Thursday, December 30, 2010

Happy New Year!

"The Classic Ritz Carlton" by Andris Leimanis, Montreal, Quebec

May the sparkle and cheer of New Year's Eve remain with you for the next 12 months.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Merry Month of Mistletoe

French photo postcard, "MARCHAND DE GUI DE BRETAGNE", Mistletoe Vendor from Brittany, 1908; note the distinctive regional costume with double-breasted, brass buttoned coat, voluminous breeches, and wooden shoes

For years I've collected vintage Christmas items; cards, vinyl records, decorations, table linens, magazines, etcetera. I noticed that in pieces dating from the late 19th century and early 20th century, the mistletoe (Viscum album) motif was very much in fashion, in fact much more than the poinsettia or Christmas tree that we see on Christmas cards today. The mistletoe motif was also very popular to decorate items in general day to day use, not just for Christmas. The majority of these mistletoe items are in the Art Nouveau/ Jugenstil style that coincided in England and British Empire with the Edwardian epoch. Nowadays, few people know what mistletoe is, and the plant seems all but forgotten.

Mistletoe is a mysterious plant. It is a parasitic evergreen plant that grows on the limbs of trees and has attractive pearl-like, luminous berries. It was sacred to the Druids, and had to be cut with great ceremony wearing white robes, at a particular time, and with a special golden sickle. Because it was never to touch the ground, the harvest area was covered with a cloth while mistletoe was cut. The Catholic Church banned the use of mistletoe because of Pagan associations. It continued to be used secretly because it was believed to be so powerful. It was believed to protect from demons, witches, and spirits, and a number of illnesses including fevers, tremors, and fits. Hanging it in the home was believed to bring happiness and peace, and it was often left up throughout the year until the following Christmas.

In the 19th century, the popular custom of kissing under the mistletoe became established. Men were entitled to steal a kiss each time a woman was under the mistletoe. For each kiss, a berry had to be removed from the spray. The ritual ceased when all berries were gone. This charming, and somewhat suggestive custom captured popular imagination, and references to it still persist in old Christmas illustrations, songs, stories, and poems.

Next time you see mistletoe, freshly cut, growing on the branch of an oak, or in the decorative arts, consider the historic, botanic, cultural, and festive aspects of this exquisite, unusual plant.

Merry Christmas to all.
English matte glaze ironstone pitcher with raised mistletoe motif, circa 1895

detail of above pitcher

Art Nouveau/ Edwardian silver bar style pin with mistletoe motif, circa 1905

Edwardian bone china plate in a Christmas pattern, by Adderley of England, circa 1910; note the raised enamel berries of the holly and mistletoe

vintage Swiss linen handkerchief with mistletoe and holly motifs, circa 1965; this item was given as a Christmas gift/ promtional item by a Toronto hotel
mistletoe motif on engraved cotton stationary note cards by Crane's, 2005

circa 1905 German lithograph postcard with mistletoe motif; outside border is metallic gold
detail of mistletoe from the above card

detail showing mistletoe, from a German chromolithography postcard, circa 1905

vintage screen printed linens in the very rare "gui" (mistletoe) pattern by the French house of D. Porthault, second half of the 20th century
circa 1905 French silver Art Nouveau pin with mistletoe motif

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas in the Big City, Toronto

the facade of Tiffany's, Toronto, with the entranced swathed in evergreen boughs

Christmas tree at the 1929 Fairmont Royal York Hotel, Toronto

lobby arrangement of massed red amaryllis, red blown glass, and candles in the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto's elegant Yorkville

lobby tree of Toronto's Beaux Arts masterpiece, Le Méridien King Edward Hotel

revellers helping to create a festive atmosphere in Kensington Market on the December 21 winter solstice activities

the public skating rink at North York Centre, Toronto

another view of the sunken North York Centre rink, Toronto

a view of Willowdale Park in north Toronto; such parks dot the city and there are many to explore and enjoy

a Christmas window of the old Hudson's Bay store, with blankets and canoe sporting the iconic stripes of the historic wool blankets that were used for trading

the historic 1851 Gibson House in north Toronto is now surrounded by tall office and condominium buildings; it is open as a museum, and captures the essence of mid 19th century rural life

