hydrated, but I could’ve put on Jergens and in that quick moment I would’ve had the same results.

I think it was the fast talking and the pumping house music that scrambled my clarity. Then the wheeling and dealing with the prices. The eye cream is normally $589.95 for a small jar. But for me, it was only $99! And then I must try the eye serum, then the neck cream, then the neck serum! Each one around $600, but for me (as he got out the calculator, alarm number four!) I could get all four for only $400! And he would give me for free the “Golden Touch 24K Techno-dermis facial mask”. It’s the same mask George Clooney uses before big events! At the name dropping, alarm number five sounded, but it was a whisper compared to his sales patter. He assured me the product was completely organic. And to seal the deal, he said that if the products were unopened, I could bring it all back.

Amazing how easy it was to ignore all my inner alarms. I handed him my credit card, signed the slip for $435 and before I could catch my breath I was back on the sidewalk carrying a shopping bag full of new products. I didn’t make it a half block before dread and regret engulfed me. I stopped to do a quick mobile check about Adore Cosmetics and found a long string of bad reviews. I read comments such as "SCAM! Stay away." "DON'T EVER BUY ADORE PRODUCTS! FRAUDULENT SALES PRACTICES! FRAUDULENT PRODUCT CLAIMS!" I read this as I was on the subway going home, my heart sinking deeper every minute. And then I saw on the bottom of the receipt "No refunds, exchanges only."

Oh! How could I be such a dope? I kicked myself and barely slept that night, distressed that I allowed myself to say yes when my instinct was saying NO! The next day I called Visa to see what recourse I had. The Visa guy could not have been nicer or more empathetic having had a similar experience with the mall kiosk sales people.  He said "I'm a guy, I don't even use cosmetics and they talked me into buying stuff." He did give me several options where Visa could help. I now had hope, but my first step was to go back and ask for a refund. 

After I made three polite but insistent calls and two visits to the store, I got results. The store manager agreed to refund my money. He offered me a free large tube of hand and body lotion "for my trouble" and I shook my head no, afraid to say yes to anything in that store. 

Products that needs that hard of a sell and where the price of one jar of goo can fluctuate between $600 and $99, I'm beyond skeptical. And I don't believe the organic claim, I could find nothing on the website with specifics about the products being organic. 

Vanity sucked me in, and perseverance got me out. Note to self!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Auntie style on Mother's Day

Aunt Caryl, Aunt Mary Ellen et moi. Photo taken in New Orleans last month. 

Mothers can take many shapes and forms. If you don't have your mother with you, for whatever reason life throws at you, there are other options. And I am eternally grateful for that. Your mother can be an older friend, cousin, mentor -- whoever gives you inspiration, love and TLC. In my case it is my two closest Aunties.

My mother died in 1966, she was 36 and I was 8. Tender ages, both.

And because I had my grandmother, Bootsie, and my mother's sister, Auntie Caryl, I had two women who exemplified love, fun and the expression of personal style.

Add to that my triple luck of having my glamorous Aunt Mary Ellen, Aunt Caryl's sister-in-law. Which means we are not related by blood. But we are related in our love of culture, style and fashion.

Aunt Caryl has always been the icon of fabulous, bohemian, California hippie, ultra cool style.

Aunt Mary Ellen has always been the icon of fabulous, classic, Hollywood style.

I love and adore you both. Happy Mother's Day! XOXO.

Friday, May 1, 2015

High style and flights of fancy

Tree ball gown, Charles James, 1955, Metropolitan Museum of Art

About a month ago, I spent the afternoon alone in museum rooms with Charles James, Schiaparelli, Givenchy, Coco Chanel, Dior, Jeanne Lanvin and other European and American history-making fashion designers. I was invited to attend the press preview for High Style: Twentieth-Century Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. It was a little bit of heaven.

One of my main fashion heros, Harold Koda, was there with the curator and author of the show catalog, Jan Glier Reeder to take us through the exhibit. They are both so modest, knowledgeable and somewhat dishy about fashion history, I would love to spend the day with them just listening to stories. When the Met formed a partnership with the Brooklyn Museum in 2009, it was Jan's job to examine and photograph every fashion item. What a dream job!

After the tour, everyone left and I stayed with the exhibit. It was just me, the clothes and the patient security guards. Taking my time and these photos, I leaned in to study sequin and bead encrusted surfaces; I imagined life traveling with a handmade trunk filled with bespoke lace shoes and I compared the sparkle of flapper dresses with the subdued post WWII practical suits. I lingered as long as I could indulging in flights of fancy: What would it feel like to wear that fitted bodice? What does the swish of a Charles James faille dress and underskirts sound like? And how fun it would be to have a conversation with Schiap. Tin insects on a necklace? A butterfly net wrap? Why not?

And who wore these amazing creations? Where there is a fabulous dress, there's usually a fabulous woman wearing it. I learned about Rita de Acosta Lydig, born in 1875. She was considered a great beauty and style setter. Known as the Alabaster Lady, she shocked society by wearing a backless gown to the opera in 1910. Koda told us, "Imagine the frisson of excitement that went through the audience. She was not wearing a corset. She was naked under her dress!"

Here's a peek at the show, on view until July 19. If you are in San Francisco, I encourage you to go and relish the beauty and fashion history.

Worn by Rita de Acosta Lydig. She was bohemian and shocking in pants. Evening ensemble designed by Callot Soeurs, about 1910.

Evening dress by Schiaparelli, 1937. Surreal in that Schiap represented the butterflies realistically like a lepidopterist and she used a butterfly net to emphasize that.

Jan Glier Reeder told us that this is one of fashion history's most important items. Designed by Schiaparelli in 1938, an early plastic called Rhodoid forms the foundation decorated with tin insects.

Dinner ensemble, Schiaparelli, 1933-35. Gorgeous dress of a custom textile designed to resemble a wood grain motif, transforming the body into a tree. You can't see it in this photo, but the dress has  exposed industrial zippers going up the sleeve. So cool for 1933 and even now.

Designed by the Italian Fontana sisters, this dress was created for Ava Gardner in the 1954 film The Barefoot Contessa. According to Reeder, the actress used the cape and high collar to great dramatic effect.

On the left, "Refrain" cocktail dress, 1958, by Yves Saint Laurent for the Trapeze collection, his first for Dior. The show was such a success the Paris papers headline was "Saint Laurent Saves Paris" . On the right, a dress by Balenciaga, 1957.

A stroll through American designs from a 1944 Greek inspired gown by Madame Eta Hentz to a 1975 Halston tie-dyed caftan.

Fab bouffant evening ensemble, 1961 and incredible walking field of poppies, 1983. Both by Arnold Scaasi.

Close-up of a Charles James ball gown, 1947. He was a master of technique and construction.

Sexy "La Sirene" evening dress by Charles James, 1939. Worn by Gypsy Rose Lee. 

Charles James sketch of "Balloon" design. Circa 1955. 

Charles James sketch for an evening dress. Circa 1942. 

Clover Leaf ball gown by Charles James, 1953. He considered it his master work. Weighing ten pounds, it is constructed so well the "skirt floats and lilts while dancing."

The Tigress evening ensemble, 1949, by Gilbert Adrian. 

Rita de Acosta Lydig's custom trunk of custom shoes when traveling. The shoes, 1914-1919, are by Italian designer, Pietro Yantorny. He billed himself as the maker of the most expensive shoes in the world. The shoe trees are purported to be made of violin wood. The conservators at the Legion plan to Xray them to determine what they are made of and possibly debunk the myth. I like the myth.

A photo of Charles James with his masterpiece dress, The Clover Leaf.