March 6, 2013
At every stump speech, meet and greet, and town hall gathering during the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry wore a very distinctive bracelet: the bright yellow LiveStrong wristband. He wasn’t the only recognizable figure to embrace the cancer cause through a silicone band. Usher, Lindsay Lohan and Ben Affleck were also some of the 80 million-plus people who made it known they supported a good cause, and felt cool doing it too.
What followed was a charity wristband explosion, a distinctive way to wear your heart on your sleeve, or your cause on your wrist. Silicone gel “awareness bands” were made in all shades of the rainbow to build awareness and foster support for all types of causes: pink for breast cancer, purple for pancreatic cancer, blue for autism, red for AIDS, orange for anti-smoking. For a mere buck, you could slip a piece of rubber on your wrist and be braceleted, give yourself a pat on the back for your contribution to making the world a better place.
Look around. How many people do you see wearing those bands now? Almost none. They’d already lost their luster before the Armstrong doping debacle, disappearing almost as quickly as they emerged (although LiveStrong still sells them). In about 15 years, they’ll make an ironic comeback.
The aughts haven’t yet receded into the distant past, but already we’re thinking about what we’ll look back on and associate with the first decade of the 21st century. Not long ago, the New York Times published, “What Will We Miss When It’s 2033,” a rather broad assessment of the music, culture and style we’ll associate with 1999 to 2009, name-checking everything from Gwyneth Paltrow to the Black Eyed Peas to “Project Runway” to angular haircuts, flared jeans and trucker hats.
Last week, the fashion site Refinery29 ran a piece, “From Uggs to Y2K, What the ’00s Meant to Us,” that examined what cultural events influenced fashion during that decade. (Full disclosure: I was quoted in that article.) The post considered the sobering impact of 9/11 and the technological advances associated with the iPod and social networks. And although we may want to look the other way, it also mentioned a few cringe-worthy trends of the decade (Uggs boots everywhere with everything, low-slung jeans and midriff-bearing tops, tramp stamps, velour sweatsuits and gazillion-dollar “It bags,” just for starters).
Let’s look on the bright side and give the aughts some points for meshing style with intentionality. The popularity of cause-specific wristbands are on example. But there are others.
Simultaneous with – and in response to – fast fashion came a push for more sustainable clothing, reimagined for the aughts. Hemp-y, shapeless, neutral-toned bag dresses were updated with more form-fitting, stylish eco-fashion lines like Loomstate, Edun, Barneys Green Label and Stella McCartney. They found an audience who was willing to listen to why producing clothes in more earth-friendly ways (than, say, using 700-plus gallons of water to make one cotton T-shirt) was vital.
Remember Anya Hindmarch’s “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” tote bag that sold out in a matter of minutes in 2007? Or Lauren Bush’s FEED bag that followed on its heels? Both were green status symbols, especially as plastic bags were spurned and sustainable fashion, and its accompanying accessories, gained cachet.
The credit default swap led to the proliferation of clothing swaps. A desire to work with our hands, along with other responses to fast fashion, resulted in an uptick of DIY, crafting, recycling, upcycling, thrifting, as well as an appreciation for all things handmade, thanks to Etsy, which launched in 2005.
And however you may feel about TOMs shoes, its “one for one” model for giving shoes to needy children, begun in 2006 and now promoted in shoe stores around the globe, mainstreamed the discussion about a consumer’s responsibility to make socially aware clothing choices.
The Refinery29 post concludes by referencing a BBC article about the science of resurfacing trends, addressing the cycle of style. Only time will tell if we’ll look back on these cause-related fashion trends with amusement, befuddlement or gratitude, particularly if – and maybe it’s overly optimistic – in hindsight, we find that one small step for fashion leads to one more substantive step toward building a better world.
February 26, 2013
On May 1, 1920, the Saturday Evening Post published F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” a short story about a sweet yet socially inept young woman who is tricked by her cousin into allowing a barber to lop off her hair. With her new do, she is castigated by everyone: Boys no longer like her, she’s uninvited to a social gathering in her honor, and it’s feared that her haircut will cause a scandal for her family.
