Sunday, February 28, 2010

An Embarrassment of Riches

So many things to talk about this week!

Orly gives cancer the big kiss-off
Jean Goes Down for the Count
The Outsider Art Fair
Second Hand Books, Second Hand Boots
Display of Hats of the World at Bergdorf’s
Costumes at the Cloisters

Orly gives cancer the big kiss-off

First, we are happy to report that Orly, our stylish breast cancer patient, has finished both chemotherapy AND radiation, and was pronounced CANCER FREE as of January 19. Still feeling the effects of the radiation treatment, Orly, whose sense of humor was left completely undamaged by chemo or radiation, has dubbed herself the Burning Woman Festival. As a rite of passage, Orly held her own ‘voodoo ceremony’ with friends and family, photos of which we are delighted to share with you. Here is Orly, wearing a ceremonial gown for the occasion, complete with drawn on nipples. In the style of the best beauty pageants, the gown proclaims her status.

Following a dramatic change of costume, Orly prepares to set the gown on fire.

The gown goes up in flames.

With the ceremony over, there is another costume change, and drinks all around to formally proclaim the end of the ordeal and the return to the celebration of life.


(For the original blog on Orly and her encounter with breast cancer, see our Nov. 29, 2009 post, What to Wear to Chemo.)

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Jean Goes Down for the Count

Jean says: Whatever I've got, I would not wish on my worst enemy: For the past two days, everything aches, my throat hurts, my nose runs and my head throbs. At the moment, however, things have calmed down slightly, so I am going to take advantage of my downtime to update you on some of our recent February Sunday outings.

The Outsider Art Fair

On Sunday, February 7, Valerie and I went to the Outsider Art Fair on 34th Street. After taking in the paintings, collage, sculpture, clothing and various oddments, we stopped in the cafe area for caffeine and bubbly, and met two extremely talented women of a certain age who are still actively working and creating. Valerie and I are seated with Jean Betancourt, a Brooklyn-based designer and jewelry maker, and Carol Horn, American sportswear and knitwear designer. [Valerie says: I DROOLED over Carol Horn creations for years and years!]

Carol is modeling a pair of her new hand painted jeans which she will be recreating for Anthropologie in the near future. Fans, stay tuned.

Needless to say, Jean Betancourt's lush purple mane and fabulous glasses got our attention. With very little prompting, she displayed just some of the jewelry she was wearing that day - all of her own design. For more on Jean's jewelry, go to:

Although trying to get a word in edgewise was truly challenging – Carol and Jean clearly go way back, and can complete each other’s sentences - we managed to hold our own long enough to compare notes about the show. The range of materials and expression was truly amazing. Many of the pieces are exuberantly humorous. I must confess that I found some of the price tags for the drawings of deceased unknown artists ($85,000 and up) disconcerting when you consider that in many instances, neither they nor their descendants are profiting from their labors.

Below are some shots of Valerie and me wandering around the show.

Valerie wore a vintage Issey Miyake floor length dress, black and white felt cuffs by Tiiti Tolonen and, in a bid to hold up her end of the Outsider Art Fair, an antique fireman's jacket, probably early 20th century, when the custom was fading out in Japan’s charge toward modernity. The layered, hand stitched cotton jacket is fully reversible. While the outer is typically somber, the lining is often flamboyant (as here). This lining depicts a fox with a human skull and bones and an unlit lantern in tall grasses under a hazy full moon. These are traditional visual codes for a Japanese ghost story. Firemen's jacket linings often depicted tales of the supernatural.

I tend to gravitate to black cats, and there was no shortage of artwork featuring felines.

Here I’m wearing a Lilith quilted jacket, black modal turtleneck, vintage black bakelite necklace, Maria Del Greco fleece hat with vintage bakelite domino pin, large bakelite cuff bracelet and ring, black resin skull ring by Made Her Think, and black resin alligator cuff by Angela Caputti, Brigitte harem pants, Trippen boots, and black leather shoulder bag.

Second Hand Books, Second Hand Boots

Jean continues:

After brunch last Sunday, February 21st, Valerie and I took a short walk to the Strand bookstore, which often has countless wonderful books on art, fashion, graphic design, jewelry, textiles, photography and architecture in a small space. Some are rare, many are very affordable, and all are eminently covetable.

Before splitting up [amid a flurry of melodramatic air kisses], we took advantage of the beautiful weather and headed to an East Village thrift store to check out the latest arrivals. [Valerie says: Jean bought a pair of Wellies, just ahead of the snow storm. How did she do that???] Here are some shots of Valerie cutting quite a figure in her red hat and boots and fabulous felt coat.

