Friday, July 20, 2012

Sequin Heaven

The photo that caught Mary Ellen's attention -- Lyn Revson, NYC 70's style icon and muse to American designer Norman Norell featured in Vogue, 1973. She's wearing Norell's "Mermaid Dress", his shapely and elegant sequin-covered evening gown. 

A couple weeks ago I suggested to my Aunt Mary Ellen that she could start a style blog. She has so many personal stories about glamorous clothes and she's such an avid reader of all the premiere fashion publications, she would be a natural.  Plus she's a great supporter of this blog. ME laughed at my suggestion. But a week later this letter arrived in the mail. I loved her story so much I wanted to share it with you:

Dear Lesa,
When I saw Lyn Revson sprawled across the pages of Vogue in a gold sequin "mermaid" dress, I knew I had to have it. I approached Helen* and off we went to the Yardstick fabric store at the end of Canal Street**. It was our N.Y. fabric store run by ex New Yorkers and had everything you wanted. We bought large spools of gold sequins (five cents a yard - imagine) and YSL fabric which was a remnant from the designer's showrooms. I was in heaven. We meticulously took off sequin by sequin and Helen cut all the pieces from her own pattern and we started to sequin, sequin, sequin. Each one was sewn on one by one but my biggest job was to keep removing the sequins by cutting the threads, which was hard on the fingers. After the dress was completed, Helen made a matching turban and long green velvet cape with hood. I wore the dress to a party Ella and Adelaide*** had at their beautiful home on Prytania Street complete with a ballroom. It was a glorious evening. At one point a very fashionable woman came up to me and said "You are wearing a beautiful Norell, one I just saw in New York." I was flabbergasted but didn't dare say it wasn't. I was afraid to turn and let her see the back because we only saw the front in Vogue. I only hoped it was right. I felt like Cinderella leaving the ball. The dress is wrapped in tissue in a box. I'm afraid to open it for fear the sequins have tarnished -- I want to remember it as my beautiful "Norell" that was photographed for Figaro and worn to many grand openings. Those were the days.

"My snail mail blog pour vous,"

*Helen: Mary Ellen's mother and my great aunt.
**Canal Street in New Orleans.
***Ella and Adelaide Brennan: sisters and New Orleans restaurant royalty.

Mary Ellen with my Uncle Ron wearing her "Norell" mermaid gown that she and her mother, Helen, made sequin-by-sequin. And Mare's personal touch, a matching super chic sequined turban. 
Photo from Figaro, a New Orleans alternative weekly from 1972-1981.

A model in the Mermaid gown with Norman Norell, 1972

Mary Ellen modeling her "Norell" in the 70's.
Still amazing that Helen created this gown just from a photo.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Revolutionary Chic

Boots worn by Dr. Mary Walker when she was a physician for
the Union Army during the Civil War.

Happy Fourth! On this day of celebrating revolution, I'd like to honor two American revolutionaries who challenged status quo thinking about fashion norms, women's rights, personal freedom and gay rights. Civil War surgeon, Dr. Mary Walker, and Gay rights leader, Harry Hay, though born eighty years apart, both braved arrests, hostility and scorn living lives as nonconformists and fighting for freedoms that are taken for granted today. And both used what they wore to radically tell the world who they really were. I recently learned about these two inspiring individuals at the current exhibition Out at the Library at the San Francisco Public Library.

Dr. Walker in her Union Army uniform, about 1864-65.  Possibly wearing the boots pictured above.  From the book, Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919, by Sharon M. Harris.

Radical causes often require radical attire which can be inadvertently chic because it's worn with the utmost sincerity, personal meaning and practicality. Dr. Mary Walker, born in 1832, was a feminist, abolitionist, prohibitionist, prisoner of war and the first female surgeon in the U.S. Army. She faced constant hostility her entire life. She is the only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. In 1917, the medal was revoked but Mary refused to give it back and wore it every day until she died. It was posthumously restored sixty years later by President Carter.

Photo circa 1900.
From the book, Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919, by Sharon M. Harris.

An advocate for dress reform (women wearing clothing that was comfortable and sensible), Dr. Walker at one point stopped wearing women's clothes entirely and dressed only in male attire for the rest of her life. Hard to imagine today, but because she wore men's clothing, she was arrested many times for disturbing the peace and "masquerading in men's clothes." Her rejection of social norms didn't win her many friends. Dr. Walker died alone and penniless in 1919.

Photo from the SFPL exhibit, The Life of Harry Hay

Harry Hay, 1912-2002, was one of the earliest leaders in the LGBT rights movement. In Los Angeles 1950, Mr. Hay founded the first gay rights group in the US, a secret group called the Mattachine Society. This was an incredibly radical thing to do as at this time as California law (and many other states) made it illegal for homosexuals to assemble in public. And the Psychiatric Association officially stated that homosexuality was a mental illness. One of the members of the group was fashion designer Rudi Gernriech, creator of the topless bathing suit and other groundbreaking modern clothing. During the Cold War, Mr. Hay was kicked out of his own group because of earlier Communist party connections. But in the 60's he continued to be a devoted activist for progressive politics: antiwar protests, Women's Strike for Peace during the Vietnam War and a Native American rights.

Twenty-five years later, Harry and his partner, John Burnside co-founded another group, the Radical Faeries. It was and still is a brotherhood based on political activism grounded with spirituality. First worn in the National March on Washington in October 1987, Harry created this camouflage skirt. It's the perfect radical chic concept, co-opting something militaristic and making it a revolutionary statement for the Radical Faeries. He said camouflage reflected "mother's colors", the colors of the earth. And according to The Bay Area Reporter, "Partial to Native American jewelry in the late 1960s and 70s, Hay could often be seen wearing a necklace and a single dangling earring to ensure, he said, that he would 'never want to be mistaken for a hetero.'"

From the exhibition at the San Francisco Public Library, "Harry and John in Skirts Walking Away From Camera" photo by Steven Baratz, 1994. Harry Hay and John Burnside were life partners for forty years.