On vacation; back next week

Time for a springtime stroll in Central Park! 
The Passage will re-open on Tuesday, June 3 
for a month before our usual July-August holiday.

Earring reno: Emeralds, in three times

(I mistakenly published this post earlier, before the final product was made, so am re-posting it today.)

Every now and then a jewelry reno project forms in my mind. This incubation stage is essential, as I consider my criteria and the wisdom of investing in custom work versus selling the item.

Actually, the pair of earrings I wanted to work with was itself a reno. When we decided to marry, in the mid-'80s, Le Duc gave me an emerald stud earring instead of a ring. That was the Madonna/Flashdance/punk era when a single earring was in vogue. 

You can just make it out on my ear, at a wedding-rehearsal dinner at Le Duc's parents' home, August, 1986:

The first earring, 1986
About a decade later, when that look was passé as frosted-blue eyeshadow, he gave me a second matching emerald, and added small diamonds and large baroque freshwater pearls to make dramatic dangles. I did not photograph that pair, so I've made a drawing:

The second pair, ca. 1995

I wore those for about 15 years; however, they now felt too formal, and languished during the time I've lived in Montréal. But the emeralds are as sentimental as my wedding ring, and I longed to wear them. But every time I put them on, I felt they were wrong. Le Duc said, "Well, you know who to call."

I sent them to our longtime jewelers (who had made the second pair), Pam Chandler and Don Collins of Artwork Gallery, Toronto, with a few requests: no additional stones or change of metal (alternatives that would drive up the price), simple enough to wear with jeans, but with enough presence to go dressier.

They had many ideas, but most intriguingly, suggested making two pairs of earrings, one from the pearls and diamonds, another using the emeralds. 

The decision of whether the diamond/pearl pair should have two or three links consumed a half-hour of discussion. And that's what you want from a jeweler. If you get a perfunctory "Sure lady, leave them with us", flee!

I rounded up some old gold jewelry, which we applied to the cost of the new gold.

Below, a photo taken in the design phase; you see one finished diamond/pearl dangle at left and at right, the partially-finished new emerald earring with its quatrefoil in the wax stage.

In progress, February 2014

The finished emerald pair on my ear:

Finished new pair, May 2014

So, nearly thirty years later, those emeralds have led three lives, thanks to the quality of the material and masterful artisans. 

The evening in 1927 when playwright Charlie MacArthur and actress Helen Hayes met, he poured some salted peanuts into her hand and said, "I wish they were emeralds"; love at first sight for both. Many years later, on an anniversary, he poured emeralds into her hand and said, "I wish they were peanuts". 

I relate to his words; these emeralds are the symbol of both new and enduring love, and infinitely more than the jewels, I treasure the man who gave them to me.

Strict style: Robin Wright's "House of Cards" wardrobe

Among the many entertaining aspects of Netflix' "House of Cards" is Robin Wright's character's sublimely strict wardrobe. Any woman in a busy print looks like a bad sofa standing next to Claire Underwood, and they both know it.

Episode 4 in Season 2 gives a three-second glimpse of of Claire's closet, as she selects a dress for a climactic TV interview, not one bright colour in sight. She considers a dress, and murmurs, "Too neutral?" Her advisor, looking on, says "Whatever you wear, you'll look great", and I thought, Well, who wouldn't, in Zac Posen custom-fitted to a fabulous body? (See the Washington Post feature here on the character's clothes.)

What can the average woman learn from Underwood's haute armor?  

The key message is that fit, always a requisite on camera, counts in real life, too. I see some lovely women in uneven hemlines and baggy busts. It's not that they don't care, but the bridge or "better dress" offerings are more carelessly made year by year.

To do better than an approximate fit, we have to upgrade via sales or consignment, sew very well, or find a pro. Tina Chow had one designer piece copied in many fabrics by a local tailor, for years. 

We also need to reclaim fit relative to our bodies. If you cannot feel your body in a dress, it's not earning its keep. I don't mean garments should be tight; Robin Wright's are, but "House of Cards" is entertainment. However, the piece ought to define something: shoulder, waist, hips. 

Then, there is the matter of cut. Wright's dresses are longer than what is shown on e-shop or catalog models; the length is in proportion to her frame, but also a more elegant, grown-woman effect. With legs like hers, she could wear a much shorter skirt—and she does not. 

