Monday, June 30, 2008

Stranger of Note: style on the subway platform

This afternoon on the 14th Street platform of the 2/3 train, a petite young Japanese woman breezed past me wearing a generously oversized men's white shirt, very short khaki shorts and high, dark, wooden, platform, wedge sandals.  The kind that make you feel and sound like a pony. Her hair was in a bun on top of her head and she had accessorized with big sunglasses.  That is what I am talking about.  

Old Movie Beauty: Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman

In 1978's sprawling divorce epic, An Unmarried Woman, Jill Clayburgh plays Erica, a woman betrayed, attempting singles bars and self-discovery in Manhattan.

I love the New York of 1970s film, that grownup city populated by adults with bad hair and brown sweaters. The Seventies Adult is a style character in my mind, a mostly imaginary person that I often reference when talking about fashion.

The movie begins with Jill Clayburgh dancing around in just her underpants, and this sets the fashion tone of the film for me. Her underwear is just that: plain white cotton underwear (okay, a hint of lace). Jill is quite lovely, but she is not overly sexualized in this scene, or in the film, though there is plenty of sex.

If the same movie was made now, thirty years later, the star would be in racier underthings, and the camera would linger on her breasts, toned abs, and thong.  Jill's body is not worked out, worked on, or implanted. Her sex scenes are awkward, at times tearful, and far sexier than anything recent I have seen.

The wardrobe for Jill's character is brilliant in its normalcy. Erica repeats outfits, and that almost never happens in current American films. One royal-blue, floofy, silk blouse makes a couple of appearances, but mainly, Erica favors neutrals. Throughout the film, she wears a creamy-beige, cashmere, wide-collar trench, often accessorized with a tan shoulder bag and matching gloves. At the time, this shade of leather was often referred by the pleasingly utilitarian name luggage.

In one fantastic scene, Erica goes to lunch with friends. All are in full Modern Career Gal regalia: blazers, brushed-out roller sets and lavender eye shadow. (By the way, I actually do think lavender is an almost universally flattering color for lids when done with subtlety.) The Seventies Adult put effort into planning a sensible work wardrobe; when Erica goes to work as a journalist, she wears a wide, A-line, mid-calf beige dress, brown boots and an open, loose, brown-plaid overshirt.

One of my favorite style guides of this era is Looking Terrific, by image consultant Emily Cho and soap writer Linda Grover. The excellent illustrations by Catherine Clayton Purnell perfectly reflect The Seventies Adult aesthetic. The outfit in this illustration is almost identical to the workday outfit Jill wears in the film.

As Erica traipses through Manhattan, newly single in Fair Aisle sweaters, beige capes and neutral slacks, I enjoy the set design almost as much as the fashion. Hanging spider plants decorate the bachelor-pad loft of a suitor. Tapestry-covered, floor-level couches furnish the sunny office of Erica's therapist, a maternal hippy.

One of my very favorite parts of the movie is what Jill wears to jog (and run into her ex-husband) by the East River: a beige sweater. Sure, she has on simple running shorts, but I love that people used to exercise in regular clothes. It wasn't to be that way for long. Just two years after this film was made, Cheryl Tiegs crowed over the arrival of high-tech workout wear in her book, The Natural Way to Beauty:

"Leotards and tights are now available in shimmery, synthetic fabrics (Lycra and nylon) and cheerful colors. I have a drawerful, and just looking at them inspires me. Jogging suits also come in a variety of attractive fabrics and designs, and even jogging shoes are now full of life."

Albert Wolsky designed the costumes for An Unmarried Woman. He won Oscars for his work on Bugsby and on All That Jazz, and was also nominated four other times including for Sophie's Choice and last year's Across the Universe.

Just like me, the ladies in the movie are nostalgic for the style that they missed. Lounging on Erica's bed, she and her depressed friend, Elaine talk about old movie stars and the self-confidence they exuded. After a good cry, Elaine looks up from under her Dorothy Hamill cut, and says wistfully,

"I liked Rita Hayworth. She was pretty."

Monday: Beauty in Combat, and Underwear Gone Awry

  • I tried on Spanx once but I don't think they are made for my body type. They made me look like Winnie-the-Pooh.  I guess it could have been worse.

Friday, June 27, 2008


A shampoo-related death made news this week almost a hundred years after it happened. Sotheby's is auctioning the index card-file of notable London forensic pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury. One of his cases was the death of society girl Helen Elphinston-Dalrymple. The article I read in the Telegraph just said it was a "dry shampoo" at Harrods. Of course I had to dig a little deeper, and was thrilled to find I could read the entire index car record of her 1909 death right on the auction site.

