Each year in December A Current Affair brings together in downtown Los Angeles some of the best vintage dealers from around the country. The pop up vintage marketplace is a fun way to spend a few hours browsing vintage clothing and accessories from various eras. It’s a great place to shop for gifts or for an outfit for upcoming holiday parties. And if you love vintage like I do, it’s an opportunity to find that special piece to round out your collection of vintage accessories. I think the best thing about the show is the fact that you see women of all ages who are interested in buying and wearing vintage.
I have been asked in recent days why I prefer blouses and pants to dresses. Looking in my closet at the dozen or more vintage blouses that hang there expectantly, I realize the attraction has to do with the endless possibility for play which separates afford. And so two weeks ago, I purchased a 1980s silk Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche blouse from an Ebay seller in St. Louis. Though the blouse wasn’t my size, it was love at first sight. I had been looking for a blue blouse and was confident that my tailor would be able to alter the blouse to fit. My only hesitation was over whether or not to keep the tie-neck. Though the style is a popular trend at the moment, I felt the blouse would look more timeless without the bow. (When I buy a vintage blouse and alter it, I like to think I will wear it for many years to come). Because of the asymmetrical button placket, my tailor suggested simply shortening the bow into a fold over collar with hidden snaps at the side of the neck. As you can see in the after photo, the blouse retains the elegance of a tie-neck collar but with a sportier air, a perfect formula for modern vintage style.
I have been reminded lately that despite being creatures that crave stability and routine, most of us are still delighted by the unexpected. In my life, this plays out rather clearly in the realm of fashion. Though I can’t seem to get enough of the classics – straight leg trousers, dresses with sleeves, silk blouses, well-cut cotton shirts – I am endlessly inspired by the accidental. As someone who regularly seeks out vintage things, I am always on the lookout for that fortuitous one of a kind object. Most of my outfits follow a simple formula: tailored pants, vintage blouse and necklace, modest heels, vintage bag. Pulling together an outfit makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something for the day; making the effort to get dressed is imaginative. Getting dressed is an escape from reality and the inverse of escape; it’s a way to connect with other people.
It will come as no surprise, then, dear reader, when I say how dismayed I was to learn from one of my students, a fashionable woman in her early 60s, that my style reminded her of the J. Peterman look. As I am more likely to be inspired by Richard Avedon photos of iconic women than direct marketing catalog editorials, I really didn’t know what to make of such a comparison. And I hate to admit that until preparing to write this, I had no association with the whimsical clothing company outside of what I saw on the hit TV comedy Seinfeld in which Elaine worked for J. Peterman himself. The original J. Peterman Company, founded in 1987, sold merchandise through the use of elaborate narratives, accompanied by drawings instead of photographs. How could my vintage style reflect a catalog business that with the air of a Technicolor film or Harlequin romance, sums up each article of clothing in a few witty sentences?
In preparing to write this post, I came across an article in the Harvard Business Review in which John Peterman recounts how the company was born with the chance purchase of a cowboy duster in Jackson Hole, Wyoming “… it [the duster] said something about me that I wanted said. It said that I don’t need to wear something with a logo to show people who I am. It was romantic, different. I found when I wore it strangers seemed to give me approving glances. In airports people would try and meet my eye as I walked by them. And I thought, I like the way this feels, I wonder if there are others who would appreciate the feeling as well.” Reading these words, I recognized how similar my own thoughts are regarding vintage. How I am drawn to the illusion of the authentic and to the wondrous, to a connection with the past and to others. Vintage garments also have the romantic mystique of the incongruous. As much as I would like to be fully modern, I enjoy the dimensionality and outsider nature of mixing vintage items with the contemporary.
Anyone new to thrifting might find it intimidating and even overwhelming: not being able to find your size, not understanding the history of certain items, finding prices too high, struggling to pair vintage with your current wardrobe. But with the help of Ebay and the accessibility of secondhand stores across the country, vintage has never been easier to explore. In an odd contradiction, vintage keeps me anchored to the present; if it were to go, all that I hold dear in life might go.
And in the philosophy of J. Peterman, don’t people want things that make their lives the way they wish they were?
I just picked up the latest vintage alteration from my tailor. This YSL silk satin fuchsia blouse was a lucky find that had never been worn but was several sizes too big. It needed to be taken in and the shoulders had to be recut. Inspired by vintage Vogue Patterns of Yves Saint Laurent creations, I asked my tailor to create a thinner necktie from the wide necktie fabric. The after photo, I think, shows the difference good tailoring can make in updating a vintage garment and keeping it wearable for many more years.
