Of good cheer: Festive tidbits

Wrapped up with a bow, a few merry moments and one enlightening one, before the Passage closes for our holiday break. (We will re-open January 6, 2015.)

I wish you a warm, peaceful and restorative connection to those you love, in person or in memory.

Songza: Instant DJ for free
Free music provided as playlists (genres, moods, decades). Just released: a version for computers. You can get it here. Check out the smooth-as-eggnog "Christmas Sirens" or for Hannukah, "Tuchas-Shakers for Your Friends"! The occasional ad kicks off some, but I'm calling Sognza the best freebie since banks gave toasters.

Brain Pickings: Enlightening and erudite
Maria Popova's Brain Pickings makes me a better person through her generous sharing of writings in philosophy, science, and art. 

In a timely post this week, Popova includes Margaret Mead's response to parents who asked if they should tell children the Santa Claus myth. 

Eddie Izzard on the creation and dinosaurs (11 min.) 
(Note: I'm able to view both videos in this post using Google Chrome.)
(Advisory: Biblical irreverence, language, and high heels... on Eddie.)

Overwhelmed? You're Not Alone (1:46)
An original "Candid Camera" clip. She must be in her sixties now, but I still want to hug her.

Suzy Menkes: Singular style, stellar career

Always had a big fashiony crush on Suzy Menkes, until recently the longtime International New York Times (I'm old enough to still call it the Herald Tribune) Fashion Editor, now at Vogue as International Fashion Editor.

She's not the usual fashion editor type: check the map-of-England face, offbeat pompadour ("I got sick of my hair falling in my face") and ample figure.

Menkes, who auctioned off her wardrobe and accessories at Christie's last year, claimed to have discarded nothing since 1964. She was always a big woman; to see her in a Harper's Bazaar slideshow, in four decades of wild chiffons, prints and brocades is to be buoyed by her verve. 

She has said, "Fashion ultimately is designed to cover the human body, to give you joy, to make you feel better", and "...That's what I love, real luxury, the kind of luxury you can feel and smell—I will always spend the extra money to get a silk vest, not a cotton vest."

In preparing her wardrobe for auction (because she ran out of storage space) she said, "...going through my personal collection...taught me a lot about myself... I am an untypical fashion editor, who has totally failed to sculpt a day-to-night wardrobe out of a block of black outfits. And that I love color! Black—who needs it?"

At seventy, Menkes has apparently kept her integrity (she returns or donates designer swag) and heart. After the 2013 Bangladesh garment factory tragedy, she said: "...It's not just about the manufacturers putting money into safer practices, it's about the consumer—we need to realize that it's morally wrong to buy a bikini for the same price as a cappuccino."  

I adore Suzy Menkes for wearing ensembles like these:

She does in fact wear black occasionally, but softened by transparency and texture:

But more often, black is the base for an overlay of vibrant colour in the highest-quality fabrics:

With Menkes' departure and Cathy Horyn's retirement, the New York Times Syle section loses two distinct voices. But we can still read Menkes via Vogue, and here's a treat: her piece on how a present day Cool Girl's wedding dress echoes her '70s Ossie Clark. (Who else can write, "I called up Celia (Birtwell) who, along with Zandra Rhodes, was the greatest hand-printer of them all...").

As 2014 draws to a close, a Menkes-minded New Year's resolution shapes up: to live my elder years with her example of exuberant elegance in mind.   

Earrings for dinner

You decide to meet a girlfriend for dinner somewhere decent; you have a glass of wine, split dessert. 

That was fun! With tax and tip, you've spent $60, maybe more if it's Friday night and you decompress via an extra glass.

In the windows today, artisan-made earrings for the price of dinner or less, which is not to imply you shouldn't have that sympatico night instead of zhuzhing your longtime favourite jacket via new earrings.  

Let's shop the jewelry category I've dubbed Relaxed Real. (And given that so many readers are on watchful budgets, I'll be posting more often on Relaxed Real than on fabulous pieces.)

