Saturday, October 31, 2015

Scatter #77

    Happy Halloween, Y'all!
    In honor of All Hallows Eve, I'm doing the Scatter entirely from iconic film costume.  Of course film costumes are really the culmination of the actor inhabiting them and the skills of the designer, so even things that are otherwise forgettable can become permanent fixtures in the cultural mind.  So, with that, a round dozen of famous folk in costumes that they utterly owned.

    Ms Crawford, would you mind stopping to pose please?  Thanks so much.  You're a dear.  This image is from the penultimate scene from the film the Women, 1938.  Crawford's character, Crystal Allen is getting her marching orders, and Gilbert Adrian the designer has wisely put her in clothes that shout out as to why that is happening.  More than a bit vulgar, and definitely overplayed, her style does not really suit the life of a engineer's wife, no matter how wealthy.  Its also meant to be a counterpoint to the more conservative, and socially inoffensive clothes of the other women in the scene.
    Mr Karloff?  On Set, please.  Thanks, Boris.  We've moved your key light a bit, just a step over,...There ya go.  Now, stay put while we set the chains. Its a wonderful, damning thing to be an actor so completely connected with one character, but for Boris Karloff, it's Frankenstein's monster that we will ever and always think of.  its so complete that all you have to say to someone is, neck bolts, and they get it entirely.
    I know you want to get back to staring at yourself, Jean, but just one more for the cameraman?  Thanks.  Dinner at Eight, Jean Harlow, Gilbert Adrian designing, and one of the most outrageous negligee's ever made.  Completely covered in silver lined white micro bugle beads, and edged with 22 inch ostrich fronds, the costume is both ridiculous, and potently sexy, just like the character should be.  We need, as the audience, to get it in one that this woman doesn't have any concerns besides being beautiful, and available.   and we did, to such an extent that even now this image has power. Covered in beads as it was, it must have weighed a ton.  But, as has been said, beauty is pain.
    Here's another example of adroit work.  Clark Gable is so completely associated with this, and his other costumes from Gone With the Wind that you can put you finger over his face and still see the character.  The reason I've included this here is not that the costume itself is so extraordinary, but that the interface between actor and clothing is, pardon me, seamless.  And the designer's choice of that cravat brings all the attention right to his handsome mug, as it should in a scene like this.  He is about to confront the men at the Twelve Oaks barbeque about the folly of their choosing war, so we need to focus on his face, not his actions.
    Paging Diane Keaton!  Oh, there you are, Diane. I've been all over the place looking for you.  A couple for your fans please?  Thanks.  Though Diane Keaton has done many terrific roles there is none so well remembered as Annie Hall.  In part this is because of her skill as a comic actor.  But a significant part of it comes from how broadly the Annie Hall look spread outside of the movie theater.  Women all over the country started trotting out over-sized menswear and slouchy hats.  Its not the first time, nor will it be the last that something of the sort has happened.  Madonna, in Who's That Girl got a generation of young women to dress is fishnets and leather jackets.  and back in the thirties a costume worn by Joan Crawford in the film Letty Lynton was copied nearly 500,000 times at all levels of production, and a dress worn by Elizabeth Taylor  became the go to prom dress for young girls.
    Just keep dancing, Fred, I can shoot around you.  Just utter the words, Top hat, white tie, and tails, and there is only one person who will come to mind. Fred Astaire.  What makes his costume contribution so incredible is that its actually a uniform.  Yet he has taken this set of clothes worn my myriad men and made it his, by the power of his huge talent, and his personality.
    Would you turn for us please, Marilyn?  Thanks.  Yeah we do need to re-position those feathers a bit, and the hem needs a bit of help.  This is from the Film There's No Business Like Show Business.  I chose this one not because its utterly iconic of itself, most people wouldn't remember it on its own, but take a good look at this.  Can you imagine anyone else in this costume?  Even without her in it, you can see her there easily.  Its a wonderful example of how a designer can so understand an actor that the work calls out for them to inhabit it.
    A pair of fake ears, pointy eyebrows, and a blue t shirt, were all that was required to bring this character to life.  Sometimes its not by complexity of design, but by its utter simplicity that a costume becomes as fast held as this one.  Part of the decision was doubtless based on budget concerns, partly on making the character alien, but accessible.  The end result is that Leonard Nimoy could be the isolated other with the maximum of ability to convey the reality of the role to the audience.
    Sabrina, one of Audrey Hepburn's first film roles was one of the times that a couture designer did the clothes for an actor.  Hubert de Givenchy worked with Hepburn to create the post Paris trip Sabrina who returns home as a dazzlingly lovely woman.  The clothes for pre-Paris were done by Edith Head, who got all the credit for the film's costumes.  It was the beginning of a collaboration between Hepburn and Givenchy that would continue for their entire lives.
    (lifting coffin lid)  Wake up, Bela, you're needed on set.  Bela Lugosi did something similar to Astaire, taking the white tie formal wear and by the addition of one accessory, made of his costume, an enduring vision of depraved evil.  So much has this moved into the public mind that a long black cape is commonly called a Dracula cape, even though such evening capes were fairly common in the 17th and 18th centuries.  And its another example of how dangerous it is for an actor to become too closely connected to a character.  It can kill a career faster than a stake through the heart.
    I know you're in the foreground Kate, but I need to talk about Bogie for a sec, m'kay? Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen.  It was cheap, made deliberately to look old, bedraggled and filthy, and was simplicity itself.  A great example of how even a humble costume can become immortal.  boots old chinos, miner's shirt scarf, and cap, done.  All you need to do is put Bogart in this ensemble of rumpled stuff and boom, a character is born.  The interface between actor and costume is a delicate one and here we see it in perfect harmony.
    Errol?  Errol!  ERROL!!  Stop flirting with the crew.  Could you come here please?  Good. There have been lots of people to play Robin hood, and many variants on the costume but its this one is the one that has become the undying image of Robin Hood that we think of.  Every year at my work we get numbers of folk who want to be Robin Hood, and in most cases, this is the Robin they want to be.  As a matter of fact, one of the suppliers who we get costume hats from makes a dead on replica of this particular Hood hat, and we sell it out every year.