OK, when I sent these shots of me to Valerie via email, her comment was something like, "Oh, dear. You really do need some contrast." While I hate to admit it, I am a creature of habit. My first preference, when cruising my closet, is to go for the safe, dark goth look. That does, however, have its limitations. Without going pastel princess or Vegas showgirl overnight, I do think there is some room for improvement in my color palette. Therefore, consider the gauntlet thrown and the challenge accepted. So, for the foreseeable future, I will "shop my closet" and unearth some artifacts that, if not actually colorful, are at least a contrast. Let's check back in a few weeks, shall we, and see how well I'm doing? In the meantime, I'm crawling back to my sick bed to moan, groan, sniffle and wheeze.

[Valerie, in protest, or in self-defensive mode, says: The problem lies in the gap between the acuity of the human eye and the limits of the primitive digital camera. The rich textures and dimensions that the eye takes in are all lost on the camera, which really can’t be faulted – it does its very best with what it has to work with. But the result is that while black clothes in person are subtle and sophisticated, in photographs that gets sacrificed. So what we need is the photographic equivalent of a little pale white chalk pencil to outline the wonderful shapes and textures. Smarter people will probably say we need Photoshop. And Freud might say sometimes a gauntlet is just a gauntlet.]

Jean is wearing an Ignatius fleece hat, Marithe and Francoise Girbaud coat, Lilith skirt, Trippen boots, assorted black bakelite and gold rings, charm necklace, Missoni sunglasses and Maurizio Taiuti shoulder bag. Valerie is wearing a Parkhurst wool hat (which originally came with photos showing five different ways to wear it), felt coat by the much missed Tiiti Tolonen, and leather boots by Frye.

Valerie reports:

Sumptuous Display of Hats of the World at Bergdorf’s

Many thanks to Ellen F. and Tim di Fiore who both alerted us to a fabulous display of headdresses from around the world in the north windows of Bergdorf Goodman (on 58th Street) in New York City.

The hats are from the collection of Stacey Miller. They were VERY hard to photograph in the windows, but I have to show you a few. They came in so many shapes and sizes and colors and materials and from so many social contexts that it would be impossible to do them justice here, either in words or photographs, so do go visit if you can, and if you can’t do that, you can always visit Stacey’s website.

After pressing my nose to the window for ages, like a child, the better to see everything (remember the wonderful Rolling Stones album cover? That’s what I probably looked like – with less stubble, and more gray, of course…), I had a look at the windows on the 5th Avenue side.

There were a few more Stacey Miller headdresses, but my eye was also caught by several Shoes I Cannot Wear (Jean can’t wear them either). They’re shown here, so you can see why I (why most of us???) can’t wear them, but they HAVE to be included, because - well, we’d all wear them if we could.

Check out the scrumptious heel on this one!

And what a great design these have! [Sorry - not clear who the designer(s) is/are.]

Not to be outdone, it looks as though Bergdorf’s window stylist was inspired by Stacey Miller’s collection, and made hats of his or her own.

This one, which looks like stiffened horse hair with painted Keith Haring-like bold black brush strokes, was a devil to photograph - from my perspective, everything caused window reflections. The only good perspective was the face-smushed-against-the-window one, as with the Stacey Miller hats, but I couldn't get my face up that high. (By the way, check out the mannequin's tattoo.)

Fortunately for me, I was dazzled by the same thing at the same time as another gawker/photographer. ‘If only I were two feet taller’ I said to her, whereupon she offered me the photographic services of her 6’4” husband. (The photo above is his handiwork.) I thanked him profusely for being so indulgent, and complimented him on doing such a good job. ‘Not at all’, he replied gallantly. ‘I’m used to it.’

The windows did the job they were supposed to do, and lured me into the store. I stopped on 3, where their artistic director had done the most marvelous job of decorating the walls with little white paper lunch bags, all opened up and attached to the wall at their bases in various configurations, with only their openings facing the viewer. GREAT way to decorate on a small budget, and what a great visual impact. Had they been lit from behind, I would have sworn they were Isamu Noguchi lamps. I wanted very much to photograph them for the blog, but was afraid I'd be chastised by indignant and territorial employees. (Nor would I have blamed them.) There was also a display of large white shopping bags, but there was something very ethereal about the little lunch bags. Hundreds of them were stapled, one to the next, around the middle of the bag, just far enough in that the staples were nearly invisible. My favorite display had chains of 10 paper bags each, with the first and last bag attached to the wall very close together, so the other 8 bulged away from the wall like open fans. Who would have thought it? Full lunch bags are a feast for the tummy; empty lunch bags are a feast for the eye.

