Breathing time: December 23, early evening

Yesterday, I felt Montréal expand and contract, like bellows stoking a Yule log. 

The streets were curiously calm in a city of millions, as workers headed home, a lighter crowd than usual. A distinct note of excitement rode the arctic air. Café windows steamed, people grabbed a quick bag of groceries, things they would need in preparation for Christmas Eve's réveillon

This woman, Christmasy in her red coat, was at the market, buying cranberries for scones.

A young woman served, one eye on the clock; she too had somewhere to go in a half-hour...

 ...and a couple dragged their tree home.

The city simultaneously expanded with a burst of song: Christmas concerts, symphonies, céilidhs. Someone set up a xylophone on the street for passers-by to tap. Two teenaged boys sang a carol in harmony at a bus stop, with a little competition to hold the final note. 

There's an expansiveness of spirit, too. A sidewalk tree vendor posted a sign:

My friend Marina and I spent the evening in rapt conversation at our neighbourhood hangout, Notre Dame des Quilles. The house bought a round. 

Outside, a couple smoked; the young man's beret in silhouette. If you look straight down under the "A" you can just see its tip, which shifted as he bobbed to the music. 

And now it is the day of Christmas Eve, time to wish you happy holidays, as even the bus does here:


Your presence and comments have been a continual gift through the year; thank you for your ideas, stories and good will. I wish you all good things during your own breathing time.

I'll take the next two weeks off. See you in the Passage on January 7, 2014.

Merry Kiss-mas!

Guerlain Rouge G de Guerlain,$46
I have a love/hate relationship with luxury or "prestige" lipstick. I enjoy receiving one as a gift, or giving them. The sleek case, the weight of a solid tube in my hand, the appealing scent: purry, femmy pleasure.

But, when shopping for everyday use, I buy Revlon, Maybelline, Cover Girl—and if there's a BOGO sale, sister, stand back!

I asked a beauty editor of a North American fashion magazine if there is a distinct, evident benefit to prestige brands (Armani, Guerlain, Chanel) that justifies an increment of three to five times the price of drugstore brands. 

She said, "Packaging aside, no."  She requested anonymnity, because her magazine depends on ad revenue from those status companies.

Some brands may perform better on you than others, or you may prefer their weight. I like Clinique's Different Lipstick; Leslie will wear nothing but MAC's Pro Longwear line.

Getting the colour value

During party season, whether in $45 Guerlain or $7 Revlon, we want that lippie to last. Many times, it's not the product but the application that ensures good wear.

Five tips from makeup artist Troy Surrat:

1. Prep your lips
Lipstick adheres best when the skin on your lips isn't flaky; use a gentle exfoliator.

2. Choose a matte or nearly-matte finish over a glossy lipstick
These contain more pigment, especially in deeper shades.

3.  Apply with a brush
The pigment sinks into your lips better. Natural-bristle brushes are often too soft; I like Revlon's Covered Lip Brush, which is stiff enough and the right shape.

4. Apply two light layers
Blot between applications; this lifts a little moisture and leaves the pigment. Surratt recommends oil-blotting paper (this Japanese product would make a cool gift)—but I usually use a tissue.

5. Don't add gloss on top
The moist top layer will break down the pigment.

Some women praise lipstick fixative, especially Sealed With a Kiss, which I've never tried. Have you?

The unbudgeable option

If I absolutely do not want that colour to lift, I wear Cover Girl Outlast All-Day, queen of the paint-ons, usually in a Bobbi-Brownish neutral, "Naturalast #545". 

With Outlast, you do use gloss (included) on top, and reapply occasionally. You can also use the Outlast colour as a base, and apply your favourite coordinating lipstick on top, but it will not last as long.

My friend Sandi wore Outlast "Ever Red-dy" for her son's wedding; it stayed richly red from 3 pm. vows through midnight sliders, with no smearing. Your party hosts, who will not have to launder lipstick stains out of their table linen, will thank you, too. 

After an evening in Outlast, I condition my lips with a rich night cream, because it's drying.

Discount luxe

Make Up For Ever, $22
If you prefer the pricier brands, there are ways to get posh paint for less. 

eBay vendors offer brands like Nars, Poppy King or Make Up For Ever at much less than the department store counter or seductive Sephora; if you don't need a certain shade for tonight's party, put the product on your watch list. 

