Thursday, December 22, 2011

Winter wardrobe: Chilly cutie seeks cozy companion

After a record warm early winter here, the mid-December thermometer heads for the minuses (Celsius) for months.

I refuse to squawk about winter, inspired by Maya Angelou, who said:
"If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude. Don't complain."

You have to dress for it, is all. Several lighter layers insulate best, as any mountain climber knows. Say what you will for fleece, it doesn't make me purr. Cashmere, merino, alpaca, down: now you're talking.

Get it with the cream!
It lifts the spirits to wear a grace note. I'm not showing the things below to buy, especially, but to offer a short list of the winter-easers. Like hot chocolate with whipped cream, they are indulgences that make the difference between soggy and snuggly. (Who wants a glass of cold water when hot chocolate is offered?)

Someone may be thinking, Well, the ultimate indulgence is a plane ticket to Aruba, but, as a northern person, I find pronounced pleasure in a sunny, crispy winter day.
In the snood for love

British designer Louise Gray has designed a capsule collection for Brora, and though a costly collaboration indeed, this snood is a gorgeous thing. Price £160. And you get to say, "Oh my dear, where have I put my snood?", which is worth a few bob in itself.

Nice legs, man

Cashmere legwarmers! Golightly Cashmere's come in vibrant colours like Young Plum or Eversogreen, and are made to order in regular or extra large; price, $225. This is a weird photo; who wears legwarmers over bare legs, and isn't that a guy?

Fair Isle patterns always make me feel a star happier. I bought this from Lands End:
Cheery cherry turtleneck

They also sell a handsome pair of navy and red Fair Isle-patterned cashmere gloves. There's a matching watch cap and scarf, too.

Puff muffs
My love for earmuffs endures; I have ultrafluffs from Shepherd's Flock at hand. You can't shop online, but the service is fast and personal, and these are unabashed beauts. The leather-band model is $23 plus shipping.

Superior slips
Also on my list: silk long underwear, leakproof boots, pocket handwarmers. A stash of Lindt truffles, down mittens, LL Bean sheepskin slippers, a bottle of brandy.

What takes the sting out of sub-zero for you?


Merry Christmas and
Happy New Year! 

The Passage closes after this post until January 2, 2012

I wish you a happy holiday, spent with those you love, amid the gifts of companionship and reflective, peaceful solitude.

Thank you for passing by; I look forward to seeing you soon.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Why personal style hasn't changed: Kurt Andersen's analysis

Illustration by James Taylor courtesy of Vanity Fair's web site
Kurt Andersen's Vanity Fair piece, "You Say You Want a Devolution" attracted avid attention, including a hat-tip from Cathy Horyn, whose own NYT article, "Just Getting On With It" is also worth your time.

Horyn quotes Kurt Lagerfeld advocating "dressing up in jewels" while the Duchess of Cambridge chose a $100 Zara number. O tempora! O mores!

Andersen's thesis: "The world may have changed profoundly in the last 20 years, but stylistically the recent past looks almost identical to the present." For example, clothes in photos from the 1950s look entirely different from those of  the 1970s, but '90's and now? Nearly indiscernible.

He calls the present a Been There Done That Mashup Age, caused by our limited capacity to absorb change on every front. Modernity eyes are bigger than the modernity stomach and all our space has been taken up by technology innovation.

I've been annoyed for awhile that items I wore thirty or forty years ago are trotted out as trends, but unlike Andersen, am less eager for the appearance of the Radical New as far as style goes.

The Radical New is expensive, as I recall from the days when styles changed markedly every few years. Shoulder pads were in, then out; your jacket would not hang right, all your skirts needed to be shortened this minute.

And Radical New on a woman who is not so new herself can look victimy if one is not in firm possession of a personal style syllabus.

Montreal's Souk@Sat event
At the other end of the consumer spectrum are the craft shows now ubiquitous as fairy lights in Montreal.

(Some carefully avoid the c-word, summoning as it does the image of a horde of middle-aged women swarming stalls of felted scarves.) I've visited several, and found high levels of design, even innovation, and reasonable prices. 

