New York: From new to nostalgic

Regular readers may recall that I spent last week in New York; today, a report.

If you are young (or not, but welded to a personal trainer) the look of the summer is the waist or hip-length corset top. This is worn with high-waisted trousers or a soft, full skirt, not too short. The effect is out of time, slightly Victorian, and charming.

Also of another time is the exhibition we viewed at the Metropolitan, "Charles James: Beyond Fashion". Le Duc had never heard of James; he's not one of the best-known names of the era, like Beene or Norell, but to me, the most remarkable.

James' gowns and dresses are feats of architecture; a James pattern looks like a tipsy silkworm slithered across a bolt of charmeuse, then spun a breathtaking, deceptively refined gown. As James said, "Let the grain do the work."

CADCAM models of the pattern layout and an animated sequence of the piece's assembly delivered the full effect of his astonishing skill, something you would never see just by looking at the gowned mannequin. 

"Who designs such clothes now?" Le Duc asked. The James technique seems to have died with him despite his archived collection and notes. His black wool "Taxi" day dress, made in 1932, would look ineffably elegant today.

I glanced at the other women present, in flowy Eileen Fisher (why is this brand worn too large, so often?) and jeans-with-jackets, not a sophisticated turnout among us. True, James designed for long-waisted swans lunching at "21", but today, even the carriage-trade designers who serve middle-aged clients tend toward rectangular shapes. 
I could hear the couturier, a world-class snob, rolling in his grave. He said, in an Interview piece shortly before his death:
"All I can say about such (middle class) women is that they never did have any influence on fashion, responded to it, or set the pace; so it really isn't any different today than in my youth. Such women never really influenced any trend other than by being responsible for new trends; having made old ones seems trite and vulgar."

The exhibit set the tone for the trip: retro pleasures, the '50s and '60s nostalgia that NYC markets suavely: barmen in white jackets, huge silver bowls of roses, a view of the Chrysler Building's diadem from our suite, displays of delicate short kid gloves in spring pastels at LaCrasia (worn exactly when?)

Whether in boutiques or department stores, I thought of value, trying to understand the rationale for $390 for this rayon tank top.

One of the James pieces was bought at Lord&Taylor in '47 for $1200; about $12,500 today. That store, as well as Saks, were offering 40% off for even the loftiest labels, with free shipping. I bought a pair of store-brand linen trousers, and wondered, When the spring-summer line is reduced that much before June 1, what are the clothes are really worth?

Who were the best-dressed women during my week there? 

Japanese tourists (or perhaps locals who speak Japanese?), in soft cotton blouses (not shirts), box-pleated skirts to the knee or narrow ankle trousers, and impeccable leather sandals.

One 80ish woman lunching in what looked like an '80s Chanel suit, plush bouclé in a complex mix of blues; a young professional entering the Condé Nast Building, her black sleeveless dress kissed with just enough sheerness to herald the season. 

I also thought about service after fleeing several shoe stores (or departments) after clutching a display shoe and waiting nearly 30 minutes for even a greeting. Why don't shoe stores adopt the customer-accessible pick-yourself system that deep discounters use, or re-engineer the process? I saw at least five other customers bail during each futile visit.

Once home, I could order the shoes with one tap of my mouse, from another vendor.


Excellent report! I am with you on the need for good service...I do not see why stores don't get it. I will say last year when I did much shopping in Chicago, the service was surprisingly good!
CK said…
Never enough service help these days. Do you think part of the problems is that people who'd have those jobs can't afford to live anywhere near their place of work?

CK said…
In NYC, I mean.
Bunny said…
Great report from the front. Thank you.
LauraH said…
Thanks for sharing your impressions of NY.
Madame Là-bas said…
I wonder about value too. If items are discounted so early in the season, the retailer's markup must be exorbitant. Service is almost non-existent here at HBC which is the only department store that is left near my home. Fortunately, a friend of a friend has opened a small store nearby and I have been buying from her this year. There's always service and some friendly chatter. It makes shopping fun.
Duchesse said…
CK: FWIW I heard the hipster barista at the indy coffee shop nearby say he lived in Queens, and I am not sure his hourly rate is higher (nor would I expect he would have the benefits) than Saks'. But that is not to refute your point.

