The closet: Taking classics to current

I stand, nearing year-end, with a beady eye on my closet. Everything is, as my mother would say, "perfectly good", but is it current?

Sisters, I was served a wake up call, thanks to a stranger.  I was in a shop last week when a woman about my age walked in in a 1980s fur coat, matching fur hat, and patchwork cardigan. She looked very well dressed...for 1990. That was "classic", once, and now it's old-timey as a lorgnette. If she feels good in it still, that's her business, but I don't wish to follow suit.

To consider how to work with what I have, I looked for classic pieces like those I own, worn by women who have a decidedly modern vibe. No weird or unwieldy proportions, nothing short, tight and "cute": adult clothes, skirts at the knee, shoes to walk in.

Photos left, right: The Sartorialist
Left: Turquoise coat over black tank and an at-the-knee knit skirt with appliqué detail; white sneakers. A coat in an unusual colour is an outstanding update; Mom again: "Your coat is the first and last thing people see." White sneakers keep the whole thing casual, you can walk in them, and they're cool. I have the coat for next spring.

Centre: Judi! Ecru! I can't wear beiges but never mind, I wanted a reminder that neutral, tonal palettes always look smart, and admired Dame Judi's supple bag with no visible logo, charms or clunky hardware. (To get around the ever-climbing cost of quality leather goods, try consignments.)

But since I saw the locally-made Casgrain leather bag, which converts from tote to backpack, displayed at Lowell, I am coveting its clean chic:


Right: Classic black/white plaid reefer over black denim and a basic black turtleneck, and then... the red boots. Option: swap in any solid bright, and choose a lower heel, but that coat is much livelier than all-black, my city's default. That's Yasmin Sewell, whom I always find inspiring.
Shown: Vince Camuto Chelsea bootie:



When classic hits the wall

I've written about the generational marker of coordination, and which is still seen in certain sartorial circles. So sometimes I collect What Not to Wear images. All of these shots feature a classic trouser or skirted suit, and the rigorous coordination takes the lead in making them look passé:


Bright coordinates persist in department stores, sold by the same vendors that wonder why they have lost Millenials' business. The jewel tones are harsh, yet often chosen for the camera—they make it hard to look away. For women in public life, that might be the goal—but it's not modern.

Clinton is dressing differently in her post-election life. Now that every outfit is not chosen to telegraph some kind of message, she can wear more sober tones, as she did for an appearance in Montréal this fall:


She wil probably still coordinate her trousers and tops, because the unbroken column elongates her petite figure, but the grey jacquard is far more current than the mans' suit in electric hues.

That hypercoordination gets little play beyond those roles and some mother-of-the-bride outfits, and not by women under middle age. Drop by a pub or coffee shop where young adults gather, and you'll see black-and-white houndstooth with citron yellow; sky blue with taupe and a shot of coral; red with a green-and-pink floral.

You may notice combinations you never thought of, and be warned off any incipient matchiness except for all-black—they do wear that.


Accessories don't save everything... but close

On The Sartorialist, Scott Schuman shoots eccentric colour mixes and pattern, usually on lithe young persons, but also shares his deep knowledge of fabrics, tailoring and fit. Frequent reading has warned me off some mistakes, and fanned my longing for reincarnation as a Milanesa.

"Modern" means neither the shortest or tightest piece you can get away with, nor the trendiest. (Schuman has never photographed a cold-shoulder sweater.)

Below, classic pieces, but each sparked by current, high-quality accessories.

All photos: The Sartorialist

Left: Classic trench in gray plaid with metallic boots and shiny charcoal bag: playing with a tonal palette, but also texture: a master class in detail.

Centre: Menswear checks tweaked by a bold graphic muffler, good sunglasses—and the 'accessory' of a great hair cut. I'm eyeing this should it go on sale:


Right: You might be thinking, What accessories? Look closely and you'll see her big ring, and two bracelets (one, woven cord on her right, the other, a thin bangle). You could wear a mid-scale earring, or even a necklace, if you prefer nothing on your hand or wrist. of All-navy needs a little tarting up, makeup-wise—she has red lipstick—but poppy or a deep wine would work too.
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Most women have more than enough clothes. As Janice of The Vivienne Files once said, "We tire of our clothes before they tire of us." We slip into a rut concerning how we wear them, so a single investment accessory can punch up any number of old favourites.