Stacey Miller's hats will only be in Bergdorf's windows through Thursday, March 4, so hurry up and see them now.

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Costumes at the Cloisters

In conjunction with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition of stunning medieval illuminations, which opens this week, costume historian Desiree Koslin gave a lecture on medieval dress at The Cloisters on February 28.

But rather than just show wonderful slides, Dr. Koslin gave the audience breathtaking visual aids in the form of some thirty costume festival participants from the city of Nijmegen, the Netherlands, wearing garments of all strata of society based on illustrations of the period. The couple above each wore garlanded headgear.

After the lecture, the lords and ladies and beggars and merchants made their way through the halls of The Cloisters for photo ops. Many were knowledgeable about their costumes, and happy to talk about them. This woman wore wooden clogs, in contrast to the nobles, who wore tapered leather shoes.

To my chagrin, I was never able to find the woman who wore the most extraordinary of all the costumes. Hers was a red silk velvet gown with train and what appeared to be equally long sleeves, lined with faux ermine. (The good citizens of Nijmegen were all quick to point out that any fur they were wearing was faux.) Dr. Koslin said the original gown would have weighed about 50 kilos, and would have required attendants to maneuver about in. I did, however, get a chance to photograph this finely dressed lady, and take a close-up of her golden-horned and bejeweled headdress.

Dr. Koslin noted that green was a difficult color to dye, so this young man's outfit would have been very costly and unusual. And doesn't he have a great hat?!

The illuminations will be on view from March 2 to June 13.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fun Happens

Valerie says:
Isn’t it great about the best laid plans of mice and men? It’s true they do oft go awry, as poet Robert Burns wrote. But what he failed to mention is that your plans can also wind up better than you expected, and without any help from you. This was our experience yesterday, when we took a trip to the (awkwardly named) Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, former stately home (or, more accurately, former stately mansion) of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. We were among a select few lucky enough to score seats for a talk between Laura Mulleavy, one of the two sisters who comprise the renowned Rodarte fashion design house, and Sally Singer, a Vogue features director.

We arrived early, partly to see the small "Quick Take" Rodarte show (in conjunction with Cooper Hewitt’s exhibition of award-winning design), partly to enjoy the Museum at leisure, and partly to ensure that we got good seats. (More than half were papered with RESERVED signs.) Here's Jean on the landing of the sumptuous staircase that goes up to the Rodarte show. The bench is probably long enough for two five foot two Andrew Carnegies to lie down on. Jean is modeling black armings (the arm's version of leggings) with bold white stripes down the center.

While making spectacles of ourselves on the landing, we stopped to chat with Phyllis and Belleruth from Ohio. They said they were in town to visit grandchildren, so we knew they were part of our demographic. We told them that our blog is aimed at women of a certain age. Phyllis told us that she was a part of a group of political volunteers for Obama once called Women of a Certain Rage. We LOVED that. Please don’t steal the name from them. We hope to steal it ourselves at a certain point, so we claim DIBS.

Jean says: Cooper Hewitt's Rodarte exhibit, although small, is beautifully staged. (Photo from the Cooper Hewitt website) My favorite is the final set which recreates a charred, fire-ravaged room with gaps in the walls and floor. The mannequins are dressed in black, romantically wrecked, structured but deconstructed dresses, one with a skirt of what appears to be ribbons of torn woven fabric. Tucked in betwen the cracks in the flooring are examples of their trademark warrior-like, strapped, spiked, platformed footwear.

[My favorite pair (pictured), designed by Nicholas Kirkwood, has extremely thin, tall heels of stacked hardware nuts. The tableau is breathtakingly beautiful.]

The Rodarte interview was a fascinating look into the designer’s mindset. We were surprised to see Laura Mulleavy enter the room dressed in what might be called a subdued Ralph Lauren style, down to the chignon in the back. It’s not de rigeur that designers wear their own clothes – after all, Oscar de la Renta doesn’t present his collection wearing any of his gorgeous gowns, and LOTS of designers make their runway bows wearing tee shirts and jeans. (Is that so as not to draw attention away from their work?) But Rodarte is kind of goth and scary and avant garde and OUT there, so when Laura came out wearing a demure white sweater (which she said she’d bought years ago at Sears), a polka dotted white blouse with a frilled raised collar that framed her jaw, plain dark pants and FLAT, flat shoes, that raised interesting questions for us. Laura’s very smoky eye shadow, in what appeared to be several shades of purplish gray, was the only hint of the vaguely threatening, brooding, highly self-assured fashions that rocketed the sisters to fame in the space of five years.