The shows are packed with young couples hauling unsteady toddlers, looking to buy locally, to form a relationship that they hope ennobles consumption, if only a little. We many not need soaps that look like cupcakes, but it's pleasant to buy them from a chipper young man who made them over his  summer vacation. They are heavy on reverence for the past: letterpress coasters, home canning, birch bark lamps, upcycled knitted collars.

At one of these shows, I saw a 20ish vendor in a below-the-knee tartan pleated skirt, with a striped vest. I paused to enjoy her colour sense, then thought, You just don't see those pleated wool skirts anymore. I imagined her combing racks at a jumble sale. She looked utterly individual, standing out in a sea of skinny-jeans-and-tall-boots.

She illustrated Andersen's point: the new personal style is formed by recycling the old, these days.

Andersen fears we are losing our edge, that nostalgia and steampunk will clobber our creative energy for making the fresh, the fantastic, the next great thing.

I say, fine. Unemployment is still cringingly high (especially among youth and post-50 workers), families are digging out of debt, the economy falters. How many 40% off and free shipping offers are in your inbox?

Let's continue to borrow from the past without guilt, to wear our coats longer, carry a cloth tote instead of an It Bag, resist the trill of the fashion timer.

There is room for the innovative, always, but the Radical New will not have dominion over women's dreams until more of us are working again, or feeling safer about our savings.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tidings of comfort and joy

If you celebrate Christmas, there is always a moment when the season grabs your heart, when you float without resistance into the glow of goodwill and festivity.

One day, we might have a grandchild!
For me, the moment came when I saw a little wooden tree made entirely of two-inch drawers, each drawer numbered, in a shop window. This was a perpetual advent calendar. You slip a chocolate or candy into each drawer, and a child learns how to count down to The Day.

The item reminded me of the many glittery advent calendars I bought for my sons, and how excited they'd be (little eager fingers!) when the windows grew larger as Christmas Eve approached.

I wanted that wooden calendar, even though my sons are too old, and I have no grandchildren.

My friend Susan came for a three-day visit and said that for her, the moment came when she heard "Baby, It's Cold Outside" for the first time in December. (She likes the Dianne Reeves/Lou Rawls version.)

Another friend waits till this week and watches "Love Actually" while drinking hot cider.

Other harbingers include lots stacked with trees; their fresh-cut piney smell is Eau de Holiday. 

Torchlight parade on Mt.-Royal
And pannetone (ours studded with marron glacé); the donations my friends and I make in lieu of gifts, each choosing her cause; the arrival of the first (but dwindling) card in the post.

In my new city: torchlit parades, a flurry of funky craft shows; concerts like Rufus and Martha Wainwright and family's "A Not So Silent Night", which we saw on Sunday, the array of Bûche de Noël on tempting display in the bakeries.

Bûche
Let it snow!
And snow! I took this photo a few minutes ago on our balcony; can you see the flakes on my sweater? The Christmases of my childhood were white, and I love them still. 

This is the first year that the family will be separated on Christmas. Jules, who is managing his heart condition ably, has a new job and a new future, at a recently-opened butcher shop whose mission is the promotion of local food. He's learning the trade and enjoying both the work and the staff's camaraderie. We'll see him in January, after the rush is over. 

Because of his absence, I'd thought I might just slip past the holiday cheer, but no: I'm into it.

What puts you in the spirit? I would love to know and your spirit will add to mine!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gifts: Panic-proof presents

I don't think a gift can be too small, or that money spent equals a great gift.  (See my post from last holiday season on hand-and-homemade gifts that cost little, and see the comments, too!)

For fear of too much/too little/getting it wrong, some of us, who know we are going to give a gift anyway, delay. Then it's the lacklustre gift basket stuffed with odds and sods, few of which are very good. I once read a funny piece about Christmas gifts from the 7-Eleven, but we can do better.

