The Dancer and the Dame: Style across generations

Two women performing artists, as different as you can imagine, were both admired for their style in recent New York Times articles.

Jon Caramanica cited Miley Cyrus as an examble of "the provocateur", the latest carrier of youthful disdain for restraint and conformity; on another day, Cathy Horyn lauded Cyrus' confidence in mashing up clashy, trashy and costly as "the look of our times". 

The Cyrus stage image is a sexy pastiche that amps up visual entertainment. Cyrus is not alone: practically every dance-oriented pop singer takes this road.
Offstage and off-camera, away from her team of stylists, candid shots tell another story.

A black leather tee, actually rather roomy, over skinny jeans:

Leaving the gym with a friend, she looks like a typical 21-year-old woman:

And like so many, younger and older, she wears all-black topped by her moto:

A few weeks earlier, a piece on Judy Dench praised another black-clad beauty, in a similar biker jacket, slim black pants and what the Times called "an ethnic velvet scarf", worn to Stella MacCartney's Christmas party:

At the Venice Film festival in Eileen Fisher:

For the red carpet, she often wears a tunic or caftan in exquisite fabric, like this ensemble (by Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla) for the première of "Philomena".

Averil Graham, an editor at Harper's Bazaar, said, "...she’s never schizophrenic with her style. It’s never froufrou. She possesses an innate elegance, but is comfortable and is a touch bohemian.”

Cyrus said, rather knowingly for her years (if not gramatically), "...someone, two years from now, is going to be the next kind of provocateur — like, I can’t wait to collab with whoever the hell that is, you know?"

Dench's 78-year-old elegance is in its own way provocative to an industry accustomed to writing off the beauty of women over 40.

Fifty-seven years separate them, but both have found a fit that's good for their bodies, make the most of their striking blonde beauty and, it looks like, enjoy a killer leather jacket.

Turquoise and gold: Sky and earth

Turquoise has a long history as a cherished gemstone; it was the first-recorded stone to be used in jewelry, found in crypts in Egypt over 7,000 years ago. The name is derived from the word "Turkish"—how the French referred to the source of the stone. In the USA, turquoise is the most sought-after stone in mining operations.

In the duller light of winter, turquoise can provide the glint of liveliness that lifts neutrals and looks terrific with every colour I can think of, even if you don't wear the hue as clothing.

Though the signature shade is that deep robin's egg blue, it also exists in green, like that mined in Colorado, and can contain brown or black matrix or webbing.

Because it's a soft stone (5 to 6 on the Mohs scale, similar to opal), turquoise easily absorbs body oils, lotions, perfumes or greasy substances, which quickly darken that luminous blue. Therefore, the stone is often stabilized; a better description of the process than I can write is here, provided by Lin Valentine of the online bead store Southwest Turquoise, aka "The Turquoise Chick". 

Stabilizing isn't evil; it keeps your turquoise transcendent, but there are levels of quality in the processes used. Be wary of any material that looks infused with plastic or resin, or has a super-shiny, reflective surface. A jeweler or merchant should disclose any treatment (stabilization, use of fillers or dyeing). 

Just because you buy turquoise in an area where it is mined, such as the American Southwest, does not provide a guarantee of authenticity.

As for prices, here's an example: an striking 16-inch strand of Campo Frio (Mexican) nuggets, graduating from about 8mm to about 13mm on Southwest Turquoise web site, is $70. (You will pay more for a completed necklace, but this will give you an idea of the material cost.)

Native Southwestern jewelry is rich ground for scholarship and collection, and beyond today's post. (Dexter Cirillo's "Southwestern Indian Jewelry" is one of many good books that explores this genre.) 

While such silver-set pieces are what many women think of when they hear "turquoise jewelry", turquoise set in gold, both modern and antique, shows off the gem and may work better with your existing pieces. Let's tour the Passage's windows.

A contemporary ring from Beladora, that I have loved for a good while for its asymmetrical assortment of turquoise set in 18k; you need to wear an 8 1/2 ring size. Price, $495.
A petite Victorian turquoise, old-mine cut diamond and rose gold ring, $950 from Park Avenue Couture:

Luxe lovelies

Kothari Elements turquoise earrings fuse organic and elegant, by setting tiny diamonds set in the matrix; price, $2,400.