A month ago I went downtown to A Current Affair, an impressive Los Angeles vintage fair, and came home with a vibrant purple Yves Saint Laurent blouse. It’s always risky going to vintage fairs where many dealers, both local and from around the country, congregate to offer up their collections. Because there is so much temptation and very little time to think, a vintage fair can be a day of mixed emotions: from the joyful high you feel coming away with that one of a kind item, to the sorrowful regret you experience over holding back and returning home empty-handed. In my case, the happiness I felt buying an Yves Saint Laurent garment, was slightly blunted by the fact that I would need to remove the necktie in order to make the blouse modern and wearable. And so, the day after the fair, I planned a visit to my tailor.
Though I’ve stood in my tailor’s studio many times over the years, contemplating what changes to make to a garment, this YSL blouse was different. Because of the removal of the necktie, a new neckline with a trim had to be constructed. Despite the fact that the necktie could still be worn as a type of scarf with the blouse and the original buttons and pleating remained intact, I felt a slight twinge of guilt at altering the 80s design. But through the process of disassembly, I came to see the blouse as something regenerated, a garment that enfolds the original while having a separate life from it. More than likely, in its original form, my blouse would have remained an inspiration garment for fashion designers, stored away in a studio – frozen in time without a chance at a second life in a new setting.
I don’t think I’m kidding myself when I say that Saint Laurent himself would have approved of the transformation process – his Rive Gauche line was fundamentally about experimentation and creativity. In a 1972 interview he explained his philosophy this way: “With ready-to-wear you can play around with the many parts of clothes and change them. In couture you can’t play with clothes.” After all, cutting and sewing is at heart about play and repurposing. Or put another way, it’s about the spirit of the idea taking flight.
So happy to watch a new Azzedine Alaia documentary by the stylist Joe McKenna. The short video, which has been released online, is intimately shot with footage of the designer in his showroom and studio. What is so inspiring about Alaia is the fact that he has never veered from making clothes the old-fashioned way: using fitting models and his own designs and patterns. The admiration of designer Nicolas Ghesquiere and critics Suzy Menkes and Cathy Horyn makes clear why Alaia is a master craftsman still working successfully outside of the fashion system. You can enjoy the video here: https://www.joesfilm.com
In my late twenties, newly diagnosed with cancer, I lived in Brooklyn, and under the care of a kind and gifted oncologist did treatment at NYU Medical Center. That year of treatment happened to coincide with the terrorist attacks of 9/11; in fact, my very first chemotherapy round of six monthly doses, occurred two weeks before the unforgettable morning of September 11th. The timing meant that my hair had begun to fall out in chunks on that day. I found it on the pillow when I opened my eyes and later, on the shower floor. If you’ve ever experienced this kind of catastrophic hair loss, you’ll know how unnerving it is. At the age of twenty-nine, I wasn’t prepared for going bald, let alone for having cancer. I didn’t own any clippers and was at a loss as to removing the remaining scattered patches of hair; in the chaos and fear immediately following the attacks, the bridges and subways were closed, making it impossible to get to my hairdresser in Manhattan.
So I called a friend who lived in Park Slope, and asked him if he could shave my head. Accompanied by my husband and by my friend’s partner, we all four went up to the rooftop that looked out towards Manhattan. In the empty horizon you could see two rising columns of black smoke where a day earlier the World Trade Center Towers had stood. I still have the before and after photos. From time to time I look at my husband posed with his arms encircling my waist, the sky falling behind us as a backdrop, bluer that I remember it being that day. In one photograph I have hair and in the other I don’t.
You might think that I got used to the idea of having cancer and of being bald, but I struggled against the image of outsider, the image of someone to be feared because of her condition. And so I immersed myself in the bright and deceptive world of TV and cinema. Submerged in this fantasy realm, I was free to identify with iconic women who had the wherewithal to make it through. One woman stood out in particular: Mary Richards. Mary was a great favorite from numerous childhood years of watching TV. Mary Tyler Moore’s iconic character was my heroine: a stylish woman who used humor along with courage to move gracefully through the day-to-day. She fearlessly bucked the trend of wife and homemaker, seeking independence instead. Today, with so much uneasiness about the future, alongside the hopefulness of the recent Women’s March on Washington, Mary Richards’ ability to make it after all remains profoundly relevant.
I’ve written before about Mary’s influence, and on this day of Mary Tyler Moore’s passing, I am sharing here as a tribute, the article published in Elle magazine.
