Strong women in white shirts

White shirts are the perennial "must have" item on many a stylist's list. Though I've long thought they do not suit me, I'm taken with a series of portraits of striking women in theirs, featured in The Gentlewoman and The New York Times' T Magazine. 

They remind me, as the stores fill with brights and prints, that while tempted, I end up not wearing brights much. The soothing calm of the shirt draws attention to the woman, not her clothes—and what women!

The English singer Alison Moyet, retrieved from The Gentlewoman:

Also from The Gentlewoman, the great model Pat Cleveland:

In the Times' T Magazine, designer Phoebe Philo in one of her current designs for Céline:

English film director Clio Barnard in a white shirt, black trousers and a beautiful silver-link necklace (which looks like Georg Jensen to me), in The Gentlewoman:

David Lewinski shot the ever-sassy Elaine Stritch for another NYT profile, in her trademark white shirt (actually ecru) and black tights. What legs at nearly 89! 

Stritch, who has openly discussed her struggles with drinking, was abstinent for years and has returned to a moderate level of consumption because, as she says, "I’m not going to have three drinks, I’m not going to have four. I’m going to have two, and that’s it, folks. I just want to enjoy life and relax a little bit and go out with the rich ladies in Birmingham (the Detroit suburb where she now lives) and enjoy them. And you can’t enjoy them sober."

The article about Philo mentioned the concept of invisibility, but as a desirable outcome. Isabelle Huppert, who modeled a chalk-white Céline sweater, said: "You are not visible with Phoebe's clothes, it's not too obvious. It's a way of not being seen." 

This is a different perspective from that of women who object to "being invisible", especially as they age, so choose the vivid or eye-catching. 

I'm of the Huppert school myself, and at the same time can exhale in rapture over a citron coat paired with a red skirt printed with lemons and peonies! 

There is room to enjoy both attitudes in spring sunlight. I will try the shirt; my avoidance may be one of those ingrained prejudices that turn out to be no longer valid—but just might get my head turned by a fresia-pink scarf.

Pearl reno: Mother-in-law double strand

I passed a warm, delightful evening with a visiting reader, Dr. VO, who relayed a question from a friend in Seattle: what to do with her mother-in-law's double strand of classic white pearls, which she now owns.

Since Dr. V. didn't recall the pearl size or necklace length, I was hampered, but said there were three key considerations for anyone's jewelery reno:

1. The condition of the material
Just like a house, a reno project is wise only if the basic material isn't trashed. if the pearls have degraded to the luster of a peeled potato, it's too late.

2. Your taste
If, no matter what you do to them, you would never wear that gem or size, or cut, forget a reno. At the same time don't be shortsighted; even a small tweak can totally change a piece.

2. Your budget
Some renos can be done for $25, others involve thousands. It's worth spending to get it right, and, just like a house, to spend for design as well as materials. Your budget will go farther if you collect ideas of what you like before you begin, via sketches, photos or a Pinterest board.

Over glasses of burgundy, I outlined three ideas that depend on those criteria, following the house-reno analogy.

Option #1: "Wallpaper and paint"

Often, with sentimental gifts, the new owner wants to maintain the integrity of the piece while turning it into something she would wear; a zhuzh at reasonable cost is terrific fun!

Have a jeweler restring (and clean, if needed) the pearls, possibly shortening the two strands to the right length for you. At around 20 to 22 inches, doubles can look staid (depending on your figure); taking off a few inches makes the piece more current and flattering. 

Add a new decorative double-strand clasp that complements the retro mood of the piece.

Dr. VO said the pearls were from a German jeweler;  I found a flower-motif coral glass and sterling silver clasp from Germany on sale from A Grain of Sand, for only $18.50.

The movie-star vibe of a blue two-strand vintage clasp, $23 from beadtopiavintage, makes me want to buy pearls like Ms. Seattle's just so I can wear it.

An all-metal style would work too, but keep it  decorative; the idea is to wear the clasp to the side, so it's seen.

Etsy is a terrific source for clasps and other findings; all Ms Seattle has to do is search "double clasp" in the jewelry findings section.

