Leather: Vienna meets Montréal

When I was moving, I gave my totally cool leather jacket to my son Etienne's sweetie, who thought her mother, Natasha, might like it. It was black, tight-fitting, with silver industrial zippers up both sleeves, the front seams, back seams and front closure. (A lot of zips, but it worked.) 

Made by someone I never heard of, bought in a tiny French boutique, it fit me for about 15 minutes. Several weeks of patés, patisseries, and profiteroles–all the pleasurable "ps" of Paris–and, voilà, too tight by touchdown at home.

Natty seized the jacket like a fox terrier grabs a show award. She looks like Naomi Watts, slender, stylish and comfortable in both her skin and a cow's. She wrote me a sweet, slightly delirious thank-you note. When we moved to Montréal, I saw her in the jacket, and dadgummit, it was made for her.

Moving forward two years, I became smaller than when I bought the jacket and began to yearn not for my ex, specifically, but a leather jacket that kicks ass. Not a biker, like Lisa's new one, as I prefer aforesaid kicked area covered in our climate, but something with some 'tude.

Someone special (who really likes leather) gave an anniversary gift! J. Peterman's story-based copy referenced Emma Peel and '60's London; Le Duc was smitten. Thank god it wasn't a leather catsuit! 

This is my first-ever Peterman piece, the Vienna Leather Jacket. The leather is meltingly soft yet substantial, the details pleased me. I mean, who puts working cuff buttons on a leather jacket anymore? (Hermès, of course.) 

I can wear the collar spread or fastened high against our chill winds. The rich espresso colour provides a whisper of softening. Also, though double-breasted, the seamed, shaped body and fitted sleeve keep the line sleek. 

One thing, though. See that jauntily-knotted belt? Here's the back of the buckle in real life:

Gah! The glare of metal took the belt from Vienna to Podunk. Why didn't Peterman fully-cover that or use, say, a resin one? I wrote to ask (and mentioned the needed alteration). Kristin from Customer Service replied: "I can certainly see the concern with the buckle, and I'll be sure to pass that along to our production department." 

Channeling Frugal Scholar, I requested a $6.50 refund for the alteration; Kristin said she'd "have to take it up with her supervisor". I heard nothing after two inquiries; flick of my cat o' nine tails at J. Peterman for its indifferent service. 

The solution? I'm wearing it buckled, not tied, which meant a trip to our local cordonnier, where the cobbler trimmed seven inches.  

With the jacket: Thai silk scarf, Chada Import Gallery, Toronto; cords, Lands' End; boots, Hermès; sunglasses: Forever 21.

Le Duc says I indeed look like Emma Peel, even if I don't have the boots...yet.

"I got a lot of very odd fan mail while I was in that show, but my mum used to enjoy replying to it. Some of the men who wrote to me must have been a bit startled because she would offer really motherly advice. 

I would get a letter from a teenage boy, say, who was overexcited and my mother would write back saying: "My daughter is far too old for you and what you really need is a good run around the block".

-Diana Rigg about her days in "The Avengers"

Jewelry: Treats from the taxman

Let's say you got a totally unexpected $1,500 tax refund. And let's imagine you did not have a coughing car engine or elderly roof to replace.

For once you decide to buy a piece of real jewelry; perhaps it's close enough to a milestone to warrant a splurge, or maybe you look at a pile of thin rings and think, I'm ready. Choose something you can see, this is a treat you want to enjoy. (Though I love earrings, you don't see them on yourself. I often forget which ones I'm wearing.)

I'd head for vintage to stretch my windfall, or invest in something new that's one-of-a-kind and personal. Below, a half-dozen contenders.

1. Devil-may-care diamonds

Nothing says splurge like the serious stones, and in the spring sunlight, diamonds really sparkle.

The tailored diamond horsebit ring is .70ct of pavé set in white 18k gold, not too blingy, but there.

At $995 you have some money left to treat your kids or pop a cheque in the mail to a good cause.

2. Updated wedding band

If you are presently married to the person who gave you the original, keep the sentiment and the stones, if any (the stones, I mean; one hopes the sentiment has only deepened). 

