Tag Archives: fashion

Searching The Sky

Irene Rich stands like a subdued bride.

She holds a silken bouquet behind her, drooping yet hopeful. The coat she wears is of white mink, and there are three rows of severed tails at the hem, decorative and barbaric.  Hidden shoes – satin, undoubtedly, with curving Cuban heels – tap the floor with delicate impatience.  The floor bearing the brunt of Irene’s disquiet bears the terse design that typifies the beginnings of Art Deco.

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The photo must therefore date before 1925, before L’Exposition Internationale Des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes.  This was Paris’ months-long introduction of the new symmetries to a world still dreaming in the Ophelia-like embrace of Art Nouveau.  The old sentimentality and weak femininity had expired on the killing fields of Europe and the Middle East, and in the choking factories of the home front.

Irene has not cut her hair – not yet – but the curls have been piled into a soft volcano, until neck, back and shoulders show white and bare, an anthem to the new exposure of the 1920’s. She is not a beauty – there is a thickness to the neck, and a suspicion of fullness to the torso which might have been harbored within a corset in her younger days.  For Irene was born in 1891 and her body would therefore have known fashion’s shackles as well as its liberation.  She would be in her late 20’s when she stood for this photo and an actress for almost 10 years.  Later she worked in talkies, in radio, on the stage.  Her acting career would span three decades.

But Irene had another career, albeit a more emotional one. She had a marital calling; one that was more lengthy than her dramatic one.  Her first marriage was in 1909, a pre-emptive jump to the altar to presumably escape the plans of boarding school which her parents had for her.  One daughter and two years later, she divorced.

There quickly followed another wedding, in 1912. The end of this marriage led to Irene seeking work in the new frontier of Hollywood in order to support her family.  This fortuitous decision would promise that bauble in southern California a future of selfish hostesses, gallant frontierswomen, and strong-willed housewives.

When this curiously bridal photograph was taken, Irene stands waiting for her third husband, whom she would wed in 1926. Once more, it would not last long.  But finally, in 1950, she married a New York business executive; a union that lasted until the end of her life, in 1988.

But shortly before this final, stolid relationship; there was one more – a volatile and deadly one.

In 1949, secretary Agnes Elizabeth killed her employer: politician and business owner John Edwin Owen.  According to the sheriff’s report Garnier shot Owen and blamed Irene Rich for coming between them.  According to Garnier’s story the gun had gone off accidentally, as she took the gun from an intoxicated Owen as he was going to bed.  Rich claimed an innocent friendship, Garnier plead innocence.  In the end, Garnier was convicted of manslaughter, serving one and a half years out of her “one-to-ten” year sentence.  And Irene by then was very happily married.

I had found Irene some time ago, I forget where. I was taken with her face, her slightly debauched cloak, her sprite’s modesty.  So I bought her and framed her, and so she has hung in sepia glory in my hallway for many years.  Her photo was one of a few that I own where the image comes with an autograph – a key ready-made for any owner to use who is willing to research the past of a new possession.

So I had only recently decided to find where her name led me: a history of unions – most unsuccessful – one calamitous relationship based on conflicting stories, explanations and affections…and a body of work in television and radio which led to her two stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

In a way, I think, such research is like looking into the sky – the things that suddenly come into view when you look into vistas that most people will ignore.

 

The Brightest Star

Some weekends ago, I attended an exhibit of 19th century wedding gowns, feeling like an invitee to these departed ladies’ proudest day.  It was a small gallery, in a room filled with sepia and satin, rich with the promise and limitations of a woman’s future.  She had grown from a child to a teenager, from a teenager to a debutante, from a debutante to a bride delicately leaning on her groom’s arm.  And after marriage she grew no more.

There were slightly more than a dozen mannequins – manicured and white; their faces blank like a perpetual lowering of eyes and silence of thoughts.  Wrists were arched at painful angles, fingers curved but empty:  waiting for a bouquet, a scrap of lace, a pair of gloves that fit like a second skin – a closeness which rendered them unsuitable to be worn a second time.

The exhibit was without color, save for the splash of a bouquet or the tip of a velvet shoe twinkling from beneath a hem.  But the impression was unforgettable – the imprint of expensive fabric, rows of glass beads that rippled like rivers in the sun, voluminous skirts and sleeves, corsets and petticoats that carved the bride into a woman’s shape.

