The Ninotchka Hat Blog

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky
February 10, 2011, 9:11 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

While most people have this image of Chanel as this perservering artist, my image of her is one of a ferociously tough and savvy businesswoman. She was everything a successful businessman was in her day, personally inspired, a union buster, an innovator, frugal, and a woman who believe in quality and service. She had a good part Louis B Mayer. Like Louis B Mayer understood films and audiences, so did Chanel understand clothes and her buying public. Mayer had a brand. It was consistant. Everyone knew that an MGM film was a certain kind of film. That it had a certain style and production values. Chanel likewise. She had a definable, consistant style. Starkness, contrast, ease, simplicity. She was a whiz at marketing. Like Mayer, who sold family values, style and glamour, she sold her public an idea of ideal womanhood, of ease, and luxury.

Mouglalis gives us a Chanel who is naught but bone and sinew, ambition, and brutal sensuality. She is referred to constantly as a “femme independante” and that she is. Chanel remained unmarried and childless throughout her whole life, though she had a succession of well heeled lovers. The film begins with her mourning her great love, Boy Capel. She was not a happy woman and indeed this film portrays her as cold and imperious with a deep, harsh, almost mannish voice. Like the real Chanel, Mouglalis’ Chanel wears deliciously contrasting black and white, and slouches with chic, Chanelesque comfort. She is an autocrat and a perfectionist, fastidious about the appearance of her atelier and her vendeuses.

Chanel in her atelier

I adore the look of this film. Chanel herself is a marvel. This is the woman who made black chic and indispensible (well, her and Anna Karenina). While all black looks brutal on most women, on Mouglalis, it works, perhaps because it’s softened by her gorgeous bob and plentiful costume jewelry (another Chanel trademark). Even the interiors have that Chanel aesthetic, crisp black and white contrasts, pared down, elegant, and clean,very deco. In contrast, Chanel’s famously perserved apartment at 31 rue Cambon is still intact, though it features a much more exotic, almost art nouveau aesthetic

Chanel's apartment at 31 rue Cambon

The film “Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky” is based on the premise that Chanel and Igor Stravinsky had an affair in the early 1920s when he and his family were staying at her country home after fleeing Revolutionary Russia.  The film itself ultimately doesn’t hold water, though it’s a visual and aural feast, interspersed with ludicrous sex scene. It starts off brilliantly with the infamous first and last performance of the Stravinsky/Diaghaliev “Rite of Spring” with its scandalous rhythmic dancing and perverse syncopation and atonality. There was, of course, a riot. Chanel is in the audience, a younger Chanel, still with long hair and long skirts. She’s mesmerized. That magnificent revelation of the avant garde. You get it. You are privy to the artist’s secret. Chanel gets it. When he comes back to France, penniless, Chanel now a patronne of the arts decides that she will take him and his family in. And sleep with him. Her intentions toward him are never clear until the moment she expresses them. She is completely opaque, a charaterization that Mouglalis’ Chanel shared with Audrey Tautou’s younger, spritelier Chanel from “Coco Avant Chanel” (the gamine Tautou bears a far stronger physical ressemblance to the actual Chanel than the lanky Mouglalis).

Chanel and Igor move in for a kiss against a beautiful wall

The film is set in the twenties but Chanel feels timeless. Pretty much anything Mouglalis wears could be worn by a woman today. For the most part Chanel, as an aesthetic and a brand, has aged very well. She never bent to fashion trends and remained relevant and successful. When frou-frou was in, she did simplicity. When the New Look was in, she created the boxy Chanel suit, a style that can still be seen, in one way or another on runways today. There is something incredibly attractive about this woman. A great survivor, who fundamentally believed in what she did, and held an iron fist over Chanel until practically the day she died


When Andy met Edie
January 6, 2011, 7:56 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Million Dollar Smile

“In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” — Andy Warhol

That’s probably the most famous thing he ever said and probably the most true. How exactly did this funny looking mama’s boy from Pittsburgh become such an iconoclast, feted by the art world and adored by a motley throng of emotionally disturbed, drug-addled sycophants. No biography of him has even given me a really good answer. Andy Warhol was born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1928, the son of poor Ruthenian (somewhere near Slovakia, got cut out of Congress of Paris in 1919 for some reason) immigrants. He attended art school but his grades were poor and the other students had to beg for him to be readmitted for second year. He then become a commercial illustrator. He came up with the peculiar and novel idea of combining art and commercial illustration.

