A brush with His Purple Highness

On Boxing Day, ca. 2002, in the early evening, I was walking though Toronto's Bay St. subway station. The hordes of bargain-shoppers had dispersed, the station was eerily deserted. Coming toward me, down a tiled corridor, was one boy. As we drew closer, I realized the boy was actually a diminuitive adult, and, seconds later, that it was Prince. (At that time, he had a Canadian wife, and a house in Toronto.)

I'm a lifelong Prince fan; one of my sons remembers receiving the Emancipation triple album from me when he was 9, parental advisory sticker be damned. He wore a conservative, elegant ensemble: impeccably tailored tweed jacket, soft brown trousers, cognac boots with a high Cuban heel. No tie, not a hint of purple rock n' roll. But, indubitably and sinuously Prince.

No stranger to tailoring
He gave me the look Le Duc and I have occasionally received from other celebrities: I Know You've Seen, and I Thank You for Not Bothering Me. So I passed without acknowledgement, but inside, I was shrieking, foaming crazy with delight, lightly in shock, wanting the forty-second encounter to never end.  When he had just passed me, a woman appeared, and I clutched her elbow, saying, "PRINCE! Look, there's Prince!" She said, "Prince who?"

I never saw him perform live; either the tickets sold out before I could snag one (as for Montréal's flash concert last winter) or the price was prohibitive. But, a Prince show was top of my Dream List and I figured next time, spare no expense.

I met my longtime friend Christine in Toronto last week, coincidentally at the very spot where I'd seen him; she too adored Prince. dBar, where moody mauve lighting felt especially apt, featured a Purple Rain cocktail, but we stuck with our favourites, a martini and a rusty nail, and spent an hour recalling our favourite songs and his irreplaceable persona. Christine had just returned from Italy, and had tucked a gift for me into her bag: a chic ring of leather with Florentine gold accents. 

Her present will always remind me of Prince, of his dance-till-you-drop music, and the evening we spent celebrating his gifts to us, with sadness and affection. 

We feel (slightly) bad about our muffin tops

... or what my delightful friend Lou, a francophone, calls her "top muffin".

"Feel bad" is of course borrowed from Nora Ephron, who grieved her crêpey neck, and "feel bad" is an overstatement, but past 50, even thin women can discover that unsettling spread, and not one prays for it. 

Upright, I have a midriff, seated, it stretches wider than a beauty queen's smile. The region just above my waist has acquired a second, pillowy life.

For those of you thinking, Just buy some shapewear: we both hate ugly elasticated nylon. I'd prefer an actual Scarlett O'Hara boned and laced corset to Spanx sausage casing. Lou won't consider underwear like Spanx' Shape My Day camisole because she spends a great deal of time in the tropics.

Trousers are muffin magnets unless well-cut and high-waisted (what used to be the natural waist height till the advent of low-rise jeans.) I buy NYDJ and Talbot's jeans and will pay nearly anything for trousers with a fluid leg and that body-accurate waist. Lou reminds me that skirts always reach the natural waist, and adds, Size up—we try to fit into a size that flatters our vanity, but not our body.

As for tops, sweaters and shirts need some mid-torso ease to accommodate the body shift when you're seated, but a 'big shirt' looks as if the muffin's in its paper bag.  Tip: when shopping, try on anything to see how it performs sitting down, and forego thin or clingy fabrics. Our dream shirt has a shaped yet forgiving fit provided by darts, ruching, or a peplum.

From autumn through spring, Lou and I wear Eric Bompard sweaters; I like the classic v-neck cardigan, which I wear as shown, buttoned like a top; Lou wears the v-neck sweater. Their extra-fine cashmere, though, is dicey—dreamy, but less forgiving.

In warmer weather, I often wear an LL Bean sailor shirt. The stripes, which women are typically told to shun because of their widening effect, work like a patterned swimsuit: they give the eye somewhere to go besides wondering if that's blueberry or bran under there.
Besides the classic navy/white, they offer many colours (shown, azure and grey), sometimes on sale for $20, with free shipping. I've bought French brands (St. James, Amor Lux), but keep reordering Bean's, at least one-third the price. The mid-weight cotton knit washes and holds up well, too.

What else works? Jackets—as any portly man knows—are deft disguises. I wear them as outerwear; Lou wears indoor ones, and just bought this washable Betty Barclay cotton/nylon/viscose ecru to for a spring trip to Australia.

A definitely curvy 5'4", Lou chooses pieces like this Madewell/daryl k mixed-print dress, which she wears over capris or leggings. Blouse-length tunics hit her at the widest point of her hips, which she doesn't like, so she wears a dress (or, what is sold as a dress to those who wear them short) that ends mid-thigh instead.

