Saturday, January 13, 2018

Stylish Cinema: "Phantom Thread"

 
Read freely; no spoilers in this review.

Among other definitions, "phantom" can mean "a figment of the imagination". In the case of this new creepy romance starring Daniel Day Lewis and written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the phantom is thread needed to stitch the film into a credible whole. That things don't quite turn out the way I thought doesn't make up for the fact I couldn't find any sympathy for the two principals.

He is a fuddy-duddy uptight English couturier working in a 1950s Britain that seems to have quickly recovered from the hardships of the recent war. She is a charmingly clumsy waitress from an undetermined European country. We know little about her background in the beginning and no more at the end.

 
I'll leave you to figure what it was all about and if you cared. My problems with "Phantom Thread" are more visceral. I hated the fashions. Reynolds Woodcock, the designer, is meant to be ultra-successful, with a white-coated retinue of seamstresses lined up each morning for his inspection. His atelier is also his home, a tony row house in a spiffy part of town. Affording its upkeep depends on the wealthy clientele he serves. But he's not struggling, again despite a Britain that in reality took many more years to recover.

Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies were practically the only British designers with name recognition at the time. They were both long established by the 1950s and dressed the social upper crust and royalty. Hartnell especially was a favorite of the British royal family. Although influenced by Dior's New Look (as was everyone), their work was proper, stiff and a bit fussy. England did not catch fire as a design powerhouse until the "Swnging Sixties" of Mary Quant, Ossie Clark, Biba, et al.

Norman Hartnell
Hardy Amies
 
For me to care about Reynolds Woodcock his work needed to be so much more. His dresses should have been magical, as intricate as a Charles James or as dramatic as a Balenciaga. Our heroine, if we can call her that, was not transformed by wearing a Woodcock original. She didn't do much for any of them either. Woodcock's dresses were never wonderful enough, in my mind, to overcome his rotten personality.




Thursday, January 11, 2018

Hi! Brrr-Nation

 
What do you do when the world as you know it is cold cold cold? That could be 10 degrees in New York City or 50 degrees in Houston. It's all relative, but NYC is not supposed to be like Nome and semi-tropical Houston is not supposed to be like a nice March day in NYC.

I write this from a Houston point of view. Feel free to change the city name to wherever you are and tired of living in this winter. When I wake up and see yet another grey day struggling to arise, so do I. Bears may not be the smartest in the animal kingdom, but they have the right idea: find a nice cave and settle in for the duration.

Take me with you

The only thing that perks me up is the sight of spring clothes in the stores. Yes, they are beginning to trickle in. The Lovely Boutique Where I Work has a little collection labeled "resort", for those lucky enough to be jetting someplace guaranteed by God and their travel agents as warm. It's warming to look at them, though as we say in the trade, they're not moving very fast.

Where I usually shop, the sales are still on. I swear Zara keeps replenishing because their sale never seems to go down.. Last time I was in the GAP the stock piled on tables was downright frightening. I've found some buys at Ann Taylor and Banana Republic that made me feel a little guilty, they were so cheap. But they are winter clothes. Enough said.

No gaps in this pile...

Even though I have coats and sweaters, wool pants and boots (even gloves, scarves and ear muffs), I'm not happy wearing them. This is the land of sun and banana plants. You should see my banana plants now.

The only apparel appealing to me are flannel pajamas, furry slippers and my terry cloth robe, the one that makes me look like a polar bear. Oh that's right; polar bears are supposed to like the cold. Shall we just call a moratorium on fashion until spring is in the air or at least in the stores?



Saturday, January 6, 2018

What is the Point of Jeans?

 
I've tried for years to get with the program. Jeans! Every woman needs a pair! Or several— dark dressy, faded casual, slouchy boyfriend, cropped, wide leg, skinny leg, flared, bell bottom, boot cut... I know them all. I've sold them all. I've tried them all. If jeans had never been invented, I wouldn't be bothered a bit.

