An unironic Christmas

First, if you have not read Christy Wampole's New York Times op-ed piece "How to Live Without Irony", it is here, and worth your time.

The piece elicited the counterargument that young adults are in fact sincere, altruistic, empathic contributors to a gentler, more inclusive culture. ("What age group were mostly in those Occupy Wall St. camps?", they ask, reasonably.)

Wikipedia Dictionary defines verbal irony as "The expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect."

A more thorough dissection of the term, including irony in clothing, is here.

I don't see the ubiquity of verbal irony as the purview of the Millenials, as Walpole does, but they do rock some amusing inside-joke tees, like the one at left, from Busted Tees.

The ironic elder exists as well; she forged her sarcasm, sharp observations and sardonic wit on the anvil of superior verbal skills and often has achieved a notable career. 

She can be witty, provocative and stimulating. If you knew her since your school days, however, you might sense a growing brittleness, and think, "Has her humour changed, or do I just not find it funny anymore?"

Yeah, right

I ask myself what's happening when I opt for verbal irony. 

Recently, a former colleague exited an abusive marriage (her term), then abruptly returned, completely reversing her decision. "Congratulations", I said, "I hope you're very happy." 

My sarcasm was a screen for my fear. I eventually expressed my worry and dismay, but, as Walpole notes, that took more effort, attention and risk than firing off a zinger. I reach for sarcasm in frustration and pique, and expression rooted there cannot build bridges.

Facta Non Verba: Deeds, not words

I believe it's what we do that counts.

Sometimes the sarcastic friend is the very woman who shows up your house with a box of cookies and bottle of wine when you didn't get that job, mops up your kid's bloody nose while wearing her new white wool jacket (and refuses money for drycleaning) or takes your keys if that's your fourth Amaretto Sour.  There can be a big heart beneath that wisecracking shield.

Another woman might send sentimental cards on your birthday, writing of how much you mean to her, but when the chips are down, she's busy elsewhere. You just don't know until you see some behaviour.

So, though I consider irony and it's snarky little sister, sarcasm, to be an easy way out of truly speaking one's mind and heart, I will indulge it and even indulge in it from time to time, knowing it's often a veneer.

Irony is the Red Bull of communication, a satisfying initial blast but no staying power. I can do better, and strive to be straightforward and sincere– most of the time. A complete absence of irony courts earnest, humourless certitude, which is another real drag to be around, or to live with in one's self.  

As far as the desire to wear clothing ironically, I'm out of it. Why would I haul a stuffed animal as a purse, wear a 1975 baseball jersey with a ball skirt, or appliqué my nails with lightening bolts even if you and I are in on the joke? 

That's why this Balenciaga "Egyptofunk" Glitter Girl tee baffles me even before checking the price, $285.

I neither understand its stance nor does it summon desire. It's outside my ken; I feel like Dr. Who contemplating a hula hoop.

Would the buyer be a fully-feathered ironist or a victim? Is it possible to be both?

Happy holidays!

This is the last post for a few weeks, as the season to be merry is here

I wish you– with absolutely no irony–a restorative and warm holiday, and hope you'll return to the Passage on January 3, 2013. Thank you for stopping by.

PS. In case the world really does end on Dec 21: OK, Marilyn, you were right. 

Grace notes at Ogilvy

"Jessie" visited for a few days last week; we browsed through a large craft show, indulged in hot chocolate, and attended a late-morning concert of tango music in the hall atop Montréal's luxury department store, Ogilvy.

My friend of forty years has long preferred to spend on travel, her house or good causes. She buys inexpensive-to-moderately priced clothes deliberately, keeps her hair and makeup current, and pays little attention to which designer's doing what.

That approach works for her suburban, mostly-retired life, but when women entered the hall in chic coats and luminous scarves, she noticed, and murmured something about feeling underdressed.

Les Montréalaises d'un certain âge are a soignée lot when out for an I Musici concert, not a pair of running shoes or tired jeans in the crowd. We admired an artfully-seamed featherweight leather blazer, a furled butterscotch cashmere wrap and the quirky flair of a dusty rose sheared-beaver jacket, worn by a white-haired woman of about seventy.

Jessie began to develop avidity, especially when she saw the 40% off sales signs posted in every department. She agreed to a spin through the fashion floors.

