Glamorous Ideals: From Paris To The Night Life

In her post on the evolution of prom fashion, Kit asks, "When did it become OK to stop looking like a little girl and start looking like a woman?" The Costume Institute's current exhibit, "Model as Muse," offers some high-fashion perspective on the question. At the exhibit's outset, in the late 1940s and 1950s, no one aspires to look like a little girl but, rather, like Sunny Hartnett at the roulette wheel or Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face.

28.Sunny Harnett by Richard Avedon in Madame Gres 1954

Glamour is sophistication, Paris is its capital, and the exhibit's soundtrack is "C'est si bon." Everyone looks quite grownup.

Funny Face in 1950s Gallery, Dior and Balenciaga

Then comes the Youthquake, and the wide-eyed, long-legged childlike Twiggy ideal. 

4.Twiggy in YSL by Bert Stern 1967 12.Paco Rabanne Metal Dress, 1967

Hairstyle aside, that's the look behind Kit's mom's 1967 prom attire, with its shift shape. (Paco Rabbane's dress here is from 1967, but kids aren't going to wear metal plates to the prom.) Glamour lies in youthfulness.

Gunne-sax-dress Museums deal in high fashion, and the youth culture that shaped clothes through the '60s and '70s didn't always make it to the runways and history books. So, to answer Kit's question fully, I need to deviate a moment from the museum tour and introduce my own prom experience.

Ours was a junior-senior prom and, thanks to older boyfriends, I went every year from 1975 to 1978. The first two years I wore a Gunne Sax dress and a Gunne Sax knockoff I made myself. This hippie-influenced prairie-romance style isn't represented at the Met, but it was huge at the time and still remembered fondly in prom-related blog posts. (There's a lively Ebay trade in vintage Gunne Sax dresses.)

Dressing in Gunne Sax style didn't exactly make you look like a little girl. Rather, it created a feminine ideal of the romantic past--very Renaissance Faire, but with lighter fabrics. This dress from Ebay is a good representation of what I wore to the prom in 1975 and 1976. (The style is, as I remember it, almost exactly like my 1975 dress, while the color mimics my 1976 creation.) This nostalgic glamour celebrates not youth per se but innocence: a "simpler time," concocted from Victorian Medievalism and American agrarianism. Like all historicist fashion, it also traffics in the glamour of escape.

The style that ended my own romance with romance--and that led to the stable grownup prom look Kit noticed--came from Halston: simple, sleek, sexy forms in great, often synthetic, fabrics, perfect for a night at Studio 54. The Met shows them in a reconstructed "VIP Room," along with contrasting styles from the same period by Yves Saint Laurent.

23.VIP Room with Yves Saint Laurent and Halston 1970s Gallery View sm

As the oldest baby boomers hit 30, the styles they influenced finally reached adulthood, defined differently from the polish of the 1950s. Halston-influenced styles did away with bras, making them the complete repudiation of the foundation-dependent garments of the 1950s. A Halston woman might not be a lady, but she definitely wasn't a little girl. (This black halter Halston dress from Decades would be right at home at Kit's prom.) Here, glamour comes from sexiness and celebrity--the glamour of being noticed and desired.

Studio 54 was a transient institution, but Halston's styles proved classics, continuing to inspire dressing and design three decades later. (Check out this post on what this influence suggests about the foolishness of strengthening copyright protections for fashion.)

[Gallery and exhibition photos courtesy of the Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art/Anna-Marie Kellen. Twiggy in dress, spring/summer 1967, by Yves Saint Laurent (French, 1936-2008), Vogue, March 15, 1967, Photograph by Bert Stern (American, born 1929). Photograph by Bert Stern/Courtesy Staley-Wise Gallery, New York. Paco Rabanne (French, born Spain, 1934), Dress, 1967, Metal chain-linked armor-plated mini dress formed from square metal plates linked by metal loops, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gould Family Foundation, 2008]

Statement Watches: Messages, References, And Vintage Styling

Accurateblackcrop After my previous posts I assumed I was through writing about watches, but then I discovered the internet site Watchismo was started by Mitch Greenblatt as a site to sell “the most unusual vintage watches and chronographs of the mid-century through the space age, everything that is ahead of their time, then and now.” Then Mitch’s brother Andrew joined the firm as they expanded to sell new watches that, on the whole, seem to make some kind of statement about watch design itself. (Many of the watches mentioned in my post on watches that emphasize design can be purchased at Watchismo.)

