19 January 2010

One Good Sweater

In the frigid northern Midwest, where the indoor climate is little better than the outdoor climate due to the economic times, you must have a good sweater. Maybe you don't like them. Maybe you think they're a little too nerdy, a little too "grandpa," but I encourage you to overcome these prejudices and allow a sweater into your life.

I fell in love with mine as a rather abstract concept before we ever met. It was the cardigan at left, worn by Megan Follows as Anne Shirley (Anne of Avonlea), which awoke my sweater-longing. For years I searched, often coming close, but never quite finding The One. Finally, in my favorite local boutique, I found it: hip-length, mottled black and white, with a black band around the chest, long, bell sleeves, an A-line shape, and a luxurious shawl collar. It's been magical ever since. Every day is so much cozier with my Anne of Green Gables cardigan. May you all find similar warmth and happiness in the embrace of one good sweater.

13 January 2010

My Super Secret Stir-Fry Recipe

After college, away from the dining commons, and with a little money to experiment, I perfected my stir-fry recipe. My central cooking principle has been to combine vegetables and oil in pursuit of flavor, always accompanied by cheese. One day, in my little apartment kitchen, I added lemon zest, which launched that tasting experience into an entirely different stratosphere. Here is the recipe:

In olive oil, sautee finely chopped onion until lightly browned. Add chopped tomatoes. Add two cloves of garlic, super-finely chopped. (Don't pre-chop the ingredients. If you chop and then add, in order, then the onions will brown just enough, the tomatoes won't get too limp, and the garlic won't burn.) Cut a lemon in half. Subdivide a half into eight slices. Squeeze the juice from at least one slice into the pan. Add freshly grated pepper. Finely grate lemon peel over the pan. (At least two tablespoons.) Grate on an aged cheddar (at least eight years old). Dash salt. Mix. Allow to sit in skillet, with the burner off, so that the mixture just browns. The color of the tomatoes may bleed into the cheese, but don't be bothered by that.

Serve with white rice. Serve with pinot griggio or some other very acidic white wine, as it will have fun with the sharp cheddar and lemon flavors.  Bon app├ętit!

Decorating Principles: Grouping

I've always liked the idea of gathering together and displaying a lot of something. In C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew, there is a place called The Wood Between the Worlds. I've always wanted to create the feeling of that place in a central hallway, by lining it with pictures of doorways--inviting, welcoming, light-spilling-out-of-them, hospitable doorways.

I went to a basement restaurant once, where the ceiling was covered in upside-down umbrellas, with light shining through them. I've always liked umbrellas as accessories. They're so protective and covering--like being under the wing of a protective mother bird--and something about their shape suggests that they are glad to do it.

Candles are lovely in large quantities because they begin to resemble stars or campfires, which is very welcoming and human. I still use white Christmas lights too. I think I was supposed to have given these up after college, but they are still lovely. They succeed in having lots of little points of warm light, like candles, but have the merit of doing so with less mess. They are also lovely strung around a porch at nighttime.

Having a lot of ceiling lanterns like this could make for an interesting hallway as well.

The "Messy" Aesthetic

It is often looked down upon, especially in this country, but I find the messy aesthetic romantic: books in stacks--all of their colors jumbled together, walking through a swishy layer of papers on the floor, staplers at ease or perhaps hiding. In this chaotic little universe, I am a god. It awaits me to impose order and to engage it in some creative purpose.

The mismatched outfit is in style--a look which could only have been born in academia, where the possibilities of sweater-and-sock combination are endless. I think it was Einstein who mostly gave up wearing socks, a look which I saw expertly modeled by an undergraduate yesterday, and in the snow no less! Looks like this, which may be born in apathy or originality, are taken up by mass-produced "fashion." Suddenly jeans come pre-torn. And principles on how to achieve an eclectic look are given. Sadly, the organic process of wearing holes into your jeans is cut out. Free People advertises ways in which their products can be incorporated into an eclectic look.

The mismatching of place settings is in vogue as well--using several patterns of glasses, dishes, and silverware on the same table. (For sixty dollars you can buy the This & That Handblown Glasses set--a set of six artfully mismatched handblown glasses from Napa Style.) If you want to mismatch, I say go to the thrift store, go to the flea market, or better yet, use pieces with which you already have a history--pieces from a family member, pieces you grew up with. The key to "eclecticism" is not seeking out some sort of mismatched harmony, or looking for the greatest possible disparity between pieces, it's in only collecting pieces that you really, really like individually, and then in putting them together. Somehow, harmony will emerge. That harmony is very you-centric, as it should be. It is, after all, your table.

I grew up in a house where everything matched, and so I always found it fun to visit messier houses--where the plates didn't match, where they were definitely not winning the battle against clutter, and where, most importantly, they didn't seem to mind. And I found that the people with the mismatched plates always seemed to have the best conversation.