In the beginning of the 20th century, that’s how serious it was to cut off your locks. At that time, long tresses epitomized a pristine kind of femininity exemplified by the Gibson girl. Hair may have been worn up, but it was always, always long.
Part and parcel with the rebellious flapper mentality, the decision to cut it all off was a liberating reaction to that stodgier time, a cosmetic shift toward androgyny that helped define an era.
The best-known short haircut style in the 1920s was the bob. It made its first foray into public consciousness in 1915 when the fashion-forward ballroom dancer Irene Castle cut her hair short as a matter of convenience, into what was then referred to as the Castle bob.
Early on, when women wanted to emulate that look, they couldn’t just walk into a beauty salon and ask the hairdresser to cut off their hair into that blunt, just-below-the-ears style. Many hairdressers flat out refused to perform the shocking and highly controversial request And some didn’t know how to do it since they’d only ever used their shears on long hair. Instead of being deterred, the flapper waved off those rejections and headed to the barbershop for the do. The barbers complied.
Hairdressers, sensing that the trend was there to stay, finally relented. When they began cutting the cropped style, it was a boon to their industry. A 1925 story from the Washington Post headlined “Economic Effects of Bobbing” describes how bobbed hair did wonders for the beauty industry. In 1920, there were 5,000 hairdressing shops in the United States. At the end of 1924, 21,000 shops had been established—and that didn’t account for barbershops, many of which did “a rushing business with bobbing.”
As the style gained mass appeal—for instance, it was the standard haircut in the widely distributed Sears mail order catalog during the ’20s—more sophisticated variations developed. The finger wave (S-shaped waves made using fingers and a comb), the Marcel (also wavy, using the newly invented hot curling iron), shingle bob (tapered, and exposing the back of the neck) and Eton crop (the shortest of the bobs and popularized by Josephine Baker) added shape to the blunt cut. Be warned: Some new styles weren’t for the faint of heart. A medical condition, the Shingle Headache, was described as a form of neuralgia caused by the sudden removal of hair from the sensitive nape of the neck, or simply getting your hair cut in a shingle bob. (An expansive photograph collection of bob styles can be found here.)
Accessories were designed to complement the bob. The still-popular bobby pin got its name from holding the hairstyle in place. The headband, usually worn over the forehead, added a decorative flourish to the blunt cut. And the cloche, invented by milliner Caroline Reboux in 1908, gained popularity because the close-fitting hat looked so becoming with the style, especially the Eton crop.
Although later co-opted by the mainstream to become status quo (along with makeup, underwear and dress, as earlier Threaded posts described), the bob caused heads to turn (pun!) as flappers turned the sporty, cropped look into another playful, gender-bending signature of the Jazz Age.
Has there been another drastic hairstyle that’s accomplished the same feat? What if the 1990s equivalent of Irene Castle—Sinead O’Connor and her shaved head—had really taken off? Perhaps a buzz cut would have been the late 20th-century version of the bob and we all would have gotten it, at least once.
February 19, 2013
If a woman in the 1920s had a boyish figure and was naturally skinny, she was all set to slip on a slim sheath, a signature look of the 1920s. But if she was plump and curvaceous, she might choose certain undergarments to help achieve the fashionable unisex flapper shape.
The flapper silhouette was distinctive, and if you’re a fan of PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” you’ve seen it in full effect this season: angular (basically rectangular), androgynous, slender and straight. It was influenced by Braque, Picasso, Leger and others artists whose work had hard, geometric forms and visible lines.
Undergarments worn in the 1920s were a steep departure from the waist-sucking, back-arching corsets of the previous decades. Gone was the Edwardian S-curve corset, meant to shrink the waist and emphasize the backside. It was replaced with garments designed to flatten the chest, hips and derriere.
Examples of the figure that women were seeking can be seen in the following ad for Gossard lingerie from 1926. If you didn’t have that shape naturally, and you wanted a Twiggyesque body, that androgynous and iconic look from the 1960s that had its roots in the ’20s, a few underthings could help you along.
