The promise of escape and transformation is an essential element of glamour and the subject of chapter three of my book. The connection between glamour and escape is one reason transportation vehicles figure so prominently in its iconography.
In the 20th century, particularly during the period between the World Wars, glamour, escape, speed, modernity, and “the future” were all connected in the public imagination. I argue in chapter seven that, in fact, glamour provided a way for people to figure out what modernity meant and how they felt about it.
In the 1950s and ’60s, glamorous visions of transportation technology offered a more speculative version of “futuristic” escape that still sparks longings today.
No discussion of futuristic glamour and escapism is complete without a little Star Trek. (See this Bloomberg View column for more on the nature of Star Trek's glamour.)
All photos and quotes are from The Power of Glamour, to be published November 5 by Simon & Schuster. If you pre-order the book and email me your info at firstname.lastname@example.org (be sure to use this address not my DeepGlamour address), I'll send you a signed book plate.
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One of the biggest misconceptions about glamour is that it is somehow feminine. Men are as susceptible to glamour as women, but it takes different forms for different audiences. One of the first uses of the word glamour in the modern sense was in reference to "the glamour of battle," and martial glamour is one of glamour's most ancient forms.
One of the delightful discoveries during my research was the work of photographer Virginia Thoren, who specialized in glamorously portraying fur coats in mid-20th-century ads. I hope to feature an interview with her in a later DG post but, in the meantime, you can see more of her work at the June Bateman Fine Art site.
Mystery is an essential element of glamour and the subject of chapter five of The Power of Glamour.
The Power of Glamour will be published November 5. You can pre-order the book here.
[Julius Shulman's photo of the Kaufmann House © J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with Permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10). Model in Silverblue Mink, 1956, copyright Virginia Thoren, courtesy of June Bateman Fine Art and The Virginia Thoren Collection at the Pratt Institute Libraries.]
Technorati Tags: androgynous style, androgyny, fur, glamour, Julius Shulman, Marlene Dietrich, martial glamour, military glamour, mink, mystery, The Power of Glamour, Virginia Postrel, Virginia Thoren
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In her book Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride, recently released in paperback, Alyssa Harad tells the story of how she came to know and love the world of perfume. In this excerpt, she ventures from her bohemian life in Austin into the foreign territory of Bergdorf Goodman in search of legendary fragrances.
“Is Madame familiar with the Clive Christian line?” asked the sales assistant.
Her thick, dark hair was smoothed back into a chignon, and the slim, elegant length of her was clothed in expertly tailored black, from the sharp collar of her silk shirt right down to the tips of her rather high heels. I stood up a little straighter and tucked an errant curl behind my ear. Yes, I said, I knew of the line. But I was looking for the JAR boutique.
“Ah, JAR,” she sighed. “Yes, of course. I like these perfumes very much. Let me show you.”
She led me into a tiny alcove off the main floor and delivered me to an immaculate, silver-haired man with a broad chest, large, square hands, and the bearing of a career diplomat.
“This is Robert,” she said, gesturing toward the diplomat. He shook my hand solemnly. “Robert, this young lady would like to have the JAR experience.”
At Robert’s request, I sat down on a soft, low chair in front of a small, black-lacquered table that held a collection of old-fashioned bell jars. Everything was swathed in shadow: the chair a maroon velvet, the carpet dark lilac gray, the walls covered in deep mauve. Two small spotlights punctuated the sepulchral gloom, glinting off the glass domes on the table and the silver in Robert’s hair.
Leaning forward slightly, Robert began to talk. First he told the story of the room and the mural and how many times JAR—who had flown in himself from Paris to oversee the work—had it repainted to meet his strict standards. I squirmed and snuck a look at the unlabeled bell jars. If the perfume blogs were to be trusted, each of them held a square of cotton soaked in perfume. Robert ignored my glance and continued telling me, in the same unhurried, respectful tones, the story of Joel Arthur Rosenthal, from the Bronx, and how he found his true métier in Paris as a jeweler for the very discriminating (and very rich) and became the capital-letters-no-periods figure he is today.
Then, turning a large leather binder around to face me, he began to page slowly through glossy color photos of JAR jewelry. Dazzling pavé surfaces floated up under the bright spotlight. Thousands upon thousands of tiny diamonds, emeralds, rubies, amethysts, citrons, and sapphires set in tiny hand-drilled holes made swirling patterns, unearthly flowers, shimmering butterflies and insects. Robert was dropping the names of movie stars and the wives of politicians and billionaires, and I was thinking about compulsion, perfectionism, and patronage—czars and pharaohs, Napoleon and the Medicis. And occasionally, it must be admitted, of Las Vegas: Pavé is not a technique that lends itself to sleek, modernist restraint.
At last we arrived at the moment when JAR decided to create his own perfumes—perfumes worthy of the name JAR. Robert paused, leaned back in his chair, and moved the bell jars to the center of the table.
“Are you ready to experience the perfumes now?” he asked. For a moment I thought I saw a glint of irony in his eyes. Resisting the impulse to wink, I inclined my head gravely.
One by one, he slid the jars in front of me, whisked off the glass, and tipped the base forward for me to sniff at the accumulated vapors as they escaped into the air. They went by like a series of fever dreams: a cloud of fiery clove-and-cinnamon-edged carnations thick and lush enough to drown in. Dirty hay and ripe animal—the filthiest, sexiest, most expensive barnyard in the world. An acre of gardenias blooming furiously in moist dirt and humid air. Carnations again, but lighter, touched with a sparkling chill and trailing other flowers and something like incense behind them. Berries and wine at the end of a perfect sunny afternoon. Something dark and sharp, smelling of dust, roots, caves, and cellars. And then something—
“Could I smell that one again, please?”
Obligingly, Robert tipped the jar toward me a second time.
And there it was again. The smell of the air just after a summer thunderstorm—an astonishing scent of trampled grass, broken branches, bruised flowers, and electricity. I closed my eyes and inhaled a third time, grateful for the dim quiet of the little alcove.
‟They went by like a series of fever dreams: a cloud of fiery clove-and-cinnamon-edged carnations thick and lush enough to drown in. Dirty hay and ripe animal—the filthiest, sexiest, most expensive barnyard in the world. An acre of gardenias blooming furiously in moist dirt and humid air. Carnations again, but lighter, touched with a sparkling chill and trailing other flowers and something like incense behind them. Berries and wine at the end of a perfect sunny afternoon. Something dark and sharp, smelling of dust, roots, caves, and cellars. And then something—”
With a start, I remembered that Robert was holding the jar for me. I opened my eyes and leaned back. We looked at one another again. This time, fortified by the perfume, I grinned, and was rewarded with a faint smile, the gentle irony on clear display now.
“Would you like to try one of them on your skin?” he asked.
Of course I did. I wanted to try all of them. But I knew my greed would only make it impossible to smell any of them properly.
“May I wait a moment and then smell them again to choose one?”
We waited. Feeling that some kind of conversation was required, I leaned forward and confessed that I had come all the way from Texas to smell the perfumes.
“They’re like celebrities to me,” I said. “I can’t believe I actually get to see and meet them in person.”
His smile widened, “Oh, yes, I know what you’re talking about. I’m from Oklahoma. I remember feeling that way about a lot of things in the city.” He paused and sighed. “Some of them lived up to my expectations. Some did not.”
We had a moment of silence, thinking about cities and dreams.
And we went through them all again, though I already knew which one I would choose. I told Robert, and with great ceremony he anointed the back of my hand. We rose, I thanked him, and without a trace of self-consciousness we bowed slightly to one another, two courtiers taking their leave. Neither of us said a word about money.
Excerpted with permission from Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride. Copyright © Alyssa Harad 2012.
Alyssa will be at Green Apple Books and Music in San Francisco tonight at 7 p.m. and at The Scent Bar in Los Angeles Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m. For more on her West Coast book tour, which also includes Portland and Seattle, go here.
Enter to win a copy of Coming to My Senses here.
In Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride, Alyssa Harad tells the story of how she found herself obsessed with perfume and how, through that obsession, she came to integrate the sensory and creative sides of her personality into her intellectual life. The book recently came out in paperback, and Alyssa begins a West Coast book tour this Thursday in San Francisco, followed by L.A., Portland, and Seattle (details here). Tomorrow we'll be running an excerpt from the book, and you can enter to win a copy here. As an introduction, DG's Virginia Postrel talked to Alyssa by phone.
VP: I like perfume, but I find it somewhat intimidating. It’s like wine—it’s complicated, hard to learn about without a lot of investment and direct experience. You can’t just read about it or look at pictures and get a sense for it. In your memoir, you talk about going to a local smelling salon, which is not something most of us have access to. And you also do this great thing where you introduce friends to perfumes. You bring them over samples that you think they might like and you tell the stories of the perfumes and you let them try them. For people who don’t have either of those options, what do you recommend?
AH: I didn’t have either of those options when I started out. I began reading the blogs. And I started with Now Smell This, which is a very typical place for people to start, and Bois de Jasmin. Both of those blogs have archives that you can search by perfume and Bois de Jasmin has an archive you can search by note, so you can look for things that you think you like. Then I would take that new language and order some samples or you can go to a perfume counter, if you’re lucky enough to have one—I didn’t really have one—and try a few things. It does get pricey, but it’s a lot cheaper than wine, I can tell you that. If wine came in $3.00 samples, I would know a lot more about wine than I do right now.
AH: Exactly. For me it was very similar to learning about a new cuisine. The first time you have Thai food you’re just sort of dazzled by all the flavors. And then the third time you have it you learn that, oh, that thing you really like is called lemongrass. And then you go read a cookbook and you learn that all the creaminess comes from coconut milk. So each of these things has its own vocabulary, and I think maybe the reason perfume is intimidating to people, besides the fact that the industry has given us absolutely no way to organize and decipher what they produce...
VP: What do you mean?
AH: When you go to a wine shop it’s organized by region and type of wine, right? So you know you like cabernet, you go look at the cabernet section. But perfume is a branded commodity, so each brand is trying to sell you a little piece of its empire, and each brand has its own array of scents within the brand. And the myth, the fiction, is that you will find everything you need within a certain line and you’ll be loyal to that brand.
VP: Which is interesting, because fashion doesn’t work that way. The idea of a fashion brand is that the brand has a personality.
AH: The lines, when they’re good, do have personality, but there’s another way to view perfume beyond the brand, which is by of language of scent that’s common to perfume. So you might figure out that you really like the smell of vanilla or you really like the smell of vetiver, which you might even not know what that is or what that smells like until you start reading and smelling perfume. And then when you do, there’s really no way for you to go to a mainstream perfume counter and find all the vetiver perfume.
The genius of the Jo Malone brand is that they actually named the perfumes after the things they smelled like. And a few of the niche brands began with perfumes that were decipherable as photorealistic smells. If you knew it smelled like in the world you could match it to the perfume. The Demeter line, which is a super fun line that shows up in some high-end grocery stores and hip boutiques, has a whole bunch of very, very simple one-note perfumes that have names like Dirt and Play-doh—and that’s what they smell like.
I started with perfumes like that—that were easy to decipher. It’s so rare for most people to really think about smells that people feel sure they have no vocabulary, or even that they don’t smell anything at all, until you put it in front of them. So I have this experience all the time where I’ll tell somebody, “Smell this. It smells likes lemons and basil.” And they look at me like I’m crazy and then they smell it and they say, “Oh my god, it really smells like lemons and basil.” (laughter) They’re so shocked that they’re able to identify the scent. And I have to say, I have never seen someone have that experience more than once in a row and not want to have it again. It’s a very addictive experience to discover that you have this capacity to identify things in the world. And, you know, that’s the beginning of the end.
VP: One of the these things I found frustrating about your book is that you would talk about a scent but you would never give its name, and I wondered why that was.
AH: The main reason, as I do state in the author’s note, which is that the scents are discontinued and reformulated so quickly that I was genuinely afraid that I would describe things in the book and then people would go and find them and they would smell nothing like what I had described. I didn’t want people to be thinking, “She’s crazy. This doesn’t smell like that.” (laughter)
The more subtle reason was that there were so many brand names in the book that it began feel like an infomercial for perfume, and there were moments when I really wanted the reader to be thinking about whatever imaginary scents they were conjuring up in their head and the emotion of the theme, rather than writing something down on their shopping list.
Then the final reason is that some of these perfumes don’t smell that way to me anymore. So the perfume I’m describing to you is the perfume as I smelled it in that moment. The biggest one of these for me is the honey perfume that I talk about in chapter two.
AH: That perfume—well, first of all, the name of that perfume is Botrytis, which you probably know from the wine world is the noble rot. It sounds like a disease, because that’s what it is. So I would have had this long explanation of why I fell in love with a perfume named after a disease in the middle of this touching love scene. (laughter) So, there was that sort of writerly problem.
Also I still really like it a lot, but it’s not quite the same thing to me now as it was when I first smelled it. I wanted a chance to explain that to people when I revealed the name. I assumed that the book would have an afterlife online and that it wouldn’t be the beginning and the end of the reader’s experience. So it didn’t seem too torturous to have people wait until I told them online what all the perfumes where.
I have been a little behind, of course, in putting them all in one place for the website. But in the meantime, if people really, really want to know something, they can just ask me. I tell people all the time.
VP: You kept discovering people who love perfume but never talk about it, or at least you didn’t know about it. I remember one of your husband’s super macho relatives was an example. Is this some kind of ‟don’t ask don’t tell” thing, or was it just that it hadn’t come up because you hadn’t been interested in perfume?
AH: Probably a little bit of both. I think for the people who collect it—who have more than one bottle or maybe more than 10 bottles—it’s kind of a don’t ask don’t tell thing. Unlike collecting art or even collecting wine or music, there’s no broader cultural context for collecting perfume. So it really is a genuinely odd thing to do right now, and I think in recent years perfume has almost become taboo. There’s been a lot of blowback I think, though people don’t wear perfume in the extravagant public way that they used to wear, say, in the ’80s when everybody could still smoke in public. So people might be wearing a lot of perfume, smoking, and wearing a lot of hairspray. (laughter) There was just a lot more olfactory noise going on. Now everybody is trying to be very clean, and there’s a lot of talk of allergies, and perfume is a very easy target. Most workplaces are scent-free. So it’s not something that people comment on.
‟Unlike collecting art or even collecting wine or music, there’s no broader cultural context for collecting perfume. So it really is a genuinely odd thing to do right now, and I think in recent years perfume has almost become taboo.”
VP: When you say most workplaces are scent-free, do you mean they are de facto scent-free or they actually have “don’t wear perfume” policies?
AH: It depends on where you work. There’s definitely a lot of talk about the ‟office scent.” You can see that in the women’s magazines. If you’re going to wear a scent at the office, it’s presumed that you will wear something that’s very quiet and very clean and will not offend anybody. And many workplaces actually have a no-scent policy. If you work in any aspect of health care, for example. There are a lot of nurses in the perfume community and they’re full of these little tricks that they do to just have a tiny bit of scent to keep them going through the night shift.
VP: I first heard about the book by reading an excerpt in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which I thought was a brilliant place to put an excerpt because the book is only ostensibly about perfume. The bigger story, as the title suggests, is about an intellectual—specifically an intellectual woman, specifically a feminist intellectual woman—learning that it is OK to find pleasure and meaning in something that’s sensory and supposedly frivolous. Although we come from very different places, I identified with that.
I’m always struck by how people who would never dismiss music or food or even sex—it’s fine to talk about sex all day long—have so much trouble with visual or olfactory or tactile pleasures. One way to turn this rant into a question is to say one of your friends said, “I just don’t want to be the kind of woman who wears perfume.” What is that statement about? What is she getting at?
AH: Oh, god, you would have to ask her. I feel like I knew the answer to that question before I got into perfume, because I felt that way, and then somewhere along the line the number of people I knew who wore perfume and the ladies who wore it became so diverse that I had trouble conjuring up who that woman was that I was afraid of.
I know that for me it has a lot to do, not even so much with being intellectual, as there’s a certain kind of traditional femininity that I associate or that I associated—I’ve changed quite a bit on this—with things like blowing your hair dry on a regular basis and wearing high heels and wearing foundation makeup every day. A sort of very groomed, very high femme presentation that was very straight in all senses of the word.
It wasn’t so much that I didn’t like people like that—it was just that I had failed. (laughter) Growing up in Boise, Idaho, I was in the land of ladies who are very put together like that. And I always thought there was some kind of rulebook that I had missed out on. It wasn’t even that I was in rebellion—I was just sort of failing. (laughter) And so I had to go and look for other ways to be a girl and to be a woman, and they didn’t seem to come along with things like perfume. So this adventure, both with the perfume and dealing with becoming a bride, was my way of rethinking and feeling my way into that kind of femininity, and looking for all the ways it could be expanded and maybe all the ways that I had been wrong about it. And it turned out that a lot of it was actually very important to me and connected to creativity as well.
So for me this isn’t as much a story about going from academic work to creative work as it is about going from intellectuality to sensuality.
VP: People often say, “Why are shoes so popular for women? Why are they so meaningful?” and one answer is, “Well, the reason is women of all sizes and shapes can wear beautiful shoes.” Given my history with shoes, I’m not entirely sure that’s true…
AH: Me neither. (laughter)
VP: …but it’s sort of true. And the same thing is true of perfume. You don’t have to be a size two or even a size six to wear really wonderful perfume. Maybe some of the appeal is that because it is so intangible some of the constraints that women are used to thinking about are not there.
AH: I think that’s definitely true. I know that for me perfume is a way of embodying the kind of invisible selves that you carry around with you. It’s a way of making a fantasy self into something that’s present, although perhaps still invisible. But not maybe as invisible as it was when you were just thinking about it, because people do smell you and you smell yourself and you walk a different way, and you you present yourself to people a different way and you might, if you’re me, be inspired to make your outsides match those more tangible fantasies that you’re now having.
VP: Can you give us some examples of ways that you do that?
AH: With these sort of grand French perfumes that are very “night of the opera” perfumes, I can be fairly messy but be wearing vintage jewelry and some red lipstick, and I just feel dressed up. I no longer feel like a schlump (laughter) without necessarily having to fit into the clothes that might match that, or wear shoes that make my feet uncomfortable. It gives me a very easy way of trying on a whole new persona and carrying it around with me during the day.
I was just talking to the manager at Lucky Scents, the Scent Bar in L.A. When he shows people how to pick a perfume he tells them that you’ll recognize it because you’ll recognize a piece of yourself. You already know the scent—you just haven’t met it yet. (laughter) You haven’t met the scent that matches that piece of yourself that you’ve been carrying around. I think that’s a beautiful way of putting it. When you smell these perfumes that profoundly move you, it’s an experience of recognition. In the same way that you might recognize yourself in a book or a painting. There’s that piece of your experience that you didn’t think was possible to articulate.
VP: Are there any invisible selves that you’ve tried on this way where after a day you thought, “That is not me”?
AH: (laughter) Well, I have a few that aren’t very sustainable, where I wear the perfume very rarely and when I do it I very rarely wear it more than one day in a row. For me the best examples of that are these big, white flower scents. White flowers are the really rich, lush, heady flowers like lilies and jasmine and tuberose and gardenia. Jasmine now, I think, is very much a part of me, very comfortable. But there’s a tuberose scent called Carnal Flower by Frederic Malle, and I wear it when I want to be a diva. (laughter) And that doesn’t happen that often. Every now and then I want to feel like I own the spotlight.
VP: So picking one of the themes of my own book, which is coming out in November, one of the things I liked about your book was that you often refer to distinctive kinds of glamour—you actually use that term—that appeal to different longings and different ideals, which is a big theme of my book. You talk, for example, about a perfume with “a bookish, coffeehouse kind of glamour” that made you “feel like a hip, black-clad version of myself—thinner and longer-legged, with one of those rumpled haircuts and the black-framed glasses all the people who intimidated me in college used to wear.” I’m curious to what extent your intellectual life, or your career, has been shaped by glamour?
AH: Now that I think about it, that it’s absolutely central to my intellectual and creative life. I enjoy being dazzled, I’m an enthusiastic person, I like being a little overwhelmed and swept up but then because I know that about myself, I’m also suspicious of it. So I think I’ve spent a lot of time either being entranced by somebody and their ideas, because they have a kind of glamour for me or being on guard, reacting against glamour and trying to not be enchanted and besotted. (laughter) I think, you know, that arc that we were talking abour—from intellectual to sensual—part of what came along with that was allowing myself to be enchanted and enraptured without worrying too much about whether I was committing some kind of political or moral sin. And I now really, I think, have a much easier relationship to glamour and I have a lot more fun with it. I just admire the magic tricks that other people perform to produce their glamour. Even if I can’t myself, I really appreciate that in other people.