Dry shampoo commonly means a talc or cornstarch-based concoction that is sprinkled or sprayed on and then brushed out to remove oil and add body. Many beauty books offer the DIY tip of using baby powder for this purpose. Popularity of this method peaked in the 1970s with the classic Psssssst, but they are gaining popularity once again in the past few years due to the popularity of the time-consuming blowout. I've tried them but found them itchy. I also couldn't get it out of my head that they are used in hospitals and mortuaries.

But the shampoo that killed Ms. Dalrymple was "dry" like dry-cleaning is dry. Her hair was washed with a chemical solvent made of Carbon Tetrachloride, a substance that the New York Times noted as "more toxic than chloroform" in an article at the time of the death.

Using solvents to clean hair was quite a trend. Lina Cavalieri, once known as the most beautiful woman in the world explains more in her 1914 book, My Secrets of Beauty:

"Parisians have recently been washing their hair in gasoline. Not because they believe it will cause hair to grow, but for the same purpose that it is used upon a spotted garment-- to cleanse the garment and remove the spots. Also gasoline makes the hair soft and silken of texture...
I myself have used gasoline a few times on my hair, but always try to keep it away from the scalp as much as possible. I cannot believe gasoline is good for the scalp. I take the gasoline shampoo somewhat as I do the water bath for the hair. I wash it in a bowl of gasoline, pour the first bowlful and wash it through another, then another, until the last bowlful is entirely clean. Let as little gasoline as possible get on the scalp. But the shampoo is always taken on the morning of a clear day. Never do I have it done while there is a light or fire in the room. If I did, there would be no more Lina Cavalieri."

I couldn't resist using the above movie poster for this story, but the film, Shampoo really deserves a post of its own.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Other People's Beauty Projects

"I can see now that I looked not like Bianca Jagger at all, which was the intention, but like a strange, thin man with long hair; exactly like Alice Cooper, in fact."
Liz Jones, of course a haircut can change your life.

Sarah Brown, I don't view this as a failure. I've been on a mission for years to build up a collection of really good black sundresses.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Steampunk Beauty?

"At one time every lady of means possessed her still-room, where aromatic waters were distilled and various cosmetics compounded."
--Stanley H. Redgrove, The Cream of Beauty (1931)

Steampunk culture entered the mainstream recently with articles in Paper and the New York Times. The Steampunk aesthetic combines Victoriana with elements of fantasy or sci-fi, and a DIY ethic. My idealized vision of beauty is similar.

Our culture emphasizes beauty products. It seems like soon we'll have as many Sephoras as we have Starbucks. Glossy packaging, poetic copywriting promising science and magic-- it's so seductive. And then there are the services. We've outsourced so much of our basic grooming; it's only been about a decade since nail salons have multiplied all over cities and the mani-pedi has become as ubiquitous as happy hour once was.

A Victorian woman took beauty and grooming very seriously. It was her responsibility and a very private ritual. She kept a small journal for her own beauty recipes. They had been passed to her from her mother and grandmother, but she had tweaked them to suit her sensibility. When the season began to change she leafed through her book and headed first to her garden or herb pot. She clipped a few roses or some lavender. She then distilled her own flower water like this, or with a small home still or set the flowers to dry so as to later distill essential oils.

In the meantime she visited the apothecary with her list. There, she was able to buy, in incremental measures, all that she might need. The pharmacist meticulously weighed the powders and wrapped them in paper. Our Victorian lady brought her own glass dropper bottle from home to be filled with glycerin. She tucked this small bottle back into her purse and carried her packages, tied with string. Of course she was not entirely innocent of advertising; she had seen a convincing testimonial in the newspaper about a certain facial soap, an she did succumb to buying a small bar of that. It would be one of very few commercial products ion her vanity.

When her lotion was prepared she took the time to massage it into her skin as he sat her dressing table, She knew that this moment of respite was just as essential to her healthy glow as the lotion itself She finished her routine by uncoiling and brushing her hair one hundred strokes. She uses home-concocted shampoos, tonics and conditioning oils, but her trust lies in her ritual, her routine. She is self-possessed.

