Knits: Uncommon stripes

Two friends gave me a brief for a post: stripes, black and white stripes. Apparently huge last summer. Where was I? Staring at the sidewalk, it seems.

Just as there is a red for every woman, there's a stripe. In the right scale for your figure, it lends a reprieve from solids, and is more versatile than a print. Stripes are jaunty (a word hardly anyone ever uses anymore) and read preppy, arty or just "having a great day".

Below, five striped knits that cross the the ruled lines. Not one is black and white, but each has its own distinction. 

Vertical verve

J. Crew's wide stripe cashmere cardi has vertical stripes that lengthen the torso. I'd lean into the tart fuchsia and navy combo; price, $310.

Discreetly degradé

Unlike a friend's Jack Russell, degradé stripes are not up your chest the moment you walk through a door. Poetry UK's raglan stripe sweater only suggests bars. Made of wool, bamboo and cotton, it is also  offered in other subtle colourways. Price, £99.

 Witty mix

Pricey but perfect. So, I covet this MaxMara stiped cache-coeur of navy, grey and beige in a silk-cashnere blend. It has irresistible wearability but it's not bread and butter safe. The striped panel says "fearless" and the sleeves murmur "chic". OK, it's £246 (about $380) at but, as they say, that's the price of poker.

Luxe cashmere/lurex

As far from a bold stripe as an orchid from a dandelion: Eric Bompard's autumn white with gold, a discreet dream in 2-ply cashmere. At €260—and then eternal drycleaning (thanks to the sparkly bits)—you're making a commitment, but also a statement. Also in black with silver stripes. 

Placed, with panache

A placed stripe avoids the visual widening effect, but adds snap. Look for a knockout colour combo like Gitane blue/cream/black, as in a cashmere and wool sweater by Marina Rinaldi: a whole new life for stripes, and made for sizes 10-24. 

Post-script: Stripes on scarves

A scarf ties together an outfit without being too matchy. Watch out, these two may be borrowed by a mister!

Brora's fine-striped grey cashmere-and-silk scarf is my cup of English tea: steel blue and oxblood spark the grey. Price, £115.

Prefer brights? Eric Bompard's multicolour striped scarf, 4-ply cashmere, €154. "Who's wearing that scarf today?"

Completely different in mood; I just could not make up my mind, so showed you both.

Pearl earrings: Something different for L.

Pearl alert! Kojima Company, purveyor of fascinating and unusual pearls, are having a special two-day sale, from October 23 to October 25, 2013.
20% off all orders over $300; use coupon code: pearl of a girl 

L., who visited last month, asked what I'd suggest in pearl earrings "beyond boring studs". I bristled slightly, thinking of the white baroque studs in my makeup bag; they cost around $35 on eBay from a Hong Kong vendor, go with everything and if lost, no big deal. 

But L. is right, they don't provide the frisson of a standout pair. 

Her budget was "not over $500, maybe $600"; she prefers gold and is drawn to dangles. I figured we'd take a few flyers.

Here are the unusual earrings that I showed her.

1. Hip lip
Ceci n'est pas une boucle d'oreille. Delfinia Delletrez single pearl with lips earring, about $585 via; about & $585. Guaranteed head-swiveller.

2. Hoop-la!
I fell for Mizuki's pearl and 14k gold wire earrings, and was a little pushy about it, if "Buy these!" is pushy. So spare, but as the Twist site says, a change from the ubiquitous gold hoop. The pearls are 3/8" diameter, so that's about 10mm. Price, $330.

3. Exotic charmers
Beladora II's seed pearl vintage-style dangles, $495. Pennies per wear, because they'll look gorgeous with her jackets, jeans or best dress. 

4. Glam greens
Gump's 8.5mm green Tahitian dangles, $750. These are over budget, but well-priced for top-quality Tahitians. I thought she might dismiss the classic setting, but she said, "Ohhhh."


5. L. was back home by the time I found these Kasumi drops on Kojima Company's site or I would have babbled at her; instead, I sent the link! They are now on sale and will likely be snapped up. These are natural colour, 10mm-11mm, set in 14k. They are not perfect pearls, but I think their character overrides that... just like us.

I'd wear every one of the choices, though it would take a certain mood to get me into #1. That earring could, though, become one's signature accessory. "Give that Negroni to the lady with the lips."

