From The Archives: Capes On The Runway: Glamorous But Impractical?

With the WSJ reporting that fashion is having a "superhero moment," we revive this post, with minor tense changes, from a similar moment back in 2010.

Concealing the body and arms in a dramatic sweep of fabric, capes are among the most glamorous of garments. Yet they haven't been popular for quite some time. As Fashionising noted in a guide to the 2010 cape craze, "Since the humble poncho had its hippie revival, the cape in its more sophisticated forms has seen nothing of a major comeback on the streets--that is, until now."

Jason Wu cape Saks Fifth Avenue

Perhaps that's because the cape's mystery and drama come at the price of practicality. Even most superheroes have abandoned them. "Capes have been an object of scorn among discerning superheroes at least since 1974," writes Michael Chabon, "when Captain America, having abandoned his old career in protest over Watergate, briefly took on the nom de guerre Nomad, dressed himself in a piratical ensemble of midnight blue and gold, and brought his first exploit as a stateless hero to an inglorious end by tripping over his own flowing cloak."

When I was just out of college and living in Philadelphia, my grandmother gave me a beige wool cape she'd bought for herself but found too heavy for Georgia. I thought it quite glamorous and happily substituted it for my rather boring winter coat.

There was just one problem. You can't carry a purse on the shoulder of a cape. It slides off. In fact, with your arms covered by the fabric and small slits for your hands, you can't carry much of anything at all, especially when commuting by bus. My solution was to put my purse, and anything else I needed to carry, under the cape, against my body. That worked, and it had an unexpected benefit.

For some reason, whenever I was standing up on the bus, people offered me a seat. It took three or four such incidents before I figured out that I looked pregnant.

 [Jason Wu lace-trimmed cape available at Saks Fifth Avenue.]

Dorothy Draper: Making Entertaining Fun

Entertaining is fun

At the end of Entertaining Is Fun, her 1941 manifesto on party-throwing, famed interior decorator Dorothy Draper said:

"My conviction is that

LOVE that fulfills you,
FRIENDS who delight you,
WORK that intrigues you,
BEAUTY which enchants you,

These are the rocks to build upon for health, success and joy. These are the secret keys to making living fun."

Entertaining is Fun is less a book about glamorous living than a book about embracing life and having fun (defeating the “Will to Be Dreary,” as Mrs. Draper calls it). But her life, with its country estates, many servants, and umpteen dress-up occasions was glamorous nonetheless.

In the book, Mrs. Draper’s mission was to loosen up the stuffy early 20th-century definition of “entertaining.” “The word sounds pompous and effortful,” she opined. “I like better, ‘having your friends to the house.’”

Of course, though she said, “fussy, formal parties are definitely out of style,” much of her advice sounds fussy today. Her primary advice – that the hostess who wants to have a fun party must be fun herself – holds. But in 2012, having your butter pressed into shapes sounds quaint and, yes, fussy.

Much of Mrs. Draper’s other advice, including a very serious recommendation that hostesses provide tons of clean ashtrays and stock “emergency rations” of canned turtle soup (among other things – she loved canned goods), is charmingly old-fashioned.

But her message – work hard to make your life fun – is as relevant today as it was in 1941. Mrs. Draper’s spiritual heirs are all over the internet from the video-making Fashionably Bombed sisters to ever-rhyming glamour girl Mrs. Lilien.

Who undoubtedly would agree that Mrs. Draper was the one, who helped the World War II generation make throwing parties fun.

Taylor Swift's Time-Traveling Costume Mashup: Mr. Darcy Meets Dangerous Liaisons

Eating lunch in the mall food court the other day, I happened to see this Taylor Swift video from 2008. I was struck by the costumes. The men and women's clothes were inspired by completely different periods.

Taylor Swift Love Story male still

The man, who seems to have stepped out of a Jane Austen novel, is channeling the Regency styles of the early 19th century.

Taylor Swift Love Story female costume ballgowns

But instead of the clingy empire-waist gowns of the period, the women wear dresses that call to mind the mid-to-late 18th century--vaguely Versailles. See this picture of Madame Pompadour or this Copley painting of Mrs. Benjamin Pickman for comparison.

Taylor Swift Love Story couple dancing

The video isn't, of course, a period piece. Its imagery is meant to evoke a fairy-tale romance. Vaguely 18th-century court garb spells "princess," while a black suit with a bit of ruffle at the collar and cuffs says "olde time gentleman lover" without being too jarring to contemporary eyes. (You don't want him looking like Adam Ant or Roger Daltrey in the highwayman post below.) Plus there's the Jane Austen connection.

