Summer, and September changes

The Passage closes today for its annual summer break, July and August, when I head off-line to enjoy our shortest, sunniest season.

Thank you all for the encouragement last week; the Passage will reopen September 8.

Anonymity is so 2008

The anonymous comment option, a feature that sat uneasily with me, is closed. Seven years ago, when the Passage opened, some readers had no social-media account. Today, because of the enormous increase in the use of smart phones, tablets and other devices, an account is standard practice. 

Commenters will be asked to sign in with one of the following: Google, Blogger, LiveJournal, WordPress, TypePad, or AIM.

If you chose the anonymous comment option because you do not wish to be tracked by data analytics companies who sell your personal information, consider use of a secure browser like Epic or Comodo or defend your ever-eroding privacy by the methods described here. And while I'm at it, that's why I don't use Polyvore, whose privacy policy is, to put it tactfully, sub-par.

Anonymity reduces the spirit of community and obviates accountability. Many of you used the anonymous feature but added a name (or username), and I've always appreciated that. But lately, more and more comments have been posted here using complete anonymity. 

If I write a post that deals with a sensitive topic, I will install the anonymous comment capacity for that post.

Another option is to contact me via e-mail (the address is in the right menu bar, under "Welcome"), and indicate whether you would like your comment published or read by only me. 

Blogs are gifts

There is no "right way" to blog. Some bloggers make money (from modest to very considerable amounts) by running ads and accepting commissions from vendors whom they feature. Their writing may be every bit as knowledgable as a fashion magazine's; the difference is that the blogs are free.  

A vast number of bloggers write without financial reward, and others, like the outstanding "Brainpickings", solicit donations. There are various ways to self-publish, and a good case for each model.

I have thought about my intention and values; therefore, the Passage remains ad-free, and declines the offer of merchandise in exchange for reviews—though I will make an exception if Sevan wants to send a "Double Dove" ring!

Come September   

This is the 996th post. Besides shoes, bags, scarves and jewelry, I've written about transgendered persons, snobs, late-life heartbreak, two anthropologists' view of "What Not to Wear" and picky (adult) eaters.

I'm over seven years older than when I began, so am ever more interested in what my friend Catherine calls "artful aging". I'll keep railing against mindless consumption, unfair employment practices and dresses with weensy sleeves.

Santé, sisters!

Thank you for visiting the Passage, where an old-school (and, ever more rapidly, just plain older) feminist juggles social responsibility with having a really good time, in pearls.

A special thank you to the writers and readers who made the Passage a community in the past season: to Kirsten, Cecily, Jude and Dorothy, who contributed posts, and so many others who e-mailed with questions, opinions and photos of jewelry renos.

Mojitos all round and see you in September!  

Pearls: Making a memento modern

June practically owns pearls, what with weddings, graduations, birthdays, and pearls' affinity for summer clothes. What if you were once given a classic strand or bracelet that you now find too conservative for your present life?

A piece like those shown above (from American Pearl), might summon memories of a loved parent or a special day, but if you find it too conservative for your present life, you can update it instantly by wearing your memento with other pearl jewelry. (You can also restyle older pearls; to see examples, click "restyling jewelry" and "rehab your pearls" on the right menu.)

Choose new earrings instead of matching studs. With a white strand, wear pretty dangles by Dana Kellin, pink quartz beads surrounded by tiny lavender pearls. Price, $172.

Tai's white pearl and red tassel bracelet is the one I'd choose to combine with a glowing but more traditional single-row bracelet; price, $62.

Or, for a bracelet with silver undertones, I'd pick a silver keshi bracelet (or two) to join that classic. You might have to change the clasps so that the metals coordinate, a small job. Shown, keshi bracelet from Etsy seller thebigbluebead; price, $28.

Yes, you can mix pearl varieties, just pay attention to the undertone: cream, silver, rose or absolutely white-white. This special strand of tiny Japanese akoya keshis would blend marvelously with cream-undertoned whites. I would have bought this instantly if it were longer than 16.5 inches. Price, $342; from Kojima Company.