And, as I consider Fur Coat Lady, I realize that some "classics" have a dated cut that no accessory can modernize. Her sweeping fur could be renovated into a short jacket or vest.


The best, for last

Most of the women on my idea board are smiling, even Theresa May, suffering a grip-and-grin with Vladimir Putin. The open, natural smile is a free, magnificent accessory, so hang on to yours! It will lift and polish anything you choose to wear, and make you feel better, too.

"You don't need a thing", I tell myself, "except for a pair of metallic shoes—but it wouldn't hurt to smile more."












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Jewellery Reno: Mum's emerald had a secret

Miriam inherited her mother's ca. 1940 three-stone diamond and emerald engagement ring. She wanted to reset the emerald as a modern ring she could wear everyday and one day pass it on to her youngest daughter.


Miriam lives several hours from Toronto, so visited a jeweller I recommended, Pam Chandler of Artwork Gallery. Miriam liked their clean, modern pieces, and asked Pam for ideas.
Tip #1: Someone may recommend a jeweller, but it's essential that you like what you see when you visit, which reflects the artist's sensibility. Jewellers design within their style range; avoid one who says he can "make anything".

Two wax models

The jeweller made waxes of a three-stone modern band. This is the process for a cast metal setting, and gives the client and idea of scale and shape.

Left: The first model was an oval, slightly bombé band with rounded edges. Miriam thought this was not exactly it.
Right: Miriam chose the second version, a uniform, knife-edged band, designed to use all the original stones and recycle the 14k yellow gold. (That sapphire and diamond band is an Artwork ring they looked at as an example.)
Tip #2: If the first try is not your ideal ring, ask for more options. You'll want to be entirely happy and this is the stage to get the shape and scale right.


Trouble in paradise!

Though some jewellers set their own stones, often a setter handles this work. And at this stage, Miriam got a shock. When he examined the emerald, the setter found it was a doublet, which is a thin layer of emerald glued to another, far less costly substance, in this case, glass. Emeralds, opals, and other gemstones are sometimes made into doublets in order to lower the cost.

The process is not considered deceptive if the practice is disclosed. These are not fakes (such as glass or other material sold as an emerald); they are assembled gems. Triplets also exist; in this case an additional clear layer is added to the top of the gem, usually glass or clear quartz.

Did Dad know the ring he chose was a doublet? Did Mum? It was treasured—and whether anyone knew is lost to time.

The setter would not reset the doublet because of the risk of shattering. Setting an emerald, always an included stone, takes nerves of steel, and a doublet is even more finicky because the emerald layer is  thin. Miriam had a choice: take the risk (probably with a different setter), or replace the stone.

Pam suggested a green tourmaline, and sent Miriam a shot of it sitting loose in the setting, which was partially completed. Miriam liked this stone.



Tourmaline is fairly tough, but under a microscope this one showed many inclusions; therefore, the setter thought it might not withstand the force of the hammer. (A claw setting is much more accommodating.)
Tip #3: If you are willing to buy another stone, you might take a chance, but I have always respected an expert setter's judgement. There's an axiom that "Any stone can be set; it just depends how", but in this case the setting dictated the stone.

On the hunt for glowing green 

Back to gem shopping! Fortunately, Miriam was in the hands of a jeweller with very high standards and superb taste in stones.

Pam sourced a 5mm chrome diopside, a rich green gem that's slightly softer than tourmaline, but in this protected setting, and with Miriam's loving care, it will be fine. When well-cut, chrome diopside is an exceptionally vivid stone and the colour is natural, never enhanced.

A new and whole stone

Left: Pam sent Miriam a photo of the finished ring; Miriam had one more trip to make into the city!
Right: On Miriam's hand, a beautiful blend of old and new. The ring fits perfectly; the back of the band is slightly flattened to minimize shifting. As Miriam says, her daughter will have the new gem to connect her to her mother, and the diamonds to connect her to her grandmother.


