The Vintage Fashion Guild: The Ultimate Vintage Fashion Resource!

March 31st, 2012

Daughter Mona and I were thrilled by yesterday’s USA Today article on “10 Great Places to Shop for Vintage Clothing” for a couple of reasons: Not only was Vintage included in the lineup—in some fabulous company to boot—but the very fact that the paper had run the article in the first place spoke to how vital a role vintage fashion now plays in contemporary culture.

As Mona pointed out to me this afternoon, the way we shop has made a very interesting full circle: From “dry goods” stores where clothes and accessories were boxed or in cabinets, to lavishly dressed windows tempting us in off fashionable city streets, to suburban malls with their sensory glut of mass-produced wares, to glossy self-service catalogs that one accesses via phone or internet, to… quirky, one-of-a-kind boutiques stocked with gorgeous, unique, well-made fashions with half a century and more of history behind them. (And the mash-up of Internet Age technology with garments from decades past that is the online clothing shop has to be the ultimate ironic twist!)

Anyway, as wonderful as it was to have a national article drawing up a crosscountry vintage shopping itinerary, I couldn’t help regretting deeply that  no mention was made of how many of the shops listed were owned by Vintage Fashion Guild members. So let me take this opportunity to emphasize that point, and to state in no uncertain terms that–whether what you’re after is the perfect vintage piece, or information on a particular vintage label or designer–the VFG truly is the Ultimate Vintage Fashion resource.

Vintage Fashion Guild members are knowledgeable and ethical professionals–on three continents!– “dedicated to the promotion and preservation of vintage fashion” (as the website sums it up). I’ve been a member of the VFG for almost 7 years now (the organization was founded in 2002), and in that time the depth of knowledge and commitment of its members has never ceased to astound me.

VFG members include every kind of vintage fashion professional, from the creme de la creme of online and “bricks and mortar” sellers to stellar authors, museum curators, costumers, and major collectors (and I’m sure there are other categories I’ve overlooked). You can shop member sites via the button named that way on the site’s home page (and be sure to avail yourself of the search tool on the page it links you to, in the blue menu bar on the right–it’s a great way to locate all the available offerings of, say, a 50s novelty print circle skirt). Plus, in addition to the wealth of information on vintage fashion available at the VFG website in the form of articles (linked to on the home page) and the legendary Label Resource, there is lively, ongoing learning on the Forums (where questions about mystery items get addressed by the experts in the relevant genre or period of vintage fashion).

So, to sum up the kudos above—spend some time browsing the information-dense VFG website, and whether you are looking for an online or bricks-and-mortar experience, shop VFG members!

(Here are the 2 photos of Vintage that ran in the USA Today article, along with a bonus photo of our March “rainbow of vintage color” window):

Photo in USA Today articlePhoto in USA Today article

Costume Power!

October 29th, 2011

october shop window

Since it’s practically erev Halloween, what better time for some etymological reflections on that curious word, “costume”?

Magnified (but still cross-eyed) scrutiny of my vintage 1971 Oxford-English dictionary reveals that “costume” had a rather elegant pronunciation (“costumé”) in mid-18th century France, and that the word is rooted in the Italian for “custom, use, wont, fashion, guise, habit, manner”. The Italian “costume/custom”, in turn, derived from the Latin “consuetudinem”, which early 18th century Italian artists used to refer to “guise or habit in artistic representation”, with the French and English soon following suit.

As for the word’s richly overlapping shades of meaning: The “costume” folks have been obsessing over in the past weeks is of course a kind of garment (sometimes mass-produced, sometimes creatively hodge-podged) meant to transform or disguise the identity of the wearer. But “costume” can also connote an ensemble appropriate to a particular activity or social occasion, such as the lust-inducing one the OED quotes Beaconsfield’s 1839 description of: “…a white silk costume with border trimmings of birds of paradise feathers”.