Relaxed Real materials are noble but sometimes the metal is silver or gold plate—just fine on earrings, which aren't subject to the friction of rings. You'll also see bronze, brass or other alloys, but even among less-costly materials, well-made pieces exist. I make room in the category for resins, glass and rubber and wood but not shiny-slick plastic, and look for well-executed jewelry-fabrication techniques such as joints, setting (versus gluing) and design quality.

Here too, you will find repurposed bits such as odd beads, or 'marriages', combining elements from salvaged pieces. (I dressed today's window with pieces from Etsy so that readers worldwide could access them.)

The use of bronze adds a sculptural presence to art noveau earrings; from Etsy seller Mocahete, who say these are very lightweight. I think they'd look enchanting. Price, $58.

Geometric grey resin cabochon earrings framed in antiqued brass provide quiet cool for the price of the entrée; $14.50 from Etsy seller picturing.

If you love your boho chic and want a luscious shot of colour, consider 1.25-inch hoops of solid sterling, hand-hammered and accented with 2mm blue amazonite beads. (Also made with other stones.) Price, $31 from Etsy seller ArtistiKat. 

Many readers applaud the beauty of glass; I concur! Glass briolettes meld gemmy colour with manageable price; the offerings from ilexiadesigns come in so many arresting combos I could hardly pick—but finally settled on fuchsia and grey dangles with (plated) silver setting; price, $28. 

You know I'm going to get pearls in here! This pair of silk tassel, cloisonné and seed pearl dangles display detail in the design and sophisticated contrasting colours. Also, it's fun to get a parcel from New Zealand! From ThePillowBook; price, $32.

Haven't forgotten you stud wearers: a smart, seasonal pair of art deco snowflake stud earrings made from glass cabuchons secured to stainless steel posts; price, $19. And you'd be Buying Canadian—from New Brunswick artisan WildWoman Jewelry.

Some of my own Relaxed Real earrings are worn more than precious pairs; it's all in finding a well-made, pleasing design. Each of these would sing as a Christimas or birthday gift, too. The only thing to check is the vendor's exchange policy, but if she admires your pair, I doubt she's sending hers back!

A trip to Clutterville

I recently spent a week as a guest in Rachel's home. Though we have been very close friends for at least 15 years, I had never before set foot there.

During my years in my former city, where she still lives, I didn't give it more than occasional thought; we lived at opposite ends of a metropolis, and often met halfway, after work or on Saturday morning for breakfast. But now, newly empty-nested, she invited me to stay.

And I learned why her home has been off limits.

She quoted her mother: "Everything is all over everywhere!" Rachel had to come out of the bulging closet; she's a Clutter Queen, with emphasis on books, papers, CDs, file folders. Beauty products, kitchen gear, clothes.

Rachel's desk (facsimile)
If forewarned, I'd predict an uneasy perch amid the mess. But I wholly enjoyed visiting for two reasons: first, because despite teetering piles, the house was immaculate, and second, her vibrant decor enveloped me in busy beauty, something to delight the eye at every corner. 

Rachel's possessions decorate her like the ribbons the birds draped around Wendy in Disney's "Peter Pan". I admit that on the first night, while trying to fall asleep in a bedroom festooned with a daughter's left-behind hats, vertiginous heels, and more makeup than a Sephora warehouse (is this hereditary?) I mentally shopped the Ikea catalog for a massive Billy System injection. Then I realized this 'muchness' matches Rachel's exuberant, generous nature.  

She says one reason why she has amassed so much is to heal the effects of a childhood of frequent moves, in which she was often forced to abandon her toys and books.

My desk (actual)
When another friend visited my home, she looked at my desk and asked "But where do you keep everything?" The answer is, I have no 'everything'. And yet I'm taking time today for another clean-out. 

You Have to Keep on Top of It is the motto of the clutter-averse. 

If you're unhappy about your plenitude, purge mercilessly, arrange what's left in spruce containers (I like Semikolon), and request that your loved ones give gifts you can use up. 