We all know how Levi Strauss stitched up the first pairs for gold miners in the 1840s. Cowboys love 'em. Little kids find them practically indestructible. But why do grown up women think we need jeans?

I might feel differently if I ever had a pair that actually fit and were flattering. I do not have a good shape for jeans. As a typical pear, I have a small waist and bigger hips and thighs. I also now have my own built-in muffin top and have not seen a flat stomach since that bout of flu 8 or 10 years ago. The last time I looked good in jeans was here:

1947

I think my older sister's girlfriends looked adorable because their jeans weren't meant to be fetching. Their look was strictly "stolen from the boys".

Nina and Phyllis
 
Somewhere between 1947 and the Calvin Klein, Jordache and Gloria Vanderbilt 1980s,  jeans became a wardrobe staple, more difficult to buy than a bathing suit but guaranteed— if you found the right pair— to be all you would ever want to wear.

Remember those jokes about women struggling to wriggle into a pair of jeans? Who didn't actually try this?

Did this really work?
 
I grant you many women look great in jeans. Luck of the draw is all. Even if they do, I fail to see how jeans are such an indispensable wardrobe item. Victoria Beckham is beautiful, thin, rich and a fashion designer. I don't think these jeans make her look particularly great. It's as if she couldn't find the right pants for that shirt and picked the first thing available. Ditto the shoes.

 
The mystique— that women really, really want to wear jeans— still exists, as does my quest to find a pair.  Or did. A few years ago I decided to stop looking. On the rare occasion I need jeans— a hay ride?— I have a pair I can enlist. These are baggy, oversized Citizens that fit at the waist but nowhere else, shored up with a thick leather belt that may have been my husband's.

Now for the elephant in the room. Unless you are going full-out baggy, jeans should fit on the snug side. They are meant to hug your curves without enough fabric to grab and draw you to a standstill. Many of us find as we get older that we've lost circumference in the backside. What used to be firm and fully packed is, well... you get the idea. Here is another instance where clothing designers have let us down again and everyone needs a full-length mirror.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Markle's Sparkle vs. Grace's Grace

 
I remember (like yesterday) when Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco. It was April, 1956. America had been agog since the previous Christmas when they announced their engagement. We had a lot of catching up to do. Who was this Prince Rainier? What was Monaco, anyways? Oh, it's where "To Catch a Thief" was shot. And that's where they met! We would have been happy snagging Cary Grant in the end, but, no, she had to go and get a prince! I still have a souvenir magazine from that time, which culminated in the birth of Princess Caroline in January, 1957. Wild horses or an astronomical ebay bid will not tear it from me.


Contrast that to the "Isn't it nice?" but not world-shaking announcement that Prince Harry will be marrying Meghan Markle in May of this year. What a difference half a century or so makes!

There are some undisputable differences. Prince Rainier was the actual ruler of a real country. Monaco is supposedly as big as Central Park. That's a nice big park but a very small country. Prince Harry will soon be only sixth in line to the British throne. It's highly unlikely there will be a King Harry and Queen Meghan, but the British Royal Family are about as royal as you can get, and she will still be a princess.


We knew little about Rainier let alone his principality. He looked like a shy, sweet confirmed bachelor. He was perhaps more of a wealthy playboy before he met Grace. I've only read innuendos. Grace was Hollywood royalty almost from the moment she first appeared onscreen. Her career had a meteoric rise, and she was at the height of her profession at the time of that fateful location shoot. We didn't know that perhaps Grace had, shall we say, a more involved romantic life than we knew at the time. It's also been supposed that snagging the prince secured her place at the top of a competitive family dynamic where she had never shined.

  
We've watched Harry grow from an adorable little boy to a devilish young man, who at times either didn't think things through or had some very bad advice. At 33 he seems to have reached the rungs of adulthood and appears to be following the humanitarian works path of his mother, Diana.