VP: I mean, I think there’s a rarely remarked upon glamour—the bookish coffee house kind of glamour. There’s a glamour of the intellectual life…
VP: …that has nothing to do with a specific person’s performance of it. It’s just very compelling, the same way a person with a different sort of personality might picture, say, the glamour of being a movie star.
AH: I was thinking about how glamorous my dissertation advisor was to me, and still is in many ways, and what she looked like and how she performed that glamour and how much we were all very crushed out on her. I think a lot of teachers have glamour, no matter what they look like or what they wear, just because of that relationship.
VP: Going back to perfume, you wrote about the success of expensive perfumes—Joy and Scandal—during the Depression and you pointed out that they sold way too well to have just been bought by the rich. What do you think is the significance of luxuries like that in difficult times?
AH: If I can be a little bit obnoxious and quote myself, I say in the book that it’s a kind of promise. It’s a covenant kept with the idea that life should be about more than their survival. Luxuries, I think for many people who will never own a piece of art or anything that has been validated as being high culture, are a piece of beauty. I used to have these quarrels with the social workers in my life about the hierarchy of needs, where there’s this idea that people, first they have to have shelter and food and then they can start to think about the next thing and the next thing and the next thing.
A friend told me a story about this woman he knew who was homeless and was kind of traveling and sort of sleeping with people, so that she would have a place to stay. The first time she got some money she bought a bottle of perfume instead of buying food or putting that money down on a room to stay for the night. Because it was something that she could keep with her, and it was a piece of herself maybe that she didn’t have access to in that kind of extremity.
VP: You talk about how swapping “turned something that was supposed to be about conspicuous consumption into a gift economy.” That strikes me as kind of a defensive statement, as if there’s something wrong with buying and selling. I understand that it’s nice to get stuff cheap or free because you can go ahead and enjoy yourself more, but does this reflect a view that it’s OK to have beauty but not to pay for it? How do you feel about commerce?
AH: Many of these perfumes were made deliberately hard to access. They’re only available in a few outlets or maybe only one city. They are not as expensive as a pair of Manolos but they for regular folks, $150 to buy a perfume is a lot of money. I and many people I’ve spoken to feel the presence of invisible velvet ropes when they go into those really high-end boutiques and department stores. And so to me it’s this kind of joyful thing that the swapping culture just removed all of that.
When you’re getting these things in the mail, it’s not about the fancy bottle anymore and it’s not about the place where you bought it. It’s really only about the scent, and it’s coming to you wrapped in bubble paper. (laughter) It’s got a handwritten label on it, and so now suddenly it’s about people sharing things with each other. And I really love that inversion.
The bigger question about whether or not I’ve come to terms with commerce I think is an open one. I would hope that I have a much more nuanced relationship to it now than when I began. I think I had some kind of reflective grumpiness, from my long graduate school training, about things that were marketed to or created specifically for people who have a lot of cash and a lot of power, because I’m kind of always rooting of the underdog. Now I think of it in a much more complicated way. I think this kind of coveting and wanting a little piece of luxury is something that runs the socioeconomic gamut.
And also sometimes things that are very cheap are much more exploitative in terms of the labor structure behind them than things that are very expensive and being made by one person. So it’s complicated, but I think that as long as there’s serious economic injustice in the world I would hope that my relationship to consumerism is ambivalent and in progress. I hope that I would always sort of be questioning my ongoing relationship to that and how it works and what I’m buying into.
‟For me perfume is a way of embodying the kind of invisible selves that you carry around with you. It’s a way of making a fantasy self into something that’s present, although perhaps still invisible.”
VP: My limited experience is that the perfume sales people in high-end places are not especially snooty compared to, say, how one might assume people selling similarly expensive dresses would be. Oddly enough I find it less intimidating to go to the Frederic Malle counter at Barney’s than to a counter in Macy’s.
AH: I think in order to sell perfume at that Barney’s counter, you have to really like perfume. So you have to like it and know it and enjoy it and be able to talk about it in a way that goes beyond making your commission.
Most of the people who work the mid-range or low-end counters in department stores are paid directly by the brand that they’re selling, and they’re often hired part-time. They’re rarely trained, and they often only know about the two or three things that they’re trying to push that have just been released.
The big exception to that in Nordstrom. Nordstrom’s has a special program that they train all their perfume people with. That’s also a place that you can go where it’s policy to make you a sample and they just sell it in a completely different way.
VP: Some perfume enthusiasts believe only natural fragrances are acceptable, what you call perfume’s original language. You don’t make that dichotomy. You embrace modern synthetic chemistry as well. Why is that? What is your philosophy?
AH: Because I really like perfume and I want as much good perfume as possible. And so I want perfumers to have the palette that they want to work with. Part of it is my personal aesthetic preference. When you work with synthetics it’s much easier to control the architecture of the perfume. It’s much easier to control the way the perfume unfolds on your skin and the amount of space there is between the different smells that you’re using to create the chords or the sort of melody of the perfume and you have a much wider range to work with. But really, it’s just because I’m a greedy hedonist. I just want as much good art as possible.
For details on Alyssa's appearances in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle, go here.
Enter to win a copy of the book here.
My book The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion will be out November 5 and is available for pre-order on Amazon. Here's the catalog description:
Critically acclaimed author and Bloomberg View columnist Virginia Postrel offers a provocative theory of glamour, elucidating how this dominant cultural force shapes our most fundamental choices, channels our deepest yearnings, and reveals who we really are.
Skimming the glossy pages of a magazine or glimpsing a flashy billboard, it’s easy to reduce glamour to mere celebrity or glitz. Yet glamour is a potent cultural force whose magic reaches far beyond the spheres of fashion or film, influencing where we choose to live, which careers we pursue, where we invest, and how we vote. Even in its most seemingly frivolous forms, despite its transient and illusory nature, glamour articulates our secret longings and exposes our true characters.
Analyzing icons from Achilles to Angelina Jolie, this is the first book that examines what glamour truly is: not an aesthetic quality or specific style, but a product of our imagination, emerging through the interaction between object and audience. Deconstructing the many iterations of glamour—from travel to battle, aviation to wirelessness, Postrel also illuminates how this pervasive phenomenon works, and in doing so, she empowers us to be smarter about how we engage with the world around us.
Aside from its intellectual content, The Power of Glamour is a beautiful object. It has more than 100 photos and will be printed in four colors on high-quality paper. At 256 pages and dimensions of 9.1 inches x 7.4 inches, it is not a coffee-table book but, rather, a "real" book that is also aesthetically pleasing--perfect for gift giving. (For the paper-averse, however, there is also a Kindle edition.)
Cameron Silver, the owner of the L.A. luxury vintage shop Decades, is known for dressing Hollywood stars for the red carpet, using a remarkable eye for seeing contemporary style in vintage clothing. With his book Decades: A Century of Fashion, he demonstrates the sophisticated knowledge of fashion history that undergirds his success as a retailer and stylist. A survey of 20th-century women’s fashion, the book is beautiful, but it’s also smart, recalling styles often written out of fashion chronicles. Its history of the 1970s, for instance, includes not just the sexy “satin-skinned beauties” of Studio 54 but also the “prairie-chic sensibility” of Laura Ashley's maxi dresses. Contrasting muses—Cheryl Tiegs versus Bianca Jagger, for example, or Joan Crawford's tough-minded “Consumer” versus Rita Hayworth's eye-candy “Consumed”—add further nuance, reminding readers that decades do not come with simple, one-note themes. (Google Books offers some limited previews of the book.)
Silver is also, inevitably, the co-star of a Bravo reality show called Dukes of Melrose, whose dramatic tension derives primarily from the conflict between his big-spending ways and his budget-conscious business partner Christos Garkinos. Silver thinks like a museum curator, justifying expensive purchase by their rarity and long-term potential, Garkinos like a merchant, wanting rapid stock turns. On shopping expeditions, Silver also indulges his somewhat outré personal style, picking up things like a mink sweatshirt as well as merchandise for the store. (For examples of his personal style, see Silver's Coveteur page.) I talked to Cameron Silver by phone in late February, shortly before the show's debut.
DG: What makes a garment vintage?
Cameron Silver: That's the million dollar question. Originally it was a garment that was at least 15 or 20 years old. But now with the change in fashion and designers retiring or dying or jumping ship, fashion becomes collectible much faster and can be considered vintage in a much shorter period of time.
DG: What is special about vintage fashion?
Cameron Silver: I think vintage is desirable because it is fashion with history. It is one of a kind and in a world where everything is ubiquitous, it gives you something that no one else can have. And truthfully, almost everything modern is derived from the past.
DG: There is a very literal style divide: If you were in the 1930s, you couldn't have worn clothes that were 40 years old. It would have looked absurd. But someone today can wear anything from the '20s on.
Cameron Silver: It is true. In the 21st century, we are able to look at the 20th century in a very modern way, which is one of the points of the book. You can wear anything from the last 100 years and look contemporary with the way you style it. And that is a really interesting point that you make, that one could never have done that in the 1930s. I think that is a cool point.
DG: A dress or suit or jacket can be glamorous, but aside from the specifics of a given garment, is the idea of vintage glamorous itself?
Cameron Silver: I think it is in the eye of the beholder and it really depends on what you are attracted to. My personal aesthetic is that I believe in the democratization of glamour and I like everything glamorous day to evening, and that is really what we do in the store. But just because it is vintage doesn’t mean it's glamorous. There are plenty of things from the past that would be 180 degrees from glamour.
DG: I was getting not so much at the idea that anything old would be glamorous, but whether this sort of concept of “the vintage” has itself become glamorous, at least in the eyes of certain audiences.
Cameron Silver: I think that the notion of saying something is vintage as opposed to just used gives it a certain panache. I think that is one of the reasons why the period when something is called vintage keeps getting closer and closer to present day. There is a little extra validity in saying, ‟This is vintage” as opposed to just saying, ‟This is old” or ‟This is used.” It doesn't necessarily mean it is glamorous, but it makes people feel like it is glamorous.
DG: Why has the popularity or at least the visibility of vintage fashion—whether it is high-end very glamorous sort of couture gowns that you would find at Decades or the sort of more everyday clothes that somebody might sell on Etsy—increased so much? What is the appeal?
Cameron Silver: For lack of a better definition, it is just—it is cool. It makes you seem like an insider. People who wear vintage tend to be the fashion leaders, not the followers.
I think that is the reason why so many celebs were interested in vintage initially, especially like the late '90s, early 2000s. It separated them from the pack of generic, fashionable stars. They were the ones that found and discovered something one-of-a-kind and unique, with history. A celeb in vintage really owns her style as opposed to a celeb in something borrowed from a designer. It's like, “Where did she find that dress? Who is this designer? When was it made?” It becomes a much more, in a sense, glamorous story.
“Vintage is desirable because it is fashion with history. It is one of a kind and in a world where everything is ubiquitous, it gives you something that no one else can have."
DG: Do you have favorite examples of that?
Cameron Silver: I’d say specifically Nicole Kidman, because she was an early supporter of Decades and I had felt that she really defined her persona very effectively following her divorce from Tom Cruise by wearing vintage designer clothing. We dressed her, famously, for the New York premiere of Moulin Rouge and she word this great vintage white Azzaro jersey dress and it was a brand that people had not heard of in a long time. It really sparked interest in Nicole Kidman as not just a fashionista, but as an insider, as an icon. I think vintage is very successful in pushing people's credibility in the fashion world.
DG: Is that because if you go wrong with vintage, maybe you go more wrong? Is it riskier, so that when you pull it off, you look better?
Cameron Silver: I am going to say if it was right 50 years ago, it's right today. I mean, if you are looking at vintage in a modern way. I think there are more risks in wearing modern designer clothing. You rarely see a celeb ripped to shreds in something vintage. It happens way more often when it's someone trying too hard to wear something very editorial that is off the runway.DG: So vintage has a kind of timeless quality. Is there a generational divide? Is wearing vintage more popular with younger people?
Cameron Silver: I think a lot of people initially get that assumption that it is for the kids. But our clientele is very broad, from teen to well into their 80s. I think that it knows no age barrier. I think the notion that if you wear something that you could have worn 40 years ago that it looks wrong, I don't think that is necessarily the case.
A stylish woman can wear something that has been in her closet 40 or 50 years. And quite often, we have customers who come into the store and they're like, "I had that 30 years ago!" And they like it again. They wish they had kept it or they'd had the money to buy it then. Obviously I don't want to see an 85-year old woman in a micro-mini Alaïa, but I would love to see her in an Alaïa trench coat. Just because it is an Alaïa trench coat from the '80s doesn't mean that she can't wear it. When we are looking at vintage clothing in a very modern way, it makes it easier for any generation to shop with us.
DG: You write in your book, ‟I participate in the creation of effortless seeming glamour, acknowledging that the illusion of perfection doesn't come naturally to everybody.” The idea of the effortless is very important to the idea of glamour. What is it that people don't see?
Cameron Silver: For example, I am, on Sunday, fitting an actress who is starting a new show on ABC and we are doing like a zillion different fittings. There is so much going on. We're going to try something like 200 dresses, I bet, for four or five appearances. Things will get altered, and we are going to use every secret weapon we have. Obviously your undergarments are more important than your outer garments. So today I was schlepping, picking up stuff from stores and showrooms. The process is not necessarily glamorous. The results can be. But it takes a lot of work.
That is also a very American approach to glamour. I always look at my Parisian friends who will go to a black-tie gala and they will just wear—like woman will wear a pair of black tux pants and a little tank top and a marabou-feathered jacket and put her hair back and some sexy heels and lipstick. We are a little bit regimented in America with our glamour.
DG: I wonder how much of that is worrying about things that are going to be recorded photographically.
Cameron Silver: Yes. I have a friend Sarah DeAnna who has got a book called, Supermodel YOU. She is a very successful model and the book is about using techniques that supermodels use in every walk of your life. As we were talking about ideas for when her book comes out and marketing, I said, "Everyone is a model now because everything gets documented" in the sense that Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. Everyone needs to know how to give their best face. Nothing is candid any more. It doesn't matter who you are. If you are getting photographed, it is going to end up in some social media.
So imagine what it is like when it is ending up on a social media with 2,000 or 3,000 photographers at the Oscars. It takes a lot of extra work to kind of enter the storm.
DG: Speaking of behind the scenes, you now have a reality show, Dukes of Melrose, on Bravo. What made you want to do the show?
Cameron Silver: I agreed to do it at a very vulnerable moment. [Chuckles]
I was super burnt out. I was like, ‟OK, I'll do it.” I still question why I agreed to do it, to be perfectly honest [chuckles]. But I am hopeful that the show will ultimately be a great example of infotainment, giving an insider's experience of the world of Decades and fashion, fashion history and also be entertaining. It is also the way the industry works now. I want to keep growing, I kind of have to do it. Michael Kors did his show, Rachel Zoe has done her show.
DG: Reality shows all thrive on conflict, as does any drama, which is the opposite of effortlessness. Have you had any concerns about whether revealing that behind-the-scenes stuff, or even playing it up, would damage the glamour of Decades and the looks that you create?
Cameron Silver: For sure I have reservations about it. I'm not a producer on the show. I won't watch any of the episodes. Whatever I did, I did authentically. I am sure there will be many, many moments where I am not seen in my best light. But I think true glamour reveals its underside. And I think that, as Marlene Dietrich said, “Want to buy some illusions?” It is all illusions.
Cameron Silver: And when you go behind the white swinging doors of Decades to the back office that is where sort of the Wizard of Oz bag of tricks gets revealed.
And I don't really mind that. I always liked the storm of being in the backroom. Or the fact that when you go behind the doors of Cartier, or where I used to work at Boucheron, it is not as perfect as it is on the sales floor. The beauty and magic of retail is that then you get on the floor everything is supposed to look seemingly perfect.
DG: Mystery is another key element of glamour. How does wearing vintage create mystery?
Cameron Silver: I think primarily because you just don't know what it is. The fashion pundits can't predict what you are wearing when you step out of that limo. It breeds individuality. I love the idea that all these fashion pundits at the Oscars have no idea what this actress is wearing. There is something rather intoxicating about not knowing the answers right away.
DG: In the book you tell a story about how once you were at one of these vintage shows full of, as you put it tactfully, “decidedly unspectacular merchandise” at the Santa Monica Convention Center and you found this perfect black velvet Halston gown. How often today do you find such buried treasures? Or now has the market gotten so developed that you do most of your scouting in closets of people you know have great taste?
Cameron Silver: I was at that same show at the Santa Monica Civic about two weeks ago. And I found the most gorgeous gold, sequined early '30s mermaid gown. I found the most amazing custom couture I. Magnin dress that was really like a bonded sample of Dior. I still have that eye that no one else has. So I may not find everything at that show, but I always find some gems that not everyone's eye might be accustomed to.
But I think that this gold sequined dress is the most amazing dress. It is so good. And we have a picture—it was purchased by the dealer--with the original owner, who was a radio personality, wearing it. It is so cool. And it was hanging on a hanger and I noticed it is actually extremely sexy and I couldn't believe that no one had picked up on the dress. But, you know, they just—not everyone can find the gem.
DG: So I was going to ask you whether the vintage market has developed so much that you can't find such treasures, but obviously you can.
Cameron Silver: You still can. I don't know if the layperson can do it as easily. It is not like you are going into a thrift store and finding the dress for $25. But it is still possible to find good things.
DG: Do you have to be really small to wear great vintage fashion?
Cameron Silver: Not at all. Again, I believe in the democratization of glamour. I also believe in democratization of being sexy. It is a little bit more difficult with older pieces because I think that if somebody was larger, that the clothes weren't really offered for a woman to wear of a broader size range. Nowadays it is completely different and there are so many options for a woman. I dressed Melissa McCarthy for the Oscars last year. We made a custom dress with Marina Rinaldi.
If you dress your decade, there are certain body types that work better for certain decades. Adele wears quite a bit of vintage and she is not a stick. She is deliciously curvy.
DG: You write that the '30s “made fashion unapologetically effortless” and you contrast them to the '20s. You write that “in the 1920s the rebels all looked alike,” which is interesting, but “in the 1930s, getting dressed became a mode of self-expression.” What was so special about the 1930s?
Cameron Silver: I think it's just '30s are really synonymous with the bias cut. The beauty of the bias cut is it has kind of no construction. That is one of the most effortless ways to dress. You just lift your arms in the air and let the dress slide down your body. Wear your hair up; wear your hair down. I love those '30s gowns. They are so modern looking.
DG: Do you have a favorite fashion period?
Cameron Silver: I'm very 1970s. I love it for several reasons. It is really the acceptance of American sportswear having an international audience after the great fashion showdown at Versailles 1973. American designers suddenly had an international forum to sell. I love the minimalism of the '70s. I'm a very Halston—that's very much my aesthetic. But at the same time I love Saint Laurent Russian collection. And it's really what everyone references still today, is all of those great '70s look.
DG: Is that the aesthetics of the clothes or something about their social and cultural meaning?
Cameron Silver: I love the fantasy of the '70s because it's kind of a return to Weimar, Germany. It is super decadent--you're thinking of the Studio 54 culture. It is sort of like people are acting like it is the end of the world. In a sense, to some degree, it was because the '80s came and AIDS and Reagan. Fashion in the '70s is really flamboyant yet it is often really pure.
If you look at American sportswear and in the early '70s you still have a lot of the countercultural effects of the past and then the late '70s start to be about the beginning of power dressing. I grew up in the '70s and I completely relate to them.
DG: At the conclusion of your book, you write, “As designers demonstrated over and over again via self-referential homage, they just don't make fashion the way they used to. Thank goodness they don't or I would be out of business.”
Cameron Silver: Very true.DG: What do you mean by, “They don't make fashion like they used to”?
Cameron Silver: We live in a world of immediacy and disposable fashion, and the quality isn't there. The quality is so inconsistent. I am just amazed when I am wearing some expensive suit by an Italian or French brand and the button falls off the jacket the first time I’ve ever worn it. I think it is just crazy. So I think that quality is the main thing and also the exclusivity. It is just everything is everywhere. Every department store to me feels like I am shopping in a duty free. Shopping Barney’s in New York, the ground floor, looks no different to me than Terminal 4 at Heathrow.