One of the unusual watches on the site is Robert Jones’ “The Accurate” watch, a timepiece whose hands read, “Remember, you will die.” This is a translation of the Latin phrase momento mori, placing this watch in the long tradition of artistic creations that remind people of their mortality. Both the silver and black versions of this watch are polished to a mirror-like finish, so whoever looks at the watch will see themselves reflected in its surface. This tradition dates back to Roman times when victorious generals paraded through the streets. Behind the general was a slave who would periodically say, “Momento mori,” or “Respice post te! Hominem te memento!”: “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man!” (Most of us can think of people, especially politicians, whom we imagine might benefit from wearing a watch whose hands read, “Remember you are but a man.” Alas, Jones doesn't make that model, and, in any case, the people we would most like to give it to probably wouldn’t wear it.)

Mach2000 When I discussed status and power watches, I mentioned that their advertising is typically tied to vehicles with powerful engines and athletes who dominate their fields. This is “serious” stuff, so the design of chronographs tends to be  tradition bound. This mold was completely broken by the French designer Roger Tallon with his LIP Chronograph Mach 2000, originally designed in 1973. This fun watch with it’s colorful function buttons is as refreshing now as when it was first released. LIP watches are now being marketed in the U.S.A. for the first time, and is the  representative.

Many of LIP’s designs reference other designs. There are, for example, a TV series and a Fridge series, and these have overall shapes corresponding to their names. These watches, designed in the mid 70s, remain astonishing modern, a testament to the effectiveness of good industrial design.

Tallon’s LIP Mach 2000 Moon watches were designed in 1973, and look like watches that would have looked great worn in the first Star Wars film, released in 1977. A new model, the “Dark Empire,” looks perfect for Darth Vader.

RebosusRS002web The industrial design angle is referenced in some watches by taking it over the top. This is case with Retrowerk Watches, which use antique-looking finishes and attach compasses, pistons, or levers to their unusual designs. Other watch companies, such as Rebosus (their RS002 Chronograph is pictured here) produce huge watches that look like an industrial machine when strapped to your wristes. Big watches have been a recent trend, and many of these have been gathered together in a big watches collection at watchismo. (It is here perhaps that readers may wonder if the firm’s decision to call itself “watchismo” is ironic or self-revealing.)

The selection of vintage watches is fascinating, and, because of Mitch Greenblatt’s interests, you can see many examples of watches that achieve digital readouts with mechanical numbers. In human experience, time flows sporadically, flowing quickly when we are engrossed, tediously when we are bored, and disappearing entirely when we sleep. Some of the watch designs at watchismo play with the concept of time by using unusual displays. Botta watches only use one hand. Nooka watches express designer Matthew Waldman’s interest in showing time in a variety of unique ways.

QuiksilverBaroncopperweb The origins of watchismo as a company for vintage watches, often emphasizing modern design, sometimes shows in their choice of contemporary watches. A good example is the Quiksilver Baron Copper Auto watch (shown in the photo), which is one of their most popular watches. Many things about this watch remind me of art deco styling: the colors, the vertical grooves, the facets at top and bottom, the graceful shapes, and the brown leather band. When I first saw this watch on their site, I assumed it was a vintage watch rather than a new one. It makes a fascinating contemporary tribute to an elegant, glamorous style.

Beauty Rituals And Their Tools

Coffret-nécessaire de toilette-Renaissance beauty set

In a new exhibit, the French Musée National de la Renaissance has assembled quite a collection of Renaissance toilet items, including this luxurious set of 16th-century beauty tools. When grooming was a luxury, its tools were as well. In fact, the difficulty of making grooming tools cheaply was one reason that good grooming itself was a mark of social status. (Here's a page of links to photos of Medieval and Renaissance combs carved from ivory or bone.)

The ideal of a lady's luxurious vanity set lingered into the 20th century. My grandmother owned a typical version: a matching silver brush and hand mirror. If you search online, you can still find new silver-plated cosmetic brushes like these, but the more-elaborate sets will be vintage. (Check out this nail set.) The photos advertising them reveal a downside to such luxury: tarnish.

Nowadays, toilette is a routine chore, to be accomplished with efficiency. Accessories aren't meant as treasures or heirlooms but as useful tools, to be replaced when something better comes along. The most glamorous presentations of beauty tools promise not luxury but order: Buy this organizer, they suggest, and you'll finally get all that bathroom clutter under control.