In shops, women are often told, "Oh, you can wear it that short", but I believe that's often a sales line: that's the skirt the shop has. (And dadgummit, I am so tired of the suggestion that I put leggings under a too-short dress I could just shreik.)

Whether you have a figure like Wright's or not (is there anyone who wears a pencil skirt better?) we all have collarbones; showing even a glimpse of that feature reinforces the vertical.

And finally, don't ever sit down (kidding). Wright attended the premiere party for the current season in a black silk outfit that devolved to a lapful of wrinkles by the evening's end. In real life, even a star is not followed by minions with steamers.  

There is hardly any jewelry on the character; the lack of adornment is a visual reference to her high control. When we see Claire Underwood in Anna Wintour's collet necklace we'll know something's up. 

Just one piece of distinctive jewelry, like a pair of antique-style earrings or a horn bracelet, warms up a woman. (Shown, silver, 18k gold, diamond and white sapphire fleur de lis earrings from Beladora, $795.)

Pearls? She wears a calm and collected version: 

But for those women who want a looser, lighter image, I'd choose the "Lavender Queen" keshi necklace from Kojima Company; price, $630. (And Kojima Company has a 20% off sale from today to June 1 with discount code KOJIMAPEARL).

In real life, I've met a few "Claire Underwoods", their intelligence evident, their humanity compromised by smiles that don't involve the eyes, and I try to get out of there as soon as I can. But I do admire the wardrobe!

Scott Schuman's shot: La mode and memories

One of the most expressive of all Scott Schuman's street shots ran this week on his blog, The Sartorialist, drawing comparisons to Robert Doisneau and, I thought, Lisette Model–though unlike some of Doisneau's most-known shots, this one was not posed.

Did you ever, in your youth, draw the appraising gaze of an elder? 

I remember my mother's friends looking appalled at my braless state and once, in church, a stranger walked over and draped her coat over my minidress, her mouth a pinched seam of disapproval. 

Now that you're older, do you regard the more exuberant and expressive youths with approbation? I sometimes have to remind myself not to stare, but I hope my expression is neutral to admiring. 

If not, I try to wear sunglasses!

Last week, I was in a boutique when a little punky girl of seventeen came in, all studs, graffiti'd moto, copious piercings and fuchsia hair. Her look was not really new, in fact quite retro, but she carried a great beauty under that hard shell, a face of timeless grace.

She had been transfixed by the Les Néréiades necklace in the window, dripping with crystals, beads and flowers. 

When she put it on over her slashed tee, she transformed not into an ubiquitous Katie Holmes clone, but into her next, singular self. She bought it, murmuring that she had never spent so much on any item of jewelry, but figuring she would "wear it for life".  

I had a sense that the hardcore costume was near the end of its shelf life, that she would transform her style very soon. Equally interesting was the way she adroitly negotiated the price, securing a 30% discount by politely asking to talk to the owner after the bored salesgirls brushed her off. Ah, I thought, brains and beauty.

Youth will ever extend and provoke our sense of what's "appropriate". And though we may no longer essay the bolder effects of these aware young women, they are reminders to resist generic blandness, even as we assign higher priority to comfort and value.

Montréal People: At the market, red signals spring

We vaulted from winter to near-summer temps in less than a week; on both last Saturday and Sunday at the market, I noticed that red is not just for geraniums anymore:

The male of the species has the brighter plumage:

Palest yellow trousers; the heaviness of her beautifully-fitted black coat lifted by a red scarf:

At a bakery, a young woman in a marinière minidress, jacket tied round her waist, moto boots and a red bag:

Just loved her red and pink zig-zag dress; she's voluptuous but buying plants, not the must-wear-darks rule:

Another sampled fruit in a red maxiskirt:

And une fillette found a red flower for maman:

Pastels and white show up once the temperatures hit the 24C/80F range but for now, red heralds longed-for warmth, as the leaves unfurl to the sun and people's smiles seem to say, At last!

Shopping jeans: Prices and politics

Jeans-shopping with my son, I thought of picking up a pair too. I wondered, Should I upgrade to a hip, high-end label or stick with my mid-priced favourites?

I polled friends on their jeans price point, which ranged from $25 for no-names bought at Winner's (our TJ Maxx) to $250 or more for designer brands. Most were in the middle, paying $75-$120 but watching for sales. One woman said her sister turned up at a hiking lodge in Alaska in $500 Balenciaga jeans, but she's an outlier. 

Several women buy theirs at thrifts, paying $10-$20 for, as one said, "someone else to break them in".