So, that's the lot for this week's Scatter.  Tell me what you're going to be for Halloween; and then go out and say Boo! to someone.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Value of Costume

    Costumery, fancy dress, getting dolled up in things not normal to us, is as much a part of the Attire language as your blue jeans, or your favorite shoes.  Being in costume, choosing to step outside your daily routine, is a massively freeing experience.  It allows us to express hidden feelings and thoughts with impunity; because a costume party, or other costumed event like Mardi Gras, Carnivale, or Halloween enables us to do so without fear of disapproval.  For some reason, we allow ourselves as a community to look on people with much greater indulgence and acceptance.  Many is the time that I have seen tourists cozying up to outrageous drag queens, to be photographed together, while in real life they might not be willing to acknowledge them.
    We permit ourselves to see the person in front of us with far less judgement in place, so the person of size is not only allowed to be dressed in an overtly sexy fashion, but we can SEE them as sexy.  The man who is quietly mousy can dress as a noble lord and folk will see that nobility.  Or someone can get creative, and become an inanimate object, an animal, or a figure of dream.  It may only be play, but it can have a profound effect on the viewer and the viewed.
    The effect is an enlargement of world view for the observer, and an enlargement of personal understanding for the observed.  The more we expose ourselves to other modes of presentation, just like when we travel to other countries, we grow, we become less hidebound, and less narrow in our focus.  And every time we choose to present ourselves differently, we discover something new about ourselves, because we feel differently, and people react to us differently.
    So this is why I will always champion the idea of getting dressed up in a costume.  Whether its something store bought that cost 10 bucks, or whether you labored over it for months, the transformation can take you somewhere exciting, thought provoking, and revelatory, if you let it.  Conversely, you are giving a gift to others when you get up in a fancy dress outfit.  They have as much chance for self discovery as you, just in a different way, because you chose to do what you have done.

     Costume is a zone where no matter what your thought process, or feelings, you can safely express them. So I say bravo and three cheers for costume.  Its the opportunity for the most buttoned up of us to cut loose, and the most loosely defined of us to zip it shut for a while.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