The ER/wedding ring set is as passé as a hairnet. Change to a single band or stacking rings of which the wedding band is but one. 

Repurpose the ER diamond to make one special new ring

This Kothari single diamond ring ($3,750 at Twist) is shown below as an example. 
Your $1,500 pays for the restyling; you could go over budget if you decide to add stones. You might welcome the ring with a ceremony, quiet or splashy as you wish.

3. Make it a hoot!

A number of my friends are felicitously single (or at least finally single); in that case, splash out on a bold ring with personality. A vintage (ca. 1970s) winking enamel owl (with a ruby eye) is another wised-up bird. Price, $795.

4.  Cool cameo

Julie Wolfe makes the best vintage necklaces from found and handwrought elements; her cameo pendant with charms is more rocker than 'lady'. It's $1,390 at Twist and while I find it a bit dear, Wolfe's sense of composition earns its price.

5. Exquisite Edwardian

Imagine at your next meeting when you check the time with an Edwardian enamel pocket watch. It's on a gorgeous 30-inch chain (look at those enamel bars!), to wear around your neck. 

The lavender guilloché enamel, the tiny diamond on the stem; really, is this not the height of an elegant accessory even if you never use it for the time of day? I suppose you could stick your glasses on the chain if you need it to do more.

Price, $992 at Beladora.

6. Standout status

I am not a Label Girl, and advise against paying "brand tax" on production pieces that aren't worth it. But some of the great houses make elegant jewelry and the way to get that is the secondhand market. You could hit the auctions, but Beladora have done the legwork while keeping prices in line.

This size 4.5 18k Hermès rolling ring of white and yellow gold has the added plus of being detachable: you can wear each singly (which makes the rings larger (an 8) so they move to another finger when worn alone.) Price, $1,450.

Can you tell who's just dropped her return in the mail? 

Who's got the button?

Last week, I met a woman I'm getting to know in Montréal, Diane, for coffee. She works in the design field, and has a style I'd call edge-of-edgy: not exactly avant-garde, but on the hip side of on-the-go style.

She was in a luminous sapphire-blue J. Crew velvet jacket, a cool black skirt and her signature aluminum-frame glasses. I'm not sure she's as "out" about her age as I am, so let's just say she is indeed appropriately in the Passage.

I especially liked how she wore her jacket that day–without a shirt or tee, which gave an uncluttered, clean line; nothing competed with the luxurious velvet.

But the detail I want to show is the button. Diane said the jacket came with sporty brown ones, and she found she just wasn't wearing it. She changed the buttons to silver gryphons and it now works with nearly everything she has.

Changing buttons is an overlooked strategy for upgrading, too. A dress looks much better with good buttons; a decent LBD can be nudged up to alluring by swapping, for example, a pedestrian plastic to an elegant silk knot. 

Quality buttons can lift a cardi to heights plastic ones only dream of; glowing Czech glass buttons (set of six) from Ruby Lane seller Juvel-Vintage are $5.

Diane's buttons came from a Montréal shop, Boutique Rix Rax, but if you live nowhere near a good notions store, you can find great buttons on eBay or Etsy. The NYC-based Tender Buttons is a mecca which I'll visit when there next month; if you have a particular request, like woven leather buttons for a coat, they can help by mail.

Rare or antique buttons can approach the price of the original garment, but if you love the piece, you'll have years of buttoned-up bliss–and you can always keep the buttons when the garment wears out. (I'm still sorry that I passed up a set of barrel-shaped real amber buttons some years ago.)

I'm generally not into 'cute' buttons except for kids' clothes, but bend when the material is organic rather than plastic: ceramic, wood, mother of pearl. Why not cheek up the sober blazer whose buttons you can't even remember? Stockwell Ceramics offer an almost overwhelming selection of Union Jacks to jack up your jacket. 

Lone buttons live on as pendants, especially when they're as exquisite as a ca. 1870 French one made into a necklace by veryDonna; price, $102 on Etsy. One hundred and forty years ago, weren't buttons astonishing?

Do you have something that would look sharper with fresh or better buttons? (That's not an insult; even designer clothes often chintz on them.) If you spring for a new set, as Diane did, it's a simple, smart tweak.