Where to go when panic strikes? My nominations for Best Last-Minute Gifts (Adult Division), below. Options given for your local vendor or the big names, who pack professionally, gift wrap and offer express delivery.
Zyliss silicone spatula

1. Buy fresh new essentials from your local kitchenware boutique or an online seller like Williams Sonoma.

Most of us let our housewares get grungy, and new ones are far down the replacement list.

Grab a handful of spiffy implements, a cutting board or good paring knife; throw in a linen dishtowel. Stay away from weird-flavoured oils and overpriced dish detergent in scents like gingerbread.



Get down!
2. In northern climates. something down.

You cannot have too much down in a cold snap, and if you take that to hea(r)t this minute and get fast shipping, you could score a snuggly Land's End Flannel Lined Down Robe  (Price, $150.) It's hiding in the mens' section but an be worn by women too. Love the northwoods vibe.


Moroccan stuffed apricots

3. Nibblies, sweet or savoury

Here is a terrific assortment of easy, tasty appetizers; choose one or two to  make the day before, or in the morning, and deliver to a friend. Yes, you need to buy the ingredients, but there is nothing that a dash to your nearly-always-open market can't handle. (The stuffed apricots pictured are TDF!)


Brooks Brothers shoe horn
4. Personal grooming gear par excellence

Bet you thought I was going to suggest a spa gift certificate. If you know someone has a favourite place and treatment, okay– but then you are not panicked.

Think beyond fragrance or makeup to find those finely-crafted items that are useful, but also a treat: A real horn shoe horn, a German nail-clipper, a lighted vanity mirror, or for big budgets, a luxe washable cashmere blanket.

Drop by your local haberdashery, best drugstore or salon, or follow the links to online vendors.

High quality pillows
 5. Sweetest dreams

I love to sleep on good pillows and they've always been happily received as gifts.

A little knowledge of sleeping habits helps; a peek in the bedroom will reveal whether you're buying standard or a larger size. If unsure, a small boudoir pillow is a pretty treat for madame, especially if offered in a charming case.

Go to your nearest department or linen store, or order online from Garnet Hill or other vendors with fast shipping. Price, $50 and up.


6. Bacon, beloved of boys

Oink!
Carnivores, especially males, lose their stuff over a smoky slab. If you have a major 'vore to enchant, consider Bacon of the Month Club. (Price, $99-189.)

Zingerman's, the online purveyor of fine foods, offer three-month or six-month shipments. And you don't even want to know about their Forbidden Foods Club.

You could design your own version, making the faithful deliveries yourself. A friend did this with Cheesecake of the Month for her daughter and son in law.


7. Naughty is nice

Hello, kitty!
A lace headband and/or eyemask: Why not be the aunt who gives something not really, uh, sporty? Or the lover? These accessories are available from aptly-named eBay seller just4fungifts and you can get express shipping. I've also seen these at local craft shows, scooped up by young women who plan to wear them to New Years' Eve parties, concerts or just because they can.

If I have saved one person from receiving a drab gift card, my work on this planet is finished. You might also file these ideas for other occasions, as they are not especially Christmas-centric.

PS. Back for another year: Here's my Spiced Nut recipe, which knocks it out of the tree lot: quick, delicious, luxurious and so easy that you can make it with a child.

Spiced Walnuts
(adapted from New York Times Sunday Magazine)

1 pound walnut halves
(or pecans, or skinned hazlenuts)
1/3 cup dark-brown sugar
2/3 cup white granulated sugar
1 tsp kos
her salt
Generous pinch cayenne pepper

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/8 tsp cardamom


1 egg white,
room temperature
1 tbsp water


Preheat oven to 300F.
Mix sugars, salt, cayenne, cardamom and cinnamon; set aside.


Beat egg white and water until frothy but not stiff. Add nuts, stir to coat evenly. Sprinkle nuts with sugar mixture, toss till evenly coated.

Spread sugared nuts in a single layer on parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake for 30 min, stirring occasionally.


Remove from oven and separate nuts as they cool. When completely cool, pour nuts into a bow
l, breaking up any pieces that stick together.

