Posted in Couture Sewing, Fashion Design, Little Black Dress, Style, Style Influencers

In search of the perfect LBD: My new project begins

I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s a cliché that seems to transcend time. They say every woman needs the perfect “little black dress” – LBD for short – and I agree, but the search for that perfection seems to go on and on. Enter the sewing talent that we possess!

Over the years I’ve had any number of what would be labeled “little black dresses.” They have all been eminently useful in their own ways.

In recent years my LBD wearing is frequently confined to travel: we often take cruises on those kind of high-end cruise lines where those informal nights really require cocktail dressing. That means that a LBD that is also packable is a must. On a recent cruise down the west coast of South America, my Joseph Ribkoff black dresses were a godsend. Both the short cocktail dress and the gown (it’s actually a strapless worn a plethora of different jackets to change it ups) in the photos above are Ribkoff’s I wore on our recent cruise down the west coast of South America on Silversea’s Silver Muse.

And yet I still search for the holy grail of LBD’s. So, what are my criteria for LBD perfection?

  1. First and foremost, it should be black! While this seems like a no-brainer, we are forever bombarded by asinine pronouncements from the style police that “red is the new black” or recently “white is the new black.” Okay, I know what they’re getting at, but black is the only thing that is black. If you want a LRD or a LWD, that’s great, but I’m talking about a LBD and it naturally has to be black.
  2. Second, the perfect LBD needs to fit perfectly. The beauty of the Rikoff dresses is in the fabrics – they are knits and are a bit forgiving. This means that even a not-so-perfect fit is perfect enough. What I’m searching for is a LBD that doesn’t have to be a knit to fit perfectly. It is made for me. It follows the curves of my body and no one else’s.
  3. My perfect LBD is a sheath. I often see LBD’s that are any number of silhouettes, but somewhere in my mind’s eye, I see a real LBD as a sheath. And since that’s the silhouette that suits me best and I love the most, that’s what it has to be.
  4. My perfect LBD is simple. It is simple enough that if I choose to wear different jackets or jewelry with it, that works and changes the look. The perfect LBD is versatile in my view. I need to be able to dress it up or dress it down. Which brings me back to silhouette: many of the complicated silhouettes on offer these days – flounces, ruffles, big skirts, peplums, “statement sleeves” – all of these distract from the simplicity of the perfect LBD. I’m going for clean lines.

I don’t know yet if my perfect LBD is sleeveless, has long sleeves or short sleeves or anything else in between. I’m not sure yet if the neckline is round, square or boat-shaped. I’m unsure of the fabric – this will be dictated by many of the design factors. But I do expect perfection to be lined in silk – silk charmeuse if I have my way and since I’m making it, I think I do. But anything can change at this stage.

So, how do I find the perfect dress? As I do in my other life, I begin with research. First, I want to understand the history of this oh-so-indispensable article of clothing and find inspiration from that.

chanel first lbd 1926 vogue
The October 1926 Vogue magazine sketch of Chanel’snew LBD

Coco Chanel is often touted as the creator of the LBD – or at least the notion of what a LBD means. In October, 1926 Vogue magazine published a picture of a simple, elegant sheath in black crêpe de chine that was shown with a simple string of pearls. It seemed to start a kind of trend – or what today we might call a meme. It is true that in the early part of the twentieth century and before that, women wore black to indicate that they were in mourning. Remember Queen Victoria? After Prince Albert, the love of her life died at a fairly early age, she wore black for the rest of her life. Anyway, black transformed from the colour of death to the colour of simple elegance. Chanel wanted a piece of clothing that could be available to everyone. And Chanel’s idea influenced many a designer from that day until now.

Hepburn_little_black_dressMy second icon of the LBD that I look to for inspiration is Audrey Hepburn. She wore them, but she didn’t design them. She had a long working relationship with Givenchy who designed many of her LBD’s including the most incredible one – at least for me – the gown she wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s although to be sure, there were other LBD’s even in that film. I especially love the lines of that dress.

In a continuing search for inspiration, last week I visited the Dior exhibit currently stationed in the Royal Ontario Museum. A mere 10-minute walk from my home in Toronto, the ROM provides a wonderful way to spend a winter afternoon – and that’s just what I did.