Tip #4: Jewellery restyling is both art and science. If the science doesn't line up—the gem isn't what you supposed, or it is weakened by wear or internal flaws—be prepared to look at replacements. Fortunately, in sizes under about 6mm, there are many bewitching coloured gems at very reasonable prices.

Miriam was delighted not only with her new ring, but with the process, and that's a credit to her equanimity. She learned a good deal about gemstones with this project, and took her time to consider her options. Miriam's doublet could still have another life—it's very pretty—as a clasp, pendant or ring that accommodates its true composition.

Had she preferred the vintage setting, she may never have known its secret. Now she does, and has a story to tell, as well as a new ring to enjoy.










Gifts: Stranger things

I was invited to a birthday party for a woman whom I had once, briefly. Because she was leaving soon for India, I gave her a travel journal. She said, warmly, "Imagine! I got a wonderful present from someone I don't even know!"

I can easily remember some lovely gifts I've been given by near-strangers, and each shows the giver had the grace to go beyond the generic, though I'd always appreciate a box of Baci.

In the window today, gifts for acquaintances, but they may also delight those whom you know well.  This is not the realm of the splashy present, so I have chosen examples under $US 30. (Note: Some items may now be sold, but you can find similar if you scout around.)

I like gifts that are useful and don't take up much space, but also provide pleasure—otherwise everyone would get Tupperware. If you can be briefed ahead on interests, that helps.

Below, two things a woman would likely enjoy unless she a) never makes mistakes, or b) doesn't sleep.


Left: Scented pencil erasers, $7 each by Aster de Vilette at LuckyScent. Maybe not essential, but are they not delightful?
Right: Breathable bamboo sleep mask, about $12 from Lucy & Mabs on Etsy. (The breathable ones make all the difference.) Handy for travel; planes or hotel rooms are often not as dark as a home bedroom.

A small china ring dish holds rings, earrings, keys; I look for handmade pieces that echo the recipient's style.


Left: The Queen Bee ring dish by California ceramic artist Manuela Marina is about $30; I love the motif and luxurious 22k detail.
Right: A vintage deep cobalt ring dish was made in Bavaria; price, about $20 from Etsy seller ClockWorkZoo, based in Vancouver.

Show me a woman past fifty and I will show you a nose that drips more often. Are we not beyond shredded tissues? Find a pure cotton or linen hankie that will look good peeking from a jacket pocket, or pulled out on the street. (Note: Shipping can cost more than the item, or can be reasonable—so your local vintage store is worth a look.)

It's especially thoughtful to give a hankie that fits the season, so she can carry it right away.


Clockwise from top left:
Winter: Pink shellfish! Perfect for those for whom winter means sunny destinations. A witty Swiss cotton hankie; price, $15.
Spring: Circus acrobats balance chairs and umbrellas; a hankie with the sticker still on, by the renowned textile artist Tammis Keefe; price, $20.
Summer: Demure pink with white daisies; price, $10.
Autumn: Vintage fall leaves and acorns in unusual colourway; price, $13.
For vintage pieces, check the condition in the listing.

Homemade gifts 

A delicious treat is always appealing. Though I'm passionate about chocolate, unless I know the recipient adores it too (and what sort), I go to fruit.


One of the very best gifts was given to me many years ago by Marion Kane, the Food Sleuth, whom I knew through my good friends Bob and Merle. She came to my party and said in her British accent: "It is gooooooseberry season!", proffering an exquisite tart that I can taste to this day.

Your gift need not be fancy; Marion has posted a recipe for an easy, excellent yogurt cake.

Gardeners, even casual ones, might make a kokedama, the fashionable Japanese moss ball, which elevates even humble plants like African violet or philodendron to an ornamental arrangement for tabletop or hanging.


I would absolutely adore one of those, in any size.

One last idea, respectful of budgets often stretched this time of year. DIY Pink Salt Foot Scrub uses reasonably-priced ingredients, looks pretty, and soothes winter feet jammed into boots.


