Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Skull and Crossbones; the macabre fashion shows no sign of dying

children's hoodie by "725 ORIGINALS"; photo SwF
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Give the blog a bone. As Halloween approaches, we are exposed to images of death and spirits on decorations and in illustrations. In the past, skeletons and skulls were traditional motifs of this holiday, along with owls, pumpkins, ghosts, and witches, but the skull motif seems less evocative of Halloween because we see it throughout the year.

In my book, wearing a skull and crossbones is associated with negative things such as 1) convicts, toothless pirates, and rebel outlaw biker gangs and, by association, organized crime and drugs, 2) nuclear and hazardous chemical waste, 3) a motif on tombstones and memorial monuments from the 15th to 18th century, 4) toxic household products such as drain cleaner or chlorine bleach, 5) Nazi SS regalia and medals. Skeleton chic seems to have arisen simultaneously with the current, insatiable taste for tattoos. Why, when there is so much violence, darkness and crime in the media and in entertainment such as video games and music, is it necessary to add a negative aspect to one’s daily presentation of self?

detail of a label of Recordsol Paint Thinner Poison showing skull and crossbones symbol, early 1990s; photo SwF

Earlier this year, I viewed television news coverage of people protesting against a Whitby, Ontario waste incineration facility. One person carried a large sign with the skull and crossbones symbol on it. In western culture, one becomes aware of this symbol from a very early age. Children see it associated with villains and evil as is seen in many Disney films and it has become shorthand for death or danger. The message that the skull on the protesters sign conveys is, “Incineration equals death," or, "Beware of toxic effects on our health.”

In a recent Canadian criminal trial, a father was convicted of murdering his young daughter. Entering the courtroom, he wore a grey sweat shirt with a very large skull motif on the chest. Amazing that none of the journalists covering the case commented on the irony of it. Certainly his solicitor wasn't dispensing any sartorial suggestions. Is it that the "numb skull" is now so ubiquitous we barely notice it, let alone make the association with toxic materials, death, or criminals?

The motif was first appropriated by Goths and then high stylers like Alexander McQueen. Subsequently it filtered into mainstream fashion, and went from being predominantly on male clothing and moving to young women's wear. It is now available from street market vendors as the least expensive, mass produced, Asian manufactured clothing. The last group to take up the bone head was the young; it now emblazons the clothes of toddlers to teens. Symbols of death, decadence and toxic dangers being worn by children is a disturbing trend. I don’t understand what is appealing about youth, our hope for tomorrow, wearing the skull and cross bone motif. Surely our future isn't that bleak.

In the 1960s and 1970s, young people wore daisies, yellow happy faces, and peace signs. Nowadays many of them wear tattoos, piercings, and skulls. What does this say about our culture? What does it say about parents who allow impressionable children to wear these subversive motifs? I suppose that in the development of the adolescent mind, I can understand the proclamation of independent thinking and a wish to assert identity, and independence; thus we see the edgy, rebellious trend of youth wearing skulls, smoking, and listening to antisocial music with profanities. But after half a decade, I cannot see that it still has the desired anti-establishment effect.

For the past few years, the skull and cross bone motif has been seen in various forms in fashion. When I was in Paris two years ago, I visited the Dior Joaillarie Boutiques on Place Vendôme and on Avenue Montaigne. I was surprised, actually I was disappointed, to see that talented Dior (formerly Chanel) jewellery designer Victoire de Castellane has included pieces with jeweled skulls in the Dior precious jewelry collection. Considering that Dior is associated with refinement, quality, and taste, and is the paragon of Paris couture, I was perplexed by this inclusion. If it was intended to shock and surprise, I don't think that any fashion feathers were ruffled, although for me it would certainly detract from the grace and prestige of Dior.

Tête de mort” pendants/charms(☠), Dior Joaillerie design, 2004, by Victoire de Castellane detail from a child's hoodie by "725 ORIGINALS", photo SwF

As the motif becomes more and more familiar, and loses shock value, I wonder if it will take on a different, less sinister aspect, somewhat like the skull and skeletons one sees everywhere in the Mexican Dia de los Muertos celebrations

Sunday, October 17, 2010

CIAO ROBERTA DI CAMERINO 1920-2010; the Loss of an Italian Fashion Legend

Roberta di Camerino, circa 1970, wearing a dress of her own design with a printed, trompe l'oeil 5-buckle belt; image courtesy of irenebrination.typepad.com
Roberta (Giuliana) di Camerino in 2005, note the cardigan with panels of silk twill printed with trompe l'oeil effects; photo, legacy.com

Fashion today is so democratic. The most prestige houses often have entry level goods such as fragrance, scarves, key chains, or limited edition diffusion lines. Greater availability raises awareness of a brand and brings in a younger customer base, but in the 1960s and before, high fashion had an entirely different demographic, and it was much more exclusive. Unlike today, Vuitton and Gucci boutiques were not in every major city around the globe. While more customers have access to good design and to quality, there is a certain loss of mystique when goods are readily available both in person or through Internet purchase.