DG: Is there anything that you would like to say about anything about glamour?
Cameron Silver: I have this philosophy that everyone should live their life like they are walking on a red carpet. That is not to say you need to be in a gown all the time, but there is just a certain confidence and certain—I’m trying to think—there is just a certain—I don’t know. I just think that glamour is democratic and everyone should have a little glamour in their life. It makes the world a little bit more beautiful.
Dita Von Teese is glamorous when she works out. It is possible to be glamorous all the time. You always—you will certainly attract attention if you live your life a little bit more glamorously.
These are the rocks to build upon for health, success and joy. These are the secret keys to making living fun."
Entertaining is Fun is less a book about glamorous living than a book about embracing life and having fun (defeating the “Will to Be Dreary,” as Mrs. Draper calls it). But her life, with its country estates, many servants, and umpteen dress-up occasions was glamorous nonetheless.
In the book, Mrs. Draper’s mission was to loosen up the stuffy early 20th-century definition of “entertaining.” “The word sounds pompous and effortful,” she opined. “I like better, ‘having your friends to the house.’”
Of course, though she said, “fussy, formal parties are definitely out of style,” much of her advice sounds fussy today. Her primary advice – that the hostess who wants to have a fun party must be fun herself – holds. But in 2012, having your butter pressed into shapes sounds quaint and, yes, fussy.
Much of Mrs. Draper’s other advice, including a very serious recommendation that hostesses provide tons of clean ashtrays and stock “emergency rations” of canned turtle soup (among other things – she loved canned goods), is charmingly old-fashioned.
But her message – work hard to make your life fun – is as relevant today as it was in 1941. Mrs. Draper’s spiritual heirs are all over the internet from the video-making Fashionably Bombed sisters to ever-rhyming glamour girl Mrs. Lilien.
Who undoubtedly would agree that Mrs. Draper was the one, who helped the World War II generation make throwing parties fun.
We're giving away a copy of Confessions of a Shopaholic, signed by author Sophie Kinsella, along with actors Hugh Dancy and Krysten Ritter from the movie and producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
But that's not all! You also get a signed poster and your very own shopping bag, also signed. To enter, leave a comment below by July 15 and we'll choose a winner using Random.org.
Enjoy the pre-recession memories.
Dmitri Tymoczko, a composer and theorist who teaches at Princeton, recently published a book titled A Geometry of Music. The book includes some remarkable geometric models (such as the one shown at right) which he uses to argue that despite various stylistic differences, there are enough commonalities in Western tonal music from the late Middle Ages to the present to consider it an “extended common practice.”
Tymoczko himself assumes that anyone who reads his book will already be able to read music and have studied music theory. And without that background his book would be impossible to follow. Interestingly, he recognizes that there is gap between our widespread ability to enjoy music, and the arcane intricacies of music notation and theory. Early in his book he writes:
I find it useful here to consider the analogy with magic. A stage magician uses various tricks to cause the audience to have extraordinary experiences—bunnies seem to disappear, beautiful assistants seem to be sawed in half, and so on. Enjoying a magic trick does not require you to understand how the tricks are done; in fact, understanding may actually diminish your astonishment. Nor is the magician’s “ideal audience” composed of professional magicians: the point is to perform the trick for people who will genuinely be fooled. In much the same way, I understand composition to be a process of using technical musical tools to ensure that audiences have certain kinds of extraordinary experiences. When composing, I make various choices about chords, scales, rhythm, and instrumentation to create feelings of tension, relaxation, terror, and ecstasy, to recall earlier moments in the piece or anticipate later events. But I do not expect listeners to be consciously tracking these choices.
Tymoczko goes on to suggest that consciously trying to track these choices may interfere with falling under the spell of the illusion, just as knowing too much about how a glamorous illusion has been achieved might weaken the illusion. Tymoczko writes that listeners who do try to track the specific means by which the illusions are achieved “are like professional magicians watching each others’ routines—at best, engaged in a different sort of appreciation, and at worst too intellectually engaged to enjoy the music as deeply as they might.”
Another mathematically gifted composer named Milton Babbitt taught at Princeton before Tymoczko, but his attitude was almost the opposite. In contrast to Tymoczko’s interest in listeners who are not “professionals,” Babbitt famously wrote that he didn’t expect laypeople to enjoy his complex music, saying that it was written for a specialist musical community analogous to the specialist community of professional mathematicians.
Tymoczko notes that it was not until the 20th century that some composers (such as Babbitt) began using musical materials in ways that they realized that most listeners find “off-putting.” Geoffrey Miller, in his book The Mating Mind, points out that such a strategy can be an effective way of generating an “elite aesthetic.” Miller writes that elites “often try to distinguish themselves from the common run of humanity by replacing natural human tastes with artfully contrived preferences.” Thus if the vast majority of people around the world prefer consonant sound combinations, then working primarily with dissonant combination is one possible way to separate your work from “common” tastes.
In contrast, Tymoczko asserts that the “traditional strategy—writing immediately attractive music that also contains deeper levels of structure—is as potent as it ever was.” Not surprisingly, composers following the traditional strategy have often been relatively close-mouthed about their techniques. After all, if one of your intents is create works that might cause non-professional audiences to have extraordinary, spell-binding experiences, why would you risk diluting that experience with cold-blooded discussions of esoteric techniques? In contrast, composers keen on impressing other specialists have often taken an active part in pointing out the intricacies of their technical innovations.
Like Tymoczko, I prefer that creative artists, like magicians, use their technical tools to help audiences have extraordinary experiences, and then maintain some measure of mystery about how they managed to fashion their magic spells. Let some sense of magic remain. If I want to know more about their techniques, I can always buy and study the score. But when I attend a performance, I am hoping to be beguiled.
[Other examples from Tumoczko’s book can be found at www.oup.com/us/ageometryofmusic.]
Florentine authorities and residents were appalled when the cast of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” invaded the Tuscan capital for the show’s fourth season, which will debut Aug. 4. What were Snooki and The Situation doing associating themselves with the refined city of Dante and Botticelli (not to mention Ferragamo)? Even New Jersey won’t claim these louts.
The ostensible idea was to pay homage to the cast members’ Italian heritage. But these hyper-American descendants of peasants from Italy’s far southern regions hardly represent the Florentine heritage of art, humanism and elegant style. Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and Jennifer “JWoww” Farley aren’t even of Italian descent. The cast’s Florence connection is quite a stretch.
But stretching, it turns out, puts them in a great Florentine tradition. Brand-building through misleading images wasn’t invented on Madison Avenue or Hollywood. Many of Florence’s Renaissance treasures are monuments to exaggeration for the purposes of self-promotion. The medium may have changed, but the motives haven’t. It’s a bit of history that today’s Wall Street billionaires, who have a bit of a collective image problem, might want to study.
The Renaissance patrons who paid for all those frescoes, paintings, altar pieces and sculptures weren’t generally funding beauty for its own sake. They were buying status -- building their brands, we’d say today. Their patronage showed off their wealth and piety and, in many cases, advertised their supposed links to the prestigious and powerful. In the process, these patrons often shaded the truth, leaving out unflattering facts and suggesting associations they didn’t in fact have.
Know what to look for and Florentine artworks reveal secret messages that, while not as sexy as Dan Brown’s Mona Lisa fantasies, have the advantage of actually existing.
Take the boys shown walking up the stairs behind their tutor in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s fresco in the Santa Trinita church. What could these kids have to do with the “Confirmation of the Rule of Saint Francis,” the official subject of the fresco? They aren’t friars or church officials.
In fact, their portraits are just good public relations. The patron, a banker named Francesco Sassetti, included them to butter up their father, Lorenzo de’ Medici, and to let the churchgoing public know that he and Lorenzo were tight.
But the painting doesn’t tell the whole story. It “conveniently omits a crucial fact about the patron’s relationship with the Medici,” write art historian Jonathan K. Nelson and economist Richard Zeckhauser in their book, The Patron's Payoff, which uses economic signaling theory to analyze Renaissance patrons’ motivations and techniques. That fact: “By the time he commissioned the fresco, Sassetti had nearly run the Geneva branch of the Medici bank into bankruptcy.” Oops. Maybe the portraits were meant as a distraction or damage control. How could you fire (or worse) a man who had sponsored such fine pictures of your kids?
Nelson and Zeckhauser’s work demonstrates that Renaissance art is full of status signals and calculated image-building -- once-obvious messages that today’s tourists never notice. Nelson, who is the art history coordinator at Syracuse University’s campus in Florence, showed me some examples at Santa Maria Novella, the church dedicated to the Virgin Mary that stands near Florence’s train station. (It was novella, or new, in the 13th century.)
Technorati Tags: art, Confirmation of the Rule of Saint Francis, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Florence, Francesco Sassetti, fresco, Jonathan K. Nelson, Medici, patronage, Renaissance, Richard Zeckhauser, Santa Maria Novella, Santa Trinita, Sassetti chapel, signaling, status, Strozzi chapel, Virginia Postrel
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When I went to the 2009 Anime Expo to talk to cosplayers about the appeal of dressing up as anime and manga characters, I was struck by how important posing for photographs is to that appeal. Yet most of the picture-taking at anime conventions happens with lousy lighting and lots of fans in the way—hardly the ideal way to record the costumes on which players lavish so much time and ingenuity.
Fortunately, L.A. photographer Ejen Chuang, whom I met at that same convention, has now given American cosplayers a worthy visual record: a beautifully produced 272-page book called Cosplay in America. The product of a year spent traveling to conventions around the country (and a maxed-out credit card), plus countless hours of selecting and retouching photos, the book features 270 cosplayers.
Naming it the Best Art Book of 2010, Deb Aoki, About.com’s Manga expert, declared that Cosplay in Ameria “captures the spirit of fun, camaraderie and creativity of the North American cosplay community.” Liz Ohanesian of the LA Weekly praised the “slick and beautiful tome,” which “showcases the diversity and creativity within the anime fandom,” later declaring on BoingBoing that “Chuang did what I hope more people will do in the future, portrayed cosplay as art.”
Ejen is still on the convention circuit, selling his book and giving cosplayers a chance to have their latest handiwork immortalized with professional polish. He’ll next be at Anime Los Angeles January 7-9. In between cons—and his regular work as a production stills photographer—he was kind enough to answer some questions about what he's learned from his experience photographing cosplayers. (To see more of his photos, including new shots and web exclusives, check out the CosplayinAmerica Flickr stream.)
See the end of the interview for information on how you can enter our Cosplay in America giveaway and have a chance to win a free copy of Ejen's book.
DG: Your book is called Cosplay in America. What is cosplay and how is it different in America?
EC: Cosplay is short for “costume-play” which is basically dressing up as characters based off anime, manga, and video games, though the term has become mainstream in the past few years and now applies to any source such as films, American cartoons, music icons, even products—I’ve seen a few Nintendo Wiis running around conventions.
From what I gathered (as I’ve never been to an event in Japan), Americans have a very do-it-yourself attitude. While there are shops in Japan to purchase cosplays, that necessarily isn't so here in the States. You almost have to be MacGyver to pull together many disciplines from sewing to prop making. Some make it from scratch, others purchase parts and put it together. It is the process of creating the outfit that is part of the fun and not necessarily just wearing the outfit.
DG: What inspired you to do a book of cosplayer portraits?
EC: I haven’t really seen a book done specifically done about American cosplay and I thought I'll tackle it myself. The culture has been growing for the past 20 years and is definitely getting larger in thanks to conventions and the internet.
DG: What’s the difference between cosplay and dressing up for Halloween?
EC: Cosplay usually refers to a specific character. For example, dressing as Capt. Jack Sparrow is cosplaying. Dressing up as a pirate is just.... dressing up as a pirate! In the broadest sense, you can say that when your father dresses up as Santa during Christmas, he is in fact, cosplaying.
DG: What’s the relationship between photography (whether professional or amateur) and cosplay?
EC: There’s an interesting relationship between the two. Obviously from a photographer’s perspective, the extravaganza of colorful costumes and makeup of the cosplayer is attractive to the lens, while on the cosplayer side, it is a chance to be in the limelight and have their work appreciated.
DG: How do cosplayers decide what characters to portray?
EC: Cosplayers generally portray characters they feel very strongly about. Talking to many, I understand they felt if they were to put that amount of work into a cosplay, they rather pick characters they feel a strong emotional response to. As many cosplayers tend to be in their teens to mid-20s, my thoughts are in addition to having fun, stretch their creative skills and hanging out with friends at cons, cosplay can be a way for them to try out different “personalities” of their source characters wherever if either male or female. Obviously it is easier for women to dress as male characters than males to dress as female characters.
EC: In my youth I was into anime but until I embarked on my project, the last convention I visited was Anime Expo in 2000. In the years between then and 2009 when I started the project, I had been out of the scene so perhaps 90 percent of cosplayers I’ve photographed, I don’t know which series they are from. In a way, it is liberating. I have no bias or preconception about any series or character. I could choose based on their personality and pose. I specifically looked for something about that cosplayer that grabs me. From an edited collection of around 1,000 cosplayers, it took six months to narrow it down to the 260 cosplayers in the book.
DG: One of the cosplayers you interviewed called cosplay “a chance to escape that which binds us, holds us down in our everyday lives, and [it] gives us chance to let our imaginary spirits soar high above all that makes us feel weak. We can shed our everyday lives and feel free to express ourselves.” Another one said it’s “just a dorky little hobby where people play dress up.” What would you say is the appeal of cosplay?
EC: For the younger attendees, it is a chance to let loose and have fun, another layer to add to the convention experience. As a teenager, the need to fit in is strong and so in a way, this allows them to join a community.
For those older ones, it is just a release mechanism. Obviously in life we have our jobs, relationships, school and so forth and to take a vacation from that for one weekend is to take a moment out of the worries of bills, and other adult concerns. I spoke to several cosplayers who have graduated college and move to their working life—and use conventions as a chance to meet up with old friends—similar to a reunion.
For others, it is a chance to test out their abilities to create and personalize to their own individual tastes. For example, at one convention in Florida, I noticed a character whose outfit was filled with beads. The original character’s outfit did not include that large amount of beads but because the cosplayer so loved beads, she weaved her passion into it. In the end it still worked—the character is identifiable and the cosplayer has a chance to personalized the work.
DG: You’re still taking photos as you go to conventions to sell your book. Do you have any favorites to share with our readers?
EC: Truthfully, my favorite photos are the ones where I’m interacting with the cosplayer. So many folks have photos of themselves standing next to a cosplayer. For me, I like it if they point their weapon at me, or they are jabbing me, or something of that nature. Here I am at AnimeFest in Texas getting hammered by the gals of Street Fighter.
This was taken at Otakon, the largest anime con on the East Coast where Bender from Futurama chokes me—I didn’t have any beer with me and you know Bender loves beer!
This one is from Miami where Red Skull, a supervillian from the Capt. America comic books is about to execute me.
Despite all the work that goes into the book and the tour, it is definitely a life-changing experience! I plan to be at another 20 conventions next year and after that start working on other books related to cosplay but not necessarily about cosplay. Thanks for the interview!
Order your own copy of Cosplay in America here.
We're happy to offer a free copy of Cosplay in America to one lucky reader. To enter, please leave a comment telling us a character you'd like to dress up as and why. (Don't worry about practical considerations; we won't make you model the costume.) The contest deadline is midnight Pacific Time on January 10, and the winner will be selected using Random.org. Contest open to U.S. residents only.
[All photos copyright Ejen Chuang and used by permission.]
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Reminded by one of Roger Ebert's tweets that yesterday was Philip Larkin's birthday, I thought the occasion would be a good excuse, even a day late, for resurrecting a post featuring one of his poems. "Come to Sunny Prestatyn" is so deceptively plain-spoken that you can easily miss the rhyme scheme: a beautiful example of carefully crafted effortlessness.
This poster, up for auction next week from which sold for $2,160 at Swann Galleries, calls to mind a different (and possibly fictional) British tourism poster from the same era, the one in Philip Larkin's poem “Sunny Prestatyn.” The poem perfectly captures both the commercial glamour of travel posters and the urge to puncture the illusion.
Come to Sunny Prestatyn
Laughed the girl on the poster,
Kneeling up on the sand
In tautened white satin.
Behind her, a hunk of coast, a
Hotel with palms
Seemed to expand from her thighs and
Spread breast-lifting arms.
She was slapped up one day in March.
A couple of weeks, and her face
Was snaggle-toothed and boss-eyed;
Huge tits and a fissured crotch
Were scored well in, and the space
Between her legs held scrawls
That set her fairly astride
A tuberous cock and balls
Autographed Titch Thomas, while
Someone had used a knife
Or something to stab right through
The moustached lips of her smile.
She was too good for this life.
Very soon, a great transverse tear
Left only a hand and some blue.
Now Fight Cancer is there.
With its aggressive cynicism, the graffiti destroys not only the model’s beauty but the poster’s promise of escape to a sunny, joyful world where satin stays taut and white. By defacing the poster, making the portrait ugly and ridiculous, the vandals remind viewers that the picture is an illusion, an image “too good for this life.”
To buy Philip Larkin's complete works, go to Collected Poems on Amazon.
Today is the 75th anniversary of Penguin Books and the company is celebrating by giving away Penguin books to blog readers all over the internet - including here, at Deep Glamour. The book we'll be giving away is The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's thought-provoking examination of how the food we eat is grown.
Pollan is part of an interesting trend in the food world, and his work points to the important role of glamour in American consumer behavior. His efforts to help Americans better understand what they eat (and to eat better) are largely about deglamorizing food by taking the mystery out of the food creation process. Hard as it is to imagine now, during the middle part of 20th century, mass-produced foods had a certain allure. They were blessed by the glamour of modernity. Most of that glamour had rubbed off by the end of the century, but mass-produced foods still retained a tiny touch of mystique. By stepping inside industrial farming, showing his readers how the metaphorical sausage is made, Pollan helps eliminate that last little bit of glamour.
At the same time, if you want to change the world (or, in this case, change how Americans shop), it's not enough to simply gross people out at the sight of plastic-wrapped ground beef. For one thing, that beef is less expensive than buying from a small, organic farmer. For another, it's how Americans have shopped for several generations now. We're used to it. If we're going to change, we need a good reason to stop doing what we're doing and a good reason to start doing something else.
Pollan recognizes this. He knows that Americans need not just good food to buy, but a good story behind that food. To get the good story, the people growing the food need to be passionate - and glamorous - themselves. In a 2006 interview with Powell's Books, he said:
You need more people on the land to do it well, so we have to make farming a more glamorous profession. That's one of the great things Alice Waters has done. She's taken that light of glamour and shown it on farmers by highlighting their menus and putting the ingredients in the forefront of her presentation.
Culture has devalued farming for a hundred years. Go back to Jefferson and nothing was more glamorous—not that glamour was the kind of word he would have used, but glamour is very important in a culture. To the extent that we value farming, more people will want to do it and we'll begin to repopulate the countryside. That will be a very positive step.
Pollan said that four years ago. In the time since, sustainable farming has continued to gain supporters and cache. However, it's still outside the mainstream and it's still expensive.
If you'd like to win a copy of Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, please leave a comment below. You can say anything to enter, but we'd especially like to hear about what role glamour plays for you when you're thinking about food. We'll choose one commenter at random to win the book, which will be sent directly from Penguin. The deadline to enter is midnight Pacific Time, Thursday, August 5.
Randall's post about the aging motorcyclists raises an interesting question: What's the difference between being glamorous and feeling glamorous?
Since at least the 1930s, fashion magazines, cosmetics companies, and fashion houses have treated "glamour" as a style or product. "The gospel of Max Factor and [British makeup artists] the Westmores was that glamour could be achieved by any woman who put her mind to it," writes Carol Dyhouse in Glamour: Women, History, Feminism, citing a magazine's 1939 on the makeover of a charlady. (She wiped off her new face and went back to her regular life.) A makeover or special outfit may make someone look attractive, and looking attractive may make her feel glamorous, but is that all there is to actually being glamorous?