Rachel's home was no less welcoming for its genial jumble; on my return journey I reflected on why some of us yearn for the spare and orderly while others embrace an overflowing bounty.

Which are you? Are you happy that way?

The myth of "How to Look Like a French Woman"

I have noticed a recent backlash against the exalted position French women hold in the universe of style. Increasingly peevish comments are left on blogs that discuss "the secret of the French woman's style" or "how to dress like a Parisienne".

Though hordes of females still salivate over the latest images of chic françaises, the world has changed. A woman in Saskatoon might go out with her soignée French cousin, and you can't spot who's Prairies, who's Parisienne.

The reasons?

1. A woman anywhere can build her eye via blogs, online merchants' pages, and street photography like The Sartorialist— even by news coverage. She can parse Christine Lagarde's pearls or Ines de la Fressange's shrunken blazers, and is indirectly supported by abundant examples.

When Janice Riggs of The Vivienne Files encourages her to wear navy with black, she thinks, "Well, OK!" All of these exposures lead to a different aesthetic than the more-coordinated North American look with which many of us over-50s grew up, and I still see in most upscale mall display.

2. Much wider distribution of goods that were once available only in world capitols. In the late '80s, the only way I could get Eric Bompard sweaters was to travel. Now, a click and the package from the happy goat drops onto my doorstep within days. 

And jewelery! Vintage treasures once discovered in the tiny salon known only to locals can be ordered from online sites; Beladora's B2 is one of my favourite haunts. Susie pins a Victorian seed pearl snowflake on her blazer, rafinée as a Rive Gauche gamine.

Saskatoon Susie is now limited only by her means, but so is Parisienne Paule. Susie may be paying shipping and duty, but that's cheaper than a plane ticket.

No longer captive of her town's limited stock, she too can leave the top with the badly-matched pattern on the rack. Unless she truly lives in the back of beyond, she can find a good tailor to have her dress fitted precisely. 

3. As a result of the preceding factors, Susie is as savvy a consumer as her French cousin. She looks askance at fads and follies, from $300 gold-dust-flecked face creams to the dominion of the skinny jean. 

Susie knows, as certainly as French women, what looks and feels good on her, so buys bootcuts because they balance her silhouette, and smiles indulgently when European fashion editors dub Sorel boots fashionable; she is on her eleventh pair.

She, like Paule, has established a consistent wardrobe palette, hair style, grooming routine and irresistible temptation (Cadbury Fruit and Nut bar).  

The distinction is not between French women and everyone else; it's between women who make considered choices and those who buy from boredom, insecurity, or the belief that they need to wear something different every day.

Thirty years on

Thirty years ago, there was way more visual evidence about country of origin: the North American women I saw in Paris were more obviously made-up and coiffed, and interested in head-to-toe designer ensembles. Now, it's harder to spot the differences, thanks in part to those YouTube scarf-tying videos.

Even the body sizes have come closer together. Younger Frenchwomen have grown taller, and the average French dress size is edging up toward 12. Sometimes I default to whether she is smoking; about 30% of French women do (versus 20% of American and 17.5% of Canadian women), and the habit is on the rise among youth in France.

Attitudinal differences endure, however. 

My French women friends are less likely to buy as much (there are defined periods for sales, twice a year only, and they live in smaller spaces) and don't turn over their wardrobes as often. For her daughter's City Hall wedding, Danièle wore a midnight blue velvet blazer that I remembered from a dozen years before.

Dressing well is considered a kind of civic duty, like planting your window boxes even if you can't see the blooms from inside your apartment.

Ça suffit!

Courtesy dress.ankletts.com
I say, enough of books and boards of French wardrobe essentials, style secrets and how not to get fat—an endless recycling of hackneyed "advice". 

But I am equally annoyed by the reflexive, defensive dismissal of everything French-style-related. I suspect those francophobes are sick of being told, implicitly, that they don't measure up. Their rationale is usually, "I saw some badly-dressed women in Paris." Given the city contains over 2.3 million residents and 7 million visitors a year, some are bound to look less than appealing.

