Friday, July 14, 2017


Not too long ago, I said I was going to do a post about the twentieth century transformation of evening and formal textiles/jewels into day wear. The idea is one I've cogitated on for many years, not as a blog post, but in a more philosophical sense. I was reading one of Ann Rice's Lestat novels, probably Queen of the Damned, in which he had awoken to the modern world and observed how everyone now had access to glimmering clothes and finery. Written in the 80s, and read by me in the 90s, the idea did stick with me - that we had an abundance of riches, in the modern world, which were unreachable in centuries past.

A little age, education, and experience puts a great deal of perspective on the equation of flimsy acetate with cloth-of-gold. But the point of abundance is not quite negated, and the point that we're a flashier lot these days holds pretty firm.

As much as I rail against the idea that humanity has "evolved" (oh, and the semantics baggage in that word) from stupidity and filth into any new-and-improved form, it doesn't do to deny we've invented a whole lot of stuff. Good and bad. But production is a different question than quality - see also, the difference between centuries-old handmade cloth of gold and mass manufactured lame or acetate of any variety of shiny-ness, boldness, etc.

And so we turn to quality, and the evolution of its usage.

As a younger lady, I was addicted to Miss Manners. Sure, what she actually had to say was always splendid, but the real draw was her writing. Like Roger Ebert (with whose movie reviews I almost *never* agreed), I read her columns faithfully, because she could express ideas with eloquent insight. AND so often the ideas were something much more than answers to straightforward questions.

One of the more concrete things you can learn from the study of etiquette is the language of gems. Like the language of flowers, certain stones denote certain implications, not all of which have to do with the months of our births.

All this may seem very quaint and perhaps romantic to many people, but the value and magic of nonverbal communication never dies. We just find different ways to do it.

It was the concrete rules of dress that laid the groundwork for the somewhat more subjective messages sent by what we wore - and when. Ask a fan.

And so it was: there was a time diamonds would never have been worn during the daytime. In the evening, they conferred elegance, glamour, and conspicuous consumption upon the wearer, but during the day, anyone in any glittering gem (pearls and I believe mourning jet were acceptable; if anyone knows more than I, I'd love your comments!!) was nothing but gauche. Display had rules. Getting the rules wrong only demonstrated someone's ignorance of wealth, but probably what we now call "trying too hard" (if not, worse, actual depravity).

Then diamond engagement rings became de rigueur, and the rules began to shift.

Certain necklines were acceptable only in the evening as well, and dress followed the appropriateness of the hour of the day, the age of the wearer, their status and station (see above), and the activities they had afoot. Morning dress, riding habits, low gowns, certain hats.

Oh, hats. There is a wonderful fun bit in one of the early episodes of "Are You Being Served", iterating the acceptable hat styles for various levels of employee at Grace Brothers department store. Bowlers are right out, unfortunately, for Captain Peacock, a floor walker - higher in status than the sales staff, but not so high as manager Mister Rumbold.

And yet, a bowler suits Peacock ever so well.

Another fine scene involves the proper fluffing of a pocket handkerchief.

These things matter, was the issue - and big issues they were, even so late as the 1970s. It wasn't so long ago. Mrs. Slocombe might wear any color hair she desired - but Captain Peacock needed dispensation to sport that bowler.

For a look at an encapsulated moment in the timeline of women's fashion, watch seasons one and two of the American show, "Remington Steele". Most famous for bringing Pierce Brosnan onto the Hollywood scene, what tends to be forgotten now about this series is the driving "sit" of this particular com, which was that a woman in 1982 presuming to act as a private investigator was so utterly outre' she had to invent: "a decidedly masculine superior." Hijinks ensued, and a jolly good heartthrob I still don't mind taking a gander at.

In season one of the show, Laura Holt (Stephanie Zimbalist), our inventress, spends an interesting amount of time in hats. Fedoras in particular. She heads to a horse farm wearing a more tweedy ensemble (and woolen cap), but more than one episode sees her costumed almost for one of the old movies Steele constantly invokes as they follow their cases. But she's not costumed like the femmes fatale of these classics; she is modeled more on Sam Spade - or even Columbo. Structured tailoring, subdued colors, sturdy textiles. And always covered. She presents entirely feminine, but her character design still does not flutter nor blush. Even her most spangled evening wear (and spangles there are) speak to power, to her skill in the work she does and the refusal to become a conquest, even as most eps end in breathless kisses in the early going.

The upshot is a woman in "a man's world" - demanding respect and commanding authority.

