Wednesday, April 29, 2015


    Coats, cloaks, capes, and other final outer layers seem to have a special fascination.  In one sense the coat is our first presentation, the first word, if you will, in our apparel statement.  But its also our first best layer of protection, both literal, and figurative.
    Being one of our oldest garments, since it relates directly to the hides we wrapped around ourselves in our long ago past, it has a deeply rooted psychological power that cannot be denied.  We took those hides onto us, not just to keep the elements at bay, but to take onto ourselves the perceived qualities of those animals we hunted successfully.  In that sense, a coat maintains to this day an aspect of sympathetic magic.  A coat transforms the wearer, in part because it so often covers a good deal of the body.  It can conceal us, masking our bodies from view, or it can accentuate our body shape in some way we desire. It can broaden out shoulders, or create the illusion of a smaller waist counterbalanced between large volumes above, and below.  It can narrow us, widen us, lengthen us or shorten us visually.  Coats are routinely worn largely for warmth or other elemental protection, and so the feeling of being safe, and cared for, is implicit within the wearing of them.
Though we no longer wear animal hides directly in most of the world, the power of the coat, the cloak, the cape is still profoundly joined to that primal practice.  We wear a leather biker jacket to feel hot, and a little dangerous, though the hide we are using is processed, and so not quite the same as its ancient forebears.  We slip into a fur to feel ultimately luxurious, and that too connects us dimly to that eons ago time.  
     Because coats tend to be firmly structured garments, with denser, thicker materials than our other clothing, the connection to carapaces, and protective layering is inescapable.  But the coat is also the loudest, (because its the first), part of the total Attire sentence we construct.  Whatever else is underneath the coat, it operates like the primary noun in a sentence, driving the meaning of everything else we see.

    So, unless we're just leaving the house for ten minutes to shovel the driveway in the winter, when we put on a coat, it becomes like a shield with an armorial crest on it, proclaiming something with vigor to everyone, even if what is being proclaimed is, I don't want to be seen.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Ruff, Ruff!

    It began as a simple, and subtle gathering of the material of a shirt at the neckline, back when shirts were essentially constructed of rectangles, and close fit had to be achieved with ties.  Where it ended up 150 years later was one of the oddest, and most extravagant fashions that has ever been worn by both men and women at the same time. I'm talking about the neck ruff.
    In order to close the shirt around the neck, an narrow cord or ribbon was threaded through a channel mounted just near the edge and then pulled to gather it together. The result, was that a narrow frill of fabric stood out above where the cord was located.  In short time this frill was made larger, by placing the draw cord further from the neck opening, then it began to be decorated with embroidery, and occasionally beads, or even spangles.
   Technology frequently steps in to help us achieve the extremes we dream about. This is no less true with the ruff collar.  Once it happened that the ruff was a separate item from the shirt, things began to undergo a rapid expansion, and elaboration, as is typical of anything we humans put our minds to.  First using starches, natural gums, and special shaping tools, ruffs were stiffened into shape.  Of course when they inevitably became food and wine stained, they had to be cleaned; which meant having the expensive stiffening process redone.  
   Wire began to be used routinely in ruffs, which removed the need for costly and time consuming starching, and had another advantage.  Under-wiring the ruff meant you could go bigger, much, much bigger.  Eventually the ruff collar expanded to such a size that heads looked like they were disembodied, and resting on costly platters.
    At first ruffs were made of fine lawn, or linen, but as they gained in popularity they became elaborated with braids and galloon.  With the advent of lace in the late 1400's, and its consequent rise in complexity, it became the thing to add to ones ruff to display incredible wealth.  So as you move through the 1500s the proportion of fabric to lace changes; more lace, less fabric.  When you consider that your average bobbin lace of about 1 inch of width requires a skilled lacemaker a week to create one yard, it becomes obvious that a ruff could, depending on how wide, and how tightly rolled it was, consume a dozen or more yards of lace in its creation.  So when you look at some of the portraits here, consider the outrageous numbers of person hours consumed to create these monumental structures.
    When we couldn't get a ruff any bigger, we stacked them, when we couldn't get any higher, women, most notably Queen Elizabeth I, split the ruff to frame the  face and neck, and added huge wings off the shoulders.
    The neck ruff was a continual part of the dress of women and men for over a century, taking full hold before the end of Henry VIII's reign, and continuing well into the 1600s.  And it still has appearances now and again in high end fashion, though it has never caught on again in any real way.  But one can never be too sure about these things.  Though we seem to be fearful of change, we are surely just as dazzled by it.  The ruff might just come around again sometime.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Sets, Clusters, Families

    As I've been trying my best to assemble something like a syntax for this huge thing I call the Attire language, it occurred to me that we tend to go from the broadest concepts to the most particular. The first layer I will be calling Families, where ideas like dress, coat, pants, and other elemental clothing notions exist. Next up comes Clusters.  This is the first point where specificity begins, its also the point where purpose is attached to a garment. We go from dress, to party dress, for example.  The next layer I'm calling Sets, where color, pattern, and other precise information gets added; till we arrive finally at the Word itself.  Sleeveless, body con,  above knee, black silk party dress.

