Essays and Musings

Cut, Sew, Stitch

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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.

Melanie Griffith, "Working Girl" 1988

Melanie Griffith, “Working Girl” 1988

Madonna, St. Marks Place, 1983 by Amy Arbus

“Madonna, St. Marks Place, 1983” by Amy Arbus

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.

Tailored to fit: 80s Amen Wardy silk blouse (Recess LA) with vintage Ann Demeulemeester blazer

Tailored to fit: 80s Amen Wardy silk blouse (Recess LA) with vintage Ann Demeulemeester blazer (Resurrection Vintage, LA)

Before: 80s Oleg Cassini silk jacquard blouse (Recess LA)

Before: 80s Oleg Cassini silk jacquard necktie blouse (Recess LA)

After: with recut shoulders and neckline

After: with recut shoulders and neckline; body and sleeves taken in

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Essays and Musings

Heroine Chic: Some Thoughts on The Blouse, Part II

Gillian Anderson, "The Fall"

Gillian Anderson, “The Fall”

"The Fall" BBC/Artists Studio/Steffan Hill

“The Fall” BBC/Artists Studio/Steffan Hill

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.

Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall

Rita Hayworth; image George Hurrell, 1942

Rita Hayworth, 1942; image George Hurrell

Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca

Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, 1942

Jackie Kennedy

Jackie Kennedy

Aurora Sansone; image Sartorialist

Aurora Sansone; image Sartorialist

Viviana Volpicella

Viviana Volpicella

 

 

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Essays and Musings, The Four Seasons of Vintage

Heroine Chic: Some Thoughts on the Blouse

Lauren Bacall,1944; photo Everett Collection/Rex

Lauren Bacall, 1944; photo Everett Collection/Rex

Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall

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.

Vintage silk blouse;bag;1990s Chanel turnlock necklace; Vintage Paco Rabanne cuff

Vintage silk blouse; 90s Chanel turnlock necklace; vintage Paco Rabanne cuff; Winfried Kralle vintage embossed bag

Silk wood print blouse

80s Levante silk wood print blouse; 60s unsigned necklace; Hermès Kelly long wallet as clutch

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