I hoped to announce a winner, but L., suddenly sitting with a case of Tahitian lust, wants to reassess her budget and drop a hint to her perenially-gift-challenged sweetheart. This is wise; her choice should be a coup de coeur, not a best-of-the-bunch. 

As in love, look around, but when the time is right, take the leap!


The joys of incompetence

"Anything worth doing is worth doing badly", an old friend used to say when we were 18.

But a decade later, when we'd assumed the mantle of professional life, most of those ambitious, somewhat competitve friends and I avoided trying anything at which we weren't already pretty good. So we'd say "I can't dance/fly fish/make pastry/shoot pool".

That attitude, the prizing of the Competent Self, held constant for our working years. It's not that we didn't continue to learn, but we played to our talents. Now, released from what another friend called his "achievement disorder", we've begun to realize that being incompetent is no crime: lives don't depend on whether your origami frog looks like a crumpled wad. 

The pleasure of incompetence first requires being able to laugh at my ineptness. In fact, it's often more fun than proficiency.

One current example of that effect is two anglophones speaking terrible French to one another. Our mangled syntax jars francophones and stresses their patience after two minutes. Since so many speak fluent English in Montréal, they can't wait to switch.

But anglos determined to practice will happily spend an hour or two engrossed in conversation, bashing their way through the subjuncif and plus-que-parfait; understanding each other perfectly, freed from the paralyzing self-criticism that guts them in front of a native speaker. We continue even if murdering the terminisations, infused with the giddy pride of "Look at us, speaking another language!"

Photo: Kino Lorber
Same with my new hobby, painting. When my Competent Self takes over, I'm frustrated by errors, stiffness, limited technique. I ask my teacher, "Are you sure Gerhard Richter started this way?" 

Mom's novice artist friends presented lumpy oil-painted bouquets that embarrassed me at 30. (Not Mom, who displayed them with affection.) Now I'm making them! When Beginner Self speaks, it says, "So what? The world can always accommodate another inept still life."

I received a gift from Bernard, boxes of art supplies left to him by his friend, Michel. While sifting through these, the man came back to life. He was a physician–his copybooks were from the College of Physicians and Surgeons. He was meticulous, everything organized neatly. Michel liked to paint barns and country houses; books on the subject were in the bags.

He attempted large works; the bigger brushes show far more wear than the fine:

Several sets of watercolour paints were untouched:

Books on using various media were stored with sketchbooks and papers:

What moved me most was his palette, a slice of burled maple. In it, I felt his presence and a whisper of encouragement. A cigarette burn; a single grey hair stuck in an ochre dab.

How many years had I spent in a straightjacket of excellence? Finally, at 65, I'm bashing away, willing to be less skilled than ever, but curious and engrossed. I want to learn so many things, and am not particularly concerned that there isn't time left for mastery.

Just to begin: that feels like enough.

Marcella Hazan: The fragrant legacy

My friend Beth Adams of The Cassandra Pages wrote a tender, eloquent eulogy for Marcella Hazan, do read it here.

I have been thinking ever since of my discovery of her books in the very early '80s, but equally, of her spirit. Along with MFK Fisher, Marcella Hazan opened my eyes to the arts of the table, to the idea that a three-hour dinner was desirable.

It was from Hazan I learned to roast a chicken with two lemons in the cavity, something my Midwestern American mother, who had only ever packed the bird with bread dressing, found fascinating: a bit like cheating, but really good.

But my first thought, when I heard that she had died, was, That Tomato Sauce.

Its fragrance simmering the stove affected men more powerfully than my perfume (Opium, segueing as the decade wore on to Lancôme's Magie Noir.) I served it with real shredded Parmesan (I was just learning about that, too—no more powdery, tasteless wax in a shaker can) and freshly-baked foccacia.

As the years passed, I sometimes thought about cutting back on the butter, but why? Marcella's sauce is an alchemic combination that five-alarms the brain's pleasure center, including that of the cook's, because it returns so much goodness for so little work.

Photo: Adam Roberts, The Amateur Gourmet

Adam Roberts, who writes the ebullient food blog, The Amateur Gourmet, has re-published the recipe, with photos and his own heartfelt homage, here.

As Roberts says, "The recipes we leave behind are powerful things."  

