Christmas Traditions & Holiday Glamour

"Few things are as glamorous as formal attire and cold weather."

Blogger Lindsey Davies Bahr wrote that last week, in a post about one of my favorite Christmastime movies, Whit Stillman's Metropolitan. It's a movie about a horrible, and horribly pretentious, group of "friends" in late '80s Manhattan - the people are terrible, but the city is so pretty at Christmas, and made even prettier by all the tuxedos and formal dresses.

It's a movie that leaves me with a strange and uniquely Christmassy feeling - a sort of nostalgia for a holiday season I never actually experienced, except vicariously while paging through the Neiman Marcus holiday catalog. Actual visits to New York at Christmas provide a glimpse of that glamour, but I wonder if it even exists in real life.

Watching Metropolitan has been part of my personal Christmas ritual since college, but my A very young dancerfascination with that fancy, elusive, bright lights type of holiday glamour began years before. When I was five, my parents gave me a copy of A Very Young Dancer by Jill Krementz. The book follows the path of a little girl named Stephanie, who wins the coveted role of Clara in the School of American Ballet's version of The Nutcracker.

It's no secret that the life of the ballerina, while glamorous on the surface, is full of hard work, sweat, and pain (we've written a lot about that). Krementz's book touches on the difficulties Stephanie faces, but the story is really a fairy tale about a young princess in the big city.

For little kids, glamour is everywhere at Christmas - in gingerbread houses and decorated trees and, especially, in Santa Claus. As we get older, and we become the source of that glamour (filling stockings is a lot like realizing that the Wizard of Oz is...you), it's harder to hang on to those feelings that make the holiday season so special.

Tonight, my son will go to bed with "visions of sugarplums" - literally. I'll stay up and finish wrapping gifts. But then I'll recapture some of that feeling by reading my book and watching my movie while I sit in the glow of a Christmas tree. It's an odd tradition, but it's what makes Christmas feel like Christmas to me.

Desire And Storytelling

Helen_of_Troy DG’s subheading is “at the intersection of imagination and desire.” In his book Stein On Writing, editor Sol Stein says of both fiction and non-fiction, “All storytelling from the beginning of recorded time is based on somebody wanting something.” When desire is acted upon so passionately that it defies common sense, we have the possibility of an exciting story.

“King’s wife runs off with foreign prince. War is declared.” So a contemporary tabloid might headline the act of passion that triggers the Trojan War, which Homer immortalizes in The Iliad, one of the first great works of literature in the Western world. (Ancient sources differ as to whether Helen left willingly or was abducted.) If we saw this headline today, we would want to know more. We would want to see photographs of Helen, said to be the most beautiful woman in the world.  If we did an Internet search, we might be surprised to learn that Helen is rumored to be illegitimate, the daughter of Leda and Zeus, the philandering God who (in another of his shape-shifting affairs) seduced Leda while disguised as a swan.

Passionate, ill-advised behavior can be the basis of a good story. The creators of fairy tales realized that the stakes needed to high in order to impress children with the consequences of good and bad behavior. This is true of high art as well. In Shakespeare and Opera Gary Schmidgall writes that operas and Shakespeare’s plays are about how not to behave. The main characters are inevitably “slaves of passion,” and those characters who preach common sense are sure to be secondary. The plots of many of Shakespeare’s plays could be reduced to tabloid headlines. “Jealous husband kills wife, then himself” (Othello). “Wife convinces husband to commit murder” (Macbeth). “King forms new church to wed new wife” (Henry VIII).

Stein writes that, “Readers like to experience things in fiction that they would not want to experience themselves in real life.” The Internet allows us quickly indulge our our curiosity when we learn that famous people have behaved badly. We are curious when the news breaks that a beautiful actress is having an affair with the husband of another beautiful actress. Or when it is discovered that a trusted executive has embezzled millions of dollars. Or when it is learned that a supposedly upstanding athlete or politician has commented adultery.

Speaking again of fiction, Stein writes, that “Writers are troublemakers....Their job is to give readers stress, strain, and pressure....readers who hate those things in life love them in fiction.” And to some extent, we love to read about real-life stressful experiences, as long as they are happening to someone else. Regarding nonfiction, Stein comments, “In life we prefer an absence of conflict. In what we read, an absence of conflict means an absence of stimulation.”

