Friday, November 21, 2014

Dior's New Look, the Constriction of the Corset, and Fashion on our own Terms

Although I've owned this lovely blazer for a long time, this was the first time I wore it. It had not been my intent to start a walk down the Dior path, but that's what happened.

Boots: Ecco; Skirt, blazer, brooch, earrings, and sunglasses: vintage
After I'd put the outfit together, I was reminded most vividly of Christian Dior's revolutionary New Look of 1947.

See what I mean?

Once I noticed this similarity, of course, I just had to pose for photos in locations that reminded me of the location for that iconic, New Look photo that rocked the fashion world after the austerity of World War II.

And an old dog photo bombing the photo? Even better.

I got all old school model-ly as I posed.

Initially, I planned my outfit as a vehicle for my new (to me) Boucher brooch and earrings ...

... and my new (to me) skirt, with its festive purple flowers.

But once I saw the resemblance to The New Look, I had to try the pose.

It ain't easy! I suppose it would have been easier without a back injury, but, still, my efforts gave me a new admiration for models and their contortions.

Models from the late 40s and 50s had a certain elegant sophistication that is largely gone now. They were young, yes, but their goal was not to look young. It was to look mature, even mysterious -- even when flanked by a most ridiculous dog! That takes skill.

If I'd been aiming for perfect verisimilitude in my slightly New Look-ish outfit, I would have worn a plate/hat thing on my head but, well, no. That's a no to the plate/hat thing.

I did wear appropriate sunglasses though, their shape reminiscent of the precursors to the "cat's eye" glasses that would become so ubiquitous a few years later.

I also saw fit to evoke a little café culture.

After all, the New Look is intimately associated with Paris and its cafes. This was a look to wear to a Parisian café, where one would look marvellously sophisticated, and tres moderne, while discussing fascinating, Parisian ideas with one's lover, or lovers, as the case might be.

It can't have been easy, though. Just look at that woman's waist! I feel pinched and uncomfortable just looking at it.

Take a look at the corsetting and padding involved in achieving the New Look. Squeeze the waist past all comfort, then pad the hips and shoulders to further accentuate that "natural, feminine" waist.

It leaves me wondering why this "new look" wasn't instead dubbed "the old look."  I am by no means the first one to have noticed this return to the painful corset and the "feminine" figure after the more comfortable styles of the 20s, 30s, and early 40s.

Not since before World War I, had women been so cinched and padded.

Many women noticed this at the time and, to this day, this return to older fashions is seen as a harbinger of the socially enforced return to more traditional roles for women. They had stepped up during the war to do "men's work" in factories, offices, everywhere... and now they were expected to happily step back down again, give their jobs to men returning from the war, and resume their "appropriate" women's roles in the home.

Yet, as with any fashion moment, many women felt they must conform. The above article describes the differences between early mannequins and those that conform to the New Look -- and exhorts women to measure up (or down) to the new standards of feminine beauty ...

... which were quite evidently painful.

And yet, soon enough it became the uniform of the euphoric, American housewife, merrily doing housework, cinched to the bone in her corset and crinolines.

Man, I wish a mere soap could make me this happy.

Vacuuming while wearing kitten heels and a variation on the New Look? No problem!

Heck, a proper woman could even mow the lawn in the New Look -- happily, always happily.

The Parisian café culture originally associated with the New Look ...

... gave way to the suburban, American coffee clache. What fun!

Me, I don't need the New Look's pads and corsets to have that hourglass figure now so necessary for fashion. I recently heard a woman on the radio assure listeners that any European model who had lived through World War II was painfully thin, and really did need padding to have the breasts and hips Dior desired for his New Look to work. Food had been severely rationed for years and would continue to be rationed for years to come.

Cloth too had been rationed, which is what had led to the more austere (though lovely) styles of the war. It's really interesting to note that it was not the corsets of the New Look that caused a scandal.

It was the amount of fabric in the New Look that horrified patriotic women everywhere.

Skimping on cloth and living frugally had been something women could do, had to do, to help the war effort. It was unseemly and unpatriotic to display such an opulence of fabric after all that austerity.

Still, the New Look caught on for a decade or more.

So! That's a lot of history in a fashion trend! That may be why I don't often emulate 50s styles, even though they are favourites of retro fashion loving women all over. It's just so fraught.