The naked truth

I rented "The Sessions" to see Helen Hunt, an actor I've always found direct and compelling.

Photo: 20th Century Fox
By now, most of you will at least know the plot: Mark, a disabled poet  (John Hawkes) in Berkeley of the '80s, hires Cheryl (Hunt), a forthright, empathic sexual  surrogate, to lose his virginity. 

Though she spends much of the film at least partly nude, I was impressed more by the scene of Hunt's visit to a mikveh to prepare for her conversion to Judaism. 

The attendant (Rhea Perlman), unaware of Cheryl's line of work, says, concerning the nudity required for the ritual cleansing, that many women are uncomfortable shedding their clothes. She adds, "This is your body; this is the body God crafted for you". Cheryl recalls showing Mark his body in a full-length mirror, and saying the same phrase.

Watching that, I recalled women I've seen who hide their bodies, especially as they age. At my gym, several older women disrobe beneath a rigged burka of towels. One hogs the single enclosed cubicle (where the scale is) to dress and perhaps scrapbook, for she is in there a mighty long time.

I've got flab, wrinkles and scars, but I figure, it's a locker room, not a runway. We're doing something where nudity outside the privacy of one's home is a natural part of the routine. OK, there isn't a long list of such places: change rooms, hot springs, skinny dips, nude yoga (kidding, but if you have, I want to know.)

And if you've participated in Vanessa Beecroft's tableaux vivants or Spencer Tunicks' fascinating installations featuring thousands of naked people, I'm curious about your volunteerism beyond the call of booty.
Image: Spencer Tunick installation

As a young girl, I was taught to cover carefully, but by my early thirties, years of dance and exercise classes diluted that shyness. (Note to the hyper-modest: If you drape yourself like a Christo project to get out of your soggy workout clothes, you just draw more eyes, because everyone wonders what you're hiding.) 

Situationally modest now, I'll wrap a towel around my waist to apply makeup in a locker room but, at the all-women spa Body Blitz, where suggested attire is "swimsuit or birthday suit", I soak blissfully in the buff (and, I notice, the minority). Once, I was reprimanded at a Y for sitting in the women's sauna without my suit on! (I had complied with all posted requirements and was on my towel.) Young Women Clothed Always?

I entreat post-50 women to maintain an au naturel presence, same as you ever did. Pick your time and place and don't pass the buck, naked.

This is the body crafted for you.

The confidante

A friend I'll call "Rick" came to dinner the other night, bringing macarons stuffed not with ganache but with creme glacée, like a secret nestled in a sweet envelope of meringue.

He also brought another secret, sharing great good fortune that will be announced within a month. "You can't tell anyone", he said, after breaking the news.

"You've told the right family", I said, because Le Duc is terrific at keeping confidences, and I'm no slouch myself, if uneasy.

Lifelong secret-keeping, as in "The real father of my daughter is Boris, but you can never tell anyone, especially her", weighs heavily on a friendship. I'm still bearing a several secrets of this class (and yes, I have changed details), but will be grateful for the day when the teller decides to lift the cloak.

Because I don't bear secrets lightly, I hesitate before asking someone to keep mine. The urge to enlist another in confidences seems irresistible among women, and once uttered, the closed door of discretion locks with a thud.  (The propensity to divulge secrets seems more characteristic of women than men, once I disallow business-related examples.) 

"Ellen" confided in Le Duc about her marriage; she asked him to tell no one, "not even (me)". He felt queasy when I blithely assumed things about the couple that were far from accurate. Later, Ellen apologized to him for decreeing that he had to keep the truth from me. But I asked myself, Can she not ask him to keep a confidence? He could say yes or no.

Sometimes, though, the person inserts the cross-your-heart clause after she has laid the secret on you. This is sub-par secreting and all bets ought to be off, but who would say, "Nah, you told me and now I'm telling, get over yourself?" Co-opted into discretion, the confidante steps up to the trust.

And sometimes I've discovered that a secret granted as an exclusive ("I'd never tell anyone else...") was common knowledge, with the teller waiting to see who cracked first. Secrets as drama, tests, friendship bracelets.

