Back from my tailor, a vintage Yves Saint Laurent blouse. I think the before and after photos really demonstrate that proper fit matters.
When I was a child I spent the summers in Italy and the winters in New England. While this may not sound like much of a significant formative experience, it set the course for how I feel about tailoring. It was the 1970s, and I had a doll named Emily who was better dressed than I was. Her clothes were custom made while mine were off-the-shelf. She had two tailors: my mother, who cut the fabric and operated the sewing machine, and my grandmother who finished the details by hand.
Summering in Italy and wintering in New England meant that Emily needed the right clothes. Her winter wardrobe focused on print dresses, pants, and long sleeve shirts, while her summer wardrobe included sundresses and the perfect red bathing suit for the beach. I grew up surrounded by the hum of my mother’s old Singer sewing machine, flanked on all sides by various baskets, heaped high with spools of thread and buttons and scraps of fabric. Despite my grandmother’s repeated attempts to teach me how to sew buttons and to stitch by hand, I never developed any real skill beyond threading a needle. My passion seemed to lie in the process of tailoring rather than in the actual mechanics of sewing. I loved choosing the fabrics for Emily’s clothes and watching the cloth take shape into a finished form.
If my mother and grandmother are to blame for my appreciation of tailoring, they are also to blame for my general state of rapture when it comes to vintage. As a teenager, I learned the pleasure of hunting through old clothes – a pleasure that was partly derived out of necessity – as my mother’s deep-seated thrift prohibited spending on designer items. Unlike today, when wearing vintage is considered both coolly sophisticated and environmentally conscience, donning secondhand clothing in the 1980s branded the wearer with a distinct air of the alternative. Those were the days of Laura Ashley and the Gap and Jessica McClintock. While it’s true, at least in the 80s, that vintage clothing became more socially acceptable through the influence of movies like Pretty in Pink and images of pop culture stars like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, it still wasn’t something that many teenagers and college students openly embraced.
Not too long ago, I read a quote by Diana Vreeland that really struck me. “I always say I hope to God I die in a town with a good tailor…” No one has taught me more about the transformative power of adapting clothing to the wearer’s specifications than my beloved tailor, Tatyana. Hailing from Kazakhstan, where her sartorial training included engineering, Tatyana has a fundamental knowledge of construction and a grave regard for fit. Although proper fit is generally acknowledged as the hallmark of notable style, most people would never buy anything secondhand that required alteration; for them it is too great a chore. But I am convinced there may be some readers who, like me, derive satisfaction from the process. The allure of vintage lies in its ability to speak to both memory and metamorphosis: you are able to quite literally take a garment that is too big and perhaps too evocative of another era (think mountainous Working Girl shoulders) and reshape it into something that harmonizes with the present. Rather than a destructive act, the tailoring process celebrates the past, and reincarnates it, washed free of any melancholic nostalgia.
I don’t think I am fooling myself when I say tailoring is my greatest luxury; the sea change it affords is deeply gratifying. As a daughter who has had a lifelong fraught relationship with her mother, the collaborative process of alteration is a means of staying connected to the happiest and most cherished times with my mother. Reconstruction of the vintage clothes I buy strikes me as an attempt at understanding, an attempt to control the outcome. It’s as if all the youthful hurt might be redeemed through this simple act of transformation.
Over the span of our twelve-year relationship Tatyana has altered countless vintage blouses and dresses. Each time the result is the same: I recapture both that childhood wonder at watching a garment transform under capable hands and the echo of the lost intimacy with my mother and grandmother. Maybe all along I have been chasing after the traces of this lost relationship, the cuttings and threads of maternal care, of maternal love. And the vintage fabric that is proof it all existed.
I wasn’t really prepared to buy a brooch this week, and it may have been impulsive on my part, as it comes on the heels of having purchased a charm bracelet last month. Though I love fashion jewelry, and regularly wear a necklace, I had never really thought about owning a brooch, or for that matter, a charm bracelet. The truth is I don’t know for how long I have wanted such a bracelet. Possibly since the 1980s, after seeing a Chanel perfume commercial in which Carole Bouquet sports an extravagant charm bracelet with a red suit. My attraction to brooches is recent, a desire born only a few years ago at a dinner party in Los Angeles. After meeting a woman of advanced style who wore a remarkable brooch against her simple black blazer, it suddenly occurred to me how wonderfully sophisticated owning a brooch would make me feel.
The fact that these traditional pieces of jewelry reveal divergent tastes doesn’t trouble me. On the one hand, there is the brooch, regal and glamorous, conjuring images of the Duchess of Windsor, impeccably dressed and groomed. And on the other, there is the charm bracelet, girlish and flirty. The bracelet I acquired last month is a Napier from the 1950s, the heyday of the charm bracelet before it fell out of fashion during the women’s movement. As soon as I saw it I knew it was the most perfect of things: constructed from pearlized Lucite and styrene beads in Easter egg colors that the Napier company called “moonstone pastels.” Completely impractical, a charm bracelet garners smiles as it clinks with each step you take, with each wave of your hand. It clangs brightly, keeping you company when you are home alone or out driving. As for the brooch, I discovered the ideal one on EBAY from a seller in Louisiana. A vintage Oscar de la Renta, it is resplendent with its faux pearls and center crystal.
