Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Northwestern University when I attended (1957-61) had a “Big Sister” program meant to ease the transition from bigfrog/littlepuddle to tinyfrog/immensepuddle.  My Big Sister, Lisa Cosman, was from Billings.  She just got back in touch from Manhattan where she has a nutrition business and a bit of participation with Broadway.   My first weeks at NU were in the costume shop and Lisa showed me the ropes.  And a few other things.
“This,” she announced, “ is a rip’n picker!”  In spite of 4-H sewing, I had had no contact with such a dangerous-looking thing.

Here we are in Suddenly Last Summer.  Lisa on the right: she designed her peach-colored dress.  
Claris Nelson as the nun.  Dunno who created her habit.  Probably herself.

Our costume professor was Paul Rheinhardt.  http://www.utexas.edu/faculty/council/2011-2012/memorials/reinhardt.html  Our text was Lucy Barton’s which, surviving every book purge, is still on my shelf.  I was so young and full of adrenaline in those days that every tactile textile, every cutting surface, every sharp scissors, is still vivid.  It’s when I learned about period underwear at a time when women in the movies -- no matter the period -- wore pointy rocket bras.  In my single summer career as a costumer my only triumph was a white brocade gown with white fox oversleeves for Penny Fuller as Mary Stuart.  My major downfall was a "black" version for her trip to the ax which refused to be black -- only quite dark purple -- no matter how many times I took it through the dye bath.

I’ve never been a clothes horse -- I’m built for durability and comfort -- but the women in my family all sew and some are quite skillful.  My cousins on one side also enjoy couturier documentaries and we swap titles to look for, although on Netflix all you have to do is give one of them five stars and they’ll pitch dozens more.  Most recently I watched Halston, Diana Vreeland (“The Eye Must Keep Moving”), several Coco Chanel versions, St. Laurent (also several versions), and so on.  What soon becomes clear is that they’re not about the clothes -- they are about being extraordinary.  Take that word literally.  EXTRA literally.  

Andy Warhol's belly

The ones I like best are those from the Seventies when the whole culture went extraordinary, extravagant, extreme, and -- alas, self-extinguishing.  They challenge gender (not sexuality, which they celebrate in all forms), the notion of “pretty,” and the concept of budgets.  There’s no plot on the catwalk -- just attitude and vignette, posing.  Some of the stories (Diana Vreeland) are about triumph over a bad start.  Vreeland’s mother considered her ugly and therefore stupid, but she managed to marry a handsome man and make noses like hers the epitome of glamour, to the benefit of Barbra Streisand.  Yet she never went over into resentment and mockery, she never stooped, she was never arrogant in the way she was portrayed in satire.  In fact, she confided that her great regret in life was never learning to surfboard -- she was also attracted to skateboards.  There is no photo of her skateboarding -- at least online -- I looked.

Anna Wintour is quite a different sort -- all about control.  Halston started out a lovable kid and, thanks in part to the seduction of a guy who called himself Victor Hugo (who reminds me of a friend which makes me see VH in quite a different light) and partly due to the corruption imposed on every famous person by our corrosive culture and partly due to molecular blood code gone wrong, ended up destroyed.  I still wear Halston perfume. 

Theatre is an art form that is not so much controlled by costumes and scripts as it is by the “skene” which was a frame around the platform we call the stage.  It doesn't have to be physical.  Nowadays, everyone has to have a “platform” that defines who they are and what they do, because that’s how we market everything, esp. on the Internet where the machine needs to index by algorithm, struggling to define everything and match it to specific human beings with credit cards.  But it is the nature of humans to escape that proscenium (which is a box), to blur the framing lens, to renew and extend and surprise.  To know this is to see that the planet is a skene and that even nakedness is a costume.  No algorithm is adequate.

So Coco turned to the fisherman’s sweater and the fluidity of jersey and Halston reveled in the invention of Ultrasuede and could make a gown of sheer chiffon without cutting, sewing, or using a pattern -- straight off the bolt.  Vreeland’s apartment, which she called her “garden from hell” was a riot of red pattern; Chanel’s apartment was palomino with that famous curving mirrored stairway; Halston built a whole house, all steel squares and space, particularly a glassed-off enclosure for orchids.  I love looking at them and was besotted with the magazines as soon as I realized they existed: Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Architectural Digest, et al.

It is sometimes a shock to see the models or even the famous photographers from the past.  Some have aged rather well, even without any perceptible plastic surgery, but others are ruins.  At least they’re alive.  Is there any other period in which we’ve seen the images of people from teenhood to decrepitude, like cut flowers from bud to blossom to withered petals?  Avedon showed us that even the end-stage can be beautiful. 

In fact, the whole period was an opening up to the Asian, the African, the sub-cultures, the ethnic context -- partly to sell, of course, but also to make our eyes see anew, to value the never before considered.  No such thing as ugly, no such thing as disgusting, nothing to be rejected out of hand because of stigma.  Making stigma beautiful.  

Somewhere in the bottom of one of my storage bins are two shirtwaists made from sheets, using a Halston pattern.  In the Seventies they were my job-hunting clothes.  Now I’m too fat, but anyway they are too short.  I can’t bear to throw them away.  It was a time when sheets were not sold by thread-count, but by exuberant pattern of intense color.  I made the scraps into a patchwork seat cover for a white wicker chair and wore it out.  

From "Western Art and Architecture"

I still have an orange velveteen jacket trimmed with jet that I made to wear to the Cowboy Hall of Fame dedication of Bob’s big portrait of Bill Linderman.  That was before the world of “Cowboys and Indians”  or "Western Art and Architecture," in which slick magazines show what haute couture and financial excess can do with the raw materials of animals and prairie.   If you can do it with Africa, you can do it with Montana.   If I could ever bring my conflicting attitudes of scorn and derision into alignment with my appreciation of the sensuous and dramatic, I could make some money writing about it.  I’ve never succeeded.  

But I have small traces: a turquoise bracelet, small paintings, boxes and boxes of tear-outs from defunct magazines.  Lucy Barton, of course.  Half-a-dozen Rip ‘n Pickers and drawers full of material -- leopard print chiffon, emerald slubbed silk, some extremely high-end cream-colored cotton from “Scarlet Ribbons”, a fine fabric store in Portland -- long gone now.  I stall about sewing them into anything, because I love their potential, the phantoms that dance through them.  They’re a seduction not meant for consummation.


"Did I really say that ? It is, actually, a "seam ripper" but I have always been cautious about "ripping", for if used too fiercely, one easily tears the fabric. I tend to pick a few intermittent stitches, then loosen the lot by pulling from those threads,  a small section at a time.  I believe in having more than one seam ripper (so as for quick availability) and (ahem, re-teaching moment) to always replace the clear plastic cover -- (I know, a less lethal photo, this photo does the danger justice).  -- be safe, not sorry.

 "Do you know that Diana Vreeland was said to have had her maid polish the soles of her shoes ? -- not only clean them, but apply new polish and then buff each sole so the shoes always look new.  I did that for quite a while (after realizing what a good idea it is), but in 1982 I was burned out of my apartment, and lost at least 24 pairs of lovely I Miller shoes. I Miller is gone now, they were irreplaceable.    "What goes around comes around ..."

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