Just don't buy that pink salt in a tiny, pretty box at the grocer's; order the big bag from Amazon or a bulk grocer's. (I buy YuPik, by the kilo.) What you don't use for the scrub, use in the kitchen.

The biggest investment is the essential oil but it's not necessary to buy several; just one is fine. If you buy lavender, you can dab the leftover oil on cotton balls to stow amid your woolens, to discourage moths.

If you have gifts that have delighted acquaintances, please tell us! We can use your ideas now and all year round.



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Retirement: The Honey Trap

One of  last summer's isitors, Cindy, talked about her 2018 retirement, and how much income she will need. Coincidentally, LauraH sent a link to useful material for Canadians (including a Wealth Target Calculator), here. (Note: The material is not a sales pitch for financial products, and does promote a book.)

Unless money is no object, those facing retirement should pay close attention to both income and expenses.  The Canadian journalist Peter Trueman once remarked, "We learned it is healthier and easier to live on less than it is to try to earn more."  

Expense reduction is like exercise: you have to find something you like so you'll stick with it. I love to read others' strategies, but I can't do all of them: couponing, thrifting, allottment gardens, bartering, DIY haircuts or colour, renting out a spare room, and more. Only the hardcore frugality bloggers do everything on the list.

Having watched myself and friends for a decade, I realize many expenses are just habits, either of behaviour or of attitude.

The behavioural habits include not attending to home energy use (I dislike equalized payments because they make it too easy to ignore our behaviour), buying too much food (giveaway: a slimy cucumber is a part of the fridgescape), or letting "three-month free" trial offers roll into monthly charges, without really noticing.

The attitudinal habits are tied to identity or ego: the status hairdresser who is like a best friend; the costly destination wedding; the fancy restaurant or pricey concert your friend picks. If you are on a budget and friends are still pulling in dough, you can get caught up in their world.

A particularly fraught corner of that territory is the Honey Wants It trap. Honey (chosen to be gender inclusive) wants his own car, he is "used to his freedom". Honey does not want to downsize the home, or drop her six subscriptions to decor magazines. Honey is still ordering hundreds of dollars worth of wine, (or dietary supplements, fishing gear, cosmetics) even as they accumulate. Honey cherishes the annual trip to Puerto Vallarta on the anniversary of the day you met.

I've had more than one smart and sensible woman tell me, Yes I know how to reduce expenses, but Honey Wants It, and I love Honey. And, Honey can dive-bomb your retirement budget.

Of course you do not want to remove the joy from Honey's life, so pick your battles. Do the numbers and show Honey how the expenses affect the stewardship of limited resources. I say this as someone who convinced her Honey to give up car ownership. It took at least a year of facts, figures and (I hope) gentle pressure, but now you could not give Le Duc a car. (He has a nice bike, though.)

If you don't want to raise the matter with Honey, and you use a financial planner, ask the pro to deliver the news—but you will still have to advocate. Cindy and Sue's advisor showed Sue that rent for their big storage locker would pay for the Puerto Vallarta trip every year. (What was in the locker? Nothing they ever used.) Sue is a mortgage broker, which shows how even someone who works with money can benefit from good advice.

When Honey is a"junker", like my delightful retired neighbour, Rick, the suggestion of cutting back is a hard sell: "I mean, it cost nothing!" But even if the cost per item is low, it adds up when you factor in the fine antique sideboard Rick just bought to hold his scores.

If there's no Honey in the picture, a woman can still be influenced by voices past. Tricia held on to a big house because her late partner Alan was in a way still there with her. One night she realized, He is in my heart, not this house.

Pat struggled to keep her boat, because she treasures her sailing community—her club were her Honeys. When she would talk about selling, they cried, "Oh no; you are the best Commodore we ever had!" She sold when she finished her current term, and now has more invitations to crew than she can accept. She says it is such a joy to have the fun but not the upkeep.

If you hold investments, the cost of their management is another expense. Securities courses are filling to overflow as more women decide to take control of their own portfolios. You need knowledge and a certain temperament to do this and still sleep at night, and I'll be interested in seeing the results among several friends who have embarked on this path.