The epic poetry of The Iliad used a tremendous cast of characters, from common soldiers to Olympian Gods, all of whom were capable of bad behavior. When kingdoms and empires were ruled by monarchs, the desire to rule led to horrendous crimes. Members of a royal families sometimes murdered each other by means ranging from poison to torture and execution.

Cleopatra-colbert Cleopatra VII married two of her younger brothers in succession, conspired against both, and formed successive romantic, child-bearing relationships with both Julius Ceasar and Mark Anthony to consolidate her power. Cleopatra has fascinated storytellers for centuries, witness Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra and several films. (The photo at right is of Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra in Cecile B. DeMille’s 1934 film.) Part of our fascination with Cleopatra stems from her position linking different cultures, but we also are intrigued by her ruthless ambition and seemingly calculated ability to captivate men.

In contrast, the less-well-known 12th-century Welsh princess Nest ferch Rhys was apparently simply so beautiful that men were desperate to possess her, leading to disgraceful behavior on their part. After her father died, King Henry I of England appointed himself her “protector,” and his protection resulted in Nest bearing him a son. Henry then married her to one of his followers, Gerald de Windsor, and she bore him five children. Then her cousin Prince Owain met her, was smitten, attacked Gerald’s castle, and carried her off. This led to a local civil war which cost Owain’s father his lands. She bore Owain two sons. Eventually Gerald killed Owain, and Nest was returned. After Gerald died, another man took her as his lover, and she bore him a son. Imagine the tabloid headlines for various stages of that story.

There are no photographs of Helen, Cleopatra, or Nest to feed our curiosity; so for centuries artists have portrayed such women using their imagination and the standards of beauty in their time. The painting shown above of Helen of Troy is from the 19th century; the one below is from the 17th. Look at the admiring gaze Italian painter Guido Remi gave to Paris.

Helen-Guido-Reni In films directors cast a beautiful actress in the role of Helen and hope that in onscreen action she proves charismatic. In the Renaissance, Helen’s beauty was captured in words. In Christopher Marlowe’s play Dr. Faustus, Faustus sells his soul to Mephistopheles. Before he is dragged to Hell, Fautus asks to see the legendary beauty, Helen of Troy. His wish is granted, and Faustus is captivated. Here is the beginning of his enraptured speech:

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.

“And all is dross that is not Helena.” To a “slave of passion” consumed by an overwhelming desire, everything else can seem worthless. If such people risk everything else to pursue their desires, stories of their reckless actions may become the stuff of legends and artistic portrayals, or, more likely, tabloid headlines.

[The first Helen of Troy painting by Evelyn De Morgan. The second by Guido Reni. Both images are from Wikimedia Commons.]

Achieving Elegance

GraceKellyIn trying to achieving an elegant effect suitable to a situation, there are many ways to go wrong. At one end there are  possibilities that suggest we made insufficient effort. These can range from a sense that we made no effort (wearing rumpled “around the house” clothes) to being underdressed or out-of-style relative to the occasion and everyone else.

Elvis-gold-lame There are also many ways to “try too hard” or show questionable taste: ranging from overdone glitz to being decades out of style. Ever since Liberace took glitz over the top in Las Vegas, some entertainers have confused glitz with glamour. This photo of Elvis Presley in his gold lamé tux exemplifies how show-biz costumes can become outrageously glitzy. Such costumes inevitably crossover into kitsch when wore offstage (whatever you think of them onstage).

One of the widely acknowledged exemplars of elegance was the appropriately named Grace Kelly, show in the above photograph at left. You can find several articles on the web discussing how to look or dress like her, and the emphasis is often on a certain simplicity in clothing design, jewelry, color choices, and use of makeup.