So it would line up like this:
Family: Headgear
Cluster: Rain Hat
Set: Sou'wester
Word: Yellow Vinyl Sou'wester

Or in reverse, like this:
Word: Pleated Front, Cuffed, Brown Tweed Casual Pants
Set: Brown Tweed Casual Pants
Cluster: Casual Pants
Family: Pants

    Such a parse can be applied to any individual item of apparel, allowing us to categorize more effectively, and in that way, perhaps comprehend more clearly what we are seeing.  What it also does, is shine a bit more light on how layered, and complex this semiotic communication system is.  Rather than a range of clear symbolic signals, each individual word in the lexicon is a set of stacked ideas, each one adding more meaning, and subtlety to the preceding ones.
    So, beginning with Family, we get the broadest concept; lets say, Shirt. Then the layers begin to accrue. Dress shirt belongs to the Cluster level, and establishes purpose for the garment.  At the Set level we get more meaning, and specificity, by referring to color and pattern and so on; white dress shirt.  Now the distinguishing feature of Sets, is that there are usually multiple layers within the Set, which is why I refer to it as such.  After defining, in the Cluster layer, the function of the article, it falls to the Set category to elaborate all the other defining elements that make that piece of apparel different from others within its Cluster.  The arrived at Word is the maximum delineation of the family, Shirt.  In this case: white silk, wing collared, french cuffed, tuxedo dress shirt.
    For the purposes of simplicity, I've narrowed the field of focus somewhat. You could if you wished, go much further in your listing of specifics. You could add garment size, fabric weave, number of buttonholes, number of pleats if its a pleat fronted shirt, and on, and on.  But you all get the idea here.
    The final and most important point is that each one of those modifiers adds another nuance, another set of signals, to the final message being presented by the garment; and that is before its even on a person. When that happens, and that item is blended with others that individual has chosen, the amount of information transmitted is huge.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Stepping Forward, Stepping Backward

    Its a curious thing about us humans; we love our modernity, but we cannot seem to keep our attention on the present, and the future.  We dip continually into our past. Perhaps its because we realize on some level that we are the sum total of all that has gone before. Perhaps its that we have so romanticized our past that it seems somehow better than how we live now.  Perhaps its that we understand that there were meritorious things about bygone times that deserve to be remembered.  And maybe its that some of us feel more cultured, intelligent, and arty if we clasp things from our elder days to us.  Likely, the reasons go on and on.  And likely too, for most of us, there are layers of reasons, as there are for nearly all our behaviors.
    Of late, with the tremendous expansion of multi-cultural interactions, the appearance and use of apparel pieces from other times, often translated, has gained a great deal of momentum.  Everywhere you go there are garments, and accessories garnered from past times.  The current vogue for Steampunk, is just one iteration of how that makes itself known, even though the way it appears was consciously meant to be a fantastical vision of a past that never was. 
In menswear lately the hipster crowd has taken to affecting skinny suspenders, porkpie hats,  deliberately antique facial hair styles, and wing tip shoes. While runways have been jammed with erzatz English tailoring looks that ape the Fin de Siecle.
The point though, is that no matter how forward thinking, how aggressively modern we might view ourselves, the call of our history is profound and inescapable.
    Its true also that in times of upheaval such as now, the past becomes more appealing as we try to find our way through our difficulties.  And, since our difficulties are globe spanning now, and affect all of us, not just one nation, or sub group, that pull is even more potent.  On some subtextual level we desire solace and refuge in our past, because we think we understand it.  Of course we don't really, not even if we are remembering a past we ourselves lived through, memory being the fluid thing it is, after all.
So, we bring our history onto us. We wrap it about us, quite literally, in the form of antique styles and retro conceptions.  Its more than just being intrigued by what was and wanting to re-imagine it for today, there is a desire to inhabit that other time, again.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Scatter #55