Taylor Swift Love Story couple costumes horse

Completing the mashup are the song's lyrics, which compare the high-school lovers not only to a prince and princess but also to Romeo and Juliet, who were from a still-earlier period. I suppose it all just proves that young love is timeless.

Drinking Like It's 1929

Aviation cocktail largeIt’s been nearly eighty years since the repeal of Prohibition. But pop into a bar in any slightly hipster neighborhood. You’ll think it’s 1920-something all over again.

I’m not talking about the handlebar mustaches, either (where I live, in Baltimore, they are – thankfully – rare). It’s the drinks. All over Baltimore, Prohibition era cocktails like the Aviation (gin, maraschino liqueur and crème de violette) and the Bee’s Knees (gin, honey and lemon) sit on menus alongside craft beers and small-batch bourbons. With the drink snobs, they’re hot.

The wild days of Prohibition have long been considered glamorous. The fabulous parties, lavish spending, and life-on-the-edge vibe of the Gatsby era have spawned numerous tributes – including a stylized (and much-publicized) film version of Fitzgerald’s famous novel, due in theaters next summer.

So it naturally follows that we celebrate the drinks that gave the era its fizz.

One of the leaders in Baltimore’s classic cocktails movement is bartender/distiller Jon Blair. Along with Brendan Dorr, Blair operates a semi-regular pop-up cocktail bar – like a speakeasy – called the Forgotten Cocktail Club.

According to Blair, Forgotten Cocktail Club members are interested in history – to an extent. While he doesn’t believe they research the era at home, on their own, Blair answers many questions about the provenance of specific cocktails – about who came up with specific drinks, and when. And a handful of people really get into the theme, dressing in Prohibition era costumes for the events.

His take on the allure of the Prohibition era:

“I think there’s some glamour from that time period because there was less technology back then. Today, some people want to take a step back. Anonymity was a lot easier to retain back in the day. Accountability was a lot harder. I think the glamour has to do with escapism. The grass is always greener on the other side.”

It’s not only that 1920’s gangsters didn’t have to worry about their friends posting embarrassing photos on Facebook. “When you look at the Prohibition era,” says Blair, “bartenders didn’t have a bottle of sour mix to open. They worked with raw sugar, lemon juice, and egg whites – what they had at their disposal. Much of the resurgence of these cocktails comes from people caring about their ingredients.”

Blair works behind the bar at RYE, a Baltimore bar with several Prohibition era cocktails on its menu. RYE’s owner, Ryan Perlberg, agrees that classic cocktails are popular thanks to their quality. But he adds that sometimes, the motivation to choose a certain drink isn’t so pure.

“It’s because either they feel deeply connected to that particular cocktail…or they want to impress a girl.”

Getting the girl. Deep down, isn’t that what it’s always about?

[Photo credit: Aviation Cocktail by Flickr user Dinner Series. Used under the Creative Commons attribution license.]

The Futuristic Glamour Of Centralized Control...And Radios That Won't Become Obsolete

Brunswick Radio of the Future Is Here Today

"It's easy to imagine better cars and homes and aircraft of the future--but it's hard to imagine a finer radio than the new Brunswick for 1931!"

In the fall of 1930, Brunswick Radio ran a striking series of ads for its new Futura radio. (Click each image to see a larger version.) The ads explicitly promised customers easy tuning and a radio that wouldn't soon be obsolete either stylistically or technically. But what they were really selling was the future, portrayed in brightly colored, highly stylized illustrations, against which the supposedly up-to-date radio cabinet looks, at least to 21st-century eyes, rather stodgy and old-fashioned.

Brunswick Radio For Lasting Enjoyment In this Changing World

At the same time that they built excitement about great things to come, the ads promised a sense of stability: "lasting enjoyment in this changing world" and a chance to experience the orderliness and predictability of a future of "simplified and centralized control." In the early 20th century, many Americans longed for what the historian John M. Jordan in his book Machine-Age Ideology: Social Engineering and American Liberalism, 1911-1939 called "kinetic change made stable." Social and political theorists offered their own glamorous visions of how that paradoxical state could be achieved. And so did advertisers pushing consumer products.

Brunswick Radio Under the Control of One Hand Highways of the Future

In the Brunswick ads, this ideal of technocratic control becomes a metaphor for a new-fangled radio dial.

"When a hundred thousand automobiles speed along the elevated highways of the City of the Future, engineers predict that the whole traffic system will operate as a single unit--under the control of one man's hand. The future of mechanism, they say, lies inevitably along the path of simplified and centralized control....

Experience the ease of centralized control by asking your Brunswick dealer to let you try the Uni-Selector."