On the other hand, “elegance” implies more than mere simplicity. Dictionary definitions of “elegance” often include the word “pleasingly.” For example: “pleasingly graceful and stylish in appearance or manner,” or, relative to solving a problem, “pleasingly ingenious and simple.” As Albert Einstein said about science, “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

This is one of the great quandaries of style in many fields, including fashion, art, and writing. If you want your work to be elegant, you have to do enough to create a pleasing effect; otherwise you will have failed to achieve your aim. In fashion, true elegance can be stunning in effect. Thus effects that are dowdy, shoddy, or just plain dull fail to qualify.

Jessica-biel On the other hand, once you have done enough to achieve an elegant effect, adding elements that seem extraneous can weaken the sense of artful simplicity.

Jessica Biel, a beautiful woman, wore the Prada dress shown at left to the 2009 Oscars. The bow on the front was widely criticized as looking sloppy and extraneous, and some critics were surprised that the normally elegant Prada seemed to have  miscalculated in this instance. Yet the outfit cannot be faulted as glitzy became the color scheme and jewelry are so classic and restrained.

For those of us who feel the bow looks “added on,” rather than ingeniously integrated, it is a single design flaw, but nonetheless regrettable in that we feel that we might have admired the dress without the bow. In contrast the addition of rhinestones to Elvis’s gold lamé tuxedo is of little consequence. The gold lamé has already pushed the concept of a formal tux so far into glitz-ville that some extra sparkle just turns it into extreme kitsch—gold lamé made superbly lame.

DG Contest: Sothys Home Spa Products

To save a lucky DG reader from the ravages of winter dry skin, our glamorous friends at KMR Communications have put together a gift package of three luxurious home spa products from Sothys.
Sothys home spa products SOTHYS Aroma-Sothys Energizing Shower Gel - Softly cleans and tones the skin. It contains essential oils of eucalyptus, cardamom, nutmeg, and neroli for an energizing fragrance while leaving your body feeling refreshed. Retail price: $24

SOTHYS Aroma-Sothys Energizing Bath Essences Tablets - Effervescent, playful and revitalizing bath pebbles which enrich the bath with their tonic and energizing fragrance... a particular moment of pleasure and wellness. Retail price: $26

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For a chance to win, simply comment on this post (be sure to include your email address, which does not need to be made public). We will select the winner using Random.org on December 22.

Contest open to U.S. residents only. Prize package will be shipped from KMR Communications.

When Fashion Meets Political Function

[Editor’s Note: With this post, DG intern Crystal Hubbard, an aspiring television writer and organizer of the L.A. chapter of Liberty on the Rocks, joins our writing crew.]

“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image…” wrote art critic John Berger in his text on visual culture, Ways of Seeing. Berger’s perception hinges on the word “must,” implying that there is something inescapable about the female vigilance to appearance; something within her psyche that compels a woman to preen and then guard the finished product.

But it is one thing for a woman to watch herself at trivial and mundane events (though she will) and a completely different matter when she has committed herself to public service. Suddenly, a decision to wear (or not wear) X-item becomes a clue as to how she will vote, how she will govern, how she will wield power.

When Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) announced she would support the Senate’s motion to keep health care reform legislation alive, her historic decision—Lincoln’s was the last, and necessary, vote to further debate—was marked not with an accompanying dossier of accomplishments, but by what she was wearing. A relative unknown, Licoln chose to make her biggest senatorial moment into something almost not worth mentioning. “Her attire was school-principal prim—blue suit with knee-length skirt, orange silk scarf tied tightly at the neck,” wrote the WaPo's Dana Millbank. A meekly feminine showing, at best.

One has to wonder why she chose something so uninspired. A more memorable ensemble would have communicated that Lincoln realized she had climbed to the pinnacle of power, and had seized the national spotlight with an outfit worthy of the moment.

"My decision to vote on the motion to proceed is not my last, nor only, chance to have an impact on health-care reform," Lincoln said, having outlasted all the other pork-barrel beggars, and as Millbank noted, “She took a streetcar named Opportunism, transferred to one called Wavering and made off with concessions…”

If there is further motive—Lincoln is sure to remind her party, in the coming weeks of debate and deal making, of her solidifying vote—her propriety now becomes suspect. Following Berger’s observation to its logical conclusion, this may turn out to be only a penultimate moment for the senator from Arkansas, who gave a major piece of legislation a much-needed second wind, and may show up in something significantly more eye-catching the next time Harry Reid is found holding his breath.