She reminded me of another friend, R., who told me of traveling decades ago from Toronto to New York to spend the weekend with her chum Anne, a dancer in the chorus of "Cats". R. hit town thinking she looked pretty damn good. 

Anne was performing, so R. had most of Friday evening to kill. As she sauntered up Columbus (then home to hip boutiques) she began to adjust her judgment: "pretty good" slipped to "out of it". At first she filed observations for future reference. Then, she wanted that.

By the time the houselights dimmed, "Memories" referred not only to the finale, but to R.'s bank account.  

"When I met Anne at the stage door, I looked fabulous even by New York standards", she recalled. She got tout le kit: coat, dress, shoes, bag and earrings. R. wore those pieces for years–and paid for them for at least one.

R.'s story illustrates how, plunked into a different setting, you can be inspired to up your game. The key of course is to buy what you can also wear back home–otherwise you're hauling a very costly souvenir.

Jessie found a pair of sleek pants, an Italian sweater with more detail and verve than the one she'd been wearing, and finally, the pièce de résistance, this slightly iridescent Steilmann vest with a blurred python-print front and boiled wool back and sleeve. 

(It looked far better than in this shot, matte and supple, with a subtle mauve undertone. Trust me, made for her.)

She slipped it over her grey longsleeved tee and suddenly her charcoal jeans were vaulted up several notches. The price point was about double her usual (but with the sale only about 25% more). 

Jessie's a beauty in any brand, but I see once again that as we age, the lower end doesn't do us any favours, especially if a woman likes to wear colour. The dyes of the German and Italian tops she tried were richer, the colours more nuanced, the fabrics soft yet substantial.

The overall effect was that of a well-dressed woman who was not sacrificing style for comfort. I was delighted to see my friend in clothes that highlighted her enviable figure, taking her from "nice" to "wow". 
I worry about the shape of the store, though. Two weeks before Christmas and all clothing 40% off–what's up? Founded in 1866, Ogilvy was bought in 2011 by the Weston family, who own Holt Renfrew, another luxury retailer. Rumours of a merger continue.

Ogilvy's famous piper skirled through at noon; Jessie tucked her iconic tartan shopping bag under her arm and headed for the train trip home.

Unlike R., she wasn't broke after her foray; she spent $300 on three pieces, in which she felt like a million bucks. I guess we've learned something as the years have passed!

Weight and health: Pressure's on

Last August, I had my first checkup with my new family doctor, a thorough, warm woman just out of school.

I, a frequent exerciser, moderate drinker and lifelong non-smoker had high blood pressure for the first time ever. Given my  family history of heart disease and diabetes, I took the news seriously, and determined to lower it. That meant dropping some weight, among other measures. 

I was smack in the middle of the BMI overweight category, but since my weight has been stable for a decade and I felt energetic and strong, had not been concerned. (BMI is not the be-all, but I lack the notable muscular density that distorts the accuracy of this measure for some. I was also too heavy using another measure, the waist to hip ratio.)

In 19 weeks I've lost over 20 lbs. by reviving old Weight Watchers habits (record intake, measure portions, excise empty calories) and tracking food and exercise on the free site recommended by reader Eleanorjane, MyFitnessPal.

I created my profile, then ate to the MFP calorie allottment. I've kept bread and pasta, and enjoy (hell, count the minutes to) one square of Lindt dark chocolate most evenings, which is actually good for lowering blood pressure!  

Though my bp is now consistently normalfar more meaningful to me than my smaller dress size–I don't feel any different, and isn't that why they call hypertension The Silent Killer?  

This is the first time I've shed weight motivated by health rather than vanity (class reunion coming up!) or economics (not wanting to replace my wardrobe).

I had to reduce, and must maintain that loss. At the gym, hoisting a 20 lb. barbell, I think, I was carrying that around all the time, and am better off without it. 

I've dropped a bundle at the tailor's, but that's allowed me to hold off buying clothes till the spring.

Thank you, Eleanorjane, from the bottom of my healthier heart; the project is even fun with MyFitnessPal.

New life for an old mink

I came to Montréal with a secondhand sheared mink duffle coat bought on eBay in 2000 for about $1200. It was probably made in the late '80s or early '90s at latest, judging from the boxy cut and very full sleeves that gather into a pleat at the wrist.

I bought it in "as new" condition (except for someone's monogram in the lining), wore it only in the harshest Toronto weather and sent it to cold storage each spring, so it was in good shape– but, as you can see in the shot above, it had not really been à la mode since Celine Dion sang in French.