I also recommend a lighthearted exploration of how, as somebody's Honey, you Trap. I am, of course, Le Duc's, and time was I could Honey Trap him at warp speed; he hated to even ask questions about something I "had to have", let alone say no.

We agreed that significant purchases will be discussed first and we know one another's Achille's Tendon. We're now more mindful of the habitual nature of consumption than when we began retired and semi-retired life.

Honey is sweet, but peace of mind, delicious.




Pearl reno from the heart

When Kojima Company's owner, Sarah Canizzaro, visited Montréal last spring, I gave her my most sentimental strand, which LeDuc was hoping to renovate for my birthday in mid-July. Today, American Thanksgiving, is an apt day to tell the story.

These were the first good pearls I bought, 10mm off-round Chinese freshwaters found twenty years ago for me by a dear friend, Missi, whose expert knowledge came via her Honolulu jeweller father. (They were featured on this post.)


Like Sarah, Missi had interests beyond flawless rounds; she said, "I don't mind seeing where the oyster burped". She'd wear long chandeliers with hiking shorts, but then, this six-foot goddess could pull off anything.

1994, Mt. Shasta, California

As the years passed, I lost my heart to the earthier keshis and baroques. And by the early '00s, I also lost Missi. She adopted a reclusive life, and left behind friends and lovers world-wide. I wore that necklace often, for it was as close as I could come to embracing her.

Before Sarah returned to San Rafael, she asked if I preferred pearls or coloured stones. I chose pearls and requested a rope.

The 60-inch rope arrived on my birthday; I was thrilled! Sarah had added many tiny-to-small akoyas and three large golden baroques. She matched my champagne-toned pearls perfectly, and somehow made them look glowier. The variation among the sections—none is like another—is harmonious; the little akoyas keep the piece light and drapey. LeDuc said he "fabulously loved" it.

Left, knotted (and worn with tin-cup baroque CFWs); top left: the pearls; bottom left, tripled.



Sarah used the original gold clasp; clasps are a make-or-break detail to me— but if you'd wear the piece only as a long rope, not necessary. This one was made by a jeweller pal of Missi's; she said, "Steven gives good toggle."

If your old (but still in good condition) pearls are deeply sentimental, but the style is no longer 'you', you can have a perfect new piece for a modest investment unless you enter the land of (new) precious gemstones.

I love Kojima for both their pearls (every variety, size, colour; many unusual) and dedication to their clients' delight, but you may also have a local jeweller who can do a knockout reno—and if so, you're lucky, because pearls are a world unto themselves.

Do you believe in synchronicity?

Kojima's studio is in Marin Country, near where Missi lived when I first knew her. In the early '80s we sat on a dock at Point Reyes Oyster Company, I in her pearls and she in my turquoise-and-silver bracelets— between visits, we liked to swap jewellery. Missi said, "You should wear pearls; why don't I look for some for you?"

A decade later, she called from a gem show to say, "I found them, but we have to pay by tomorrow. Wire me the money!" When I heard her certainty, I bought them sight unseen. Several months later, she flew to Toronto with the pearls in her pocket.

Now, they have returned from their second trip to Marin County, transformed by a talented artist. Even if that connection is coincidental, they feel wrapped in love.

P.S. to the pearl-lovers: Kojima's annual holiday stale starts early—today, with 18% off and free shipping to customers in the US (and reasonable rates to those beyond its borders.)

Talbot's goes girly: What is this?

When the latest Talbot's catalog arrived, though I only buy their jeans, I flipped through. I had the strangest reaction: grief rose in my chest, tears came, and I felt the intense and particular melancholy that infuses me when I recall lost loved ones.

The layout had carried me back to our family kitchen, in the evening in 1958, this time of year. I saw my sister, Jane, drying dishes. Her back is toward me, and she is wearing these clothes:



These exact pieces are in the catalog, nearly sixty years after she wore them. Though Talbots shows the trousers with block heels, Jane would only have worn Bass Weejuns.  She has been dead for over forty years now, but her wardrobe tumbled from the pages: cardigans, circle pins, flannel full-length trousers.