Dean Harris is a dream jeweler who creates classic, beautiful pieces; this necklace features Sleeping Beauty (Arizona) turquoise, renowned for its  luminous sky blue and lack of veining.

An accomplished wire worker could attempt something like his 30-inch linked turquoise-nugget chain. I, however, would buy it on a self-funded installment plan, because a small mound of broken 18k wire, mangled fingertips and heartbreak would result. From Barney's; price, $2,125.

Petite budgets

You need not spend big, though, for your piece of heavenly blue.

Here's a tempting pair of Kingman Mine (Arizona) turquoise drops (about 1 1/4 inches long) set with gold plate, by Etsy seller MaisonettedeMadness; price, $135.

Petite budgets are well-served by a simple but striking turquoise pendant (about 1 inch high by 5/5 inch wide) on a gold-filled chain (various lengths available); charming gift, or to wear yourself. From Etsy seller Anoushka Designs; price, $26.

Turquoise and gold: sky and earth, organic and refined. It is wise to buy now, because though several of the best-known mines have closed in the last decade, prices are still good. (I have deliberately sidestepped Chinese and Tibetan turquoise, much of which is low quality, or worse, fakes made of dyed Howlite or even gypsum plaster.)

A last point before we duck into a tearoom: turquoise is perfect for women who prefer authentic materials but do not want the security issue or price point of precious gems.

Isabel Marant: Next-gen Jane?

Birkin with her daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Drawn to the aesthetic of uncontrived-looking, lightly androgenous women in discreet  clothes—but with a definite sense of style— I am adding to my stable of girl crushes, Isabel Marant. 

Marant reminds me of Jane Birkin, her stylistic elder aunt. (Marant is 46; Birkin turned 67 last month.)

While I do not find much in her clothing line for me (tiny minis, rocker-chick trousers) and could not afford them even if they appealed, I like her attitude. 

Apparently I'm not alone; she is sometimes referred to as "the coolest girl in Paris", a heavy burden to bear.

Marant's mother ca. 1966
More than one profile asserts that in everyday life, she wears no makeup whatsoever.

Marant and Birkin inherited faces that require little help; Birkin's actor mother Judy Campbell was a noted beauty, and Marant's is former model and knitwear designer Crista Fiedler.

Like the idea that you must have tan legs to bare them in a skirt, the necessity of obvious makeup is a remnant of the last millenium. The multi-step application that department store consultants carefully drew on diagrams because you could never remember what to do: over.

Here's her everyday face:

Below, in discreet lip and eye makeup, and maybe a hint of blush:

For evening, an assertive lipstick on lightly-tan skin:

But, according this interview by Kate Finnigan in The Guardian, her usual routine is a bare face (and no off-season tan); this photo accompanied the interview:

Photo: Francois Coquerel, The Guardian

Marant's wardrobe follows the same minimalist route. Finnigan writes:
"Her personal staples are 'a pair of tight jeans, a pair of flat shoes and something that is a bit like a sweatshirt, a jumper or T-shirt. A good jacket, a good coat. 'I'm quite androgonystic. I'm very feminine but I always need to break it with something very masculine.' "

What Birkin and Marant also share is The Smile, a burst of unrestrained exuberance. 

Whether we lose or keep our bottles and tubes, an incandescent smile is the most powerful of all facial effects.  

Perhaps Marant is my excuse for adopting an ever-less-complicated routine, and rolling my eyes when a new (always expensive) cream promises to brighten and tighten. But I am not sure I'd go completely bare. Is that a privilege of relative youth?

I now find that conspicuous make-up, even when perfectly applied, can look devastatingly glamourous on young women, overdone on middle-aged ones, and downright creepy on seniors.

To see her

On New Year's Eve, I lost one of my oldest friends, Linda.

Many years ago, while getting her PhD., she contracted hepatitis C while working in a hospital. 

She joked about it then; a resident stared at her, and she thought, "Well, hel-lo there!", till he leaned over and said, "You're jaundiced; see a doctor immediately."  She had a brilliant liver transplant, and life went smoothly for the next thirty years.

She became a noted epidemiologist and professor whose area of research was women's health; after her retirement, she continued to serve as a volunteer in developing countries. Linda had a long, happy marriage. Having children was off limits; she poured her nurturing into her students. 