Despite having written about fashion jewelry here, I neglected to mention that charm bracelets and brooches are the showboats of any outfit. Both are rich in historical connotation: the brooch dates as early as the Bronze Age when it was used as an indication of ethnicity and class, while from pre-historic times the charm bracelet was worn as an amulet to protect against the evil eye. Today, in an age obsessed with the practicality of the iPhone and the Apple Watch, to wear either a brooch or a charm bracelet is to be reminded of the joy that the quixotic still has the power to shower over us.
I have wondered why it is only now, in my middle years, that I am embracing the brooch and the charm bracelet. The only satisfactory answer I have come up with is that as the world accelerates its championing of all things utilitarian and technological, the more the antiquated and the superfluous – things lacking any real use value – rise in appeal. Vintage objects tell a story, their beauty is not impersonal. Beckoning from beyond, they help us to stay connected to an ever receding past.
Although I live in Los Angeles, a city in which outerwear is more of an accessory than a requisite item, in my closet there are many coats. There are also many blazers. What there was not, until exactly six days ago, was a bomber jacket. After a Saturday car ride over the hill to Burbank I came home with a vintage 90s leather bomber jacket in raspberry red. Maybe it is just a coincidence that the bomber is back in fashion, but I don’t know how I managed to do without it for all these years. Originally worn by pilots in World War I, and later redesigned by Leslie Irvin who set up a manufacturing company in 1926 supplying the Royal Air Force during World War II, the bomber’s appeal spans many decades. Pairing equally well with skirts, dresses, and high waisted pants it’s both a functional and stylish wardrobe basic. Here are some of my favorite contemporary interpretations of this classic.
Hedi Slimane showcased Part I of his Fall 2016 Ready-to-Wear show for Saint Laurent on Wednesday night at the historic Palladium here in Los Angeles. As a vintage lover, I had resisted the rebranding of the fashion house when he took over as creative director in 2012. But this show stole my heart. The looks were lush and sophisticated and modernly elegant. An abjuration of both normcore and the fashion dictates of good taste, Slimane’s Part I showing convincingly recalled the best of Yves Saint Laurent’s 70s tailoring and silhouette. Yet the strength of the collection lies in how it turns YSL’s iconic pieces on their head, through such modern touches as sharp leather jackets worn with silk brocade skirts, velvet tuxedo jackets layered over sequin tops, and the high/low combination of strict houndstooth menswear suiting with metallic leather boots. What’s most compelling to me about this kind of dressing is the offhanded nature of juxtaposing your Sunday best with your weekend casual. Shows like this get the imagination churning and always inspire me, when I’m confronted with what to wear, to think a bit differently about pairings.
Since the beginning of 2016 I have bought two new purses, one in Los Angeles at a favorite vintage shop and the other from an EBAY seller in Michigan. To tell the truth, the one from the vintage store was actually purchased with a gift certificate to which I only had to add $2.09. But whatever the mitigating circumstances may be, I am guilty of having wanted and of having purchased two new purses within the span of two months. Though friends may think otherwise, this recent shopping flurry strikes me as out of character. You see, dear reader, despite having written about my love of vintage Rodo bags here, I have never considered myself a “bag lady.”
Through the years I somehow managed to circumvent the trap of the “it bag,” and with the exception of my Rodo bag collection, I had successfully avoided purchasing bags in any color other than black. A handbag seemed to me a utilitarian necessity of the modern woman’s wardrobe, allowing her to travel comfortably out of the home to work, to the gym, or to dinner in a restaurant.
Despite having seen Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and “Marnie,” it never occurred to me that a purse could accrue anything more than simple use value. And though I am not completely convinced by Freud’s theory linking purses and vaginas, from the first moment I saw a particular cherry red vintage Gucci shoulder bag, I didn’t care that it wasn’t black or that it didn’t serve any real function other than being a thing of beauty. Purchased four years ago, it still makes me happy every time I carry it out. Over time my perspective on purses has shifted, allowing me to see how they personalize an outfit much in the same way as jewelry does. And so, emboldened by the Gucci purchase of a non-black bag, last year I bought a vintage Celine candy red purse, and just last week from the seller in Michigan, a navy blue one. When it comes to evening bags, of the two vintage cocktail purses I own, neither one of them fits a phone or for that matter, much more than a driver’s license and lipstick. Decidedly not modern, these bags are for going out with your husband, as they are ill-equipped for a set of house keys.
I realize that the most extravagant bag purchase happened in January, when I spent the entirety of my gift certificate on a wooden hand painted Timmy Woods purse: a reclining smiley Saint Bernard dog that stingily fits a photo ID, a credit card, a Kleenex, one key, and a lipstick. On the first day I took it out to dinner and placed it on the table, I remember the reaction of a child seated nearby. Little more than six years old, she pointed and exclaimed to her mother, “Look, Mommy, look!” On another occasion, while I was in line at the bank, a woman approached me and asked if she could touch my purse. I have never owned anything that elicited so much attention and frankly don’t know if I’m comfortable with that level of exposure.