There is room for appreciation of Hermès and the The Gap, for the allongé and the double-double. We can applaud the verve of the woman from elsewhere and celebrate our own estimable qualities; the world is big enough, and so are we.  

Now for some fun! Here are five friends, all "of a certain age". Who is French and who is North American? I'll post the *answers on Tuesday Dec. 16, at the bottom of this post.

1. Alice

2. Christine
3. Marie

4. Eleanor

5. Laura

*Answers: The Frenchwomen are #1 (who now lives in Toronto), and #4, a lifelong Parisienne. #2: a Brit who has lived  for the past 25 years in Texas and North Carolina; #3 and #5: native Montréalaises.

Toward a more relaxed festive season

As often as I hear expressions of anticipation about the holiday season, I hear complaints: so much work, too many heavy meals, the pressure of buying gifts.

Some years ago, I set out to reduce such stressors. Some ideas listed are common sense, but others turned traditional behaviours on their stocking-capped heads. 

1. Stop giving material gifts to those over twelve
For local friends and family, take them out (later) for lunch, tea, a performance, skating—whatever you two would enjoy. Cost: $10 to the sky, and no one has to make houseroom for an object. (You could treat distant recipients when you see them.) There may be a few family members for whom you wish to box up a well-chosen object, but getting rid of most shopping gives energy to choose more pleasurably for the few that remain.

Many readers donate to charities in their friends' names, as my girlfriends and I now do.

For a delightful hostess gift, a recipe from the much-loved Canadian food writer Bonnie Stern for a decadent white chocolate-peppermint bark takes minutes to make and accommodates many variations. (You can also make it with 70% dark chocolate, and add 1/4 cup each of two of the following: candied ginger, candied orange peel, or dried cranberries.) 

2. Postpone your party
The season is designed to create overload; in December, parties pile up like a heap of coats on a bed. Wait till February and throw a Beat the Blues party, where you play old blues records, serve blue corn chips and dip, blue cheese mac-and-cheese, blueberry tart, and drink blue champagne or Labatt Blue. 

People will have more fun when your event is not the fourth of the week. If you must host a holiday party, invite guests for a cinq-à-sept (or six-à-huit) or afternoon open house instead of a full dinner.  

3. Retire traditions, selectively
Always bake twenty types of cookies? Decorate every room in the house? Carol till you're hoarse? Ask yourself, "What do I most enjoy?" and let the rest go.

A family may reflexively follow traditions that they no longer cherish. Chez nous, for example, we stopped buying a tree, reduced decorating, and cut out cards —but I love to put on Christmas jazz and bake, so continue to romance the yeast and butter. 

On December 1, one son's roommate, in a munchie-induced fugue, ate all the chocolates out of his Advent calendar in one sitting; I think it's time to 86 that tradition!

4. Give a heartfelt hand
I often wonder why stores are so crammed and nursing homes so quiet. Pay a visit, volunteer to cook or serve a community meal, wrap gifts for a social service agency, shovel someone's walk, take a neighbour's child for the day so she can finish her own tasks. You know what needs doing. 

5. Go elsewhere for once
Some ideas from friends and acquaintances:
-  A single mother is taking her two children to a resort as the sole Christmas gift for everyone. (Travel costs can be horrendously high just before Christmas, but travel on the 25th is often deeply discounted.)
-  A woman bartered her work for a Thursday-to-Sunday stay at an acquaintance's chalet
-  A recently-widowed woman will spend Christmas visiting a friend since childhood, now widowed too, and living in France
- A couple have registered for a retreat at a local Buddhist center
- A family of four will help build a school in a developing country, a project led by their congregation
- A friend is returning to her childhood home to care for her elderly father while her sister and brother-in-law, who are the live-in caregivers, take a break. 

By "going somewhere else" I'd also include fellowship events outside your usual sphere. At such a service this month, I learned about other traditions by joining the congregants' service and sharing a meal. It's not necessary to hold any faith or affiliation to attend the many services, lectures, concerts or community meals open to the public.

