October 23, 2012
This weekend, I saw the documentary, The Eye Has to Travel, a portrait of the legendary fashion editor and larger-than-life eccentric Diana Vreeland. Just like her friend Coco Chanel, who was well-known for her quips, or Chanelisms as they were often called, Vreeland also had her own one-liners on life and style.
Frequently during the film Vreeland tossed around the word “vulgar.” “Never fear being vulgar, just boring,” was one of her familiar sayings. Another was “Vulgarity is a very important ingredient in life. I’m a great believer in vulgarity—if it’s got vitality. A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste—it’s hearty, it’s healthy, it’s physical. I think we could use more of it. No taste is what I’m against.”
Vulgar. I don’t hear the word that often. It doesn’t appear much in the lexicon of fashion writing these days. But I have been more attuned to it since I’ve been reading excerpts of Etiquette by Emily Post for the series on dress codes and etiquette. The lady of manners uses the descriptor repeatedly and relentlessly in the chapter “The Clothes of a Lady.”
The Oxford dictionary defines vulgar as: “1) Lacking sophistication or good taste: a vulgar check suit, 2) making explicit and offensive reference to sex or bodily functions; coarse and rude: a vulgar joke, 3) dated characteristic of or belonging to ordinary people.”
I’ve excerpted a few (amusing) quotes from the 1945 edition of Post’s Etiquette from the chapter, “The Clothes of a Lady.” (Italics are my own.)
“The Clothes of the Lady” chapter introduction:
Not even the most beautiful background could in itself suggest a brilliant gathering if the majority of those present were frumps—or vulgarians! Rather be frumpy than vulgar! Much. Frumps are often celebrities in disguise—but a person of vulgar appearance is pretty sure to be vulgar all through.
Vulgar clothes are those which, no matter what the fashion of the moment may be, are always too elaborate for the occasion. . . . A woman may be stared at because she is ill-behaved, or because she looks like a freak of the circus or because she is enchanting to behold. If you are much stared at, what sort of stare do you usually meet?
Frumps are not very typical of America; vulgarians are somewhat more numerous; but most numerous of all are the quietly dressed, unnoticeable men and women who make up the representative backbone in every city.
On the Woman Who is Chic
’Chic’ (pronounced sheek) is a borrowed adjective, but unfortunately no word in our language expresses its meaning. Our adjective ‘elegant’—which before it was vulgarized, most nearly approached it—rather suggested the mother of the young woman who is chic.
On Principles of Taste Apart From Fashion
A lady in a ball dress with nothing added to the head looks a little like being hatless in the street. This sounds like a contradiction of the criticism of the vulgarian. But because a diadem or a jeweled filet or other ornament is beautiful at a ball, it does not follow that all these should be put on together and worn in a restaurant—which is just what the vulgarian would do.
Emily Post, obviously an anti-vulgarian, and Diana Vreeland, an advocate for that trait over dullness, would have had a heated debate about its merits or lack thereof. I’d stand on the sidelines, enthralled and entertained, as both of their maxims feel so far removed from my life, and, in my opinion, the way we describe—and clothe—ourselves today. Though I would side with Vreeland.
September 4, 2012
Women want men, career, money, children, friends, luxury, comfort, independence, freedom, respect, love and cheap stockings that don’t run.
Nylon stockings made their debut in my hometown, Wilmington, Delaware, on October 24, 1939. That’s because Wallace Hume Carothers, the chemist who invented the synthetic material in 1935, worked for the DuPont company, which is headquartered there. In fact, the first test sale to DuPont employees’ wives took place at the company’s experimental station, just up the street from my childhood home. Not long before the 4,000 pairs of stockings sold out—in only three hours!—DuPont had had women modeling nylon hosiery at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, touting nylon as a synthetic fabric made of “carbon, water and air.” A prototype of that initial run (get it?) can be found in the Smithsonian’s collection.
From the moment DuPont realized what kind of stretchy, durable, washable, dryable revolution it had synthesized, the company channeled its invention to women’s hosiery, a huge potential market. Hemlines were rising throughout the 1930s, and stockings, made at that time from silk or rayon, had become an essential component to a woman’s wardrobe, even though they were delicate and prone to runs. (The delicacy didn’t hurt the bottom line; women purchased an average of eight pairs of stockings per year during that decade.) Then came DuPont’s wonder fabric; the word “nylon,” as the lore goes, originated from the attempted coinage “nuron,”—”no run” spelled backward. Trademark issues caused DuPont to adapt the word to “nilon,” and then finally to “nylon” to remove any pronunciation ambiguity.
DuPont’s initial sales success in Wilmington was just the beginning of the nylon stocking craze. On May 16, 1940, officially known as “Nylon Day,” four million pairs of brown nylons landed on department store shelves throughout the United States at about $1.15 per pair. They sold out within two days. Silk stockings—which didn’t stretch, were challenging to clean, and ripped easily, but had been standard—were quickly supplanted.
That is, until the war came around. As quickly as nylon stockings found their way into department stores and boutiques, providing women with inexpensive, longer-lasting hosiery options, they disappeared. After Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, and the United States entered World War II, the material that had its beginnings briefly as toothbrush bristles (prior to entering the women’s hosiery market) was severely rationed and channeled into war efforts. Nylon was permitted only in the manufacturing of parachutes, tire cords, ropes, aircraft fuel tanks, shoe laces, mosquito netting and hammocks, aiding in the U.S.’s national defense. Because American women had seen the future and it had them wearing nylons, they had to be inventive to meet their leg-beautifying needs (Paint-on stockings, anyone? More on that soon.) or turn to the black market (a “diverted” nylon shipment earned one sly entrepreneur $100,000).
When the war was over and rations were eased, nylon stockings returned to stores and sold quickly. In 1945, “nylon riots” ensued around the country when hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of women, queued up to try to snag a pair. The situation got out of hand in Pittsburgh when 40,000 people lined up for over a mile vying for 13,000 pairs.
But Carothers, nylon’s creator, didn’t get to see the mania around his invention. After great scientific success (he also invented neoprene and the first synthetic musk), he committed suicide in 1936 after battling depression for years. And his death, alongside some bad press from the Washington News claiming that nylon could be made from cadaverine, a substance formed during putrefaction in dead bodies, put a morbid slant on the synthetic material.
Nylon’s bad rep was short-lived. After it was lauded for winning the war and changing the future of American women’s gams, the demand for nylon only continued to increase as DuPont shrewdly promoted the product. In one article, Joseph Lebovsky, a chemical engineer working at DuPont’s nylon lab (and, in keeping with tiny Delaware’s inevitable connections, a good friend of my grandparents), recounted how throughout the 1940s, demand remained so high that no matter how established the company, DuPont “had to make sure customers who wanted nylon had the money to pay [in advance] for it. . . . Even Burlington Mills would send a check for $100,000 to fill an order. . . . Everybody wanted nylon.”
After nylon came other easy-care DuPont synthetics (Dacron, Orlon, Bri-Nylon, Tricel), popularized by the company’s business savvy. The company realized, quite wisely, that to win over the textile market, and consumers in general, it had to appeal to high-end fashion designers, and in particular, Parisian couturiers. With its fabric development department, the company courted designers to produce clothing using its inventions. By 1955, DuPont landed a major victory when 14 synthetic fabrics, including quite a few of DuPont’s, were used in gowns from Coco Chanel and Christian Dior. DuPont even hired fashion photographer Horst P. Horst to document the runway fashions and circulated those images in press releases.
As you might expect, synthetic fabrics were key ingredients in the space age fashion trend, mentioned last week in Threaded. But sartorially speaking, they fizzled out. By the late ’60s, the fabrics disappeared from the runways. But they were embraced by the mainstream, at least for a while. Then their artificial, shiny look began to appear tacky (gotta love a red polyester butterfly-collared shirt…) as people returned to wearing natural fabric.
Today we may see (or feel) less nylon in our clothes, but its presence, mostly in the form of plastic, is established in our kitchens, bathrooms and offices. And while Phyllis Diller’s legacy lives on as nylon remains an essential ingredient for our reasonably priced stockings, tights, and knee-highs today, when it comes to the flesh-toned pantyhose business, it has taken a tumble in the past couple decades as women are more likely to go bare-legged. But I can only hope that DuPont is hard at work creating the next revolutionary material to make them less disposable and more earth-friendly.
August 20, 2012
Yesterday would have been the 129th birthday of Coco Chanel, one of the most stylish Leos in history (if fashion were, for some reason, arranged by the Zodiac). Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel on August 19, 1883, to very humble beginnings, Coco, as she became known in her 20s—either because she was 1) a poseur, or performer, who danced to a similarly named song or 2) because of her cocaine-related proclivities—was determined to change her destiny. Not only did she succeed in pulling herself up from her well-designed, perfectly tailored bootstraps (or preferably, low-heeled pumps), but her contributions forever influenced the way we think about fashion even down to this summer’s Olympics.
Think Chanel and a few things come to mind immediately: The classic wool jersey suit with its boxy jacket and gold buttons. The quilted bag. Pearls. The little black dress. No. 5 fragrance. Steamy love affairs. (And a few more obscure details I didn’t know: She popularized the suntan. Marilyn Monroe, who loved No. 5, became the perfume’s first spokeswoman. And, by the way, it seems likely that Chanel was a Nazi spy. We know she was a person of strong convictions, and her beliefs became more radicalized throughout her relationship with German aristocrat Baron von Dincklage during World War II.) With her bluntness and polarizing views, she had a way of telling it like it is. Those maxims have become known as Chanelisms.
In honor of her birth, here are ten favorite Chanelisms. Some I appreciate because decades later, they still resonate. Others sounds strangely similar to my mother’s own opining. And then there are those that are amusingly dated, but full of timeless melodrama.
“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”
“A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.”
“I don’t care what you think about me. I don’t think about you at all.”
“There is no time for cut-and-dried monotony. There is time for work. And time for love. That leaves no other time.”
“I wanted to give a woman comfortable clothes that would flow with her body. A woman is closest to being naked when she is well-dressed.”
“Fashion is architecture: It is a matter of proportions.”
“There are people who have money and people who are rich.”
“Fashion has become a joke. The designers have forgotten that there are women inside the dresses. Most women dress for men and want to be admired. But they must also be able to move, to get into a car without bursting their seams! Clothes must have a natural shape.”
“Great loves too must be endured.”
“A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future.”