We were friends since university days; I loved the contrasts she embodied so naturally: a fresh-faced beauty who swore like a stevedore, a late-night pub crawler who made the honour roll. She was deeply kind, and she also would warn me, "I'm half Greek and half Irish, don't get me mad."

Linda lived far from me; one of our retirement projects was to see one another again, "soon".

When I did not hear from her by New Year's, I had a premonition, and googled her name to find she had died the day before. 

I wrote her husband; he replied immediately, saying he had dreaded telling me that a small problem begun by an infection had inexorably escalated through the fall. By mid-December they knew time was running out.

Near the end, he told me, they received dear friends for a special dinner, then lay in their bed, sleeping and talking, and she said, "It was heaven". She died surrounded by family and friends.

I have very few regrets, most of them trivial, but this one is not: that I delayed a trip to an inconvenient destination, that we did not 'make it happen', somewhere. 

I never dreamed time was limited, but of course it is, for all of us. Now, my only choice is to go to that distant place for a life celebration, which feels surreal and sad.

I sit here, playing the songs that sparkling girl danced to long ago, mourning her and the mistake I made.

Les Montréalaises: What's so different?

On her illuminating blog, The Vivienne Files, Janice Riggs recently featured book excerpts (which she translated) from Montréal stylist Louise Labreque.

Labreque represents the upscale-mall, InStyle look common in most North American cities. While I do see that here, "street" Montréal style is different— an elixir of individuality impossible to buy in one card-intensive spree. I've seen such fascinating women elsewhere, too, from Memphis to Malaga, but here, in my adopted home, they greet me at nearly every turning.

Visitors notice how striking the women look. As one man told me, "I cross the St. Lawrence and my blood starts to boil."

Try to nail it down? Bof! But I shall try, if only to chase a cultural chimera. Since this is a blog for readers 50+, I'll focus on grown women. 

Here, a mature woman would wear this mustard Tavan & Mitto top, with a pencil skirt, with black jeans, with a jacket over it or not... and she would wear it.

While few rules exist, here are some generalizations: 

1. An avoidance of wearing conservative classics head to-toe, or seriously

Talbot's went out of business here for a reason! You will see women in classic items (the trench coat, equestrienne jackets, a Burberry scarf), but worn with, say, a huge tortoise-link necklace or teal tights.

When a woman wears a classic, she adds an unconventional accessory; jewelry is bolder than what women elsewhere may venture by day.

Two friends illustrate the point beautifully. Susan, at left, is a retired finance professional turned jewelery designer; that's her own necklace. (I'm already saving for her spring show.) Jenn, right, owns an antique shop; here, she sparks a classic oatmeal cashmere v-neck with a lively fine-wool scarf.

2.  Arresting colour combos

In this big, wintry city we venerate black, but today I saw a woman in a white puffer worn with a shocking-pink cashmere scarf and a brown, taupe and black animal-print beanie. 

Black tweaks navy; blues play with browns, gloves and bag don't match and white might appear at any time of year.

3. A boot fetish

Young women pick their way over two inches of solid ice in four-inch stiletto boots. I have actually paused to wait and proffer first aid, but they stay upright, somehow.

Their mothers trade those teetery heights for tall, low-heeled, close-fitting models, worn from the moment the temperatures drop below sleeveless weather till sandals are necessary. (Shown, La Canadienne's Pensée boot, with wingtip detail, vintage lace-up front, and side zipper, about $535.)

They do wear other footwear—Red Wings, Blundstones, wellies—but with a wink of interesting sock, legwarmers or red laces. (Shown, American Apparel extra-long legwarmers, $18.)

4. Scarves, toujours

In a city where men wear more scarves than the average women in other places, scarves reign. "But won't they go out of style?", my Ontario-WASP girlfriend Susan C. wondered. 

String Theory's Gradient Shawl in grey merino, $240, is très Montréalaise.

The company is a collaboration between two Canadian textile designers, Lysanne Latulippe in Montréal and Meghan Price in Toronto. Their line fuses sensibility and sensuousness and, dearest Susan, will not date readily. 

5. Unapologetic skins, on backs, heads and arms

Recycled, upcycled or glossily new, women wear fur, sheepskin and leather at whatever level they can afford. 

Montréal is still a nexus for the fur trade; master craftsmen offer dazzling work.  