A pendant changes pearls entirely and is my preferred strategy for pearls under 7.5mm, which then become the "chain" for the pendant. Certain pearls are just magical: a 16.8mm natural-colour Kasumi that flashes gold, lavender and peach topped with a green glass baguette ($702 at Kojima Company). 

One last idea: go retro. Adding a killer pair of retro or mid-century earrings makes the trad necklace or bracelet look intentional, not leftover. Maybe you have a pair of your mother's; if not, channel Joan Holloway, not Betty Draper; they need a little wiggle. 

I like these flower-inspired gold-filled screw-ons, just $32 from Etsy seller june2six:

Once Joan became a partner, though, she'd have bought these whimsical yet sophisticated mid-century 14k flower earrings from Beladora! (price, $995.) Oh right, no pearls here, but I liked them so much they made the cut.

If pearls come into your life, you're lucky, but sometimes luck needs a little nudge into the present, and the solution is... more pearls

Have fun taking yours out of the jewelry box, and if you wish, contact me to show us your update.

Stemming the online shopping tsumani

Do you go shopping every day? I do.

I begin the day by opening my e-mail, café au lait at hand. Before 9 am., I have virtual-window shopped, if not purchased. My in-box delivers sale offers and announcements of new arrivals; blogs increasingly link to vendors. 

(Why have so many blogs become Trojan horses for retailers? Maybe because earning commissions beats writing for free. )

By 9 am., I am pondering things I had not even thought of the day before: a seersucker skirt! That opal pendant! All pretty things, some even bargains, but usually unnecessary, even as the sites cry, Treat Yourself! Up to 70% Off!

The ready excuse: I need to see what's out there, for the Passage. But numbed by a glut of commerce, I've said goodbye to "by invitation" shopping sites and unsubscribed from most retailers. I'll keep reading a handful of style-oriented bloggers who provide thoughtful commentary, and who seek that rare intersection of beauty and value.

Barb, a friend of forty years, and I recently reminisced about the days when going shopping was a focused, time-bound activity. We carved out at least a half-day, which always included lunch. And we did not go that often; first, we couldn't afford it, and second, once you saw the season's sportswear at, say, Hudson's, nothing else would come in for at least two and a half months.

Shopping was paradoxically more fun and more serious, more significant. When you counted out cash, you were truly parting with your money. We learned about debt and the folly of "paying for it next month".

Then came the online world, with its constantly-updated stock, daily flash sales, and seductive one-click "payment systems". Women, including me, suddenly found their discipline eroding if, fanning a hot flash and feeling blue, they discovered a deliciously discounted bag on eBay, never mind all those in the closet.

The blog world jumped in, gasoline on the flame of desire. Somebody shows her new Stella McCartney Elyse shoes (well over $1,000) so why not buy the $60 Vans I'm liking? I'm somehow saving money, and therefore have more to spend, an effect known as Princess Dollars.

The flood of consumption promoted online is not doing me any good—even though I seldom buy—nor are the hours spent inert at a computer. If you live on a flood plain, it seems the wise strategy is to clear off.

As I prepare to head off-line for the Passage's usual July-August break, I'm considering what I will write, should I return in September. Perhaps you'll have requests; I'd appreciate that.

Not sure what to do, but to paraphrase Robert Evans, the pearls stay in the picture.


From time to time, I read the obituaries in my hometown paper. As the years pass, more and more of those names recall not only families with whom I grew up, but my classmates.

And so, last week, after at least 55 years of not seeing his name, I read of the passing of J.P. Parks (I have used a pseudonym).

J.P. ca. 1958

Just like that he was back beside me at our wooden desks, a bony, freckled only child in a paper-thin flannel shirt, auburn hair stiff as a scrub brush, a biddable boy who would laugh all in a rush if you caught him at the right moment. We were all biddable then, years away from adolescent rebellion, bolted down as firmly as those desks by the nuns' generally benevolent authority.

He lived a few blocks from our primary school, in a dark, small, unreadable house from which only J.P. was seen to emerge, a house where no one was invited to play, not even in the yard. 
In class, J.P. was a kind of placeholder kid, no trouble but not memorable, until one event: the fifth-grade Mother's Day gift.