His studio, as it were, was called The Factory which doubled as a treehouse and nightclub as necessity dictated. The atmosphere was like high school and nobody there had the emotional resources to know any better. There were wealthy kids from dysfunctional homes, poor kids from dysfunctional homes and assorted transvestites, pimps, hustlers — and of course, artists. A Diane Arbus wonderland for freaks and outcasts. The walls were covered with silver. The aesthetic was stark and arresting, rather like a Warhol painting or like Warhol himself who wore a series of silver blond wigs and had a pasty complexion and suffered from a nervous disorder of the eyes called St. Vitus’ Dance.

Edie Sedgwick’s style was equal parts Dumpster Diver, Schoolgirl, and Society Matron. She would wear tights, a too short striped jersey t-shirt, a full length mink, 5 lbs of makeup, 5 lbs of costume jewelry, and call it an outfit. And she always looked great. And indeed nobody really could copy her style. But actually, Sedgwick was hiding. She was a genuine beauty, not just a rich jolie laide with a bottle of hairspray. She had wide, childlike brown eyes, a full mouth, and a dainty, retrousse nose. In her strung out, “Ciao Manhattan” days she said “I’d make a mask out of my face because I didn’t realize I was quite beautiful”. Indeed, her brother Jonathan said that after coming to in the hospital after she had set her bed in the Chelsea Hotel ablaze in a drug-addled stupor, her first request was for a long list of makeup and beauty products. Of course, everyone else knew that she was beautiful. There was a time when she was everyone’s “It Girl”. Diana Vreeland had her gracing the covers of Vogue. Her exploits were chronicled in all the the society and entertainment pages. However, when her addictions overwhelmed her she became persona non grata among the fashionable set leading to several drug rehabilitation centres, biker gangs, and the unfortunate aforementioned “Ciao Manhattan”, only remotely watchable if one fast forwards most of it. She died in 1971 at the age of 28 of a drug overdose.

Edie Edie Edie

Miss Sedgwick lived a life that didn’t really hold that most potential for any sort of long term happiness. She was the daughter of Eastern bluebloods who had set of shop in California. Her father was had a history of mental illness and was advised against having children — he had eight. Her father was reportedly emotionally and sexually abusive. Two of her brothers committed suicide. Edie became bulimic as a teenager and was institutionalized (she would remain severely underweight for much of the rest of her life due to undereating, and alternating amphetamine and heroin abuse). She ended up at Radcliffe College studying sculpture, but was more interested in partying. Running off to New York City and setting herself up in her grandmother’s swanky apartment, Edie began living the high life off the proceeds of a series of generous trust funds. It was here that she met up with Andy Warhol

She was a frequent star of Warhol films. Warhol made a film about Edie parading around her grandmother’s apartment, doing mostly boring things like listening to music, talking on the phone, putting on her makeup, and wearing beautiful clothes, including a full length leopard skin coat (before such things were illegal) called “Poor Little Rich Girl”. Warhol’s films are even more unwatchable than “Ciao Manhattan”. The opening of “Poor Little Rich Girl” is a shot Edie sound asleep — for several minutes. Deadly, deadly stuff. Warhol never made money off the movies. His wealth came from his soups cans and Marilyns. His prestige came from The Factory, the relentless courting of the press, the glib sound bites, and from Warhol himself with his his silver wigs, his eclectic style, and his soft, measured, drawling voice with its self-consciously gay timbre. Listen to Edie. She sounds like a junkie version of him.