In her excellent new book American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture, architectural historian Alice T. Friedman examines mid-century buildings that were designed to make their occupants feel glamorous by framing their lives--literally, with windows and other structural outlines--and giving them a feeling of processing through a special space. Eero Sarinen's TWA terminal, she writes, "offered travelers a vivid architectural experience, one in which ordinary people were given the opportunity not simply to arrive and depart in style but also to process and promenade, to sit, stand, dine, and observe one another in spaces of a ceremonial quality previously reserved for only the privileged few." The terminal was glamorous, but judging from the ordinary-looking crowd in the accompanying photo, I can't say the same about the passengers. Slumping in their swoopy modern seats, they look tired and a little schlubby, hardly up to crisp Mad Men standards. (You can see the photo at the end of this online excerpt from the book.) They don't make me yearn to join their special world.
Real glamour requires a receptive audience. You can only be glamorous if others perceive you that way. Feeling glamorous, on the other hand, means that your mental picture of yourself is one that you would find glamorous. You become the audience for your own glamour, creating a image of yourself that veils your flaws. Defying the ultimate intimacy, you somehow manage to turn yourself into an alluring Other. As for actual others, they may see something different.
For all the esoteric talk of tranches and credit-default swaps, the recent financial meltdown began with something far more primal: house lust and its accompanying dreams and delusions. "There is no object of desire quite like a house," writes Meghan Daum, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. "Few things in this world are capable of eliciting such urgent, even painful, yearning. Few sentiments are at once as honest and as absurd as the one that moves us to declare: 'Life would be perfect if I lived in that house.' "
The fantasy of a life transformed is what makes the ads and features in interiors magazines so enticing—no fashion or celebrity magazine glamorizes its subjects as thoroughly as Architectural Digest or Elle Decor—and what gives HGTV's low-budget shows their addictive appeal. The longing for the perfect life in the perfect environment can make real-estate listings and "For Sale" signs as evocative as novels. This domestic ideal gives today's neighborhoods of foreclosed or abandoned houses their particular emotional punch. A stock-market bubble may create financial hardship, but a housing bust breaks hearts.
Although Ms. Daum did buy a house in 2004 and watched its value rise and then fall, her self-deprecatingly funny memoir isn't a tale of real-estate speculation. Rather she uses her lifelong obsession with finding the ideal living space to probe domestic desire, a deeper restlessness than the search for quick profits.
I was in the young adults’ section of Barnes & Noble the other day (looking for the third Percy Jackson and the Olympians book – they’re no Harry Potter, but they’re entertaining) and I noticed something funny. Well over half the books in the section had to do with some sort of dark magic.
The observation that vampires (and shapeshifters and wizards and various otherwordly creatures) are hot right now isn’t exactly original. It’s been made – and made again. Last fall, Slate even put together a helpful timeline to remind us that, like sex and drugs, this generation didn’t invent fascination with vampires.
What struck me, though, wasn’t so much the prevalence of vampire-type books, but the absence of glamorous, positive, characters that see the sun. As a kid growing up in the 80’s, I amassed quite a collection of young adult series: The Girls of Canby Hall books by Emily Chase, the racy Seniors series by Eileen Goudge (including a character named Kit), and of course, the Sweet Valley Highbooks by Francine Pascal, featuring SoCal’s own sparkly blonde twins, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield.
The Wakefield twins – one bookish, the other wild, both beautiful – provided glamorous, yet (mostly) wholesome role models for tween girls. They were anti-Bellas – they suffered their fair share of teen girl angst, but were more prone to action than brooding.
Starting tomorrow, the Victoria & Albert Museum will display the celebrated wardrobe of Hollywood/royal glamour icon Grace Kelly. Kelly, with her icy blonde good looks (shown here photographed by Howell Conant), was a proto-Wakefield twin – all California beauty. The buzz surrounding the exhibition suggests that there still is room in our glamour banks for the pristine-blonde-and-put-together icon.
The question is: is there room on our bookshelves?
It distressed me to learn the news of J.D. Salinger's death. The man was 91 years old, so it should hardly have come as a surprise. But in our collective imagination, J.D. Salinger had long ceased to be a man and had become a mythical figure.
The image of Salinger - living in isolation in the New Hampshire mountains, wearing L.L. Bean, eating exotic health foods, writing maniacally, and stashing manuscripts in his secret vault - had become timeless, and it was all we had. This mythological narrative invited our imaginations to sculpt it in any way we wished and to infuse it with our own hopes and desires - or with our own prejudices.
In the media, it was rather sad to see the news of Salinger's death compete with the release of the Apple i-Pad. But nonetheless it did receive some coverage, and the coverage reflects our conflicted perceptions: notions of Salinger as a noble and sensitive romantic who has influenced generations and could hold the key to mysterious truths about the universe, versus notions of Salinger as a controlling, misogynistic weirdo who has made all those close to him miserable.
The New York Times describes Salinger's work as possibly the greatest of our time, but in the same breath remarks that he is mostly “famous for not wanting to be famous”. Bret Easton Ellis declares on twitter that he is happy about Salinger's death. CNN reminds us of his “affair with the teenage Joyce Maynard” (though the wording was later changed), who was in fact a 19-year-old adult when she lived with Salinger. And of course, speculations abound as to whether there really are unpublished manuscripts in the vaults that are rumored to be in his home. Perhaps he produced masterpieces but instructed his lawyer to burn them. Or perhaps he scribbled nonesense in his study day after day, or wrote nothing at all. With his estate as protective of his privacy as Salinger himself had been, we may never know the answer.
In 2005 I had just finished graduate school and began my first job, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. I moved into a house in a nearby town and discovered that I was practically “neighbors” with J.D. Salinger - at least in the rural sense, where the nearest neighbor can be a mile away. I knew where Salinger lived, as many people in that area did. I passed the winding road that led to his house on my commutes to work and back every day. But I never saw Salinger and never attempted to see him - not even to catch a glimpse at one of the local events he was said to always attend. In retrospect, I had wondered at this restraint on my part, especially as he was one of my favorite writers. But now I think I understand: It wasn't so much restraint, as a means of protecting myself against disillusionment. I did not want to see Salinger, because I did not want to know which version of him was real, if any.
In the end, it matters not a bit what kind of a person Salinger was, whether there really are any unpublished books in that vault, or for that matter, whether there is a vault at all. In his existing body of work J.D. Salinger has given us a great gift, and may he rest in peace.
As I strolled inside, I immediately liked the market. There was something unplanned and random, as there is about the best of farmers’ markets wherever they are. Other than for pearls, I hate shopping. Here there were no vegetables, fruit, meat, chickens, fish. No fresh baked goods. No eggs or rodents. No clothes, CD or DVD knock-offs, no fake Louis Vuitton, Chanel, or Prada purses. No cut-rate soccer jerseys. No gold or silver. Just pearls. My kind of market.
As I walked up and down each row, the hundreds of vendors, all women, all in the most vociferous and vigorous way, began hawking pearls directly to me, the sole Westerner there, someone they undoubtedly figured to be loaded.
High-quality, near-perfect round 10–12-millimeter choker strands were going for the equivalent of $75–$200. That weren’t cheap, but similar strands fetched as much as five times that in the States
“Meester, lookey here!” one vendor teased, dangling multiple strands from red-lacquered fingertips, shaking the pearls so they resembled a hula dancer.
“Toop cal-le-tee!” another woman yelled. “Come. You like!”
“I make special price,” another vendor cooed.
As I made a loop back again to the second aisle, a pretty woman shouted, “I luv-e you, sir!” I imagined carrying my newfound Pearl Princess through the pearl market to thunderous applause in a Chinese remake of An Officer and a Gentleman.
High-quality, near-perfect round 10–12-millimeter choker strands were going for the equivalent of $75–$200. That weren’t cheap, but similar strands fetched as much as five times that in the States, and if the retailer called the pearls Japanese (or Australian), the price would be higher.
At first, I wanted to opt for a white Jackie Kennedy choker, but that would be classic Japanese akoya pearls (like the ones my mother used to wear), and today those pearls look small and dated. Besides, this was China. Why get a knock-off Japanese strand in China? What made sense was to buy a strand of dyed Chinese freshwaters.
I was about to pay a stranger for one necklace of 31 matched pearls more than what most workers in Zhuji earn in an entire month. I wasn’t sure if I should feel guilty or glad that I was investing so much in one family’s economy.
I found a vendor, in her mid-forties, and started bargaining. Shaving $10 or $20 meant a lot more to the vendor than it did to me, and we settled on $140 for a strand. I was about to pay a stranger for one necklace of 31 matched pearls more than what most workers in Zhuji earn in an entire month. I wasn’t sure if I should feel guilty or glad that I was investing so much in one family’s economy.
I opted for a strand of slightly punk pinkish pearls, but after going through all the strands, I found nicks and abrasions in more than several of the pearls, so I asked to see a bag of loose pearls of a higher quality.
I sat in a corner of her stall, carefully picking out three-dozen drilled pink pearls I thought were perfect, and handed them to the vendor. She picked them up, laid them on a table (with the requisite white tablecloth) and went to work, thread and needle in hand.
Within fifteen minutes, she’d strung the pearls, tight little knots between each, and had put a small clasp on the end. I examined them, and they were as perfect a strand as I’d seen.
The vendor held the strand by the clasp, pulled a silk pouch from a drawer, loosened the black string to open the top, and then dipped the pearls into its new home. She tightened the string closure, and smiled as she handed me the pouch. We each bowed every so slightly.[Photo by Stephen G. Bloom]
---Buy Tears of Mermaids here---
Back in Zhuji, managers took me on tours of six mega pearl-processing plants, which lined the town’s main thoroughfare. Each contained endless rooms of sorters, in which tens of thousands of pearls poured onto long tables covered with taut, stretched white tablecloths. Under banks of bright fluorescent lights, scores of girls no more than sixteen sat on rows of benches, peering over multitudes of pearls. Each girl used oversized bamboo tweezers, grouping the pearls according to a variety of criteria — color, shade, shape, size, surface quality, lustre, orient. Each girl wore a smock and cotton sleeves cinched at the wrist and above the elbow.
My presence caused no small amount of tittering among the girls. “Do you mind if I ask you some questions?” I asked one girl, though Sofinny Kwok, a company minder assigned to me.
She flushed ruddy cheeks and very white teeth, the unlucky recruit singled out by the middle-aged foreign man. I could see how terrified the girl was, in front of her friends, bosses, a strange-looking, curly-haired stranger who spoke a language she had likely never heard before.
The employee sputtered that said she had worked as a pearl sorter for a year, and was one of four children who migrated from southern Anhui Province to Zhuji. Yes, she enjoyed her work. Of course, she enjoyed her work. In fact, she loved her work. I got it. She said through Kwok that she hoped to return to her home in several years, after saving money, to get married and start a family.
Rank-and-file workers at the processing plants were almost all women from fifteen to thirty years old. Most started out at the equivalent of 1,200 RMB a month, which converted to $167. (RMB is the abbreviation for Renminbi, which means “People's currency.”) This compared with $2,500 a month in Kobe for the same work done by workers with the same skills.
Kwok suggested there was ample opportunity for advancement in the company. In ten years of employ, sorters who showed exceptional promise could earn as much as 3,000 RMB, or $418 a month. The job is 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., six or seven days a week (depending on the season), with two tea breaks a day.
“What’s ‘exceptional promise?’” I asked, trying to break through company speak.
“Reliability, dependability, a good attitude. We look for girls who are stable, have good eyes, able to concentrate,” said Kwok. Indeed, after forty, he said, a sorter’s vision begins to soften and her worth to the company declines. “This is job for young girls,” Kwok said with no apologies. “Many far from their home. They have companionship here. Very few stay for more than ten years. This is good adventure for girl from a rural village.”
Once the millions of pearls have passed through the banks of hundreds of eagle-eyed sorters, each pearl is classified into further minute categories. Then the pearls are sent to an assortment of treatment rooms.
I came to think of these rooms as a kind of transformatron, where pearls, some plain and homely, come out stunners. Kwok opened a heavy metal door lined with shiny chrome and sparkling mirrors. I stepped inside. The room was so bright, I immediately looked down to shield my eyes. Inside were hundreds of large glass apothecary-type jars filled with thousands and thousands of pearls, all sitting under nonstop, very bright fluorescent lights and mirrors on the walls and ceiling. Pearls would stay here for weeks to months, to be transformed into orbs with vibrant shades, dazzling shines, and effervescent orients.
In another transformatron, I saw jars filled with pearls going from various stages of white, to gray, then to black, so eventually they’d be as dark as classic Tahitians. I walked into another transformatron, and the opposite was happening: mousy off-whites were being bleached over a course of weeks and months to turn into brilliant whites in an attempt to mimic the dazzling natural shades of Australians.
I could hear the telltale pearl plink: the click-clack-click of pearls bouncing off of each other and the side of the vats. Pieces of cork, ground-up walnut shells and eucalyptus chips, wax, even pulverized gold or platinum dust were added to enhance the pearls’ lustre. “Shine is good,” Kwok said, adding, “as long as not too shiny, then it look fake.”
This kind of wholesale enhancement and color alteration included sunlight, heat lamps, irradiation, various chemicals (silver nitrate, hydrogen sulfate, metallic silver), dyes (potassium, carotene, pomegranate extract, cobalt, and silver salts), as well as constant florescent light. Some rooms were lit brighter than a glary day in Nome, others were sealed and kept pitch black. Still other rooms were where which pearls were heated to infuse new color. Nearly everything could be altered about the pearl, except its size and shape, although I have no doubt Chinese technicians were working on pearl-growth hormones, too.
Kwok ushered me into more than two dozen transformatrons, each for a different purpose. He freely copped to the oft-repeated charges that the Chinese treat their pearls, enhancing their lustre, deepening or altering colors. Neither Kwok nor any of the other managers trailing on my tour was in the least defensive about the business of pearl treatments. It was no big deal. Whereas to the Tahitians, Philippines and Australians, as I was to learn, such wholesale tampering with the integrity of a pearl was akin to fraud and manipulation. Executives from all three nations angrily charged that the Chinese with essentially creating fake pearls by employing these methods.
But Kwok just shrugged his shoulders when I asked. “We do it to make our pearls as competitive as we can,” he said no apology.
Kwok took me into another room where large stainless steel Mixomatic-type vats sat, into which workers dumped sacks and sacks of pearls for polishing. I could hear the telltale pearl plink: the click-clack-click of pearls bouncing off of each other and the side of the vats. Pieces of cork, ground-up walnut shells and eucalyptus chips, wax, even pulverized gold or platinum dust were added to enhance the pearls’ lustre. Kwok again had no qualms about such methods. “Shine is good,” he said, adding, “as long as not too shiny, then it look fake.”
There were other rooms in this Mission Control of Pearls, in which workers further refined already matched pearls before they were classified into varying grades. The women worked their tweezers fast. The pearls proceeded to rows of more employees, who sat before drills, placing a new pearl in a slot to be drilled every three to five seconds. Still another room was filled with more young women with the nimblest of fingers, for here was where stringing took place.
It all was a continuous production line that spanned the length of a hangar-long building, all leading up to the Sales Hall, where buyers could purchase anything from bushels of sorted pearls to completed hanks of AAA-quality pearls.
Next: At the pearl market[Photos by Stephen G. Bloom]
---Buy Tears of Mermaids here---
Pearls are emblematic of China’s rising global dominance. They’re a national cash cow, but they’re also a fitting metaphor. Nearly everything the world uses today comes whole or in part from the Chinese provinces of Guangzhou, Fujian and Zhejiang. Refrigerators, washing machines, computers, TVs, building materials, cell phones, microwave ovens, processed foods, automobile components, toys, bio-tech products, clothing, shoes, baby strollers, tools, the list goes on and on.
Small, satellite towns surrounding Zhuji are incubators for what is known as “lump economics,” the process of specializing in one particular niche product. Nearby Datang has the distinction of being the world’s biggest sock maker, manufacturing more than ten billion pairs a year. Diankow has become a hardware-manufacturing district. Fengqiao specializes in the manufacture of shirts. Sandu makes butter-soft pashminas every woman in the west seems to covet. Tens of thousands of peasants leave the countryside every year, flocking to these specialized factory districts, where jobs are waiting, along with dormitory housing and cafeteria meals.
Zhuji is to pearls what Hershey, Pennsylvania, is to chocolate. As my bus got closer to downtown, I noticed more and more piles of discarded mussel shells alongside the road. The piles got taller and taller, one after another, until they weren’t piles any longer but continuous mountains of used shells lining the thoroughfare. Downtown, in the middle of a traffic circle, an imposing sculpture of three silvery sea nymphs beckoned visitors. Each Brobdingnagian nymph was kneeling on her right knee, her long luxuriant hair horizontally caught in mid-flight. In each nymph’s palm, lofted high above her head as an offering to the gods, was — what else? — a gigantic silver-colored pearl.
Early the next morning, China Pearl & Jewellery lieutenant Dave Bing drove me out to see a pearl farm. This was early March and the weather was brisk. Bing looked harried, nervously pushing back his black hair as we sped down a busy boulevard. We turned off onto a secondary street, then onto a gravel road that ran perpendicular to the first, driving four miles or so, until we stopped at a fenced gate. Bing nodded to a sentry, who pushed open the wide gate. We traversed a muddy road filled with potholes. The ride was so bumpy that, after a particularly deep pothole, Bing’s head and mine hit the van’s ceiling, and as we came down, our shoulders bumped against each other. “Too much rain,” Bing muttered under his breath. We crossed a narrow, rickety bridge. For another mile or two, we drove on a field rutted with tire marks. Finally, we parked on a steep, pitched grade overlooking a small lake filled with very dirty, almost black water.
I could see against a backdrop of purple fog and haze scores and scores of similar lakes, cut into the patchy Yangtze River Valley countryside. The lakes seemed to go on forever. Dotting the surface of each were tens of thousands of green plastic pop bottles bobbing up and down. It was a bizarre sight. Deep in rural China, as far as possible from anything Western, it seemed a 7-Up bottling plant had unloaded millions of green, liter-sized bottles that magically found themselves floating on the surfaces of a multitude of opaque lakes.
“Follow me,” Bing instructed. He took a machete from the pickup.
A small welcoming party awaited my arrival, and therein ensued all the requisite bowing that accompanied such occasions. As we finished with formalities, Bing asked me to choose whichever green bottle I fancied on the lake before us.
I did, pointing to a bottle thirty feet from the shore, which seemed off in its own world. A worker promptly got into a flat-bottom wooden boat and paddled over to the bottle.
“This one?” he shouted in Chinese. “This is the one you want?”
Within seconds, Bing was picking out glowing oblong things that looked like jellybeans. They were pearls, of course — purple, pink, lilac, white, and yellow. And they were shiny. I couldn’t count how many Bing had scooped from the mussel, but he had at least fifty,
The worker promptly pulled up a muddy five-foot rope tethered on top by the green plastic bottle and on the bottom by a round wire basket. He cut the rope and dropped the basket onto the ribbed floor of his boat, then quickly paddled back to shore. Inside the basket were four large hard-shelled mussels, their halves shut tight. As the worker dumped out his haul, I noticed how different these mussels looked from oysters. They certainly were larger than any oyster I’d seen. And their shape. If I hadn’t known these gnarly-looking mollusks were mussels, I might have thought they were some kind of crustacean, maybe an exotic hard-shelled crab whose legs had retracted into its body. Bing lined up the four bivalves on the cement apron to the lake.
He asked me which I wanted him to open, and I pointed to the second one. It looked as ugly and as unprepossessing a thing as possible, even after Bing cleaned it off with a squirt of water from a hose. A circle of onlookers edged closer.
Bing wiggled the machete firmly inside the twin halves of the mussel. He lifted the machete and the attached mussel chest high. Then with a whomp, he slammed both down to the concrete, splitting apart the twin hemispheres.
What I saw first was an excess of flaccid, fleshy meat, oozing out of the split shells. The insides were markedly different from the gray translucent viscera of oysters. This stuff resembled pinkish-white fatty tissue, and it carried a foul odor. Bing quickly put down the machete, knelt, and pried open the twin halves. He grabbed the gooey innards of the mussel. Bing’s blue tie kept getting in the way, swinging back and forth, and out of frustration, he finally flipped the tie over his shoulder.