Package in a mason jar, or make a paper cone.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Oprah and "what men don't get": Caitlin Flanagan

Caitlin Flanagan wrote about Oprah Winfrey in the December issue of Atlantic Monthly (available online as "The Glory of Oprah"). 

The piece begins with the elegiac final shows, traverses Winfrey's horrendous childhood, then catalogs her soft spots (dogs, candles, reunions) and aversions (domestic violence, inequality). Flanagan hits all the notes, including Winfrey's notable grandstanding. 

Oprah: Finding a way
Near the end, Flanagan summarizes Winfrey's contribution, the establishment of a  cultural edifice for her vision of the feminine psyche.

The Oprah Winfrey Show was its hodge-podgy portal for a disconcerting mix: domesticity/danger; social justice/bras; Beyoncé/Maya Angelou, darkness leavened with froth, because Oprah has a mission, to make things better, especially (but not exclusively) for girls and women. A scholarship, a find-a-child-molester-in-hiding hotline, a Nate Berkus bedroom: there is a way out of hell.

Flanagan writes:  

"There are certain things about women that men will never understand, in part because they have no interest in understanding them. They will never know how deeply we care about our houses–what a large role they play in our dreams for ourselves, how unhappy their shortcomings make us. 

Men think they understand the way our physical beauty–or lack of it, or assaults on it from age or extra weight–preys on our minds, but they don't fully grasp the significance these things have for us. 

Nor can they understand the way physical comforts or simple luxuries–the fresh towel or the fat new cake of soap–can lift our spirits. And they will never know how much of our lives have been shaped around the fear of bad men and the harm they can bring us if we're not careful, if we're not banded together, if we're not telling one another what to watch out for, what we've learned.

We need each other's counsel, and oftentimes it comes when we're talking about other things, when we seem not to have much important on our minds at all."


Not all of Flanagan's "certain things" resonated; to generalize as much as Flanagan has, I say most men 'get' more than she thinks and are equally appalled by violence and injustice.

I began to ponder: Are there other "certain things" that I would list?
My list-in-progress:
1. A small act can have great repercussions for me, and I'm not "over-reacting"
2. Yes, this pair of black shoes is different from the other four pairs
3. I don't view everything as a competition, at least not against other persons.

Then I began to run dry, because many things I thought of as differences relate to values or upbringing, not gender. Some men do not 'get' the absolute importance of my children to me, but I know women who don't 'get' it either.  There are women who care far more about sports than I do, men who are more clothes-conscious.

Women do not get some things about men, either; we consistently underestimate their need to demonstrate competence—and to receive appreciation for it—and we don't acknowledge how much men, too, need support for life's  reversals.

Besides, if men fully understood everything about us, maybe they wouldn't find us such fascinating company.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Gifts: How to buy intimates

This post is for men, or anyone with trepidation about buying intimate wear for a woman. 

Women who enjoy lingerie and its more proper cousin, sleepwear, are delighted to receive dainties, if well-chosen. So before you swipe your credit card, a few tips:

1. Bras 101: Even va-voom has to fit.

Guys, guys, guys: size counts. Her size, that is.

A bra fits in three dimensions; it's a tricky purchase even for us. To get it right, peek at the tags, ask her sister, anything but flapping your hands around the saleswoman's torso, saying, "Pretty much your size, but bigger".

You'll give the gift that keeps giving back... but only if she wears it. You safest option is to pick a beautiful bra and panty* in a brand she buys. Notice whether she wears full or demi-cups, push up, padded. Buy from a shop that allows exchanges and has extensive stock.


Lace is very pretty, but an all-lace bra in larger cup sizes is not very supportive, so chose lace that's applied over the cup, or lace trim, as shown in the photo provided for instructional purposes. Shown, Prima Donna Deauville underwire bra, in Cherry Punch, $119 from A Brief Affair.

If a peek in her drawer reveals only beige and black, avoid wild colours, but navy is a chic choice for a neutral-loving woman.