And, last but not least, the study of “costume”—or “the mode or fashion of personal attire and dress (including the way of wearing the hair, style of clothing and personal adornment) belonging to a particular nation, class or period”—has been an established field of scholarship since at least 1861, when Braun & Scheider’s gorgeously illustrated “The History of Costume” (which I would have grabbed at a recent estate sale if it hadn’t cost over 400 bucks) began appearing, plate by plate, in a German magazine.

What I’m marvelling at today is the way all these connotations layer at Halloween-time into a phyllo-wrapped pastry of desperation to impersonate convincingly and, if at all possible, spectacularly. This is Vintage’s second October as a source of authentic/period/one-off garb and accoutrements, and it is fascinating to see customers—despite the presence of the large, extremely well-stocked costume shop just a few doors down—coming in to hunt for some or all of the ingredients to a costume (in the white-silk-with-birds-of-paradise-feathers sense) that will impress their friends. (On a side note, it’s very interesting how often customers choose to be something they have a very shaky concept of—ie the 20-somethings who want to do a turn as a hippie–and extremely gratifying to me that they prefer trying to “nail” the look on the fly to knowing they could easily get it from a prefab get-up).

At any rate, if I had known what a blast it would be to serve as a local “costumier” (a. F. costumier), I would have opened my shop ages ago!

A quick anecdote, to illustrate the spell the costumic (“nonce-wd. Of or pertaining to costume”) collectively casts over us: When I did my October shop window (pictured at the top of this post), I had no idea whether anyone would recognize the characters I’d chosen to dress my mannis as. But lo and behold, even before I’d figured out how to make facial hair stick to fiberglass without permanently damaging it (and, more to the point, before I’d located a tell-tale raven prop), passersby kept popping in to tell me Poe’s moustache had fallen off again!

And finally, before signing off, I just have to share this recent photo of 2 of my favorite customers, whose appreciation of costumery (ko-stoo-muh-ree) combines a flair for wearing period and vintage garments (all year round, on an everyday basis) with a passion for authentic detail. His opera hat and suit are 1930s and his magnificent cloak is circa 1914; her coat is a man’s lined trenchcoat from the 50s, and her hat is a 60s wool felt pillbox.


Turns out you don’t need to wait for Halloween to explore the beauty and power of “costume” after all!

Frontline Fashion

June 2nd, 2011

The pleasant surprises we’ve run into since opening Vintage last August have run the gamut: Locals, baffled in the early days by a shop that didn’t stock multiple sizes, recently clamoring to try on a lovely but very imperfect display frock in the window… A repeat customer, clad head to toe in dark cloth, selecting huge, colorful mid-century silk scarves to use as hijabs… The trio of 80-year-old lunching ladies oohing and ahing over the shop and its smorgasbord of styles they’d worn back in the day, without finding anything as elegant as since…

But the most wonderful surprise of all–as well as the one that for me seals the deal on being a good “fit” for Waltham–was having professor Jill Carey of nearby Lasell College invite me to provide items for a pending exhibit called “Frontline Fashion” at the Charles River Museum of Industry (which I posted about in my last entry in this blog). I’d met Jill last autumn and been won over instantly by her warmth, intelligence, and passion for the study of fashion history (her specialty), so naturally the prospect of contributing to an exhibit she and her students were putting together was an exciting one. The icing on the cake, of course, would be getting some behind the scenes glimpses at the curatorial process.

“Frontline Fashion” , which opened at CRMI last Wednesday (and was reviewed by the Boston Globe yesterday and the Waltham Tribune last week),  juxtaposes military uniforms and gear from the Vietnam era through the Iraq Wars with the civilian fashions they influenced and inspired. Even when (thanks to having eavesdropped on Jill and her students planning them!) I’d anticipated certain pairings and groupings, I was totally unprepared for their visual punch when exhibited, especially when accompanied by text panels that provided context for and information about the various pieces. Some examples:

The 60s sweater on the left with patriotic emblems is from Lilly of California.