Manolo The Shoeblogger On Why People Love To Talk About Shoes

When I was researching this Bloomberg View column on why people love to talk about shoes, I interviewed Manolo the Shoeblogger via email. His answers were great, but they didn't make it into the column. So, with his permission, I'm posting the interview here:

Q: Why are people so interested in shoes?

A: Because shoes have magic in them:  Our fairy tales are filled with stories of fantasy shoes: glass slippers, hundred league boots, ruby slippers, shoes in which old women reside, boots for sword fighting cats, shoes made by elvish cobbles at night, red ballet shoes which cause the wearer to dance incessantly, and on, and on.

Every child knows that shoes are magic. It is one of the first things you learn. Shoes are magic.

To be barefeeted in literature and in life is to be the pitiable creature. To have the shoes, even the most humble, is to be the person of some substance. When you put on the pair of the beautiful, well-made shoes that fit, you are filled with satisfaction and contentment; you look better, you stand taller, and you are more confident. Thus shoes work transformative magic. We all know this to be true, because we have all experienced it ourselves.

Even our modern shoes, in which the magic is usually latent, can be frequently beautiful. And when we buy beautiful shoes we believe we can imbue ourselves with some of this beauty. Pants are pants. Dresses are dresses. But it is only with the shoes on our feet that we are fully dressed. The ball gown, no matter how beautiful, is not complete until the dancing shoes have been put on.

Shoes are the one item of clothing that allows the widest range of personal and artistic expression. You would perhaps look foolish wearing the blue, bejeweled, suede dress. But give that same material to Giuseppe Zanotti and you would have shoes fit for the queen of the world.  Outrageous colors (purple!) and material (snakeskin!) can be made into the most captivating shoes. And shoes have structure and architecture, and can molded into fascinating wearable forms that other types of clothing cannot be. Yes, hats are similar. But hats are optional, shoes are mandatory. 

Finally, shoes are the one item of high fashion that does not discriminate based on size or age. The stylish plus-sized lady can wear Louboutins if she can master the heels. The elderly woman of spirit can be at home in the pair of Blahniks.   

Q: Why are they so interested in shoes now?

A: For whatever reason, we are in the Golden Age of Shoes. There are more talented designers than ever before; women are more adventurous in what they will wear than ever before; and the market is able to deliver beautiful shoes to more places than ever before.

The question is, why now?  The best answer is that we are the impossibly rich society, and that even despite the Great Recession we still have plenty of money to spend, and much of it, for the first time, is in the hands of women, who are working at greater rates and earning more money than ever before.  

And because of the rise of the internet, and concurrent democratization of fashion, shoes, which are the easily sized and quickly transported commodity, were at the forefront of the shopping boom that followed these two trends. The aspirational woman in Montana can now buy Louboutin pumps from Saks online, and have them on her feets in two days (one, if she pays for overnight shipping). This is the dramatic change in how we live our lives. In the past, our Montana lady would have had to go where to find her shoes? Salt Lake City?  Seattle? And when she got there, after great effort the selection of styles would have been limited, the sizes haphazard.  And for all of this world, we owe Zappos the enormous debt of gratitude, for pioneering this way of shopping, for it is as radical as anything the internet has done.

Glamorous Outlaws: The Highwayman, Hero Of Song And Story

To travelers on dark English roads in the 17th and 18th centuries, highwaymen were dangerous criminals. But to the general public, before and after, these mysterious bandits, some of whom styled themselves as fallen gentlemen or Cavaliers, were glamorous figures. Ever since, they've been the subject of song and story.

The Beggar's Opera, featuring a love story surrounding the condemned highwayman Macheath, was a mega-hit when it debuted in 1728 and continues to be performed. (This video is from the 1983 version, featuring Roger Daltrey as Macheath.)

With all due respect to Adam Ant and Roger Daltrey, to me the highwayman will always be the romantic title character of Alfred Noyes' 1906 poem "The Highwayman," here set to music by Loreena Mckennitt.

Glamour, however, always conceals something, and in the case of glamorous outlaws, that something is often neither particularly attractive nor even impressive--as this debunking of Dick Turpin, one of Britain's most famous highwaymen, demonstrates.

JetSet Secrets Brings Glamour To Gaming

James Bond movies may be more gritty than glamorous these days, but EA Games is promising a bit of Jet Age secret agent glamour in its new hidden object game JetSet Secrets, which is free on Facebook. (You can get tips on playing here.) The style of the game is not retro--no Mad Men or Dr. No fashions. It's the idea of traveling the world, visiting exotic locales, and solving mysteries with dashing grace that gives it a Jet Age feel.