One of the very creative designers who never really became a household name, but held a special place in the hearts of the fashion cognoscenti, was Roberta (Giuliana) di Camerino(née Coen) of Venice. While recently researching vintage di Camerino pieces I discovered, I reread her fascinating biographical details but was saddened to learn that this exceptional designer died in spring of this year. She passed away exactly 3 months after Alexander McQueen, but her death was not reported or discussed in many fashion or news forums. The two designers couldn’t have been further apart in design philosophy. McQueen was a still young rebel, and his most documented and memorable clothes were conceptual art to be observed. They were dark, often sinister, and difficult to wear. Camerino clothes and accessories, while unique and creative, were eminently wearable and light hearted. As a Jew, she found it unecessary to create anything sombre after living through the fear, darkness, and pain of the war.

Her fashion house was founded in 1945, and still exists in Venice. Imagine a designer working successfully in a signature style for 70 years. That has to be a record of some sort in the world of fashion, where designers fall quickly out of fashion. She was best known for her superb velvet handbags, and for interesting trompe l’oeil effects that appeared as pleats, buttons, buckles, saddle stitching, pockets, and other details, but were in fact printed on the textiles of accessories and clothing. Her work made use of centuries old Venetian crafts, artisans, and traditions. The pigments, textiles and hardware were of the finest quality done in ancient, historic workshops. The fittings were made by the same artisans who made fine bronze hardware and mounts for Venetian gondolas. The artisanal, two centuries old textile firm of Bevilacqua, wove Camerino's velvets on ancient hand operated looms that have made fabics for the Vatican and the most prestigious and historic Italian villas and palazzi, not to mention palaces and embassies around the globe.
shop facade of Bevilacqua, supplier of velvets for Roberta di Camerino's signature purses, and purveyor of deluxe handmade textiles for 200 years; the shop is in the centre of old Venice

early 1970s dress printed to look like a sporty nautical blazer, necktie, and pleated skirt ; CoutureAllure.com

a trompe l'oeil effect evening gown printed to appear as wrapped and draped silk jersey; image from CoutureAllure.com

What is wonderful about Roberta di Camerino is that the look is original and distinctive, and has maintained a signature look throughout its long history. I would put this design house in the same league as Chanel, Pucci, Gucci, Vuitton, Lacoste, Burberry, and Hermès, but prior to the global distribution of today. You see it, you know what it is, and a venerable and prestigious history is evoked.

There have been two exhibitions of her work; in 1980 at the Whitney, and in 1999 at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In the 1950s her bags were carried at Neiman Marcus, and like Chanel (in 1957), Yves Saint-Laurent (in 1958), and Dior (in 1947), she was honoured to receive their fashion award in 1956, along with Cecil Beaton. Undoubtedly, there will be exhibitions and perhaps a book in the near future, as her recent death has brought about greater interest in her work.
Roberta di Camerino accepting her Neiman Marcus award with Cecil Beaton, 1956; note the black cut velvet evening bag of her own design; image courtesy irenebrination.typepad.com

What is important about di Camerino as a designer? What sets her apart from the hundreds of others who struggle to reach success in this unforgiving and competitive field? The designs were absolutely unique but wearable. They were of the finest quality. Essentially, she took centuries old crafts and concepts (printed and woven Venetian velvet, and trompe l’oeil), and made them relevant and amusing for the 20th century woman. She was commercially successful but the products were never ubiquitous. Her work promoted Italian and Venetian heritage, skills, and products. In an age of excessive self promotion, she subtly changed her real name for commercial use, in order to maintain a degree of privacy for herself and her family, and preserve a sense of discretion and mystique. I am reminded of other great designers such as Mainbocher, Mad Carpentier, and Louiseboulanger who also adapted family names for business purposes, creating a sort of sartorial nom de plume, or rather a nom de ciseaux.

A wonderful story about her has often been repeated. Di Camerino was a client of Chanel. It isn't surprising, as she admired quality, fine workmanship, wearable design, and fashion talent. She was upset about the blatant copying of her distinctive velvet bags. At the time, they were seen on the arms of stylish women such as Grace Kelly, Soraya, Maria Callas, Sophia Loren, Paola of Belgium, and Elizabeth Taylor. Chanel told Camerino that she should only cry when they stop copying her. Her influence is seen in many vintage inspired fashions today. The designs of Moschino have shown Camerino influenced pieces, especially things with whimsical trompe l'oeil, in several collections over the past 25 years. The house of Moschino has also maintained a powerful image that is both humourous and ironic, and at this time is the one house that best carries on the sheer inventiveness and wit of di Camerino, and at times, Elsa Schiaparelli.
a soignée Roberta di Camerino with her iconic velvet bags, late 1950s; like Chanel, her pearls were a constant; image courtesy of irenebrination.typepad.com

During the 1970s in Toronto, Canada, a handful of her designs were carried at the old flagship Eaton’s (a cross between Macy’s and Bloomingdale's) department store in Toronto. I remember the first time I saw them around 1975, and I was intrigued by the trompe l’oeil effects that made them unlike anything I had ever seen. Within the last decade, Camerino velvet handbags were available at Canada’s most exclusive clothing store, Holt Renfrew. As beautiful as they were, the luxury accessory client in North America seemed pretty much devoted to the more widely promoted luxury brands, and sadly Holt’s ceased to carry Camerino's wonderful printed velvet doctor-style satchels.