If you could be remembered for one stellar dish, what might it be? 

What is it about Eileen Fisher?

If there were ever a label I have worked so hard to love–no, worship–it is Eileen Fisher.

For a good twenty years, from the label's Japanese-monk debut to its present Asymmetrical Goddess incarnation, I've been lured to the murmuring, monochromatic balm of the ads.

EF ballet-neck layering dress in merino

I have trolled EF boutiques, admiring the lichenesque colours, the self-effacing elegance, the zen discretion. I have tried on countless wools, silks and fine cottons, petting the lovely hand. When I found racks of EF at a discount store, I phoned my friend Marlene, prompting her to nearly wreck her car speeding there.

But I don't buy.

My friends do, as do many readers and bloggers. A women in EF does not look like she's trying to be mistaken for her daughter, trying to get a promotion, trying to seduce... trying for anything. She does not need to try; she is.

But EF is like the older sister of your best friend, the one who comes home occasionally, wafts an indescribable cedary-lemony scent, has the perfect ponytail and is kind but decidedly remote, inhabiting her singular, more refined world. We just don't connect.

When I picked up The New Yorker's Style issue (Sept. 23, 2013) for a bedtime read and found a long piece by Janet Malcolm, "Nobody's Looking At You", I thought, All will be revealed.

And much is, about Fisher herself— inscrutable, beautiful, elusive. Malcolm about weeps trying to understand the leadership koans ("the concept of facilitating leaders", "delegation with transparency") that guide the company's culture. 

Malcolm respects this complex woman who made the simplest of clothes (a design team now fills her shoes). She hints at Fisher's eccentricity in descriptions of her shyness, oddness and dislike of the business side of the company. Eileen Fisher reminded me of St. Laurent (minus the drug-fueled partying).

But I got no further in understanding why the clothes fail to incite gotta-have-it-lust. 

Upon waking the next morning, the reason hit me smack in the face: boobs. EF is not about the lushly three-dimensional female form. Yes, there is a woman under there, but head to toe EF has a contained quality. A woman will look womanly, but not sexy.

It's not that I wear frilly chiffon dresses or hootchie-mama décolléte. But there is a good eight degrees of chill built into EF that keeps me just on the wrong side of the shop window. When I mentioned this to Le Duc, he said "Eileen Fisher makes women look like nuns."

So who floats my strict boat?

Ça va de soie, a Montréal-based knitwear designer. Below, a page from last winter's catalog; the high-quality knits, in wool and cotton, are uncontrived but more fitted than EF. That high armhole elongates the torso and there are some fairly deep necklines which you can cami-flage or not.

Vivienne Westwood, whose Anglomania cloud coat in cherry makes me thrum with ardent adoration; I'm a fool for tailoring.

There are other designers, both European and North American, at various price points, who know women have boobs and a butt, and will wrap a seam or place a dart to caress them.

EF's great advantage is that their collections are presented in easy-to-assemble seasonal collections, offering both longstanding best-sellers and new pieces that coordinate. There is an ease beyond the cut; the company positions the acquisition of an Eileen Fisher wardrobe as sensible indulgence.

Some women mix the pieces with other designers; my take is that this is not often chic and at worst, jarring.

Right now, I am thinking of my close friend Alice, in her teal silk EF ensemble, narrow pants, shell and sheer gazar coat, feminine and floaty. She looks fantastic in that, so there is definitely a woman for whom Eileen Fisher sings.

But she is not my designer, and now I am closer to knowing why.

Wools: Double-faced delights

Double-faced wool: hard to find, luscious, durable— and if ever a fabric earned the accolade timeless, this is it. Double-faced is a weaving technique that creates two layers on the same fabric; it is not a lining. 

The faces may be different colours or not; the textile is almost indescribably lush and warm, but not super-heavy if the layers are light. (The same technique also creates unctuous double-faced silk.) Because of its weight, it is now more often found in menswear, and usually results in higher-priced garments because of both the quantity of material required and the more complex weaving technique.

If the retail prices are scary, snoop for it in vintage shops; they really don't make much of this anymore.

Two-colour scarf of double-faced cashmere, from Eric Bompard. Shown, galaxy Purple/Plum Pink, €117. Sold as a man's accessory, but fabulous on a woman, like a man's watch. I snatched one from Le Duc: burgundy reversing to flame orange.