[Photo: Coffret-nécessaire de toilette, Mathias Walbaum, circa 1595-1600. Musée historique, Bâle © Bâle, musée Historique / photo : HMB M. Babey.]

The Evolution Of Prom Fashion

Since last week, I've had the prom on my mind - so much that I went digging in my parents' photo albums for pictures of proms past. I came up with some interesting specimens, too.

My mother and her date, before her prom in 1967:


Me, before my prom in 1993, next to my sister before her 2002 prom:

Kit and erin

My sister and I aren't dressed so differently, despite the nine year gap between our dances (though at some point during that time, girls at our high school switched from short or knee-length cocktail dresses to floor-length gowns). But the difference between my mom's dress and ours is really remarkable.

In the book Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld wrote:

"It seemed like a lot of other things stopped around then, too, like my classmates and I were at the tail end of something. We still listened to music from the sixties and seventies, but kids a few years younger than us, including my brothers, had their own music. And clothes, too. Through my senior year, I wore floral dresses that came to my shins, sometimes with a belt of fabric at the waist, sometimes with puffy sleeves, with a square neck or lace collar, or a corduroy Peter Pan collar."

Sittenfeld's heroine graduated from high school in 1994 - the year after I did - and I identified with that quote, even though I didn't dress quite as conservatively. It always seemed, though, like there was an enormous, generational gap between my sister and me in terms of fashion.

These photos, though, show what a real generational gap looks like. My mom might have been listening to the Beatles and Rolling Stones her senior year, just like I did, but she shuffled off to her prom in an irridescent, lacy shift (with a date wearing the best shiny tux jacket I've ever seen). My sister and I, on the other hand, wore sophisticated black dresses with dramatic lines in the back.

All three of us were dressed appropriately for our dances, in styles consistent with our friends and classmates. We share similar taste in clothes and we've got similar personalities. Under normal circumstances, we'd be likely to wear the same outfits. This makes me wonder, at what point during the 25 years between my mom's prom and mine did attitudes towards appropriate prom glamour shift? When did it become OK to stop looking like a little girl and start looking like a woman?

"Ballet, But Entertaining"

Ballet But Entertaining

That's the headline on this ad for the Smuin Ballet in San Francisco. Other ads promise, "Ballet but Bold," "Ballet but Broadway," "Ballet but Different," "Ballet but Spicy," and "Ballet but Sexy" (pictured below).

Ballet But Sexy

Why would a ballet company need to sell "Ballet but..."? As Adrants comments, "One of the biggest problems with ballet is it's traditionally classified as a 'high culture' pursuit, which gives the dance some cachet, but also shuts potentially innovative new young audiences out."

If ballet today lacks some of the glamour it had in mid-century America, one reason is that aspirations have changed. "High culture" was once an aspiration in its own right—what middlebrow people wanted to achieve, the better to demonstrate their refinement and "class." Nowadays, people may enjoy high culture pursuits, but those pursuits must find their audiences on their own merits, not on the promise of status transformation. You may "better yourself" by attending ballets, operas, or museum exhibits, but the betterment comes from your genuine psychological reaction to the art, not from the idea that you're the kind of superior person who attends ballets, operas, or museum exhibits instead of rock concerts or movies.

Watches As Markers: An Eye For Style And Design

Radocerix In previous posts I’ve discussed watches as erotic glamour and as symbols of status and power. But men may sometimes wish to wear a watch that reveals their eye for exceptional design, and this is especially true of architects, designers, artists, and men who simply love good visual design. Traditional watch design, while intriguing to watch collectors, can seem rather boring to someone wanting to make a strong statement about design itself. To that end, a watch with a unique shape and distinctly modern look (like the Rado Cervix shown here) makes a bold statement.

In the realm of watches as design, the cost of the watch is relatively unimportant. This Rado is moderately expensive, but this is partly because this Swiss company's design philosophy emphasizes “incomparable surfaces,” and they use expensive, extremely hard materials such as ceramics and space age metals to make their watches both beautiful and difficult to scratch. With design-oriented watches, the materials used are integral to the design, and, just as some of the most beautifully designed objects in my music studio are colorful plastic containers and waste baskets, some design-oriented watches make use of plastic in vibrant colors (I’ll give an example later).