The gowns spanned the entire century.  The earliest was from 1802:  a simple column of linen finely embroidered with a trellis of flowers. Its rich simplicity was a throwback to Marie Antoinette and her milkmaid reveries at the Hameau de la Reine.

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In 30 years the wedding gown had become a flurry of satin and bows – figured jacquard and lace, tiers of ruffles and ribbons on the sleeves and an ornamented bodice fitted at the waist which was newly ‘found’ and beginning its descent to its natural place.

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Mid-century and the gowns featured deep, scooped 17th century necklines – the lines that swooned with sentimentality at the vision of a lady’s pure and pale shoulders.  Skirts were bell-shaped and layered with decoration – buoyed with petticoats, they bobbed gently as she walked, shocking onlookers with glimpses of pretty ankles and pumps with curved embroidered heels.

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Towards the end of the century complex bustles were introduced, taped and sewn into a maze of folds and pleats.  This labyrinth pulled the fabric of the skirt towards the back until the front was smooth and fitted.  So to preserve the diminutive waist, femininity’s silent cry for attention, tight-lacing entered a particularly brutal phase.  Stiff and doll-like, the bride would walk to meet her groom, already imprisoned – a penitentiary that was edged with lace, embroidered with colored silk, wreathed with tiny bows and that cut into her skin like a thousand exquisite thorns.

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The room shone with the subtle warmth of thick satins, flaxen lace, pearls and glass beads.   Light honored the fabric with a heightening of textures, with radiant molecules that descended on patterns like sequins.  This was a history of the fashion of the wedding:  where there was much change; and the history of the bride:  where there was very little.  The exhibit was called ‘Bliss’ – and for that one blissful moment when she entered the church all eyes would be on her.  And they would follow her like flowers billowing towards the sun.  On that most singular, proudest, day she would be their brightest star.

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The Greedy Dress

It hung in a silken closet, cruel and biting, waiting for her to step into its graceful hell of bones, laces and hooks.

And when she did, it hemmed her in, unwilling to share her architecture of curves with an envious world.  It twisted the pathway of her hips and torso into its own desired journey.  The unyielding prison of fabric pressed and bruised her skin like selfish fingers.  Covetous fashion had made a cruel pattern that claimed ownership and turned the freedom of her body into a hobbled silhouette.

She balked at the restraints of her expensive harness.  But it must love her, she reasoned, because it made her beautiful.  So she was patient, and suffered its petty pinches and iron-clad esteem.  She accepted its grip as it clutched at her waist, making her gasp for air.  She relinquished the individuality of her feminine flesh to the ownership of her greedy dress.

And she was flattered by its attentions as it held her tightly, like a velvet ruffian.

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A Woman Of Experience

I think she was my first.  Her dark brows, her heavy eyelids, her tired and shadowed expression, the mouth about to purse into petulance – the elements of a spoiled Edwardian countenance – charmed me into purchasing her.  I collect many images of lovely ladies, but this gilded siren was my first.

She wears a dressing/morning gown, en dishabille:  low cut, but reflecting the hard outlines of the corset underneath. Her hair is hastily pinned up, threatening to break loose like dusky tendrils of sea spray.  The gown itself is a seamstress' nightmare – pieced together and decorated in some dim factory room so that it could now blaze in a light of ribbons, linen, velvet, muslin, lace, brilliants, folds, ruffles, pleats and ruches.  The embroidered panel at the hem glitters with flowers and medievel quatrefoils.  Braided fringe sweps the floors when she walks:  more dust for the skivvies to clean.  The apron of needlepoint lace is a pale garden of leaves and vines, sprouted from bobbin and thread

Strings of pearls are looped and knotted; dangling from her throat and shoulders.  The fruits of a mollusk's lonely labors are valuable indeed, yet they are deemed by this lady of experience to be worthy only of her boudoir.  Bows are pinned to her sleeves, like a 17th century courtier's – she is alternately bare and lavishily covered.