Zipping up, high and low

The boy and I chose a venerable Montréal institution, JeansJeansJeans, which is exactly like "Say Yes to the Dress" but for denim: they carry least six dozen labels, from mid-to-high end, all marked down.

He vanished to the men's side. A pleasant, gimlet-eyed woman sized me up by pulling my coat aside and looking at my butt; she asked for my criteria (straight leg, higher waist, dark wash), deposited me in a curtained, mirrorless  fitting room (no champagne) and told me to "vait".

In this vast warehouse space, jeans hang like a Christo installment on overhead racks, as well as floor carousels. You do not touch. She pulls them, handing six pair at a time through your dressing room curtain.

Lois (which she pronounced "Loyz") fit best, but I found several other options at good discounts, for example, $80 Yoga Jeans, usually $120 locally. 

Some women figure the higher the price, the higher the booty. But I could find no correlation between price and fit among the mid-range brands—just a matter of pulling on pants till the mirror tells you you're cute.

I asked for an upgrade and was handed a stack of "premium denim":  $200+ jeans from Rag & Bone, AG, Naked & Famous, Seven.
Rag and Bone skinnies
The Rag & Bone high-rise (that term is relative) skinnies were both substantial and supple. Did I want them? Yes, yes! But I deferred a decision (they are always on sale) and took son, who got Levis, for a nice restorative pint.

Props to the saleswoman for telling me the $65 Lois looked as good as the three-times-as-much pair.

Prestige jeans' price equals a piece of real jewelry, and much of the status attaches to fabric: raw, selvage, heritage: there's a whole taxonomy. 

But I remember my first pair of riveted, cardboardy Levis ca. 1960 ($16) worn in the bath to shrink-fit; I don't need an reunion with the Ghost of Denim Past. And, despite Anderson Cooper's endorsement, I like to wash mine.   

A few days later, I checked out a few lower-end chains (Reitman's, Smart Set, H&M). At first glance, the jeans looked pretty good, but those chains cut for their main market, young adults. These are Your Daughter's Jeans and they let me know. Many were too low in the rise, delivering a simultaneous wedgie/moon. It was here, too, that I found the dreaded "leg twist".  

Fitting the grown woman

Talbot's Heritage ankle jean
I'm currently wearing two brands that cater to the grownup market: Talbot's ankle jeans and NYDJ Marilyn straight legs

Talbot's promise Babe Paley but deliver June Cleaver; the company once known for well-made classics has dropped the fork. Their jeans, though, fit me neatly, and good for them for using the same quality denim for Misses, Petite and Women's lines.

NYDJ's treatments (overdyes, coating), almost Photoshop-effect cut and vast range of sizes (Misses, Petite, Plus, Tall and Short) earn devoted repeat business. I thought my first pair were pricey, and now say, Worth it.

Politics in blue

Lucky Brand "Sofia"
I'm also aware of the political issue of where jeans are made. 

Here's a link to 10 American Made Denim Brands, not all of whom carry women's styles. 

Lucky Brand (owned by the conglomerate that owns Liz Clairborne) is one of the most widely-distributed, however, only part of its line—the Made in America (MIA) range—is produced in the US.The Sofia straight leg, is one, around $130.
Montréal's Naked & Famous makes its jeans locally, of Japanese fabric, but other Canadian companies (Parasuco, Silver) manufacture offshore. 

Shockoe Classic Denim
To buy peace of mind with North American-made fabric and production can take the price point further. The curated Made Collection sells Shockoe Denim Classic Jeans, $185, as well as other stuff that looks straight out of my brother's closet, ca. 1955. 

They're made of denim from Cone Mills, America's oldest denim maker, and hand-sewn in Richmond, VA.

So, it's a balancing act: style, status, cost, conscience. And then there's the three-way mirror, where my vanity trumps my politique every time.

How much will you spend on denim joy? Do you splurge or settle? Does provenance matter?


Hair: She does, with a new product

Long a devotée of salon colour, my curiosity was piqued when my co-MIL N. e-mailed me about L'Oreal Preference Mousse Absolue.

Its features murmured "I'm different": a no-mix reusable mousse that keeps 4 to 6 weeks after the first go, and supplies enough product for touch-ups or 
(depending on hair length) two full apps.

I had been certain I'd never try home haircolour again. Box reds had gone on too dull or harsh, and when last trying about a decade ago, my splatters transformed our bathroom walls and floor into a "Dexter" set that cost $150 to repaint. I never got the stains out of the flooring.