    Its a conundrum we all face each day.  Our widely held ethics, and morals teach us that we should not judge others, lest we be judged, yet, every day, we do.   Why, when its observably not a good idea on either side?  It can create acrimony, misunderstanding, and lowering of self esteem.  I can tell you that part of it is because of some very old hard wired stuff, that is a simple survival skill. 
    We see something we do not understand, and we seek to do so; because understanding it means we might just have some control over it.  We might be able to fear it less.  Our curiosity, and our need to feel safe and secure, demand this of us.  It comes from the darkest part of our natures, and extends back much further than any language.  We have to know what, and who, we are looking at, to know whether we should flee from danger, approach with confidence, or treat something as prey.  We carry this same thing buried deep in us, functioning still.
    Its a curious and dangerous thing, this.  This overarching need to know. We have to be able to codify, compartmentalize, and otherwise control the things and the people outside of ourselves. 
    Our families, and our friends get a pass.  We trust them and their motivations enough. that we can forgive, and ignore those lapses we might otherwise refuse to accept.  But its with the stranger that this behavior most often expresses in a negative way.  Strangers are looked upon with skepticism, and fear.  We do not know them, so they are potentially dangerous.  So, we relegate people we see into boxes. We place them in categories, and by doing so, diminish their power over us.  Its not a pretty aspect of our natures, but its real.  Sure, not everyone out there actually feels fear among strangers; but this is the most important thing: we still react as though we do.  It takes an ongoing and conscious decision to keep this knee jerk response at bay.  To refuse to judge.
    I have spent close to three years talking about the language of Attire, here, and on facebook.  I'm not here doing so to create further ways for us to separate ourselves, but rather to find ways to join us together.  There is so much we have in common, regardless of race, culture, religion, sexuality or politics.  We really are a huge, and diverse family.  We all want the same things for our lives. We want love, acceptance, assurance, friendship, fun, joy, and a sense of continuation.  We can all have these things. We can;  without denying them to others.
    The Attire language can be, if utilized with the right frame of mind, a path to that.  By looking at others and seeking the points of connection, rather than the things that are different.  Or, by seeking out those differences, and allowing ourselves to see them through the eyes of the observed other.
    When next you see someone on the street whose apparel confuses or dismays you, stop.  Stop and think for a minute. Think about who they may be, and what their concerns might be.  Stop and think for a moment about you in their place, you living their world.  And suddenly, their choices could seem natural, and just.  We are all of us struggling to get through this crazy world.  Its only our lack of willingness to see what others are facing, that keeps us apart.
    When you dress yourself for your day, you speak to the world around you.  Make sure you are saying what you really mean, so that we can move towards more understanding, together.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Cristobal Balenciaga Versus Nicholas Ghesquiere

    Older couture houses, like that started by Cristobal Balenciaga, naturally pass to other designers in time. Sometimes those designers walk firmly away from the traditions of the house, and sometimes they decide to pay homage to the work of the founder.  What makes this interesting is how both the newer designer's eye sees the original work, and how the filter of the current day alters what went before.
    Every kind of design is affected by the time from which it springs, and looking at two versions of the same creative thought, separated by decades, is a chance to see cultural evolution in action. Nicholas Ghesquiere, who was for a time the designer at Balenciaga  Spent most of his time charting new territory while in the chair there, but now and then would send something down the runway that was a direct nod of appreciation to the man who founded the firm.
    Some of these pieces of his are quite direct copies of the original notion, others are further afield, but all manage to make what was designed half a century or more ago, look entirely a part of the now.
     Mary Jane Russel modeling Balenciaga from the 1950s.  The design is one that became iconic, reproduced at all levels of manufacture.  Ghesquiere's version blows the dress to bits, rendering the ruffle in a more random way, and obliterating the formality of the design.  It suddenly speaks to this more casual society.
     This next effort is from 1961 and was one of Balenciaga's experiments with volume standing away from the body.  The more recent iteration is a direct copy in all but fabrication.  The gray metallic cloque' textile gives it a nearly avant garde edge. which the first design certainly was when it debuted.
     The black and white cocktail dress is from 1959, and is not a look that retains much cultural relevance now. It was a wonderful experiment at the time, but it the concept of cocktail attire has faded away.  So its only appropriate that the updated version by Ghesquiere bears only a ghostly association to the first design.
    Here, the connection between the two designs is so tenuous as to be nearly invisible, really only the black and white combination, and the waist tie connect them.  Gone is the ladylike formality, mostly because of the pelvis high slice out of the skirt.
    Finally, this black gown with a balloon hem and a fall of lace from it gets a nearly straight across update.  The volume is a trifle bigger, the skirt hem ascends in the front and the color is changed, but somehow those few changes alter the way the dress communicates to us utterly.
    It is interesting to me to look at comparatives like these, charting some of the changes in how we see ourselves in the process.  Overall I see a relaxation of rules, with all the positives and negatives that implies.  We have, as a society, left behind us the kind of adult seriousness that pervades Balenciaga's work.  Even when he was being playful, it was still within narrow confines.  The way we live now allows us more opportunity to be playful, in fact its actively encouraged.  Sometimes we take it to extremes, but its there, nonetheless.  And that very playfulness, which can be exuberant, can also manifest as childishness, which is the negative aspect we see around us.
    Which designer's work do I like better?  I think Balenciaga is the better architect with textiles, but Ghesquiere has his eye more completely on the time and society.  In the final analysis, I would go with Cristobal Balenciaga, for the sheer purity of his work, and its utterly faultless execution.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Scatter #76