Fur is often used for very casual pieces, as in Myco Anna's Chapka Toque, made with recycled wool and fur, and a snuggly microfiber lining; price, $75.

Recycled fur, like that sold by Haricana, is a way to have your mink and feel relatively responsible about it. 

I would love their recycled brown mink computer bag!

The intangibles

Le style Montréalaise: Is it this? Is it that? 

To deconstruct the concoction is harder than ever; when I worked here for about a week per month in the 1980s, I could usually guess just by a glance whether a woman was French or English-speaking. The one in the navy suit spoke English (as her first language), the one in the tomato-red fitted sheath spoke French. 

The one in the Hermès scarf was a tougher read, but if she wore it as a belt, probably French. The one in the plush velvet jacket with interesting buttons was francophone, the one in a black blazer with brass buttons, anglo. 

But times have rendered my radar inaccurate. The velvet jacket below is worn by my friend Diane, whose home language is English, but whose fluent French is precious to her identity, and whose eye for design, impeccable. She is an example of une femme franglaise.

What le heck happened?

First, dress is now a less-identifiable marker of those founding cultures because an increase in bilingualism (among speakers of both official languages) has, I believe, also lead to an intermingling of styles. 

Second, the city's visual jumble has been enriched by Latin, African and Asian women, who add their own  enchanting effects, especially with colour and pattern. 

This young woman, performing at the market last summer, sang bossa nova on a torrid afternoon, dancing 'til her earrings spun.

She will eventually enter the Passage, bringing her verve and colour sense. And what an elder she will be! 

I only hope to be around to admire her.

Repeating myself

I'm recounting an incident to an old friend, Susan, who visited. "You already told me that", she observes tartly.

I flush with embarrassment for a few seconds and then think "Oh god, I'm turning into my mother." Whom Susan knew. And what's worse, she agreed.

Repetition and its cousin, routine, are valuable to me now. I savour many of the same meals, clothes, scenery and music—as Milan Kundera wrote, "Happiness is the longing for repetition". The pipeline of novelty keeps flowing; friends suggest new music, art and books, but sampling what's new competes with the comfort of proven pleasures. Keeping up becomes a lot.

Just after my gaffe, Ronni Bennett, of the insightful blog Time Goes By, wrote an empathic post, Elders Repeating Ourselves, on the subject.

I've decided, about clothes, that the notion of a rut is irrelevant. By the time you're past 45 or so, there are but two categories: what works and everything else.

As for trends like wedge sneakers or asymmetrical hems (seen everywhere in Montréal last summer, so absolutely not going to be seen next summer), I enjoy them shown off on the young, who don't mind the disposability.

I remember a woman in her seventies whom I saw in Toronto the winter before I moved; she was standing on the street chatting with someone. She wore a charcoal-grey wool reefer with a tart apricot wool scarf at her throat. The colours were spectacular together, arresting yet discreet at the same time. Set off by her white bob, the whole effect was of calm, timeless grace. 

MaxMara "Rubino" coat
Chann Lu scarf

Though it's pure projection on my part, I doubt she was trying that silhouette for the first time. 

Ditto my admiration of Renata Molho. (The cigarette: I know; Not that.) Just beautifully tuned to colour and proportion.

 Photos: The Sartorialist

Different seasons, same glasses, repeated because they are right for her

But I'd hoped to escape repeating stories. 

Maybe, though, repetition is the yellow highlighter of life, showing us what's valued, worth keeping and returning to, as long as we can.

For that reason, I head into 2014 with familiar friends: Lindt dark chocolate with sea salt, sheepskin slippers, yet another year recorded in an ancient navy calfskin Filofax, even though there are all sorts of apps I could use.

I'm wondering what you keep repeating, because of the enduring enjoyment or other rewards.

Value: Year-end report card and lessons learned

At every year end, I review my record of personal spending, and assess whether I got good value from the purchases. 2013 provided more than a few lessons.

Lowest grade: Fab dress, but...

This Veronique Miljkovitch dress caused Le Duc to whistle in admiration. But the occasion for which I bought it was changed to a more casual venue, so I didn't wear it then, and became rather awed by it. 

Lesson: Sometimes the item is perfect but the timing is not. Grade is F—embarrassing. There is zero value in a hangar-dwelling dress.