A reno seemed a good idea, but I sought an expert opinion about whether that was worth undertaking. 

Browsing and thinking

There are so many furriers here! My inquiries led me only to references far from where I live. One day last spring, walking down a quiet block on Laurier St., I noticed the salon of Dominique Ouzilleau, a third-generation furrier. He was welcoming, patient with my shaky French, and best of all, seemed intrigued by the project.

I took a long time checking out his designs (the only pieces he sells.) He's known for edgy, glam furs, and is especially proud that his team can produce colours seen nowhere else. My taste is far more conservative, but still, I was attracted by his flamboyance and innovation. Like the shy-guy accountant who meets Carson Kressley, I wanted that little zhuzh.

I dropped off the coat; he called to say the skins were in great shape, and gave me a quote.

Design meeting: Yves of construction

Since Mr. O. and I were both dealing in our second languages, Le Duc accompanied me to ensure the words "sober", "strict" and "quiet" were transmitted loud and clear.  

Le Duc told him that the duffle was St. Laurent's preferred topper, day or night. I bought a photo of a YSL woman's model, which he stuck to the work order.

Feeling certain he understood my preferences, I paid a 30% deposit and–game on! 

Fitting #1: Toile and trouble

I left the first fitting feeling flatter than a beaver's tail; the toile looked dowdy and uninspired, and nothing like the YSL coat. But Mr. Ozilleau took at least two dozen measurements and markings, so there seemed to be some point.  Writing the cheque for the next 30% was not fun. I worried that I'd end up with a stiff, stodgy coat, maybe even worse than the original.

This is the risk of custom work.

A month later a friend who works on the street told me the shop had closed, but it turned out to be only for summer holidays. ("He's a furrier, it's August, relax", Le Duc said.) Still, I fretted. 

Fitting #2: Recut and reassured

Mr. O.'s team had entirely recut the body and he was quietly confident at our early October meeting. Reunited with the supple glow of the newly-conditioned pelts, my mink mojo returned. I was prepared to replace the lining, thinking about a tartan or ruby satin, but Mr. O. said the existing chocolate-brown fabric was in perfect condition–it would be removed, cleaned and recut. How many couturiers would do that?

At this fitting, we discussed buttons and closure. I brought vintage buttons from Tender Buttons in New York; Mr. O. approved. (He advised against a toggle-and-loop fastening due to that closure's repetitive friction at the front placket.) This is the only fur coat I plan to own, and I agreed. He also suggested the more streamlined set-in pocket, instead of patch version on the YSL coat.

Three weeks passed, but this time, calmly.

The reveal: A sleek, discreet duffle

The new coat has a much slimmer, semi-fitted body, higher armholes and sleeves that no longer resemble muffs. The hood is edged with a swath of long-haired mahogany mink, for that tweak I sought. The few incipient balding spots at the corners have vanished. The coat hangs beautifully and fits, well, like it was made for me.

I was also impressed by his attentiveness and focus. He said he likes to meet clients more often than necessary to gain a clearer idea of their vision and preferences.

Cost for the reno: $800, as quoted. Given the work and the cost of several friends' fur renos, this was a reasonable price. Two weeks later I brought in a friend who had a chic fur vest made from an old coat.

The new label reads "Dominique Ouzilleau Haute Fourrure" and I'm a delighted client. Let it snow! 

The coat came back

If you're Canadian, you might remember the 1988 National Film Board animation, "The Cat Came Back". If not, it's here, just over seven minutes of Wallace and Grommit-ish whimsey.

Perry Ellis
The chorus, "The cat came back/we thought he was a goner" scampered through my mind because after the move, I'd been thinking that I should not have given up my old caramel Perry Ellis lambskin car coat, which I had placed with a vintage store in Toronto.

It was bought in 1992 at Saks in Boston, deeply on sale. This is when Marc Jacobs designed for the company; Ellis died in 1986.

Probably made it to the sale rack because, though marked a 6, it would swamp anyone truly that size. Think I paid $200-something, at 70% off.

I wore it lightly for some years. When I moved, the Toronto vintage store Thrill of the Find, which accepts the very occasional consignment piece, took it to sell.

Flash forward 16 months, and I thought, That coat... especially when I flipped price tags for a new one. I figured it had gone to a good home.