And even secrets as art: the site PostSecret allows the teller to anonymously post his or her secret, creating virtual confidantes.

In Rick's case, the secret isn't larded with scandal or regret. It's bursting-with-happiness news that demands neither the diplomatic white lie nor devious distraction, just several day's silence. 

Still, it's almost harder not to blab about his good fortune; joy multiplies when divulged. 

Can you keep a secret? Do you ask it of others?

Shopping value: Earning your stripes

As a mostly-retired person, I sure notice the difference in income. I always knew that theoretically, but after two years of working intermittently, I notice it practically.

I've become more value-conscious, especially when buying clothes. This spring, I wanted a fresh striped marinière. Wear it with jeans or a pencil skirt, add a scarf or your favourite earrings, and voilà, all dressed. 

In the full-time days, I'd simply have ordered one of several models of St. James shirts offered by a Brittany vendor who's served us for years.

The "Meridien" is a more substantial shirt than the "Galatee" model, sold by J. Crew, and featured by Deja Pseu (writer of "Une femme d'un certain age") in her post on marinières; the heavier model is useful here, where you can see your breath in May sometimes. Price for the J. Crew shirt is $106, plus shipping. Shoppers outside the US will add duty and taxes (count on around 30%), so that nudges $145 for me.

The sturdy and well-made Meridien is pretty much Le Duc's spring through fall uniform. I've been careful not to wear mine at the same time or we look like Dupond et Dupont

Family fave from St. James

Last year, I ordered one of LL Bean's French sailor shirts and was très contente; it's a more feminine cut, fitted in the torso, with a wider neckline and 3/4 sleeve. I redeemed a $10 gift card, which reduced the price to $20, and they shipped for free. 

Beloved Bean

A few weeks ago, Lands' End had a one-day sale on a shirt I'd considered, their French Terry Balletneck: $15 and free shipping! (I had to spend $50 to get free shipping but was ordering housewares for a son anyway.) Price is now back to $29, which I'd still pay. 

The hand of the fabric is beautiful, fine and smooth on the outer surface, with an inner finish of very fine terry. The cut has a deeper scoop than the classic shirt, with the subtlest ease at the hip preventing the dreaded tight-striped tum. Also offered in stripes of white with coral (my pick), navy or pale yellow.

LE special
I grabbed this quick shot, trying to show that stripes, unless deck-chair broad, do not make one look superwide. IRL the shirt is not as loose on me as in the photo, though I do like my marinières worn like a sailor's working garment, relaxed but not boxy.

Nauti girl!

Stripes also turned up in the LE sale section, where I found an eggplant/pink striped boatneck for $10. Boatneck, shmoatneck, I'm calling it a summer-weight marinière, and a bargain. (Limited sizes and colours.) It's very well-cut.

LE sale boatneck

I thought about Boden's Stripy Breton top, with its curved hem, pocket detail and jaunty contrast trim at the inner neck, but several reviewers said it was thin. To me, a marinière should have just enough weight to be an almost-sweater or substantial tee. 

The price, roughly $47 (including shipping) wasn't bad, but adding duty and taxes would bring it to at least $60. If I absolutely had to have the colours offered, maybe.

Boden Breton

Hey, sailor!
Le Duc will continue to buy St. James's Meridiens, because a) they fit him, and b) he does not consider comparison shopping fun. He just re-ups when the five or six things he habitually wears shred.

Not everyone approaches value so gingerly. If the chic Christine ever gets it together to photograph a certain pair of pants, you will see a different application of the cost/value principle, called I Am Crazy About This, Who Cares What It Costs?

Have you found any great lower-cost substitutes for pricier favourites?

Pearl earrings: Kicking up a jewelry wardrobe

Lisa at Privilege wrote a detailed post about starting a jewelry collection. If you haven't read her advice, go there, then come back, because mine extends her remarks about pearl earrings.

First, three observations about refreshing (or starting) your jewelry collection: 

1. Jewelry dates, even pearls
'80s seed pearl earrings that look like hanging bunches of teensy grapes? Done like a TV dinner! The options are, restyle, donate or stash somewhere till they "come back". Unfortunately, unless you reincarnate as a human female, that could be too long.