I’m not a big fan of Dior’s “New Look” which was featured prominently – it was a 1947, post-war look that Chanel dispatched unceremoniously in 1954 with her LBJ style – but I do find close examination of designer fashions, especially historical ones, to be educational and inspiring.

I did find a number of Dior’s take on the LBD like these ones…

…and find myself inspired by the workmanship and the fabrications. The one on the left is the only one who’s silhouette is right for me, though. So, I’m off to search for the pattern or patterns I’ll try out on my way to finding just the right one. In the meantime, here are some of the other confections I took in last week at the ROM…

…I do find the above gown oddly compelling. I think I could actually wear it…

…and red is a great colour if you don’t want black. In fact, it’s my favourite colour (I don’t think black, grey, white and taupe really count although they are truly my favourite garment colours! It’s all in how you mix them in my view.).

And finally, one extraordinary gown, worn once by a Toronto socialite’s daughter for her debutante afternoon tea dance in the 1950’s. Those were the days *sigh*

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Up next, the pattern options for my own LBD. Stay tuned!

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Posted in Couture Sewing, Little Black (French) Jacket, Style Influencers, Stylish Books

Fabric & lining & muslin, oh my! Starting my newest Little French Jacket

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My two favourite Chanel biographies.

I’ve read a lot about Coco Chanel over the past few years as I fed my continuing obsession with all things Chanel. Every biography seems to agree on at least one thing: CC herself wasn’t fussed about other copying her  work. It’s not that she would have been happy with others actually trying to pass off their copies as authentic Chanel; rather she did, in fact, believe that imitation is the greatest form of flattery. She even encouraged others to take on her style since it clearly proved that she was the one and only style arbiter. So I have to believe that Mademoiselle herself would have been proud of the fact that those of us who are interested in couture sewing produce our own homages. It’s also true that the House of Chanel actually gave its blessing (and took a percentage) to specially-selected fashion houses who made authorized Chanel copies.

jackie-kennedys-pink-suit-ii-chez-ninon-labelFor example, until recently, I had been under the mistaken impression that Jacqueline Kennedy was wearing a favourite Chanel suit on that fateful day in 1963 when JFK was assassinated beside her in the back seat of a convertible in Dallas, Texas. In fact, her suit was an authorized copy from New York-based chez Ninon, a knock-off that was 1/10 the price of an original, and made in the USA. There are those who continue to believe that Jackie was wearing an original Chanel, but to me it’s more plausible that since she was the American first lady, and her husband evidently urged her to buy American, that the suit was an official Chanel copy. In that way it was authentic from its design to its bouclé, the fabric that has become synonymous with the Little French Jacket – which brings me to my next step toward my third LFJ: now that I have the design I’m going for, I need fabric.

I always take my time perusing bouclé fabrics whenever I’m in a good fabric store. I had a wonderful time examining Mood’s offerings in their LA outpost this past winter, but in the end I wander down to the garment district here in Toronto and while buying muslin at Leather Supply, I pick through their remnant bin. Now, I’m not a real remnant kind of sewer, but on this day they have a selection of bouclé and tweed fabric in the bin. And the pieces are a minimum of 2 meters each. I find one I like; the only down side to this find is that the precise fabric content is a bit of a mystery. They know only that it is a wool blend. Well, this is good enough for me!

It’s a mix of mostly greys and burgundy with a bit of black. The texture looks as if it will neatly hide the matching quilting and it had a nice hand. I’m sold, but I need lining.

I try my usual spot on Queen Street West: Affordable Fabrics. Today, though, they have almost no silk charmeuse in stock let alone printed charmeuse which is my prefeence for a bit of interior interest. Oh, they have lost of synthetic lining fabric, but as I said in a previous post, I will not go the polyester lining route ever again. I’m out of there and down the street to Leo’s Textiles. Now we’re talking.

The place is filled with the best high-end selection of silks and wools in Toronto. It seems that most of the customers this day are seeking bridal fabrics, and they are not disappointed. Neither am I. The sale associate quickly finds me some beautiful grey silk charmeuse.