Katherine_harris  In his same essay, Berger also said, “men act, and women appear.” Which helps explain why fashion plays a less important role in the career of a male politico. Men are physically imposing without having to adorn themselves, and powerful just by being. If a man fails in the fashionor appearance—department, we do not automatically question his judgment or ability to govern. We merely chastise him for not being mindful of the moment.

During a 2005 visit to Auschwitz to commemorate the liberation of Jewish prisoners, then-Vice President Dick Cheney sported an ill-advised parka, that, as Pulitzer Prize winner Robin Givhan wrote, made him look “like an awkward child amid the well-dressed adults.” Former interim UN Ambassador John Bolton also received the Givhan treatment during his hastily made-up appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in the days leading up to his failed (permanent) appointment as Ambassador.

when he settled in before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week to answer questions about his record, his philosophy and his intentions at the U.N., he looked as though he did not even have enough respect for the proceedings to bother combing his hair -- or, for that matter, straightening his tie, or wearing a shirt that did not put his neck in a chokehold. Bolton was one wrinkled suit away from being an insolent mess.

For men, we playfully mock and move on; for women, we analyze and critique ad nauseum. It’s one thing for Dick Cheney to look as though he should be clearing the driveway at Number One Observatory Circle; it’s another to say that since a woman looks like she could be the offspring of Tammy Faye Bakker we should question her political acumen. When the contentious results of the 2000 presidential election put Katherine Harris in charge, fair or not, the nation took one collective look and said, “Uh oh.”

We react this way because we count on women to “continually watch” themselves. And if our elected women aren't watching, if they too are schlepping around their closets like the worst of the boys, then they are—whether they know it or not—signaling that they are an aberration, out of touch with what it means to be a woman, and negligent of one of their most sacred weapons: themselves.

Activewear As Ecological Urban Chic

Urbane-jacket While shopping in Santa Fe, my wife and I discovered a new line of activewear, nau (based in Portland, Oregon), that has made chic urban design one of their main concerns. Their “Urbane Jacket” for women is shown at left. The luxurious-feeling fabric is waterproof/windproof/breathable recycled polyester. The fabrics in every garment that I examined were remarkable, and the construction of the garments was meticulous. High-tech materials and careful construction can make activewear expensive. Patagonia, for example, is known for styling, quality, and being costly (some of our friends call it “Patagucci”).

Nau emphasizes creating garments that will look fashionable in a sophisticated urban market, and still function superbly as activewear. This concern has been important in some urban European markets where many commuters bicycle, and under “who inspires us” nau lists Copenhagen Cycle Chic (as well as Dior, YSL, Balenciaga, Gerhard Richter, and numerous other designers). The company’s web statements list Patagonia and Prada as the kind of company they compete with, and nau’s design sense moves activewear toward a forward sense of fashion that we are more used to seeing from Italian and Japanese designers.

Riding-jacket The “Riding Jacket” shown at right is described as “a contemporary update to the traditional blazer.” The 100% recycled polyester fabric is 4-way stretch. Their designs tend to be cut for fit, slender bodies (such as bicyclists often have), and many feature sleeves that are slightly long to help cover wrists during activities such as bicycling.

One of the design principles of the company seems to be to avoid the visible display of their company name on their garments. We have come to expect “look-at-what-brand-I’m-wearing” logos on activewear and ready-to-wear clothing. Yet it is obviously difficult for tags and logos to serve a valid design purpose, and they are seldom found on couture garments. Nau not only avoids frou-frou fabric ornamentation, but also avoids labels of any kind on the outside of their garments—doing so would compromise their minimalist aesthetic. Some other high-end outerwear companies also seem to be moving in a less flashy direction, as concern grows for creating fashionable products suitable for urban wear.

Yesterday I saw a middle-aged man riding an old bicycle along the edge of a  snow-plowed road. The sun was setting, and the temperature was 7 degrees Fahrenheit. He was riding into the wind, so the  windchill was subzero. He was dressed warmly in inexpensive clothing, and was likely riding a bicycle out of necessity. He was on a bus route, but perhaps he couldn’t afford a bus ticket.