The vintage silver clasp fits one, two or three strand necklaces; an example of a simpler clasp that still has enough detail; from Etsy seller TheParisCarousel, $17.

To change the clasp (sticking to the price point I've shown) and restring would cost around $50-$80.

 Option #2: "Knocking down walls"

Unless she has jewelry-making skills, here is where she calls in a pro.

She could combine the two strands to make one long rope, if the pearls are at least 7mm. (If smaller, a rope will look rather jeune fille but could be worn layered. She could also add one of the cool clasps to the rope.

If the pearls are graduated, Ms. Seattle's rope will be of mixed sizes, so she would add some new, bigger pearls of complimentary colour, because matching isn't gonna happen. (But she could mix whites, creams and biscuit, for example; she does not have to add intense colour.)

I suggested she contact Sarah Canizzaro at Kojima Company, because Sarah has a great eye, a vast array of unique pearls and a team of talented jewelers.

Budget will vary depending on number and type of pearls added; the $250ish range is achievable.

Bauble bracelet: R. Wolchock
Option #3: "Repurposing the space"

Like the nook under the stairs that becomes an office, she could make several different pieces from the pearls, such as a multi-strand bracelet and a single-strand necklace. 

The bracelet could be classic but informal, like the bauble-charm bracelet at left, or ethnic-cool, like the memory-wire piece with brass beads below.  

Wrap bracelet: Minouc, Etsy
I'm willing to guess there are Seattle artisans who can make such pieces; check the local bead stores or craft associations and only talk to artisans whose other work makes your pulse rise.

For a single strand necklace, I have posted ideas here.

There are way pricier renos such as adding a stunning custom-made clasp, or the addition of gem or gold spacer beads—diamond rondelles, anyone? But who wants to over-improve and end up with a huge bill? So I'm not going there in this post.

I'm hoping that Ms. Seattle's project will be like a successful house reno: she'll get something she can live in every day, with joy and a satisfying return on the investment.

What do you think?


An exceptional Monday: St. Paddy's Day

On Monday, the Passage is usually closed, and on this Monday, I become "Bridget", one of the O'Malley Sisters, who always, always get a seat in a crowded pub, to drink a moderate amount of beer (not green) and belt out "Seven Old Ladies".

This year, one of my neighbours plays the other O'Malley sister, even if (yes, a wee bit suspicious) "Maureen" speaks French.

So, we beg you, colleens: the diminuitive of Patrick is Paddy. Today is not "St. Patty's Day", unless there is some long-forgotten woman saint named Patricia, who has pre-empted St. Patrick. Every year this error seems to increase.

Please take your lipstick or Sharpie and correct any errors. Fix that office e-mail while humming "Danny Boy". You might slip the "Paddy" into a conversation, should a colleague use the "double t's"— discreetly, of course.

If you'd like to pursue the finer points of St. Patrick's Day etiquette, you'll find a few more tips here.


PS. This is the sole post for this week. Yesterday, I was in a minor pedestrian/car accident. Due to muscle strain that doesn't like keyboards, I'm taking a few days off.  Obviously the arm that hoists the Guinness was not affected!

Light bag, light heart

Few items in a woman's closet as fraught as the handbag: status signifier, wardrobe extender, art object and... oh right, we use them to carry stuff.

I am slightly obsessed with them, but in reverse: I wish to own very few, and need them to work with me. They're not arm candy; they're arm vitamins. No longer having a car means I'm hauling that bag for hours, so it has to be light, with a strap that gives support. 

Unable to tolerate a leather bag bigger than a grapefruit means my material of choice has changed, so I seek casual bags of lightweight materials. These are the bag equivalent of the young-adult novel: I didn't think I'd like them, but I've been pleasantly surprised. 

Assuming you already know the more familiar brands (Le SportSac, Baggelini, Mosey) I will place, in the Passage's windows, some lesser-known models. 

Karine Dupont designs both bright and neutral bags in a strong nylon; though her spring/summer collection is not yet online, this Winter '14 Sac Bandoulière introduces her aesthetic: multi-pocket bags you will see on stylish Parisienne shoulders. Available in two sizes, from €79. (Her leather bags are terrific too!)