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We have an interesting discussion about the rise in the price of quality silk. It seems that although we think of silk as a natural fabric (which it is – a renewable resource which has fewer deleterious effects on the environment than most synthetics), the way it is processed is not so natural. The silk cocoons have to be boiled and this uses lots of electricity which, in many countries, China in particular, causes air pollution because of the coal burning used to produce the electricity. So, less environmentally problematic methods are used and are more expensive. End of environment lesson.  Hence, the price tag. I pay it– in fact, I pay almost three times as much for the lining as I pay for the bouclé! I’ll have to be very careful with it, but I will be worth it.

Vogue 8804 pattern frontWith fabric selected and at the ready, I tissue-fit the pattern and cut the first muslin. Let’s just say that the fit of the first muslin is hideous.

I should have heeded the pattern reviews of Vogue 8804. Many reviewers did say that it was boxy, although when I examined the shape of the pattern pieces and some of the design elements, it didn’t seem to be the case. Oh, it is the case! And then there are the too-long bracelet-length sleeves and the sleeves cut for Sumo wrestlers. But the fitting issues are for my next post.

Posted in Fashion, Fashion Design, Style, Style Influencers

Inspiration for designing my wardrobe

ideaI love the idea of having a collection of clothes designed and fitted specifically for me – clothes that suit my lifestyle and my aesthetic, and fit me to perfection. The only way that this is happening is if I do it myself. First and foremost, though, I know that everything starts with an idea. And in spite of the fact that I think I know what I want, when it comes to putting pencil to paper and creating that first series of sketches, I’m not so sure that what comes out in the end will be any different than what hangs on the ready-to-wear racks. Or maybe it will. I just need to give some thought to how this creative process plays out.

Some years ago I developed and taught an undergraduate university course in creativity as applied to corporate communications. It was such fun and my students absolutely loved it. We spent a summer school semester exploring how that creative process works and what it means to be a creative person. I created for them a complete workbook for the course (maybe I should publish it!) which guided all of us through various ways of looking at creativity and processes for tapping into our potential. Here is what the introduction to the workbook said:

“You should have figured out by now that before you can “create” anything – whether it is a brochure, an academic paper, or a new recipe for frittata — something happens in your mind first. So, you need to start thinking about what Freud said: “Insanity is continuing to do the same things and expecting different results.” Put those two ideas together and you may begin to understand that you first have to change the way you think about things if you expect to come up with new, imaginative and creative approaches to anything – whether it is solving a client’s PR problem, writing a song or choreographing a new dance.”

And in the margin I had placed the following quote from Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way (a book I highly recommend):the artists way cover

No matter what your age or your life path, whether making art is your career or your hobby or your dream, it is not too late or too egotistical or too silly to work on your creativity.

…so now it seems that I need to take my own advice. I started by considering how some of my favourite designers (Diane Von Furstenberg, Eileen Fisher, Karl Lagerfeld, Erdem & Smythe – an eclectic collection to be sure!), might approach the process. My research led me to the following conclusions:

  1. Fashion designers are inspired continually by the world around them.
  2. There is nothing magical about their creative processes.

I happened upon a video – a TED talk – that designer Isaac Mizrahi gave a few years back where he describes his own process. One of the ways he is inspired is what I call creative cross-training. He doesn’t’ call it that, but I always called it that for my students and myself. Here’s what he said…

For me, creative cross training means pursuing different creative pursuits and allowing them to feed one another. Just last year I wrote a guest blog post called Finding Writing Inspiration in Creative Cross-Training for a writer friend (I think I might just have outed myself in my other life and persona!). As I describe in the post, I stumbled on the idea when I signed up for a sketching course many years ago with the idea that I could improve my observational skills. I hoped that these would contribute to my writing. Well, they did, but I also discovered that I was actually finding not only improved observational skills, but also inspirational ideas. So, Isaac performs and designs and does other creative things. I write (various things), design, sew and do a bit of sketching. So, back to how other designers get their ideas.

As I surfed through various articles about where individual designers find inspiration, a number of themes emerged. Here is a list of places that were mentioned again and again…

  • books
  • movies
  • on the street
  • observing people
  • doing research
  • just sketching
  • listening to music
  • reliving lost personal memories
  • travel
  • architecture
  • interior design
  • nature
  • history
  • art
  • historical figures

…and for me, I’m inspired by my own lifestyle. In fact, the first completely-me-created design that I have been writing about for the past few posts, seemed to be completely the result of wanting a nice piece that would withstand a day of walking in the heat of summer in the city.