    Its that time again.  Yes it is.  Its time for me to go rooting around in the discombobulated piles of ephemera that clutter my noggin and share some with you.  Its such a comfort that you all enjoy taking some of this stuff off my hands once a week.
   So, lets go for a ride!
   First up this week,  One of the only Asian models who got consistent work in the early sixties was Hiroko Matsumo.  Here she is posed in a Pierre Cardin ensemble, for whom she was a muse.  One of the things That marks any era's visual expressions is scale.  And one of the signatures of the 60s was the juxtaposition of huge scale, like the fur collar, with lean simplicity of line.  Hard to believe really, that Cardin, who started out as one of the great forward thinkers in fashion, ended up being synonymous with mediocrity, because he allowed far too many license agreements that dumbed down his brand.  But here is the clear, clean vision, that made him a superstar in his time.
   So many people I have known are in love with watches, but when I look at something like this magnificent open face pocketwatch from 1840, contemporary design seems pale and childish.  The level of workmanship and craft here is wonderful.  The gold case is almost entirely covered in multiple colors of enamel in a patterns of fruits, flowers, and musical instruments.  Even the slyly floral shape of the case itself contributes to the overall harmony of the piece.  The lady who owned this, and yes, this is a ladies watch,meant to be worn on the bodice, with a chain, was a very lucky lady indeed.
    When I found this image, it showed up with the tag, premium streetwear.  What I see here is the presence of an entirely new vision of how a man could, and may, choose to dress himself.  I suppose its logical that after 2 centuries of suit wearing, and neckties, the response to it would be this dramatic.  Everything here is about lack of confinement, lack of overt structure.  Sure, we are in a far more casual culture than ever before, so this is in part due to that overarching mindset, but there is an aspect of revolution implicit in this sort of dressing, a deliberate refusal of the more traditional methods of accoutering oneself.  The other thing that is obvious to me here is that this is a far more consciously emotional method of dressing.  And considering the changes aboil for men with regard to their willingness to engage more fully in their emotional lives, this is a logical outgrowth of that.  I think we will be seeing much, much more of this as the years roll by.
    To a significant degree, the earlier sixties was all about two things for women, Hair, and eyes.  The clothing was blocky, firm, and figure obscuring.  The legs were often meant to extend the garment by wearing tights of the same color as the dress. Even the lips were diminished by pale lipsticks.  Taking the visual focus clear to the top, with dark, and complex eye make ups, and outrageous masses of real and false hair, for the first time in a long time, the point of interest was not one of the body parts below the neck, or even the neck itself. 
    I'll admit it, I think this man is insanely hot.  But that's truly not the prime reason why he's here.  He's a model, showing a contemporary Indian wedding ensemble.  And I chose to post this because I think that this method of dress would be a terrific bridge point between the traditions of Western menswear, and the loose and casual freedom of the streetwear look above.  Plus, the variation of pattern, textile and decoration would allow a huge range of personal expression, and that's always going to be a good thing.  I could see this manner of dress taking off as an evening wear option, easily.
    This, Chillun's is how one went to the theater, back in the day.  This is a fashion image from about 1911, and shows the model dressed for the opera.  As an item that gives us a sampling of all the major ideas going on at the time, this is great.  We have the jeweled headband worn low on the brow, a concept that would carry on for another 15 years or so, before petering out.  The huge, loose cocoon coat, promoted heavily by Paul Poiret.  The massive tassel decorations were a oft used element of the time on dresses, suits and coats.  It was an early version of the relaxation of women's clothing that would continue up to the beginning of the Great Depression.
    I find that I'm falling in love with the Fenimore Museum in Cooperstown New York.  Their young curator of costume and textiles has been doing a tumblr blog where she posts some of the delightful things they have there.  Part of what I find so marvelous is that a significant chunk of their collection is children's clothing.  This is a little boy's Scottish Suit.  It was worn occasionally by the father of the donor, Anna M. McKechnie when he was a little boy.  The donation included the entire outfit, including a jacket, skirt, sash, sporran, socks, shoes, a sash pin, and a hat.  Such outfits as these became popular after Queen Victoria dressed her own boys in similar outfits.  Its also interesting to note that at this time, 1870-80, it was common for boys to wear skirted clothes.  I think this is thoroughly delightful.
    One of the first places that new versions of artistic thought express themselves within the Attire language, is in jewelry.  Its a place where experimentation can happen freely, without the result overwhelming the wearer, so more people are willing to get avant garde occasionally with a piece of bling, than they might with a more commanding, and large garment.  This ring is like a statement in small of all the differing directions we get pulled in every day.  There is the raw quality that references our growing awareness of our place within the natural system of the world, there are elements that are deliberately rectilinear, while others are more organic seeming, and the whole piece has a sense of exploding outward, like the very changes in our world culture are forcing us to do, as we find ourselves faced with more and more input, and ideas, each day.

