Tuesday, September 27, 2011


As sweater season approaches three designers who transformed knits into runway hits come to mind. Every fashionista is familiar with Missoni’s knock-em-dead zigzags and Ralph Lauren’s floor-length turtleneck dresses. Those of you who have been following fashion trends from the 60s will remember Sonia Rykiel of the snazzy striped sweaters and clingy dresses. Also designer of the Poor Boy Sweater, Rykiel was the first to put seams on the outside of garments. Love that look. Rykiel was dubbed the “queen of knits,” but it was Coco Chanel (above left) who created the turning point for knitwear when she used jersey to create suits for women way back in 1916. Prior to Mademoiselle Chanel’s stroke of genius, jersey was designated to the pedestrian role of men’s underwear.

As I delved into where and when knits originated, I realized I was diving in deep. Knits are a lot of ground to cover in one post. Knits existed as early as 300 BCE when the Paracas and Nazca cultures of Peru were knitting hats and shawls. Also among the oldest samples of single-needle knitting are the patterned sandal socks of the Coptic Christians of Egypt in the 4th century CE. The earliest knitted items in Europe we know of were made by Muslim knitters employed by Spanish Christian royal families. Among them is a pair of knitted gloves, which were found in the tomb of Prince Fernando de la Cerda, who died in 1275. Archaeological finds and tax lists from medieval cities in Europe and England show the spread of the popularity of knitted goods from the 14th century onwards. By the 1400s, there were knitting guilds all over Europe and by the mid-16th century, stockings had become somewhat of an undercover fashion statement for women. Eleanora de Toledo, wife of Cosimo de Medici, was buried in a pair of lacy, red silk stockings. Queen Elizabeth 1 of England (1533-1603) also favored silk stockings. Needless to say, Her Majesty’s were custom knitted for her.

I won’t linger on stockings, which were, incidentally, worn by both men and women during those times. So, let’s move onto the sweater, that garment we take so much for granted. The first information I found on sweaters was in the 17th and 18th centuries when knitting had become such a huge cottage industry in the Scottish Isles that entire families were involved in making sweaters among other forms of knitwear. It is the Scots to whom we owe the colorful and elaborately patterned Fair Isle sweater, which was a staple garment of Scottish fishermen. Off the west coast of Ireland, the wives of the fishermen of the Aran Islands were also knitting away to keep their men warm while at sea. If you own a genuine hand-knitted Aran sweater you know you paid considerably more than you would have for the manufactured version, because machines can’t reproduce many of the complex patterns found in the hand-knitted Aran sweaters. But did you know many of the traditional stitch patterns have a special meaning? For example, the honeycomb pattern is the symbol of the hard-working bee; the cable pattern is for safety and good luck and the diamond pattern is a wish for success and wealth. Nice to know if you’re planning on giving someone a sweater.

I have a navy blue cardigan, which I never gave more than a minute’s thought until writing this post. Next time I slip it on, I’ll think of James Thomas Brudenell 7th Earl of Cardigan who is remembered for two things, the first being his incompetence as a military officer. History buffs are no doubt aware it was Brudenell who led the doomed cavalry assault in the Crimean War, which Tennyson eulogized in his poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” During the Crimean campaign, Brudenell and his officers wore a buttoned-up sweater coat that became known as a cardigan. It's true the cardigan was around before then. During the 17th century, it was popular with fishermen of the British Isles and also in France. But it was the 7th Earl of Cardigan to whom we owe its lasting popularity. We can forgive old Tom a military blunder or two can’t we?

Hollywood stars Lana Turner “The Sweater Girl” and Jane Russell transformed the sweater into a sizzling hot fashion look in the 1940s and 50s.

Under it all, the bullet bra.

Check out Missoni's 2011 Fall Winter Collection plus a fashion show from the 50s.


Will be back mid month with the next post, so please drop by again.
And please share or Google+1 if you like my blog.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Why They Called Me Imelda

There was a time when I had what you might call a shoe fetish, though mine paled in comparison to Imelda Marcos’ addiction. Accounts vary, but the former first lady of the Philippines is reputed to have owned more than 5,000 pairs of shoes. Certainly it is a fact 2,700 pairs of her shoes were left behind in Malacanang Palace when the Marcos couple fled their country. While under attack for such mind-boggling excess, Mrs. Marcos claimed in defense, “I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes, I had one thousand and sixty.” Okay then.

I admit to once having around one hundred pairs of shoes. Miniscule though my collection was compared to Mrs. Marcos’, it was large enough for friends to fondly bestow the nickname of Imelda upon me. In lieu of the real thing, they gifted me with scores of shoe collectibles, ranging from exquisite ceramic replicas to a pair of salt and pepper shakers. Shoe cards, shoe calendars, shoe soaps, shoe tee shirts and shoe everything else you can imagine were added to the collection over the years. Now safely stored in my garage (because I no longer have shelf space for them) they’ve become as much of my past as my shoe shopping binges. Also tucked away in a safe place, is the farewell card from my last place of employment. Dominating the front of the card is a life-size painting of a sandal. As you might guess, there’s a story there….and here it is: the shoe addict will stop at nothing to find a shoe they want, need, AND MUST HAVE in their size. The dear friend who indulged me by accompanying me on this quest will remember the search that took us from one end of Miami to the other, desperately seeking the pair of shocking pink sandals, now immortalized on a goodbye card.