    Let's begin the final quarter of my first hundred Scatter posts, shall we?  Lots to see and chat about.  So without further delay,...
     It was a commonplace thing, back when the huge majority of women had at least some skill with needle and thread, that women's periodicals had small articles devoted to home sewing projects, DIY projects to help a lady with her wardrobe.  Here are two from the 1920s. They chronicled popular fashion details, and made them clear to women who might not have had pattern making skills.  The first shows two different modish collar types. The ruched, tube collar was especially popular, being made up for garments at every level of usage.  The ruffled collar, though popular, was not as ubiquitous, it was also the easier of the two pictured for home sewers to make up themselves.  The second is a draped turban, and shows the sewer just how easy it is to make one at home.  Hats, even then, were often quite expensive, and since hats required small amounts of materials, they could be made from scraps saved from other projects.  Though it would be quite difficult now to find the basic buckram shapes used here, they used to be a staple in any department store, and quite inexpensive, so making your own hat was a realistic idea, and many women did.  What did this mean for the Attire language?  Greater individuality of expression.  This practice continued unabated until the 1960s, when women started to eschew hats altogether.
    I've talked about Surrealism in apparel many times. This coat made me smile though, especially with the way the model is posed. The illusion of his dancing with an unseen partner is very good.  I love the aspect of Surrealism that tricks and tweaks our reality, so that we have to double take, before we get the actuality of what we are seeing.  Plus, quite simply, this is a terrific coat.
    This is a detail of a painting by Peter Paul Rubens from 1606 of Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria.  This is one of the more extreme examples of the ruff collar, in fact, this is right about the time when it began to collapse into the broad, but flat collars that became the fashion.  To hold a collar like this in the position its in three things were needed.  The first was wire sewn within the edge of the collar.  The second was lots of liquid starch, and the third was a supportasse. It was a wire structure that fitted over the shoulders and around the neck that could hold up the collar in this seemingly effortless way.  Also, as a method for displaying wealth this was unbeatable.  Dozens of yards of hand made lace were used in the edging of this ruff.
    Next up is this pair of beautiful leggings. They come from the Huron Wendat First Nation, which is part of Quebec province in Canada.  These were made in 1830, and are interesting to me because they are an amalgam of both the Huron people's own ideas of apparel, and western conceptions. The trims used on these leggings is of French manufacture, but the brush fringe is traditional to these people.  Honestly, for those who live in colder climates, leggings like these that could be held up with the same belt as the pants could be a huge asset.  And a wonderful addition to the Attire sentence presented.
    In 2005 Yumi Katsura made this art piece out of paper and silk.  I love its combination of rigidity and fragility.  Its a wonderfully evocative, emotional piece.  That's all, just had to share this.  I think it's lovely, and haunting.
    I have said before that anything we put onto our bodies becomes instantly a part of the Attire communication we are doing.  That is no less true of the smallest accessory that we think is merely utilitarian, than it is of anything else.  This spur is just such an article.  The owner probably gave it little thought.  it and its mate simply put on so that riding was facilitated.  But the craftsmanship and balance of shape are wonderful. So an observant eye could add this into the mix of whatever was being shown to them and get a better understanding.  Boot spur, 1400, possibly Spanish or French.
    Iris Van Herpen is one of my favorite Avant Garde designers.  Her use of revolutionary techniques and textiles is often breathtaking. This dress, simple as it is, gets taken into another realm entirely with the extraordinary texture created by the metallic web work in play. And I bet the way the fabric shifts, and the light plays over it is powerfully sexy.  its also a great look at how choice of textile in garment construction makes a huge difference.  In a more conventional fabric, this dress would communicate little to us.
    More and more often these days clothing is being used as a more direct vehicle to express thought and opinion.  Perhaps its because so many people feel disconnected, and unheard.  Perhaps its simply the vast amount of constant input we get that makes us want to shout with our clothing.  Whatever the real motivation, and its probably multiple causes,  we are more often choosing to use our clothing as a literal billboard for our feelings, our politics, our religions, and our sexuality.  So, where images like this one, in the 80s would have been enormously provocative, now though they remain thought provoking, they are less deeply impactful.  So, I suppose that we will just have to shout out louder still.  I wonder what that will look like?
    Mix a luscious shade of red, impressive, and varied skills and techniques and you can come up with this sedate and delightful afternoon dress from 1878.  The dress is draped, ruched, gathered. pleated, tucked and ruffled, and all of it expertly.  In the hands of a lesser worker, this could have looked like a mass of un-ironed laundry.  But in these expert hands the totality is harmonious, and though complex, looks refined.  Part of that, of course, is due to the use of a single textile in a solid color.  Imagine this in two different textiles, or a boldly patterned one. the result could be cacophonous.
    Garment experiments always intrigue me.  Now, this uniquely cut pair of tights/pants is an interesting take on how to construct an item for the lower half of the body.  I would be happy to see this same design idea made up in different textiles to see how it would fare.  Clearly here, its meant as active wear, but I think this could be very appealing in more traditional fabrics, like cotton duck or  wool worsted.
    It was and is still quite commonplace for folks in New Orleans to wear Mardi Gras colors even when not actually at a parade or party.  So dressmakers, and other cottage clothing makers turn out apparel that incorporates one, two, or all three of the Mardi Gras traditional shades of gold, green and purple. This evening ensemble is from 1936, and uses two of the three.  I like the fact that it would be completely acceptable outside of the Mardi Gras celebration, as well as during.