What I love about Edie was that she was so blase about her style. She was the anti-Babe. Her outfits were wildly eclectic and thrown together. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Edie knew and worked with a young Betsey Johnson. The style was one of contrasts and extremes. There would be the minidress and the cropped hair set off by the voluminous coat and knock your teeth out shoulder duster earrings. Of course, inside was Edie, probably not more than 90 lbs, track marks on her arms and poison in her veins. Edie was like Babe is that she was primarily a vessel. Though not a woman of great intelligence or depth, she surrounded herself with creative people. Her beauty notwithstanding, history would not have remembered her had it not been for Andy Warhol’s relationship with her.

However, it was her death that ensured that history would never forget her.


Babe Paley and American Chic
December 8, 2010, 10:00 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

What is style? Is it revelation or disguise? I’ve often wondered, especially in the case of Babe Paley, fashion icon and socialite, wife of powerful CBS founder William S Paley. She came from that bygone era where socialites existed like reigning queens on high, adulated and emulated — but never imitated. There was no “Housewives of New York” back then. A power wife existed to provide style, charm, beauty, and social grace. To achieve this was considered an end — almost a career in and of itself. Mrs. Paley was trained all of life by her socially ambitious mother to become one of these wives. Her father was not a Park Avenue millionaire, but the pioneering neurosurgeon, Dr Harvey Cushing. Despite the odds, not just Babe (real name Barbara), but both her sisters, Minnie and Betsy, all made society marriages.

Mrs Paley had a model’s figure — tall and lean, and had an attractive but not exactly beauteous face. Her chin was too large and her face too long and thin, but people flocked to her. She was charming, she easily accrued social collateral, first as the wife of socialite Stanley Mortimer and then as the feted wife of Bill Paley, one of the powerful men in America, and though not a towering intellect, she possessed an everyday kind of cleverness. Then again, Edith Wharton probably would have said that a towering intellect was not a requirement for entry into New York society. She had fashion sense. She worked briefly for Vogue in between her two marriages, and continued to take a healthy interest in fashion for the rest of her life.

Paley was never an ostentatious or fussy dresser. She prefered clean lines, and simplicity in her dress, though she was known to go for the occasional daring piece. Like Chanel, she championed the tasteful use of costume jewelry, sometimes mixing it with genuine pieces. She famously took off her scarf one day and tied it around her handbag sparking a fashion trend that can still be seen today. When her hair started going grey, rather than dyeing it, she let it go grey, sparking yet another fashion trend. Whatever she did, however, she always made it look effortless (“You never noticed the clothes. You only noticed Babe”). Her rivals and her friends (Mrs Paley didn’t seem to have any enemies) always remarked upon her perfection. Truman Capote famously remarked that “Babe’s only fault was that she was perfect. Other than that, she was perfect”

Mrs Paley in Vogue by Horst, 1946

However, few know that price that Paley herself paid for perfection. Sally Bedell Smith wrote a well researched and generally unflattering biography of Bill Paley called “In All His Glory” where she describes, in almost fetishistic detail, a catalogue of Mrs. Paley’s wardrobe, from day stockings to evening stockings, to slips, to trousers, to blouses to scarves and on and on –probably 30 different catagories of garments. All fanatically organized. The rest of Mrs Paley’s existence was devoted to pleasing her finicky, demanding, and doggedly unfaithful husband, who believed that his wife’s stylishness was a reflection of his own social prestige. Coming from the school of thought that a wife’s duty was catering to needs of her husband, Mrs Paley put terrible pressure on herself to live up his expectations. Every few months she would be debilitated by painful migraine headaches. Overall, she bore the pressure of her position far better than most women would have. She was not neurotic by nature. However, she did not live very long. She died at the age of 63 after a long battle with lung cancer (Mrs Paley was an inveterate smoker).