We don't know much about Meghan Markle. Just the bare facts would be amazing in an earlier era. She's American, divorced, bi-racial, an actress and three years older than Harry. Her claim to acting fame was a role on a tv drama, "Suits". She was hardly a household name or face, although both are quite pretty.


It will be interesting to see what and if the hoopla is about this wedding. Perhaps we are just overwhelmed with celebrity hitchings. We may have gotten too excited over minor events. Beyonce and JayZ! Are they even married? Shows how much I don't know.

Meghan will not be saving the monarchy from frumpiness. Kate has done that with an easy, every day way of dressing that may not shout but has plenty of polish. I think Meghan will follow her own style with royal boundaries (those hats), but I don't think we will be copying her every look— A) Because we are over that, aren't we? and B) Because it doesn't seem all that earth shattering.

What I truly like is that we are making so little to-do about her country of origin, her past relationships, her race and her talent. Love is a good thing, and it's about time we celebrate that.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Have We Had Enough of Online Shopping?

Some day my shoes will come...
 
One thing you don't have to do when shopping online is stand in line. However, I stood in line on multiple trips to the UPS store as I had the idea I could buy a nice pair of walking shoes online. I ordered— and returned— five pairs of shoes and ended up losing $37 in postage and restocking fees because not all online shopping is created equal.

It started innocently enough. We have a trip planned for late spring that will include lots of walking on variable terrain. There will be streets and surfaces of cobblestone and sand. I hate that look of American Tourist Wearing Sneakers, especially in towns and cities, so I've been giving myself plenty of time to find a nice pair of walking shoes— comfortable but sturdy, stylish but functional— without succumbing to that ever-practical athletic shoe.

It started innocently enough with a sale pair at my local DFS, but they were not in my size. A few pairs were available on the DFS website. I guessed what size I would need, but the choice was not there. Too bad; DFS is easy. My local store will take returns. No shipping fee and no restocking fee. Plus I can send my husband with the package. He works down the block.

It seemed possible to locate them elsewhere. Pair #1 was on Amazon. Free shipping for Prime members. Unfortunately I pushed the button and ordered a 40W, not comprehending W was wide and not Women. That shoe was way too big, so I reordered a 39 (pair #2). This was too narrow, so I ordered, available only from another store on Amazon, a 39W (pair #3). The shoe fit but was stiff and uncomfortable. I wore them carefully around the house that night and could hardly wait to take them off.

Meanwhile, another shoe had caught my fancy, but Amazon didn't have the size and color I wanted. I Googled and found a pair (#4) cheap, but I had to pay $8.95 shipping. It took weeks to arrive, but I was sure it would be perfect. Why? No idea. Hope springs eternal.

#4 was indeed attractive but didn't fit, or was it just flimsy? Maybe the wrong size?  It went back free of charge, but the small print let me know there would be a $6.95 restocking fee.

For pair #5 I returned to Amazon and found another size of attractive-but-didn't-fit. It wasn't part of Prime delivery, although shipping was free. I had a feeling this pair wasn't going to fit either and even avoided opening the package. You guessed it: right again, or rather wrong again. Not only would I have to pay for the shipping back, there would be a $9.95 restocking fee. UPS for that cost $11.

Guess who doesn't have shoes and is $37 poorer? This was an online shopping lesson to be learned, and I hope to heaven I have learned it.

Will it come to this?
  


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Busted! My UAL Secret is Out

 
I first discovered UAL about 10 years ago in New Orleans. Wandering around the warren of little shops in the French Quarter, I came across a storefront on Chartres Street identified only by the letters UAL.  What's a UAL? I thought. The clothes in the window were appealing, and a peek inside looked interesting. I went in, the first of many times. UAL (Urban Apparel Liquidators) has been my first, last and sometimes in-between stop on any visit to New Orleans.