We had an ambitious project. We were each to take home a piece of typing paper, and request that our mother write out one of our favourite recipes. She was to check it for accuracy and sign her name, putting her rep on the line for that spaghetti sauce or cookie. It would have been unheard of for a father to undertake this effort; the O'Donnell twins, whose mother had died, asked their aunt.

We then returned the sheets (without creases, people!) to Sister, who mimeographed the pages and distributed crisp sets. After the ecstatic mass inhalation of sweet, purply-blue mimeo ink, we got down to business, the assembly of our report-cover "book". The cover art was especially inspired: we traced an outline of our hand with coloured pencils.

I still have that frayed, foxed copy. As you would expect, the book was heavy on sweets; my mother sent her double-chocolate fudge cake recipe.

I can write J.P's entry from memory. Sister thanked him, but behind his back, we mocked his mother, clearly a dismal cook.

French toast
Take bread, put in pan with egg and milk.
then cook.
By Mrs Parks

Many decades later, my father, one of the local doctors, began, in confidence, to recount some of his memorable cases. J.P.'s father beat his mother. One night in the early 1950s, he attacked her, leaving her unconscious on the floor, with J.P. in his play pen. He drove off, never to be found, not so hard to do in the 1950s.

Dad, who removed one of her eyes, said mother and son had spent several days alone before she was found; there had been scarcely a scrap of food in the house. The family survived on welfare and support from our parish, but all we kids heard was that J.P.'s mother was sick and could not work.

By the end of junior high, they had moved to a smaller, neighbouring community; I never saw J.P. again.

Now I realize that J.P. wrote that recipe himself, as best he could. He had survived to 67, worked at the local cement plant, enjoyed fishing.

Though the obituary did not mention a family, I hope J.P. had some love, and plenty of French toast. He was a sweet kid who fended for himself, and I wish, instead of laughing at his contribution, we had seen the strength he summoned just to turn it in.

Coral: A responsible option

Janice of The Vivienne Files' recent post featuring coral, including synthetic coral earrings, inspired this post.

I'm 100% with her on her avoidance of new coral; if anyone tries to sell you new coral that is supposedly "sustainably fished", run, and send them this article from Living Oceans Foundation.

But fake coral can look as lifeless as imitation pearls. It is impossible to replicate the layered structure of genuine coral, just as nacre on a pearl cannot be duplicated on a glass bead.

As an alternative to synthetics, consider buying vintage. Here are several examples from my collection:

Left, an Edwardian coral bead and pendant necklace set with tiny diamonds. 

Middle, earrings made by restyling a pair of vintage Italian coral (ca. 1940s) earrings by changing the setting and adding yellow sapphires and baroque pearls.

Right, a huge contemporary Mexican coral ring set in silver. (The dyed, semi-precious coral was sourced from decades-old stock by a local jewelry designer.) 

My examples are deep red; however, corals in pinks and oranges are as beautiful and may suit your colouring better. I found several to covet:

A calmly beautiful rope of 7mm angelskin beads from Etsy seller The Victorian Armoire; price, $199:

A pink coral cabuchon, set in a sleek 18k ring, by Van Cleef & Arpels from Beladora (price, $695):

If you buy vintage or antique coral

There are two broad quality levels: gem grade and semi-precious (like that big ring of mine), and quite a difference in price. You can find a summary of coral types and quality here.

Gem-quality coral is lustrous, hard, and dense, so pieces feel weighty.

This Victorian coral and 10k gold ring (price, $650 from Park Avenue Couture) is an example of the price for an antique, unsigned piece. What characer in this ring, which looks as if it might have been worn by Virginia Woolf. 

You can see the depth of colour and organic nature that distinguishes it from plastic-y artificial materials. Who would want new, compared to this?

Semi-precious coral, even if antique, is usually colour-enhanced through dyeing and is stabilized or filled, because it is more porous.

But even with semi-precious, when you buy vintage coral, you should be getting coral. Price is often a signal; you cannot buy an "antique Tibetan necklace" of "genuine coral and silver" for double digits, so that eBay listing at $70 is, I am willing to bet, anything from dyed agate to plastic.