    These images of Ethiopian tribes people reminded me of something.  Before we dressed ourselves in cloth; before we learned how to make shoes, and shirts, and hats; we were already speaking the beginnings of the language of Attire.  We took the earth we stood on and used it to adorn ourselves, and in some place in the world, like with these people, we still do.  The idea of that kind of continuity makes me very happy.
    And you thought that sheer thing we are seeing a lot of was new?  Oh, not even!  Here's the lusciously pneumatic Jayne Mansfield costumed for 1961's Playgirl After Dark.  Everything possible is being done to hyper-sexualize her, and make her into some ultimate expression of male fantasy.  Certainly its not the ultimate expression of women's fantasies on display here.  What I find curious is that there is a forbidding aspect in play here.  Its a massive display of come here, and go away.  Desire and dismissal at once.  Fascinating how the semiotics of Attire defines a great deal of what we see, and how we see it.
    This woman of Guatemala made me smile so much.  The intensity of the color and pattern here is wonderful. everything is perfectly in harmony. Its like a textbook lesson in how to make multiple patterns work together. And proof positive that style, beauty, and elegance are not the exclusive province of "developed" areas.

     For the final entry today, something special.  A gentleman's banyan was an essential part of his wardrobe, it was how he did undress at home, how he relaxed, and to a great degree how he was able to sartorially express himself.  This matching banyan and waistcoat is from the 18th century, when the banyan had its greatest popularity, and is made from a silk Chinese dragon robe. The huge pattern of the original robe has been well handled to create the two new garments.  Its interesting to see that the waistcoat is sleeved, as well as the banyan.  Sleeved waistcoats had been common, but by the time this was constructed, around the 1780s, they had fallen out of favor. The cut of the banyan sleeves and the proportion of the cuffs also indicate the timeline for this.  The only place sleeved waistcoats were still done was for ensembles like this, mostly to enhance the warmth the wearer could get out of it.  I would totally do this sort of look.  Oh wait, I have.

Well that's it for this week, my friends. Have a wonderful weekend, whatever you do!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Scale & Proportion

    Every age, every aesthetic movement, has its own sense of scale and proportion.  This time has its own, just as any other.
    While some eras are known for having a uniform look that is about large volume, or about keeping close to the lines of the human form, others have occurred where a huge dichotomy existed between giant scale, and small scale.  Sometimes this manifested, as in the later 18th century, with men's clothing being tight to the body, and small scaled, while women's fashions were about expansion, and large volumes of space. 
    Our current time has its own take on scale, and proportion.  This time its about the juxtaposition of over-scaled with under-scaled that dominates the visual conversation.  Sometimes that interplay is sly and subtle, sometimes its in your face.  But it is still there, driving the balance that exists in ensembles.  Take a look around you today, while you're out and about in the world, and see how many times this manifests in front of you.  I think you'll be surprised at how pervasive it is. 
    Now, since I'm all about the why behind things, what exactly are the mechanics of this? Why now, is this the way we are choosing to visually voice ourselves?  To my way of thinking its a combination of the constant increase in our interaction with each other digitally, exposing us to new thought; but more importantly, we are, however we see the changes around us, and the challenges we are facing as a species, aware deeply that things are not as they should be. We are continually reminded that there is a growing dissonance between what we need as a world spanning people to survive, and grow in a healthy way, and what is in fact going on.  Sure there are massive differences of opinion about what the problems are, and what their solutions might be.  But in the Attire language, the result is that we are expressing that very dissonance in the combination of huge and trim, tight and capacious, that we see every day, and very likely accoutre ourselves in, to one degree or another.  I know I have been wearing trim cut pants, and often throwing a huge draping shawl over my shoulders, so I have been doing this my very self.  And of course, do I think about the societal under-layer that I am expressing when I do so?  Not a bit of it.  It looks and feels "right", just now.
    That sense of it feeling correct is a strong motivator. Even when we don't think we are following fashion in a deliberate way, we can pull this up out of ourselves, and find ourselves following the larger social trend all unknowing. 
    So all that said, here are some things to look at that embody what I'm talking about here.  Take a gander, and see how many things you've seen out in the world, or that you do yourself in some way.