[Jean says: While I wasn't shocked that neither of the shy, retiring Pasadena-based sisters ever wears their own designs, I was surprised to learn they have no muse and they do not design with a customer in mind. Their approach is totally cerebral. Self-avowed geeks growing up, the sisters (Kate on the left and Laura on the right) were bookish and extremely family-centric, playing with Barbie and paper dolls, rather than interacting with peers. Their critics cite their apparent disconnect with real clothes, as evidenced by Laura's statement in the October 2007 issue of "W" that "Wearability is subjective."

Decay and ruin are recurrent themes. Laura described how their 2007 collection, based on Japanese horror films and ballerinas, used red as splattered blood. Even the flowers were red-tipped. I was thrilled when she also mentioned one of my favorite Korean slasher films, A Tale of Two Sisters. The clothes were burned and sand-papered and otherwise abused. Their last collection was inspired by condors, after a trip to a Death Valley ghost town. That must have created some interesting conversations between Hollywood stylists and starlets at red-carpet time: "But darling, EVERYone this season is wearing something inspired by carrion-eating members of the vulture family."

Rodarte's Fall/Winter 2010/2011 Collection, just shown at New York Fashion Week, was inspired by their October drive from California to Marfa, Texas for a Halloween party. To hear Laura tell it, listening to '50s music, passing through the town of Valentine (with 20 houses and a post office), and seeing all that empty space produced their current vision: a sleepwalker getting dressed in the middle of the night and going to work in a factory ... in pearls. She said she tells friends that the long white gowns are not wedding dresses but rather are nightgowns, and that their grandfather's Mexican heritage is reflected in the floral prints and bright colors. She described some of the fabrics as Depression prints with faded florals in chiffon. I cannot wait to see the photos.]

Valerie: Interestingly, although Laura defined herself as ‘visual’ rather than ‘verbal’, the UC Berkeley graduate answered every question quite articulately. Despite that, however, some of us felt we knew as little about the workings of Rodarte after the interview as we did before it. This probably says more about the mysteries of the creative process than it does about Laura’s willingness to speak about her work, though.

No trip to a museum is ever complete without a trip to a museum shop. [This is so true that there is a book on museum shops]. After all, if you can’t buy a Rodarte gown (or a Picasso, should you be visiting MOMA, or a dinosaur jaw, should you be visiting the American Museum of Natural History), you can mollify yourself with something equally wonderful and far more accessible.

In our pilgrimage around the museum shop, we fell in love with a book with the unlikely title Fashion at the Time of Fascism (edited by Mario Lupano and Alessandra Vaccari), which we must recommend to our readers.

Fifteen hundred fabulous photographs are packed into four hundred pages, and on every page we saw at least one stunningly original, beautifully designed hat, jacket, dress or pair of shoes from the 1922 – 1943 fascist period that we seriously coveted. It’s difficult to imagine how a political movement as oppressive as fascism could have dictated (pun intended) fashion trends, but the authors explain the relationship with very thorough scholarship. (See the blurb in the link above.)

Excited at our find, we later researched the book on line, and to our surprise we also found Fashion Under Fascism by Eugenia Paulicelli, and Nazi Chic? (yes, there’s a question mark in the title) by Irene Guenther. We can’t recommend these yet, not having seen the books themselves, but the social backdrop that gives rise to fashion is always deeper than is apparent to the eye. Despite the horrors of the political atmosphere that gave rise to World War II, all three of these books are probably very interesting and eye-opening. (If you've read any of them, please drop us a line.)

Also while in the museum shop, we had the great good fortune to run into Stacy, wearing a dangerous looking Catherine Malandrino coat, which our photographs unfortunately do not adequately capture. Here are Stacy and Jean, front and back (below). (The yellow sticker on Jean's hat marks her as one of the chosen few to attend the Laura Mulleavy talk.)

The coat is made of a gazillion tiny, shimmering black squares (nylon?), less than an inch in size, each stitched tenuously, end to end (or point to point, really), vertically on black cloth. Because the squares are not sewn down flat, each one reflects at multiple angles (the same concept as sequins). We should have taken a real close-up, but this blurry blown-up detail will have to suffice. We were so NOT surprised when Stacy told us Bill Cunningham had photographed her before she arrived at the Museum. (And we were SO envious!) Looking like some fabulous exotic bird with highly sought-after feathers, she was kind enough to pose for us.

