Friday, October 14, 2011

Vogue Nostalgia

Just out: Nostalgia in Vogue, edited by Eve MacSweeney with a forward by Anna Wintour.
I've always had an emotional reaction and attachment to certain Vogue photographs. I started reading Vogue when I was fifteen and the photos by Helmut Newton, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon showed me a world that was rich in elegance, beauty and sometimes an edgy provocative sexuality. I would tear out the photos and save them in a three-ring binder that I still have. Through those photos, I experienced a vision of glamorous, worldly women and what they wore. Although it wasn't just the outfits; it was the powerful combination of attitude, surroundings and clothes (sometimes not much!). The photos told a story that I wanted to know more about, delve into and hold close.

Clothes can have a huge emotional tug; they are a marker of how we want to show ourselves to the world. The awareness starts in those coming-of-age years when we are trying to figure out who we are, how we fit in and what we want to be. I grew up defining life events by what I wore, or sometimes what I wore and why I wore it created the event and made the memory for me, for better or worse or bittersweet.

Ever since it started in 2000, the Vogue "Nostalgia" column is the first thing I turn to when I receive a new issue. When I first read "Nostalgia", I realized that I wasn't the only one who felt such a personal reaction to certain Vogue photos, experiencing them as talismans for a future self and the clothes as life-defining.

Photo from Nostalgia in Vogue, Marimekko hand-printed dress and sandles.  Photographed in Finland by Gordon Parks. 

When I heard that Vogue was publishing a compilation of these columns, I pre-ordered the book, it arrived yesterday and I've been studying the writing and the photos every chance I get. On page 88 is an essay from the April 2008 issue of Vogue that is especially evocative for me. In her poignant essay "A Backward Glance," Elizabeth Kendall tells of her first encounter with a Marimekko dress in 1965 and what a life changing experience it was. Her mother died right after she discovered Marimekko and my mother died right before I saw a Marimekko dress for the first time.

I made my first trip to California when I was nine and my aunt, uncle and I drove to Big Sur and had lunch at Nepenthe and I was awed by a hip waitress wearing a Marimekko cotton canvas dress. The cool dress, the endless Big Sur horizon and the loose hippie Nepenthe vibe cinched my decision to move to California "as soon as I get old enough." When I got back to New Orleans, my aunt sent me a black, white and gray Marimekko fabric dress that she made for me. I wish I still had that dress. (In addition to being surprised to read that someone else had a profound moment seeing a Marimekko dress worn for the first time, by crazy coincidence the woman wearing the dress in Kendall's story was Robin Von Breton, my daughter's high school English teacher!)

The book is a collection of sixty-three essays by authors, designers, musicians and actors such as Joan Didion, Margaret Atwood, Karl Lagerfeld, Anjelica Huston and Manolo Blahnik. Patti Smith writes about finding a discarded stack of Vogue magazines when she was little and how those photographs were her first introduction to art and fashion.

Lisa Fonssagrives, in a Lilly Dache hat, photographed by Irving Penn in 1950. The photo that inspired Patti Smith for her "Nostalgia" column, "When Hats Had Names."

I've saved this cover since it appeared in 1988. It's of model Michaela Bercu photographed by Peter Lindbergh.  I was drawn to the elegant theatricality of the jeweled cross on the Christian Lacroix jacket surprisingly worn with faded jeans. It wasn't until I read her "Nostalgia" essay, "When High Meets Low," did I find out she did that accidently because the matching skirt was too small!

One of my all-time favorite "Nostalgia" stories was written by Sophia Coppola. It doesn't appear in this book and I'm curious to find out why. It seems an obvious choice. When I saw Sophia's essay in the October 2003 issue I had a shock of recognition. I had unconsciously stored that 1974 provocative photo of Charlotte Rampling in my memory and here it was again with Sophia's thoughts and feelings about it. So much of what she said I related to.

The magic of nostalgia is that it's not just in the past. It's happening right now. It's a touchstone from the past, but it also inspires the present and the future. When we feel a reaction to a photo or artwork or writing, it's for a reason. Qualities about it touch something deep and if we take a little time to let those feelings surface, we learn about ourselves.


  1. Lovely blog. From the heart. Peachie would have approved.

  2. Beautifully said. You have me thinking more deeply about my reactions to all art--the written word, photography, painting and certainly fashion. We're drawn for a reason and I want to learn more about myself after reading your posting.

  3. I love, love, love this post, especially the closing lines. Beautiful and true. (I can't see Marimekko without thinking of MY mother, who loved Marimekko fabrics and used them as decor -- hung some of the big graphic fabrics featuring chickens and toucans on the walls.)