One suggested test for real coral (which I have never carried out myself) is to apply a small amount of concentrated lemon juice to the coral (e.g., on the back of an open setting). If the coral is genuine, it will bubble (which you can see with a loupe) and stick to the coral rather than running right off. Remove the lemon juice immediately after the test, using gentle soap.

When ethics meet aesthetics

While coral, ivory, some types of horn and other materials taken from endangered species or environments receive close attention and treaty protection, depending on various countries' policies, polluting and inhumane conditions persist in gem and precious metal mines worldwide. Therefore, I recommend buying vintage gems and recycling noble metals.

You could forgo such adornments altogether and spend your life in string bracelets and macaroni necklaces, but that is not appealing to many women, me included. Buying consciously or restyling what we have is a liveable compromise.

If I were in the market for a new stone, I would seek ethical gem dealers or ask my jeweler to source such material, but as author and filmmaker Greg Valerio points out on his site, the industry is notoriously resistant to regulation, and even the definition of "fair trade" varies from country to country.

Scroll to the bottom of his enlightening post to see four companies whom he recommends.

Whether it's clothes or food or jewels, we are asking, more and more often, "Where does this come from? At what cost to the environment?" Beauty can co-exist with stewardship, and one way to achieve that is to search for previously-owned treasures.  

Pondering elder style: Lessons from Queen Elizabeth

I recently saw this photo of Queen Elizabeth at last spring's Royal Windsor Horse Show, and thought, "When I am her age, I want to dress like that." She looks smart, comfortable, relaxed. (You cannot quite see, but she is wearing pearls.)

Seems to me that women my age are obsessed about not looking old, but I am beginning to be obsessed with how I will look, old. But then, I've always thought ahead. In my tweens, I couldn't wait to grow up and wear a black lace cocktail dress. Now, I'm not so eager to race through my life, but I do think about what elder attire could be.

Not for me, the lamé leggings and "creative" jacket. I'm going "cas" like the Queen: matlassé jacket, cashmere cardi and tweed skirt, or possibly straight-legged trousers. I'm not alone; Agyness Deyn has said Queen Elizabeth is her fashion inspiration; shown, Deyn on the inaugural cover of Love magazine (2009).

The Queen is known for colour; she has long known that luminous hues draw the eye in a crowd.

When it's time to replace the Eric Bompard cardis I habitually wear, I'll remember how colour revivifys and adds interest. 

My long-loved black won't be so appealing in the next decade, and I'm not referring to the traditional connotation of mourning. Black doesn't ennoble the elder woman as much as rich grey, plum, navy or camel.  

Queen Elizabeth is known for Hermès carrés worn as headscarves, an effect I have not yet essayed. Certainly, I am keeping my stack. Though some fashionistas will not touch them, I am certain the glowing colours and prints will lift me, especially when worn with a smile as twinkly as Her Majesty's.

I'm developing interest in subtle, colour-flecked tweeds, such as a navy and copper tweed jacket from Brora. 

I think too, of my godmother. When she was the Queen's age, she received me in an ecru shirt, fresia pink cashmere v-neck, Donegal tweed fine wool slacks and a strand of big Mikimoto pearls. I always adored her style, and she will be another of my beacons now.

So, I'm going for more colour (even if only navy instead of black), more quality (even if not bespoke, like Her Majesty's), and more longevity, via relatively classic styles, for example, my coat from Dalmad Marine.  

In July I turn 67, rounding the corner toward 70, which especially matters when I make a major purchase. A new coat, for example, should last into that decade. Of waterproof wool (similar to loden cloth), durable yet supple, this fall topper is a maritime style that suits life in this northern island-city.   

Strangely, the fear of being dowdy has receded. I'm reaching the age when I can, with quiet pleasure, wear the sort of clothes I always liked best.  


Recommended: Artist Textiles exhibition

If you're thinking of a summer jaunt, the exhibition "Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol" at the Textile Museum of Canada, is worth the trip; you'll be dazzled. My friend Jude generously gave me a ticket, and I was joined by another friend, Susan, whose birthday we ritually celebrate with a lunch and outing.