I find the "haphazard" distribution of candles and flowers romantic as well. Tea lights are inexpensive--at most five dollars for a hundred candles. You will want to distribute them, like stars, around the room. And you must light them all at once. I've never had a sufficient quantity of flowers to do a great deal of sub-dividing, but I suggest distributing them around the house... casually, sneakily. Your guest should always feel like a daffodil is looking over her/his shoulder and a peony, performing on the coffee table. It is exciting to share your home with flowers.

I wonder if perhaps I am trying to somehow re-create the irregularity of the forest and field--the wild and the unkempt. I do find the subtle chaos somehow comforting, perhaps because when the books and the plates and the flowers relax, I can relax too.

The Thong of Power

When it comes to lingerie, a common misconception is that it is all about the audience. It is not. It is about you. It is about you liking the way you look, and more importantly, it is about you liking the way you feel. I realized this several years ago when working in a medical practice, wearing scrubs--not the most attractive of work uniforms, and dealing with grouchy patients. I found that my confidence would get a huge boost if, concealed under my bright orange or pink scrub bottoms, I wore a thong. I felt sexy. I felt powerful. I felt confident. When faced with an unending line of grumpy faces, nothing saves the day like black and lacy! Most importantly, I felt that the scrubs, and the role I filled in my scrubs, did not define me. I still had control over the under layer. This is not meant to reduce our potential for self-direction to underwear-direction, but rather to say that in your life, broadly speaking, there are still things over which you have control. This is just one translation of this idea into fashion. Lingerie is especially appropriate because it is concealed, and therein lies the power.

Although this isn't just about moments of conflict, I've found that vacuuming and doing the dishes in heels can buoy my spirits.   And trading in my sweats for an elegant little nightgown can be a confidence-booster as well. I suppose if you go to sleep dressed like a princess, you'll wake up feeling like one too!

12 January 2010

Women, Power, and Award-Winning Costumes

(This post contains spoilers.) I enjoy reading the biographies of historical women. I romanticize the times in which they lived--the clothes, the architecture. Their times seem less complicated; their roles more carefully scripted. It's interesting to see what they did with that little bit of freedom. Queen Elizabeth I said she would have no husband, but instead called the kingdom of England her husband. The Virgin Queen often wore simple colors, such as white, to symbolize her purity.  I have always admired her independence, and I've always liked the idea of a woman in armor. Though not expected to take part in the fighting, she donned it when Spanish invasion was immanent, in order to speak to her troops at the field of battle as their "prince," to encourage them to the defense of their shores, as any true prince does, alongside them.  Debates about the roll of women in the military continue today.  I can't help wondering if Elizabeth I wouldn't have made an excellent military leader as well.  In that very speech to her troops she said "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too."  I am interested in the relationship between sex and power and between gender and power.  These issues are addressed well in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design for 2008.

Sofia Coppola's film, Marie Antoinette, winner for 2007, does an excellent job of portraying the historical royal marriage as, first and foremost, a career. Marie Antoine left her home, her customs, and her language to move to a foreign court, to marry a man she didn't know, who, as luck would have it, turned out to be practically asexual, which, as her chief duty as the queen of France was to produce heirs, proved problematic. Coppola's resolution of that plot point is amusing, and I'll leave you to discover it for yourself. She found solace, as many have before and since, in fashion. When she had little control over her personal life, she at least had control over her wardrobe. (This is something I would like to get into at some point--the way in which women's ingenuity was necessarily channeled into the domestic arts. Someone who might today be a surgeon, for example, might then have produced exquisite embroidery. This isn't only about women, though. Today, someone who isn't born into an upper socio-economic class in a "developed" nation, does not have easy access to the education by which their natural abilities might otherwise equip them to succeed, had they the opportunity, let alone the gifted who are scattered over "undeveloped" soil.  What curers-of-disease, solvers-of-energy-crises, and leaders-in-peace do we lose in failing to invest in our fellow human beings, in all of our fellow human beings?)

Lately, I've also become interested in women historically who were not born into, or did not marry into, the best of circumstances, but still managed to rise due to their relationships with those in power. For women, this relationship was most often defined by sex. I've been reading Eleanor Herman's Sex With Kings, which chronicles the lives of royal mistresses in European history. In addition to anecdotes, she discovers the traits of the successful mistress generally. The most successful guided their actions entirely by the desires of the king--anticipating his needs and meeting them with alacrity. Madame du Barry, the mistress of Marie Antoinette's father-in-law, Louis XV, is portrayed in the film and is also mentioned in Herman's book.  This movie is costuming eye candy from start to finish. Every frame is a masterpiece of color and shape and texture.