As of today, I have cut out and begun sewing the final garment. But here’s a bit of a refresher about how it evolved…

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I’m going to start being more observant and keep journals for design the way I have been doing for years for my writing. I’m excited to see where it takes me!

Here are some of the online places I visited for my research.

 

The Secret Journey of a Fashion Piece — Part 1: Creativity & Design https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/intelligence/secret-journey-fashion-piece-part-1-creativity-design

Isaac Mizrahi: Fashion & Creativity. TED Talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/isaac_mizrahi_on_fashion_and_creativity#t-832215 a bit about creative cross-training…although he doesn’t call it that. A bit about how fashion designers have to be a bit bored.

Where Some Designers Get Their Ideas. Time online. http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1534892,00.html

33 Things That Inspired Fashion Designers and Their Collections http://www.instyle.com/awards-events/fashion-week/new-york/fall-2017-designer-inspiration

Posted in Style Influencers

Erté: Style Influence from a Fashion Illustrator

“Not only do I do what I want to do, but I do my work in my own way and never have been influenced by another artist.” ~ Erté

I was on a cruise a few years ago on a small luxury-line ship that showcased some extraordinary artwork. I know, I know: art auctions of schlocky crap are ubiquitous on cruise lines of a certain ilk. This one was different. There were no auctions (with free champagne since champagne flowed freely for everyone all the time), there were no sales people trying sell us pieces in a gallery; rather there were wonderful pieces all around the ship everywhere you looked. It was extraordinary – and they were all for sale.

One day, late in the afternoon, my husband returned to our suite from somewhere (I can’t remember where he had been without me!). He said he had seen the perfect Gloria Glamont piece hanging in one of the staircase landings. So off we went to see it.

The piece was called “Manhattan Mary” and it was a limited edition print of a fashion drawing by Erté. At that point in my life I had no idea who Erté was. All I knew at that moment was that yes, I had to have it. So the research began.

erte as a young man
Erte as a young man.

 

As soon as we were back happily ensconced in our suite with a glass of something – probably bubbly – we got to work on Mr. Google.

Erté is, in fact, often referred to as one of the single most important fashion influencers of the twentieth century. Born in Russia in 1892 Erté became one of the twentieth-century’s best-known French designers for theatre, ballet, and the rest of us, but for me the style lessons emerge from his illustrations. His name comes from his initials: he was named Romain de Tirtoff. His initials R.T. when said with the French pronunciation become Er-té (Air-tay for those who do not speak French!)

Evidently, at age five he designed his first costume in spite of having a father who had his heart set on a military career for his son. He moved to Paris in 1912 where he began his career as a fashion illustrator. He worked first for designer Paul Poiret then for Harper’s Bazaar. I truly love Erté’s aesthetic as immortalized in his illustrations of others’ designs, but what I really love is his own designs of fashion, theatrical costume and theatre sets which are all heavily influenced by his era – Art Deco.

Well, we purchased the piece. Titled Manhattan Mary I, the piece was a limited edition print signed by the artist himself (Erté died in 1990). My research told me that he had created stage costumes for a Broadway production called Manhattan Mary in the last 1930’s and that this was one of a series he did in the 1970’s based on the earlier work. My piece is numbered 267/300. What I love about my Mary is everything.

my manhattan mary
My “Manhattan Mary”

 

I love his fashion illustration style. I love Mary’s demeanor. I really love the dress she’s wearing. As I examine more and more of his work (he also designed wall décor, brooches, earrings, did sculpture – all with the same aesthetic) I realize that at some point (after I finish my homage to Coco Chanel project) I will probably embark on a project to create a reproduction of one of his art deco-styled dresses.

I’m so inspired by those who have gone before and left their mark on our culture and style. It would be a shame for people to forget about these inspired creators who may not have fashion houses named after them in the twenty-first century because so much can be gained from studying them. I’m going to go and take a new look at my Mary and see what I can learn about her for my own wardrobe.

Who’s your favourite, lesser-known fashion influencer?