    For the final entry a real rarity.  In the early 1500s this jacket, now missing its detachable sleeves was knitted.  Yup, that's right, knitted.  It is so unusual for knitted garments to survive at all, and this one is in great shape for its age.  Bade in a pattern that mimics the large scale brocades worn at the time this jacket would have been a winter garment for a man, and probably for indoor use, under a coat.  Beautifully done work.  And perfect for that drafty chateau you're living in.

Okay then, that's all for today!   Get out there and enjoy your weekend!

Thursday, October 22, 2015


    Like the finely machined parts of a watch, the various aspects of the Attire language work together; often meshing in the way that gears do, moving each other forward to get to the result desired.  So far, in looking at the mechanics that exists within Attire, I've talked about Intention, Scale, Elaboration and Luxury.
    This next bit is about Volume.  Of course Volume and Scale are closely related; but Volume usually refers to the larger aspects of a garment or an accessory, while Scale can be in play for a detail of them.
    The smaller the volume of a piece of apparel, and at the moment I mean one that still remains well fitted, if tiny, the more our minds are going to equate that garment with overt sexuality.  So a dress that barely covers a woman from nipples to crotch is going to read as provocative in a sexual way much more readily than one that is knee length.  And a knit shirt that is hemmed to hit the waist line but not pass it, and also has no sleeves, is going to be seen as similarly sexy for a man.
    Now, if those same two garments are even smaller in volume, to the point where fit suffers, then the sexual reaction begins to fade away, replaced by embarrassment, snide humor, or even pity.  Seeing people in clothing that we perceive as too tight, and too small garners instant opprobrium. We see it as an indicator of desperation, and an unhealthy need for attention.
     At the other end of the volume dial, where big becomes gargantuan, the same kind of tipping point exists.  A grandly sized garment can quickly become an item of comedy, or derision to us.  Why else do we dress traditional clowns in clothing either wildly too large, or small?  Because our minds equate incorrect Volume with humor, and even insanity.  The only trustworthy exception to this axiom is in ritual clothing, like the regalia of monarchs, or the panoply of the religious.  In that instance, no train can be too long, no cape to vast, no skirt too wide.
    I find myself thinking of Diana Spencer when she married.  Looked at dispassionately, the poor woman was nearly swallowed within the enormity of her dress, train, and veil.  But our reaction to it at the time, was that it was the height of romanticism. We give, in such instances, ridiculous Volume a pass. But that is a rare and sometime thing.
    Extreme volume in the real world is both inconvenient, and likely to invite negative comments.
    When larger Volume is handled correctly, it conveys a sense of drama, like the sweep of a floor length cape, or the delicious swing of a full skirt.
    When small Volume is well done it relays a message of precision, and attention to detail.
    Like any of the other mechanisms I've already described, Volume rarely exists alone, the other interconnected parts affect it and it, them.  For example, if a garment is a solid color, and large Volume is in use, the effect will most likely be grand and elegant looking.  But render the same thing in the wrong pattern and it becomes a pile of visual noise that exhausts the eye.  And if small Volume is used, and a pattern is chosen, the resulting item can seem fussy, and conservative if too small a  pattern is used.
    So far now, I've addressed 5 parts that make up the inner workings of Attire.  There are others, like Coloration, Pattern, and Texture.  I will get to these soon, so we can start looking at how they all play together.  It's how they interact that makes this all so interesting, and complicated.