With high-design watches the designer is crucial, and many of the most stylish watches are produced by companies that also market jewelry, clothing, and accessories. The Italian design company Alessi is typical of this. When you go to their watch design site and click on “designers and models” you are shown photos of the 18 designers and architects who have designed watches for them. By clicking on the designer, the watches they designed are revealed, and they are wonderful in their variety. (The watch shown below is one of them.) 

Alessi Other interesting companies emphasizing design include the Danish firms include Skagen and Danish Design and the Italian firm Movado. The Swiss company Mondaine has designed watches based on the modern clocks used in Swiss railroad stations.

As one would expect, Japan is producing interesting watch designs. Seiko sponsors a yearly project for new designs. Issey Miyake is a Japanese fashion firm that produces watches, and their site is another that features the designers themselves (hovering the mouse over the gray rectangles reveals the watches). They use watch movements produced by Seiko, and it is not uncommon for companies whose emphasis is design to use movements produced outside the firm, often using Japanese quartz movements. 

This is the case with two interesting American companies. One is the San Francisco/Tokyo company TOKYObay and the other is the Encinitas, Calfornia company Nixon. While TOYKObay’s orientation is more toward the traditional  fashion world, Nixon’s orientation is to the world of surfers, snow boarders, skate boarders. By paying serious attention to this market, Nixon has become a successful, worldwide company.

Here’s part of the Nixon company statement, which is both irreverent, and deeply committed:

We make the little shit better. The stuff you have that isn't noticed first, but can't be ignored. We pay attention to it. We argue about it. We work day and night to make the little shit as good as it can be, so when you wear it, you feel like you've got a leg up on the rest of the world. We believe that you deserve a lot of respect. When you choose to wear a watch, deserve to have something that reflects your entire package....Dammit brothers and sisters, you can't slap on an off-the-shelf piece and consider yourself you. Can you?

Nixon_outsider  The model shown at left is the Nixon Outsider. This is not a watch you would wear to a board room meeting, and that is precisely the point. Although the name “Outsider” likely refers to the integrated electronic compass, it also seems to symbolize the outsider attitude of a culture that focuses more on riding on recreational boards than sitting on company boards. (Many Nixon watch models are hard to come by. Some are made in limited editions, and boarders quickly snap them up.)

Such markers of style work remarkably well, and not just with watches. I recently purchased a stylish pair of Bevel eyeglasses, designed in the U.S.A. and manufactured of titanium in Japan. While wearing these I sat down with my wife at a pub bar to grab a quick meal. The man next to me asked if I was an architect. When I said, “no,” he said, “You’re wearing architect glasses.” He told me that he designed software for architects, and from years of experience he knew how much attention they paid to the little details of visual design (the “little shit,” as Nixon watches put it).

Some design companies seem to have said to designers, “You design it and we’ll figure out how to make it.” No wonder many architects and designers have welcomed the chance to design watches that they themselves would like to wear--watches that reveal how deeply they care about style and distinctive visual design.

[In the market for a watch? Check out the broad selection at the Amazon Watch Store.]

Mechanical Watches: Symbols Of Status, Power, And Conquest

Breitling As mentioned in a recent post, mechanical chronograph wrist watches are symbols of status, power, and conquest for men that can afford them. One of the most interesting blogs about watches is, and as was once posted there:

A lot of the time I wake up and want to wear a serious "show me the money" watch. That isn't about glitz, but rather about "I am going to go out and conquer the day!"

Some history is required to explain why some watch makers are "show me the money" brands, and why these watches are usually mechanical. Making an accurate, portable mechanical clock is extremely difficult, but the need for one was critical. The invention of the marine chronometer in the 18th century by Yorkshire carpenter John Harrison revolutionized marine navigation. It has been argued that the building of the British Empire depended on the dominance of the Royal Navy, and that this dominance occurred during a period when the ships of the Royal Navy had marine chronometers and their opponents’ ships did not. Accurate chronometers later proved crucial for aviation navigation, and they are useful for land warfare. During World War II the American watch company Hamilton perfected the mass production of accurate wrist watches and shipped more than a million of them overseas.