When visiting Toronto at the end of the summer, I dropped by to see Mireille, the owner, and asked about it. "I was putting that on the floor this week", she said, "it's the season." I tried it on; she marveled at its quality and said, "It's yours!"

Here it is; it's weathered the last nearly 20 years with fewer nicks than I have! Fortunately, Jacobs rejected padded shoulders; I'd try it on in a shop today.

I especially like the generous, caped back...

... and the blouson hem fastened by working horn buttons, an expensive detail.

The current company, Perry Ellis International Inc. (who own Jantzen, and Laundry by Shelli Segal, among other brands) have mislaid both the wit and quality that made women save their pennies to be "Very Perry".

Come back to the Passage next week–another old coat, another story! 

Sometimes the "great vintage find" is your own!


Jewelry: Bauble for a birthday belle

One of my dearest friends, "Sarah" turns 60 early in the new year; I'll attend her birthday luncheon. She's inviting a group of women friends to sit around a table, tell stories, dine. And we have something else to celebrate: after a layoff three years ago, she just got a juicy job.

I'm already gift-scouting. Sarah adores jewelry, especially agate, carnelian, pearl and lapis, and wears it with her customary verve.

I discovered Simon and Ruby, the Etsy shop of Lindsay Farrer of Nashville, Tennessee, on Etsy. Impressed by her trove of natural materials, colour sense, technique, and contribution of 5% of the price to World Vision, I bought this Park Slope necklace, love at first clasp.

It's the nicest (new) necklace I've found for the price ($70), a vibrant mix of smoky quartz, turquoise, riverstone and crazy lace agate (that name alone!), among others. The wire-linked beads drape beautifully. Below, the Park Slope (turquoise version) in detail. The big chunk at 3 o'clock looks white but is fact mint green, a quirky surprise. It adjusts from 18 to 20 inches, a relief since so many pieces I've looked at elsewhere are made at a too-short 15 or 16 inches.

And here's my lovely friend. Sarah is an ebullient brunette who dresses in a classic, feminine style, for example, a Liberty shawl and crisp striped cotton shirt with jeans.

Her underlying skin tone is peachy-warm. She wears white, but I rarely see her in very dark hues or black near her face. Sarah chooses the livelier earth tones (camel, khakis, rust) but also blues and greens from light to mid-range. She's wise and witty; colour is her tonic. (Well, there has been known to be gin involved, too.) 

Before you ask: I have already given her pearls and do not want to repeat myself. My budget is $100.

Live, from Nashville, the nominees are...

1. The Foxwood 

Made of serene sea green jade, clear quartz, pyrite, tourmalinated quartz, picture jasper, prehnite and hematite, this has colours she'd love and a bumply, organic presence. It is wire-linked only near the clasp. Price, $88.

2. The Valentina

This earthy cornucopia includes green rhyolite, citrine, smoky quartz and one of her favourites, ocean jasper. A longer necklace, 26 inches, it gives a woman the joy of seeing the stones. It's a smidge above my budget ($120) but what the hey.

3. Park Slope in lapis and peach


Same style as mine, but with a blue and peach palette that suits her colouring. Made from a lush mix of lapis lazuli, autumn jasper, black agate, mother of pearl, gray agate, peach aventurine, peach quartz, cobalt blue jade, pyrite, and gray picture stone. Price, $70.

Dear and discerning readers, what would you  pick?

Finding real jewelry on a budget 

These pieces are examples of the jewelry category I call Relaxed Real: organic materials, simple yet graceful design, neither twee nor tough. They are ideal for the time of life when a woman no longer wishes to wear logos and me-too production pieces, yet craves beauty.

Relaxed Real may be serene as a pair of spring flower bulbs bearing pearls (by Amie Louise Plante; price, $160) or dramatic as amber chunks mixed with etched silver beads. The metals are silver or copper; gold, while beautiful and durable, elevates pieces and prices. (Lindsay Farrer will custom-make her pieces with silver wirework on request.)

This is the gently-priced tier of artisan-crafted jewelry, using noble metals and natural materials. 

"Real" jewelry need not break the bank. Pleasing choices at this level can be found at $100 or so, though some of the best jewelers command much more– and their design and technique should merit the premium. 

And so, a piece from Simon & Ruby for birthday girl, but which? Please advise–and I swear you to secrecy.

(I'm traveling this week and will respond to comments on Thursday.)