Within seconds, Bing was picking out from the mussel halves glowing oblong things that looked like jellybeans. They were pearls, of course — purple, pink, lilac, white, and yellow. And they were shiny. I had never before seen so many bright-colored, smooth-skinned nuggets come from anything. I couldn’t count how many Bing had scooped from the mussel, but he had at least fifty, and they weren’t small. They were longer than the pearls I’d seen come from oysters, and their shapes were more oblong than round. More squirts from a hose to clean off his treasures, and then Bing held out both his hands, cradling four dozen iridescent pearls.
“Wow!” I said.
The circle of onlookers seemed pleased with my reaction. “Wow!” they said, nodding to each other, smiling widely, “Wow! Wow!” “Wow!” they mimicked in increasing volume. I guess “Wow!” was one of those universal words like “Okay!” that needs no translation.
“Pick one,” Bing offered majestically. I chose a pinkish-orange pearl, which I carefully picked from his open palm. I placed the pearl in the middle of my own flattened palm, as the sun had finally made its way through the morning haze. I marveled at its color, shin, lustre, and density. It was, at once, hard like a stone yet, in its own way, soft and vulnerable. Wow, indeed.
Tomorrow: A pearl processing center in Zhuji
[Freshwater pearl beads from Yiwu Disa Jewelry Co., Ltd. Piles of discarded shells by Randy Goodman, originally published by Shanghai Scrap, used with permission. Dave Bing taking pearls from mussel by Stephen G. Bloom.]
---Buy Tears of Mermaids here---
Zhuji (pronounced SHOE-ghee), about 100 miles southwest of Shanghai in the province of Zhejiang, is the epicenter of the world’s freshwater pearl market. These are cultivated pearls that don’t come from oysters, but instead from large, oval-shaped mussels. China produces 99 percent of all such freshwater pearls in the world. Zhejiang province is dotted with thousands of small, family-operated pearl farms, most of them state cooperatives. Such farms are seemingly everywhere, with millions of green plastic pop bottles bobbing up and down on the surfaces of thousands of small artificial lakes, each bottle signifying another crop of fresh mussels, and each mussel containing as many as fifty pearls inside. Exactly how the Chinese have been able to cultivate mussels that produce so many pearls remains something of a mystery. These pearls don’t develop around an inserted nucleus, as their counterparts in oysters do, but instead grow from multiple tiny squares of mussel mantle tissue inserted into each host mussel.
The first crop of Chinese freshwater pearls appeared in the early 1970s, and since then, pearl exports from Hyriopsis cumingii mussels have grown exponentially. At first, the pearls were miniscule. By the 1980s, their size had grown and they started coming in a variety of striking rainbow colors. These pearls were often labeled and sold as Lake Biwa or Lake Kasumigaura pearls from Japan, fetching higher prices because of the Japanese label.
The Chinese freshwaters were a breakthrough in the fashion marketplace. Fashion-conscious women around the world started wearing pearls that weren’t just white or cream-colored, and not always round. Stylish younger women gravitated to them. These pearls had four things going for them: they were colorful, they often weren’t symmetrical (the baroque shapes appealed to non-traditional pearl wearers), they had the legitimacy of being real pearls, and they were downright cheap when compared to traditional pearls. As their size got larger, the Chinese freshwaters readily turned into trendy fashion items, turning into accessories fashion-forward women in their twenties and thirties from Paris to São Paulo just had to have. It didn’t hurt that women like Meryl Streep, Jennifer Aniston, and eventually Michelle Obama started wearing them, too.
As Chinese technology got better, more and more freshwater pearls came on the global market at a fraction of the price of their international counterparts. By the late 1990s, the best of the Chinese freshwaters were virtually undetectable from increasingly scarce Japanese akoyas, and soon, the Chinese pearls were available in even larger sizes than the Japanese species would allow. Symmetrical freshwater Chinese pearls now come as large as 14 millimeters (that’s as big as a marble), and are getting larger. Their skin can be flawless and comes in a multitude of colors (pink, blue, violet, orange, gold, gray), some right out of the shell, others the result of dye, chemical, and radiation treatments.
The flooding of so many Chinese pearls into the world market presented a problem for producers of more expensive pearls (just about every producer outside China). It’d be akin to the De Beers diamond syndicate discovering a competitor had come up with a new process that could create a genuine diamond, not a zirconium knockoff, but a real diamond that cost pennies to the thousands De Beers diamonds fetch. No wonder the worldwide pearl industry started screaming.
Example: A strand of medium-sized, near-perfect Chinese freshwater pearls can be bought wholesale today for under $150. Such reverse sticker shock is freaking out just about every other national producer of pearls. To make matter worse, to most consumers, such a strand is virtually identical to strands that sell for five and ten times as much (and sometimes more). Chinese freshwaters are showing up everywhere, from top-end retail jewelry boutiques like Mikimoto, Bulgari, Harry Winston, and Van Cleef & Arpel’s to low-end merchandizing giants, such as Wal-Mart, JC Penney, Jeremy Shepherd’s Internet sites, and cable TV’s QVC. Their price-point is so low and their quality can be so high, that it’s no surprise that some dealers intentionally mislabel Chinese strands as of a more expensive provenance (Japanese, Tahitian, even Australian). This can be by unscrupulous intention, but it’s often just an uninformed mistake. Chinese pearls can look so good they fool wholesalers and retailers alike.
Inexpensive high-quality Chinese pearls are out there, and out there in a big way, and because of their proliferation, the global pearl industry is undergoing the same cataclysmic changes it faced in the 1930s, when Japanese cultured pearls were introduced to world markets. The rapid abundance of cultured pearls devastated and soon destroyed the natural-pearl market. Some dealers say today that the same could happen with Chinese freshwater pearls, ultimately replacing their much more expensive seawater counterparts from around the world. I wanted to see how the Chinese were going to make this happen.[Pearl farm and baroque pearls photos by Stephen G. Bloom. Freshwater pearl necklaces from Yiwu Disa Jewelry Co., Ltd.]
---Buy Tears of Mermaids here---
With their mysterious origins and luminescent surfaces, pearls have an intrinsic glamour. They were for centuries the most precious of gems, more treasured even than diamonds. Mikimoto Kōkichi’s development of cultured pearls in the early 20th century made pearls more common and affordable—and a big international business. In recent years, Chinese freshwater pearl farms have further expanded pearl production. In Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls, journalism professor Stephen G. Bloom traces pearls from oyster to store, revealing a usually hidden world of jewelry tycoons and pearl enthusiasts. In revealing the complex global business behind the jewels, he manages not to strip the gems of their glamour but, through his own fascination, to restore some of the luster they’ve lost to images of staid preppy matrons. To introduce a week of selections from Tears of Mermaids, journalism professor (here, here, here, and here), Bloom answered our questions about the glamour and business of pearls.
DG: Why pearls? What's their appeal to you? SB: Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a quirky newspaper story about a year in the life of a frayed tuxedo jacket I rented when a friend asked me to be an usher at his wedding. After I returned the tux to the rental store, I followed who else wore the same jacket for the next 51 weeks. The jacket, model 18214, went on four Caribbean cruises, not just a few weddings, and a slew of proms. By week 14, jacket 18214 had developed a rip under the right shoulder. After week 22, it came back with a bloodstain under the left armpit (I didn’t want to know). Several times 18214 was returned with either vomit stains or the smell of vomit on it. Those proms and weddings must have been festive affairs. After the year was over, I interviewed as many of the wearers as I could find. One man, Renter 46, told me he had worn 18214 while on an Alaska cruise with a woman who was not his wife. He asked me to withhold his name, a request I honored.
The tuxedo story was a gimmicky piece that began in a rental shop and from there moved forward. But years later, I wondered if my direction had been wrong. What would have happened had I moved backward in time — to where the jacket’s fibers had been grown, who had gathered the crop and how, where the threads had been spun into cloth, who had sewn on the buttons?
Tracking the hopscotch world route from creation to consumption was an off-the-wall concept that stayed with me, and not just for tuxedo jackets. Who were the nurturers at whose hands any object took shape? What kinds of lives did each along this global assembly line lead? What were their stories? Did the goods these laborers produce have any meaning to them? After the products were manufactured, how many middlemen traded the goods along the way, and by what amount did each hike the price?
Some people have visions of Jesus, Rolexes, Rolls Royces, the 18th hole at St. Andrews. My visions have always been of pearls. Big, beautiful, shiny, luminescent ones.
As the Western world becomes less and less a consortium of producer nations, we forget (or ignore) that the objects we wear, consume and surround ourselves with come to us from a spider-web network of laborers, processors, managers, brokers, agents, jobbers and distributors, usually in faraway places. The closer to the raw material, the less remunerative the pay usually is (straight out of Economics 101, I know, but nonetheless something I found nutty). Some workers earn practically nothing. Others further up the ladder are rewarded quite handsomely. All share hopes and dreams, desperation and heartbreak. Yet we know nothing about these anonymous laborers, toiling to bring necessities, convenience, and luxury to our insular, cozy lives. Who are they all?
Those at the beginning of the global chain seldom know anything about those in the middle or those at the end; those in the middle and end know little, if anything, about those at the beginning. The genius of the global economy, of course, is to ensure that we’ll never know any of them. Indeed, part of that genius is to dissociate with the end user any human intervention whatsoever in the creation and transit of the commodities to which we’re so fiercely attached.
But why exactly pearls? That’s the question. Why not some other object (diamonds, coffee beans, chocolate, really almost any commodity would have worked) to use as a prism to observe the world’s interconnections? What was it about pearls that led me on this crazy, manic four-year orbit?
And it’s a good question. My affection for pearls is curious. Except for pearls, I’m not a jewelry person. I’ve never worn a watch. I hate diamonds and gold. Too showy, too glittery. Too much of a neon sign. Pearls, though, are altogether different. Plucked from a live oyster, pearls are at once shiny, lustrous, ready to wear. They need no polishing, no treatment.
I’ve carried a torch for pearls ever since I was a little boy. My favorite book was The Pearl, which I must have read 20 times. I had (and still have) a wild crush on Holly Golightly, the Audrey Hepburn character in the 1961 film Breakfast At Tiffany's, bedecked in those exquisite pearl strands while peering into Tiffany’s on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. Princess Grace, Jackie Kennedy, and Princess Diana were beautiful women, yes, but what sealed their sophistication and charm for me wasn’t their looks, it was the pearls they wore.
Some people have visions of Jesus, Rolexes, Rolls Royces, the 18th hole at St. Andrews. My visions have always been of pearls. Big, beautiful, shiny, luminescent ones. The best have orient, a depth that allows a connoisseur to look into the pearl and see different layers of conchiolin, or calcium carbonate. It’s like looking into a pearl’s soul. Let me play with pearls any day. It’s my grown-up version of marbles. There’s something so tactilely satisfying about rolling them around on your palms, pushing them atop a white cloth to see if they wobble, or spinning them between your index finger and thumb to determine the perfect round pearl from the near-round.
Still, though, why pearls, of all things?
I was mesmerized by what I thought were mysterious white marbles on a string. I’d marvel at their sheen, but what I remember most was the clean, clicking sound the pearls made when they collided with each other.
They’re a touchstone to my mother, a way to remember her. When I was a child, my mother used to wear — only on special occasions — her one and only pearl necklace. The strand was modest and frugal, as was my family, a reflection of post-Depression, post-World War II. The necklace had been given to my mother by her mother as a wedding present. Preparing to go out for a modest night on the town, perhaps to celebrate their anniversary, my father would dress in a suit and somber tie, my mother would wear a cheerful but demure dress. Following the age-old pearl dictum, “last on, first off,” my mother would fix her hair and slip into her dress. Then she’d take the glass stopper of a bottle of Shalimar perfume, and dab behind each earlobe. It was only when she was finally ready that my mother would ask my father to fasten the clasp to her one extravagance: the pearl necklace. This was always an ordeal, my father struggling with the clasp, my mother waiting anxiously till he got it right. “Stand still,” he’d instruct my mother, sternly and genially.
I was mesmerized by what I thought were mysterious white marbles on a string. I’d marvel at their sheen, but what I remember most was the clean, clicking sound the pearls made when they collided with each other. They had a certain weight and density, they had symmetry, but most of all, they seemed to still be alive. To a little boy, they had magical powers.
Once a year, there they’d be, my parents — two ordinary Americans in the 1950s, arm in arm, strolling out the front door of an ordinary suburban home, headed to celebrate another year together, a single strand of pearls leading their way to the future.
DG: Your book traces the path pearls take from oyster to final buyer, depicting a lot of the business and technical details. Does knowing where they come from change how you feel about pearls?
SB: I started out knowing practically nothing about pearls — with the possible exception that pearls are created when a grain of sand gets caught inside an oyster. Wow, was I ever clueless! Besides finding out that the grain-of-sand theory is a myth, I discovered a global cosmos of pearl freaks, people who not only work daily with pearls, but who are as addicted to pearls as chocoholics are to chocolate.
The four years I worked on the book turned into a pilgrimage and ended as an obsession. I drove hard bargains with cagey dealers and got ripped off (at least in the beginning) before I learned to haggle with the best dealers in the world. I became pearl-crazed, spending hours studying individual pearls till I got dizzy. Pearls were all I thought about. Wherever I went, I had vivid, recurring dreams about them. I still do.
Maybe it was over the blue expanse of the South Pacific or the Timor Sea while sorting pearls moments after they had emerged from their watery wombs. As I got more and more attached to these perfect little spheres, as my appreciation for them deepened, my fascination paradoxically became as much about pearls and as what pearls ultimately represent. Yes, they embody how humans can trick and then coax Mother Nature into producing one of the world’s most heavenly and expensive objects. That was a nifty trick, but it wasn’t what drew me deeper and deeper into pearls. Pearls had grown into metaphors, ways to look at global economics, the environment, fashion, wealth, danger, greed, exploitation, adventure, even human spirit.
You might think this little pearl “phase” of my life is now over. That now I can get on with the rest of whatever is important in the life of a Midwest college professor and writer. But, still, seeing a spectacular strand of pearls drops me to my knees.
When I was researching the book, I can’t begin to guess how many times I’d be at a pearl convention, show, or auction when a drop-dead gorgeous woman would stun everyone by strutting in, wearing a magnificent strand of pearls. Given the audience at these events, every head would swivel towards the necklace (not the woman). Within a nanosecond, the dealers would have assessed the pearls’ orient, lustre, surface quality, size, shape, and match — and, if they were as grand as they looked at first blush, the dealers’ eyes would dilate. Without a moment’s hesitation, the first thing they’d sputter to the woman would be, “May I inquire the provenance of your pearls?” It was all a game, of course, since the dealers already knew, but a popular diversion nonetheless since the wearer almost never had a clue.
I’ve become that dealer.
DG: What's the most surprising thing you learned about pearls?
SB: The most amazing thing pearls was to see the pearls fresh and virgin, sitting inside an oyster waiting to be plucked out. And if everything had worked according to plan, the pearls sitting next to the oysters’ gonads would be big, round, and lustrous. I saw thousands of pearls come directly from oysters, and each and every time I saw another pearl extracted from inside an oyster, my heart skipped a beat. It’s akin to witnessing a birth of sorts.
I also learned the two ways to tell real pearls (either cultured or natural, it doesn’t make any difference) from fakes: by rubbing a single pearl across the bottom of your teeth or by rubbing two pearls against each other. Either test will produce the same gritty sensation. Fakes feel smooth. Fakes are generally glass beads; there is no drag, no friction; whereas pearls have a natural coating that is impossible to replicate.
DG: In our DeepGlamour Q&As we routinely ask the question, Diamonds or Pearls? Although pearls have their fans, people often use words like “stodgy,” “dowdy,” and “very Westport, Connecticut.” One interviewee said, “Pearls are classy, but they add 10 years to anyone.” Why do pearls have these negative associations?
Blame it on June Cleaver, vacuuming the living room carpet in a tailored suit, high heels, and a pearl strand, waiting for Ward to come home and ask about the Beaver. Barbara Bush also was terrible for the pearl industry.
But wrap a strand of luscious baroque Tahitian black pearls around Halle Berry’s neck, and I doubt anyone would think that they make her look ten years older.
Pearls don’t have to be round or white any longer. Nor do they have to be dainty and small, always in traditional matinee length. Today, pearls come in exotic, freeform shapes in just about every color of the rainbow. Women can wrap ropes of pearls around their necks. They can use them in their hair. Classic, symmetrical, round white pearls still work, but I personally prefer pearls with contours, rivulets, ripples in them.
Coco Chanel in the 1930’s promoted the casual use of pearls, and I think what Coco did 80 years ago was a pretty fashion-forward thing to do. She mixed faux pearls with real ones, whether she was kicking around in sneakers and Capri pants, or wearing the little black dress she invented.
Today’s remade June Cleavers are just as likely to wear pearls — now, though, they’re dressed in Vera Wang cocktail dresses and Jimmy Choo stilts, or wearing Old Navy sweatpants and flip-flops.
An abbreviated registry of today’s style-makers for whom pearls are close to the core of their fashion aesthetic includes Hillary Rodham Clinton and Nancy Pelosi — but also Michelle Obama, Madonna, Nicole Kidman, Oprah Winfrey, Jodie Foster, Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Roberts, even Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. Your grandmother might still wear pearls, but probably not in a low-cut Versace gown with a thigh-high slit. As shoe-design king Manolo Blahnik put it: “Pearls give a gloss, a certain refinement, even if you’re just a trashy girl.”
The thing about pearls is that they project a series of paradoxes that gold or diamonds can’t touch: innocence and power; simplicity and sophistication; youth and wisdom; integrity and drama; humility and conceit; tradition and haute couture; chastity and sexuality; modesty and wealth. Really, when you think about it, what other fashion item can do all that?
SB: Several suggestions:
• Get to Michelle and convince her to wear pearls every day, not just when she’s pumping iron, entertaining the Indian prime minister at a state dinner, visiting Sasha and Malia’s school on parent-teacher night, or slipping out for burgers with Barack at a Foggy Bottom diner. First Ladies (Remember Jackie? Forget everyone else) for better or worse ought to be the world’s chief progenitors of wow glamour.
• Spend more on product placement of hip, fashion-forward, large baroque pearl strands worn by glamorous trendsetters at events like the Golden Globes, Tonys, and Oscars. Don’t bother with the People’s Choice Awards.
• Let women know that the value of pearls outstrips diamonds and gold because pearls can be worn more often and in more diverse settings. Gold or diamonds of the same price as AAA pearls weigh too much to be worn. Something else distinguishes pearls from gold or diamonds: Gold shines, diamonds sparkle, but pearls actually glow. Their soft, warm luminescence quite literally lights up a wearer’s face. Diamonds might be a girl’s best friend, but let’s face it, in a necklace they’re over-the-top garish. And gold frankly doesn’t look great against the milky complexions of Caucasian women.
• Educate jewelers. People who sell jewelry generally know little about pearls. I can’t tell you how often I’ve gone into a jewelry store, and innocently ask a clerk to show me a pearl strand, only to be told outrageous tales about the pearls — that they’re natural, or that they’re are still living. Really! There’s not much general knowledge about pearls these days in the jewelry industry, and I think that may cause jewelers to steer buyers towards other adornments.
• One thing I wouldn’t do is mandate a uniform grading scale of pearls. Many leaders in the industry advocate the creation of such a system. I oppose such a plan. Pearls don’t have carats or the 4C’s to set price. While a dealer can boast of a pearl’s color, lustre, skin purity, orient, shape, there’s still no universal grading system. The same strand can go for $300 or $30,000. Even the best appraisals are sketchy and subjective. Pricing a pearl is wholly subjective. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like ’em so much. Their beauty lies wholly with the beholder.
Pearls are the coalmine canaries of the world’s seas and oceans. The environment pearls come from (at least for saltwater pearls) has to be absolutely pristine for pearls to flourish. There’s no equivalent in the pearl world to “blood diamonds” or “conflict diamonds.” There are no dark, calamitous, unsafe mineshafts.
• Pearls are the coalmine canaries of the world’s seas and oceans. The environment pearls come from (at least for saltwater pearls) has to be absolutely pristine for pearls to flourish. Pearls don’t have to be faceted or melted. They’re organic objects that come out of their natural homes perfect.
There’s no equivalent in the pearl world to “blood diamonds” or “conflict diamonds.” There are no dark, calamitous, unsafe mineshafts, as there are with gold, diamonds, and other extractive ores and minerals. Today, the conditions under which pearl workers around the globe labor are reasonably good. Certainly, some pearl workers are poorly paid (principally in China and Indonesia, and to a lesser degree in the Philippines), but wages in most venues are relatively high. The industry needs to broadcast this aspect of pearl cultivation.
