Tuesday, January 22, 2008


This morning I read and forwarded to two cousins a review of some Parisian couture designers, mostly a compare/contrast between Dior and Balenciaga. (The original review was in the Atlantic Monthly but came to me through the Powell's Bookstore review-a-day email.) No one would think to look at me that I even knew these men existed. This time of year I dress like an Eskimo in fleece and thermal versions of baggy pants and parkas -- with plenty of underlayers. But I was deeply influenced by the renaissance of fashion after WWII, so closely linked to economics, politics, and the nature of gender.

This was reinforced by family visits to Maryhill Museum on the Columbia River east of Portland. There I stood for hours regarding the dolls dressed by Parisian couturiers during the war when there wasn’t enough material to make full-sized clothing. Another reinforcement was classes for costuming which actually I did for one summer season. My taste for the exotic has led to some strange get-ups over the years, which I wore out into public with no sense of incongruity until others expressed incredulity. I recall a wine-colored two-piece velvet outfit, lined with pink satin and slit up the side, which I wore to a party that was much less formal than I expected. “Why are you wearing bordello curtains?” asked a man in jeans.

I have a photo my father took of my cousin Diane and I innocently primping in bras (which we barely needed) and crinolines about 1953. (I can’t print it on this blog because is likely to be interpreted as porn and downloaded by the wrong people. This is not a development any of us would have predicted.) In the years unfolding then, we women endured latex girdles, underwired bras, nylons that required garter belts and constant seam-straightening, and an instrument of torture called the “torsolette” which was just a sort of corset except that it hooked up the front instead of lacing up the back. (These instruments of torture have about the same status in female porn as spanking does in former-schoolboy Anglo-porn.)

Perhaps as a reaction, a bolt to freedom or maybe a flight to fusion, it was deeply satisfying to me in the Bob Scriver years to wear his clothes, which made him crazy though he didn’t stop me. (Strange that he used so much latex in mold-making that his clothes smelled like a Playtex girdle.) Later, living in Portland, I fell in love with high-end young men’s clothes at Mario’s and haunted their windows gawking at cashmere tweed and suede ensembles in subtle colors with fabulous detailing. The trouble was that a woman shaped like me simply cannot wear such clothes -- they make me look like an expensive sofa.

So now that I’m going to be reading from this bio of Bob at small public events around the high prairie, what should I wear? “Oh, whatever makes you comfortable,” say the managers. That means jeans and a work shirt, though I do have some nice shirts and a few velour pull-on pants. I like to wear vests, when I remember. But what about a hat? There’s always a light pointed straight down from overhead which makes my skull shine through the thin hair. A skull cap? A beanie? A beret? A cowboy hat?

When I’ve dressed up in the past, I’ve always gone with a sort of Chanel-type suit. This is because my waist is thick. But my legs are good, so a skirt -- if I’m not behind a lecturn -- is an advantage. I don’t wear high heels anymore, so maybe a skirt with flats is not so great. In summer I wear sandals, not fancy little ones but big Colette-in-later-life practical ones. Sort of like Gertrude Stein. I’m shaped less like her as my diet continued to reform me. Some day I might be able to afford cowboy boots. Plain to suggest work? Or fancy to show a playful side?

At seminary I was living on as low an income as possible, which meant that when the clothes of my previous life wore out, I made a couple pairs of what might pass for jeans (they were denim) and bought some nice thick flannel shirts at a discount store. This worried my supervisors at Meadville, who were greatly attached to the idea that ministry=professional=dressing nicely. But they were “liberals” who didn’t want to betray any prejudice against underclass (or underdressed) groups (and what about the gender-implications -- can’t criticize lesbians) and besides they were a bit afraid of me. I was the same age they were and had been an officer of the law for five years. When I showed up at the big denominational “Fellowship Committee” presentation that would determine my fate, they were visibly relieved that I was wearing a nice tweed suit with a skirt, new knee-high boots not made for walkiing, and a silk blouse. I think I might have worn that outfit twice afterwards. One preaches in a robe and no one really knows what’s under it.

My robe was another story. “Real” ministry robes are basically academic doctoral robes. I occasionally wore my supervising minister’s elegant silk robe, which he had inherited from his deceased predecessor. It was rotting, but even so the clever reinforcements, paddings, hooks and gussets made it look and move like high class. When I made my own robe, it was fashionable to be different, so it’s a bit like a choir robe: nine yards of sky blue taffeta with a collar band and shoulder caps on the full sleeves that end in cuffs. When I stand over a floor furnace, it demonstrates why I call it my “Big Blue Balloon.”

The point of comparing Dior with Balenciaga was that though the House of Dior (which continued with St. Laurent) was a fun-loving and rather famous House, featuring the New Look (which was in fact a return to an old look: tiny waists and ballooning skirts), it was a House run by gays who imposed their ideas on their clients. But Balenciaga, who was quite ascetic and withdrawing in personal style, did in fact design for women. Dior did a lot of sketches; Balenciago designed by draping clothing on a model. Dior reinforced, incorporated foundations, used only compliant young women as models.

Balenciaga designed for three generations of women. His key model and muse was a grumpy woman named “Colette” whom Ernestine Carter, fashion editor of The Times of London described thus: “her Dracula walk, her big head low like a bull ready to charge, her shoulders hunched down... and a look of almost violent hatred on her face.” This is model I can relate to, except what the heck is a Dracula walk? Tipsy on blood? Or tiptoeing to keep from waking the next victim?

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