2. Your taste changes
I had a thing for Egyptian Revival, scarabs and art noveau flourishes. This stuff is wrong for my casual clothes, too ornate and heavy. You might find you once wore only gold and now prefer silver, or vice versa. 

3. So much jewelry is overpriced; you can feel vulnerable and confused.
I place most "fashion" or "designer" branded jewelry in this category.

But the boutique or craft show vendor does not necessarily deliver stellar value, either. Build your eye; look, and learn to assess workmanship and materials, or bring along a friend who can. (Some readers have e-mailed photos and questions. I'm happy to give an opinion about pearls, with the caveat that I can't examine the pieces like I'd do in person.)

Pearl pick-me-ups

When I posted on reviving jewelry; one reader commented that she didn't like a single thing. That's hardly surprising, as jewelery is a matter of taste. I'll take that risk again to show pearl earrings that are current, reflect good value, and promise good shelf life. The fourth factor is how they'd look on you.

1. Hi, you big, gorgeous stud

8mm or larger shows the pearl to advantage and lights your face. I'd bypass round whites except for the most conservative of tastes; pearls have come to the party!

For whites, the 14-15mm white coin pearl studs by Kate Hines update the classic with details that make the difference: bold gold claws and a size that flashes a swathe of lustre. Price for 14k gold setting, $545; in sterling silver, $224.

2. Pearls plus unusual stones

Lisa said, "Accent your pearls", and here's how: grab these Kate Hines gems, set in silver: Iolite Orb earrings, $299 on sale, a great price. Rich, purply-blue Iolite is a versatile gem that looks good on everyone. Also made in a luminous pearl and moonstone combination, $300.

An utterly classic design done in a an audacious combo and on sale: do I love you or what? Kate Hines black pearl and paraiba topaz earrings set in silver punch up a clean, versatile style; price, $156. Ooooh, baby!

3. Cool keshis

If you can imagine a woman in round white studs standing next to one in Tahitian keshis, you'll see which one looks more current, though both earrings are pleasing. (For more about keshis, see this post.)

These 9mm dove grey Tahitian keshi studs on 14k yellow gold posts (from Kojima Company) appeal to the woman who wants her pearls with earthy, subtle style. Price, $252.

Petite budgets will find keshis kind; Indulgems glam up one-inch keshi drops by cheating a few no-tell accents: cz doubles for diamond, 18k plating mimics gold, but the design, with the inlaid "diamond", is completely chic. On sale for about $50 from Saks.

4. Quirky charm

The key error in updating is what I call backsorting, buying something because it goes with what you already have. Then nothing looks current; it's as if you bought '90s shoes to go with your new dress. 

You know what they say about leopard, "Matches nothing, matches everything"? Same with earrings; just go for it without overthinking the coordination.

What if you could inject such wit into your wardrobe for $50? 

Joli's grey pearl dangle earrings ($48 at Twist) achieve their magic by using vermeil (gold plating) rather than gold to set those white vintage beads, and, since they're on your ears, I wouldn't worry about wear, if you store them carefully.

A woman in a cardi, a shirt, and slim pants: her spring uniform. Then she adds a pair of 14k mid-century pearl cluster leaf earrings, as distant from brand-blandness as Grace Kelly is from the Kardashians. Her uniform becomes unique. Price, $595 from Beladora; presently clips but could be altered to posts.

 5. Breathtaking natural colour

The pearl should breathe and shimmer, with a sensuousness depth that transports you. (Some vendors make a big deal of their flat white genuine pearls with no body colour. Genuine does not equal captivating.) 

These 12mm natural peach colour Chinese freshwater pearls, ($225 from Kojima Company) would make you feel like Juliet Binoche, bien dans sa peau.

Unset now, the lovely folks at Kojima will make this pair into studs or dangles for a reasonable price, or you could take them to your jeweler.

Voilà! An April assortment of pearl possibilities to revive your collectionor to choose for a June birthday, for which pearl is the traditional birthstone.