*Always buy the matching panty. If the bra is black, you're right, she probably has something to wear with it, but go ahead anyway. A beautiful bra without the matching panty is like a golf ball without a tee.


2. Too sexy can be unsexy, but not-sexy can be very sexy.


Some women would feel self-conscious and unhappy in the Prima Donna bra, but flirty in German flannel pjs from Garnet Hill. Hint: if she is sleeping now in the "Property of Wayne County Athletic Dept." t-shirt that your son left behind, the flannel could be the better choice.

Nothing with a drawstring waist, kiddie patterns (cows, teddies, football logos) or writing across the seat.

We also like pretty things we can actually wash. I love Hanro for this reason. If you're in rugged winter climate, their non-scratchy woolies with lace trim will be coveted. (Price, $155 from Garnet Hill.)

Hanro make high-quality lingerie for all climates. Don't forget that point about the bra and panty: same for a cami.  (But you can give just panties. Don't ask why.)


Above, Hanro Kiss camisole and bikini brief  from Neiman Marcus.


3. Look for luxurious natural materials.

We appreciate your diligence, but you can put down that Victoria's Secret catalog. Think of the seductive luxury of other eras: velvet, satin, fine combed cottons.

Silk, which most men equate with sensual delight, is delicate for bras and panties that could actually be worn and is hard to care for, but in heavier weights like charmeuse, makes a divine gown, chemise or robe.

A lavish robe, long or short, is better for those of us with mature figures than a teensy bustier or a corset, unless you know she wants one.


It's hard to go wrong at Nancy Meyer. Arlotta's long cashmere robe ($498) lets you off the hook re precise fit (sizes XS-L) yet still delivers that Oooooh Factor.


4. Don't get us anything called "shapewear".

We buy this for ourselves; we'd rather you think we don't need it. Instead, choose a pretty chemise, which is a luxurious item that has nothing to do with control. 


The Natori lace-top chemise (aka "slip") suggests that what lies beneath is perfect as it is. (From Neiman Marcus; price, $80 on sale.)

5. Not every woman is a standard size. Don't think that beautiful lingerie is off-limits to the plus-sized siren or the women with a mastectomy. 

Web sites like Oola (international shipping) offer many tempting choices for large-sized women; the Floreale embriodered bra and panty are but one example.


DiMurini make exquisite lingerie; the woman who's had breast surgery can have a bra every bit as opulent after as before.



The Rowena bra is £55; the matching brief, £25.



Don't forget the elder. She wants to feel pretty, but grannies do not necessarily want a granny nightgown. Look for graceful styles like this Calida Egyptian cotton knit gown, which slips on without buttons. In sizing up to 18; price, $75 from Vermont Country Store.


6. Don't wonder why something so tiny costs so much.

You can economize by watching for a sale, don't cut corners on quality. Cheap lingerie scratches, loses shape and looks ratty after a few months. Better to buy an Egyptian cotton chemise than a gown and robe of sub-par poly.



You can find some treasures trolling Etsy, but look for new rather than vintage or upcycled materials. This cotton jersey Black Retro Bra Top by seller NaughtyNaughtyLingerie rocks, and it's only $35 (plus shipping); matching boyshorts panty, $18.50. 


Finally, if you do decide to go with a provocative choice, think about where you will present it. My friend Jo was mortified to pull a certain piece out of its box in front of her in-laws. That sort of item is best presented in the place for which it is destined, the boudoir, accompanied by champagne and your solicitous assistance in trying it on. (Shown, Agent Provocateur Maggie playsuit, price, $390.)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Louie Schwartzberg @ TED: Gratitude, Beauty, Life

A triple treat: Louie Schwartzberg's time-lapse nature photography accompanied by three narrators: Schwartzberg himself, an anonymous young girl and an elderly Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl.

I hope you will take just under ten minutes to view it. It may enhance your day, as it did mine.

There is no irony whatsoever in this talk, no criticism, no complaint, no disappointment. Sometimes that is all I wish, in order to summon strength. We can all use "seeing beautifuller things".