I suspect that he represented the ultimate in low-impact commuting, given that his bicycle and clothing were all old and well-used, and perhaps even purchased second-hand. Seeing him reminded me that high-end outerwear is a luxury that most people cannot afford. A single jacket from a top manufacturer could easily cost more than his bicycle, plus everything that he was wearing.

If we can afford them, the high-tech materials in the latest activewear can allow us to be relatively comfortable in extreme conditions of cold, heat, moisture, and wind with less weight and more freedom of movement than was possible with some older materials. On the other hand, for urban wear it is still possible to stay luxuriously warm with fur coats made from the hides and pelts of buffalo, coyotes, beavers, foxes, rabbits, minks, and other animals. The fur option reminds us that there is an environmental cost to the creation of any kind of clothing. Wool can be removed without sacrificing the animal, but raising sheep has an environmental impact, as does raising cotton or manufacturing synthetic fibers.

I visited the websites of a several high-end outerwear companies (companies whose products I wear). As I expected, most of them had pages devoted to topics such as eco-consciousness, social responsibility, sustainability, recycling, and ethics. Such awareness is laudable, and perhaps necessary in an industry in which many of the customers are environmentally concerned. And it is no easy task to convince us that wearing a waterproof, breathable membrane like expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (Gore-tex) is ecologically sound. This web page at Gore-tex uses of a series of images that imply that Gore-tex gives us some of the protective qualities of animal fur without needing to sacrifice the animals.

Thinking about nau’s use of recycled materials, it is a sign of our times that many consumers consider a garment of recycled plastic to be more chic than a fur coat. Yet given that some animals like rabbits, cattle, and bison are being raised for pelts, hides, and meat, I’m not qualified to say whether one of my leather jackets or one of my synthetic-fiber jackets has had a higher environmental cost (setting aside the contentious issue of killing animals). It is difficult to even imagine all the steps involved in creating such jackets (whether starting from raising animals or pumping oil), and finally shipping them to a retail store.

Being eco-conscious leads to complex questions without easy answers. Hopefully caring is at least better than not caring, and awareness allows us to at least question whether the companies we do business with seem to care about such things as sustainability. Of course, in our current cultural climate, companies are likely to say that they do, whether it’s true or not.

Carrie Underwood Knows The Secret To Great Christmas Variety Shows

Back in the olden days, before cable gave us entire networks for children's shows, we kiddos were pretty darn bored during primetime TV. Except, of course, during those extra special Christmas programming hours.

Mandrell_sisters_21There were the sparkly Mandrell Sisters, a sparkly A Very Dolly Christmas (see also: A Smoky Mountain Christmas), the sparkly boys of N'Sync Christmas special. And, of course, the annual Bob Hope Christmas Special. (Yes, another Dolly clip. What can I say? I love her. So much.) 

Now, I know what you're thinking: “But Paige! The Mandrell Sisters wasn't a show on just during the holidays, it actually had a two-year run!  And Paige, besides the Mandrell sisters, IMDB says that the stars were also Truck Shackley & the Texas Critters, a group of Krofft puppets that included five musicians and a dog!” Yes, yes, sure. OK, but for some reason all I can remember are the holiday specials. The hair, the costumes, the terrible skits with long pauses in between canned laughter. *Sigh.* Those were the days. (BTW, apparently Louise Mandrell is playing the Gaylord Opryland with her "Joy to the World: Christmas Dinner & Show" through Dec. 25) 

And then, after years without this country truly embracing a blonde country singer with mediocre comic timing and a penchant for sparkly gowns, what do my wondering eyes see?

Underwood-parton_320 Carrie Underwood and her very own Christmas Special right there on Fox TV!  Carrie tells E! Online: “This was kinda my first real experience with acting at all and I honestly don't think I'm very good, but I think it totally works for what we're doing because, I don't know, it's probably more funny if you're not the best actor in the world.”

YES, CARRIE! She nailed it! THAT IS WHAT MAKES CHRISTMAS VARIETY SHOWS GREAT! TERRIBLE ACTING! BAD SKITS! DULCET SONGS! SEQUINS!