We are very flexible about when our children visit us, and host a leisurely gathering a day or two after Christmas so that our young adults do not race over icy roads to be sure each set of parents is seen on Christmas Day. 

6. Decline, occasionally
Invitations are like emotional peanuts: can't stop at one. It's so easy to keep saying yes to another soirée or, for that matter, cup of eggnog. 

But permitting ones' self to say no-thank-you makes the yeses more enjoyable. Don't feel you must accept every invitation you receive (unless you really want to attend). If your presence is non-negotiable, it is often enough to drop in for an apéritif, then wish the endurance revelers good evening. 

I remember Dorothy M., our friend Don's mom. Don visited us around 9 p.m. every Christmas, which is when Dorothy, caving under the tension of producing yet another mammoth family dinner, would collapse in tears. He and his siblings would do the dishes and then clear out so Dottie could decompress in her bath with a large sherry.

She's gone now, but she represents women who think we have to do it all, and double down for the holidays. There's nothing wrong with a nice restorative sherry, but why not lighten the load so the season engenders joy rather than tension?

Peas, please!

One story says the pea coat (probably from the Dutch pijjaker, a jacket of coarse wool) originated with Dutch sailors over 200 years ago; there are other acccounts of its provenance, but regardless of fact or fiction, the garment endures for a reason: the insouciant-yet-functional coat is long enough to cover the hips, short enough not to create uncomfortable bulk while driving. Like its cousin the duffle, peas protect both sexes of all ages, while lending a snappy-salty air.

Some women avoid double-breasted styles, but seeing the pea coats on several voluptuous friends, I noticed the double row of buttons actually elongates, when the entire coat fits well. 

Options are numerous as Christmas trees on a city lot, and today's windows are overflowing with peas!

Wild peas

J. Crew's Majesty Pea (regularly about $325, but on sale if you hit the right day) comes in a turquoise that thumbs its naval nose at winter darks.

Holy flippin' Admiral! Michael Kors makes one in leopard; on sale via House of Fraser, £200:

Lauren (Ralph Lauren) have re-imagined the coat as a down puffer. At first I thought this might deliver the best of both worlds, but it doesn't cover the hips. I do like that it's washable. Price, about $250.

Classics, in degrees of warmth

Land's End "luxe" pea comes in colours like plum and red, but if camel is your palette, consider the vicuna. Price about $200; again, LE run frequent promotions and free shipping offers. 

They also carry the coat lined with Thinsulate, but only in neutrals, and a "luxe edition", in regent blue with dark-brown buttons, now on sale (limited sizes) for about $110. (Reading the reviews, I see some women changed the buttons, one of my favourite tricks.)

Bonjour, Brittany!

The French pea coat (caban), in classic navy, from a Breton vendor whom I recommend, Chal Loisir is like dropping anchor in a calm port after those wilder options.

The "Isabelle Hiver" comes in sizes up to a French 52 (see chest measurements on site), and has a soft matelassé lining as well as the requisite and reassuring details. Price, €242 which includes a free lambswool tartan scarf. 

A lighter-weight model, simply called "Isabelle" is also on the site, as well as the uber-preppy "St. Briac" from the temple of French BCBG, St. James.

Posh peas

The Brits have staked their own claim to peas.

I admire Brora's Linton tweed pea coat (£425), which looks like a double-breasted coat to me. Made in an evocative tweed (Linton also supply Chanel), with Liberty-print lining, this is one classy topper nonetheless.

Brora also offer a serene Delft blue textured tweed, another Linton fabric, which they also call a "pea coat". The price reflects that provenance (£425), but does not really give us a pea coat, now does it?

Boden edge closer to the classic with the Ledbury Pea Coat, tarted up in orange, as well as navy, with vice-versa flashes of those colours under the collar. (Like all the peas I've shown, it is wool with a small percentage of synthetic for wear.) Price, £159.

You can find an all-wool version at L.L. Bean, and it too is offered in some upbeat hues, with various sale pricing to sweeten the pea. At time of writing, their jacket, shown in Molten Red, was $199, with 10% off till today.