An elegant coat, well-priced for the fabric. Laundry double-faced wool wrap coat, $250 at Nordstrom (international shipping).

J. Crew are onto double faced as part of their retro-luxe Collection line. This piece is strato-priced but I predict will go deeply on sale, as a grand ($995) for a cashmere tee seems crazy. Watch for it drop and think, maybe. Very chic with a shirt under, rolled to the elbow, but you can do that with any knit tee.

Mulberry have designed an absolutely impeccable black double-faced duffle jacket, one of my all-time dream garments, with genuine horn buttons; if you keep the moths away, it would outlive you. Price, $1, 650 at Mulberry.

At a much lower price point: Talbots. Someone there still channels the days when they carried fabrics from Italian mills. 

This long wool jacket could work; the fabric is promising (wool with a touch of nylon) and unlike most double-faces, it's offered in colours like teal, iris and the marigold shown (as well as the neutrals). A classic dresser could pick this up with accessories; very Beene-ish. Price, $269. 

They also make a shorter jacket in ten colours and, though crazed by their wildly uneven quality and sizing, I applaud that they offer the jackets in misses, petite, woman's and woman's petite sizes.

Seek these fabrics for their satisfying substance, but pick something you love, as their durability is remarkable. And if you already have a double-faced piece, take your treasure for yet another ramble, as the leaves turn.

Safe to Smokin' with frankly fake retro

Retro rhinestone, resin and crystal jewelry has flounced onto the fall scene. These are probably not pieces you will wear for decades, but like a summer boyfriend, they can be terrific fun while they last.
Too much retro frou-frou jewelry plus a short skirt plus cats' eye makeup is probably overkill for those of us who remember this style from the '60s, but a touch of it really kicks up neutrals. Our fabulous Déjà Pseu shows how to wear a necklace in full possession of one's serene grown-up-ness:

Qu'elle est belle!

Now, just put the tip of your pinky over the necklace, being careful not to be fresh with the poitrine, there. See the difference? Her ensemble would be pleasing and current– but safe. She's added so much punch with her standout jewelry.

Even if you think you'd "would never wear this kind of thing", try one with your beloved basics. It's just the twist that moves Safe to Smokin'. 

Choose a corsage-wearing, full-crinoline piece of costume (or as it's often called "fashion") jewelry, deliberately busier and more opulent than if it were real, and pair with a denim or oxford shirt, jean jacket, solid-colour sweater or LBD; it's the contrast you're after.

Source: BaubleBar

Source: J. Crew

Photo: Lulu Frost

Even, chez J. Crew, a marinière:

Source: J. Crew Lookbook

I'd scout sales and flea markets, though pieces that once went for a few dollars are now anointed with trendiness.  

Look closely at construction, because if these necklaces break, they are tricky to impossible to repair. The lower-end examples have more glued-in than prong-set stones, but if the design is pleasing, two figures versus three is just fine!

Becker Minty vintage rhinestone flowers on adjustable chain, about $165:

J. Crew mixed crystal and resin, $150:

 BCBGMaxAzria drape leaf-stone necklace, $138:

From Aldo, the "Christie", $35! Heck, why not?

Amethyst Archipelego bib from BaubleBar, $36:

Badly-designed costume is a tatty mess; great costume, a joy in its own right but harder to find. 

When shopping, research the genuine-gem and precious metal versions first to build your eye. Proportion, balance, colourway and even an intangible zest can be, if not copied, at least echoed. The real deal, a lemon quartz and blue topaz necklace below, by Deborah Liebman is $5,400 at 1st Dibs.

Will I buy one of the costume charmers? Maybe. They're terrific for travel, to completely change the look of the sweater worn yesterday with a scarf, or to take a day outfit into evening.

Also, there's the Smile Factor: a cheeky, chunky necklace would give me a lift when it's shivery, and by February we need all the help we can get.

Decoding a 'simple life', Part Two: Times change

Blogland ably serves two ends of the consumption continuum: bulking up and simplicity (often aligned with frugality). For every earnest home-canner, there's a babe on shopping steroids swinging a Birkin. Like political parties, both sides cite identical, unimpeachable values (self-expression, creativity, autonomy) and have opposing tactics for their expression.   