The stores now use software that schedules staff against stats for peak traffic and they run very, very lean if you are in there on say, Tues am. at 10.

The shoe-buying process just cries out for reengineering.

une femme said…
Fun report, thank you! In Paris, I've noticed the Asian women are almost always the most fashion-forward.

I find it frustrating that one can so rarely have a good pick of clothes IN season. Like finding those nice linen trousers in late July, or a summery dress for an invitation to a spur-of-the-moment birthday/cocktail party.

With Eileen Fisher, I've learned to first always try the size smaller than I think I need. But right now (and for the past few seasons) a lot of things, not just EF are cut very boxy and oversized. "That's just the look now," a Bloomingdale's Sales Associate sighed a few months ago.
LPC said…
Women are wearing corset tops? Alas, when I visit this summer, I shall not join them. Even though I do have a personal trainer at the moment;).
Duchesse said…
LPC: I did not see the corset top on a woman your age (let alone mine!) but was not willing to make a blanket generalization. I could see one worn under a chiffon kimono or linen jacket, for example; otherwise, very demanding on arms and upper torso!
Attentive service is hard to come by unless one shops in the smaller boutiques. That's what I thought until I ventured into our new Target store! Clerks everywhere! Greeting customers and offering to help...mind you I don't think I will be buying clothes for myself there but yes to housewares and the Rachel Ashwell Shabby Chic bedding!
Love to see those new shoes when they arrive and I enjoyed your report on NYC. I think Eileen Fisher clothing tend to be voluminous and so women may be buying them too big. She has some lovely pieces that are fitted and her fabrics are sumptuous.
Duchesse said…
hostess: I wrote I "could" order the shoes, not "did"- decided have enough for our brief summer. As for EF, once again I walked through two huge depts of it (even on sale!) and was not drawn there.

I like it on others, sometimes.
Duchesse said…
Mme: You are lucky and I love the idea of supporting local retailers. The markups are huge and so many of the clothes looked generic.

The most beautiful clothes I saw were from the Dutch line Pauw, at Saks.
I've seen Pauw in the Netherlands - and the trousers should be long enough for any of you tall ladies!

They have lovely fabrics.

The only Eileen Fisher garment I have (a top) is a size S. I am definitely not an S. I don't know whether it is vanity sizing gone mad, or the Lagenlook. I do like their linen knits, but have also seen nice ones at Simons here.

Those corset tops with a full skirt are also very 1950s. I'm thinking Bardot, but they would be more chic on a girl with a smaller bust.

Did you get to Brooklyn?
Duchesse said…
lagatta: Yes, the corset/skirt is '50s mood. Did not get to Brooklyn this time.

EF sizing (especially for tops/jackets) is somewhat non-standard; I have found a fit in everything from S to XL (but no longer have any of it.)

If Pauw were carried here I'd be in trouble!
Duchesse said…
lagatta: Yes, the corset/skirt is '50s mood. Did not get to Brooklyn this time.

EF sizing (especially for tops/jackets) is somewhat non-standard; I have found a fit in everything from S to XL (but no longer have any of it.)

If Pauw were carried here I'd be in trouble!
Dr. V.O. said…
Wonderful essay and analysis as always, Duchesse. On the topic if dressing -- I found myself today, again, among the only persons having dressed *for* a key event of the day (retirement party for an administrator at my university). I dressed up. In contrast most of my colleagues don't ever vary their attire to match an occasion. Are we living during the last fading moments of the concept of "dressing for" something? Oh, and don't get me started about customer service -- most so called sales associates seem to consider themselves the only customer in a transaction. I am resonating with your critiques -- very true.
Duchesse said…
Dr. V.O.: Retirement is a milestone for an academic and (according to my retired prof friends) sometimes involves intense emotions, even if they don't let on.

Attire is one way- and one of the most obvious- that we signal the importance of the honoree. To schlub in is not very classy.

