Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Fur, Fur Fur

    M'kay, so I need to take the gloves off on this one and get really down and dirty.
    I'm stating my opinion here. I don't expect you all to agree, in fact I suspect some will disagree vehemently; which is your right.
    We have a equivocal relationship to furs of any sort in this modern age, at least, in Western culture we do.  And that is a singular and salient point. Its a cultural meme we have attached ourselves to, to disallow and decry the usages and presence of fur in our lives.  It is not a moral constant by any means.  By that I mean, unless one is an absolute vegan in every respect, even refusing the wearing of leather accessories, and carefully studying medications to make sure no animal products are in their make up, we all consume parts of animals in our daily life.  To suggest that we do not is nothing less than hypocrisy.  Now don't get me wrong here: do I think the idea chasing animals to extinction for the mere fact of their luxurious pelts of feathers is acceptable? No, I don't.  However if we are farm raising an animal for use, including food and medicine, do I think it's wrong to use the rest of them as well?  No I don't. In fact, as a person who is keenly aware of the need to conserve and wisely use our resources, I think wasting potentially useful parts of an animal we have raised is unconscionable. 
    But all of this is a preamble, to set the stage for a discussion of fur, and its point and purpose in our Attire world and language.

   There are few things indeed in Attire that can get past our veneer of civilization faster and more effectively than furs.  Why?  Well it seems clear that our connection to them stems from our own dim past when, hunting for food, we took the hides and furs of the creatures we killed and clapped them about ourselves, both for warmth, and as a psychological/spiritual marker of our personal prowess and strength. Fur in all its forms digs deeply into our collective psyche.  It calls back all those long forgotten parts of ourselves, the violent, tribal, prodigiously sexual, rampant, uncontrollably animal essence of our deep nature.  Its a part of ourselves, as "civilized" people that we have routinely and resolutely suppressed.  Perhaps, (and I'm arm chair psychologizing here) this is part of why we have felt the need to get so very negative about it in the current day.  It is yet another way to distance ourselves from our basal nature.

    But apart from any modern notions of political or ethical correctness, fur has and does play a profound role in our sartorial world and language.  Furs are instantly perceived as luxurious and deeply sexual.  That set of memes is so far into our cultural programming its hard to excise.
    Fur says sexual prowess, its says wealth, it says connection to the spiritual world through the animal kingdom, it says lasciviousness, and abandon.  In other words, it references all sorts of things we, as modern people, no longer want to identify with in such a direct way.  We have found other ways to channel such feelings, unless we deny them utterly.

    For an extraordinarily long time in the history of human attire the wearing of fur was a mark of extreme distinction; of position, power and influence.  Really, up into the later 20th century the wearing of fur, by women especially, was a mark of high status, glamor and attractiveness.

   For the vast majority of that time though, the wearing of fur was much more the province of men than women; but around the 17th century it shifted across sexual lines and became mostly the attire of ladies, not men.  Once that occurred it began to become less a matter of simple elegance and display and more a matter of special occasion.  Furs were eventually relegated to evening only, or to extreme winter sport.
    As we became less and less comfortable with accessing our animal nature in any honest way. the wearing of fur became less popular and less socially acceptable.   Now, even major performing stars like Aretha Franklin can get dinged for wearing a fur coat, even when it is sub-zero in Washington on the day of a Presidential inauguration, or even the Queen of England get get shade thrown at her for it.

    What have we replaced it with?  Leather.  We have lionized, fetishized and promoted leather in all its permutations.  Fur is out, leather is in.  Does one use animals and their make up to any less degree?  I can't see that it does.  But somehow we have justified it in our social conscience.   Leather after all, is just the hide of an animal with the hair trimmed off.

Monday, April 28, 2014


     Something unique to the modern era is our chosen connection, rather directly, to particular designers or manufacturers.  Its really something that began in a late part of the 19th century, when companies like Louis Vuitton started putting their names or initials clearly on their products.  It was a genius notion at the time, since it created instant recognition.  As long as the product was of the highest quality, it worked, as was true of Vuitton luggage and travel gear.

    The notion didn't gain much steam for a very long time, however.  Clothing designers in particular eschewed it as a vulgar notion, and their customers, who were a fairly conservative lot overall, would not have wished to have other people's names and insignia plastered over their bodies.  If anything a discreet set of one's own initials was suitable, but only in the most unobtrusive of uses.
    What changed, and why?
    To my mind, what changed was the steadily growing availability of quality ready to wear garments, which was supplanting the long tradition of having clothes made custom, or making things up at home.  Over time, it became far more common for people to be wearing things "off the peg", over custom clothes.  They were less expensive in many cases, and the variety of choice was expanding constantly.  And as people's lives were getting more full from dawn to dusk, especially including the increasing number of women in the work force, the time available to deal with making one's own clothes was shrinking fast. So in barely 30 years, the scale tipped, and most people were clad head to toe in store bought clothing and accessories.