I saw, on nearly every page, the clothes of women I've lost—my sister, mother, aunts.

The catalog featured so many scalloped hems (skirts, dresses, jackets) that there must have been a design decision to dress grown women like Tricia Nixon in her White House years. Prints feature motifs like penguins, toy soldiers, wreaths, and none of it looks modern whatsoever.

Many women buy Talbot's classics because they can get useful pieces like tees with three-quarter sleeves or pencil skirts that are not too short, and they appreciate the size range. Their jeans stayed high-waisted enough during the years when everything was scarily low-rise; I buy multiples on sale.

But their current fascination with ultra-girly puzzles me. There does not seem to be a garment this season that Talbot's did not ruffle, embroider or gather. The blouse at bottom left is entirely printed with...bows.



I don't mind a small touch of femmy detail (though I don't wear it), but when damn near every piece of outwear from a down vest to a denim jacket is ruffled, what's going on?

Even the more tailored clothes are styled to look time-warped. This sweater is shown with scatter pins:



Could we attribute these clothes to the mood of a country dealing with both interior and exterior troubles, and a growing disparity between rich and poor? France has that too, and I don't see their designers sticking bows on every possible item.

Other American companies have veered toward this sweet stuff.  The Ann Taylor windows I walked by in New York last fall looked like the Swarthmore parent's weekend circa 1964. Are these brands trying to channel a past when post-war prosperity buoyed the garment industry? (Isaac Mizrahi tried the same retro look when he briefly designed for Jones New York, a line that failed spectacularly.)

To be fair, if you wade through the girly gear, you can find a black cashmere v-neck from Talbot's that's austere as Everlane's (but not cut the same).

Opening their catalog was like opening my sister's old Love Pat compact: a whiff, powdery and cloying, of certain feminine image now a half-century old.

I wonder if the Talbot's customer, long told she can count on them for classics, will want to take such a frou-frou trip to the past.




Safe or Smokin': The spark of yellows and oranges

Like many women in the Passage, I rely on super-safe everyday neutrals. Then I see someone in an audacious mix, such as teal trousers and a fuchsia coat, I think, What happened to me?

Two colours, pungent yellow and juicy orange, are especially current. Grown women rightly fear looking like a walking fire hydrant, but these hues are smokin' from the first glance, especially when you add a second or third intense colour.

Today's windows are an advanced class in fearlessly working yellow and orange. If you prefer a smolder to smoke, they also spark your favourite neutrals; I can't believe how sharp mustard looks with any grey.

Key piece: Six-ply Cashmere slouchy polo; Brora; price, £595
Expensive! The bad news: The yellows look ghastly in average yarns.


Co-stars: A duet of intense colours to stand up to that swipe of mustard:
Forest green velvet pants; Boden, $120
Shoes: Etta red-orange ankle boot; Boden, $120

Key piece:
Turquoise washed velvet jean, Pure Collection, $145




Co-stars: Yes, you do need to treat that shoe with TLC! The sweater will also revive neutrals.
Citron suede day heel; Everlane, $145. If you can't wear yellow near your face, put it on your foot!
Blackforest wool Imogen sweater;  Boden, $130.


Key piece: Tangerine poly a-line skirt with frills; COS, $115
Normally I avoid frills anywhere, but this is—if such a thing exists—a strict frill.




Co-stars: The classic sweater in a novel shade; a scarf in an enchanting colourway. See it close-up!
Cashmere short-sleeved pullover in Fiesta Purple; Eric Bompard, €100 (sale price to Nov. 26)
Silk "Ophelia" scarf'; Liberty, £195

You can shift the colour wheel to blues or greens if you don't like yellow or orange—as long as they're not too pale to register a pulse.

How you wear an audacious key piece depends on your colour capacity, and there is no "right". If you don't usually pile on intense hues, try at least one piece in the current citron-to-signal-orange and you will immediately feel its energy and exuberance.

Are you daring or sparing, when it comes to the most vibrant tones on the color wheel? Are you cozying up to more colour, or committed to the neutral playbook? Have your colour choices changed with time?