Helen took me to a recent L'Oréal warehouse sale, which featured many of their brands (Armani, Kiehl's, Lancôme, Shu Uemara), at less than half retail price. The sales are advertised in city-specific discount-shopper sites; some are by invitation only. There, we found selected shades of Lancôme lipstick for $4! 

The gift-with-purchase offer endures, for brands like Lancôme, Clinique and Shishedo, and store loyalty programs allow you to trade points for makeup. 

Tarte  lipstick,  $18
I don't do GWP anymore, since I accumulated a heap of skin products I don't use and weird eyeshadow colours. Better for me to buy only the product I want.

A satiny, gleaming new lipstick is a dependable spirit-lifter. A friend and I once bought a big lot on eBay, chose a few for ourselves, and donated the rest to a women's shelter, where we were told it was enthusiastically received.

Why has your favourite brand earned your affection?

Any tips for a full evening's vibrant wear? Mwwwah!


The vanishing point of perfumes you loved

Passing a department-store perfume counter, I noticed a holiday display for Clinique's Aromatics Elixir. I picked up the tester of the Limited Edition version, recalling the exotic, heady concoction of the '80s; only a scant half-spray had unleashed a massive rose-patchouli powerhouse.

Instead, I was "treated" to a shock. Apparently Clinique saw fit to slather on orange flower and peach "to add a creaminess" to this flanker, dumbing down the scent to an incoherent, sweet sludge.

The 'unlimited' (supposedly original) version was no better. Aromatics used to be that interesting girl in a brocade vest who sold silver earrings in a boutique for a little while, before heading back to Goa; now, she's at a backyard bar-be-que in the suburbs, with a blowout.

I began to research the current editions of perfumes I once coveted. The news is dire; nearly every beloved grande dame classic is a ghost of itself: Rive Gauche, Diorella, Fidji, Arpege, Allure; the idiosyncratic Caron scents like Vol de Nuit and Tabac Blonde. Givenchy's L'Interdit is now stale strawberry gum.

My longtime signature, Norell, has been demoted from Casablancan madam to pleasant bank teller.  

Essentially, if you remember it from when you got carded in a bar, you don't want it anymore. Though even scents created in the '90s have been altered, those dating from the '60s or earlier have had more work done than a septagenarian movie star.

The outstanding perfume blog Now Smell This has contributed a post about the whys of this depressing practice; in summary, they give three reasons:

1. Profit (first, foremost and always denied as the reason by the house). As Luca Turin says, "The beancounters have triumphed over the noses."
2. Banning of products, namely oakmoss, and therefore, the effects of  synthetic replacements, and
3. Pandering to the "new tastes", mostly an eye to expansion to customer bases unfamiliar with the heady, assertive scents of the previous century. (See #1.)

Hard-core devotées scour vintage dealers, but one person commented on Now Smell This, "Give up. Never revisit the old scents."

Like many women, I have two perfume wardrobes: one is the evening side of the drawer, those lush, red-curtain bottles with knockout sillage. In them, I feel glamourous, reckless, hopeful. I have even been obsessed with some. These are the close dancers, the perfumes, not "scents".

The other side is daytime (and not necessarily worn only then): light but not boring. They go anywhere, and once there, stay politely within your personal space. For some time, I have included at least one natural fragrance in this mix, in case the scent-adverse stray too close. 

Given my low-key life, these are the bottles I go through quickly, even though Le Duc prefers the evening ones.

Looking for love

If I must abandon my old paramours, who is next?

For the past two years, I've ordered sample-sized decants from LuckyScent and IndieScents and dropped by perfume counters, with special attention to the niche players whom, I hope, have more integrity than the giants.

Too many of the decants dried down to frothy, indistinct blends for twenty-somethings. Even if the site's copy conjured a siren in a red silk slip, the sample took me to Dairy Queen. 

Even so, I found standouts: for evening, Malle's "Parfum pour Térese" and Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier's "La Reine Margot"; for day, Hermès' "Un Jardin Sur le Nil" and Serge Lutens' "La Fille de Berlin".