    Now logos and brand names didn't appear overnight on clothes.  Companies like Lanvin with her signature shade of blue, and Schiaparelli with its shocking pink began to invest their wares more subtly with instant recognizability.  The first major designer to display a branding logo on her work was Chanel with the interlocking C. Honestly, I think it worked because the logo itself was one that could pass as a simple decorative element. You didn't have to perceive the C if you weren't of a mind to.

    Sports gear went there next, with companies like Converse and Keds putting their name right on outside of the shoes they sold, and polo shits with tiny little alligators became a ubiquitous part of the wardrobes of the Down East set.
    But it didn't really blast off into orbit till the 1960's, when pop art began affecting mass market merchandise, and witty clothes began to appear with deliberately cheeky references to people, products and events.  The single greatest item to present this was, of course, the branded T-shirt.  Once screen printing on clothes became easy to do and fairly inexpensive, every company out there was slathering a shirt with their name and slogan.

    And we, herd beasts that we ultimately are, ran to it, and with it.  What wearing a brand name on one's clothes does is, apart from trumpeting a level of wealth and connection to current culture, is a clearly definable connection to a particular group, a tribe if you will.  We love being part of a larger group, and all of us are part of many different ones.  In this case it can mark us as being hip and cool, smart, rich, sexy, politically savvy, devout or even nihilistically jejune.

    The fashion industry now actively supports this idea with glee. So clothing is now routinely produced with the manufacturer's stamp somewhere visible. In fact, finding clothes without obvious branding can sometimes be tough. For myself, my only real resistance is that I don't feel that I should pay someone my hard earned money so that I can advertise for them for free.  They want me to hawk their stuff?  They should be paying me.

    There does seem to be a backlash building though.  I am hearing more and more people decrying the ever present logos and symbols, partly because it signifies a connection to corporate culture.  Who knows where this is going to go next?  Will we get to a point where everything we wear will be an advertisement for some company or other?  Or will we dump the whole idea?

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Unattainable Thing

    There are so many things we seem to be hard wired for. We have an innate desire to categorize and file experience and sensations, we are intensely curious, even about things that we might better leave alone, and we are always attracted to anything we think is unattainable. We seem incapable of really accepting that limitation.  To my mind this is one of the real motivators behind our seeming inborn attraction to opulence and luxury. 
    We may not be interested in living in that sort of world in reality, but it draws our attention anyway.  This urge spans every culture and every era, every stratum and both sexes with equal depth. 

    But why?  What is it about the obvious display of abundance or wealth that grabs and holds our attention so?  Is it the rarity of it?  Is it a desire to have it ourselves? Is it the dazzlement of strange beauty? Is it the inherent sexuality of such lushness?  Frankly I think its all those things and more.

    For many of us, the need to create this opulence in our lives manifests in the clothing choices we make. It may be a kind of dramatic color that we cling to. It might be a penchant for gold jewelry, (even when its fake). It might be a reliance on silk clothing. Or simply in a need to wear "all the things" all the time.  However it makes itself known to us, it shows up in small or large ways in our life.

    In my own little world it has recently reared its beguiling head as a sudden need for more interesting shoes.  Previously I was one of those people who maintained 5 or 6 pairs of very basic shoes and that was it.  So part of what I'm discovering here is that not only does this addition access that opulence thing a bit, it also expands my own sartorial vocabulary significantly. 
    And that effect, is one of the signature players in this whole thing.  The desire to express a kind of lavishness leads to a greater set of expressive terms.

    Now let me clarify something. Opulence is not all about overstatement or massive amounts of detail.  Opulence can express in severity of form and simplicity.  But to work in that way, every element chosen must be perfection.

    But whatever way we think of or see opulence, and however directly it is a part of our lives, it is a hidden motivator to our choices and expressions of self.  It comes back around to something I've mentioned before, the desire, when we present ourselves to the world, to be a more perfected, idealized version of ourselves.

    So indulge in what way you can, this desire for opulence.  It doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg, because you can grab a piece of it by wearing your hair in a more dramatic way, of tilting a hat you already have to a saucier angle.   Do it, and take your piece of the pleasure pie.