• Change the way the jewelry industry sells pearls. Open pearl boutiques, where buyers are able to sift through dozens of bins filled with pearls. This way buyers can create their own strands, rings, bracelets, and earrings.
One of the coolest pleasures of my travels was to plunge my hands into vats filled with pearls, and to let the pearls fall through my opened, splayed hands. I did this in Japan, China, the Philippines, French Polynesia, and Australia. I never got tired of doing it, either. The feeling was quite like nothing I’d ever experienced. And it wasn’t just the tactile sensation; it was the click-clack, plinking sound of so many luscious pearls colliding. Every woman and man ought to have the same sensation.
While I was writing that piece, I thought whether you could write a script about Earhart that preserved her glamour but wasn't emotionally flat. One idea would be to tell a story not about her but about someone who observes and is inspired by her. Another would be to emphasize the challenges and hazards of early aviation, something that Amelia did in its best moments but downplayed in favor of a flattened soap opera.Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean, a graphic novel aimed at tweens, does both. And while the book, written by Sarah Stewart Taylor and drawn by Ben Towle, doesn't have enough plot to make a movie, it demonstrates that the way to portray Earhart is, in fact, to use a sympathetic protagonist who admires her. The graphic novel makes the wise choice to show us Earhart through the eyes of an admirer, a girl who lives in the seafaring community of Trepassy, Newfoundland, and aspires to be a newspaper reporter. Located on the far eastern edge of North America, Trepassy is the point from which Earhart and other aviation pioneers took off for Europe. It's also a shipwreck-strewn place whose name essentially means "the dead."
In June of 1928, tweener Grace, the dubious townspeople and a mob of impatient newsmen wait for Earhart to finally get her plane in the air for a transatlantic flight. Grace yearns to leave the little village and to become a newspaper woman, so she observes the commotion and manages to get the aviator's personal encouragement in an interview before her successful departure. Taylor's lean script leaves much of Grace's feelings understated but easy to imagine. Towle's art is also emotionally restrained, but panels showing the bleak landscape—especially double-page spreads of what Earhart called “this broad ocean”—emphasize the courage of people willing to take ultimate risks. Astronaut Eileen Collins's introduction, which describes the inspiration she drew from Earhart's example, carries the theme to the present.Grace's point of view preserves Amelia as a glamorous, somewhat mysterious figure who represents a different life. You can get a sense from this spread. (As always, click the images to see a larger version.)
[Images reproduced with permission of Ben Towle.]
Gifts are like that. Even the most generous can disappoint. As Cheryl Strayed writes in a terrific essay in the December issue of Allure (alas, in typical Conde-Nast fashion, it’s not online):
“My boyfriend gave me a 12-pack of Diet Coke for Christmas!” I occasionally exclaim with glee, now that years have passed since the roil of sorrow and humiliation of that day. That present is little more than a funny memory now, a mere entry in my annals of the Really Bad Gifts I’ve Received. There was the “electronic guard dog”—a plastic speaker that emitted a screeching bark each time it detected motion—given to me when I had two actual dogs that did the job with authentic verve. There was the book about how to succeed as a financial executive in Japan that I received upon my college graduation as an English major. There were the used bath towels sent as a wedding present by an otherwise sane relative. And then there was the granddaddy of them all: a Weight Watchers gift certificate from my mother-in-law for my birthday when I was eight months pregnant.
Each of these gifts made me believe, in a new light, the old adage that it’s far better to give than it is to receive. Receiving sometimes hurts. Bad gifts tell us not who we are, but who the gift givers wish we would be—thinner, say, or a Japanese capitalist rather than an aspiring writer. Or, perhaps worse, they imply that we mean so little to the gift giver that he or she didn’t even bother to consider what we might like or need. That’s how it felt to receive soda for Christmas.
To be fair, Strayed’s mother-in-law very likely chose her gift out of womanly sympathy for the impending struggle to lose pregnancy weight, perhaps even thinking that she herself would have once appreciated such a present. But whatever the good intentions, the gift itself revealed that she knew little of her daughter-in-law’s own desires or how Strayed wished to be thought of by others. The gift certificate wasn’t just wasteful, like the electronic guard dog. It actually hurt.
Gifts seem simpler for children. With so little chance to buy the things they want, kids are expected to make their wishes explicit: “What do you want for Christmas?” Letters to Santa function as de facto gift registries. Birthday wishes enjoy similar social sanction. Doting relatives may come up with ideas of their own, of course, but children are also less likely to evaluate surprises based on what they think those presents say about them. They just want good stuff. (According to the Flickr caption, the 5-year-old in the photo even found socks exciting.)
For adults, gift giving takes on either lesser or greater significance. It’s either an obligatory social ritual with minimal emotional content or an opportunity for recognition and revelation. Woe to the couple in which one partner goes for ritual and the other longs for recognition.
Gifts carry a dangerous glamour. They encourage us to dream of being lavished with the things we wish for but can’t have (or are too practical to indulge in) and—the emotionally fraught part—to dream of having those who love us discern our longings without our having to confess them. Beneath the gift wrapping we imagine something that demonstrates how well the giver truly knows and cares about us, something that affirms the person we wish to be. So we’re hurt when the gift seems either perfunctory (Strayed’s 12-pack of Diet Cokes) or completely inappropriate—a present for someone else. (In some cases, that someone else is literally the gift giver, who wants in on the present.) Saying “he’s hard to buy for” is, unless he’s ascetic or impossibly wealthy, usually a way of saying, “I don’t really know him that well.” The sad truth is that most of us don’t really know each other that well. He’s particularly hard to buy for because men don’t need a lot of earrings.
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and also within the purview of DeepGlamour (and the book I plan to read soon)Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism by Michael Burleigh
Sitting in the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport I observed a young husband and wife who were each engrossed in their own reading material. He was big, country-looking, and was studying JP Magazine, an off-road vehicle magazine. The vehicle on its cover had tires so large it looked as if it could drive over any car that happened to park in its way. I found it more monstrous than glamorous, but I had no doubt that it was a dream vehicle for him.
At one point he tried to explain to his wife why the differential axle on one particular vehicle was so desirable. She glanced up from her novel and feigned enough interest to keep him happy.She was petite, dressed in more urban clothes, and was reading Nicholas Sparks’ novel The Lucky One. I’ve never read a Nicholas Sparks novel, nor JP Magazine. But judging from the novel’s on-line description (“a passionate and all-consuming love affair”… “filled with tender romance and terrific suspense”), I feel sure it didn’t describe differential axles and over-sized tires.
Separate desires then: one for bigger and more powerful macho toys, and the other for all-consuming romance. Hopefully he will get to have some kind of off-road vehicle, and she will get to have some romance in her life. Perhaps he will always dream of bigger tires and she will always dream of more romance. Clearly, each had found reading material that was helping them imagine greater and elusive possibilities (a wide-angled lens was used to create an exaggerated sense of scale in the photograph above).Watching them, I was left with questions. Is the old adage true, do opposites attract? If so, can couples remain close without some shared interests? And can you read a romance novel while buckled up in a vehicle that is climbing over giant boulders?
Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays by Joel Waldfogel (read chapter one in PDF form)
Coco Chanel was a woman famous for her aphorisms. To cap off our week of Chanelore, Karen Karbo, author of The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman, compiled a Top 10 list of those she considers the most interesting, including one from someone Karen calls Chanel’s “compatriot in upsetting the apple cart.” Can you spot the ringer? (Answer below the fold.)
1. “To be irreplaceable one must always be different.”
2. “Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not. It is the opposite of vulgarity.”
3. “Fashion fades, only style remains.”
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, French, 1883-1971. Evening Dress and Slip, 1928, metal sequins on silk tulle. Dress, 1925, crystal beads on lace, silk ribbon. Dress, 1925, crystal beads on silk chiffon. Phoenix Art Museum Fashion Collection. Gifts of Mrs. Wesson Seyburn.
4. “Elegance is refusal.”
5. “It’s always better to be slightly underdressed.”
6. “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, French, 1883-1971. Dress and Jacket, 1960s, wool tweed with brass lion’s head buttons. Gift of Mrs. Nathan Cummings. And Jacket, Skirt and Blouse, 1959-1960, wool boucle and silk. Gift of Mrs. Peggy K. Colbentz. Phoenix Art Museum Fashion Collection.
7. “Success is often achieved by those who don't know that failure is inevitable.”
8. “There is time for work, and time for love. That leaves no other time”
9. “Nature gives you the face you have at twenty; it is up to you to merit the face you have at fifty.”
10. “Anyone can be the duchess of Westminster, but there is only one Chanel.” (It remains a mystery whether or not the Duke of Westminster ever proposed to Chanel; it was beside the point for her.)
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In yesterday's installment from The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman, Mademoiselle Chanel turned jersey, formerly the stuff of men’s underwear, into the basis for modern fashion. With no margin of error, she invented sportswear. In our final excerpt, author Karen Karbo considers the value of being a bit of a bitch.
Perhaps it’s not that unusual to exhibit courage in the course of finding our métier. In becoming an attorney, a professor, a web designer, a hair stylist, there are challenges that must be met, doors through which you must step to get to the next level. There are crossroads, required leaps of faith, and moments when you need a new idea (jersey!), and thin air is the place you’re forced to look for it.
But Chanel was fearless on another front. For the length of her long life, she said what she thought. In case this doesn’t strike you as such a huge achievement, consider the cottage industry of best-selling books about the apparent inability of women to speak up, to negotiate, to press on with their ideas when they feel they’re not being heard. “The Daily Asker” is a popular blog, wherein the blogger has set herself the goal of asking for something every day. Yes, women can cry and women can rage, but even now, we still struggle with just saying what’ son her minds.
Chanel was not just a straight talker, she was a back talker, a woman who embraced her own churlishness. One of the cares she lost when she decided to be someone and not something was that of talking around her real thoughts and feelings, so as not to offend. Really, she couldn’t give a damn. Bring it on.
Stendhal (author of The Red and the Black and also ahead of his time) famously observed that the way to offend a Parisian was to call her kind. On this front there is no chance of offending Mademoiselle Chanel. She could be ruthless in her honesty and often downright mean. Unlike most American women she was never tempted to channel her inner, crowd-pleasing Labrador retriever. While she was a masterful flirt, she never felt the need to be kittenish in order to compensate for her wealth and fame.
Once, during the end of the 1920s when Chanel was the queen of Paris chic, after she’d created the famous black dress and after the massive L’Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, where rival Paul Poiret had torpedoed what was left of his brilliant and erratic career by showing opulent, floor-length gowns in silver, lamé, velvet taffeta, and chiffon, totally missing the “modern” aspect of the exposition, Chanel ran into him on the sidewalk. Poor Poiret had not just fallen out of favor, his finances were also in ruins. In addition to the expensive, out-of-style gowns he’d just shown at the Expo, he’d insisted on exhibiting them on a trio of electrically lit river barges, which cost the moon. Before this, in an effort to shore up his reputation and combat Chanel’s stubborn devotion to plainness, he even created dresses lit from the inside with tiny bulbs. At the risk of sounding Seusssian: He was down, she was up. He was over, she was on top. When she met him that day on the sidewalk, it would have been nothing for her to have been gracious.
Seeing Chanel in her little black suit with white schoolgirl collar and cuffs, Poiret said sarcastically, “What are you in mourning for, Mademoiselle?”
She said, “For you, dear Monsieur.”
Chanel’s wit was not gentle but combative; she was Dorothy Parker with a pair of shears. She sneered at the husbands of her clients and said, “Those grand dukes were all the same. They were tall and handsome and splendid, but behind it all—nothing; just vodka and the void.”
Chanel’s wit was not gentle but combative; she was Dorothy Parker with a pair of shears. Aside form her basic French disinclination to be agreeable, and her Cinderella complex, she bore the indignity of being a mere dressmaker. Even as she was becoming a success, when her hats were being worn exclusively by major actresses and she expanded her business to include both Biarritz and Paris (by 1917 she had five workrooms; in one workroom sixty seamstresses worked on clothes for Spain alone), she was routinely snubbed by the aristocratic women who were paying astronomical amounts for her clothes. They would spend hours having a fitting at her shop, then the next day pretend she was invisible when they ran into her at the races. This wasn’t unusual. Couturiers were considered tradespeople, no better than cabinetmakers and knife sharpeners. Charles Worth, the so-called father of haute couture, would cross the street when he saw a client, so as not to put her in the position of having to ignore him.
Then came Chanel with her neat, fresh clothes and her disinclination to take crap from anyone. She was charming, but she refused to censor herself. She sneered at the husbands of her clients and said, “Those grand dukes were all the same. They were tall and handsome and splendid, but behind it all—nothing; just vodka and the void.” Of the increasingly zaftig Colette she said, ”Colette preferred two grilled sausages to love.” She called Picasso “that Spaniard, with his hat.”
The result of all this mouthing off was not what you might expect. Rather than driving people away, Chanel’s devotion to thinking for herself, aloud, drew them to her, made her intriguing. She simply did not have the time, the energy, nor the inclination to care what anyone thought of her. Life was serious. She was serious. She defined luxury as liberty, and stopping to censor herself, to make herself pleasing to others, would be depriving her of luxury. Until she was a very old and very cantankerous old lady, Chanel was beloved. Axel Madsen closes his superb biography of Chanel with a kind, malice-free remark by the sausage-loving Colette, “It is in the secret of her work that we must find this thoughtful conqueror.”
Am I suggesting then that we err on the side of being a big ol’ bitch (or in this case a tiny, chic bitch)? Yes I am.
Reprinted with permission from The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman, published by Skirt!, an imprint of The Globe Pequot Press, copyright © 2009 by Karen Karbo.
--Buy Karen Karbo's book here--
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Andy Warhol, by Arthur C. Danto, art critic for The Nation
When we left young Coco Chanel, she had established herself first as a successful hat designer and then opened a trendy little shop in the resort town of Deauville, selling her little skirts and cardigans. But she had not yet become the great Mademoiselle Chanel, independent of her boyfriends’ support. She needed a Great Idea. Here, in our second excerpt from Karen Karbo’s new book, The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman, she finds it. (The photos are stills from the new movie Coco Before Chanel.)
Most of us, when we land upon a great idea, a lifesaving idea, immediately turn it into our baby. And like our real-life babies, we only want the best for it. We love it. We coddle it. It’s our great idea, and who knows when we might have another one! We want to implement it at the right time with the best materials possible. We want the stars to be right.
But Chanel’s chutzpah dictated the opposite. She was going to reinvent the female wardrobe, and she was going to do it now with whatever was at hand. And what was at hand was jersey, then thought of as the cheesiest material possible.
If the world of fabric was high school, jersey was the personality-free, nearly invisible nerd everyone avoided at lunch. Stretchy, clingy, and cheap, it came in colors like beige, medium beige, light beige, and lighter beige. It was the opposite of silk, wool, cashmere, tulle, and other fine fabrics that could, at the very least, hold their own shape.
How did Chanel decide to use this red-headed stepchild of fabrics? The Chanelore differs. Either she got a sensational deal on a lot of jersey from a manufacturer that decided against using it for the menswear for which it was originally made, or else her lease at the Rue Cambon stipulated that she could only make hats, because there was another dressmaker on the block. As jersey was not something used to make women’s clothes, Chanel’s early jackets, skirts, and suits were not considered clothing, and therefore did not violate the terms of her lease (I will not attempt to parse the French bureaucratic logic).
If things hadn’t worked out so well, Chanel could have easily been dismissed as a whack-a-doo, and her jersey ensembles written off as the crocheted beer hats of the early twentieth century or the disposable paper minidresses in style for a nanosecond during the 1960s.
But Chanel possessed an unswerving faith in her instincts, which included what she believed to be her impeccable taste. And it was (largely) impeccable, because she believed it was. It was sheer nerve. When she launched her line that summer before the war, her dressmaking skills were nearly nonexistent. She knew how to make hats, and she knew how to explain what she wanted to other people (i.e., the women she hired who did have actual dressmaking skills).
The history of haute couture is populated with designers who were either born in a box by the side of the road, or like Chanel, suffered traumas straight out of Dickens. For every high-born Miuccia Prada, there is an Armani, who grew up in a small town near Milan that was so aggressively bombed by the allies during World War II that Giorgio lost his entire gang of boyfriends in a single day.
It’s possible Chanel’s pluck was not as unique as it seems. The history of haute couture and luxury goods is populated with designers who were either born in a box by the side of the road, or like Chanel, suffered traumas straight out of Dickens. For every high-born Miuccia Prada and Pucci, there is an Armani, who grew up in a small town near Milan that was so aggressively bombed by the allies during World War II that Giorgio lost his entire gang of boyfriends in a single day. On another day, a rifle cartridge he’d found in the street exploded as he was leaning down to have a look. He spent forty days on the burn ward and still bears the scars. Chanel’s contemporary, Madeleine Vionnet, “queen of the bias cut,” was born dirt poor in Chilleurs-aux-Bois, Loiret. Her family sent her to begin her apprenticeship as a seamstress at age eleven; by eighteen she had already been married and divorced and was working in a London hospital as a seamstress, repairing tattered bedding. Louis Vuitton came from a family of farmers in the foothills of the French Alps; he left home at age thirteen for Paris and worked as a stable boy until he was able to apprentice himself to a trunk maker. In 1854, with nothing more than his good ideas as to how a fine trunk should be built, he opened his first shop on the Rue des Capucines. Thierry Hermès was orphaned at fifteen, after his parents and siblings died of various diseases during the Napoleonic Wars. He wandered a bit before settling in Normandy, the heart of French horse country, where he learned to make harnesses. In 1837 he opened his own shop in Paris (not far from Vuitton’s) and proceeded to make the most exquisite harnesses, saddles, and eventually, yes, handbags, on Earth.
It’s tempting to think that the gene for the courage to impose one’s vision of beauty on the world is located on the chromosome that also determines the ability to create a simple, beautiful object (a bag, a hat, a dress) for which people the world over will pay staggering amounts of money.
Chanel’s biographers have surmised that she was able to stick her neck out the way she did because she had nothing to lose, meaning she had no family, no husband, no name, and no money. The other thing she had was no wiggle room. Had her business tanked, she would have lost the patronage of Balsan and Capel, both of whom had absolutely no obligation to underwrite her or her shop. Unlike Blanche Dubois, she was not relying on the kindness of strangers, but on the kindness of businessmen, a far riskier proposition.
The moral of the “Using Jersey When Good Sense Would Dictate Using Wool or Something More Sensible” story is twofold. First, when it comes to going with your gut and making the big, bold, seemingly outlandish move, doing so from a precarious position in life is not just a good idea, it’s the best idea. The very precariousness can, in fact, be a source of strength. Chanel wasn’t about to wait to launch her big idea; on the eve of war, in a relative backwater town (Deauville was chic, but it was hardly Paris), modern fashion was born.
Reprinted with permission from The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman, published by Skirt!, an imprint of The Globe Pequot Press, copyright © 2009 by Karen Karbo.
--Buy Karen Karbo's book here--
In The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman, Karen Karbo (interviewed here) tells the story of one of the 20th century’s great innovators: the woman who, among other things, popularized the little black dress, made costume jewelry respectable, developed the first deliberately abstract and artificial perfume, and turned jersey and cardigans into women's wardrobe staples. Coco Chanel's greatest invention, the one that made the others possible, was herself. Here, illustrated with video from the newly released movie Coco Before Chanel (the date is British; the film is just now opening in the U.S.), is the first of three excerpts from the chapter titled “On Fearlessness.”
From the perspective of someone who is able to overcome her fears only sporadically through a combination of deep yogic breathing and self-talk, the strong, unrelenting heartbeat of Chanel’s courage alone is enough to qualify her for beatification, St. Coco, Patron Saint of Jersey (the fabric, not the island).
After Chanel realized she could more or less single-handedly (let’s not forget her assistants—she could not have done what she did without the little people) overthrow the institution of the twenty-pound platter hat with her saucy department-store boaters, she decided she could do the same for all of women’s fashion. Pourquois pas? Why not? It was the same principle, only on a larger scale. She was like a warrior queen who invaded a little country as practice for attacking a larger one.