For a spritz to keep in my gym locker, I bought a bottle of Sarah Jessica Parker's "Lovely"; it has short staying power, but it's pretty, not cloying, and as well-balanced as many frags four times the price.

I'm still searching for the must-always-have-a-bottle, flagrant love like I had for the originals of Lancome's "Magie Noir",  and "Montana Parfum de Peau". 

Have you noticed, few department stores hand out actual samples anymore? They spray a card and hand it to you, as if you are made of paper. The best you can get is a spray on the wrist, which nine times out of ten, settles into an insipid haze. 

What's the top-selling fragrance of 2013? Justin Bieber Girlfriend. 

Says it all, doesn't it?

Holiday treats: Getting poached, going nuts

Now that most of our friends are older—and even with our adult children—we often ask, when invited to dinner, if we can contribute the dessert course.

Le Duc, who never met a cake he could not coax into a ganache-filled cloud, and who rolls pâte sablé with unflappable elan, usually found fruit-based desserts unpromising. But as we age, he has retreated from those super-rich treats. Also, he realizes that, if free to choose, I will cook it.

This winter, I am bringing David Lebovitz' recipe for poached pears, a magical dessert, light but flavourful, pleasing to just-a-taste as well as "I'm saving myself for dessert" types, and adaptable to calorie-reduced diets (sort of.)

I faithfully follow Lebovitz' recipe for poaching, including his variation of the addition of a good handful of dried sour cherries; the resulting syrup is redolent of spices you can't quite pin down. To add that "sinful quality" I pass a bowl of mascarpone, another of toasted almonds, and offer a plate of sliced paneforte, but spice cake or cookies would be delicious, too.

A guest can choose the relatively austere pears (even with no syrup, you can taste the flavour in the fruit) or ramp it up to the full mascarpone Monty. Lebovitz' readers have offered many variations in the comments section.

A gift tradition

As I do each holiday season, I'm reposting a candied nuts recipe. They're festively irresistible, and can be made last-minute, only 10 minutes to prep and 30 to bake. 

The recipe is perfect to make with a young cook; children instinctively enjoy the pleasure of making something special to give.

Sugar and Spice Candied Nuts

1/3 cup dark-brown sugar
2/3 cup white granulated sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
Generous pinch cayenne pepper
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 lb. walnut or pecan halves, or whole peeled hazelnuts
1 egg white, room temperature
1 Tbsp water

1. Preheat oven to 300F
2. Mix sugars, salt, cayenne and cinnamon, making sure there are no lumps; set aside.
3. Beat egg white and water until frothy but not stiff. Add nuts, stir to coat evenly. Sprinkle nuts with sugar mixture, toss until evenly coated.
4. Spread nuts in a single layer on a parchment-covered baking pan. Bake 30 min., stirring occasionally.
5. Remove from oven and separate nuts as they cool. Transfer to bowl and break apart any nuts that stick together.

To give as a gift, package in a mason jar, tin or paper cone.

What are your favourite "I'll bring dessert" choices?

Pearls: A ripple of interest

A pearl moment: "Kasumi-type" or "ripple" pearls. My take is, interesting choice for the woman who does not want (or already has) the more classic whites or greys.

Genuine Kasumis are freshwater pearls are produced only in one place, north of Tokyo, at Lake Kasumi-ga-Ura, Japan. Production, never high, paused because of environmental conditions in the '80s, and resumed a decade later. They are prized for intense orient and luster and spectacular natural colours (white, champagne, pinks, purples, bronze). 

The shape is off-round to baroque, and the skin of the pearl will be rippled or even wrinkly, like a raisin. The more deeply wrinkled, the less valuable the pearl; some are extremely furrowed, but they should not have dark pits, blotchy spots, or areas where the nacre is uneven. 

Here's a fine Kasumi necklace (11.5mm-14.3mm) from Kojima Company; price, $6,300. Breathtaking and instructive as a benchmark; you can see the liveliness that have made Kasumis collectors' darlings.

Kojima fine Kasumis

Enter, ca. 2009, the Chinese, who set out to culture a very close look-alike by creating a hybrid of two freshwater mussel species (Hyriopsis Schlegelii and Hyriopsis Cumingii); the product is called "ripple pearls" or "Kasumi-type pearls", and sometimes "China Kasumi".