Friday, April 25, 2014


    Its that time again.
    I do love me a scatter post, I gotta say. I get to share a bunch of things that have no real relationship to each other than that I happen to like them all.
    First in line today is a Charles Harbison ensemble from his S/S 2014 line.  I love both the textural interplay and how adroitly the two disparate plaids have been handled.  The proportions are wonderful too.  Sure the ties at the ankles could be real world problematic, but nothing a bit of trimming couldn't handle.
    Second: I love this image of silent screen actress Theda Bara costumed as Madame DuBarry. I love it mostly because it is so hilariously wrong from a historical standpoint in nearly every way, but its still a fantastic costume.
    Third today is this detail picture from a 1908 summer day dress.  I love this because of the window it creates to a place where such workmanship was far more commonplace. There was a time when such attention to detail was considered not only acceptable, but nearly essential,  Just look at that work!
    Our number 4 for this day is this magnificent sapphire and diamond pendant brooch which the grabby little glam queen in me covets with considerable heat.  I love the rhythm of the pendant, and the fanning arabesque on the top. (sighs heavily)  If anyone feels like sending me a present,....
    This variant on the kilt notion, rendered in stiff dark gray leather is my next entry.  I really like the simple strength of the design and the way it refers to the pleated tradition without actually going there.  And that bod has NOTHING whatever to do with it I assure you.
    The collaboration of Iris Van Herpen and Daniel Widrig on 3D printed pieces still gives me much pleasure.  Particularly as I muse occasionally about the potential of this technology, and what I may end up meaning to us all.

    Okay so I admit that, apart from the candy striped shirt with the small ruffled placket, I wouldn't be caught dead in any of this.  But I love this outfit from designer Walter Van Beirendonck for its sheer unabashed silliness.  Yeah it is meant to throw our conventions about men's clothing right in our faces, which I heartily approve of as you all know.  Its also meant, I think, to stretch notions of color balance and pattern use.
    And saving the most sublime for last, this incredible evening coat is from Worth in 1889 and is composed of one of the most spectacular textiles I've ever seen. The fabric is called Tulipes Hollandaises, and is a silk brocade of nearly 25 colors and on a very grand scale indeed.  Worth wisely kept the design of the coat as simple as he could to allow the fabric to sing as it should.  Amazing.
    That's all folks!   See you tomorrow with more about more!

Thursday, April 24, 2014


    How is it that we got so enamored of jewelry?  Where did it start; and where does it take us?
    I can only suppose we began, even before we clothed ourselves, with adornments of leaves, bark, teeth, bones, shells, feathers, rocks any other materials we could find that we thought were pretty, or gave us some sympathetic connection to the rest of the world.
                                                    -prehistoric stone and bone jewelry-
    To my mind what this sort of adornment does, beyond what our other attire can give us, is an immediate elevation above and outside of ourselves.  When we put on some kind of jewelry, we become more than our personal reality. We claim a greater power, sexuality, status and influence over the world than we may truly possess.
    Its really far more than a simple magpie love of shiny things, though to an extent that plays its role. It is clearly something very deeply held, since every culture, everywhere, has its slice of the adornment pie. 
                                                           -Egyptian gold necklace-           
    Looking at how jewelry has changed over time is an ascending curve of complexification.  From simply winding sinew around a rock or some feathers and tying it around our neck or arm, we learned to carve, cut and otherwise shape these first items of glamor.  When we learned how to manipulate metals we added them into the mix and transformed jewelery forever by using metal's combination of workability and durability to create the matrix into which these rare and wonderful things were placed.
       -Renaissance pendant necklace and pendant of gold pearl, sapphire, opal and diamonds-

    That skill with metals became greater and greater, allowing staggering things to be done with the display of the hard won stones we grew to admire so greatly.  By the Renaissance the art of the jeweler had reached amazing heights. Enamels and pearls mounted with polished gem stones in settings of extraordinary inventiveness and beauty came rushing out of the workshops of jewelers all over.  And that skill set continued to improve and gain more expressive range as time went on.
                     -18th century enameled cameo set in platinum with rose cut diamonds-
                                                     -1860 amethyst brooch set in gold-

    Considered by many to be the apotheosis of the jewelers art, the work of House Faberge added the considerable influence of technology to the already voluminous extent of what was possible.  Their work with precious metals and gems that included mechanics are routinely displayed as the best of the best, regardless of whatever sometime taste issues might appear. 
                                           -Stag Beetle Brooch by Faberge with movable wings-         

    And now, with lasers, computers and other technological advancements laying in the jeweler's tool box, things are being done that are blowing the lid off of what was in some ways a hidebound traditionalist craft.