Over 200 works of artist-designed fabrics, shown as garments, swatches, scarves and hangings, trace the 20th century in textiles. Organized by the Fashion and Textile Museum of London, the exhibition has toured in the US in 2014, and is showing in Toronto through October 4, 2015.

"C'est pareil" fabric by Joan Miró
Susan and I were in textile heaven, ambling and exclaiming in the company of perhaps a dozen other patrons. You're allowed so close to the pieces that you can see each thread, a treat if you've ever tried to examine a brocade behind the glass of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute.

That exhibit elevated my textile eye, lulled most days by pedestrian to only-decent fabrics. Not everything shown was couture level; we were especially charmed by a selection of day dresses from the English dressmaker Horrockses:

and a piece of upholstery fabric, in the whimsical "Wedding" pattern by Saul Steinberg:

When the exhibition was shown at Textile Museum in Lowell, MA, WGBH-TV in Boston produced a four-minute spot. Take a whirl through some of the highlights:

Amid textile-loving bees scooping their woven nectar, a British visitor in an especially exuberant print of scarlet, yellow and pink hollyhocks told us, "I'm here for fourteen days and I brought sixteen dresses!" 

The exhibition's companion book, "Artist's Textiles, 1940-1976", is available through the Textile Museum of Canada's Gift Shop (price, $CAN 40), or on Amazon.

Off on a jaunt

Mini blog vacation: I'm off on a quick trip to Toronto to celebrate a friend's birthday. 

We'll visit the Textile Museum of Canada to see several enticing installations, "Artist Textiles from Picasso to Warhol" organized by London's Fashion and Textile Museum, and featuring rare pieces not on public display before.

Shown, Clare McCardell dress with Picasso "fish print":

See you next week!

The Friend Who Got Away

In listening to both intimates and acquaintances, I have noticed that often the most fraught ending in a woman's relationship is with a friend, not a lover.

Raw pain infuses a woman's face when she describes the end of a close friendship, and the loss is of different tenor than that of romance. 

In "The Friend Who Got Away", Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell collected twenty essays by women who describe such losses. This is not light bedtime reading: betrayal, the weight of expectations, mental health issues, the strains of child-rearing and work, jealousy, or just garden-variety indifference summon suffering even decades after the woman no longer sees her friend. 

My view of friendships has changed over adult life. Once, I sought to replace the sister I lost when I was twenty-nine.

Now, I take a more flexible view. I see friends as plants in a garden: a few resilient, thirty and forty year-old willow trees amid a mix of perennials and annuals. (I've learned you can't make a perennial out of an annual, no matter how much you'd like.)

I enjoy magnificent dahlias and modest violets equally, nourish several seedlings and no longer count on everything to take root. Occasionally, I eradicate without regret. Sometimes a plant I thought was hardy vanishes.

The word that resonates is "tending"; what I don't nurture, withers. But winter comes to all gardens, and as my friends and I age, some blooms appear only in dreams, with their essences intact; I awaken suffused with love, sorrow, gratitude. (One acquaintance said grimly that she was interested in making new friends only if at least twenty years younger.) 

When we moved to Montréal four years ago, I knew my greatest loss would be cherished friends. However, I didn't realize how long it might take to meet sympatico local women and build relationships, for we are long beyond the schoolyard days of instant friendship. My great luck was to immediately connect with my son's fiancée's mother and her sister, vital, smart and fun-loving women who generously introduced me to their circle. As my mother would say, they "took me up".

Marina, another friend I've made here, is moving next week, from a minute's walk away to small town a two-hour drive from Montréal. 

I'll miss her; you can see her spirit in this photo, animated, good-natured, slightly daffy, yet bracingly direct.  I'll also miss her menagerie: a pet rabbit, Mr. Oreo, her albino cat Lili, Lili's sister Bhumi, and her shy turtle, Bubbles, big as a dinner plate, who bobs in a kiddie wading pool in the living room.

To say goodbye, she hosted an open house last weekend, to which I brought a parting gift. Mr. Oreo despises the cats; jealous of their sleeping rights on Marina's bed, he rebuffs their sweet-natured overtures with bites and leporine attitude.

In France, you can buy rabbit cat food. Guess who got a tin each?