In the case of the shoe dept., in those recent cases the salespersons were not unwilling; they were noticeably understaffed and further hampered by that inefficient request-and-retrieve system.

The Canadian chain Aldo have installed huge interactive displays in some of the subway stations- about 6 feet high by 4 feet wide. You can see the shoes (actual size) from all angles and use a touch screen to order. Really cool. Faced with dwindling sales in stores, Aldo have made a huge investment in technology.
Jill Ann said…
Re the concept of "dressing for" an occasion, or simply "dressing up": I recently started volunteering at Dress For Success, which, for those who aren't familiar with the charity, provides interview outfits for women in reduced circumstances who are searching for jobs. Each client is referred to us by a charity, social service agency, or church group. She is met by a "personal shopper" (that's what I do) upon arrival at our facility, and we suit her up with an interview-appropriate suit, blouse, shoes, purse, and scarf. Many of our clients have never worn a suit before, and many have said to me that they never even imagined themselves owning one. When we've selected all the pieces, and the client puts the outfit on and looks in the mirror, it's obvious (and heartwarming) to see the immediate boost to her self-esteem. Every day that I do this, it reinforces to me the importance of proper dressing. When did people forget that concept, in favor of all-jeans-all the time?
Anonymous said…
I like your comment at 7:43 about Aldo, the shoes, pick up a Sears catalogue from the turn of the century, guess what, women's shoes all came in five widths in soft kid leather. Fast forward to today, Aldo's, I can't buy a pair of shoes in there, they only come in one width, not mine, I have to wear Munro shoes, that's the only ones to pick from, it sure makes shopping easy.

I tried to buy a wide width pair of La Canadienne boots from Montreal (bunion like many women) - out of stock so I had to use shoe-goo to glue my old ones together. Even if I am willing to pay $500 for a pair of simple winter boots I can't get them.

There is your problem, everyone caters to the same demographic and it ain't the ones with disposable income. I found a single brand in France, Caroline Macaron, that caters to this common problem with dress shoes but they are only available online not sold anywhere else to try on.

Now if any store would carry shoes I could wear or special order them for me I would spend thousands. Otherwise - shoe-goo is the way to go.
Duchesse said…
Jill Ann: re "all jeans all the time": I did see many women in summer trousers, as well as jeans. Charles James actually loved jeans, thought they were the great American invention, sexy and modern. But I wonder if he would have thought women should wear them to dinner in a fine restaurant.

He accepted an important award in jeans and a dinner jacket, claiming his luggage had been lost and forcing Stanley Marcus to accept jeans as 'the' modern garment, and therefore to sell them in his chi-chi store.

Anon: Oh yes, I remember those days; it seems even humble shoe stores carried at least 3 widths.

Not sure where you are but Eureka Shoes on St Hubert is a specialty store for to wide (also large) feet, and also Laboratoire Pouliot on St. Laurent, who carry some very good shoes (expensive) for a variety of problem feet.

Several Quebec artisans custom- make shoes and sandals (am not sure about boots nd they do not show any heels) I have seen them speaking to clients at the Salon des metiers in Dec. Also check David Rogers Leather, 1397 Laurier for sandals and several simple styles.

Shoe goo only takes you so far!

Eureka also offers shoes for teensy feet. I have a friend who takes a size 5 and it is hard for her to find "grown-up" shoes. They don't seem to do very narrow though.

I had the good luck to be able to pick up some Eureka shoes (feet rather wide, and short, but mostly sensitive due to arthritis) at a deep discount when they moved a bit farther north on St-Hubert. If only I could find a copy of my favourites, German Mary Janes with a chunky heel, the most comfy shoes I've ever owned. I have two pairs, and the newer ones are starting to wear out...
Eleanorjane said…
Interesting stuff - there's nothing like that corset and skirt idea in England (but I do like the sound of it (with a little cardigan for my arms)).

I think customer service is increasingly important as bricks and mortar shops compete with online shopping. Even if everything else is right, many of us will walk away without a purchase due to poor customer service.

The posts with the most