Posted in Couture Sewing, Little Black (French) Jacket, Style Influencers

LBJ*: The Project Begins

*Little Black Jacket sometimes referred to as the LFJ or Little French Jacket

cocoherself younger
Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel in her prime.

I’ve been obsessed by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, her life, her esthetic and her contribution to the cultural evolution of the twentieth century for a very long time. The closest I’ve ever come to owning Chanel is a bottle of Coco Noir perfume and a caviar-leather vintage Chanel handbag which I guard with my life! I have never owned a single piece of Chanel clothing – probably mainly because of the price-tag. But that doesn’t stop me from coveting the esthetic and considering why her world has intersected with mine – at least with my imagination which it fires almost daily.

Sometime over the past winter I began to become obsessed by the Chanel jacket. So, like you do, I decided to re-create it for myself using couture sewing techniques that I would learn as I go. However, my first step in the process was to voraciously research both the genuine item and the recreations that evidently have been spawned by a previously unknown cottage industry: women all over the world are evidently sewing these recreations. Who knew? Well, I didn’t but I soon found out. But the project begins with research, and the research begins with the genuine item.

When you mention the term “Chanel jacket” there is a very specific esthetic that is conjured: the short, semi-fitted, princess-seamed, boucle tweed cardigan jacket lined with silk charmeuse. And so it is that iconic.

It was 1954 (a terrific year in my world!) and women had been confined in those wasp-waisted dresses that gave the extreme hour-glass at the expense of comfort. Could women be elegant, alluring and comfortable al at the same time? Chanel thought so.

Her creation was a piece of clothing that should be in the closet of every woman of a certain age to wear with everything from jeans to a ball gown and all those pieces in between. I think that it was this sense of minimalism and the straight cut of the jacket in its supremely comfortable boucle tweed are the elements that attracted me.

This video created by the Telegraph online is the best introduction to the LBJ that I have seen (note that that LBJ is often not B!). You can find it here.

My research has led to the creation of an idea board that is providing me with both information and inspiration. This is where my own LBJ journey begins.

pinterest board

Posted in Fashion, Style, Style Influencers

Edith Head:Style lessons from a costume designer

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[Above, the extraordinary Grace Kelly in an Edith Head gown.]

It’s really an understatement to call the legendary Edith Head simply a ‘costume designer.’ She certainly was that, and a whole lot more. Even as a junior-high-school nerd, I knew who she was. To me her name conjured up stylish women in sophisticated suits, coats, gowns and even hats (although to tell you the truth I’ve never really been a hat woman myself – look terrible in them!). And did you know that she has won more Oscars than any other woman? Not an actress, but a designer!

This week I stumbled on a piece about her and it made me think about how her movie costumes might have influenced the way I see fashion for those of us of a certain age – and all other women who care about themselves.

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Her day dress for Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951)

Edith Head designed costumes for so many movies that not only captured a film era, but also a style era. When I look back on many of the pieces she created I see timeless classics that work for young women and for women of a certain age. When you’re in your 50’s and beyond you can carry off a whole lot of sophistication and elegance that in today’s fabrics would also offer comfort. I mean, who really wouldn’t like to have a great suit like Audrey is wearing in Funny Face? (in spite of the fact that my suit wearing days are thankfully behind me as I navigate a whole new life after work!)

Funny Hepburn
7th July 1956: Belgian-born actress Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993) films a scene for the Paramount musical ‘Funny Face’. Costumes by Givenchy. Original Publication: Picture Post – 8540 – Audrey Dances With Astaire – pub. 1957 (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images)

Five lessons I have learned from Edith Head about style at a certain age:

  • Sexy doesn’t equal skin exposure. It was true in her time, and it is true now.
  • Alluring is better than sexy anyway – at any age.
  • Fit is everything. If a piece fits to perfection it doesn’t matter if it’s from TJ Maxx or Chanel.
  • Most of the time, less really is more. A great piece of clothing doesn’t need huge jewelry despite what the fashion magazines might say. Big accessories are trying to distract you from something nasty usually!
  • Quality beats quantity every time. Wonderful fabrics make everything better – for me it’s better to have one fantastic, well-crafted sweater that I love to wear than three that are just meh.

Edith Head is one of my fashion influencers. But there are others! Til next time!