Splendid examples are available on eBay and through vintage clothing shops. For anyone who appreciates Italian heritage, unique design, quality, and an amazing history, a Roberta di Camerino bag or trompe l’oeil scarf or dress is a fantastic addition to the wardrobe. And as serviceable as black is, isn't nice to know that there are colourful alternatives?

A cotton canvas tote bay from Old Navy, spring 2010 collection, showing the trompe l'oeil effects that were first shown in the designs of Roberta di Camerino, photo SwF
detail of silk screened faux saddle stitching in the above tote bag, photo SwF

printed wool dress, with boldly graphic draped blowing skirt effect, circa 1980, this very representative piece is available at mlvintage.com

the classic Camerino 1950s velvet satchel that was worn by Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly; the designs were reissued in the 21th century, riding the wave of interest in vintage fashion; CoutureAllure.com

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Horticultural Hyacinths in Your Winter Garden

From Christmas until the beginning of spring, forced hyacinths add cheer when days are short and dull. Note the root development.

Forced hyacinths tucked in among green foliage houseplants create a winter garden atmosphere. The planter is a Louis XVI wine cooler with a copper well.

Horticultural hyacinths in your winter garden? That sounds expensive and rarefied, but you don’t need a vast conservatory or staff of gardeners to enjoy the splendid effect. In fact it is easy and inexpensive to have them.

At this time of the year, I am attracted to the colourful displays of spring bulbs at garden centres. Raised to perfection in Holland, world centre of the spring bulb industry for over 200 years, there are tulips, crocus, hyacinths, narcissus and daffodils in hundreds of varieties and colours.

One of my annual autumn rituals is buying spring bulbs for planting in October or November. Winter in Canada is lengthy, and looking forward to springtime flowers helps me through the season. In addition to those in the garden, I buy a few dozen hyacinths which I force for indoor use. From Holland come special glass jars made specifically for forcing the hyacinth. They are hourglass shaped and water is filled to below the "waist,” and the bulb placed above it.

These are put into a cool (but not freezing) dark place, such as a garage, cellar, or refrigerator, for 8-10 weeks. After that, they can be put in a window sill, and soon exquisite, fragrant hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis) will grace your window sill. I have them among pots of greenery such as ivy and philodendron, and vases of cut forsythia branches that can be forced after January. The effect is lush and pleasing when ice and sleet cover the view beyond the windowpanes.

This is a very simple, foolproof procedure that will allow you to have spring flowers for most of the winter. The hyacinth bulbs and the special glasses are available at plant stores from September up until Christmas. Hyacinths come in many new colours. There are yellow, peach, and orange as well as the classic purple, mauve, white, and pink.

When filling a bulb glass, make sure the water level just grazes the bottom of the bulb (if it is much higher they tend to get mouldy). Make sure that the cool spot doesn’t drop below freezing. One year we had a record cold spell, and most of my hyacinth glasses froze and broke in the root cellar where I keep them.

The hyacinth bulb sits above the "waist" of the special bulb glass. Water just touches the bottom of the bulb where roots very quickly emerge.

hyacinths in different types of bulb glasses after 6-10 weeks in a dark cold cellar

Within a week of being placed in water, the bulbs develop a vigorous root system.

The glasses themselves can be works of art. Regular plain glass ones from Holland are about $4.00 each, although they are often available at garage sales or thrift stores for a quarter. However, there are many old examples such as Victorian art glass or cut crystal, cranberry glass, tinted Depression glass, mid century Scandinavian or German art glass, and other types that are highly collectable, sometimes costly examples.

a chunky green Depression glass example of a bulb glass

an elegant crystal bulb glass with a swirl design; a very durable heavy glass utilitarian type preferred by serious hyacinth fanciers

Whether you admire forced hyacinths for the bulb itself, or for the interesting vintage containers that have been made to hold them over the past century, the fresh, somewhat cloves-like scent issuing from the up to 70 florets of a single fresh hyacinth will bring springtime to your home, many weeks before it comes to the garden.

a colourful trio of vintage hyacinth glasses; the tall blue one is an unusual 1960s example with a Jetsons aesthetic

The crisp form of these mid century European bulb glasses would look great in a modern interior.

A very deep pink, almost red hyacinth will be ready for Christmas if planted now. This robust and fragrant variety is "Jan Bos."

Photos by SwF