She's leaning forward.  Her right arm is passive, with silken fingers resting on a satin pillow.  Her left arm, however, is uncomforatble, bent:  what few muscles that a life of leisure hasn't atrophied are tense, prepared to push her out of her painted chair.  She hasn't moved yet, but is ready to – she is both lanquid and exasperated.

My theory?  She has just risen from bed, and wrapped herself in her rustling, complicated gown.  She is either about to welcome someone in, or make sure he closes the door behind him.

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The Fabric Of Society

1913 was a good year to dress up.  There were still twelve months to play in, before dancing off the precipice into four years of disillusionment and blood.

But there was time enough for that.  1913 celebrated the freedom…of ladies' ribcages.  Dresses were becoming looser ever since 1907, but in 1912-1913, designers were actually building brilliant new styles based on this new couture of comfort.  Thay had come to understand the mechanics of pliancy and liberated women from their frozen curves.

Dresses now skimmed lightly over the lady's body:  her shape and movements were no longer secrets drowning in seas of taffeta and frou frou petticoats.  Materials were fine weaves; no longer heavy with beads, tassels, sequins or jewels anchored down by gold and silver threads:  a favorite conceit of the 16th century.

Fashion was now racially charged, as it was now allowing mixed marriages – of saffron and orange, ruby and honey, cadmium and sage.  There was no longer a 'color of the season', which would see every young lady of taste wearing lavendar, or pearl, or ecru or another faded hue.  All colors were in season, all patterns – unavoidable, unsubtle – were acceptable.  It was no longser a faux pas to be noticed.

The new look was fantastic, a fantasy.  And it was to this exotic, starry world that women excaped, to find thte mystery they gave up when they began to wear clinging strips of fabric.  Turbans with dyed feathers were wrapped about pretty faces; ropes of pearls were worn, like Salome.   The odelisques of Matisse were seen walking in Paris, in London and in New York - wearing fabrics in complex stripes, harem pants, tunics and ballooning jackets.  Western Europe's vision of the Orient, of Asia, of Constantinople and Morocco were crossing busy city streets wearing gold bracelets, earring made from foreign coins and slippers of silver brocade.

In 1913, the food for fantasy came from the ballet.  Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes brought exoticism, deadly with its barely contained passion, to Europen stages starving for madness and desire.  Pavlova swooned.  Nijinsky leapt across the length of the stage.  In the begiinning, the fashionable world might have been shocked…but already the stays were unlaced so it could lean forward and take a closer look.

In the ballet there was emotion.  Movement.  Yearning.  Regret.  The natural and beautiful world.  All reflected in the color, the glitter, the dark that dared to be darkest, the bright that dared to shine brightest, in the billowing tapestries – in the insane orientalism of Leon Bakst's designs.

1913 also saw a renaissance in cosmetics.  In previous years, a daring lady might dab her cheeks with rouge, gloss her lips and lengthen her eyebrows, to achieve the ideal feminine expression of innocence and suffering.  Suddenly, a ballet with dancers made up to look like gypsies, the seasons, elements of the earth, had come to lure that lady from her dated delicacy.

Boudoir tables were suddenly laden with lipsticks of blood, garnet, violet, raspberry.  Rouge pinks were heightened, face power paled.  Eyes were rimmed with kohl.  Eye shadow was applied like solid swatches of color.  Husbands might have complained that their women were suddenly looking like St. Petersburg courttesans, but they had to accept that fashion was no longer lightly seasoned.  Flavors were now strong and unforgettable.

This was when fashion magazines – like children's books – had been transformed into showcases for art and magic.  Publications like La Femme Chic, Les Modes Parisiennes, Gazette du Bon Ton and Vogue portrayed their illustrated models in animated and spirited situations.  Bundled up against snow flurries, walking in a spring rain, gossiping during a party, opening a letter from…whom?…they were caught in the sweeping sketches of Drian, Barbier's stylish decoration, LePape's ornate simplicity – all alive, unchaparoned, free to be happy and unabashedly elegant.

But even as a woman's waist became free and supple, her walk had suddenly become limited…as her dress became more flamboyant, her steps became small and limited.  It was necessary for one leg to completely cross in front of the other to accomplish a single step.  The hobble skirt had been introduced.  Whether it was the tapered skirts, or just lengths of fabric draped against her calves and then pulled tight, for the sake of an elaborate, hip-centric walk, she was imprisoned again.