Although not everything is "cheap", I once bought a Sachin + Babi dress for $8. It was the kind of dress you can only wear to a fancy wedding, and if I wore it just that one time it will be totally fine. I found a pair of Citizen camo pants for $10 that I have worn to shreds. There have been sweaters, t-shirts, a jacket or two, some fun costume jewelry... nothing that broke my piggy bank. Some things I outgrew (mentally and physically), but I've never felt guilty giving them up.

Naeem Khan $1449 was $4995

Shopping in high-end stores makes me uncomfortable. I feel it obvious to all the world (especially the world of sales associates) that I am there under false pretenses. I'm never going to buy anything but am there to enjoy the wonderful styles and lovely fabrics and admire the workmanship.

The Row $1225 was $9999

There is no pretense at UAL. Everyone is there because she (or he for the small selection of menswear) loves a bargain. And a designer bargain is the best of all. Even at 90% off many of the offerings are too much for me, but there can be decently or even amazingly priced finds as well. You just have to go with an open mind and be in the mood for a hunt.

Drew $39 was $276

UAL was founded in 1980 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. It's grown, but slowly. There are 6 retail locations in only 4 southern states, but there is an online presence, shopUAL.com.

Victoria Beckham $792 was $2640
 
UAL's goal was to source high fashion brands and market them at 70-90% off retail. I get the sense that many are samples. Others may be store closeouts, though there don't seem to be retail tags. How merchandise gets to discounters is an interesting and convoluted story. Safe to say, the goods at UAL are the genuine article and not manufactured especially for outlets, as is often the case in the big outlet malls.

 
Likewise you never know what you may find on any given visit. It's wise not to get attached to something you see not in your size. That may be the only one. The sales staff are easy-going, knowledgeable and encouraging. They seem to be having fun. I'm only speaking of the New Orleans store. I've not been to the others*, but wouldn't a road trip be fun? 

* Brentwood TN, Nashville TN (2), Austin TX, Hattiesburg MS
 




Sunday, December 10, 2017

Let's Hear it for the Gift Card

 
The lowly gift card has been mightily maligned in recent years. It's taken on the mantle of "cop out" present, the thing to get when you want to get it over with. It's time to change that thinking. Gift cards can be great.

There is something delicious about having a gift card in your pocket. The anticipation! The careful decision-making!

To be sure, some gift card recipients run out and use one immediately. Others squirrel one away so well they forget they have it. I saw this many times at the Lovely Boutique. A customer would pull out a dusty, dog-eared slice of cardboard at the cash wrap and tell me with astonishment how she had just found it.

Where giving gift cards gets tricky is in their selection. I'm not a fan of generic Visa or Mastercard gift cards. Just too impersonal. In that case you might as well give money. Crisp new currency even smells better.

I'm also not big on grocery store gift cards (unless it's a fancy specialty foods place). Too easy to use on paper towels and such. Same with drug stores or fast food places.  I'm not a Starbucks addict as I'm too cheap but will admit to enjoying a Starbucks gift card.


One of my favorite gift cards was for $25 at Tiffany. That was when $25 could buy something. Today this would need to be $100. This gift gave me a great excuse to wander through the fabled Fifth Avenue store, and wander I did, taking note of what I might purchase. I think I bought a deck of cards. Okay, it was a double deck and housed in a lovely box in that beautiful shade of blue.

There is a whole world of gift cards out there. You don't have to think too hard— just a little— to match your intended with the perfect treat.

> A manicure or pedicure at her favorite place (or the best salon in town)

> Movie theater admissions. National chains make this easy for sending across the miles.

> Aforementioned fancy foods store (or macarons or chocolates or caviar or...)

> The Lovely Boutique in your town (that place you know she likes to browse)

> Books, books, books. You can do Amazon, but why not patronize your local bookseller?

> Restaurant gift cards. Take note, though. They may not include alcohol and tips. 

> Etsy even has gift cards for a "choose your own adventure" gift. Neither of you have to leave the warmth of your computers for that one.