If you’re looking for inspiration this holiday season, it’s worth checking out the latest Yves Saint Laurent exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum on view until January 8, 2017. The show will travel on to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts from May 6-August 27, 2017. But if you can’t make it to the museum, the exhibition catalogue by Rizzoli offers a multidimensional look behind the scenes of Yves Saint Laurent. After looking through my copy yesterday, I think the book would make a great gift for yourself or for the fashion lover in your life. Highlights include many previously unseen documents from the Fondation Pierre Bergé and Saint Laurent’s maison de couture or paper doll collection fabricated out of cut paper when the designer was only a boy. Click here for a look at the current exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum.
I spent two weeks in early September in Italy, a country to which I traveled with a small suitcase containing three vintage purses. I feel compelled to reveal that after diligently visiting various vintage and consignment shops in Rome and Naples, I came home to Los Angeles with three more purses, a bracelet, a sweater, and a pin. When I travel to a foreign city, I always make time for vintage shopping. It’s not only a great way to explore different neighborhoods but one of the best ways to make new acquaintances with people who live and work in the area. Though vintage is not as hotly pursued in Italy as it is in the United States, you will find small shops with edited and very affordable collections of Italian designer brands, such as Missoni and Valentino. And for a fashion jewelry lover, the most unexpected and thrilling shop I visited was Fabio Piccioni, a bigiotteria in Rome. In addition to boasting an extensive collection of coral jewelry and sparkly tiaras, Fabio’s store is stacked floor to ceiling with all manner of costume jewelry.
Here below are the shops I visited and the treasures I found.
A few months ago, my husband and I decided it was time to visit Italy again. Since booking the airline tickets and renting an apartment in Rome’s Centro Storico, I have been in a muted state of anxiety over what to pack. Despite the fact that I’ve been traveling to Italy on and off since childhood and am wildly excited to once again walk the streets of Rome, I feel bad about my vacation wardrobe. The truth is, since about my thirties, I always fly into a panic before a trip abroad. If you saw my wardrobe, you would politely say there was no need to panic. After all, it looks as if I have all the necessary basics. But that is just the problem: the basics. When it comes time to pack for a two-week trip, practicality retreats and fantasy takes over. In order to explore the streets of a European city, I suddenly feel guilty about choosing sensible outfits. It seems as if the least I can do is to make the effort to approximate through my clothes the mystique of the cities I will be visiting.
This, I find, is harder to do when you are a woman of a certain age. How to look casually glamorous in comfortable shoes for sightseeing and walking on cobblestones in ninety-degree heat? Today’s trends – the charming floral mini dresses, the sweeping boho skirts, the high-waisted, wide leg pants worn with a midriff t-shirt, the kimonos paired with cut off denim shorts are not tempting options. It seems in the words of Linda Wells, former editor-in-chief of Allure magazine, speaking with Cathy Horyn in 2007, “The choice is to wear something juvenile or be a total killjoy.” Despite the shift in trends and the fact that the options for women’s clothing have expanded exponentially over the years, Wells’ comment rings as true today as it did back in 2007. In refusing youth driven trends and low quality fast fashion chains, I sometimes feel like I am resorting to normcore by stubbornly adhering to my personal style. This, dear reader, is the reason why the last few days have found me craving the kind of clothes Audrey Hepburn wore while living in Rome with her second husband, the Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti.
That I turn to vintage photos in order to inspire my packing doesn’t greatly surprise me; just before sitting down to write this, I began going through photographs of Ingrid Bergman in the 1950s Rossellini films, Stromboli and Journey to Italy. In flicking through the film stills, I realize it is not just the glamour projected by these images of Bergman or the stylishness of the paparazzi shots of Hepburn that I am after. Rather, the images impress me with the ease and confidence of these women of a certain age. Instead of the typical girlish movie star photographs, these pictures document grown-up faces and experiences. When Bergman starred in Stromboli she was in her thirties and had just begun an affair with Rossellini that would cause a scandal in the United States for producing a child out of wedlock. The Roman photos of Hepburn reveal a woman in her forties, in her second marriage, raising her son from her first marriage; these are not the better-known Roman Holiday pictures of the ingenue in her twenties, floating about the ancient city in ballet flats. In a time when blogs and fashion magazines regularly preach to women about age appropriateness, the images of these two fashionable and graceful women make the claim for considering proper fit and quality before age. Maybe the focus should shift to what’s suitable for one’s body and lifestyle – ageless dressing – over what is age appropriate.
As I begin to pack, I comfort myself with fantasies of a new definition of basic: tailored, well-made clothes in durable fabrics that can be worn many times and personalized with accessories. (I’m thinking vintage and sustainable fashion here). Could it be what’s old is truly what’s new again?