I have been in the Paris boutique many times and left empty-handed, overwhelmed by choice!

Groom is another Paris treasure. You can now find their marvelous, hard-wearing bags online; spendy but worth it. The nylon models launder superbly. The Capuccio Medium sling sings in rich, gorgeous colours as well as neutrals; €109.  

Here's another superb maker of lightweight bags, whom I discovered last year: Highway, based in New York. Made of nylon, nylon and leather, or coated canvas, they have earned a spot in the Museum of Modern Art Store. The S09-23 model shown in sage/turquoise is $103:

You can also find selected Highway models on the MoMA Store's site.

The canvas tote —if it doesn't get ratty—can attend most any casual gathering. Classically cool and dead cheap (though admittedly basic), this Montréal airport model from Monumental Love is an example of a beloved genre; price, $35.

Québec textile artist Cynthia DM makes intensely-hued bags which she screens with nature motifs in a range of styles, a graceful, functional entry in the arty genre without being twee. Shown, "bag with flap; teal with birds" price, $90.

I'm charmed by her "triangle bag-bicycle" with a bike and antique keys, $90.

For summer, an elegant linen tote from Paris-based firm Ikabags with various interior leather pocket and lining options. Price, about $120.


My few remaining full-leather bags are like finicky vintage sports cars: I take them out for a ride only occasionally, for short trips.

One of the bag styles shown, or a small change purse that drops into a pocket seems to be the new order, though I still pause before a luscious leather bag display... but only to look.

Montréal people: Slipping into spring

This past sunny weekend—with temps just at 1C/32F—of not-quite-spring, I had my camera out while waiting on an outdoor bench at Café Olimpico, while Le Duc bought coffees.

Next to me, a young knitter worked turquoise yarn into a scarf, the sun just warm enough to work without stiff fingers:

A friend joined her, in shoes that matched her yarn:

The passers-by added one small touch to still-sensible ensembles, and ah, what hope in that touch! Coloured pants like the ochre jeans below broke winter's darks:

And seemed even more piquant on a man:

Surrounded by others in black, a citron skirt and a smile leavened the day: 

The only green in sight: pants!

The scarf in mulberry and gold signaled the season's change, and she was so tender with her baby, who wore a bright hand-knit cap and royal-blue snowsuit:

A butterscotch coat's sweep suggests a vintage provenance. The big scarves on both are très Montrèalaise:

But the most beautiful face belonged to a husky; I could have gazed into those ice-blue pools for hours:

Boutique windows evoke dreams, such as an audacious pantsuit: 

The reality: patches of snow and ice, and more flurries in the forecast. Still, we  sit outdoors the instant we can, even if we have to huddle in ski jackets!

On the sunny side of the street, spring comes just a few days earlier.

The climbing cost of culture

The diva
We will spend a week in NYC in spring, and I've been scouting the cultural options. Two performances that interested me have dizzingly high ticket costs: Martin McDonagh's play "The Cripple of Inishmaan": $260 per (includes $50 "handling fee", ha!); "Così fan tutte" at the Met: $330. That is not Danielle de Niese hitting the high notes, it's me screaming "Eeeek!"

Same thing at other prestige NYC venues. There are discount ticket booths and rush tickets, but, if wanting guaranteed seats to a performance we want to see, we are stuck in premium-price stratosphere.

In the last decade, Broadway prices have vaulted beyond inflation; the reason is discussed in an Atlantic article by Derek Thompson, here

The columnist
I asked Le Duc, "What will happen when a whole class of people can't afford these kind of performances?" He referred me to a recent piece by La Presse columnist Pierre Foglia, who wrote about the deterioration of the relationship between the bourgeoisie and culture: (Translation below.)

"Ils sont partis où, les bourgeois? Nulle part. Ils se sont branchés sur internet et du coup, ils sont devenus un peu cons. Ils n'apprécient plus les tableaux des grands maîtres, n'écoutent plus de musique savante, ne lisent plus la grande littérature.