One of the more well-known garments of the time was called a step-in. The Gossard ad describes its version as “extremely pliable and often boneless.” These garments, usually made of silk or cotton, were loose, short and lightweight (often with a snap or button closure between the legs). In Flapper Jane, in the September 9, 1925, issue of The New Republic, the writer Bruce Bliven described what a young flapper wore.
Jane isn’t wearing much, this summer. If you’d like to know exactly, it is: one dress, one step-in, two stockings, two shoes. A step-in, if you are 99 and 44/100th percent ignorant, is underwear—one piece, light, exceedingly brief but roomy.
But there were other options besides the step-in. The Symington Side Lacer was pretty much the exact opposite of the 1990s Wonderbra. Once on, you pulled the straps to flatten and minimize the size of your chest, thus more easily slipping into the shapeless, drop-waisted dresses that were in fashion.
The point was to de-emphasize the default curves of a woman’s body that had been exaggerated in previous decades. But, for many women that would mean getting into an elastic tube, a more structured version of today’s Spanx. Freedom from a boned corset allowed women to finally, and literally, exhale with relief (and more easily dance the Charleston).
With undergarments came stockings. Forget garters! The trend was to roll your stocking. And with hemlines rising to right below the knee, the chance that someone would catch a glimpse of your rolled stocking, and even more scandalous, your knee cap, was kind of the point. Padded methods increased the girth of the roll so the stockings would become more noticeable, as described in Threaded’s Stocking Series, Part 4: The Rebellious Roll Garters. In fact, a Paramount silent film from 1927 starring Louise Brooks was even named after the phenomenon. And of course, there’s the classic line from the song “All That Jazz” in the 1975 Kander & Ebb musical Chicago, “I’m going to rouge my knees and roll my stockings down,” that solidified rolled stocking as a cultural touchstone as well as what might be an urban legend and sexual innuendo about flappers rouging their knees.
Was that shape-shifting and recalibrating a successful move toward gender equality during those Roaring Twenties? Yes, reducing feminine curves that had been synonymous with an outmoded version of feminine beauty was a direct path toward evening the playing field for men and women. But, the argument becomes cloudy when you consider that women ultimately looked less like men and more like underdeveloped, prepubescent youths.
February 14, 2013
It was during the Roman Empire that St. Valentine is said to have left a note to his jailer’s daughter, “From your Valentine” before his execution on February 14. Today, thanks to St. Valentine, cards expressing one’s heartfelt emotions, a. k. a. valentines, are given to that special someone.
To defer to a classic idiom: It’s a day to wear our heart on our sleeve.
We use the phrase casually, to mean exposing our true emotions, making ourselves vulnerable and letting it all hang out. The phrase is so pervasive that from Ringo Starr to Eminem to Carrie Underwood, those words-turned-lyrics have found their way into a range of musical genres.
But, what kind of sleeve? And why on a sleeve and not a pants leg or around your neck? There’s no clear answer. But many legends attempt to get at the heart (it is Valentine’s Day, after all!) of the matter and may explain the source of the saying. The three most popular stories:
1. In the Middle Ages, Emperor Claudius II believed unattached men made better soldiers so he declared marriage illegal. As a concession, he encouraged temporary coupling. Once a year, during a Roman festival honoring Juno, men drew names to determine who would be their lady friend for the coming year. Once established, the man would wear her name on his sleeve for the rest of the festival.
2. Around that same time, it’s speculated, when a knight performed in a jousting match in the king’s court, he’d dedicate his performance to a woman of the court. By tying something of hers, like a handkerchief, around his arm, he’d let the court know the match would defend the honor of that woman.
3. Or, we can credit Shakespeare, where it may have first been recorded in writing:
It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.
In following him, I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end;
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In complement extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.
– Othello, Act 1, Scene 1, 56–65
In the circa 1603 play, Iago confesses to treacherous acts and says that by “wear[ing] my heart upon my sleeve,” or truly exposing himself, he’s basically invited black crow-like birds to peck away at him.
So maybe this Valentine’s Day, forgo the cloying Hallmark cards and flavorless Russell Stover chocolates. Take a risk of letting the “daws” have their way with you by affixing your darling’s name onto your arm. Or better yet, if you really, really mean it, ink it right into your flesh.
One step too far? Okay, how about just plastering pictures of your honey’s face onto your legs to show the world what he really means to you.
February 12, 2013
Shrove Tuesday is a day to be remembered by strangers in New Orleans, for that is the day for fun, frolic, and comic masquerading. All of the mischief of the city is alive and wide awake in active operation. Men and boys, women and girls, bond and free, white and black, yellow and brown, exert themselves to invent and appear in grotesque, quizzical, diabolic, horrible, strange masks, and disguises. Human bodies are seen with heads of beasts and birds, beasts and birds with human heads; demi-beasts, demi-fishes, snakes’ heads and bodies with arms of apes; man-bats from the moon; mermaids; satyrs, beggars, monks, and robbers parade and march on foot, on horseback, in wagons, carts, coaches, cars, &c., in rich confusion, up and down the streets, wildly shouting, singing, laughing, drumming, fiddling, fifeing, and all throwing flour broadcast as they wend their reckless way.
– James R. Creecy, Scenes in the South, and Other Miscellaneous Pieces, 1860
Drunken revelry. Beaded necklaces. Doubloon throws. Zulu coconuts. Today is Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the culmination of weeks of Carnival celebrations that end on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. It is a time when hundreds of thousands of tourists stream into New Orleans and treat the city like one huge frat party. Many local New Orleanians will avoid the French Quarter ,just as New Yorkers stay away from Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Yet, like New Year’s in New York City, Mardi Gras is an institution.
Mardi Gras made landfall in the United States back in the 17th century when the French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville set up camp 60 miles from New Orleans on the day that the holiday was being celebrated in France. He called the location Point du Mardi Gras. But, Mardi Gras and the accompanying masked balls associated with the holiday were outlawed when the Spanish governor took control of the area in 1766 as well as when it came under U.S. rule in 1803. But by 1823, the Creole population convinced the governor to permit masked balls. By 1827, wearing a mask in the street was legalized in New Orleans. (They’re now only legal to wear on Mardi Gras Day.) When the first official “krewe,” or elite social club, was established in 1857, the Mardi Gras parades that they organized became formalized annual occasions, which meant that parade participants donned masks and colorful regalia with greater frequency.
Taking cues from masquerade balls that made their way through Europe as early as the Middle Ages and Venetian carnival celebrations, the now-familiar face covers we see on Shove Tuesday (as Fat Tuesday is also known) mimic variations that have been around for centuries. The Bauta (full-faced mask shaped for ease of eating and drinking), Columbina (half mask), and Medico della Peste? (the beak-like steampunk-esque mask that is familiar to anyone who’s attended the interactive, immersive theatrical performance Sleep No More), but thankfully not the Moretta (a terrifying blank-faced mask held in place by biting a button inside the mask, thus inhibiting speech), all frequently associated with the Venice Carnival, are on grand display during the festivities (and legally to boot, as the law prohibiting mask-wearing, which is in effect throughout the year, is suspended on Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans). Today, the feathered, sequined, glittering disguises use the now-universal Mardi Gras colors originally established by the krewe of the Rex parade in 1872: purple symbolizing justice, green for faith and gold for power.
A mask is a funny thing. Slide one over your face and, with its exaggerated expression, the mask immediately transforms you into someone else (say, Richard Nixon) while also making you expressionless under a frozen guise. It’s also the manifestation of one’s id. According to Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, “in Robert Laffont’s A Dictionary of Symbols masks do not hide the persona, but reveal and liberate the lower tendencies of the true personality of the one who wears the mask.” Think Tom Cruise as doctor-by-day, sexual escapader-by-night in Eyes Wide Shut. Mardi Gras masks provide the freedom to hide behind, or embrace, the creature of our choosing, real or made-up—even, in James R Creecy’s words, “manbats from the moon.”
But not everyone celebrating Mardi Gras will follow the mask tradition. Tomorrow on Facebook you might see “Frat” Tuesday photos of girls exposing themselves wearing only beads and dudes drinking ’til they’ve vomited. Sadly, these revelers will wish they’d chosen to disguise themselves with “heads of beasts and birds” before taking those photos.