Bullion on a Navy officer’s suit, and on a Pat Sandler daffodil silk jersey pantsuit with beaded anchor embellishment.

An embroidered Mondi linen jacket, and a Sarah Coventry brooch surrounded by military medals.

Camouflage on a helmet visually echoed by a mid-90s Saks 5th Ave purse; the khaki purse is 60s.

A Mr. John hat next to two military examples; the rabbit peacoat is from too.

Can you distinguish the black military accessories from the civilian ones in the grouping below?

And, last but not least, my favorite pairing, which I would never have dreamt of linking (ironically, I suppose, I had never “seen” the camouflage print in the YSL suit’s gold lame!):

“Frontline Fashion” runs through October 9th, 2011; hope you’ll get a chance to check it out!

Waltham, Massachusetts’ Steampunk Moment

May 15th, 2011

Before they become historical artifacts themselves, I wanted to share photos from last weekend’s Steampunk International City extravaganza in Waltham, MA. Hosted by the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation (housed in an 1814 textile mill which was America’s first factory, and where an eye-poppingly imaginative exhibit called “Steampunk, Form & Function”  ran from October 2010 through last week), the festival was held as a fundraiser for the museum, still attempting to recover from flood damage in  March 2010.

It brought together thousands of costumed folk—a mix of locals and the international steampunk community—in what the official website described as a “sort of Ringling Brothers meets the Industrial Revolution event” that featured everything from Steampunk artists, performers, and vendors to themed lectures and workshops, a Victorian picnic, and a mock town hall meeting which debated whether or not to open a dirigible station.

I prepped Vintage for the fun by setting out a rack of period clothing (tailcoats, capes, late Victorian skirts, etc), assorted Steampunk headgear (including an antique blue velvet Knights of Pythias helmet), a shelf of antique beaded bags and curling irons, and, of course, a late Victorian edition of Jules Vernes’ “A Tour of the World in 80s Days”.

Things were too busy on Saturday for me to wander Waltham’s transformed downtown (I did that Sunday!), but happily enough, dozens of festival attendees sashayed into the shop in full costume.

Here’s a sampling of their fantastic (in every sense of the word) garb:

The gentleman in the photo below mournfully informed me that “they always have a token Indian” and that he was it!

The leather sewing cuff above strongly reminded me of the silver chatelaines Victorian ladies were so fond of (and which often dangled sewing implements like thimbles and scissors, just like this cuff), so I tracked down the leather artisan/vendor who’d made it on Sunday to ask if that had been his inspiration. He hadn’t heard of chatelaines before, but was intrigued and immediately put them on his “Victorian things to learn about” list!

The woman on the left had made her gorgeous skirt out of thrift store and project fabric remnants. She was in from Seattle to promote a role-playing game (I can’t remember the name correctly–sorry!–but it had a post-apocalyptic twist to it), and I learned from her that Steampunk has different regional strains; the Seattle and Portland variety tends to eschew all black in favor of a more colorful aesthetic (like hers!)

And here are two of my favorite (regular) customers, resplendent in their Steampunk finery (even after an umbrella-less encounter with the elements had necessitated a bit of tweaking to their ensembles):

Finally, here are a few of the pictures I snapped while out and about on Sunday:

The leather artisan in the picture above had set up his tent on the town green; the one below (who made the sewing cuff pictured earlier in this post) was in a vacant storefront that had been made over into a Steampunk marketplace.

And, on a final note, the rear view of a fabulous dress I almost missed altogether:

A Retail Bildungsröman, or Help! The Cash Register Has a Mind of Its Own

August 25th, 2010

Moody Street in Waltham, Massachusetts is the eighth wonder of the civilized world IMO. It serves up a vibrant mix of international cuisine (Thai, Indian, Mexican, Japanese, Korean fusion, Spanish, Italian, and Guatemalan) and a smorgasbord of independent (as in non-franchised, off-the-beaten track, anything-but-big-box) businesses—ethnic groceries, funky book- and gift shops, mom-and-pop beauty/nail salons and five-and-dimes, and (up a short side street) a semi-art movie theatre.