All is not lost. Come spring, I'll just put it on and go for a walk or something, dammit.

Highest grade: Pile o' pants

During 2013, nearly my entire budget was spent on replacing bottoms, via buying or alteration.

Lolë's "Chamonix 2" pants, $140:  cool details in a techno fabric that holds deep black better than denim. They travel perfectly: much less room needed in suitcase than jeans, fast drying, no ironing. Cost per wear, stellar!

I drew censure from an occasional reader for buying five pairs (in assorted colours) of these Land's End cords at a sale price of about $17 each—but I wore them almost daily, and the price for new pants was less than that of extensive alterations.  

Some women handle size change by expertly shopping consignment or thrift, but there weren't many pairs in unworn condition, and none met the LE price.  

Lesson: Maintaining a stable size is far less costly than significantly changing! I continually thought about whether alteration or replacement was the better option, and also whether I needed to do either. 

Surprise buy: Wristwarmers

Susan gave me a felted wool pair last winter, and I left them, along with my Kindle, on a train. (I got the Kindle back, but not the warmers.) 

Brora had a special offer, so the replacement is a knit, and finally I can work at my keyboard without stiff hands. A fine yet functional accessory.

Knitters are smiling and thinking, Oh, I can do that!

Lesson: At 65, the comfort criterion of value assumes more importance. Chic shoes that offer good support, a light but cozy coat, a bag that's kind to the body... all worth spending for.

Fixer-upper: New coat needed a tweak

I also needed to replace a coat. My GF Diane called me to say she found the perfect super-warm parka, at a closeout liquidation sale; "Hurry!, she commanded, "there's only one left!" 

It had features I wanted: down lining, storm cuffs, generous pockets, washable. The fur trim on the hood was a touch thin, but the price was great, the store was closing for good in a day, and I was not going to haul back I bought it.

When I showed it to Le Duc, he said, "Nice coat, but the trim is kind of ratty." Busted! 

I visited Mr. O., the furrier who handled last year's mink coat reno. We chose a supple recycled coyote pelt; in less than a week, he delivered a lush detachable trim for the hood. 

Lesson: Though I spent $100 to improve the coat, that trim adds greatly to the pleasure of wearing it daily, during our severe winter. 

Total cost was still reasonable, but this is the type of time-pressured decision I hope to avoid. Sometimes it's not so much 'lessons learned' as re-learned.

Following your lead, with thanks

Last year I wanted to spend less overall, and did. (A believer in Suze Orman-style budgeting, I work with a self-set monthly allowance.) My plan for 2014 is to keep it the same, and save at least as much.

In 2013, I was supported by the experience of other writers and friends.

Quite a few bloggers wrote about eschewing sales, duplicates or a killer item that was, even if glorious, just too much. 

When they bought, they helped me by explaining their criteria or serving, the odd time, as a cautionary example. We all have our Achilles' Heel!

Even some fashion-industry writers counseled against overbuilding a wardrobe. Visiting friends, though different in personal style, approached shopping with discernment, avoiding the I'm-here-it's-here trap into which I can tumble while traveling.

Pearls: South Seas' swank splendour

As a tradition, the Passage greets the new year with a pearl post; today, the la-di-da pearl, South Seas.

This is the variety that prompted one reader to say, "I didn't know what all of you saw in pearls, till you showed that South Sea strand." 

I have wider tastes, but knew what thrilled her: the size (13mm is average), the endless glow (caused by thick nacre) and the serene colour, either whites with over-and-undertones of rose, blue or silver, or the goldens.  (Providing the eye candy at left: South Sea pearl and diamond ring set in 18k, Beladora.)

These are high-society pearls; I once stood next to a billionaire's wife in an astonishing strand of 20mm rounds interspersed with diamonds that was basically a Lamborghini on the neck. But a single South Sea ring or pendant  can be yours for less than the price of a night on the town. Well, OK, a big night!

The South Sea difference

Before we window shop, the obligatory pearl nerdiness. 

South Seas are the most valuable of the cultured pearls. (Tahitians are often grouped in the category—cultured saltwater pearls— but are grown in a different oyster, the pinctada margaratifera). The pinctada maxima, the oyster used to culture South Seas, is a big guy (sometimes the size of a frisbee) that comes in two varieties, silver-lipped and golden-lipped, hence the two colours of the pearls.