But, after seeing the flash production of my colour at the salon (has to be a box opened out of sight), and having already bought the Secret Weapon, a good round-the-neck mirror, I thought, Well, it's only hair, why not?
Early last Saturday am. I frothed in "Sensational Auburn", made a bowl of café au lait while it processed, and said a brief matinal prayer to the Goddess of Created Colours. A half-hour later, no mess, stress, rinsed and finished with a generous dab of a luxurious included conditioner, and—the reveal:

(Actual colour is even more vibrant and shiny; the bright outdoor sunlight washed the shot a little.)

It was only after my little triumph that I looked up product reviews and found a startling amount of scathing comments: some said Mousse Absolue doesn't cover greys, smells unpleasant, stings. 

This was so alien to my experience (and I have a lot of grey) that I began to wonder about deliberate misinformation. Is there a cabal of colourists dissing this product to protect their turf? Are the women posting princess-and-the-pea types? It was no more chemical-smelling than the salon product, and less messy.

At very least, the Absolue adventure reminds me to revisit old shibboleths, stay open and profit by the industry's innovation. That's profit in more ways than one: over a year, I figure my savings to be over $700!

What Not to Wear: The anthropologists' analysis

I read an intriguing paper, "From Rags to Riches, The Policing of Fashion and Identity" by Sherri Gibbings and Jessica Taylor, published in Vis à Vis: Explorations in Anthropology (Vol. 10, No, 1, 2010). Two anthropologists weigh in on the implications of makeover TV shows, specifically the now-defunct "What Not to Wear".

First, the true confession: I enjoyed WNTW. Even though we have no TV, I'd watch it at the gym or look for YouTube segments. 

Diana's reveal outfit
The hosts' denigration of the makeover subject's "before" taste and ecstatic response to her reformation was stagecraft, and though the women looked oddly genericized at the reveal party, WNTW dished up good gooey pop culture.

Gibbings and Taylor view that the show is really about the Foucaultian concept of governmentality, defined as "a deliberate activity that shapes our conduct by working through our desires, aspirations, interests and beliefs...".

In layman's terms, Stacey and Clinton 'splain it all to you, so you are not a clueless deviant dresser.

Stacy and Clinton also convinced the woman (nominated for the project by appalled family or colleagues) that conforming to a middle-class standard of dress would result in career, romantic and spiritual elevation. If you dress right, your world will twinkle with potential and pleasure.

The authors write:"The goal of the show is thus to inform the participants and viewers about the rules of judgment, but it also teaches them the effects: the pleasure they experience when they dress right. It illustrates the pleasant new forms of recognition that come with the improved style of dress."  

They also say: "In WNTW, market rationality moves into the sphere of self-transformation when WNTW strives to make individuals efficient and competitive in the heterosexual market of relationships and the cut-throat job market though wearing the 'right' clothes. The solution to women's problems (identified as those of self-esteem) becomes the idea that women need to take responsibility for their lives through dressing."     

With that last line, my feminist heart sank. In WNTW's mirrored dressing room, had I been persuaded that womens' self-esteem dangles from a hang tag? 

"I feel so great in this!" is proffered as a prime reason for buying by many bloggers, including me. But we are influenced to buy that impression of 'greatness'. 

The sweater
As the Amanda Priestly character in "The Devil Wears Prada" says to an intern, "You think this (the fashion industry) has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and select...that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back.  

But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise. It's not lapis. It's actually cerulean...and it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff." 

WNTW makeovers delivered a cloned, InStyle look with little grit, wildness or quirk left in the mix. I liked punky Jen's '80s Ramones tee and Mayim Bialik's Niagara Falls one. But then, I'd find myself nodding in agreement: Tristen, duck nails, remember?

Makeovers are also make-alikes. I don't find that wholly reprehensible; conformity has its purpose. Few of us would go to work in, say, red fake-fur chaps and a hat made of discarded cigarette packs. 

But it's well worth pausing to think about the erasure of gender, race and class that the makeover programs promote. 

Photo: The Sartorialist
That's why I cannot help but smile when I see a woman in something else: a vintage plaid coat, a wild curly topknot, an insouciant hat, a shot of arresting colour. I most enjoy the idiosyncratic  touch absent from WNTW and makeover segments on shows like Rachel Ray.

The complete paper is available here; follow instructions on that page to download.