Stacy, who has worked in The Industry (of course!), was also wearing killer heels. We’re used to wearing flats now, but we still remember, every time we see the Stacys around us, what it’s like to swagger, and teeter on the edge (literally and figuratively). SIGH.

After our tour around the museum shop, we had to stop at Cooper Hewitt’s conservatory, not only because the wall-to-wall windows and Gilded Age architecture are stunning, not only because it was a gorgeous day and the window seats afforded a great view of the outside and the garden, but because the window seats are, at the moment, piled high with pillows designed to engage the visitor while providing comfort. We had a long

while soaking up the atmosphere.

We left the Museum for a quick bite to eat at nearby Jackson Hole. We left thinking that would be the end of a lovely day, when who should we pass by on the bench outside the restaurant but Bill himself, in a small knit cap and Michelin Man jacket. (Our photo from the web, by Christopher Peterson) I completely missed him, but Jean with her eagle eye (the same eagle eye that last week spotted Rachel Zoe) picked him out right away. When there was a polite distance between us and Bill, Jean pulled me aside and whispered urgently, between gritted teeth, THAT’S BILL CUNNINGHAM! Of course, we were both stunned that he let us pass him by. MOI?, we thought. NOUS? Well, I said, why don’t you sit down next to him, and I’ll photograph both of you? Jean demurred. Or, I suggested, why don’t we just turn the tables and photograph HIM? [Jean says: Obviously, next time, I'll have to fortify myself with something more substantial than a decaf latte before accosting Bill Cunningham on the street.]

Fate intervened as just then we found ourselves in front of Eleni’s, a new cookie shop on Madison Avenue near 91st Street, and we were transfixed by the fabulous Oscar-themed cookies with frosting portraits of the Academy Award-nominated actresses (and the envelope, please). Here’s what they looked like in the window.

(We thought for sure that one of the employees would chase us away if they saw us photographing, so we snapped this surreptitiously, but everything is on Eleni’s website, where you can get a much better view.

Enraptured, we went inside, and were further delighted to discover that there are cookies shaped like shoes! Be still our beating hearts! (Of course, they all have heels, but we’re accustomed to this unintended kind of exclusion. Age allows us to accept these petty slights with aplomb.) We had a talk with the spirited sales clerks (who LOVE their product), and learned that at the moment, in the Oscar series only the Best Actress cookies are available (16 cookies for $59.50), but there will also be Best Actor and Best Picture cookies – Coming Soon to an Eleni’s Near You! (Downtown readers can go to Chelsea Market.) Eleni’s also makes customized cookies, in case you don’t see what you want in the wide variety of designs in their catalogue. I'd love to be able to say we discovered Eleni's, but her cookies are already recommended by Zagat's, and sold at Neiman Marcus. Just proves we need to get out and about more.

When we finally left Eleni’s, it had gotten cold and dark, and Bill Cunningham had left his lookout post. But no matter. As we all know, the thrill of the chase can be just as sweet as the capture. There should be a cookie for that.

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Jean is wearing a black cashmere batwing ¾ sleeved turtle neck sweater by Inc., white-striped black skunk-style modal fingerless gloves (no tag), Marithe and Francoise Girbaud coat, Brigitte harem pants, Ignatius fleece Shrek hat, black skulls and stars scarf, charm necklace, assorted black Bakelite and gold rings, brass skull and crystal earrings (from East Village jewelry designer extraordinaire Kirsten Hathorne), Missoni sunglasses, Trippen boots and Maurizio Taiuti black Italian leather bag with faux embossed crodile pattern.

Valerie is wearing an unlabeled gray astrakhan hat from a long-gone flea market, gray boiled(?) wool jacket with a million snaps by Jill Anderson, vintage Issey Miyake black leather belt, pieced black leather skirt with cotton tape insets and acrylic ribbed waist labeled MD By from a second hand shop, and black and gray acrylic and suede boots by S Edelman from Century 21. Honorable mention goes to the unseen but by no means unappreciated midnight blue crushed velvet brassiere - the first unmentionable worth mentioning in too long a time. This one is a star for several reasons: 1)(wonder of wonders) it FITS (i.e., it doesn't create bulges); 2) it doesn't have those awful pads that make women look like large-scale molded and pressed Barbies; 3) it's thoughtfully designed all the way around so a less than 10 body can still look good in it. Extra added surprise: it's from Top Shop. Way to go, TS!