So, back to the original question. In “The Age of Innocence”: Edith Wharton speculated of one of her characters: “What if ‘niceness’ carried to that supreme degree were only a negation, the curtain dropped before an emptiness?” Perhaps, Mrs Paley’s breeding engineered her so thoroughly that her soul ossified in the process. A friend remarked when Mrs Paley died that she didn’t have a glimmer of a soul, a two pronged statement. Mrs Paley was a doctor’s daughter and was deeply practical and clinical about death but it also indicates that Babe herself, all duty and kindness, died an empty woman. For her, style was style for its own sake but it was moreover, the life to which to which she had been bred. What was her inner life? Did she have one? How could someone so innovative and expressive in her style be be oppressed in her daily life. The funny thing is, Babe got the last word on Bill. As she was dying, and when she had nothing to lose, she took to berating and insulting him — often in public. Mr Paley, wracked with guilt and suddenly afraid of her, would sit silently and take her abuse

Still, Babe Paley will still be remembered as one of the most American of fashion icons, generous and genteel, and stylish to the end

Mrs Paley, aged 43, still sporting a girlish figure at her suite at the St Regis

Babe during her time as a Vogue model and editor c. 1945

Adrian Among the Ordinaries!
December 8, 2010, 6:29 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

A lovely book arrived at my house last week. I was called “Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label” by Christian Esquivin. It’s one of those magnificent, glossy books, resplendent with pictures — though unfortunately only black and white. I would have paid an extra $20 if they had only been in colour. Gilbert Adrian was born Adrian Greenburg in 1903. His parents owned a millinery shop. He studied art and then segued into fashion design. Eventually, he became a designer for several important stars in the 20s and later he was hired as chief costume designer for MGM. He later left MGM and started his own label in 1941 which he continued until he was forced to give it up due to ill health in the 50s. He died in 1959.

The book highlights the work he did with famous stars like Garbo (punctual), Joan Crawford (fidgety) and Norma Shearer (tardy), but it also points out that Adrian was also responsible for nearly all the women’s clothes seen in the films for which he receives credit. Maids and minor character were still usually costumed by Adrian. He didn’t farm out designing to lackeys either. Adrian was hardworking and prolific. Costumes by Adrian actually meant costumes by Adrian. So there are a lot of elaborate and expensive gowns in the Adrian repertory (such as his costumes for Garbo in Mati Hari or Camille) but also a great number of plain or simple ensembles

Costumed by Adrian

For instance, I was watching a Hitchcock film called “Shadow of a Doubt” from 1943 starring Joseph Cotten and Theresa Wright. It too was costumed by Adrian. Not much glitz and glamour. It’s the story of a teenaged girl living in a sleepy suburban town in California who suspects that her beloved Uncle Charlie is a serial killer. It’s in a small film like this where you really get to see real costume design with clothes that are designed not to amaze but to accent character. The film takes the main character, Charlie, like her uncle but short for Charlotte, an intelligent and perceptive, though thoroughly bourgeois young girl. It witnesses her growing maturity and understanding until she become a dangerous and worthy foil to her stylish and worldly uncle. Near the beginning of the film, Charlie is wearing a demure white dress, still with Adrian’s distinctive wide shoulders and the detailing around the collar (Adrian liked to keep an outfit’s points of interest close to the actress’ face). Then she is seen in a more womanly and mannishly styled short sleeve dress with a severe turndown collar and a demi-loon yoke. Finally she wears a severely tailored suit with very square shoulders, with Adrian’s distinctive flap pocket detailing. Charlie almost looks like a completely different person, and certainly she looks like she’s aged a decade. All this is achieved through the use of character and plot appropriate costuming

Demure in white

Feeling Threatened

Masculine Tailoring

On the care and feeding of vintage stockings
July 30, 2010, 6:39 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Before bare legs, before pantyhose, there was the humble stocking, universally worn by women from the Middle Ages until about 1965. They could be anything from the heaviest wool to the sheerest nylon, but all women wore them. In these barelegged times, the idea that stockings could be as necessary as bras and panties are today, would strike many women as odd, but in times past women would sell their souls for a pair of nylon or silk stockings. During World War II when nylon and silk for coopted for military uses and ordinary women were reduced to rayon and (gasp!) cotton stockings, real stockings a valuable commodity on the black market. Never mind that they provided no warmth and acquired runs easily, real stockings were worth twice their weight in gold.