She was occasionally guilty of overkill, to wit:

"Make an emulsion of soft white soap, essence of turpentine, tincture of benzoin, essence of rosemary, and essence of Norwegian pine, in equal parts. Add two quarts thereof to the bath water, in which have been previously dissolved, four ounces of bi-carbonate of soda, a quart of spinach juice, and twenty pounds of sea salt. This bath must be taken before going to bed and very hot."
-- The Marquise
de Fontenoy, Eve's Glossary, 1897

And the sci-fi aspect I mentioned above? More on that later.

(That gorgeous bronze still is from

How to Shop for Free

Recently I hosted a clothing swap in my living room. My friends and I do this about once a year. We always start off with a plan to remain organized but it quickly devolves to a room of squealing women hopping around in their underwear, while clothes fly overhead. The seven who attended were a similar size, or at least fluctuated within a similar range, but body types varied wildly which is perfect. The one exception was my friend Ida who is only two years old. She dove right in with an air of concentration, wrangled a grown-up size tank top over her head and jockeyed for mirror space. Later on, she caught my eye and pointed to the clown-sized shoes she was trying on. "These?" she asked.

Apparently these events don't always make people happy, but I am going through my spoils now and can't believe how well I did. Highlights include: a vintage black velvet blazer; a navy, subtly-sequined cocktail dress by Laundry; a long tie-front black sweater vest by Moss; tight, straight leg Levi's with a nice indigo wash; a two-tone green leather tote bag by Michael Kors that I have coveted since the day Molly bought it; and from my sister's infinite closet, the most unusual long tank dress. It's a deep plum-colored mesh, with strips of wool(?) sewn on in a fuzzy texture. Okay that sounds terrible, but it's gorgeous.  I stashed it in my off-season closet where it waits for fall.

Usually I get so giddy at these things that everything looks like a good idea. I once came home with a pair of G.I. Joe pajamas. Somehow this time I kept my cool. I feel like everything I got fits into my ongoing project of building a wardrobe that makes sense. The navy cocktail dress and velvet blazer were even on my list of items to keep an eye out for while shopping.

As the swap wound down, we lay around on my couches and floor talking and drinking. Someone asked for an update on my epic and baffling love life, and while I explained the latest with a bloody mary in my hand, I suddenly realized I was the only one still in just underwear. Like some bizarre form of therapy.

Ugly Secrets

1989: We are sitting in my friend K's all-white bedroom, drinking pink champagne and confessing.

"I can never get married," K says. "I bite my toenail cuticles."  We all look at her.  She twists one flexible leg to show us that her foot can reach her mouth, but does not further demonstrate.  We nod.  That is disgusting, she can never let her future husband know.

"I have these," I say, and push up the leg of my cutoff to reveal stretch marks on my inner thighs.  "I look like I was mauled by a lion."  My friends peer over.  At the time I considered the bright marks my number one beauty concern.  I was ruined, I believed.  They faded over time; they're pretty much invisible now.

S begins to explain to us that no man will ever be permitted to see her ass which, she tells us with sad eyes, is much bigger than it looks with clothes on.  She is interrupted by K who has another confession.

"Ingrown hairs!" she laments, "I go to town on them for hours with the tweezers.   I could never do this if I lived with a man.  Seriously you guys, take my tweezers away from me!"

That leaves only Z.  Her blond head (the only un-bleached one in the room) rests on her knees.   She looks up shy, almost frightened.  

"Okay, I'll tell you," she says, "but I know it's bad.  I can really never get married."  We give her our attention and she sighs before beginning.

"You know how long my driveway is, right?  When I get off the bus after school, I hate walking up my driveway, it's so long, and all uphill, and my backpack is really heavy."  We don't see where this is going.  "I wait until the bus is gone so no one sees me.  Then I kind of lean over..."   Z unfolds her long, tan legs and stands up to demonstrate.  "I hold my bag with one arm, way up on my back..."  Z hangs her other arm down and begins and weird, swaying walk.  "I pretend I am a camel."

We don't think this qualifies as a beauty confession, but it is... interesting.  

She's coming to town next week.  I need an update on whether the boyfriend she lives with knows this dark secret.

Some of my friends still tell me they, "cannot be trusted alone with tweezers."

Novel Glamour: The Reef by Edith Wharton

The Reef is an enjoyably frustrating novel about the love between Anna and Darrow. They spend years interpreting each other's meaningful looks and then stewing about it on trips between London and the French countryside.