   

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Madame Predicts: You Will Want One

 
Basket bags were a trend last summer. I wanted one; they weren't easy to find. It never happened. But I've been thinking about them since.

I need a bag that's big enough to carry all my stuff, most of which I shouldn't even bother lugging around. Habit is a funny thing; I am nothing if not "prepared".

There are small, tidy bags, some with leather trim, that are lovely, well made and cost a bit of of real money. Also probably not big enough.

J McLaughlin, $128

There are classic "French market bags" which have always looked swell. Being fully open they may not be the best choice for holding desirables like credit cards and cell phone.

LarLiving, $18.27

This is a nice shape with a sturdy finish and cloth drawstring liner, but I can't tell how big it really is.

Amazon, $39.99

These two oversized, inexpensive totes are appealing for their casual vibe and low price tags. I found them on an Etsy store but can't decide: round or oval? There's plenty of time for that between now and straw-basket-weather.

The Woven Basketry, $23.60
 The Woven Basketry, $28.00

Friday, December 1, 2017

Going into 2018 With Style

 
I hesitate posting this as several of my nearest and dearest will be receiving them. On the other hand this is too good to keep secret.

I usually think a calendar is such a lame choice for a gift. I avoid "calendar kiosks" at the mall lest even I get sucked into buying "365 Days of Kute Kittens" for myself. My own calendar, for dentist appointments and such, is strictly utilitarian and sits in the kitchen drawer. Even so I may be an old fuddy-duddy. Everyone under fifty seems to use their phone function.

Nevertheless I came across this in a museum gift shop and scooped up a bundle. It's fashion! It's history! It's pretty! It's even a calendar! It's "Daily Dress 2018— 365 Days of Fashion and Style", published through the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Those are street creds if ever. It's oversize, measuring 12" wide x 24" long when opened, so necessitates a generous hanging space. Mine is inside the closet door. Every day features a different fashion artifact from the museum's collection— apparel or accessory— with a brief description of what, who and when.  The pages are color-coordinated, so every month has a tonal theme. The items are photographed but placed on sketches of figures. Retail is $14.99.

  
What a feast of fashion history! As per the Met's blurb:

Each day features a stunning piece from every corner of the world throughout the centuries. From sumptuous seventeenth-century French gowns to stylish dresses designed by Dior or Chanel, from elaborate footwear to dazzling jewelry, this 2018 calendar highlights hundreds of years' worth of glamour, beauty and style.

Emphasis is on fashion from the late 19th century until today, so it's not a dry history lesson in winkles and panniers. What's interesting is how contemporary— and desirable— many of the pieces look. This may be a reflection on how eclectic our fashion sense has become. On the other hand, it does give new meaning to "timeless fashion".

The witty Geoffrey Beene

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Finding Fashion in the Strangest Places

Gertrude by Beaton, 1939

I never expected to discover an interesting tidbit of fashion history while reading about Gertrude Stein, but there it was.

"Love, Cecil" is a wonderful documentary by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the filmmaker who gifted us with "The Eye Has to Travel" about Diana Vreeland. Cecil is Cecil Beaton, no slouch on the fashion scene as a photographer and designer of costumes and sets for "Gigi" and "My Fair Lady". In his long career Beaton photographed almost everyone who was anybody, among them Gertrude Stein.

Now Gertrude is not a fashion icon by any means, though she certainly had her own style. Sometimes, when I've gotten too short a haircut, I hope it doesn't make me look like Gertrude Stein. Fortunately hair grows quickly.

I've long been interested in Cecil Beaton. Inexplicably, his "The Glass of Fashion" was one of the first books I read on the subject. I was 11 or 12. Vreeland's film rekindled an interest in Cecil and his amazing talents. The book "Portraits and Profiles" by John Vickers pairs photos of his well known subjects with excerpts from the diaries he meticulously kept throughout his life.