So, in true Charlotte style, I pick and choose. I'll wear a variation on the New Look but I refuse a corset. I won't even wear one on my wedding day. For one thing, my back couldn't handle it. For another, I just don't believe in corsets, any more than I believe in plastic surgery. I love to look good. I want to look good. But not at the expense of my health or my equally strong desire to help women feel good about their bodies just the way they are.

And yet, I admit, I was not pleased to see my belly in some of these photos. I guess I'm now what some call "thick." I'm a thick woman. Okay. So be it. It's a whole lot better than starving during a war, or cinching myself in so I can't breathe.

Despite all its history, the New Look still has a certain allure and I will enjoy it, in my way.

Its chic, sophisticated femininity does have an enduring appeal. A woman in this look, the original New Look, not the 50s approximation of it, looks like she has things on her mind ...

... deep and clever and passionate things. 

She has an old world charm.

And she looks pretty -- like an artist's muse in 1950s Paris perhaps? 

The male artist, the male designer, the male photographer, imprints his visions on the woman's body, just as Christian Dior did in 1947. Her contorted body is a vehicle for his own self-expressions, his own ideal woman.

Me, I don't want to be the artist's muse. I want to be the artist! My art is my writing. My art is also my fashion expressions, corset free and feminine -- on my terms.

And, if you've been wondering what those tree things are that I'm holding in several of the photos in this post, here's what I created with them: a veritable forest of vintage jewelry. Fashion as art, indeed!

(I'm linking this up to Visible Mondays on Not Dead Yet.)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

#disabilitystyle: Let's make it a thing

Pain face, pain pose
This is quite possibly one of the weirdest shirts I've ever owned, though it might not look that way from afar. It's also one of the most comfortable and is, therefore, a great candidate for what I'm calling Disability Style. If you're able-bodied, you may not think about it, but, if you're disabled and/or suffer from chronic pain, you know all the little and big ways you choose what you wear to accommodate your limitations.

I'm working to start a new hashtag trend: #disabilitystyle. Won't you join me?

Jeans: Reitman's; Hair clip: Stylize; Shirt, boots, brooch, and earrings: vintage; Bracelet: a gift from Beau; Engagement ring: Britton Diamonds; Coloured ring: boutique
Close up, can you see the shirt's odd accordion pleating?  I'm pretty sure it would fit and flatter the curves of any woman from about a 6 to about a size 26; the pleating is that giving. It's also both soft and silky.

I got it from someone selling used clothing on the street and its tag is long gone so I can't tell you what size it is, what fabric, or what brand. I can only tell you that it's fun, comfortable as pyjamas, and I get a lot of compliments on it.

Because it's so comfortable and yet also flattering and even cheerful, it's a good shirt to wear on a bad back day, of which I have many. Of course, my every day is what most would call a bad back day so you can only imagine how much it hurts if even I say it's a bad back day!
A sure sign that my back is hurting particularly badly? I'm pressing my lower back into the wall, as you can see in a few of the photos in this post. It provides just a little relief, temporarily. I call it one of my Pain Poses.

What I notice most about this photo though is my triceps! With many disabilities, the arms take over for the tasks that the back cannot manage. I use my arms for a lot -- walking with the cane, getting in and out of bed, getting on and off the toilet -- and I realize now that it actually shows.

Just imagine what my arms, and the rest of my body, looked like when I was able to weight lift! This little mesomorph was pretty impressive, if I do say so myself. I guess, given all the physical struggles I face, I still am impressive, right? I need to remind myself of that about 1,000 times a day.

In keeping with my need for comfort, I wore these old "granny" boots that I think I got in a free bin somewhere. Such boots used to be part of my standard uniform in the late 80s and early 90s. I wore them with everything -- skirts, dresses, slacks, jeans, shorts. I'd forgotten how comfortable and versatile they are. They are pretty hard for me to lace up with my disability so I don't always bother but I think that can convey a certain insouciance that seems intentional, even when it's not.

Recently, I've noticed that they've come back in style, which is what prompted me to dig in the back of my closet to find mine. All the young gals are wearing them and they too seem to have quickly realized their versatility, wearing them with their many grunge-revival outfits. I wonder if they still call them granny boots.

(Yes, grunge is back. How do you feel about that?)