That big oyster is implanted with a large bead for culturing; it then sits in clean, warm waters in the southern ocean from Australia to China, and lays down lavish nacre over two or more years (versus half the time for other cultured varieties.) The whites typically come from Australia and Indonesia, the yellows from Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar.

The overall impression of a strand of large, matched South Seas is, Whoa, baby. They, along with Tahitians, are grande dame power pearls. 

Even as simple studs, the SS has the presence to match a Chanel dress, as worn by Christine Lagarde, at left.

The vintage market is a good place to begin building your eye for two reasons: the price, while still not a casual purchase, is better, and South Seas, with their thick nacre, tend to hold up well, unless madame has been mean to them.

For example, I swooned over Beladora's South Sea strand, utterly elegant 12mm-13mm pearls with a pavé diamond and platinum clasp, $17,000. (Half the price of a comparable new strand from a status jeweler. Pearl Paradise list a necklace of comparable size for $16,000 but without the diamond and platinum clasp.)

While in Beverly Hills these pearls might be go-to-the-market attire, they are a bit much for many of us strolling through the Passage. But there are ways to wear the South Sea without a bodyguard.

First, we step away from the world of rounds, to explore the less-formal shapes.
Above, a stunning rope of South Seas (whites and goldens) and Tahitians from Hollis, Reh and Shariff (on 1st Dibs); price, $5,900. These pearls are various shapes, none of which are rounds, so the price is lower and the pearls read more bistro than boardroom.

My South Sea strand (from Kojima Company), which I'm wearing on New Year's Eve in the photo, is of mixed shapes: discs, drops, off-rounds and baroques, with shimmering rose and blue undertones. 

This is an idiosyncratic, informal vibe for South Seas, and the pearls are not perfect; you will see some minor blemishes and light rings on a few, places where the oyster burped or the sea surged, the poetry of pearls.

Therefore, the cost was but a fraction of the necklaces shown. 

Because of that charisma, a single South Sea pearl can delight all on its own.

This ring, at Beladora, is such a piece, everyday-wearable yet fine: a 10.5mm South Sea pearl set in diamonds and platinum; price, $950.

Another way to come to terms with the cost is to mix them with other varieties. Kojima Company's Sarah Canizzaro, unintimidated by the grandeur of South Seas, creates pieces that are especially free-spirited. 

Here, for example, are her company's lustrous Chinese freshwater ovals mixed with big baroque South Seas and natural colour punch-pink tourmaline beads, in a 40-inch endless rope; price, $630.

Golden South Seas: an effective treatment for seasonal affective disorder! Since they can be dyed to deepen or enhance colour, ensure the colour is natural or that any treatment is disclosed. The deeper the gold, the more expensive the pearl.

Classic studs or drops are lovely and luxe, but I am taken by a quirky pair of matched 10.8mm baroques, one white, one yellow, from the UK's Pearlesence; price, £80.

Looking ahead

I look at pearls continually, whether museum treasures, jewelers' and artisans' offerings, auctions and books. From the mass-market vendors to the specialists, if it comes out of a mollusc, I want to see it.

Currently I'm seeing a glut of bleached freshwater and Akoyas  among the "fashion" jewelery lines, often sold at boutiques who sell branded jewelry, or in department stores.  They are genuine, but neither organic-looking nor lively.

When they carry a brand name like David Yurman, the price can be hefty; for example, this freshwater 8-8.5mm 70-inch necklace, with .38cts of diamonds dressing up the silver clasp is $2,659. (To the firm's credit, they do disclose that the pearls are bleached.)

A low-luster bleached-pearl necklace looks like a woman with an obvious face lift, too blandly perfect, no overtones, no character. I prefer even a subtly-dyed pearl (in a 'natural pearl' colour). 

Last year, I ordered several things from online pearl vendors, and kept two (the South Seas and a gift). Even the returned items were better value than those of the high-end department stores, and the service more knowledgeable.  

A number of readers asked me to provide an opinion about prospective purchases or renovating their unworn pearls; I enjoyed that!

My advice to anyone interested in pearls (or any gem) is, keep reading (including dozens of archived posts here), looking and comparing prices. Reputable online vendors are happy to talk with you to supply more information. 

Then, should you too experience a coup de coeur, you will make a wise and satisfying decision.