How did I end up at the age of forty-five owning both a vintage Kelly bag and a vintage dog purse? There is an obvious contradiction here in desire. A love of the high and the low: the refinement and exclusivity of the Kelly alongside the cheerful silliness of the wooden Saint Bernard. Freud’s theory of purses aside, the common thread uniting these bags is that they are vintage. Though from time to time I may flirt with the idea of buying and owning a new designer bag, I never veer off course in my exclusive interest in vintage bags. In this, if not in anything else, at least I am consistent. I suppose it is the nostalgia for another time as much as the craft and quality that anchor me to vintage. And I have to admit that the joy of the pursuit means a great deal to me. It is as gratifying to search for a particular bag, as it is to wait for it to appear in unused condition and for the right price.
Even if some of you reading this are like me and don’t consider yourselves bag ladies, wouldn’t you agree a bright pink version of the navy blue Celine purse would make the perfect bag for spring?
When I was a child the winter holidays fell into the two rough categories of food and style: traditional Italian dishes prepared by my mother and grandmother, and velvet dresses worn with patent leather shoes. Over the years I have held on to the traditional dishes while letting go of velvet dresses in favor of tweed pants, and the patent leather shoes have been replaced by waterproof nylon and leather. In recent weeks, my holiday style vocabulary has expanded to include fleece and Hot Chillys long johns.
I’ve traded cold and snowy New England for sunny and warm Southern California, New Year’s Eves in dimly lit restaurants and bars for the warmth and light of the desert. And this year, for my first New Year’s Eve on the beach, all my favorite things can somehow wondrously coexist – Italian food, the ocean, tweed, and base layers.
I’m encouraged as I write this by Robyn Davidson‘s words at the end of her story Tracks about her journey across 1,700 miles of Australian desert to the sea with merely four camels and her dog for company: “Sometimes I find these changes so upsetting…..other times I think that the homesickness is for an experience that could in any case never be repeated, and for people and ways of thought whose rightful place is in the past….Camel trips do not begin or end, they merely change form.”
Heavy rains have descended on the Pacific Northwest recently, causing flooding and power outages, along with some tragic deaths. All I know of these storms is what I read on the various internet weather sites. I live in Southern California, a region that is only rarely visited by such storms. I heard about flooding in Portland, Oregon just this morning, too late to think about turning back: my husband and I fly out from Los Angeles early on Sunday. It will be my first trip to the Pacific Northwest, and the weather forecast is predicting rain with snow for our weeklong stay in Oregon.
My fanciful vision of Portland, full of bearded men who knit and tattooed women who embrace a natural beauty, has become overshadowed by the threat of severe weather for which I’m not accustomed to dressing. Because I will need to be prepared for both city and country (we’re planning on doing some glamping and a fair amount of hiking and waterfall seeing) about a month ago, when I began to make a mental list of clothes to bring, I discovered that I had none. The fact that up until two weeks ago I owned neither fleece nor any waterproof clothing, did not greatly surprise or panic me, as I have lived in a deluded ignorance of wet weather for the past thirteen years. Despite a closet full of coats in various styles, on most days, regardless of the season, I have no need of any outerwear at all.
My recently acquired Pacific Northwest wardrobe includes but is not limited to the following: a Columbia full zipper fleece, a pair of Ex Officio stain and water resistant pants, a Marmot waterproof seam taped jacket with an attached adjustable hood that rolls into the collar, and a pair of Nike Kynsi waterproof boots. I am most excited by the Marmot jacket that boasts a chin guard. As it turns out, the fulcrum upon which my new Pacific Northwest wardrobe rests is the base layer – athletic shirts made out of breathable fabric that wick moisture away. Though I had never before heard the term base layer and needed the sales assistant to explain its meaning, a sense of pride washed over me when I realized that I already owned three of them.
Dressing for place and climate have always been as important to me as dressing for the occasion. It’s only in this way that you are able to forget yourself a bit in order to immerse yourself in the new. I’m optimistic my wardrobe will put me at ease with the weather and make me thankful for the quiet days spent outward bound.
Not since Gucci created the Jackie O bag in admiration of Jackie Onassis’s style, has Gucci been this exciting a brand to watch. Under the new creative direction of Alessandro Michele, the Spring 2016 Ready-to-Wear collection featured a mash up of venerable Gucci looks. The thing I pay attention to in runway shows is originality of design, and so I was skeptical when I first saw the recycled colors and prints on the runway. But ever a lover of vintage fashion, I quickly warmed to the collection. Michele’s reinterpretation and iteration of Gucci’s jet set past stands as a modern homage to that classic period. For those of us who cling to old definitions of style, the new Gucci is a spur to action, challenging our conception of contemporary elegance. In a world of fast fashion and endless product, the thing at stake now is individual style; it is only fitting that Gucci would once again be the fashion house to make the case for urbane chic.