Naturally, given its pleats, I had to pose in front of this mural of an accordion player. The colours of the mural echo those in the shirt ...

... though the shirt's vibrancy of colour far surpasses that of the mural. I think it's the colours that garner the compliments. It's almost like an acid dream of a lush garden, a place you might want to visit but never quite can in real life, perhaps like that "happy place" you go to in your mind when your pain is bad? Do you have one? I have a few.

It's a shirt that can hold its own amidst a lot of very colourful accessories so I had fun piling on the colour.

All four of these pieces have fun stories behind them. I found the Sherman brooch for $10 at the Salvation Army! If you know Sherman, you know that's about 10% of what you'd usually expect to pay for these sparklers. In "real life," they sparkle like you just can't imagine when seeing a mere photo.

The coloured ring was a present to myself many years ago. I'd had a good job as a college instructor for about a year and, used to being poor, I'd saved quite a lot of money. I talked to a financial advisor to ask for advice and he kept expressing amazement at my good money management skills. I left his office and bought myself this ring for an extravagant $40. It was utterly liberating. I'd been poor for so long! Now that my disability claim has finally been approved, I am again garnering the benefits, quite literally, of the good job I strove so hard to attain.

The bracelet was a Valentine's Day gift from Beau. Pink and green is one my new favourite combos.

And, the engagement ring, well, that got its own post, which you can read here.

I also added a new favourite pair of clip-on earrings, and a casual hair clip that matches the shirt.

Even still, the shirt did not seem overwhelmed by my accessories!

I've never thought of neon green as my colour, but I think it's working ...

What do you think? Do you have any go-to outfits for days when you're just not up to wearing anything "fancy"? If you're physically disabled, how does your disability affect what you wear? If you suffer from chronic pain, what do you wear on those brave, bad pain days when you go out into the world anyway?

I'm trying to start a new hashtag trend: #disabilitystyle. Tell me about yours. Should I make a blog post with photos of you to show the world what disability style can be? Oh do let's!

(I'm linking this up to Visible Mondays on Not Dead Yet.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Remembering I'm Jewish: 40s Fashion and Remembrance Day

I had a lot of fun putting together this early 1940s outfit and doing the photo shoot to go with it. Trying to look authentically of the period was like a game to me. I am almost ashamed to admit that, as I did it, I really forgot the reality of the time period I was emulating. I just thought of 40s glamour and pizazz. 

It was only when I looked at this photo later and saw my eye that I remembered, really remembered: I'm Jewish, well, actually just a tad over half Jewish, and mostly secular, but that sure as hell wouldn't have made any difference to the Nazis. If I actually had been alive in the early 40s, I probably would not have lived to see 1946. 

It is a luxury to forget your ethnicity or race, one that many do not have today, and one that I would not have had in the 1930s and 40s. I decided to release this post for Remembrance Day, because the photos of me in this outfit forced me to remember a part of who I am and the fate that would have befallen me if I had been alive to wear the fashions of World War II.

Let's go ahead and enjoy the clothes and the interior decor. I'm sure such things gave some comfort to those trapped in Europe during World War II. But let's also remember the reality of that war and what it would have meant to each of us if we had been there.

Shoes: Aldo; Dress: Reitman's; Brooch, earrings, handbag, and sunglasses: vintage; Engagement ring: Britton Diamonds; Pinkie ring: my grandmother's engagement ring from 1936
I had a good time trying to make this outfit look as period perfect as I could. During the war, there were rations on virtually everything, including fabric, so hemlines got higher and skirts narrowed to a modest a-line, which didn't require much fabric. It just happened that this style was actually quite attractive. 

It was also fairly practical and functional, especially when paired with lace-up walking shoes, as was often done. As many women worked during the war while the men were away, there was a simplicity and pragmatism to fashions, just as there had been during World War I.

It has been speculated that hairstyles got so high during the war because there wasn't much fabric available for fancy hats. The belief is that women used to wearing nice hats with their outfits got creative with their hair instead.

It is precisely because I am Jewish that my hair so easily duplicates the odd hair trend of the day. It's very curly so just kind of locks itself into the style and stays there. I don't even own hairspray.

If I remember correctly, I built the outfit around this brooch which I think is from the 1940s and is, in my opinion, extremely pretty. War time fashion was not particularly feminine but this little spray of flowers adds a pretty, delicate touch, in a time when pretty things were in very short supply.