                                                       -necklace by Arthur Smith-   
                                                       -bracelet by Helen Druitt-
    But, back to the questions I asked at the start. I think we got our taste for jewels the minute we saw a pretty rock gleaming in a shallow stream, or watched as a brilliant feather fell from a bird's wing.  We wanted then, as now to possess them, in every sense of that word.  We wanted to be able to bring them into ourselves and in so doing make ourselves over into something more.
    Where does this take us?  It allows us into a fantastic realm in our heads, where all things become more possible.  A young girl getting her first piece of real jewelry is suddenly more than a young girl.  A boy getting his first pair of real cuff links, or his first really good watch is transformed in some subtle way, and will never revert to what he was. It is amazing, is it not, that such tiny things, exert such power, but they do.
    As technology makes industrial gems of greater and greater quality more readily available, the day will inevitably come when natural stones will cease to have their cachet, and the glitter of faceted jewels will become more commonplace.  I doubt very much if we will suddenly not care anymore about them though.  We love the shiny too much for that.
                                                        -contemporary Faberge ring-

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

How Did This Happen?

    Some time back I did a post chronicling the death of the peacock male and the sputtering attempts to bring him back to life.  But I thought perhaps it might be a good idea to look deeper into how he came to die in the first place.
    There were four major things that caused his ultimate demise.  The first and most potent was the French Revolution.  Prior to that point men were the equals of women in their splendor.  Extravagant brocades, acres of lace, lavish embellishments of embroidery and paste stones, fur and gold and silver thread work were the order of the day.   When the Revolution came aboil it was no longer healthy or wise to be seen dressing like an aristocrat, even if everyone knew you weren't one. It implied political sympathies that could and did get people killed in great numbers.

    The sartorial reaction was to create new styles that were observably simpler. Solid colors and stripes became the norm for men's clothes. Florals were relegated to the waistcoat only.  Now to be fair, menswear was still quite colorful, and capable of extreme expressions, but the overt signals of wealth were edited out.  The most significant change though, was the beginning of the wearing of pants.  Previously pantaloons were the exclusive province of the working poor.  But they were quickly co-opted by the Revolution as being more democratic, and so breeches were eased out, pants were eased in.

    The second factor in the slow death of the peacock male was the rise of the Arcadian Ideal as presented by the writings of Rousseau and Voltaire.  In their works they championed the notion that a life lived well was one lived in greater simplicity, and closer to the earth.  (sound familiar?  It should)  The effects of this started to be felt in the French court when Marie Antoinette began to dress in a far simpler fashion, eschewing the often outrageous choices she had made before, and attiring herself in relative simplicity.  Its an intriguing side note to know that Antoinette's favorite milliner, a woman named Rose Bertin, didn't change the cost of her clothes one single sous, even though they must have been infinitely cheaper to produce.  So the subtle pressure of public opinion was being supported by learned writings, and through that support gained more credibility among the population.

    Connected to the notion of the Arcadian Ideal was the image of English country living which was gaining ground as something laudable and worthy of emulation. It was perceived that the English dressed more simply and lived their lives far more in tune with the land, and so the styles that were commonplace in England were adopted overseas.  Men's clothes in England at the time were nearly devoid of any obvious displays of wealth, and were being influenced by stylish men like Beau Brummel, who had for some years the ear of the King of England. So the severe editing of men's clothes continued, creating the basis of the suits we wear still. Even the acceptable color palette has remained the same. Black, gray, navy, brown, and to a far lesser extent, tan and dark green were the only colors for men's coats and trousers. Walk into any men's clothing store and you will see it played out in rack after rack.

    The third thing that influenced the demise of the peacock male was business.  The Industrial Revolution made being in business, for the first time, something to be taken seriously in a social sense.  The men who went into manufacturing and shipping were becoming vastly wealthy in short order.  Needing to be taken more seriously, their clothes began to reflect that in their sobriety and precision of cut.  Of course anyone hoping to get into business would naturally dress themselves in the same way, and so it spread, rapidly.
    The final cause of this lingering illness was the growing amount of social conservativism, most strongly expressed in England, but without question being copied to one degree or another all over the western world. As social rules became more complex and more deeply entrenched, the clothing of men contracted and ossified into the rigidly structured, monolithic attire that became the uniform for men everywhere.  The only thing that varied from man to man was the quality of their clothes, in a general sense they were indistinguishable.

     So, by the end of an entire century of slow and steady atrophy, the patient finally expired, primarily of neglect. All that remained of the peacock's splendor was a carefully chosen cravat, a unique set of shirt studs, or a particularly wonderful watch.

    The peacock male died such a long and quiet death, no one even realized he had expired.  No one came to the funeral. No flowers or cards were sent.