It was the summer of 1914, the uneasy first summer of the first World War, and everyone who could fled Paris for Deauville, a posh resort on the northeastern coast of France, known for its racetrack, Grand Casino, and grand hotels. Chanel (with the backing of her new lover, Boy Capel) opened Chanel Modes on the main drag between the most luxurious hotel in town and the Grand Casino, and there she started selling little skirts and fetching cardigans.
A lucky heat wave in July, and that being-on-holiday-so-what-the-hell feeling that in our times manifests itself as a willingness to stop at the market on the way home from the beach in a sarong, sent fashionable society ladies (with fabulous rich-lady names like Princess Baba de Faucigny-Lucinge and Pauline de Saint-Saveur) into Coco’s shop for her light, comfy pieces, which would soon be known as sportswear, even though the only “sport” women engaged in them was the occasional slow bike ride, promenading between shops and motoring.
The creation of the fetching cardigan has its own equally fetching Chanelore behind it. One day Chanel was tromping around the barn/at the races or strolling along the beach and asked to borrow boyfriend Capel’s pullover. This was the kind of relationship they had, intimate and chummy. She could ask to borrow his clothes and Capel, an iconoclast in his own right, thought nothing of it. But the pullover...what a nuisance to haul this thing over her head—one presumes she had to remove her nervy little straw boater first—and so she simply took a pair of scissors, cut the pullover up the middle, belted it, and Bob’s your uncle. How the shears and belt miraculously appeared at the barn/track/shore is one of those charming Chanelian mysteries that we faithful simply accept. It supports the observation of her friend Paul Morand (novelist, diplomat, modernist, friend of Proust) that she “built her wardrobe in response to her needs, just the way Robinson Crusoe built his hut.”
It took pluck to introduce easy-to-wear clothes during an era when “clothes” and “easy-to-wear” had never yet appeared together in a sentence. At the end of the Belle Époque, the S-bend corset was out, but the long-line corset, looser laced but extending to the knees (!) for a slimming effect, was in, and women’s clothes were still a cross between costume and armor. Ladies dressed every morning in a woman disguise, in clothes designed to aggressively suggest femininity while at the same time hiding the female shape lurking beneath.
So Chanel, the young milliner who still scrubbed with the same no-nonsense soap the nuns used at the orphanage, with one cheeky, well-received concept under her belt (simplify!), decided to expand. She decided rather than disguising women as women, it was time to create clothes that allowed the ladies to work it.
Historians differ on how she came to take this giant step forward. Some say she was innocently putting one delicate foot in front of the other, and moving from hats into clothing was the next obvious thing; others believe she was a crafty businesswoman with a master plan hatched—I’m guessing—during all those idle hours at Royallieu while she was helping Étienne Balsan’s grooms tend the thoroughbreds (as anyone who has horses in her life knows, for every hour in the saddle there are hours and hours of cooling down, bathing, brushing, hoof picking, etc.). I’ve decided to believe the latter, that she was a crafty faux Auvergnate bent on conquering the world in her own way, as opposed to a darling wee thing that simply fell into monumental, world-changing success.
Anyway, it was her big idea at a time when she needed a big idea. Chanel always looked young and passed herself off as younger. If she could have continued to pass herself off as eighteen indefinitely, she would have. In 1914 she was thirty-one, a few years past the age when women who were neither wives nor mothers were written off as “redundant.” In this way things haven’t changed much. Or rather they changed about forty years ago, when it was thought that a woman needed a man like a fish needed a bicycle, and then they changed back. To be thirty-one and unmarried is the same tragedy now as it was a hundred years go, back in the days when driving was considered a sport. At any rate, Chanel’s fate wasn’t yet guaranteed. Just because she had a successful hat business, that didn’t mean she wouldn’t be thrown over by Capel (as she eventually was) and left husband-less, family-less, penniless.
Reprinted with permission from The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman, published by Skirt!, an imprint of The Globe Pequot Press, copyright © 2009 by Karen Karbo.
--Buy Karen Karbo’s book here--
DeepGlamour: You previously wrote a book called How to Hepburn: Lessons on Living from Kate the Great, about Katharine Hepburn. What drew you to Hepburn and Chanel? How much do they have in common?
Karen Karbo: My connections with Hepburn were largely personal. Katharine Hepburn was a household saint; my mother was said to look like her and she introduced me to her movies. I’d known about Chanel because I hail from designers. My grandmother was a couturiere in Los Angeles in the ’40s and ’50s; she designed pieces for the wives of movie moguls. My father was an industrial designer. He designed the hood ornament for the Lincoln Town Car, that iconic cross inside a square. Anyway, I started thinking about Coco and her life when I was writing the Hepburn book and came across Coco, the 1969 musical starring Hepburn. One thing lead to the next.
Despite the fact that one was a classic New England Yankee from a WASPy, relatively wealthy family and the other was a scrappy French peasant born in a poorhouse, the two women had a surprising amount of personality traits in common: both women were confident, hardworking, and fearless, except when it came to people finding out secrets about their past. They both discovered their individual style and talents young, and worked them for their entire lives. They were both bossy. They liked to instruct. They both always thought they were right about everything. And, they demanded that they be comfortable in their clothes!
DG: How would you define “Chanel style”? Does it require Chanel clothes?
KK: Chanel style is a philosophy. In its purest form it holds that luxury is a necessity, and true luxury is about feeling absolutely comfortable in your clothes (and thus, in your skin.) Chanel style means wearing simple pieces that skim the body. There is no unnecessary extra fabric, nor is anything so tight you can’t move. I’m sure ultra low-rise jeans would have driven her mad. Indeed, being able to move through the world easily and with comfort was one of Chanel’s main tenets. I don’t think this requires Chanel clothes, but it requires the wearing of clothes with a Chanelian attitude: only wear what suits you. When Chanel was just starting out, when she was Coco before Chanel, the fussy, overly complicated gowns of the Belle Époque were not simply beyond her reach financially, they looked ridiculous on her. She found what flattered her the most and stuck with it until the end of her days.
DG: You write, “Style has always been about money, and it always will be.” That’s a pretty depressing thought. Do you really believe it? How, aside from making your own Chanel-inspired suit, do you deal with it as a middle-class writer?
KK: I agree a hundred percent: it is a depressing thought. But it’s also a reality. To believe otherwise is to live at the mercy of the fashion industry which, in order to survive, needs women, rich and poor and in between, to buy a lot of clothes at all different price points as frequently as possible. “Style” is synonymous with variety in our culture; to be chic and stylish Carrie Bradshaw required a closet full of Manolos.
I have a friend who’s very rich and his clothes are the epitome of simplicity: he likes to wear jeans, loafers and cashmere sweaters, bespoke shirts and Armani jackets. The fabrics are astonishing in their color, their softness. The cut of everything he slips into is perfect and flawless. So is his style.
There are clothes that give a shout-out to style. They boast the of-the-moment neckline or cuff; they’re made of cheap fabric and slapped together by shockingly underpaid workers in Indonesia and China. That’s another discussion for another time, but the point is, from a Chanelian point-of-view, that style is luxury, and luxury means a garment is as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside. Plus, it has to fit, and cheap clothes just don’t fit that well, generally speaking.
Both variety and quality cost money. Or, more money than a writer makes. J. Crew has been my reliable go-to catalogue for decades. Which is not to say I don’t own a few stylish pieces. Up the street from me there’s an extraordinary consignment store I visit once a week. I just snagged a Ralph Lauren Black Label top for $18. I wear jeans, boots, and jackets a lot, and I have some great jewelry that belonged to my grandmother. As long as I don’t decide to become a socialite who needs to look fantastic five nights a week, I’m set.
DG: You write that Chanel’s attitude toward her past made her “seem completely modern.” What was her attitude and how did it inform her work and her persona?
KK: Chanel lied about her past, and then rewrote the lies. She created a past for herself that suited her. She was, in a lot of ways, one of the early practitioners of spin. France is a family-centric country, and the French tend to honor their heritage. To invent yourself, to make yourself, the way Chanel did was a 20th-century maneuver. It was an American maneuver. We Americans understood what Chanel was about long before the French did. We loved her message of ease and freedom immediately.
DG: Chanel was a master of self-promotion, yet you also note that she was “shrewd enough to make her unavailable to her customers.” What can she teach contemporary figures about balancing publicity and mystery?
KK: A salesman has no mystique. TMI extinguishes allure. Chanel said, “People should guess you,” and so they should. She understood intuitively that inviting her clients and her public to participate in the creation of her allure was to capture their attention. She put enough out there to create a screen for their projection. She understood that self-promotion was also seduction. She was also extraordinarily lucky; she was able to create a desire for her pieces, for her look and way of life, and then recede into the shadows.
KK: Chanel’s most glamorous move was to replace the real jewels given her by her lover, the Duke of Westminster, then the richest man in the world, with poured glass. At a time of great prosperity she invented costume jewelry and during the Depression she insisted women wear diamonds they could sell in order to eat. She was a revolutionary disguised as a fashionista. Can it possibly get more glamorous than that?
DG: How would Coco Chanel fare on Project Runway?
KK: I’m sure she would have nothing to do with it. She would find another way to succeed. When the dazzling Elsa Schiaparelli stole Coco’s thunder in the ’30s (as well as some of her best clients), Chanel’s response was to completely ignore her.
The DG Dozen
1) How do you define glamour? Chanel said “art is imperfection” and the same can be said of glamour. To be glamorous is be aware of one’s flaws worthy of envy. Barbara Stanwyck comes to mind. A glamorous item is usually a fetish item that few people have but everyone wants. The iPhone was glamorous for about 48 hours, once upon a time.
3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity? Absolute necessity. When glamour goes, so does creativity and hope.
5) What was your most glamorous moment? Sipping Lagavulin single malt scotch aboard the Four Seasons Explorer in the Maldives, after a scuba dive in which I’d encountered a hammerhead shark.
The American hotel is not just a place to stay but a revolutionary institution, embodying hospitality as a liberal value and delivering once-elite services in a mass, democratic form. So argues historian Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz in Hotel: An American History. With its combination business, legal, and social history, the book offers a new way of seeing an industry we think we know.
Writing in the NYT Book Review Dominique Browning called the book “dense, ambitious and valuable,” concluding, “I will never again check into a hotel without thinking of myself as an ambassador of peace; that alone, with its profound implications, makes this thoughtful book worthwhile.” (It also gave her “an entirely new take on spoiled, bratty, neglected, charming Eloise, living at the Plaza.”) “This brilliant history,” wrote Kerry Howley in Reason, “is a reminder that the fear of the traveling stranger is something we have overcome before.”
An assistant professor of history at the University of New Mexico, Andrew is currently editing a special issue of Winterthur Portfolio on the subject of business architecture. We're delighted he was willing to contribute to Hotel Week.
DG: How did you get interested in hotels?
Andrew Sandoval-Strausz: It happened rather by chance. In the spring of 1996 I was in my second year of graduate school, and looking for a dissertation topic. While attending a historians’ conference, I spent some time in the beautiful second-floor lobby at the Palmer House in Chicago. As I watched the people come and go, I began to think about interactions among total strangers and how fraught they could be with delight, temptation, and danger—especially at a place with lots of alcohol and lots of beds. What if I were to write a history of hotels, with all their attendant elegance, naughtiness, and political intrigue? “Now, that,” I thought, “would be a guaranteed non-boring Ph.D. thesis!”
Palmer House lobby
DG: You write, “It is extremely easy for people to say one thing and do another....But when they construct a building—especially a large and complex one like a hotel—it is harder to argue that they didn’t really mean it.” What were the people who built America’s hotels saying?
Sandoval-Strausz: They were extending a welcome to strangers and outsiders in a way that hadn’t been done in America for almost 200 years. From the beginnings of European settlement in the early 1600s until the first hotels in the 1790s, Americans offered travelers only the most rudimentary of accommodations. European wayfarers who wrote about hospitality here were constantly complaining about bad food, overcharging, filth, vermin, and having to share beds with complete strangers. Moreover, many American communities had laws allowing them to inspect, interrogate, and eject anyone who was in a town other than their home community. But when people in the early United States started devoting enormous amounts of money, creativity, labor, and building materials to building a new class of public accommodations, it was an unmistakable sign that they had changed their views of outsiders, deciding to welcome them in style instead of viewing them with suspicion.
Sandoval-Strausz: Leading hotels at that time weren’t just about paying for a bed and a bath—they were places people went to see and be seen, to enjoy the pleasure of being in public. The entire approach to being a hotel guest was fundamentally sociable, so who would want to stay cooped up in their room? Hotel rooms were very small and plain then; it was the public areas—the lobby, dining rooms, lounges, bars, and the like—that hotelkeepers worked hardest to make beautiful.
DG: How was the role of a 19th-century hotel lobby different from the role of such a lobby today?
Sandoval-Strausz: In some respects I think today’s hotel lobbies are moving back toward the role they played a century and a half ago. After the past few decades, during which lobbies were becoming sparse, sterile spaces that were no more than waiting areas for people who wanted to go upstairs, hoteliers have again begun to see them as important gathering-places for their neighborhoods. In the nineteenth century, the lobby was the most exciting space in the entire building. Hotelkeepers spent enormous amounts of money on carpets, furniture, draperies, and other elements of décor so that they could attract people to their premises. Indeed, hotel lobbies were such important social and business centers that the majority of people in them weren’t travelers at all, but locals who simply wanted to meet friends or do business in the most vital and glamorous place in town.
DG: Today’s hotel guests tend to be baffled by the idea that an “American plan” means meals are included. What is the origin of this term? What was the appeal of the 19th-century hotel dining room?
Sandoval-Strausz: This term originated at a time when European travelers expected to take their meals privately, in their rooms. Americans thought this was impardonably rude: in a country based on the idea that “all men are created equal,” it was seen as snobbish and antisocial to want to keep your distance from others. The “American plan,” in which your room charge automatically included meals eaten in a common dining room, expressed the idea that it was proper to eat at long tables alongside your fellow citizens. For Americans, this was both a way of expressing their ideals about equality and democracy and an opportunity to put on a nice change of clothes and enjoy a banquet-like experience in a grand dining hall.
Stereoscopic view of Lick House dining room, San Francisco
DG: Luxury hotels play a prominent role in the movies of the 1930s and ’40s, with wealthy characters often living in hotels for long periods of time (sometimes permanently). How common were such living arrangements? What was the appeal of living in a hotel rather than in an apartment or house?
Sandoval-Strausz: They were very common, and not just in the 1930s and 1940s. More than a hundred years before, people recognized that living in a hotel was very convenient because so much of the everyday drudgery of living would be handled by the hotel staff. If you had the resources, you didn’t have to worry about cooking, cleaning, or laundry because hotel chefs, chambermaids, and washerwomen would do the work. Hotel living allowed single people and families to enjoy services and amenities that were usually only available to those with private servants.
DG: In the mid-19th century, critics decried the rise of hotel living for corroding family life while reformers saw hotels as a model for efficient domesticity, with shared cooking, laundry, and other services. Why did hotel living die out in the 20th century?
Sandoval-Strausz: This was in substantial part the result of housing policies that began in the 1930s and the prosperity of the 1950s and after. Under Franklin Roosevelt, the federal government brought mortgage rates down much lower than they’d ever been; and in the post-World War II period, the U.S. became the most prosperous nation that had ever existed. The combination of the two led to many people being able to afford the kind of freestanding, single-family house that was idealized for so many years in Anglo-American culture.
DG: Do hotels today represent an extension of ordinary domestic life or an escape from it? Has that changed over time?
Sandoval-Strausz: These days it’s definitely an escape, if the way they are advertised is anything to go by. Over the past ten or fifteen years, hotel companies have been emphasizing the specialness and glamour of staying at a hotel. For travelers, it’s the promise of something exotic, or historic, or especially hip—but in all cases different from your workaday routine. They’re also advertising in-town escapes, as when they try to draw married couples in for sexy weekends away from the kids and household responsibilities. This has indeed changed over time. In some eras, hotelkeepers tried to emphasize that hotels offered all the comforts of home: they gave guests personalized attention, tried to make the entire hotel seem like an extended family, and so on—indeed, hoteliers in the nineteenth century would often stand at the head table in their dining room and cut the roast for the guests, thus taking on the symbolic role of the head of a regular household. In other eras, they emphasized the predictability and machine-like efficiency of their operations, featuring anything from a large-capacity steam-driven laundry machine to a modern electric elevator to a corps of dining room waiters who served with military precision.
Sandoval-Strausz: It could be any of a few things. Many historic hotels are glamorous because of their incredible architecture: some of the most elegant hotels in the country—the Plaza, the Fairmont, the Blackstone—were built about a century ago, at a time when hotel builders spared no expense on elaborate ornamentation and décor. Some recent establishments, like the leading W Hotels locations, offer up-to-the-minute style and the latest in architecture and materials, using a modern minimalist visual vocabulary to dazzle and intrigue. And still others, like La Fonda in Santa Fe or the Peabody in Memphis, simply express the local culture perfectly, expressing confidence in their vernacular heritage and charm.
DG: Do you have a favorite hotel or hotel experience?
Sandoval-Strausz: This takes me back to the initial inspiration for my book. I like just sitting and having a drink in an elegant hotel bar or hotel lobby, watching what people do. They may smile or they may complain, they may look exhausted at the end of a long flight or exhilarated at the prospect of a night on the town, they may be giving a hug to old friends or flirting with someone cute whom they’ve just met. But they’re always up to something interesting, because if they wanted to be boring, they’d have just stayed at home.
To see a Slate slide show of hotel photos, with text by Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, go here.
[Palmer House lobby by Flickr user WhatCouldPossiblyGoWrong? under Creative Commons license. United States Hotel lobby, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1876, and Fifth Avenue Hotel dining room, courtesy of Andrew Sandoval-Strausz. Lick House dining room, San Francisco, courtesy of New York Public Library digital gallery.]
Kate Hahn's Forgotten Fashion: An Illustrated Faux History Of Outrageous Trends And Their Untimely Demise is a romp through fashion and social history, recounted through (faux) once-celebrated fads, from the Sidesaddle Motoring Coat of 1903 to the Hood-olo of 2005. Here, in honor of the new season of Mad Men (the show is set later, but the milieu is similar), is a mid-century selection, with illustrations by Andraé Gonzalo of Project Runway fame.
Four O’clock Dress, 1957
Not a day dress, and not an evening gown, this toga-like garment was worn by mid-century American housewives during the single, lonely, long-shadowed hour after the pot roast was placed in the oven but before a husband’s key was heard in the front door. Made of light-reflecting fabrics such as satin or sharkskin, in bright period colors like Miami-limeade, Flamingo-pink, or Navajo-turquoise, it was meant to provoke optimism in the wearer.
The dress was held in place at the shoulder with a clasp which doubled as a makeup compact. This opened to reveal a more risqué shade of rouge than would be worn at other times of day. Each “Foursie” also had secret inner pockets to hide the tools of whatever vice occupied the otherwise abject and idle afternoon. Contents often included miniature gin bottles, marijuana joints, or palm-sized erotic novels.
Worn only in affluent suburbs reached by the commuter trains of New York City, the Four O’clock Dress was the concept of Jacques Brevi, a French couturier who trained in the Paris atelier of Hubert de Givenchy but came to the United States in the middle 1950s. Soon disillusioned with the grime of the bongo-playing milieu of the Lower East Side, he decamped to the affluent suburb of Bronxville, which, he wrote to a friend, was: “paradise with Cadillacs” but one that he feared was not safe from the “dirty fingers of Nihilism.”
Brevi set to work preserving his suburban haven by creating a dress that would, “if not give meaning to life, then distract from the fact that there is none.” He imported the brilliantly colored material from the finest Italian mills, hired students from Sarah Lawrence as seamstresses, and sold his creations in at least seven shops in Westchester County. The distinct rustling sound of the brilliant togas became known in better neighborhoods as “the laughter of the dresses,” as Technicolor Athenas emerged from their houses and congregated on cherry-blossom drenched front lawns to trade hits of Indonesian reefer, sip Crème de Menthe, and read aloud from annotated bootleg copies of Tropic of Cancer.
Soon, the women began to expand the secret sartorial compartments to include heavier items such as law books and manifestos. Brevi warned that the garments were not designed for this, and would not be able to withstand it. In April of 1957, his prediction came true when New Haven resident Carol Jones weighed down her chartreuse “Foursie” with copies of Atlas Shrugged and a 300-page letter to the editor of the Westchester County Times espousing individual freedom. The inner pocket ripped, and the contents fell and crushed several of her toes, leaving her prone and unconscious from pain in her foyer.