Les bourgeois avaient de la culture, les abrutis de consommation qu'ils sont devenus n'ont plus que des opinions, comme s'ils étaient tous devenus chroniqueurs."

Translation: "Where did the bourgeois go? Nowhere. They plugged themselves into the internet, and suddenly, they became rather thick. They no longer appreciate paintings by great masters, no longer listen to classical music, no longer read great literature.

The bourgeois had culture. The consuming morons that they have become have nothing but opinions, as if they had all become columnists."

Though stratospheric ticket prices deter all classes but the wealthy, Foglia takes aim at the relatively prosperous people who used to support the arts: they have instead become what he calls "turbo-consumers", spending their discretionary income on stuff, not performances.

The beer
I squirmed at Foglia's barb, but when I think of what $650 not spent at the Met will buy, I imagine a reasonably-priced dinner à deux and a few Rolling Rocks while listening to a bar band, after which I won't care that we're not at the opera that evening—and I'll have hundreds of dollars left in my pocket.  

And so proceeds the dumbing-down of my cultural life, at least on the most prestigious stages of NYC.

There are options: student recitals, off-off-Broadway shows and local musicians invite surprise and serendipity. I do not care if it's Alec Baldwin or Joe Blow on stage, as long as the performance enthralls. (In fact if it is Baldwin, it's a $150 per person surcharge.)

I am ever more grateful for our local theatre scene. Natty and I especially like  Infinitheatre, where the audience sits in a former city bath (the seats are in the tiled pool) to watch bold productions like the stunning Japanese musical "Hanafuda Denki". 

This show earned five stars at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; we saw it for less than $15 each, thanks to their $75 6-pack ticket deal.

I'm not worried about the Met, which had a very profitable 2013. But in Montréal, local dance companies, small theatres and music festivals are feeling the pinch, as people weigh the cost.

Companies who want to keep their older, loyal audience could offer friendlier pricing options. It's difficult for many seniors to make two trips on the day of a performance to secure rush tickets. A seniors' season subscription would sell more guaranteed seats and is much easier on elders. Hear that, National Ballet?

Closet pruning with The Furlough Method

When pruning a wardrobe, the classic advice is to make three piles: keep, alter and discard (via donation, gift or resale.) This system works, but you need to be in the mood to make a certain, swift decision.

If you are not sure you'll ever wear that purple silk blouse again (and it fits), or if you have somehow amassed a dozen pairs of dark pants and aren't sure which ones to keep, I suggest the Furlough Method

With the Furlough Method, you avoid getting swept into the thrall of purge passion, only to find that the cost of another aqua cashmere cardi—which you now realize would look great with your new charcoal skirt—is a lot higher than what you paid for the one you gave away. 
Step #1: Make sure it's clean (you don't want to raise a farm team of moths), and pack in a garment bag or box. Store the piece out of sight, and not in your own closet, where you might be tempted to peek.

If your memory is not perfect, like mine, make a list of these items and where they are.

Step #2: Wait a minimum of four to a max of twelve months. One of two things will transpire:

A. You discover that you miss the item: Take it out of storage and wear it immediately– that's why you dug it out, right?

If the item makes it back into your closet, apply the Hanger Test. After that first wearing, turn its hanger in the opposite direction to the rest of the garments. If in four months (or a season), that hanger is still pointing the other way, get rid of it. 

No, you don't re-furlough; that would take you to the territory of nutbar-hoarderland.

B. You do not wear or even think about the thing: Out it goes! (If you can do so without looking at it again, that's best.) At this point, parting feels entirely different than pitching it in the initial cleanout stage.

In the past, thanks to my mother's influence, ("What? That skirt is perfectly good!") I could eat pufferfish liver with more equanimity than cast an expensive item from my closet. Post furlough, the item loses its emotional power and I can let go in peace.

You could achieve the same thing by loaning the piece to a friend for awhile, with clear repatriation rights and an understanding that there might be some normal wear. 

In the world of pretty new things, this Etro dress, audaciously Italian-ly springy as a park full of tulips, turns my head:

I don't think that dress would ever leave my closet!