There's room for the middle way, too, because ultimately you need a new coat or computer, and that's the Passage's beat: the intersection of value, aesthetics and ethics, or at least a purchase you can live with.

When I want inspiration, I head not to the loot blogs, but to the examples of simple-living, and one of the best is right within my extended family.

The gypsy caravan

Mike and Nika about to roll out on the maiden voyage

A recently-married couple, Nika and Mike, are members of my son's partner's family. They have built their own gypsy caravan, which is their home. You can read about the design and construction process at their inspiring blog, Mikeandnikamakeahome.

They have not sacrificed beauty for simple-living; every detail pleases the eye. They've been helped by many friends, a heartening version of the old barn-raising. 

They write, in their post "Why We Do What We Do" (June 4, 2013):

"We are eliminating as many “things” from our lives as we can (especially the ones that cost money) to lower our cost of living. If I decide that I would like something, I weigh how much I desire that thing with how it will change my life (how much money will it cost and will I have to earn more money?, where to store it?, will it need to be maintained through its life and what does that involve?, etc.). I find this in contrast to the way I observe most of American culture as wanting the biggest house/bank account/steak or the most vacation homes/cars/trophies."

When I was their age, I was interested in those trophies; a "he who dies with the most toys wins" ethos prevailed. I knew dedicated homesteaders and commune-dwellers, but somewhere along the way the Whole Earth Catalogue got replaced by Crate & Barrel's.

I didn't inherit my material desires from my Depression-era parents; in fact, I wondered why they didn't buy more. They invariably repied, "Why? We don't need it." The elevation of bulky-living was amplified by decades of middle-class wage gains and a distortion of American ambition and enthusiasm.

Years passed before I began to question, then curb, bulk. Many young adults are not like I was; like Mike and Nika, they are consciously creating lives of self-sufficiency and low consumption.

My generation are now reappraising, asking, as Marina did, what is enough. The reckoning must have started before the last recession, but 2009 ruptured reflexive buying habits, especially in the over-50 cohort, who have never regained their level of employment or income.

Simple-living is far more than tiring of stacks of crammed boxes or realizing you don't need an expensive bag. 

Nika and Mike on the larger implications of choice:

"There is a serious addiction to consumption and we have two choices:  
1. Continue on our path of consumption, CO2 and radioactive waste generation, and genetic biodiversity destruction (plant and animal) which will make life on this planet much more challenging, if possible at all, for our children and grandchildren, or
2. Learn to live in a way that is not destructive to the life-cycles of our planet. 
This second option requires a good deal of trail-blazing or remembering how our ancestors once lived. It is an interesting time to be alive to say the least.  

I do not believe that most people within consumptive culture are doing anything wrong, but don’t realize what is happening or are in too deep to know how to get out of the rat race. They are probably so busy and tired while trying to earn enough money to pay the bills. It is actually a luxury to be able to slow down, take it all in and figure out an alternative."

Le Duc and I are unlikely to build a caravan, but we can learn much from this resourceful couple and other young adults. And they from us, perhaps, as they watch us shed a glut of goods. Friends and acquaintances have grown more discerning, socially-conscious and debt-averse.

I'm eager to hear about your experiments in simple-living, and those of your children or friends.




Decoding a "simple life", Part One: Really?

My friend Marina visited recently and, over lunch on a sunny terrasse, suggested a blog topic: "How much is 'enough'? 

I smiled, knowing I'd been writing a post on "simple living". And rewriting, because the notion is curiously complicated.

People aver that they lead "a simple life", though often I think, Do they really? Do I?

Part of the problem is the definition of what, indeed, defines such a life. Wikipedia calls simple living "a voluntary practice...which includes reducing one's possessions or increasing self-sufficiency."

Probably the most-used word in the simple-living blogs and articles I've read is enough as in, What is enough for you? However, controlling quantity is only part of the approach, and, even if you get rid of superfluous possessions, simple living remains elusive.


The antonym of simplicity is not complexity, which takes us into more psychological territory, but bulk. Like the drag coefficient in aerodynamics, bulk cuts into the streamlined, light footprint sought by simple-living devotees.

My formula is: Bulk= Stuff + Habits + Income x Time, or, 
Bulk = SHIT.