There she was, between Winston Churchill and Colette, looking stern but softened by her nuzzling dog. An American who settled in Paris in the 1920s, Gertrude Stein's salon was the gathering place for Picasso, Cocteau, Matisse, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc. She was a writer in her own right and an early champion of modern art. Her constant companion was the somewhat mysterious Alice B Toklas. Alice said little but was a terrific cook.

Gertrude, Alice and another pet

Still no fashion... But wait.
In Cecil's diary excerpt is the story of how Gertrude and Alice, both Jewish, found refuge during WWII in the mountains of France. Quoting from the diary:

"During the years of cold and shortages Gertrude and Alice became friends with a neighbor at Aix, a simple young man named Pierre Balmain, with a taste for antiques and a natural bent for designing women's clothes. In fact he made with his own hands heavy tweeds and warm garments for Gertrude and Alice Toklas to wear during the hard winters."

After the war Balmain set up shop in Paris and became one of the leading couturiers until his death in 1982. His clothes were always sophisticated and elegant and worn by royalty and film stars. He never sold a ready-to-wear line, but did produce some memorable fragrances including one of my favorites, "Jolie Madame". Who doesn't want to smell like a "pretty lady"? Balmain also apprenticed at least two young men who went on to great things themselves, Karl Lagerfeld and Oscar de la Renta.

Typical Balmain elegance
 
Gertrude and Alice were guests at Balmain's first showing to the Paris press. They arrived in their usual states of un-fashion, Gertrude "in an old cinnamon colored sack and Panama hat" and Alice in "a long Chinese garment of bright colors". Beaton continues:

"Gertrude, seeing the world of fashion assembled, whispered 'Little do they know that we are the only people here dressed by Balmain, and it's just as well for him that they don't'."
   

Friday, November 24, 2017

Forever Edie

 
Why Edie Beale and Grey Gardens?  What is there about the person (or persons as there are two Edies) and the place, their once-glorious-then-ramshackle-finally-restored home in Easthampton, NY?

Grey Garden's estate sale last week by Durell Godfrey

The Beales and the house have been in the public arena for years. Edie Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, known as Little Edie, were Jackie Kennedy's aunt and cousin on the Bouvier side (Jackie's father). In 1971 Jackie stepped in to address complaints about the place from Easthampton's town fathers. Once a beautiful mansion in the tony summer enclave for elite New Yorkers, it had gone to rack and ruin along with its two inhabitants.

Last week the owner of the restored Grey Gardens, journalist Sally Quinn, held a sale that drew fans from far and wide. They weren't there for mementos of Sally or her late husband, Ben Bradlee. The draw was the house itself and items that had belonged to the Beales.

The Edies in somewhat better days


At the very least, Edie and Little Edie were eccentric. They were most probably mentally ill. But they were happy. As seen in the Maysles' 1975 documentary, it might have been a warped mother/daughter relationship, but the bonds were strong. They depended on and were dependent on each other. They never saw anything amiss in the way they lived— in perfect squalor with multiple cats and raccoons. When Little Edie was finally persuaded to sell Grey Gardens  in 1979 she declared all it needed was a coat of paint.

 
There are at least 8 books written about Little Edie and Grey Gardens. This one, "Edith Bouvier Beale of Grey Gardens", is one of my favorites. It's a sympathetic look at her life with many pictures. She obviously always loved fashion and had the tall, rangy figure of a "woman who wore clothes well". By the time of the Maysles' film, she had honed her style to what suited her and made her happy. This in itself is a lesson we can all learn.

   
That mink coat, worn oh so casually over everything (even a leotard). Those head wraps to erase thoughts of any Bad Hair Day. Her mixing of genres and patterns— not easy to do as anyone who's tried may have realized. She had the absolute conviction of a woman who loved to dress up, knew when she had gotten it right and acted accordingly. She put herself out there and totally forgot what she was wearing.

The documentary has always made me somewhat uneasy. We are never sure how to view them, though they are a fascinating pair. Showtime 's "Grey Gardens", with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, is such a good companion piece it might almost need to be seen first.