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.
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.
With the excitement of back to school clothes already come and gone and with Halloween costume season currently in full swing, I have been contemplating the question of how much men notice what women wear. It’s sometimes happened that women I’ve met while shopping, have lamented the clothing purchased for them by their special someone: brightly colored loungewear, patterned onesie pajamas, ankle length floral dresses, impossibly high-heeled shoes, and sexless architectural shapes. The main problem, from what I can tell, is that they are given clothes that don’t bear any relation to how they see themselves or to how they wish to be seen by others. I am not persuaded that such misguided choices, which women find dispiriting, are proof of men’s inattention to a woman’s individual style. I am not sure it is an indication of a blindness or of some kind of myopic distortion. And I think women would feel better about a man’s vision of the female wardrobe if they understood it most likely has its roots in childhood fantasies.
My introduction to how men see women’s clothes came when, unemployed and in my middle thirties, I arrived in Los Angeles from New York. Having left the East Coast for the foreseeable future, along with my job teaching Italian at The Fashion Institute of Technology, I decided it was an opportune time to try my luck as a middle and high school English teacher. Though students at FIT always took notice of whatever I happened to be wearing in class (usually with the intention of learning how it was made) it wasn’t until I taught thirteen and sixteen year-old boys that I got a true sense for how the opposite sex thinks about women’s clothes. I noticed right away that save for the occasional addition of a sweatshirt, the boys typically dressed in jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers every day of the school year. Though their clothes gave me no cause to suspect they harbored any interest in fashion, on more than one occasion, the boys looked upon my wardrobe as an object of fascination.
There is a fundamental contradiction in teenage boys: they are as direct in their observations as they are equivocal. It wasn’t uncommon in the middle of a lesson to have a student raise his hand only to ask a question about the logistics of what I was wearing. Could the two columns of buttons on a Dries Van Noten cardigan be buttoned on either column? Was my cropped black Viktor & Rolf utility jacket with large pockets on the chest a Soviet army issued military coat? Certain silhouettes and fabrics, I discovered over time, were associated in their minds with the things they had some familiarity with – historical figures about whom they were reading or classic films or individual cultural reference points, with a good dose of pop culture thrown into the mix. On one school day I wore a vintage Givenchy necktie dress and several of the boys remarked that I looked like Anne Frank. In a 1980s Cerruti oversized chartreuse sweater I reminded them of iconic rap stars they had seen on TV. Rather than shying away from their perceptions, I welcomed the chance to understand the mechanics behind male associations with women’s clothing. And, as though to bring things full circle, for Halloween I wore a silk YSL necktie blouse with wide leg trousers. Students had a hard time pinpointing who I was embodying but after a few broad hints, they eventually guessed I was trying my best to look like Jackie Onassis.
I’m not sure if the boys learned anything about a woman’s personal style from the outfits I wore that school year. But I came away with a solid belief, reinforced over the years by anecdotes and by personal experience, that men not only notice what women wear, they create narratives around clothes, perhaps as much if not more than women do: a graffiti print handbag reminds one man I know of Woodstock, while for another, a Margiela wool trench coat evokes images of captivating female spies. Almost every runway show by male designers from the recent Spring 2016 Ready-to-Wear collections is full of elaborate sets and fanciful themes, and Nicolas Ghesquière at Louis Vuitton gives credit for his show’s inspiration to a favorite boyhood film, the 1982 “Tron.” Clicking through the runway images, I notice that the male designers far outweigh the female creative directors in their use of intricate concepts. Proof, I think, of what most women learn merely by evaluating the bewildering clothing gifts from the men in their lives: our projections are bound by the youthful imaginings of what we find familiar.
I am convinced women should not be so quick to judge; the sartorial fantasy men construct around their significant other is simply the look of love.
In October last year I published a post about Lauren Bacall and my fascination with the blouse as the ultimate wardrobe staple of the heroine. After recently watching both season one and two of “The Fall” with Gillian Anderson, I am reminded again of the power of this feminine garment. In nearly every episode Anderson, as Superintendent Stella Gibson, wears a silk blouse to work at the police precinct in Belfast, Ireland. Rather than apologizing for her femininity, Stella, much like the heroines Bacall portrayed in the 1940s, dresses attractively. She is not interested in hiding in men’s style suits and sensible shoes in order to prove she is the detective in charge of the investigation of a serial killer. Rather her self-possessed authority becomes vested in soft blouses and heels: in her very womanliness.
What struck me most in watching the series, is Gillian Anderson’s inspiring portrayal of a capable and sensitive woman in command. She is the kind of seductively outspoken character that was once common in film noir, but that is unfortunately rarely seen on contemporary TV. Through the role of Stella, Anderson projects a powerful femininity that is as convincing today as it was in the 1940s.
At this writing, I’m optimistic enough to assert the return of the blouse as the quintessential symbol of heroine cool.
In the classic Hollywood movies I watched growing up, the blouse was the wardrobe staple of the heroine. As a teenager, I was fascinated by the clothing I saw on film. Even if my life in a small New England town didn’t bear any resemblance to the lives of the stars, my plan in closely observing the heroine was to learn how to dress like one. And so, when my sisters and I would go shopping at the designer discount chain T.J.Maxx, more often than not, I gravitated to the racks of blouses. Tucked into a skirt or worn with pants, long-sleeved or sleeveless, the blouse managed to look both elegant and cool.
In high school, I participated in regional and state student council, and as secretary, I thought wearing a blouse would be the best way to convey my competence. For an after school job, I worked at the local bank, where many of the female executives arrived dressed in skirt suits, paired with white or jewel-tone satin blouses. While reading the employee manual one day, I decided the blouse fit the description of “professional attire” and was the ideal choice for my part-time position as a teller.
I have little doubt that my attraction to the blouse as an emblem of sophistication is due in large measure to Lauren Bacall. What strikes me most in considering those images of her in a blouse is how self-possessed and capable she looked. In her many roles as the heroine, Bacall projected a heady seductiveness that famously blended outspokenness with ironic humor. She was the kind of heroine who made me believe that in speaking her mind, a woman could be both tough and sexy. This projection of strong femininity seems as glamorous to me now as it did when I was a young woman, just beginning to experiment with fashion.
Of course, my hometown in Central Massachusetts was a far cry from the settings that Bacall’s heroines found themselves in. And the silk blouses I owned in the 1980s, with their towering shoulder pads and full sleeves, didn’t fit impeccably like those the iconic actress wore. Even though I currently live in Los Angeles (not too far from Hollywood) nothing’s changed: I still gravitate to 80s blouses when I go vintage shopping in whatever city I happen to find myself in. But now I have a tailor. She snips out the pads and reshapes the sleeves to give me the look of a modern day heroine.