College kids, suburban visitors, and the multi-national local population alike stroll the cobblestone streets in search of everything from fabulous homemade ice cream, a wig at the costume shop, or halal groceries to the latest anime collectible or a great pedicure. All this, plus free parking on the street and in municipal lots.

Until last Wednesday, however, Moody Street didn’t have a vintage clothing store.

I’d noted this serious defect over 10 years ago without dreaming I’d someday be the one to correct it. But then early this spring, as I sat in the car alongside New Mother India while my husband went in to fetch our takeout dinner, I realized there were a handful of properties available for lease on the block (first time in a blue moon, courtesy of the economic pinch). I thought briefly of my storage units, exploding with stock, and of my wonderful daughter’s current availability (not to mention her knack for really rocking a vintage dress). And, as they say, the course of history did an about-face so fast it burned rubber.

Fast forward five months, and what will you find sandwiched between the optometrist and hair salon across from the tapas joint? Why Vintage, of course:

I had a blast assembling a shop out of yardsale and used store fixturing finds, with a soupcón of Home Depot, Ikea, and mid-century furniture from my childhood home thrown in. The color scheme (blue walls and white “pine” floor) was blithely plagiarized from my favorite room at home, and in addition to the semi-permanent fitting rooms and partition executed to spec by a very talented contractor, additional gobs of labor were supplied by my dear, dear husband.

I’m still working on getting a sign out front (my lease has strict and tricky-to-execute signage requirements), and even with a cheatsheet I seem to end up voiding half of the cash register ring-ups I do. But not to worry— Vintage has arrived!

Be sure to drop by and check out the (almost) finished product for yourself, and in the meantime, here are some before and after pics for your delectation:

The store mascot…

The glitz and chotchke cases…

And, last but not least, a jumbo puzzle from Ikea…

Some Rhetorical Questions, & A Label To Watch For

June 14th, 2009

One of the things I love most about the Vintage Fashion Guild is how discussions there often give me a bracing philosophical workout, thanks to the incredibly diverse expertise and talent (and passionate commitment to vintage fashion) of its members. Some questions I’m still mulling over after being a fly on the wall during debates there are:

When a scissored 70s maxi flaunts the upper thighs of a pigeon-toed eBay model, is that an example of reconstructed vintage? A contemporary riff on “Make do and Mend”?

When the pigeon-toed model hikes a skirt up to her shoulders and renames it a strapless dress, is she deconstructing vintage? Channeling Little Edie?

When fashion designers send their employees to comb vintage shows, shops, and websites for garments and accessories to incorporate (sometimes tweaked, sometimes not) in their current lines, where precisely does one draw the line between retro-inspiration and unredeemed plagiarism?

When the 85 employees of New Jersey’s Trans Americas Trading Company sort 70,000 pounds of used clothing daily (including 50% of what has been donated to Goodwill) into 300 different grades (including “Premium/Crème”, when items are near-perfect or retain their store tags) and then sell it to the Third World, is that landfill-bypassing “green” commerce or the inevitable result of cheap mass production run amok?

When a blotto supermodel goes clubbing in a vintage satin wedding gown and, after its train gets wrecked by a sloshed, Sasquatch-footed grunge rocker’s widow, rips yards of fabric off and knots the ragged hem thigh high, is she more contemptible, or less, than an online vendor of chopped 70s maxis? How does the age and value of the dress she’s trashed factor in? How about the fact that she hawks a line of “vintage-inspired” clothes herself (with her design approach tending toward the unredeemed end of the spectrum)?

Fortunately, the nauseous headache I get pondering such questions can always be remedied with a little shopping therapy at the selling venues of the VFG membership.

