I haven’t been posting as much fashion stuff lately because I haven’t been all that excited by it, to tell you the truth. It might be just a case of overexposure—seeing the same things on Pinterest and Instagram posted over and over again—but right now most things are looking the same to me, and not much of it is looking new. My theory is that fashion got so crazy and over-the-top and look-at-me! in the last decade that it had to calm down in this one. Which makes sense. Right now most of the clothes I see in stores and online are pretty and simple and tasteful, but maybe a little too tasteful. I’m tired of classic, I’m tired of heritage. I’m ready for the next visionary to come in and shake things up a little.
There are current designers and collections I still love, but for the most part I’ve been looking to the past for fashion inspiration. I love the weird, conceptual stuff from Japanese designers in the ’80s (it passed me by ’till now) and, as usual, clothes from the ’30s. And I don’t think it was intentional, but lately I’ve been reading a lot of biographies of female designers and artists from the last century, specifically women who were ahead of their time, and maybe a little bit eccentric. Definitely the kind of women who shook things up . . .
1. Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me by Patricia Volk
It’s not really a biography as much as a memoir. Patricia Volk writes about her experiences growing up as something of an ugly duckling who happens to have a knockout for a mother. As a kid, she reads the designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s autobiography and suddenly has a new role model to look up to. Schiaparelli was about as different from Volk’s mother as she could get: unconventional, far from beautiful, fearless. She was also endlessly creative—how else could she have built a fashion empire without even being able to sew? I really enjoyed the book, but at the same time I kept wishing it was a biography of just Schiaparelli. Fortunately it looks like one is on the way . . . .
2. All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen
I’ve mentioned this one before, but I’m going to go ahead and talk it up again since it’s probably one of the best books I’ve read recently. It’s really a combination biography of three different women: the historian Esther Murphy, the writer/celebrity-chaser Mercedes de Acosta, and the ’30s fashion editor Madge Garland. I’d never heard of Garland before, or about how she and her lover Dorothy Todd transformed British Vogue from a stuffy society magazine into something modern and exciting. Like Schiaparelli, Garland was untrained in fashion, but she had a fresh eye and firsthand knowledge of the transformative power of clothes. As a girl she’s an awkward thing with a bad case of scoliosis, but her life changes when she tries on a simple (and stylish) muslin pinafore. As someone who grew up (and, who am I kidding, am still) awkward, complete with the scoliosis to match, I can relate. I was 18 when I fell in love with clothes and coming up with strange outfits that, if they didn’t make me stylish, at least made me feel more like me.
3. Wild Heart: A Life: Natalie Clifford Barney and the Decadence of Literary Paris by Suzanne Rodriguez
Around the time I started loving fashion I went through a Belle Epoque-obsessed phase. Colette was my favorite. I loved her books, but I also loved reading books about her and her friends in Paris; it seemed that every other woman was a courtesan or an artist or an artist’s muse. They were all hedonistic and spirited, and maybe no one so much as Natalie Barney. She was an American heiress who moved to Paris to find acceptance and love, eventually setting up a famous literary salon that went on for over 60 years. During that time Barney became infamous for her love affairs with women and for her irreverence. She created scandal in her home country and raised eyebrows in her adopted one, riding her horse in the Bois de Boulogne astride rather than sidesaddle (as women were supposed to do back then), her wild hair blowing behind her. As rich as she was, Barney never really was into clothes or design. Rodriguez writes of how, after moving into her home on Rue Jacob, Barney haphazardly filled it up with whatever antique furniture she had, never redecorating once in all the 60 years she lived there. She just didn’t care all that much.
4. Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
I avoided the Diana Vreeland documentary for a long time because, I don’t know why, but once I watched it I wanted to find out everything I could about her. I wanted to learn more about how she entered the fashion world and about her strange, but fascinating thought process. Most of all I think I wanted for her enthusiasm and excitement for the new to rub off on me. She embraced the modern world just about as much as Natalie Barney ignored it, and was always on to the next big thing, even in her 80s. She was eccentric and completely herself. As a fashion editor she dictated trends, but didn’t expect readers to follow them like lemmings–not really at least. Her pronouncement on style: “all who have it share one thing: originality.”