Most women’s legs, when you take a good look at them, aren’t particularly attractive. They’re covered with bruises, scars, varicose veins, razor stubble, and the odd little hair. Stockings preserved the essential shape of the legs while eliminating the more unsightly aspects and giving the legs a little bit of a sheen. Before the 1950s stockings were typically “fully-fashioned” meaning that they had a little seam running down the back of the legs. Alluring — yes, but notoriously difficult to keep straight

Vintage Fully-fashioned stockings ad

 These would gradually give way to the seamless type by the 1950s when a circular weaving technique was developed to create them.One thing that a lot of people don’t realize about vintage stockings is that they have very little stretch to them. Therefore they had to come in specific sizes that were determined by foot size and leg length.

 One surprising and pleasant thing about vintage stockings is that they tend to be somewhat more durable than modern ones. I went out for a ten mile walk in a pair of 1950s stockings and I didn’t even put a hole through the toe, which I always do with modern pantyhose. The downside is that the vintage stockings can sag, leaving some unbecoming ripples in otherwise attractive legs.

One final note on garter belts and girdles. Rubber, as a general rule doesn’t age well. This extends to vintage foundation garments. I’ve fiddled with vintage garter hooks at vintage stores only to have them practically dissolve into powder in my hands. As with functional footwear, modern is usually better when it comes to vintage foundation garments. That being said, a few weeks ago, I walked into a La Senza Express and picked an adorable little garter belt for only $8. It has proved to be remarkably sturdy. Many lingerie shops will sell garter belts but many are for fetish wear of some kind and shouldn’t be used as an everday garment. If you’re a vintage enthusiast or even if you regularly don panyhose, you should probably check out some vintage stockings!

1950s girdle with garters

Jennifer Jones as Dior-clad adulteress in “Indiscretion of an American Wife”
May 14, 2010, 4:23 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The film is also known as “Terminal Station” in its expanded cut.

Jones is an elegantly attired, conservative housewife from Philadelphia in Rome to visit her sister. Monty Clift is Jones’ wounded, caustic but passionate lover, a half-Italian half-American university professor. The whole film takes place within the space of two hours. Each of the characters therefore only has one costume.

Few films have the protagonists wearing the same outfit for the entire duration of the film. Such films either throw characters into some sort of harrowing adventure or else take place over a short period of time. “Indiscretion” belongs to the latter. The use of a single costume means that character needs to inhabit it completely

Jennifer Jones wear a double breasted light coloured Dior suit, a pair of dark pumps, a fur tippet (probably mink), and a fur trimmed velvet skullcap done up with a turban-like swirl.

The hat itself is interesting. Montgomery Clift’s character, Giovanni, tells Jones’ character Mary: “Take off that hat. It’s a smug hat.” He then grabs it and takes it off himself. It is rather a smug hat. It’s small, silly, impractical, elegant and just a bit matronly. It’s not a young girl’s hat. Audrey Hepburn wouldn’t be wearing such a hat in the 50s. Hats have traditionally indicated more about the wearer’s class than any other garment. The hat, conservative and trimmed with mink, really places Mary as an upper-middle class housewife. The more bohemian Giovanni finds it repellant, because it represents Mary’s life back home, and her staid, but kindly husband. Gionvanni resents Mary for her bourgeois values. Costume is not only character but plot. Giovanni’s sensibilities seem to mesh more with those of De Sica, the director, a pre-eminent neo-realist whose essential sympathies lay with the common people, the sort of people Jones’ character unconsciously patronizes in this film.

Mary’s suit is also conservative. It’s not only double breasted but has an a-line skirt and even a tucker or blouse at the neckline. In films of this period, loose women almost always look straight-laced. Look at Farley Granger’s trampish wife in “Strangers on a Train”: Nothing is too tight, or too short, and there are no felshy bits popping out. Nowadays, trashy or scant clothing is a cinematic shorthand for “tramp”. In times past, there was the Production Code. There was no being inequivocably unvirtuous on screen.