You learn about all the cool stuff, the trophies and tchotkes you might possibly get; you develop habits of consumption (accepting false obsolescence, buying more than you need, buying for the endorphin hit), you spend big chunks of your income (or more). Time is the multiplier; as years pass, you devote ever more discretionary time to shopping, displaying and maintaining possessions.

We don't get a bulky life because we're greedy or dumb; we get it because at some point we literally bought a cultural message.

When I think of the messages I 'bought' during my early working life, the 1970s, they include:

1. Buying stuff is a reward for working hard. Wrapping a project, weathering a tough week or having my boss tell me he couldn't live without me = new shoes.

2. Buying with one's own money is the sign of a modern, autonomous, professional woman. I did feel powerful compared to my SAHM sister, who had to beg for shopping money from her husband. 

Though I worked for a time in the financial services industry, women were considered spenders, not investors, and scant effort was made to include them in financial education.

3. My possesions are "me"; they extend and cosset my identity. And as "me" evolves, all my stuff needs to change.

I had eras in clothing, furniture, all that stuff. Each time I thought it would be forever. Gee, sounds like my dating life, too.

4. Hiring people to perform all kinds of services for you is good for the economy. One of my friends said, "I awoke one morning and realized every dime I'd earn that day would go to someone else: government, dog walker, therapist, gym trainer, cab driver, barista...". She promptly quit everything but paying her taxes and getting her hair cut.

It took a good 15 years to break away from those messages, and at times I can still go there, especially #4. And a lot of retirees are sold an insidious version of #1: "You worked hard, you deserve this."

Faux simplicity

The simple life sounds responsible, noble, a worthy goal to have achieved by my age. But in truth, I'm only simplish.

A not-quite-earned claim to "simple living" isn't deceptive, just wishful thinking, something I intend to do like using the little gum massager the dentist hands out. 

The most common errors in claiming "a simple life" happen when confusing simplicity with

1. Minimalism
Our apartment looks spare and uncluttered, but it's a bit of a Potemkin village. Look in the bedroom and you'll see my shoes: 85%, regardless of season, are black, arranged on one short rack. Very pared-down.

Now, open a dresser drawer, and surprise! It's jammed with stuff I'd never miss if burgled:

Occasionally my troves prove useful (a summer visitor specifically requested glycerine soap), but mostly they are forgotten clots of disarray.

2. Low income
I once inferred an inverse relationship between income and simplicity, but then noticed some of the affluent women I know refuse bulk more consistently than those with modest means. 

In my struggling young-20s, I didn't have much stuff, but would have, if I could have afforded it. Somehow as the years passed, I segued from "One day I'm gonna have real bookshelves" to a basement warren jammed with volumes I hadn't opened in decades.

3. Skill
I know people who can build a house, make a harpsicord, dig a well. They are not necessarily living simply. DIY is part of the simple-living canon, but there is such a thing as too many handmade throw pillows. 

Hobbies practically guarantee bulking up, especially in the early stage of enthusiasm. Yes, you need the  tools and gear, but it's easy to get carried away. 

Sewers are a group who laugh at themselves about their pack-ratiness; don't try to tease cooks unless you want to be assaulted with a star-tipped pastry bag.

4. Age
Older people often look like they've simplified: they downsize homes, purge work wardrobes and give away stuff. But, if grandparents, they can merely  displace their consumption. As the manager of the children's department of a bookstore told me, "We love grandparents! They have no self-control."

Trimming down 

Over the summer, I dropped some services, beat back my Amazon habit, and  DIY'd various house projects. I'm bartering for painting lessons. Le Duc actually uttered the words "I'm glad I don't own a car"– admittedly, in June.

I requested "no gifts" for my birthday, which was taken by family as "she can't mean this", but their choices were non-bulky, heartfelt, and even handmade. And that Marni necklace from my co-mother-in-law? I'm so glad she ignored me!

I'm considering doing my own hair colour but last time I tried, the bathroom looked like a "Dexter" set thanks to the red dye splatters; we had to paint the entire wall times over.

So, how much is enough? I'm not sure, but find that reducing bulk has connected me far more immediately and profoundly to the beauty of the everyday world.

On Thursday, I'll introduce you to a young couple who have made a bold choice about how they live, but for now, let's hear from you!