As the Chinese mastered the cultivation, price has dropped from the initial lots, making a gleamy strand available at the price of a lot of costume jewelry. They are making big ones (using bead nucleation), from 9mm up to gumball 15mms.

Pearls of Joy, a reputable vendor, have a number of deep coppery-pink strands on sale, with free shipping, till year-end. This 11mm-15mm strand is $297; plus $30 for stringing and a clasp. (This exact strand may be sold; there are similar ones listed.) 

If I were ordering, I would ask which of the strands have the best and most even colouration; it is hard to see on a monitor. (Le Duc is threatening to put a pearl blocker on my Mac!)

Pearls of Joy ripple strand

The Kasumi-type is also available in a softer palette. Kojima Company, who are also having a 15% off sale (and $20 to ship anywhere) showed this dreamy peach/pink ripple pearl strand with its enchanting array of colours; price, $504 (minus 15% during sale). Stringing and a basic clasp at no charge.

Kojima ripple pearls in soft colours

Catherine Cardellini, an Australian vendor, lists dozens of ripple pearl strands on her site. She often makes her necklaces with tiny spacer beads rather than knots, but will string with classic knots at times, or on request.

See the search option at the bottom of the page if you know what you're looking for. I entered "ripple". I have not examined her pearls, anyone reading who can give your take?

These huge lavender ripples (13mm to 15mm) are one of many listings; price, about $900 US, plus shipping.

Catherine Cardellini lavender ripples

A pair of earrings brings you ripples without such a big investment; I often advise women to choose a pair of top-quality earrings or pendant instead of an 'OK' necklace.

My photo at far right shows 14mm pinky-purple Kasumi-type pair, made by the wonderful Québecoise jeweler Céline Bourré of Kokass, have nearly smooth skins and wild iridescence; I could not have afforded a strand of that quality!

Kojima Company currently offer a Chinese iridescent ripple pair set in rhodium-plated silver for $162 (sale price, about $138):

Women will always love their pristine, elegant Mad Men round whites, but if you would enjoy striking pearls you can wear with casual clothes, full of colour and character, catch on to ripples. 

A Christmas gift to ones' self? I don't see why not; haven't you been a very good girl?


Downton Abbey's flapper finery

I have two usb keys in my purse. Both contain Season 4 of "Downton Abbey", provided via a son who knows how to delight his mother. (The series launched in North America on Dec. 1.)

The keys are for two friends who have avoided the UK chat rooms, and thrumming with anticipation, will spend till the next night or two up late, in a haze of stately-home bliss. 

Season Four's clothes shift to the '20s; for the wealthy, the period between the two wars offered sumptuous fabrics for bodies newly-freed of pre-war boned corsets. Costume-wise, Season Four features the best wardrobe yet, especially the evening wear, heavy on beading, embroideries and art nouveau jewelry.

Lady Edith escapes dowdiness to embrace the halter neckline, finger waves, and a lover:

With Lady Mary in mourning attire, and Lady Rose too young to really strut, Edith snags the most alluring gowns:

Ensembles like Lady Edith's traveling suit taxed the wardrobe team's skills and the show's budget.

Lady Cora makes me want to give up jeans forever, to wear languid tunics over skirts:

And the pearls! The Countess still wears hers in nearly every episode:

Lady Mary, an ivory obelisk stunning even in grief, wears this flapper sautoir:

Lady Rose, the youngest, could step into today's Brora catalog, though 90 years have passed. Knit sportswear was new in the '20s, and like now, the young were the early adopters.

Today's Counties girl looks much the same in her cashmere Fair Isle.

This season's "Downton" reaffirmed the enduring grace of a velvet jacket, silk blouse, fine wool skirt: that sensibility. ("What", I imagine the Dowager Duchess intoning, is a logo?")  After Season Four, running shoes have never looked so uninspiring. They wore heels, but they could walk in them!

The intervening 90 years have brought us welcome innovations (especially the ability to incorporate stretch into nearly any fiber), but we seem to have forgotten a good deal about tailoring.