New York cabs, a metaphor for unlimited opportunities and experiences, are yellow; Toronto's orange and aqua Beck taxis are everywhere, and are the Toronto versions of the checkered taxis

malls and atria throughout the city are refuges from the bitter winter winds, and are decorated lavishly, in big city Christmas style

a wintry city sidewalk in the stylish Yorkville district of Toronto

an animated Christmas window at the Hudson's Bay Company flagship store on Queen Street; the scene here is of course, last minute work at Santa's shop

Tafelmusik's Messiah at Trinity St. Paul's United Church is a favourite among Torontonians

nothing gets one in the mood for the holidays like the superb St. Michael's Boys Choir of Toronto

St. Basil's Church on the University of Toronto campus, shown here at Christmas

St. Basil's Church on the University of Toronto campus, shown here during Advent

animated Christmas windows at the Hudson's Bay Company flagship store on Queen Street, note the classic little Hudson's Bay candy stripe wool coats
another Hudson's Bay Company animated window depicting Santa's return to the North Pole after delivering gifts around the globe

the elegant old Manulife office building with pristine, manicured gardens

Christmas in the big city, in this case Toronto, brings numerous anticipated delights. The classic 1950 holiday song, “Silver Bells” composed by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston captures the distinctive ambiance of an urban Christmas.

Without direct religious references (“bells” of course suggests church bells ringing on holidays and before masses and religious services), it is a modern Christmas song, evoking the urban setting during the holiday rush.

SILVER BELLS by J. Livingston and Ray Evans

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks,
Dressed in Holiday style.
In the air there's a feeling of Christmas.
Children laughing, people passing,
Meeting smile after smile,
And on every street corner you hear,

Silver bells, silver bells.
It's Christmas time in the city…

Coming from a very small community in remote northern Ontario, I have a special appreciation for Christmas in the Greater Toronto Area which has a population close to 6 million, and the distinct atmosphere that is so very different from the winter holiday as celebrated in the country or small towns.

Here is a list of the things I most enjoy in Toronto during Advent and Christmastide:

1) The beautiful, historic churches, chapels, and cathedrals. As we move to an increasingly secular, multi-faith society, many churches are being sold off as their congregations dwindle, along with funds to maintain them. In the city, we are lucky enough to have many wonderful old churches to visit. In the crowded, modern cities, they are quiet places of refuge. I have many favourites, including the various chapels at the University of Toronto, St. John's York Mills, St. Michael’s Cathedral, St. Paul’s Basilica, and the modernest jewel, St. Joseph's Morrow Park. The one I go to most and feel most at home at is 150 year old St. Basil’s on the University of Toronto Campus. It is like stepping back in time, and it is just minutes away from the busy shopping district of Bay and Bloor Streets. The solitude and reflective atmosphere have helped me at the end of many exhausting, stressful days.

2) The heritage homes of the city, many now museums open to the public, that are so lovingly cared for and decorated for Christmas. It is fascinating to see how Christmases long ago were celebrated. My favourite is the classic red brick Georgian Judge Campbell House at the corner of Queen and University.

3) The St. Michael’s Boys Choir Concert at Massey Hall. I first went to a performance of this superb choir over 30 years ago, and have loved them ever since. It is a venerable Toronto tradition to see the boys in their blazers, walk from their school a block south of Massey Hall. The program changes from year to year, so it has a freshness that some classic holiday performances may lack. This year, the junior choir did the most charming musical rendition of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (The Night Before Christmas). I cannot recommend this concert highly enough.

4) The Good Shepherd Refuge. In the midst of the bustle and glamour of city life there is despair and poverty. The Good Shepherd Refuge on Queen St. East near Parliament St., will accept food donations 24 hours a day. There is a particular need for canned vegetables and fruits, tea and coffee, sugar, and rice. Many people, including myself, prefer this kind of donation because you know that your gift, and all of it, is going directly to those in need, rather than to administration.

5) The Christmas windows at Holt Renfrew on Bloor St. This venerable Canadian luxury store has been a part of Christmas in Canada for more than 170 years. The chic windows are as every bit as enticing as anything one would see in New York or Paris.

6) Big city Parks. Toronto is very lucky to have numerous parks with skating rinks, walking trails, and opportunities to view wildlife and birds. It is a city of treed ravines, and many of them are parks with gorgeous trails to walk. My favourites are High Park and the trails of the East Don. It is easy to imagine one is in a forest, or even Algonquin Park, hours away from the city.

7) The Tafelmusik Messiah. This is now a much loved Toronto tradition. To attend a performance in the historic Trinity St. Paul’s Church on Bloor Street West is a highlight of the Christmas season, and a good reminder in the scriptural references and religious aspect of the holiday.