Still, what difference did it make?  It was 1913 – what was the hurry? 

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Saving Face

Modern sensibilities sometimes deal too lightly with the past.  When modern eyes look at the famous faces from a hundred years ago, they narrow in puzzlement.  People shake their heads at Lillie Langtry's pale eyes and masculine nose; they look askance at the feathery and shallow prettiness of Daisy Pless.  Consuelo Vanderbilt's swanlike neck and dark eyebrows emphasize her grace and loneliness, butnothing more.  Yet their splendor lit up The Gilded Age.

Place their portraits in any contemporary window, and no one would be tempted to step in and ask who they were.  The romance of their lives cannot penetrate the sepia ink of their photographs.  Their dramas are caught within a frame, suffocating under glass.  They remain stoic birds; posed and poised.

No one understands what all the fuss was about.

But I know of one face that has traveled well.  In the mid-1890's the eyes of kings and of University rogues traveled over her figure as she danced the ballet, paused on demi-point and flew across the stage like a dark-haired spirit.  Their perusal slowed at her tiny waist and then stopoped at her remarkable face.

This face was drawn in the softest of ovals with a clear, wide forehead.  The landscape that traveled from cheek to lip was a gentle progression.  Her large, black eyes were deeply set – so that the shadows accentuated their cloudless whites.  Her strong, dark eyebrows added charm to her face – the type of charm you would find in an overly-serious child.

Cleopatra Diane de Merode – Cleo – was one of the most reknown beauties in Paris, a city fairly bubbling with light, ornament and vogue.  At eight, she entered the Opera School of Dance; at eleven she was dancing professionally.  Then, when she was thirteen – ini 1884, when all the salons were buzzing about Madame X's bare shoulder and blue-white skin – she was given a part in 'Choryhee'.  She devised a new hairstyle for her role – ropes of braids curled like a nest of complaisant snakes, forming a bun at the nape of her neck.  The excitable city embraced her new look, and she came to focus in many a jeweled opera glass, angled downwards from the balconies, held by discerning courtesans, contessas and chaparones.

In 1896 she was dancing  for the Ballet of the Opera of Bordeaux.  It was there that she was first noticed by 61 year-old Leopold II, King of Belgium.  Married, the father of illegitimate children, disappointed suitor for Mrs. Langtry's affections, he was in in France on secret political matters, and turned to the Paris theater as an excuse for his presence.

But the pretty ballerina turned a feigned excuse to real interest; after the performance she received a bouquet of roses:  a dozen scarlet petitions, with the thorns more eloquent than the petals.

The King's attachment became the talk of Paris.  The affair was a sensation.  Coffeehouses and salons echoed with whispers – scandalized and delighted – about 'Cleopold' and his little dancer.

There was one problem:  the affair never happened. Cleo appealed to the French government for an official statement declaring that there had been no liason, nothing beyond the gift of an armful of roses, by then dead and dry.  But her reputation in Paris was destroyed – her name would forever by linked with the future murderer of the Congo Free State. 

She continued to dance; her beauty continued to entrance:  her fame continued in Hamburg, Berlin, St. Petersburg (she was the first female to dance with a male dance partner in the Russian Ballet), Budapest and New York.  But her shame drove her away from the city she loved.  She never returned.

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“We All To Conqu’ring Beauty Bow”

Last year I bought this lovely book:  large, heavy, solid – but full of ethereal things, colors, beauty and thoughts.  I swam through its luxury quite happily.  Amongst its illustrations I found two portraits which were sisters in beauty, but strangers in personality.

The first one is a gossamer rendering of Charlotte Philippine de Chatre de Cange, Marquise de Lamure.  Her name speaks of lands, country homes, acreages – a world of possession and contented wealth.  Her beauty is gentle and soft, and the artist wisely chose pastels to capture her fairness.

The clothes she wears are fashionable and modest – a fur tippet circles her neck and subdues her breast.  Modified gloves edged in fur warm her arms.  Silver tassels decorate her corset.  Rows of lace rest at her elbows.  Pearl earrings glow at her ears.  The painted fan is poised, ready to flick open and hide her heart-shaped face.  The colors are cream, beige, faded rose and the coldest, most melting of blues.