Gifts: Milestone birthdays

Several friends turned 50 and 60 recently, so I though it would be fun to ask them what were their most-appreciated gifts, and urge them to reveal the dogs, too. But one friend is too nice.

"Rachel", recipient of your pick, the Simon & Ruby "Foxwood" necklace, declares it tied for very favourite along with another handmade necklace from her friend Avril. 

Yesterday, she wrote:
"I continue to wear your beautiful necklace–and pearl earrings–with great pleasure. The colours are absolutely perfect and match nearly all of my tops."

High fives, readers!

I had to wrench evaluations out of her; she kept dithering and saying sweet things like "Really, being surrounded by all my friends and feeling their love was the best gift ever."

Rachel finally copped to enjoying "a bottle of good champagne" and "a gift certificate for the liquor store".  She clammed up when asked to name the dogs, but I suspect some of the 'inspirational' books might not be cracked open. Even though a decade birthday is important, a woman doesn't necessarily want to be motivated

Fortunately, the acerbic Penny, who turned 60 last fall, was more than willing to dish. "The plush bedroom slippers with big 60s on them? Trashed with the empties!", she wrote, and, "I haven't been a 36A since the moon walk, so my daughter grabbed a really hot bustier."
She gave herself a pair of classic nude Manolo Blahnik pumps, a departure– I've never seen her in heels higher than kittens. "For once, I didn't think so sensibly" she said, "I just indulged."

An aside: Penny's husband organized the party and had written, on the e-vite "No gifts, please". When Penny found out, she said, "What?!" He corrected the error.

Other friends and acquaintances contributed these favourite milestone gifts:

- A subscription to a professional journal ("OK, I'm totally into my work, but I loved this!")
- A visit to a psychic, I went with the friend who gave it. (Why are visits to psychics always prefaced by "Normally, I would never do this"?)
- A rescue dog, "then I went back a week later and adopted his brother" 
- An antique chair of (my friend's) that I had long admired
- Singing lessons
- A girlfriend getaway to Vegas; seven friends chipped in for my ticket and showed up at the gate dressed in wild outfits
- A friend made my favourite dish and served it to me at her beautifully-set table 
- A mural painted on our garden wall by my children and their friends
- A quilt made of sentimental swatches and photos printed on fabric, made by my sisters and mother
(Note: I've seen the quilt. There's Andrea as a teenager, sitting on a neighbour boy's lap: Ted Nugent!)
- A baby-blue vintage MG (combination 50th and MA graduation gift)

What are your memorable milestone gifts?

Sudha Irwin: Inspired pearls

Today, I'm sharing a catch-your-breath jeweler. Some months ago, researching Tahitian pearls, I found the online gallery of Sudha Irwin, and return often to meditate on the beauty of her work, especially in pearls.

With her permission, I'm showing several  pieces. Many evoke a longing I don't often feel. If you're not a pearl person, have a look at the coral, turquoise, tanzanite.

She says, "...my inspiration comes from nature, from my walks along the seashore or the mountain trails near my home"; you will see it in her designs, which seem almost alive.

She also said, in a note to me, that "many women carry around an image of themselves that does not reflect who they are now or the changes they have gone through as they have grown and matured."  A wise woman as well as masterful jeweler! 

She is on my Wish List, absolutely.

I'm showing several pearl necklaces and pendants; be sure to visit her site to see earrings, rings and bracelets. She creates jewelry to wear everyday, in your real-life clothes, with joy and comfort.

A necklace of pink pearls and shell leaves (price, $275):

A pedant of silver 'seaweed' strewn with pearls (price, $650):


A garland of hand-wrought buds with a single blooming pearl (price, $695):

A triple chain pinned with a flurry of multicoloured oval pearls (price, $350):  

Sterling 'grasses' necklace with a sumptuous drop pearl (price, $750):

Ms. Irwin accepts commissions, preferring, like other artists whom I respect, to work with clients who resonate with her vision. If a pearl (or other gem) project is in your sights, she is one I'd contact. And instead of paying a brand premium for a mass-produced piece, you could enjoy a treasure made by an artist, not a factory.

Someday I hope to show you my Sudha Irwin jewel, but I'd be (almost) as happy to admire yours.