In fact, it's hard to find a coat vendor who does not offer a pea coat, because once out of the temperate zones, everyone needs cozy outerwear. I have a shopping list headed "midweight jacket, not black and I really mean it" and by March will be eager to shed the ultra-warm (yep, black) puffer. 

Maybe, just maybe, I could bring in one pea?  

Pearls: Two super sales

Pearls on sale, is there a more tempting phrase to me? Several vendors I have bought from have some special offers in place.

At Kojima Company, you'll save 18% starting December 1 till December 18 with coupon code PEARLPRESENCE2014.

11-12 mm apricot baroques are a luscious lift in cold winter; on sale the price is about $495, a good buy for seriously sensuous presence. (Kojima will string and add a simple clasp at no charge; more ornate clasps would add to the price.)

Petite pearls for a petite budget, and still perfectly pearly; this four-strand lot of small (3-4mm) silver keshis would make an ideal layering piece, strung as a long rope. (Note: This size of keshi is not strung with knots between the pearls.)  Sale price, about $60.

Petite necks, even luckier: only 15.5 inches in length but if you can wear it, a special piece, the delicate 'twig' necklace made of tiny stick pearls; sale price, $155.

I also admire how this silver and crystal bauble completes a South Sea stretch bracelet and funks it up a bit. Sale price, about $251. 

Pearl Paradise's sale runs from 9 p.m. PST today (Thursday, November 27th) to I'm not sure when, and since this is going up before the sale starts, just go to the site and look. PP, renowned for classics, now offer some exotics and free-spirited designs.

They have hinted that they'll put some of their "Tahitian harvest" strands on sale; as owner Jeremy Shepard says, these pearls "represent what one would expect to find in a real pearl harvest"— a mix, rather than a match, of intriguing shapes and colours. 

I've said for years that it's worth spending for genuine, quality pearls that light your face rather than soulless, slick fakes. Now, the biggest problem is making the choice; if it is the right moment, have a merry time deciding! (I receive no commission from any sale, just the joy of introducing you to these enchanting gifts of nature.)

Bracelets: Is dash worth the cash?

(This post was accidentally published in progress, and what I have to say is so earth-shattering that I'm reposting the complete version.)

Having a moment: the 5-pointed star motif, and if you avoid pattern, you can wear it as jewelry.

Givenchy silver-tone "Stars" leather bracelet, £320 at Liberty. Now, would you buy? Oh, be quiet, Christine! Yes, it is chic, but it's a very pricey bauble. While I don't think stars will date (they're billions of years old already), those are 'silver tone', in other words, good old pot metal, on a nice leather band, for (converted to $US) about $520, plus tax and for many buyers, shipping. 

Is it good value? No, but there is the frisson of wearing the latest killer accessory. If I were in the right mood, with an enabling supportive girlfriend in tow, after lunch with the glass of wine I never have at lunch, I might spring for it, and then, being me, regret the impulse.

Why? Because there will be an H&M version on the rack by Christmas, but even more because I could have bought square studs on soft camel for $46 from dasanda and have my rocker chick sated for less than the tax on the Givenchy.

If I had to have those stars, I could get this custom-made in my choice of colour and the perfect size from London-based EFXCustomwear, for about $60; it's also available as single, narrower band:

Or for about half the price I could leather-wrap my wrist in six Tahitian pearls ($313 from PerlaMundi): 

If tempted to open my wallet wide, it would be to rock this Henri Bendel sterling silver and snakeskin piece from Beladora; price, $495, and of far higher quality than the 'silver tone' studs.

I reflexively steer clear of new designer jewelry sold in retail shops, much as I'd admire that Givenchy piece on someone. 

And who designs Givenchy jewelry these days? Not jeweler James Taffin de Givenchy, the designer's nephew, who scuffled with NYC police in a traffic incident last week, resulting in charges.  Let's confine our bad girl behaviour to a little wrist candy, so we don't have to spend our savings on making bail!