She also wears vests, zipped over a long-sleeve t-shirt or blouse, and looks for feminine versions like Eddie Bauer's StormDown print:

She is eyeing Belgian designer Sara Pacini's crochet linen poncho, which she will try in the Montréal boutique. "Could go either way, dressed up or down", she says, and sees it worn over her fine white tee, which these days is not being worn on its own.

Dresses could be a post unto themselves, so in short: raised waist, shift, or a-line, rather than fitted at the midriff, unless the dress has a good shot of stretch. Prime example: Lafayette 148's linen jersey pleated dress.  Some readers will be more concerned about arms, but a dress that covers everything is not much fun.

And then there's the simple, pragmatic tactic of Muffin Acceptance. Why hate any body part, especially in one's grownup years? That doesn't mean you're going to see either of us in cropped tees or low-slung trousers. But minimal camouflage is all we're willing to muster, and then meet for a café au lait.

It's spring! We don't want to feel bad about anything, let alone that midsection brioche

PS. Speaking of spring, I want to be sure to alert you to Kojima Company and Pacific Pearl's spring sale, 20% off all items on either site with the magic word SUPEARLATIVE (use in the discount code box at checkout) until April 27!

Posh pearls, practical prices

A peek in the window at some very appealing pearls, at especially tempting prices.

First, Pearl Paradise, who sometimes offer how-do-they-do-it specials on classic pearls. This month, 8mm-9mm South Sea studs set in 14k yellow gold for $261, with free shipping for mainland US customers.

The poshest of saltwater pearls at an outstanding price, in time for its June birthstone status, if you need an excuse. These would also make a you-shouldn't-have gift.

In an entirely different register, Kojima Company's Kasumi drops; not a "Kasumi-like" pearl, but the real Japanese-cultivated deal, set in 14k goldfill, with silver accent.

Price, $207 (so with shipping, about the same as the PP South Seas.) A dramatic, lavish (13.2mm!)  earring for women who like colourful, unusual pearls, or the more casual look of silver.

Tahitians are hard to find at bargain prices, and too often those under $500 or so per pair are dull and taupey. If you long for these deep delights, first acquaint yourself with stellar examples, and check out Gump's, who sell this elegant pair of 9mm-10mm drops set in white 14k gold for $800. (Not a prohibitive price, either.)

Use that as your benchmark pearl and don't drop your standards, because  a Tahitian without overtones is like George Clooney without his tux: handsome, but not exciting.

Sarah Canizzaro, owner of Kojima Company, always describes her Tahitians accurately, and will search for you if you have a Tahitian colour dream, like cherry overtones.

So, she describes these drops honestly: they have a colour gradation in peacock tones, a little banding and some very slight, tiny dimples, which to me say "can only be real" and add to the organic effect of this beloved variety. Set in 14k yellow gold, 11mm, and best of all: price, $396.

Now that I work at a coloured gem business, friends often ask me what gem to buy, especially if ready to spring for "something good". I smile and answer, pearls (which we do not sell.)

Pearls are versatile; coloured stones, while breathtaking, demand more thought. Like diamonds, pearls 'go' with everything, by day or evening. You can pile them on à la Coco Chanel, or wear only those South Sea studs, a murmur of elegance.  They also coordinate faultlessly with your coloured jewelry, from enamel to gemstones to glass.

Finally, if treated with care, pearls will give lifelong pleasure, retaining their lustre and allure. If you choose earrings, you can have beautiful pearls that really do light your face, for the price of a few jars of cream that turn out to not do anything but remind you of wasted money. 

COS, considered

We have an enormous COS store smack in the middle of Montreal's downtown; impossible to avoid as a rack of candy bars at the supermarket checkout. And it was brimming with spring things in heaps of navy, grey and a mysterious soft salmon, so I popped in on a rainy day when I had the floor to myself.

I walked out an hour later, not swinging a shopping bag and wondering how I was going to explain that to you. I have long admired strict clothes, and COS is a temple of quiet/cool nonchalance. Among hundreds of items, there were exactly three discreet abstract prints, and a peppering of stripes.

COS, owned by H&M, is Eileen Fisher meets hip Swede-with-a budget. It's the sartorial equivalent of a Hotel Costes playlist: calm and assured, with a few tiny upticks of excitement (leather dress, audacious fringed linen top).

I understand COS's aesthetic and am open to unconstructed clothes, but something was slightly off in quality and cut. I tried a dozen tops and jackets, and found the fit oddly constrained across the shoulders on pieces that nethertheless looked boxy, giving a disorienting sense of being in too small and too large at once.