For some women, women like me, such things really do brighten a bleak day. I'm sure there were women who felt the same way during the war. Silk stockings, for example, were highly sought after. The soldier who gave them to his gal as a present was a popular soldier indeed.

I was particularly keen to take photos of my outfit in my living room which we (okay, I) have furnished mostly in 1930s style, though many of the pieces are a bit older still. The (faux) Tiffany lamps, for example, were probably out of style by the early 1940s and would have been much more to an older generations' tastes. After the impoverished 1930s and during World War II, it seems likely to me that people would not have been buying all new furnishing but would, instead, have mixed and matched, old and new.

The schoolhouse across the street from me adds even more authenticity, does it not? Please ignore the modern SUV. Verisimilitude can't be achieved completely, not on my budget anyway. Leave it to Spielberg to manage that.

I discovered this 1932 Edward Hopper painting, Room in New York, after I bought my vintage red chair and matching sofa. The similarity between this chair and my own helps confirm my sense that the set was made in the 1930s.

The credenza in the background, with its Art Deco touches, is probably from the 1920s. The radio is a reproduction but a fairly convincing one, I think.

Our overstuffed bookshelves include many books on fashion history, naturally. Notice that the women on these pages are wearing turbans for want of actual hats. 

Speaking of which, when we moved into this house, I mentioned to Beau that we really needed a hat rack. A few nights later, he showed up with this one. He'd found it in an alley.

When we were taking these photos, I wasn't thinking of the war. I had a different narrative in mind. I was imagining that we were a newly wed couple, circa 1943. I would come home and put my hat on the rack ...

... and maybe pose playfully for my new husband ...

... looking, I hope, a bit like Simone de Beauvoir, author of the 1949 feminist bombshell, The Second Sex. 

An intellectual match, my new husband and me, in the early 1940s ...

... with our home strewn with books and papers of Great Intellectual Merit.

My gentle scepticism would challenge him, as any good intellectual likes to be challenged ...

... but my playful good spirit and love would see us through.

What could be sexier than a true meeting of the minds in intellectual Europe? As Shakespeare said, "Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment."

But, of course, there would have been impediment, plenty of impediment. A gentile married to a Jew, in Europe, in the early 40s? That was not a love story likely to go well.

Don't my lips and Kathryn Grayson's look alike in these two photos? Doesn't she look glamorous in her uniform, all ready to entertain the troops stateside? This is a still from the 1943 film Thousands Cheer which was, let's face it, just another propaganda film, glamourizing war and encouraging young lads to join the military. Maybe they'd even get to kiss lips like Grayson's

Of course, this was not the reality of the war at all, not even a little bit.

I posed for this photo pretending to be listening intently and nervously for more news of the war.

But, even then, I didn't really feel the reality I was mimicking, not until I looked at the photos later and saw how Jewish I look, and remembered what that would really have meant.

This is the reality, a marriage made in Heaven, right?

This is the reality, yellow stars and all.

And this. This is Paris, so, even marked as they are, the women are still fashionable. I wonder if they felt some defiance in this: "I may be 'just' a Jew to you, but I still have my dignity."

Even here, the woman in the front has her hair done in the style of the day. Even here.

Of course, such dignities could not be maintained forever, not in the face of shaved heads, starvation, disease, forced labour, and a thousand other degradations of the body and spirit.

But I have read over and over again that, even here, even in the concentration camps, women tried, in their own small ways, to keep just a little sense of self. I wonder if this woman insisted on wearing a scarf, fashionably turban style (and religiously appropriate), before she would allow the photographer to snap pictures of the American soldier tending to her wounds.

I feel sick looking at these photos.

If I had been there, slightly more than half Jewish, and I had been listening to the news, I would have been more than just sickened. I would have been terrified. 

Would I be next? Would I too be rounded up like an animal and sent to a hell of human design?

Of what use would my intellect, my books, my pride, my love, and my finery be to me then? Would all of that come to naught?

One can only put on a brave face for so long.

It does me good to remember this from time to time. It does us all good to remember the reality of war, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. Only if we remember it, really remember it, in our hearts and in our guts, can we ever hope to stop it.

(I'm linking this up with Not Dead Yet, Not Dressed as Lamb, Happiness at Midlife, and Sydney Fashion Hunter.)