It was published in 1912, a long, long time ago, when things were allegedly different. Anna and Darrow communicate by letter, writing constantly. Mail is delivered several times each day. Not quite as quick as texting, but it really wasn't far from e-mail. Fashion trends have allegedly changed over the past century as well. And yet.

Anna gently, but jealously questions Darrow about another woman he was spotted with at the theater. Darrow asks exactly what she heard and Anna replies:

"Oh not much, except that she was awfully pretty... he hadn't actually seen her; but he saw the tail of her cloak, and somehow knew from that that she was pretty. One does, you know... I think he said the cloak was pink."

Darrow broke into a laugh.

"Of course it was-- they always are!"

Pink seems to come through fashion and pop culture in stronger waves then other colors, doesn't it? It's like every 15 years or so, Kay Thompson swings in and announces, "I want this whole country pink!" The big wave of pink we've been in for the past few years is finally winding down. Mostly.

Classics and Basics: The White Shirt

I recently got serious about building a wardrobe that makes sense, instead of just buying things only on whim.  Just about every book on fashion and style includes a list of the essentials.  And a classic white shirt inevitably tops that list.  I love a plain white shirt with jeans and boots.  And I wear it in the summer with short shorts and high-heeled sandals or over a bikini.

Encouraging women to adopt men's white shirts as their own is one of Coco Chanel's most significant contributions to fashion, second only to the LBD.  I agree with Coco; I prefer classic menswear shirts, but they will gap at my bust if they fit elsewhere, and if they fit at the bust, they will be shapeless and baggy elsewhere.  I often don't like the shirts made for women with obvious darting or girly touches.

Rebecca & Drew does genius "bra-sized" shirts and dresses which use a double-button system to eliminate gapping.   I think these shirts are great tucked in or with jackets, and if I was some kind of suit-wearing executive, I think I'd buy a dozen.  They have a straight bottom, and look made for women.  Not bad things, to be certain, but I like the curved hem of a man's shirt.

I think Mary Rambin has the right idea here.  Buy a men's or boy's shirt and have it tailored. I like oxford shirts from Pink or J Crew.

Speaking of Coco, there is a biopic , Coco Avant Chanel, coming out sometime in the next year.   It's written and directed by Anne Fontaine, and stars Audrey Tatou.

Reconsidering the Brief

Funny you should ask.

I often shop for underwear at Daffy's. They have great brands, are very inexpensive, and the Soho branch I prefer isn't overstuffed and stressful like others I've visited. In fact, once on a late Friday afternoon there, my sister and I were served wine and cheese. We bought a lot of underwear that day.

Last time I went, I quickly selected a big pile of black panties in a few styles. Among my usual bikinis and boyshorts, I had brought home a pair big black briefs. When I tried them on, the retro look of the high-waist and low-leg pleased me. They cover about three times the acreage of my usual choices. I kept them as sort of a lark. But then I found myself reaching for them more and more. They do not slide around; there is no where else for them to go; they are already everywhere. And they have such a smooth line under dresses. I feel ladylike and secure in them.

I decided to buy some more briefs. It was important that they be black. If I was going to wear the same underwear as my mother, I would have to at least set myself apart with a trampier color than beige. I began to browse the internet and compare. I felt like a renegade. No one I know wears these. You can keep your Hanky Panky lace thongs, I thought, I have rediscovered a classic!

I read customer reviews of several styles on I appreciated the facts that reviewers choose descriptions of their body types. Then, while scanning opinions on the Skimp Scamp, winner of the prestigious "Undie Award for Best Regular Cut Brief," I was stopped cold in my tracks by this:

I have enjoyed wearing these for several years and a few months ago my husband started borrowing mine because he says that they are a happy medium between his briefs and boxers and he loves the feel of the nylon fabric and the different colors that are available. The store I had been buying my panties stopped carrying this style and since I needed to buy my husband his own I came across HerRoom where I was able to find these again and I was so pleased on how quickly we received our order. Thank you very much HerRoom.
- Mary, Teacher's Aide, Exton, Pa
Size: 8, "Average Bottom"
January, 2008

Monday, June 23, 2008


I collect and cherish weird, old beauty advice. A few years ago, I compiled some of my favorite tips and excerpts into a book. Then I went on to other things. But I miss writing about that stuff so now I am going to do that here.

I am nostalgic for the time when beauty routines and rituals were to be practiced and cultivated, not simply purchased.

There is just so much thoroughly-advertised, sparkly plastic crap around these days. I do love beauty products, but I am more interested in self-possessed glamour.