Again, the outfit seems a bit matronly. Fitted double-breasted jackets tend to make women look more bosomy. Her hair is cropped short, as was the fashion at the time among “women” as opposed to “girls” who typically wore their hair longer. She’s wearing gloves. She looks demure but you certainly know there’s a wantonness there. Jennifer Jones was never relaxed on screen. There’s a nervous, edgy, fidgety quality about her that never allowed her to play truly confident or masterly women. Here her fidgeting is propelled by a deeply harboured sensuality with Monty Clift drawing those emotions out of her like some sort of sexual magnet — and she has no idea how to deal with it. Their chemistry is quite electric. The film itself suffers from an anemic script but I found Clift and Jones themselves worth the price of admission

Audrey goes mod and sleek in “Charade” (1963)
May 8, 2010, 6:28 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Audrey Hepburn had a figure that was made for the 60s, with her ballet dancer’s posture, shapely legs, flat bosom, and willowy but still feminine figure (reportedly measuring 34-20-34). “Charade” was released in 1963, among the last of the wave of fantastic films that graced Hollywood in the early 1960s. It isn’t sophisticated. It certainly doesn’t have the dark, modern, bittersweet depth of a film like “The Apartment” (1960) or the fashionable earthiness of a film like “Hud” (1963). It’s a solid, old-fashioned comic thriller. Maurice Binder’s then hip, opening sequence looks quaint and dated now but the film still delivers in terms of giggles, suspense, and sheer delight.

Throughout her early career, Hepburn was always dressed by designer Hubert de Givenchy, who would eventually become a dear friend. Givenchy began designing clothes for Hepburn starting in Sabrina (1955), her second film in Hollywood after Roman Holiday (1954). In that particular film, though iconic Paramount designer Edith Head was responsible for creating Hepburn’s drab pre-transformation dresses, Givenchy was the one who designed the ultra-chic Paris fashions that Sabrina brings back with her to America. Their collaboration lasted through all of Hepburn’s major films in the 50s and 60s. It was not until “Two for the Road” (1968) that Hepburn’s less-than-chic, housewifey, and sometime half vulgar clothes were for the most part, off the rack.

Here Audrey is chic and sleek and ready for action. She’s even wearing kitten heels which she does in most of her films. Audrey apparantly was tallish (5’7″) but she had large feet (size 10. See there’s hope for me yet). There are so many adorable 60s touches in this outfit

I’m just thinking about how fashion forward this hat looks. It’s part space helmet, part Jackie-O pillbox — somewhere between Camelot and Mary Quant. The detailing on it is fantastic. That kind of use of white in fall-winter fashion wouldn’t have been done in the 50s.

The suit is a very classic late 1950s/ early 1960s shape with the pencil skirt and the short, flowing jacket. In the 40s and early 50s, ladies’ suits tended to be nipped in at the waist, and they again became nipped in in the late 60s-early 1970s. Suit jackets tended to follow the general line of women’s outerwear. Women’s coats and jackets of this period often were not nipped in at the waist.

Again 60s touches. The buttons on her jacket fashionably are large and I suspect they may be ornamental since I believe there are around 8 of them. They are not self fabric buttons and appear instead to be velvet. The sleeves are three-quarter. Three-quarter sleeves look lonely without gloves, or bracelet — or something. They need accessorizing. They really do emphasize the daintiness of the wrist and the gracefulness on the arm. One imagines one of those old-time decorous ladies with a cigarette holder poised between her index and middle fingers. One note about the handbag. Modern handbags and usually worn with the strap over the shoulder or clasped in someone’s hand but Audrey carries hers on her forearm, again because the sleeves don’t get in the way.

Clothes are used here the way they were often used in films at the time, to give the film and sense of glamour. In the older studio days, people like Gilbert Adrian and Edith Head were paid big money to make it possible. Of course, the upwardly mobile Regina Lambert (Hepburn’s character) could conceivably spend her life in couture, but realism isn’t the priority. In only a few years films like this one would become quaintly old-fashioned, Cary Grant would retire for the screen, and the 60s, as we know them would begin in earnest