8) The gardens of the old Manulife Building on Bloor Street east of Yonge (north side). I always admire this stately, elegant neoclassical building of grey granite. It has superb lawns and gardens surrounded by tall iron fences, and every Christmas a very tall pair of matched fir trees is placed on the lawn and decorated with simple, white lights. Exquisite.

9) Kensington Market. Every December 21st at dusk, Kensington Market hosts a winter solstice festival. The carnival atmosphere is great fun. Participants carry candle lanterns, and musical and percussion instruments. Kensington Market, over 100 years old, is also the best place to get the outstanding quality holiday pastries, meats, exotic fruits and vegetables. And of course it is the city’s premier location for vintage clothing. You can slip a vintage Champagne mink, in pristine condition, under the tree for your baby, and it shouldn’t set you back more than $200., often much less for a retro stole.

10) The Hudson Bay Company. In the world of retail, few can match the 300 year old history of this company that is an intrinsic part of Canadian history and life. And of course this is the time that many Canadian household take out their HBC blanket for winter, the same ones that the traders used centuries ago as currency when “buying” fur pelts from the Indians and trappers. The candy stripe blanket is one of the 10 most famous icons of Canadian design, and now adorns coats, scarves, bags, and even canoes. The outstanding animated windows of the flagship store on Queen St. at Yonge, are admired by all.

11) The terrific flower shops. For Canadians, flowers in the middle of cold winter will always be a luxury. Orchids and poinsettias are now ubiquitous and available at the supermarket, but it is always a special treat to go into one of the excellent flower shops and get pots of narcissus for myself and for friends. For me, they are fragrant Christmas stars. With the crystalline structure of the creamy white flower petals, they are reminders of the star that lead shepherds and kings to the Infant Jesus in Bethlehem.

12) Big City Hotels. For a very urban experience, a great hotel in holiday décor is delightful. I like the Four Seasons in Yorkville, The 1929 Royal York, and the beaux-arts King Edward Hotel. Stop in for a drink, lunch, or brunch, and enjoy a sophisticated urban experience. And those Christmas holiday floral arrangements in the lobbies, such creativity and beauty….

13) Skating. Who has time to drive on icy roads to the nearest half decent ski hill? Not me. I opt for the easy way out and head for the local outdoor rinks. Our classic big city rink is in Nathan Phillips Square (City Hall) but I much prefer the city rink at the North York City Centre. It is strictly for leisure skating (no hockey sticks to distract or trip anyone), and the sunken situation helps it avoid being windswept on colder days. When I skated there this week, they were playing vintage Christmas music by Bing, Ella, Frank, and Nat. Terrific!

14) The Nutcracker. Toronto’s superb production by the National Ballet, December 11, 2010 - January 2, 2011, has Russian inspiration, and is a joy to behold. Other productions throughout the city are also worthwhile checking out. Russian Christmas; how sophisticated and romantic.

15) Bloor West Village. This quaint tree lined district between Jane and Runnymede Streets has a distinct European flavour with pastry shops, cheese mongers, butchers, and numerous excellent green grocers and flower/plant shops. Many shops are east European, and it is worthwhile heading to west Toronto to visit and feel like you are in Europe.

16) Bloor-Bay Street/ Yorkville shopping district. This area, the so called "Mink Mile," has just finished an extensive and very complex improvement project. The sidewalks are now surfaced with black granite, and built in planters, also of the same stone, are filled with evergreens in winter, and lavish annual flowers in spring and summer. The most elegant shops, including Birks, Cartier, Chanel, Ferragamo, Gucci, Guerlain, Harry Rosen, Hermes, Holt Renfrew, and Tiffany can be found here. At Christmas, 20 ft. fir trees covered with thousands of twinkling lights make the street as picturesque as one imagines in the song, "Silver Bells."


Friday, December 3, 2010


the Queen Sofia Institute, 684 Park Avenue, New York; photo Queen Sofía Spanish Institute

Balenciaga has been very much in the news lately, and I'm not referring to the innovative fashions of Nicolas Ghesquière. Rather, there have been excellent museum exhibitions of the work of the master himself, Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972).

Four years ago there was an outstanding Balenciaga at the musée des Arts décoratifs at the Louvre, and last summer there was a charming exhibition, curated by Hubert de Givenchy, at the Chateau de Haroué, beautifully written about by Diane Dorrans Saeks in her wonderful blog, the Style Saloniste. In interviews over the past couple decades, Hubert de Givenchy has repeatedly acknowledged Balenciaga as his master, and is ceaseless in his admiration. Coming from a person of such peerless taste, this is the ultimate accolade.