…which brings me to the second topic this post will be addressing:

ecouture label

A new label, eCouture by Jenkins & Evans, that resolves the ethical quandaries raised above, as well as the ones you may regularly face re getting dressed in the morning–from how to indulge your taste for stylish one-of-a-kind fashions without going into debt, to how to stock your closets without ultimately helping stock the nation’s landfills, to whether vintage clothing ought to be enjoyed through actual use or carefully preserved for posterity. Upcycled from natural fiber modern clothing, and styled with an effort to preserve (as the site puts it) “the best and most labor intensive construction features of the existing garment whenever possible”, eCouture’s creations honor the spirit of vintage fashion without stripmining irreplaceable examples of it for their raw material.

Here’s where I get to brag about the eCouture lovely now hanging in my closet, which I received last week, and which was that rarest of online sales phenomena—the purchase that arrives on your doorstep miraculously looking (and feeling!) even better than it did in the pictures on your laptop.

Not only did the cool, silky fabric; sophisticated overdress styling; and ultra-comfy-yet-flattering smocked bodice reduce me instantly to admiring but incoherent oohs and ahs, the quality of the finishing was so expert, and the coordinating border and underskirt prints so artistically paired, that I immediately sent off a rapturous email to Hollis Jenkin-Evans, the creatrix of this brilliant garment, and was rewarded for my gushiness with some fascinating info about its origins. Turns out the ingredients had been a 90s plus size rayon skirt (the black underskirt), a smocked top (the bodice), and a floor length wrap skirt (the skirt of the dress). Somehow Hollis had snipped and sewn and gotten all the proportions to work just so, and then finished it off with a black ribbon from another project, and a mother-of-pearl buckle gotten courtesy of a “giveaway” (I like the sound of that!) at her local opera.

And she didn’t stop there—she used the excess bodice and skirt fabric to make a blouse, currently available at her store.

NOTE: For more great recycled/reconstructed fashion made ethically by VFG sellers, check out sugarlids and listitcafe.

Also, my MIL has reported back on the mystery (see previous post) of what she was costumed as at that party on her first cruise: She was a jewelry box!

Selma's Look Book

May 24th, 2009

Usually style icons are a bit like the late day sun—blinding and larger-than-life as they invade the horizon, casting impossibly long shadows which tangle with every step you take. Even if you’re the furthest thing from a fashionista, you can’t escape their influence, and if you’re the teensiest bit susceptible to trend-fever, you’ll risk melanoma to bask in their glow. They tend to be celebrities, with the minutae of their clothing, hair, and accessory choices obsessively tracked by the media, and with the contents of their wardrobes prone to showing up in museum exhibits and at elite auction houses. They organize the collective unconscious and fine-tune its menu of persona options as arbitrarily as Mr. Blackwell’s lists, and when, intentionally or not, you channel a style icon as you get dressed in the morning, chances are a sizeable number of people (not necessarily in your age, ethnicity, or gender bracket) are doing the very same thing.

Of course, if you’re very, very lucky, you’ll be well-acquainted enough with a style icon to regularly enjoy Maxwell House-scripted seders, the world’s best Thanksgiving split pea soup, December 25th Broadway shows, and rambunctious annual multi-generational gatherings (like this weekend’s) with one—not because the events alluded to above were paparazzi-stalked, society column fare, but because you happened to have married said style icon’s son.

Yup, Mom, all this has been a staggeringly terse preamble to your official 80th birthday tribute, a celebration of your unfailing, one-in-a-million, impeccable-but-never-predictable sense of style, which I began taking copious notes on long before you stopped scaring the living daylights out of me. (Guess it’s high time I ‘fessed up: The reason you had so much trouble prying conversation out of me as a newlywed was that I’d never met someone as tall, elegant, and bold as you, and quite simply, every time we were alone together in the same room, I would panic and go mentally blank.)

It took me almost a decade to grasp the extent of your kindness, intelligence, and commitment to your family, and a couple more beyond that to recognize the incredible variety of ways in which you’ve been my role model, in matters ranging from how to choreograph a world-class simcha to how to approach aging with 1) an intrepid Bronx accent and 2) mind-boggling grace.