The next day, the incident was reported in the very paper in which Carol had wished to publish her letter. Her husband, Charles Jones was quoted as saying: “A man should not come home to the smell of burning dinner. I blame these glorified bed sheets.” Clippings of the story were found on the pillows of most Westchester housewives. The Four O’clock Dress was soon known as the “divorce dress” and sales plummeted. Brevi wrote to a friend, “I suppose I will once again pull up my silver tent stakes and take the circus of my life elsewhere.” He moved to Vermont, where he made sandals.
Note: In areas closer to Manhattan, the garment was known as the Three-thirty Dress as the commuter trains arrived earlier.
For a limited time, you can order a copy of Forgotten Fashion, signed by Kate and Andraé, for $9.95 plus shipping. Order it here no later than Labor Day, September 7—a great gift for your favorite fashionista! Greetings A&L Daily Readers: In your honor, we've extended the deadline for orders to Friday, September 18. But the sooner we receive your order, the easier it will be to get your book signed. Thanks!
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In Forgotten Fashion: An Illustrated Faux History Of Outrageous Trends And Their Untimely Demise, Kate Hahn plays fashion historian, plumbing the “Beatrice P. Fruit Archives” at the “College of the Willows” for such once-celebrated fashion fads as Ice Beading and the Four O’Clock Dress. It’s deadpan social satire in a tone Kate describes as “glamorous dark humor...inspired by things like Edward Gorey and the Limony Snicket series." In each of the supposedly historic episodes, everything goes wonderfully until some sort of “regrettable incident or unlucky moment” ends the fun.
Here, with illustrations by Andraé Gonzalo of Project Runway fame, is a sample chapter. Kate and Andraé will be signing copies of the book at our Downtown Fashion Walk party on Thursday evening (details here), 201 W. 5th Street at Spring in Downtown L.A. [VP]
Frigidaire Formals, 1950
Sometimes, it all begins with a muse.
When Gaston Darchez first laid eyes on Kaitlyn Anderson, she was removing a silver tray of Jell-O parfaits from a sparkling new 1950 Frigidaire Imperial refrigerator. Kaitlyn was six feet tall, with flame red hair and skin so white that it had been alternately described by her series of minor poet boyfriends as “milky,” “snowy,” “ghostly,” or by the less metaphorically inclined, “pale.” Her long spine gave her a slightly concave posture, which had once led her pediatrician to predict a lifetime of expensive medical treatments. But by the time 21 year-old Kaitlyn crossed Darchez’s line of vision, her backbone had become her fortune.
Kaitlyn was one of the few people in the world with the innate ability to hold her torso in a nearly perpetual C-curve, which at the time was considered the ultimate posture of a high-fashion model. She had been discovered by an art director, and embarked on a very successful career posing for illustrated magazine advertisements. It was in this capacity that Darchez, an expatriate French former fashion designer, first saw her. He had been hired to draw the ad for the 1950 Frigidaire Imperial. Kaitlyn had been contracted to be part of the picture. Her elegant form, swathed in a sky blue ball gown and curved over the tray of gelatin treats, suggested that the icy confines of the refrigerator emitted breezes that could transform anyone’s life into a glamorous one, and give pedigree to even the most pedestrian desserts.
For Darchez, the scene was simply a series of colors and shapes to be put on paper, until the moment Kaitlyn unwound from her C-curve, and stood up straight. “She dominated the entire room," he wrote. “And I knew what I had to do to become a fashion designer again: go big.” The Frenchman had worked in all the great Parisian fashion ateliers, but was never chosen as an assistant, and so had come to the US, bitter and angry, promising to abandon couture and “become an illustrator of the hulking monstrous machines and the lazy and wasteful women who use them.” But in truth he was haunted by the popularity of Christian Dior’s New Look of 1947 and longed to create a style that would have the same meteoric impact on fashion.
At the sight of Kaitlyn beside the modern ice box, he decided “hope lies in hugeness.” The drawing studio had the same high ceilings as the abodes of the Parisian elite – Darchez’s desired customers. He knew that all of these privileged women harbored the same secret wish: to enter the elaborate parties held in these cavernous rooms in gowns so stunning they would make all the other guests blend into the parquet floors. To become their next design darling, Darchez would have to make dresses that would dominate these spaces like no one before him: evening gowns on a gargantuan scale. “Double doors will become triples to accommodate their entrances, and grand staircases will look like matchstick ladders beside them,” he wrote. “I will transform every woman into Kaitlyn.”
With the widespread availability of books on tape and CD, we can, if we choose, hear many novels read to us by experienced readers, some of whom are excellent. In her post about the power of the written word, Kit Pollard muses that “sometimes it’s nice, as a reader, to do a little interpretation.” Her thoughts remind us that when someone performs words they inevitably interpret them, and that other interpretations, including our own, are possible.
Compared to words in print, a performed rendition adds tone and inflection. Imagine reading that three women are sitting together in a restaurant when a fourth woman enters. One of the seated women (I’ll call her Stephanie) remarks, “Doesn’t she look pretty?” Without more information we have to guess whether Stephanie’s remark is a sincere compliment or a snide insult. But if we heard the tone and inflection of her remark, or if we knew Stephanie better, we would likely know her intent.
The absence of tone makes writing dialogue in fiction challenging. Playwrights and screenwriters sometimes use parenthetical remarks to suggest a performance tone to actors. Within the film trade these are sometimes called “wrylies” because “(wryly)” has been a much used parenthetical instruction. Experts on writing plays and screenplays advise eliminating wrylies as much as possible. (Shakespeare’s plays contain almost no interpretive instructions.) If script writers insert numerous wrylies, professional actors often respond by going through the script and marking them out. Actors often feel that the way that a line should be performed will vary depending on how they as actors choose to portray the characters. As one website advises, “Try to cut out all the wrylies you can. Actors hate 'em. Directors hate 'em. They think you're trying to do their job.”
Authors of novels frequently provide information about various characters’ thoughts or the tone of the dialogue. Thus a novelist might write: “ ‘Doesn’t she look pretty,’ Stephanie said wryly.” But editors often advise novelists to avoid adding too much interpretive information. Doing too much of this can rob readers of the chance to interpret for themselves what a character’s behavior reveals about them. Thus the frequent admonition to writers to “Show, don’t tell.” But “telling” can be useful and efficient. Finding a successful balance between showing and telling is one of the challenges of writing.
This discussion raises the question of whether written prose can be glamorous without some special means of presentation. In my experience prose itself can be glamorous, but the vast majority of prose clearly is not. To be glamorous, prose has to move beyond clarity, efficiency, and grammatical correctness. Glamour in language requires paying attention to subtle nuances of meaning. It also requires paying close attention to the sound and rhythm of words and word groups. Most writing within legal, government, scientific, and academic communities reveals a deaf ear for the sound of language, as Kit remarked of the typical writing of economists. Some fiction and non-fiction writing is glamorous, but most is not.
Even when we read silently, we tend to hear the sound and rhythm of what we are reading in our minds. I suspect that some form of sensuous perception or imagination is likely to be a factor in everything that we find glamorous. Certainly, if a passage of prose would fail to resonate if read aloud, it will fail to resonate in the mind when read silently. It is far easier for language to be informative, meaningful, and even exciting than it is for it to seem to cast a spell. Achieving the latter is rare. Yet, when language is alluring, we can often recognize this immediately. When starting to read a novel, for example, if the writing has been done with extraordinary care and imagination, we may find ourselves falling under the spell of the author’s captivating use of language as soon as the first sentence, paragraph, and page.
"Glamorizing" usually implies an active effort at editing out flaws: retouching photos, showing cigarettes without smoke smell or cancer, celebrating cliquish bullies as Queen Bees and Gossip Girls. But, as these two contrasting passages from classic works illustrate, glamour can also arise from the audience's willingness or proclivity simply to overlook flaws.
From Jane Eyre:
"Come where there is some freshness, for a few moments," he said; "that house is a mere dungeon: don't you feel it so?"
"It seems to me a splendid mansion, sir."
"The glamour of inexperience is over your eyes," he answered; "and you see it through a charmed medium: you cannot discern that the gilding is slime and the silk draperies cobwebs; that the marble is sordid slate, and the polished woods mere refuse chips and scaly bark. Now HERE" (he pointed to the leafy enclosure we had entered) "all is real, sweet, and pure.
No words of mine can tell you how Wendy despised those pirates. To the boys there was at least some glamour in the pirate calling; but all that she saw was that the ship had not been tidied for years. There was not a porthole on the grimy glass of which you might not have written with your finger "Dirty pig"; and she had already written it on several.
As anyone who has ever framed a photographic shot only to notice dirt on the window or wires across the view knows, the mind always does some unconscious editing. (Those of us in love with Florence rarely notice the ubiquitous graffiti.) But I think there's a deeper truth here that applies equally to overt glamorization: Glamour only works on the receptive imagination.
Some people are--to say the least--as immune to Barack Obama's glamour as Wendy was to that of the pirate calling. Even the "world's most glamorous couple" gets mixed reviews. “I fail to see the glamour of this couple,” writes a website commenter about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. “They usually look like aged hobos.” Although Princess Diana remains a touchstone of late 20th-century glamour, there are plenty of skeptics. A “glamorous” person, setting, or style will not produce glamour unless that object resonates with the audience’s aspirations, and unless the audience is willing to entertain the illusion.
[Paris photo courtesy of Flickr user smallish fish, copyright and used with permission.]
Personal glamour, especially in the sense of magic, makes little sense unless it is audience-aware, even if the audience is oneself. A woman might dress up to assure herself that she is attractive (a man might do the same), or put on nice clothes to brighten her mood. The notion of personal glamour suggests a person who is somewhat aware that he or she is seen as attractive and is (to some degree) comfortable with that.
One of most celebrated epiphanies in literature occurs in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In the novel Stephen Dedalus searches for his calling, and vacillates between the priesthood and a career as a artist. He struggles with this intellectually, until, walking on the beach, he encounters mortal beauty and is overwhelmed.
A girl stood before him in midstream: alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane's and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and soft-hued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips where the white fringes of her drawers were like featherings of soft white down. Her slate-blue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird's, soft and slight; slight and soft as the breast of some dark plumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish; and girlish and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.
She was alone and still, gazing out to sea; and when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantonness. Long, long she suffered his gaze and then quietly withdrew her eyes from his and bent them towards the stream, gently stirring the water with her foot hither and thither. The first faint noise of gently moving water broke the silence, low and faint and whispering, faint as the bells of sleep; hither and thither, hither and thither: and a faint flame trembled on her cheek.
—Heavenly God! cried Stephen's soul, in an outburst of profane joy.
He turned away from her suddenly and set off across the strand. His cheeks were aflame; his body was aglow; his limbs were trembling. On and on and on and on he strode, far out over the sands, singing wildly to the sea, crying to greet the advent of the life that had cried to him.
Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!
The young girl’s reactions are crucial to Stephen’s experience. She has hiked up her skirts to stand barefoot in the stream, and then, sensing she has an audience, she turns her head. Stephan's ecstatic experience could never have happened if she had quickly turned away in embarrassment. Or if, unnerved by his enraptured gaze, she had begun to back away from him. Instead she looks at him and holds his gaze, tolerating him as he, awestruck, continues to absorb her mortal beauty.
Given her poise, surely this young girl has experienced worshipful gazes before. Perhaps her slender legs have been shaped by Irish folk dancing, and she is confident about her body and used to having an audience. Still, could she ever have imagined that at some unexpected moment, unplanned and transient, she would turn to find a young man gazing at her as if she were a young goddess risen from the sea?
Yet graciously she meets his gaze, captivates him, and then, by turning away, releases him. Surely, when she looks back to see him striding off in ecstatic joy, “singing wildly to the sea,” she knows her appearance has played its part in bewitching this strange young man. I suspect she smiles a little.
She has become, if she was not before, audience-aware. When she looks into her mirror that evening, she may see some reflection of the wonder she saw in that young man’s eyes.
[Photograph by Randall Shinn.]
"The Lake Isle of Innisfree," inspired by a soft drink promotion:
And, closer to our subject:
Inspired by Nicole Kidman in period costumes and contemporary clothes, Raquel Laneri at The Southwing considers at length the relative tyrannies of corsets versus hardbodies, writing, "The modern woman who diets and the woman who puts on a corset both chase an ideal, and suffer considerably for that ideal."
Her post reminded me of an astute passage from Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. The novel is set in a near-future whose many clans include neo-Victorians, who've adapted historical customs and aesthetics to a culturally fragmented world shaped by nanotechnology. (The references to "genuine" materials mean they weren't produced by nanotech replicating machines.)
...he glanced through to door to Gwendolyn's closet and out the other side into her boudoir. Against that room's far windows was the desk she used for social correspondence, really just a table with a top of genuine marble, strewn with bits of stationery, her own and others', dimly identifiable even at this distance as business cards, visiting cards, note cards, invitations from various people still going through triage. Most of the boudoir floor was covered with a tatty carpet, worn through in places all the way down to its underlying matrix of jute, but handwoven and sculpted by genuine Chinese slave labor during the Mao Dynasty. Its only real function was to protect the floor from Gwendolyn's exercise equipment, which gleamed in the dim light scattering off the clouds from Shanghai: a step unit done up in Beaux-Arts ironmongery, a rowing machine cleverly fashioned of writhing sea serpents and hard bodied nereids, a rack of free weights supported by four cillipygious caryatids -- not chunky Greeks but modern women, one of each major racial group, each tricep, gluteus, latissimus, sartorius and rectus abdominus casting its own highlight. Classical architecture indeed.
The caryatids were supposed to be role models, and despite subtle racial differences, each body fit the current ideal: twenty-two-inch waist, no more than 17% body fat. That kind of body couldn't be faked with undergarments, never mind what the ads in the women's magazines claimed; the long, tight bodices of the current mode, and modern fabrics thinner than soap bubbles, made everything obvious. Most women who didn't have superhuman willpower couldn't manage it without the help of a lady's maid who would run them through two or even three vigorous workouts a day.
So after Fiona had stopped breast-feeding, and the time had loomed when Gwen would have to knacker her maternity clothes, they had hired Tiffany Sue--just another of the child-related expenses Hackworth had never imagined until the bills had started to come in. Gwen accused him, half seriously, of having eyes for Tiffany Sue. The accusation was almost a standard formality of modern marriage, as lady's maids were all young, pretty, and flawlessly buff. But Tiffany Sue was a typical thete, loud and classless and heavily made up, and Hackworth couldn't abide her. If he had eyes for anyone, it was those caryatids holding up the weight rack; at least they had impeccable taste going for them.
Glamour conceals the effort, making the resulting body seem natural when it is, in fact, a carefully crafted artifact.
Photo is from the Museum at FIT's Seduction exhibit, reviewed (with a slide show) here.
Tomorrow is Valentine's Day. Heartscandyflowersinappropriatelingerie. Or lack thereof.
Come to Your Senses Day is February 15th, and could possibly be the most important date in the history of human romantic interaction. The brainchild of writers Liz Dubelman and Barbara Davilman, CYSD events include readings from their new anthology, What Was I Thinking?: 58 Bad Boyfriend Stories at bookstores around the country.
My own essay (page 41) isn't about a boyfriend, but an even more intimate relationship--my hair colorist. Ex.
Contributers include Maira Kalman, Francesca Lia Block, Carrie Fisher, Claudia Handler, Rachel Resnick, Bonnie Bruckheimer and a bunch of other top-drawer women writers.
For my money, Patricia Marx has the best essay, but I won't spoil the surprise.
In Los Angeles, join us at 2 pm at the Borders at 1360 Westwood Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90024.
Anyone who's intrigued by the ugly side of Hollywood, and really, that's everyone I know, will want to dip into Mark Ebner's new book, Six Degrees of Paris Hilton: Inside the Sex Tapes, Scandals, and Shakedowns of the New Hollywood.
Jerry Stahl, who's taken a couple of walks on the wild side himself, blurbs:
Most terrifying of all -- the story is true, and Ebner tells it with a
ferocity and heart that will have readers panting and forgetting to
wash or eat until they've clawed their way to the end.
But, then, some people will use any excuse to avoid showering.
Lowlife scum like Tara Reid, Joe Francis, and Darnell Riley populate the book, and Ebner's investigative skills leave no hot pillow un-turned.
Ebner signs in person tonight at Book Soup.
This may seem like an unfortunate moment to release a film called Confessions of a Shopaholic, opening February 13.
Joan DeJean is a professor at French literature at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of a number of award-winning scholarly works. But she's best known outside the academy for what the NYT called "her effervescent account of the birth of French chic," her delightfully readable popular book, The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour.
In it, Joan argues that many of the styles, customs, and luxuries we associate with glamour and chic developed from Louis XIV's calculated policies. She traces the origins of champagne and umbrellas, explains how diamonds displaced pearls as the most desirable of jewels, and recounts how streetlights--a tough technological challenge--changed city life. Plus there's the tale of international skullduggery and industrial espionage--over the secret of making large mirrors.
Consider for a moment the picture of the silent, capable man: the 007, or the mysterious cowboy who meanders into town and takes care of business, even the official portrait of JFK with his head down, deep in thought. Their glamour is rooted in our very DNA.
Anthropologically speaking, when times are tough, silence is the best way to live to see the next day. “Each man must do his own surviving,” writes Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. “Privacy is important for strength in that lonely work.”
But we live in a culture that’s tell-all, all-the-time. In 1994, Molly Mayfield in the Rocky Mountain News coined a new word. “the Oprahization of our culture—the astonishing propensity to tell all, even the most sacred, private things to an audience of strangers…”
When Oprah first went on the air her more scandalous guests would appear behind a screen or, who else remembers this??, dressed in disguise, big glasses, wigs, etc. That was 1985. By 2007, middle-class women were lifting up their shirts on national TV,for her Bra Revolution show. (Not to be outdone, Tyra added her own classy spin to the topic.) Perhaps we’ll look back at the apex of this era of T.M.I. as Tom Cruise’s jumping on Oprah's yellow couch and continuously dropping to the floor to do the E.R. arm pump all while professing his love for Katie Holmes. As my mother used to say “What would the neighbors think?”
Directly after that stunt Cruise went on a public relations whirlwind (“You’re glib, Matt. Glib.”) Note to those in the PR field: “Thrashing does not save a drowning person… Those who can float quietly have a better chance,” writes Gonzales.
Part of surviving, as Gonzales sees it, is constantly being able to reorient your mental map. A survivor must take in his surroundings, admit to himself he's over his head (humility), discard all hope of rescue (he's got to do it himself), and just get on with the business of making the right choices. "Survivors aren't fearless. They use fear: they turn it into anger and focus," he writes. (See Russell Crowe's Maximus in Gladiator.)
Strangely though, even though it is programmed into our DNA to be silent in survival, lately the quiet one turns out to be the sinister character to avoid: Daniel Day-Lewis' character in There Will Be Blood, Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.
Economically, environmentally, individually, these are tough times. So where’s the good guy who puts up and shuts up, on the big screen or even in everyday life? From Gonzales' book, "Epictetus said, 'and let silence be the general rule, or let only what is necessary be said and in few words. And rarely and when the occasion calls shall we say something.'"
Somewhere, maybe because we've had it pretty easy for so long, we've forgotten the best way to survive is to go inside ourselves and stay quiet. You feel it, I feel it, even Lily Allen feels it. She sings about it in her new song, “The Fear.”
"I want to be rich and I want lots of money
I don't care about clever, I don't care about funny
I'll take my clothes off and it will be shameless
'Cuz everyone knows that's how you get famous
I don't know what's right and what's real anymore
I don't know how I'm meant to feel anymore
When do you think it will all become clear?
‘Cause I’m being taken over by The Fear"
Dana Thomas, author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster (praised by DG's Paige Phelps as "one of the best fashion books I've read in a long while" in our roundup of holiday gift ideas) was in Santa Monica this evening, signing books and mingling at a book party thrown by Lisa Bittan and Mickey Kaus at Lisa's lovely home. In brief remarks, Dana entertained guests with the story of how she wound up covering the fashion industry, despite no specific ambitions to do so: "I never set out to be a business reporter. I just knew French."
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