Wood_tag Given this history, it is not surprising that manufacturers of prestige watches like Omega, Rolex, TAG Heuer, Breitling and others advertise this association with marine and aviation navigation. They also use images to connect to airplanes, trains, and racing and luxury ships and cars. Breitling, for example, frequently uses images of military planes, and also has an association with Bentley automobiles. And any male athlete who is a highly dominant figure in his sport may be approached to represent a luxury watch company. Thus the ads for Tiger Woods and TAG Heuer suggest that wearing a their watch implies you are “made of” the same dominating stuff as Tiger Woods.

 Ironically, in the 1970s mechanical watches were quickly outclassed in accuracy by quartz watches. A typical quartz watch is accurate to 1/2 second a day, and rated quartz watches can be accurate to within ten seconds a year. Highly accurate mechanical watches can be accurate to about 1/10 second a day, but this kind of accuracy in a mechanical watch comes at enormous expense, especially as you add “complications.”

Complications are watch functions other than telling you the time. Typical complications are date functions, stopwatch functions, lunar phases, and so on. To give an example of the relative costs of adding complications to a watch using electricity versus purely mechanical means, consider the Citizen Campanola Grand Complication. This watch is discussed in detail at ablogtoread, and there he estimates that this complex watch (which sells for approximately $3,000) would cost $80,000 if duplicated as a mechanical watch.

Campanola Much of the work on the Campanola is hand done, with attention to finishing details that would rival any luxury watch. But for years neither Citizen nor Seiko attempted to sell their high-end watches outside of Japan. They realized that in places like the U.S.A. they could not compete with the brand snobbery associated with luxury watches. They faced the same issue that Toyota faced in trying to compete with Audi or Mercedes Benz. In the U.S.A., Toyota was known mostly for making well-made, but relatively inexpensive cars. So Toyota created Lexus as a division of high-end automobiles. Likewise Citizen has created Campanola as a separate division in order to market this watch. (The watch that ablogtoread first reviewed was labeled Citizen, but now the watches are labeled Campanola. After all, what CEO would want a watch that suggested he was an ordinary “citizen.”)

Once upon a time owners of mechanic watches might have taken comfort that if a worldwide catastrophe stuck while they were out on their yacht, causing all electrical battery supplies to vanish, their mechanical chronometer would still allow them to keep accurate time. But now there are quartz watches that use light (or pivoting mechanisms that move when the watch is worn) to power storage batteries, and thus they never need replacement batteries. So owners of those watches would still be able to tell time (and most likely more accurately too).

Because of their accurary and advantage in production costs, quartz watches now account for the majority of watch sales. Because of their tradition, high price, and mystique, mechanical watches still retain top status as collectibles. But even the luxury brands now use quartz movements in some of their watches, and who knows if future generations will care that mechanical watches might at one time have helped conquer the world. As reader belle de ville pointed out relative to my last post on watches, jewelers don’t yet know whether the cell-phone, iPod generation will bother to wear watches at all.

Watches As Erotic Glamour

Breil The world of men’s watch advertising is frequently about status. Accurate mechanical chronographs with many functions are expensive (four figures and up), and brands like Rolex, Omega, Breitling, and TAG Heuer make much of their long association with aviation, auto racing, and yachting. Their watches often have names like Yacht Master, Seamaster, and Speedmaster. Associations with famous athletes are common, such as Tiger Woods and TAG Heuer. Movado makes both stylish dress watches and sport chronographs, so it is not surprising that Tom Brady is used in their ads, given that he is both a star quarterback and the well-dressed husband of model Giselle Bunchen.

Few companies have dared to advertise watches as objects of erotic desire, but Breil has had fun doing this. Their watches have glamorous names like “Milano”and “Eros.” One of their representatives is now Charlize Theron, and in the TV ad below, she sees one of Breil’s watches, which launches a series of erotic fantasies involving men’s hands.

Breil also markets jewelry and fragrances, and in one of their ads a priest giving confession is overwhelmed by a young woman’s adornments. In their “Don't Touch My Breil” ads, eroticism grows more obvious. In one a photographer is more obsessed with his model’s watch than her. And in a spy fantasy a woman graphically demonstrates her prowess with a gun to warn him about touching her Breil.

Perhaps the most erotic of all of their ads is the one below. By rubbing his Breil watch, a man in a bar  somehow sensually stimulates a woman sitting some distance away. He is amused by her response until she turns the tables by rubbing her own Breil watch. (Incidentally, her necklace is also by Breil, and is featured in different cuts of this ad.)