Your uncanny failure to age the way people are supposed to (which led a friend who met you during our New Mexico years to ask whether you were Jordan’s sister or his mother) is the natural starting point for this photo essay, since no one has figured out yet whether it’s the result of your hitting the ultimate genetic jackpot or your principled, lifelong opposition to exercise. Here you are with Dad in the early 90s, surrounded by your kids and their families at your surprise 40th anniversary party. Note that, while the rest of us are blotches of nondescript, shadowy color topped by a slightly more defined face, you are the indisputable focal point of the composition in your crisp black and white tunic and amazing frosted hairdo. 40thanniv

Just in case you—or anyone else—thinks your exuberant smile, your regal carriage, or your ability to inject a shot of drop-dead color into the drabbest snapshot has fluctuated over the years, here you are at 15 years old, in 1944:

Even this totally black-and-white photo from the following year shows your knack for high-impact color contrasts—a winter white jacket with dark box purse, shoes, and long gloves:
And here you are, four years later, the sophisticated shorter length to your hair a perfect complement to your glamorous attire (voluminous-sleeved fur chubby, hat the size of a holiday platter, trumpet hemmed skirt, and what appear to be ankle-strap shoes):

I love the way the train of your wedding dress is pooled around you and Dad, the ivory satin folds and frothy spills of lace lapping at your legs, which are hidden somewhere underneath all that lustrous fabric. (I know you gave me this dress to sell in my shop, but I’ve decided to hang onto it till your granddaughters are married, just in case, and admire the dozens of buttons climbing the sleeves and back in the meantime…):
Here you are on your honeymoon in Florida in ’51, in a crisp white shirt, wide trousers, and leather cummerbund with dramatic buckle that makes the “statement” belts of the 80s look like wannabes in comparison (and, BTW, Hepburn’s got nothin’ on ya):
Another shot from the honeymoon, showing how effortlessly you carried off the New Look silhouette, again setting off your white or cream-colored dress with sheer, dark wrist-length gloves (let me digress here to gape at Dad’s gorgeous tie, and wonder if you bought if for him…?):
What a terrific coiffure you whipped up (pun intended!) to work in Dr Ginsburg’s office:
And it’s hard for me to accept that this was shot not on the French Riviera but in Far Rockaway…
Another gravity-defying feat you somehow pulled off was managing to sail through pregnancy without much visible effect and then, after giving birth, immediately reverting to your former size: 

Read the rest of this entry »

A Wardrobe Malfunction at the Opera, or “Deadstock Devil Dust” Is Not an Oxymoron

March 21st, 2009

Last night, after a family chowdown at her favorite Korean/sushi restaurant, I took my daughter to the opera to celebrate her 22nd birthday. I’ve been taking her to “birthday ballets” since she was 9 or so, but this was her first opera (and, as a new subscriber to the Boston Lyric Opera, only my third!). She was a picture of loveliness in her DVF wrap dress and stiletto-heeled boots (if you’re wondering how she maneuvered the cobblestones to and from the parking garage in them, all I can aphorize is that youthful ankles work in mysterious ways…)

As for me, I threw together an outfit—mostly vintage–in the last 10 minutes before rushing out, mostly by pulling out some of my favorite pieces and trusting that the common denominator of their 50s silhouette (and the fact that I really, really love them) would result in a outfit that looked like I’d actually put some thought into it. I wore this:

opera duds

with a cropped cream turtleneck sweater and (non-stiletto) black leather boots. Accessories included this chunky glass mabe pearl choker:

along with a Trifari hinged bangle and baby blue leather gloves, all of it wrapped together under my sinfully soft Harilela’s Hong Kong black cashmere coat (which has the original owner’s monogram as well as a matching pencil skirt I rarely wear since I’m not built like a pencil and appreciate the freedom to exhale now and then). And to keep license, keys, and opera tickets safe, I took this black wool Triangle purse out for its second test drive (it was “new old stock”–aka unworn virgin vintage–when I bought it a couple of years ago):
triangle purse
All in all, a pretty spiffy ensemble for a chronically discombobulated phase of my life, and I escorted my daughter along, gratified and a little surprised that everything was running quite so smoothly. Then, however, I got confused about the location of the theater, parked on the topmost floor of a labyrinthine garage in Timbuktu, and, emerging flustered and flubber-fingered, dropped my purse on the elevator floor, whereupon it sustained simultaneous splits to the satin lining and bottom exterior seam and began effusing anthrax-scary clouds of gritty orange powder. Both my brief flirtation with composure and my lovely purse were, as they say, toast.

Apparently, even without a single visible sign of wear, the purse had been aging steadily through the years. The bright goldtone frame, unfaded wool body, and immaculate satin lining belied the disintegration of the cardboard that shaped and structured the purse, as well as of the thread that stitched it together. I spent the duration of the evening holding the oversized (12” x 16”) purse as though it were a clutch, trying to keep its innards from spilling out while performing stunts like milling around at intermission with a bottle of water in the other hand or buttoning my coat up when it was time to go. (My daughter wasn’t carrying a purse herself, so aforementioned essentials like car keys and license, not to mention a crisp bill for the parking garage, still stood their best chance of survival inside my exploded handbag). My fingertips were dusted in iron oxide, my wallet was coated in Shake and Bake, and my brush, if used, might have simulated a badly-done henna glaze.

Fortunately, the opera (“Rusalka”) was great fun: Gorgeous singing, impressive staging (rather than props or elaborate sets, wizardry with lighting and projected images created the enchanted realm underwater), and, most endearingly of all, amusement on my daughter’s part to find herself watching a highbrow version of “The Little Mermaid”. (She did speak contemptuously of the plot, which subordinated a magical female being’s destiny to that of a “jerky” Prince, and observed that opera fans are an incredibly opinionated bunch).

I’m still not happy my purse met its demise in a haze of devil dust, but I humbly accept the reminder that vintage requires very, very gentle (and sometimes limited) usage because, in addition to being a fascinating, often very well made, “green” antidote to mall fashion—it’s OLD.

An Art History Detour You Can Dangle from Your Wrist

February 28th, 2009

At last, my blog has regained consciousness! I won’t bore you with a detailed explanation of how it wound up in a persistent vegetative state; suffice it to say that a server crash last year did have something to do with why the old posts here are still incompletely restored, and also that I myself never went “offline”. Au contraire, I’ve been continuously hunting down, researching, and purveying vintage goodies with gusto, as well as bubbling over nonstop with things I’m dying to blog about. One of them is this purse, which I just listed in my shop last week:

les trapezistes print purse

I spied it on an HMS Insomnia cruise of eBay purse listings, poorly photographed and described with great exactitude as a “really retro purse”.  (I really can’t account for why, when I’m massively stressed out, sleep deprived, and just this side of brain dead, my skills at detecting a vintage purse’s fabulosity in a crummy ¾” x ½” gallery thumbnail are at their peak; all I can do is be grateful for my strange gift, I suppose…)

A couple of days later, when I proudly posted a pic of the purse for the delectation of my colleagues at the Vintage Fashion Guild, my description of it was only marginally better than the eBay seller’s (in my inventory spreadsheet, I had it tagged as “circus theme purse”), but I had already begun obsessing over the print on it, the imagery of which seemed awfully familiar somehow. Finally, on an investigative lark soon after, I submitted an evolving string of terms to the Google search engine, including various combinations of the words “trapeze artists” and “le cirque” (don’t ask me why, I don’t speak French, my snooty introductory clause in the first paragraph to this entry notwithstanding) and eventually stumbled on a link to a poster of a Fernand Leger lithograph.