The quality was better in shirts, but too many trouser hems had a telltale wobble.  (Aside to women who would rather be lashed than look 'so 2014': there are no full-length trousers among the cool girls.) The store was full of these:

Petite women might be able to double-purpose the piece below, wearing one as an oversized shirt or a dress: I wear jeans and brogues all the time, so why was this not working? Maybe because I'm not 22?

But I loved the speckled denim fabric (livelier than it looks here) of this "trouser skirt", which playfully bridges Bermuda shorts, a skirt, and culottes:

I returned a few days later, figuring at least some styles would work, but I looked obdurately blocky in this slate blue cotton shirt, like a woman drawn by a five-year-old.  Intellectually I wanted it, visually, it dispirited. (Once, at a party, a dressmaker had an extra glass of wine and told me to bring in the tunic top I was wearing and she'd put bust darts in it. I see she was right.)

My sole shopping list item was a spring-weight top, so I crossed the street and chose, at ça va de soi, this substantial Egyptian cotton knit. It fit neatly, and made me look, I must say, like a woman with a good figure. But I paid twice the COS price tag, so only one item.

The ça va cut isn't for everyone, either, and there's the key: if you find a brand or two that fits you, whether Gap or MaxMara, that ennobles your bust and gentles your hips, whose trouser rise gives enough room whether standing or sitting, whose skirt length is right without alteration, grab on and try to be a loyal customer, even if the price inflicts moderate pain or you sit out some years because the colours aren't your palette.

A spring treat

Photo: CBanningAccessories

Cinne Worthington, designer of scarves I featured in yesterday's post, has written to say:

What an honor it is to have one of my scarves included in this wonderful post.
To show my gratitude and perhaps shrink the size of the "hole" in your wallets here is a 25% off coupon for anything in my shop.
Just enter "laDuchesse" at check out.
Thank you so much Duchesse and enjoy your spring!

I wanted to be sure all readers see this generous offer.

Scarves: Spring on a budget

Well hell-o Montréal spring, I thought you'd never show up! The new season means blanket-weight mufflers are cleaned and packed away. 

When I rotated in the spring-weight pieces, I noticed I'd nothing that would work with several pink and orange tops, or to make navy less...navy. What joy, a hole in one's scarf wardrobe! Time to scout.

This Liberty paisley silk that would provide soft warmth right into May and even summer evenings. The colourway is versatile and lively, I'm fond of Indian paisleys, and it's a nice, ample size. But the price is well over $500 of our weak Canadian dollars. I want to spend less!

Secondhand Liberty scarves are listed on Etsy and eBay, with prices from around $20 to $120, but the tiny florals on offer are too girlish for me.

I found an affordable alternative: Melbourne artisan Dannielle Monaghan of SourPussDesigns makes infinity or rectangular scarves of washable Liberty cotton jerseys. I chose the Elephant and Castle pattern in the double-layer infinity version. I'm delighted with the pattern, but might alter it to a rectangle, because I like a scarf tighter on the neck and three twists strangle me.

Double-layer infinity version
Pattern detail

Here are others I considered:

1. Silk rectangular pieces made by Toronto artisan Valezhki; offered in almost endless colourways. I like these for travel—just twist and stash in your bag, or bring it as gift for the friend you're visiting. The price is about $30-$45 each.
2. Another crush: Japanese fabrics, here delivered as a spring bouquet. And in washable cotton! This graceful design by CynthiAnDesigns is 5 inches wide and 74 inches long, abloom with five different patterns in pinks and corals. Price is about $US 72.

3. Cinne Worthington's silk pattern mixes: Deep admiration for this designer (whose Etsy shop is  CBanningAccessories) for her fantastic quality, elegant pattern mixing and superb service. These scarves are perfect "tuckers" with a coat, but light enough to wear indoors year-round.

Shown, Liberty blue floral mixed with grey foulard. (I don't do the bow, just wrap and loosely knot.) Price is about $80 for the oblong size, which I'd say is absolutely worth it.

And then I found this silk mid-century Montréal souvenir scarf in excellent condition, hanging out in a Nova Scotia vintage-clothing shop. I had to repatriate it! The scarf hole is now filled, for less than the shipping and tax on a new Liberty beauty.

When I was a kid, new sneakers heralded spring, everyone on bikes again; our mothers scolded us to use our brakes, not the rubber toes. Now, a scarf signals the season—but you might still have room for sneakers, too,  if you sew or shop with an eye on value! 

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