But there is still something open and candid about her dark eyes.  They gaze straight at me, daring me to enter the frame and interrupt her immovable goodness.  She invites, but she provokes, too:

The subject in the second portrait has no name, but the painting does.  Originally called A Lady In Masquerade Habit, it is now known as The Fair Nun Inmasked.  The picture was engraved as well, with an inscription added beneath it - taken from Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock:

"On her white Breast a sparkling Cross she wore
Which Jews may kiss and Infidels adore."

In all probability, this pale 'nun' is a prostitute.  In the 18th century – when both of these portraits were created – the rogues, the men who frequented the demimonde, the 'men of intrique' referred to prostitutes as nuns and their protective madams as abbesses.  The 18th century was nothing if not ironic.

This little nun is dressed in russet, black and silver.  A sheer veil belies her profession, and her lowered eyes – turned away from the viewer – mocks it.  But her dress is wonderfully decollete, and the small ruff around her neck only emphasizes it, as well as emphasizing her demure seduction with its complete uselessness – worn only as shameless decoration.

She holds a mask, dotted with beauty marks – several more than any respectable woman would consider – and embroidered on the edges with painted flowers.  The masquerade – such as the one our naughty novice (stop it, Aubrey) is attending – was considered scandalous by its critics.  To hide behind a mask, to suddenly be free and able to behave as you would never dare – whether it be by act or word – under the guise of such a beautifiul, unknown facade, had a shy, seductive appeal which was exciting and dangerous:

These ladies were so lovely and evocative.  I just had to share.

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A Ration of Fashion’s Passion

This afternoon mother and I took a toddle back in time:  we went to the old Bullocks Wilshire, located in the bowels of downtown Los Angeles.  It was a very deluxe department store in its time (built in 1929), attracting  entertainment's aristos to its silhouette of rose stone and copper highlights (now dimmed to a no less striking turqoise).

The reason why we decided to visit this landmark, was a charming idea the  Art Deco Society of Los Angeles had come up with:  to hold a vintage fashion show in Bullock's Louis XVI salon, (a little barren now, but still very grand).  I certainly wasn't going to pass a thing up like that and I knew that mother – who used to shop there and have lunch there with her mother – would be just as keen.

So.  I dolled myself up; the style I chose was a suit that fell into a sort of no-man's land between the 1940's and 1950's, before Dior came up with his 'New Look', featuring a nipped in waist which would have challenged Camille Clifford and a full, floofy skirt.

But I digress.

The show itself was delicious and frothy.  Each item of clothing was announced and described ("…and this little striped cap will take this dress from going to tea, to 'what are you thinking?'"  "Our model Sharlene might not have starred with Clark Gable but this gown certainly could have!") by a petite girl in a black and silver-spangled day dress and a strawberry blonde bob.

We admired silks, satins, brocades, taffeta, lace, corsets, petticoats and embroideries.  We saw dresses designed by Edith Head, Adrian and Irene.  We craned our necks to get better looks at gowns, lingerie, tennis dresses, bathing suits (a green one had a kicky little pleated skirt) and wedding dresses.  Many of the styles mother remembered wearing herself. 

The models were like saplings, and the clothes they displayed suited them well.  Except…well, mother – as is her wont – noticed this first:  they couldn't…quite…fill the tops out.  Some of the halter dresses featured some unfortunate upper sagging.  They posed, flirted, sometimes came close to dancing:  they were clearly having great fun.

And as I mentioned embroidery earlier, that reminds me:  some of the girls were too.  No problem, but it was still a little disconcerting to see a pair of tatted devil's wings when a girl slipped off a pink dressing gown to display a backless night dress.

Some of these drool-worthy items were for sale as well:

I sometimes wonder about people who work with societies like this, these girls who style their hair in the difficult shapes of the '40's, the guys in their hand-painted ties and two-toned shoes…is this their entire life?  Is this the face they present to the public?  Do they wake up in the mornings, with a mindset that is 60 years old? How do they talk?  Do they say 'my dear' alot?  Are they languid?  

Or on Mondays does the carriage change back into a pumpkin?

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