Bingo! Now I knew why the line drawings of the dangling (and floating) trapeze artists with Amazonian torsos and curiously sausage-like bent limbs had such a nagging familiarity to it—it reminded me of Fernand Leger, who I’d gobbled up a few art books about in my twenties and not thought all that much about since. Since the poster I’d found was clearly but inexactly related to my purse, I fed not a timid run of quarters but a cocky whole dollar (the phrase “les trapezistes”, which you’ll never catch me mangling out loud, in public) into Google’s mysterious slot machine. And, lo and behold, I found myself looking at Leger’s oil on canvas work “Les Trapezistes”, which currently hangs in the National Gallery of Australia (and which must be displayed on a pretty darn good-sized wall, as it’s approximately 12 feet square). Between the superimposed color blocks and stripes; the at-right-angles position of the “trapezistes”; and the half-“Tubist” (as a punning early Leger critic put it), half-crime-scene-silhouette quality to the figures, I knew I’d found the artistic source of the print on my purse:

A puzzle remained, though, which was keeping me from dating the purse with confidence: According to the blurb on the NGA site, “Les Trapezistes” had been commissioned by art collector/historian Douglas Cooper for his restored French chateau, completed by Leger in 1954, and esconced in the “Chateau de Castille” till Cooper sold it in 1976. That meant that it hadn’t entered the public’s visual lexicon till the mid-70s and couldn’t have inspired my purse over twenty years earlier, which is when the purse’s shape and style dated it to. So I emailed a query to the NGA’s curator, Christine Dixon, about whether Leger’s painting had perhaps spawned a line of spinoff merchandise (beyond the “limited edition” tapestries mentioned in the blurb). Amazingly enough, she replied!

Prior to appearing in the Cooper-commissioned painting, Ms. Dixon informed me, the trapeze artists on my purse had made their debut in a book (or, more accurately, a portfolio) of lithographs by Leger published in 1951 and titled “Cirque”; she attached a fuzzy jpeg of the relevant plate, and after Googling for another week (I kid you not) I found a crisp online version of “Cirque” in its entirety at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s site. If you’ve got time, you should by all means browse the whole book; if not, just check out the image below (which appear on pages 52 & 53). The cheerfully colored, lickety-split patent; exaggerated oblong shape; and ladylike clasp beneath a boldly arched horseshoe of a handle all said my purse was chic early 50s. The scribbly, atomic era print on it had been cribbed from a famous artist’s early 50s artwork. The purse was early 50s: Case very, very satisfyingly closed.

pages5253 printcloseup

Sartorial Semiotics Part III

September 21st, 2008

Having stretched this trio of meditations on my father’s taste in menswear over a time frame unprecedented in the blogosphere, I suppose it’s only fair I get around to explaining my highfalutin title. Why, you may have wondered, did I opt for something evocative of the oxygen-starved, jargon-giddy seminar on critical theory I ran screaming from in graduate school? Quite simply, because it captures the simple truth that my father’s personal style signaled flashes of who he was (or wanted to be), even if he himself kept fairly mum on the topic.Here are two more photos of him which offer sartorial clues to his well-concealed identity:

dad in hawaii

In this first one, he compensates for the lack of a splashy floral print on his buttondown sport shirt by wearing it untucked and accessorized with a lei. Taken on a “parents-only” trip to Hawaii in 1970 (I was in sleepaway camp, and my middle half-sister had recently moved out on her own), the photo is notable both for the expression of nirvana-level delight on my father’s face, and the fact that he seems to have responded to Oahu’s breezes by channelling the spirit of the Aloha shirts he’d grown up seeing on everyone from Bing Crosby and Harry Truman to Montgomery Clift and Johnny Weissmuller (aka Tarzan). I don’t know that he ever actually owned a Hawaiian shirt, come to think of it, though I do remember adding this shirt to my high school wardrobe, where it formed an ensemble with much-patched jeans and tooled buffalo hide sandals. By then, it had mellowed, its plaid not so bright, its worn fabric silky and coarse as a pair of snagged nylons