Below, some of the cast in present-day attire. Michelle Dockery's Elie Saab shorts suit is of the moment, but can't touch the elegance of her Season Four drop-waisted dress:


Of course, not everyone on the estate could afford those luscious hand-sewn embroideries and dense velvets, nor can I today. 

But what wonders were shown on the women in Downton's principle rooms and boudoirs! I was enchanted, and mourned that clothes sold at the end of 2013 retain only remnants of that workmanship.


The Third Layer: Light, warm essential

Here's a useful French adjective: frileux. It means "sensitive to cold", which describes the state of most of my post-50 friends, from early fall through late spring.

When hot flashes abate, the other end of the body-temp spectrum kicks in, assisted by air conditioning or blasts of wind. 

The shirt you'd hoped to wear three seasons is suddenly limited to a month. And travel! If ever caught touring when your thin cotton sweater might as well be transparent, you will welcome  the Third Layer, an underlayer that adds warmth, not bulk.

The new microfibers

I have collected a supply of camisoles and lingerie tanks in Montréal, a famously frigid city, so when Adea offered me a test of one of their Italian-milled microfiber pieces, I accepted. (This is the only piece in the post that I did not buy myself.)

They sent a black spaghetti-strap cami ($49), which I wore for several weeks, testing it against similar ones already in my drawer: a poly-stretch cami (about $15 on sale from Lord & Taylor), a Cuddl Duds "climatesmart" (polyester) tank ($26 from The Bay), and a Hanro Touch-feeling microfiber ($90 from Garnet Hill). 

The last two, along with the Adea, market themselves as "breathable" microfiber, wicking moisture away from the skin.

While the L&T cami will bathe me in clammy sweat if I walk too quickly, the other products calmly adjust; I've worn them both indoors and out, in temperatures from 39F (4C) to about 70F (21C).

Adea spaghetti-strap cami
If one can apply the term "plush" to microfiber, Adea's Italian-milled fabric was the soft, snuggly embodiment. 

The hand was springier and more velvety than the L&T piece, no surprise, and as beautifully finished as the Hanro, but a touch thicker. Hands-down nicer than Cuddl Duds, which pilled at the underarm. 

Normally I prefer natural fibers, but Adea and Hanro are clearly the sleek new generation of synthetics.

If the tee styles peeked from under a sweater or jacket, it won't look like my underwear is showing.

Many of Adea's camis, tanks and layering pieces are made in a dazzling range of colour; in the dead of winter, chiffon (a soft yellow) or rose red deliver a distinct lift. They offer the neutrals, too, in Italian hues like espresso and butercream.

The 3/4 sleeve scoopneck layering top would travel from airline cabin to bistro dinner. Price, $74. (The 3/4 sleeve V-neck layering top is $20 more. Why?) And since it breathes, you could even sleep in one!

A luxurious Third Layer is a thoughtful gift, and, in an unexpected shade like eggplant (shown above) makes a piquant surprise for une femme frileuse.

Sizing ranges from 2 (US 0-4) to 3x (US 20-22); see the size chart on the site,  here. Adea provide a 30-day return policy and free shipping to Canada and the US.

Other fibers


Silk insulates, breathes and washes well, so I wear and recommend Lands' End's silk pointelle; price for a sleeveless tank, $40. My LE top is not as huggy as the microfibers, nor is the colour as fast; the black fades over time.

Hanro's  70% wool/30 & 30 % silk blend Warmwear is terrific too, but at $110 for a short-sleeved v-neck, a premium-priced chill chaser.

Fine merino

I also have a couple of fine merino base layers, similar to MacPac's merino cami; price, about $39. This is a sportier piece, useful for cycling, climbing or skating, but a little heavy once you get indoors. On the road, you need at least a full overnight to dry them after handwashing.

In summary, the high-quality microfibers are versatile and launder beautifully, drying in a few hours. The merinos are good for sports—some are treated to resist odor-causing microbes—but may be too casual for other occasions. Fine silk knit is a good light insulator, especially if you don't tolerate wool, but the colour range is limited to neutrals and pastels, and when it shows, it looks exactly like what it is, your underwear.

I'd take the microfibers on a trip, hands down; their usefulness makes the cost bearable.

Have you found your sensitivity to cold has changed? How do you manage?