Season two plays up, in every possible aspect, the Bondian parallels (we will not point to aspirations on Brosnan's part) of HIS character. And hers shows up in shorts and bathing suits rather suddenly. The season premiere is a lesson in what producers felt they had on their hands, and even all but cops the famous Bond theme music.

The good news is, Laura Holt is not reduced to being a Bond girl, but the contrast in production design - in costume design - captures something else of the time. By season three, she's almost always sporting elaborately swirling hairstyles - more Gibson Girl than Big 80s Hair, but still a notable change from our introduction to the character, who only got Gibson for special occasions, and not even all of those.

Even in 1982, as realistic as it was to portray a female lead in need of an imaginary man to make it in business, the fact was, women's place in American society was not quite what it had been years before, when the series was actually conceived (1969).

So, season two. They stopped presenting Laura in the clothes of male private detectives partially because the series changed in tone - and because she had nice legs and so forth - but also because women overall were becoming a little less likely, even then, to package themselves mannishly in order to make it. A little.

Fast forward a couple of years, and we have Maddie Hayes in "Moonlighting" - conceptually similar on several counts, and trying to push even farther. Hayes hardly ever wears anything but brights, in silky fabrics, and always with heels. (Note that Cybill Shepherd famously rebelled against heels, herself.) The fact that this character (and Shepherd) was a former model provided the excuse for the frippery, and the sexual tension in "Moonlighting" was if anything even more prominent than that in RS, but the difference in the female leads' outfitting was fundamental.

Women didn't just gain knees in the early 80s. Take a look at the textiles I mention. From Laura Holt to Maddie Hayes hardly represents all womankind by a long shot (pretty, young, white), but the fashions on these shows make an interesting microcosmic study of the decade. Because Hayes' fashion actually WAS a bit like what we were seeing in the real world. Jacquard silk drop-waist/slim-skirt dresses DID get very popular. My mom wore a baby pink chiffon dress like this for my 1993 wedding.

Following this advent/onslaught of affordable, light, silk or faux silk dresses, I recall a big surge in men's short-sleeved silk shirts, sometimes with mandarin collars. Beloved Ex wore this look well, and I had silk right down to a pair of *pants* in the material, and many long scarves did dedicated duty as belts. In the early 2000s, the light men's shirts of this sort were still on tap with Mr. X as well. This is the transition of a sort of evening fabric firmly into the daylight.

Belts - we got to like showy little belts in the 80s. Skinny gave way to more cummerbund sizes (that scarf wrapped around me twice, back then), and even leather belts were soft, wide, and more and more sash-like. Buckles became increasingly jewelry-like. And then rhinestones crept off buckles and into our workaday earrings, even onto shoes. BLING burgeoned. There are reasons even that word gained the traction it did, when it did.

And more evening daringness made its way into our days.

(Notoriously, of course, many people's hair got excessive. I can't pretend guiltlessness in this, but I did fail Clue-Catchers 101. In some things, it is good to be a slacker.)

Another thing that burgeoned in the 80s was designer labels. It's hard to overstate the nature of this change to anyone who hasn't lived on both sides of the designer era. And this, too, is something of an evening concept brought through the rest of the day. I had heard of  a "Halston gown" when I was little, but nobody was wearing specific-maker-anything in the 70s during the day, to speak of.

In the 70s, it was in fact just weird to wear a shirt that advertised its maker. We'd gotten some memo or other, about a thing called "designer jeans" - but it took the Reagan 80s to cement product placement in our wardrobes. In my world, knowing about Aigner and Izod led almost faster than we realized, to the Hilfiger style revolution still with us, in which everything from sunglasses to purses to jewelry and clothing are logo'd, and that's actually desirable.

(Not so much with me, but that is another day's rant.)

And then came the body parts formerly reserved for special occasions. Grrl Power midriffs have given way by now to "cold shoulder" and side-boob/side/butt, but it is still conceived as special to show the nighttime bits during the day. (Even though this isn't really new, in 20th century terms and thanks to humanity's chronological myopia, it was.) Statement Necklaces and ever-expanding eyebrows ("called it!!") came in after giant implants and fake tans with frost lipstick. Even minimalism seeks a certain boldness. More than the workaday.

And, along with wearing chiffon tops in the middle of any ordinary day, the very textiles we are dressed in are ever more ephemeral, which makes an interesting counterpoint to the perception of ever more "glamour" in their deployment. When clothes are meant to be trashed six months out, can they really be all that elegant ... ?

Things don't change, not really - but our deployment of them keeps us thinking we are brand new.

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