Currently, there is a wonderful exhibition at the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute in New York, just inaugurated by Queen Sofía of Spain herself. The exhibition is curated by Vogue editor Hamish Bowles, a collector of vintage Balenciaga couture. The show was conceived by Oscar de la Renta, who worked at Eisa of Madrid, one of Balenciaga's outlets in Spain run by his sister. The show runs from November 19, 2010 until February 19, 2011.

What can be said about Balenciaga? He has been written about extensively, and yet he maintains great mystique and prestige. One can understand him better if he is compared with his highly esteemed contemporaries. His work is bolder and much more innovative than the designs of Chanel. It often has a distinctly Spanish look, with Flamenco ruffles, strong contrasts of colour with black, or toreador-like embroideries. But the inspiration is never literal or costume-y, a problem often seen with ethnic inspired looks of Yves Saint-Laurent. Balenciaga pieces often have a quasi-religious feeling (he attended mass regularly), inspired by clerical garments and the plain, but heavy and voluminous robes of saints and angels in oil paintings of centuries ago, notably the works of Francisco de Zurbarán.

circa 1948 evening coat of heavy black silk ottoman, collection of Hamish Bowles; photo SwF

vintage photo of priest in a cassock; photo, the Aesthetic Traditionalist

Compared with Dior, the works are less precious and bourgeois. Compared with André Courrèges or Cardin of the period, Balenciaga is not futuristic, and therefore more classic. Balenciaga's work was progressive and evolving; his very last designs were pure, and appeared simple, but were never minimalist. They strike the perfect balance of sobriety and innovation, creativity, and conservatism. His designs defy the dated aspect of fashion, so that they are eternally beautiful.

For the clientele of couture and fashion, and for experts who have worked in the garment industry, there is an irresistible attraction back to Balenciaga. In his lifetime, the Balenciaga name never appeared on inferior or mass produced products. It never seemed to require advertising or self promotion, because it existed above such mundane matters as financial concerns. The atmosphere of his couture salon on Avenue George V in Paris has been described as "hushed" and "monastic." His taste was so rarefied, that in 1968 he retired; the youth quake of the 1960s, with fast fashion, vulgar exhibitionism, and inferior quality, offended him, and he was undoubtedly weary from his relentless perfectionism and refusal to dilute his product, or veer from his highly personal style.

For the most elegant women of the world such as Pauline de Rothschild and Mona Bismarck, his farewell was a tragedy. It has been said that when wearing a Balenciaga, no other woman in the room existed. I supposed the wearer was conferred with a certain nobility, impeccable elegance, and perfect taste. If you cannot make it to the New York Balenciaga exhibition, take a look at these meticulously crafted designs, and consider the thought, repeated editing and revisions, often within millimetres, that went into these deceptively simple clothes.
from left to right: Hamish Bowles (Curator), Teresa Valente and husband Ambassador Jorge Dezcallar, Her Majesty Queen Sofía of Spain, Oscar de la Renta (Chairman, Queen Sofía Spanish Institute), Inmaculada de Habsburgo (President & CEO, Queen Sofía Spanish Institute) at the opening of the Balenciaga Exhibition, Wednesday, November 17, 2010; photograph by Mary Hillard

flamenco inspired looks in bold black or hot colours; frills are substantial and more bold than delicate; photograph by Kenny Komer

toreador inspiration, exquisite referencing of silhouette and proportion, without lapsing into costume; photograph by Kenny Komer

the solemnity and dignity of uncompromising Balenciaga's black; the look is wearable for any woman of any age or stature; photograph by Kenny Komer

neither slim nor excessively voluminous, late (1960s) Balenciaga defies being outmoded; photograph by Kenny Komer

Balenciaga's unusual colour combinations didn't follow those of other trends of the period; clear silhouttes, heavy embroideries, and richly draped silks are typical of his work; photograph by Kenny Komer

Balenciaga used the very finest fabrics, and was fond of material with body and structure; note his graceful signature hemlines that lower at the back; photograph by Kenny Komer

Curator Hamish Bowles and Chairman Oscar de la Renta lead Her Majesty Queen Sofía of Spain through the exhibition galleries, Wednesday, November 17, 2010; photograph by Mary Hillard