And, of course, Dolly Parton.

Merry Christmas, ya'll.

Glamour Showdown: New York Vs. LA

Nyc skyline  At the end of every DG Q&A, we ask the interviewee a set of "either/or" questions - as in, "Which one is more glamorous: champagne or single malt Scotch?" One of those comparisons is New York vs. Los Angeles. And a lopsided question it is.

Of the twenty people who have answered that question, only one - ONE! - chose LA. That was film critic Karina Longworth, who explained, "I'm an LA native and I miss it terribly." Which isn't exactly the same thing as choosing LA over NYC. Besides Karina, two people chose neither city, three worked out a way to choose both, and 14 picked New York.

Why is this? Why does New York get Jay-Z and Frank Sinatra, while LA gets Randy Newman?

Is it because New York seems somehow more serious Los angelesand grownup than LA? Recently on Slate, Troy Patterson agreed with a reader's assessment that MTV's show The Hills is a "horrendous attack on humanity," but gave its East Coast spinoff, The City, a pass, even suggesting its "heroine," Whitney Port, is a modern day Mary Tyler Moore. Yes, The City has a legitimate fashion industry focus (and no Speidi) but in its early days, The Hills was supposed to be about fashion, too, but that never quite panned out.

Or is it the weather? Jackie Danicki, another of our interviewees, might have summed it up best when she chose New York as more glamorous, "if only because all that sunshine doesn't allow the dark side you need for proper glamour."

Possibly it's just a matter for the brand consultants. When people answer this question, they're probably thinking of Manhattan, a tiny island. The borough's geographic boundaries are a blessing, branding-wise. When we talk about West Coast glamour, it's often about Old Hollywood, or about the dreamy image of California. That's not the same as talking about LA, with its freeways and sprawl and smog. Los Angeles, with all its space, doesn't stand a chance against petit Manhattan.

Or maybe its just personal preference. If I had to pick, I'd choose New York every time, too, but that's because I am from the East Coast, feel comfortable with the pace and grit of Manhattan, and something about LA (all that blonde hair) makes me nervous because its unfamiliar.

Would the rest of the DG team (especially the ones who live in LA) agree? I doubt it.

[Photo of New York skyline by Flickr user ajagendorf25. Photo of Los Angeles skyline by Flickr user Kevitivity. Both used under the Creative Commons license.]

The Value Of Dissatisfaction

Dietrich-chanel Chanel demonstrated that same sense of style and practicality in creating pant suits, and suits with skirts. Marlene Dietrich is shown at left wearing a Chanel pants suit designed in 1933. You can find Bill Eppridge’s well-known 1966 photo of some famous women wearing Chanel suits here.

As I read about Chanel I realized that a lot of creative work happens in a variety of fields because someone says to themselves, “I could do better than that.” “Better” might mean anything from better suited to your personal taste (such as improving on a recipe) to more satisfying intellectually (perhaps creating a new scientific theory that better matches recently discovered information).

The people who become best known in particular fields tend to have been trying to do better work in those fields for quite a long time. Chanel started as a hat maker and gradually expanded into other areas, including clothing, costume jewelry, and perfume. It often takes a while to master the basic knowledge of a given field needed to execute that “better” idea.

But to get you going, some personal and particular dissatisfaction with the status quo can be a valuable thing. It can motivate you, and help you focus your thoughts and possibly imagine a different approach. In doing this, it helps if you are comfortable imaging that your ideas might in some way contribute to the future being different from the present, even if you’re not sure exactly how (as Virginia argues eloquently in The Future and Its Enemies). It is easy, for example, to underestimate the difference that Chanel’s new clothing options made. But just consider how much easier it became for women to fit our image of people who can successfully hold management positions once they had their own versions of business suits. To see how much difference clothing imagery can make, compare your impression of the shown image of Dietrich in her 1933 Chanel pants suits with this 1935 feminine-goddess image of Dietrich or this portrait of the Wyndham sisters in their Belle Époque dresses. Playing a variety of roles in life is far easier when you have clothing options that help you to look the part for each one.

[The 1906 dress design was found at Wikipedia Commons.]