But back to Imelda Marcos. Having once been a shoe addict, I have a sense of what drove her to such extremes. For the shoe addict, shoes are more than attire for your feet, more than the component of an outfit. Shoes are Cinderella’s glass slippers. They are Dorothy’s ruby slippers, one pair of which sold for $15,000 in an MGM auction and are now on permanent exhibition at Washington’s Smithsonian Institute. Another pair was originally owned by Roberta Bauman from Tennessee. This pair was sold by Christie’s for $150,000 in 1998. A third pair of the ruby slippers were auctioned, again by Christie’s, for $666,000 on May 24, 2000.

No shoe collector would be surprised at such a sum being laid out for the pair of shoes that are among the most treasured and valuable of all film memorabilia. I confess I would die to own the ruby slippers. But more precious by far are the shoes my mother wore when I was a young child. I remember a pair of bottle green suede pumps in particular. Perhaps my lust for shoes began on the day I sneaked my four-year-old feet into them and wobbled precariously across the floor. I've come back full circle to that day. Walking in high heels has become a precarious undertaking. And yet, I confess to recently yielding to the temptation of a pair of black patent leather pumps with impossibly high heels. I knew I’d never wear them, but I couldn’t bring myself to return them. One day, I removed them from their box and placed them on the top shelf of my desk. After a few months, someone asked what on earth they were doing there. How would I have explained what only a shoe addict would have understood?
Platform shoes made yet another comeback in 2011, but did you know they date back to the 16th century when the courtesans of Venice wore them to protect their feet from dirty streets? The style was called the "Chopine" back then and they were sometimes as high as 20.” Ouch. Think even Lady Gaga couldn’t walk a block in those babies.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Who wears the pants around here?

This morning, I got out of bed and mindlessly pulled on a pair of jeans. Since I live in the country and am semi- retired, a pair of jeans usually covers any situation a country girl might encounter during a humdrum day. I have a few famous women to thank for my no-brainer decision on what to wear - Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn being the first that come to mind.

But before I talk about some of the women to whom we owe the wonderful freedom of pants, let me tell you how my day started. My first task (after downing a cup of coffee) was to go on a hunt for my cat, Sam, who is sick and on a medication avoidance vigil. I found the king of my little jungle positioned safely under a shrub, which he knows I couldn’t crawl under, not even on a wish. As I write this, he is still in his safe place, waiting patiently for me to forget the whole nasty business of shoving a vial of antibiotics between his feline fangs. You’ll soon see who wears the pants around here, Sam.

Medicating Sam is nothing short of an Amazonian feat,which brings me to something I discovered about the Amazons that has some bearing on the subject of pants. There’s an Ancient Greek vase in the British Museum upon which is painted an Amazon wearing…you guessed it…pants. This vase is dated 470 BC. Whether the Amazons existed is a subject of debate, however, here’s food for thought. According to Wikipedia, “Trousers first enter recorded history in the 6th century BCE, with the appearance of horse-riding Iranian peoples in Greek ethnography. At this time, not only the Persians, but also allied Central Asian peoples such as the Bactrians, Armenians, and the Tigraxauda Scythians are known to have worn them. Trousers are believed to have been worn by both sexes among these early users.”

Moving fast-forward into the 20th century AD,we see the emergence of pants as popular female attire. Although I couldn’t find a photo of Bette Davis in pants, she was among the vanguard of Hollywood stars who transformed what had been the exclusive domain of men into a fashion statement for women during the 1930s. However, showing up at functions in menswear wasn’t the only way in which Davis was a pioneer. She was the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute and the first person of either sex to receive ten Academy Award nominations for acting. Other women who dared to wear pants at a time when such a thing was sure to raise eyebrows were Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich who appeared in her signature men's suits on and off screen.
But were these famous movie stars the first modern women to break through the barrier that divided men and women’s clothing? I think not as I recall a story my grandmother once told me. She was invited to a dance and could not afford a gown. Determined not to miss the event, she borrowed a suit from a friend’s brother and went dressed as a man. This took place before Grandpa started courting her. I don’t remember the exact year they married (after a long courtship), but my mother, their first child, was born in 1922. I can therefore safely say Grandma arrived at that dance dressed in men’s clothing quite some time before the dawn of the year 1920, considerably more than a decade before Dietrich set the stage for men’s-style suits.

It would be remiss of me to omit the pit brow girls who scandalized mid 19th century English society by wearing pants for their work at the Wigan coal mines. The pit brow girls weren’t the only 19th century women to break the rules where fashion was concerned. Here on the other side of the Atlantic, the cowgirls were also wearing trousers as they rode the ranches of the American West. Thanks to these women who paved the way for us, we have our pick of pants, from the flowing harem style to skin-tight jeans. They’re available in every imaginable fabric from linen to metallic lycra. And what about shorts, you ask? Well, that’s another story. I’ll save that one until summer.

Do you know how much Dorothy's ruby slippers sold for at a Christie's auction in 2000? I'll be writing about that and more in my mid-month post, so please come back and visit.

Elle Magazine’s pants line-up for Fall:

The new men’s look trend at Net a Porter: