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Blazing inferno

November 15, 2011

You’d think that Autumn was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and that it came round like a comet every century. Because, even when you know pretty much what’s coming, every year is like seeing it the first time– and it’s a sight I absolutely defy anyone to get tired of seeing.

Yes, that is indeed a cunning excuse and intro to show you some snaps, taken this Sunday on our trip to Batsford Arboretum. Here’s Batsford House (which is private) nestled among the trees as Gloucestershire stretches out behind it into the haze…

Why is it so easy to forget how beautiful Autumn is? Because it always seems so transitory – a fleeting blaze of flaming leaves, and then it burns itself out into cold Winter ash?…

Here, we’re hot on the hunt for the perfect tree: the poster tree for Autumn….

…but then just about every tree is a perfect tree….

…even trees bare but beautiful, the harbinger of winter days ahead.

The gates of Heaven and Hell…

November 11, 2011

It was the hottest ticket of the party season, and Cynthia was thrilled to have snagged an invite. But why on earth did the Sly Languish PR Agency have to be so quite so… understated on the invitation? For the dress code for their Christmas party had simply read “Dress: Up” which (unless you were a stiltwalker) was clever -yes, certainly clever- but also downright maddeningly unhelpful. 

So she’d played it safe, and opted for the “less is more” approach: her blue satin cocktail dress, with heels she could still walk in, and long sleeves so she wouldn’t freeze at the bus stop later. But across the room she could see Margery Leadbetter had gone for the “more is more” approach. Margery was wafting about in a full-on floral organza ballgown, complete with chiffon drapery and long gloves.

Cynthia hoped Margery didn’t have to travel by bus. Had she played it too safe herself? Oh well. At least the good thing about the downright ambiguous dress code was that made for sartorial variety.

But the bad thing was that same ambiguity clearly permeated the entire office building, for now there was the problem of the rest-room signs to decipher. They too, were also, oh-so-amusingly ambiguous and understated. One door simply bore a circle symbol with a pair of angel wings on, while the other door had a circle with devil’s horns. 

Cynthia stared at the two portals. She’d thought the evening would be absolute heaven, but the realisation occurred to her that this could rapidly turn into the party from hell…

Book Review: Elegance

October 26, 2011

You know how there are some books that you could almost literally sink your teeth into (if it wasn’t for the fact that bite marks on pages are always ugly)? Well, Elegance: The Séeberger Brothers and Birth of Fashion Photography is just such a tome: a juicy, fat, shiny book, oozing gloss…

Gorgeous glove detail…

In a time before the Sartorialist and Facehunter had made street fashion photography just about the coolest thing on the planet, three brothers, Jules, Henri and Louis Séeberger (and, later, Louis’s sons Jean and Albert) were lurking about Society’s playgrounds With Intent. They’d take photos of the very latest fashions on Society beauties, and sell them to magazines– magazines who were beginning to realise that readers wanted more than the traditional staged “fashion portrait” that was the norm. Instead, readers wanted to know what the world’s most fashionable women were wearing, and where they were wearing it.

I want those shoes! And the sweater. And that belt looks pretty good, too..

The Séebergers apparently worked extremely hard, and saw their work as a Job, rather than Art (which means they remained little-heard-of…). But they did leave their collection of over 60,000 negatives and prints from 1909 to 1977 to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France– a fascinating documentary of couture fashions, the women who wore them, and their glamorous, elegant, oh-so-desirable world.

Elegance features around 300 of these images from 1909 to 1939– and no one sums up the experience of viewing them better than Xavier Demange, one of the book’s authors: “Ladies who had slumbered for years awaiting the slightest signal to rouse from their long sleep leapt from the surface of the plates, little windows behind which they had been unjustly imprisoned…”

This is indeed a gorgeous book (unfortunately out of print, but available second-hand on Amazon Marketplace). Perhaps I should warn you not to expect a full size picture on each page: there are often four smaller pictures (which has the advantage that more of the Séebergers’ work can be shown). For this is a book where the text is every bit as important, as integral, to the reading experience as the images. Various chapters give an insight into the hotspots of the fashionable world, the inhabitants, and the couturiers (rapidly becoming celebrities in their own right, rather than just suppliers of clothing). There’s discussion of the evolution of fashion photography and fashion journalism, and rather a neat little whistle-stop tour of the major changes in fashion reflected the Séebergers’ photos.

What makes Elegance a must-have for me is the “street” aspect of the styles– these are candid shots of some of the world’s most stylish women out and about, rather than carefully groomed for magazine photoshoots. These are women confident with taking style risks, with mixing things up and pushing the envelope…

And some of the images start to seem timeless, and serve as inspiration for developing a personal style today.

If I’d have been around in 1939, I like to imagine myself as looking as stylish as this:

Location, location, location…

October 24, 2011

Petunia couldn’t believe it. Not only did she get to model Mr. Forquet’s dress in Italy, but at a lavish dinner for eighteen at La Cisterna, one of Rome’s swankiest restaurants. It was too good to be true, and it certainly hadn’t made any sense. Until, that is, her neighbour had confided to her over dessert (and a glass or six of chianti): the Vogue Patterns team had rather a lot of budget to use up before the end of the financial year.

Petunia thought she understood: so they had money to burn, and in a hurry! She nodded, and smiled- it was a simply marvellous place, after all. Their waiter had told them all the stories about its history- about Sinatra dancing on the tables with Ava Gardner, and about high jinks in the underground caverns during the war. Then the waiter had whisked them all off for a tour- and shown them the old underground well that gave the restaurant its name. He’d suggested they might like to throw a coin in for luck (and a tip, presumably) and the Vogue team had spotted an opportunity. They’d starting flinging about wads of notes and oodles of cash, and then asked the waiter (who looked just about ready to faint with joy) if they could have a receipt for their accountant…

I always find the photos on Vogue Couturier (and Paris Original) patterns from the 60s chuckle-worthy. Because there’s always a tiny tagline that tells you the model was shot at an incredible location, but you always have to take their word for it.  And so little of the location is actually visible that you wonder why they didn’t just schlep up to the road to the local curry house and shoot it there. Then there’s this pattern  (and this one) which is the ultimate craziness: “shot on location in Paris”… in front of a white screen.

The particular pattern above tells you a little about the designer on the flap (not all of the Couturier patterns seem to do that- the only other ones I’ve across are for Emilio Pucci):

Whoever wrote it obviously had an advanced certificate in stating the incredibly obvious, as we learn very little about Mr Forquet (pronounced “For-kay”) apart from such gems as “the design evolves as he cuts the toile and works with fabric” and (my favourite) “to Forquet the object of designing is beautifying”. (As opposed to uglifying, earning pots of cash, or simply filling in a bit of time between meals?)

Nice dress, though.

No one wants to be foliage

October 20, 2011

Princesse de Broglie, by James Tissot c.1895

Ah, Mr. Tissot- you and your lovely pictures of enchanting women in beautiful frocks!

Of which this is not, perhaps, one. Because you see this one, this one, just baffles me, and the more I stare at it, the more I see so much that’s downright peculiar.

Let’s break it down, shall we? The stiffness of the pose is a bad start- less pose, perhaps, than rigour mortis- with that one uncomfortable hand glued to the sitter’s hip. The blue beaded choker appears too big for the Princesse’s neck, and makes an odd contrast with the subdued dress with those bright yellow slashes of trim. (No wonder that tiny head carved into the table leg looks as if it’s smirking at the whole affair.)

But the elephant in the room is surely that mantle– because after a moment isn’t that bright green fur trim is ALL YOU CAN SEE? (Is it fur or a kind of swansdown? And who would have dreamed in 1895 they’d be working fur dyed that colour?) And is it just me, or does it seem uncomfortably like the Princesse is metamorphosing into the plants, or being consumed by them (or regurgitated)? Coincidence that Tissot should pose his sitter, in her leaf-textured mantle, against a tangle of aspidistras and ferns? I think not. But I’m not entirely sure what Tissot is trying to say here (and I’d be interested to hear what you have to say in the comments).

I look at this, and try to imagine the sitter’s thoughts-is she ever so slightly self-conscious? Is she secretly aware that her new (and very expensive) outfit is perhaps not quite the success she thought it was? (Despite the fact that it’s the Very Latest Thing.) Has she begun to doubt, ever so slightly defiantly, that it’s quite right, quite elegant enough- but she’s going to wear it anyway?

All I know is that if Tissot’s women are generally beautiful flowers, this one is foliage.

And no one wants to be foliage.

Don’t stop the world…

October 12, 2011

They said to travel hopefully was better than to arrive, and Violet agreed 100%. She’d been on the number 1 tram all day, cruising round and round the Ringstrasse until she began to feel delightfully dizzy. She adored Vienna- there was the Opera House again, and the Imperial Palace, and – whee!- the splendid Parliament building.

And all the other people on the tram- the woman with her children, the old man with his shopping- were they travelling hopefully, moving boldly forward, full of curiosity about the future? No, most of them just looked like they just wanted to arrive. And arrive yesterday.

Well, that wasn’t right, somehow- not when everything was just so beautiful and so simply splendid. Perhaps she’d just stand up and treat them to a rousing song- and she was sure they’d all just love to join her in the chorus…

Here, there, or somewhere else…

October 10, 2011

October 1932, and a crisis is facing the fashion world.

Luckily for us the writers at Britannia & Eve magazine were on hand to demystify matters. (Or make them more complicated. One or the other.)

The issue causing sleepless nights is that no one, but absolutely no one, can decide where the waist should be this season. Should it be high, or low, or somewhere in the middle? Apparently the good couturiers of Paris can’t decide either, and the solution is to have all three levels of waist IN THE SAME DRESS.

“Many clever couturiers,” asserts the magazine, “have made what one might call a ‘compromise waistline’ which is definitely in three places– one around the hips, one at normal, and one above. This requires much cutting and corseting… Molyneux has another method– he attaches the belt at the back in two little notches, leaves the rest of it free, and let it be wrapped about the middle or above, or below, as you like.”

“One house,” declares the magazine, “which made an immense success last season with high waists, keeps them aggressively high in front but lets them drop at the back just enough to suggest that even the highest may fall.” I wonder if they mean something like the example on the right below, which is by Chanel:

“Consider,” muses the magazine, “the tucks at the natural waistline in the dress from Jane Regny…and the false air of high-waistedness lent to the bodice by the cross-over fichu”:

The back of another Jane Regny example:

Then there’s this dress by Bruyere, “where a clever drapery obscures the waist in front, although a belt marks the normal waistline at one side”.

And a similar idea by Patou:

And “last, but not least in importance, is Patou’s six inch drop. An example of his hip-length waist and fitted medieval bodice is shown”:

Or, if you are still undecided, you can apparently “wear an enormous belt about ten inches wide and let people guess. Something like this must be done until the season is in full swing, and until we find that waists are here, there, or somewhere else.”

(You’d be presuming the ten inch belt is their little joke, right- not recalling many pictures of 1930s dresses with whopping 10” belts and everything? But then take a look at these belts featured in the article- and how modern they look with all their multiple straps and buckles!)

Well, I hope that makes everything perfectly clear. (Isn’t is a comfort that fashion was as fickle back in 1932 as it is now?)

Mis-timed knits…

October 3, 2011

The temperature here is in the high 20s (Celsius, that is, because otherwise that would obviously not be good at all…) And, despite the autumn leaves, everyone’s wondering round all bemused and smiley, hoping this in the Indian summer we haven’t seen for years come to atone for the summer that wasn’t.

So, of course, I’ve just finished knitting a pair of socks.

At the moment I just look at these and laugh. The comic mis-timing of the whole enterprise! Woolly socks, and just when I’ve had to dig my sandals out of hibernation! Ha. But then, there’s a corner of my mind that’s cosy in the knowledge that, come the cold dark days, these socks will be waiting, all snug and smug and ready.

The pattern is “Fenestra” by Jeanie Cartmel (Ravelry link requires login), and is knitted toe up. A lot of very intricate sock patterns I come across are generally written top down, and I much prefer to knit toe-up. And this is such a clear, well written pattern- and, providing you concentrate (and don’t talk, or breathe, or even think about anything else), not really as difficult as it looks.

The yarn is Wollmeise Sockenwolle in the colour “Blaue Tinte”- which is not an entirely different colour to the sky here today…

Right. My feet are about to mutiny unless I put them back into sandals where they belong…


September 26, 2011

Sandra remained perfectly still in an attitude of prayer: hands demurely clasped, eyes closed (well, almost) in devotion.

Of course she knew that her seat- right in the front pew, dead centre- was acknowledged by everyone to be Charlotte Smythe’s. And she knew that the entire congregation of St. Bridget’s were just gasping to see what would happen next.

Well, Charlotte could stand there glaring as long as she liked. She could stand there, hands on hips, lips pursed, and no doubt thinking all kinds of unholy thoughts. But Sandra wouldn’t be budging. Not this time. Charlotte had been the undisputed queen of Jonasville society for too long, and it was high time her place (both physically and metaphorically) was usurped. Starting right here, today.

“Amen,” intoned Sandra sweetly, and listened to Charlotte’s footsteps receding back up the aisle…

Beetle-wing dress revisited

September 16, 2011

Back in 2009 I blogged about the “Beetlewing dress” worn by Victorian actress Ellen Terry to play Lady Macbeth- and the National Trust’s project to restore it. Well, the restored dress is now on display at Ellen’s former home, Smallhythe Place, and last weekend we paid a visit…

What can I say that could possibly do this amazing conservation project justice?

I could tell you that apparently it took over 1,500 hours to restore the dress, and that bits of the crocheted fabric had to be re-crocheted. I could tell you that the damaged beetle-wings were reinforced with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste…

Detail of the belt at the back

But, really, when you’re up close with this dress, you don’t consider the hours of painstaking restoration; the stunning design of the dress is all you see. As soon as you walk into the tiny room where it’s displayed, the gown demands your attention- its iridescent scales wink and beckon in the half-light.

Brooch detail at the neck

Although essentially a Victorian take on a medieval costume, there is something timeless about the dress- it’s the kind of gown that probably wouldn’t look out of place at a Paris couture show today. You can just imagine the gasps that must have gone up in the audience in 1888, as Ellen walked out on stage. And what makes it so ageless and arresting is the texture- the crocheted tinsel yarn embellished with real beetle-wings. (Beetles are not killed to harvest their wings- they shed the wings as part of their lifecycle. More on the beetles and materials of the dress in my original post.)

Detail of the belt at the front

The dress is behind glass, but it’s displayed on a cunning revolving pedestal- at the touch of the button you can view it from all angles. (How many times did I push the button? Let’s just say: quite a few…)

Small wonder that John Singer Sargent wanted to paint Ellen wearing the gown:

Oscar Wilde, who saw Ellen’s arrival at Sargent’s Chelsea studio, apparently said: “The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities.”

Ah, Oscar, no one tells it like you do!

Here’s the cloak originally worn with the dress (you can just about see it in Sargent’s painting):

Detail of the sleeves:

The lovely outside of Smallhythe Place:

Also on display are a few other stage costumes worn by Ellen:

Now that’s what I call a dressing-up box.