Georgiana's family life was not so happy.  It was a professional marriage.  Her husband was not faithful, chiefly with one woman, who was her close friend.  One of  them once referred to the Duke as "our husband," which I find fascinating. Georgiana took a lover--Whig politician Charles Grey, yes the namesake of Earl Grey tea.  They had a daughter together, whom she was obliged to give up, for the most part.  When Grey expressed a wish to marry Georgiana, the Duke threatened that she would never see her other children again if she did marry Grey.  I find the mixture of happiness and sorrow in Georgiana's life, the mixture of control and powerlessness, and how she dealt with all of that, fascinating.  If I've sparked any interest in Georgiana, I highly recommend Amanda Foreman's Georgiana:  Duchess of Devonshire.[keira-knightly-duchess.jpg]
In 2009, the Academy Award for Best Costume Design went to The Duchess. I am in love with this character. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is another woman who sought solace and control through fashion. Leading, concurrent with Marie Antoinette, the development of women's fashion on the Continent in the latter 18th century, she was a fount of creativity--who wrote what I think are excellent letters. She wrote novels (supposed to be mediocre). She was much involved with the Whig Party, hosting social events, and championing their platform. She was a good friend of Whig Prime Minister Charles Fox. In the photo at right, Georgiana, portrayed by Keira Knightley, adorns her hat with foxtails in support of Prime Minister Fox.  (Poor foxes.)

Also, the film includes a couple scenes of marital rape, portrayed from the victim's point-of-view in one instance, and from the servant's over-hearing in a second, both sympathetic ways of looking at domestic abuse in partnerships which were not equal under the law.  When I talk about ways in which women have dealt with power and powerlessness throughout history, in addition to a lack of economic freedom, this lack of sexual autonomy is also part of it.  When I talk about home, it is about you defining the boundaries of your realm, and at the smallest definition of your realm, your realm is you, your keepiest of keeps.  And when say that none shall pass, none shall.  When you you say "Guards!  Remove this person!" There should be strong, benevolent persons to haul the harasser from your door!  But even if there are not, remember that, though you've been told you are a weak and feeble woman, you have the heart and stomach of a queen!

08 January 2010

Eyeglasses: Window-Frames to the Soul

My first glasses were heart-shaped sunglasses. They had little rainbows on the sides. I would love to find them again someday. - Glasses which say "cool" and "love" at the same time. There is nothing better.

My parents had glasses. My grandparents had glasses. So getting glasses just seemed like a milestone of growing up, a special fashion accessory for only the initiated. And my very bad prescription was just a badge of honor. I was initiated in the second grade. They were big. They were blue. They were plastic. New giant windows onto the the aquarium of life.

My friend Ed gave a great anthropological analysis of why we wear and like glasses in a response to "The History of Fashion and Ideas," so I thought I'd just pay a little homage here to the fashion accessory of the nerd: eyeglasses.

I've gone through several phases: wire frames, colors, neutrals, large, small. One of my favorites was the Dmitri Shostakovitch-T.S. Eliot eyeglass: dark, plastic and round. These glasses happened to be the fashion during my favorite era in classical music: early 20th-century Eastern European (Dmitri Shostakovitch, Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok) and one of my favorite periods in literature: the Between the Wars or Lost Generation period (T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway).

Jazz, the cocktail, t-straps, and the drop-waist were all becoming popular at this time. Women had the vote! And Robert H. Goddard launched the first ever liquid-fueled rocket.

I've decided after several years of trying both, that I prefer plastic to wire frames. I've been blessed with a sufficiently large nose that I can keep most any frame on my face. I also feel that the wire frame tries too much to be discreet, whereas the plastic frame says "glasses-face" proudly, enthusiastically.

My new favorite is the clear plastic frame, though, which manages to be visible without committing to a color, such that you could truly wear them with anything.

04 January 2010

The Thrill of Thrift

Many hear tales of great thrift store victories--designer pieces scooped up for mere dollars, but when faced with rack upon rack of poly-blend and elastic-waist jeans, they despair of success. Thrift shopping is more competitive than your standard department store experience. There's usually only one of something, which means you need and edge. The best hunter is the person who is at one with her environment, who can quickly detect the signs of quality prey. The thrift store can be a rather chaotic shopping environment. Understanding two key signifiers of quality will help you to quickly ferret out worthwhile pieces. Armed with these principles, you will rise above the chaos, extract the gems, and be on your way.

Fabric and Construction.

With fabric, you really only need to ask yourself one question: is it rough or soft? Answering this question should tell you if you're dealing with a blended fabric. (If rough, then "yes," if soft, then "no.") And it will, for instance, tell you if the fabric has a high thread count. (Higher = softer.)

With construction, if you're looking for suits, do not settle for anything that isn't lined. A good suit is like a suit-of-armor. The magic is in the drape, and the drape is due to the lining. Don't go into battle unprotected!

A few hints I picked up from Kathryn Finney's How to Be a Budget Fashionista, on seams: was the fabric dyed before or after the piece was assembled? A thorough tailor will respect the fabric and dye it before assembling the piece. A thriftier tailor will dye only the fabric that ends up on the piece. Hems and seams should always be sewn and not glued for durability.

Is the detailing consistent on front and back? If the embroidery doesn't continue to the back, don't buy it. You are a three-dimensional being!

That's really all there is. You need to practice recognizing these indicators of quality, until you briskly walk the aisles, not feeling, but seeing the softness. Happy hunting!

An Animal Too: On Eating and Wearing Animals

I am not a vegetarian. But I have been thinking about becoming a vegetarian. I understand my "natural" imperative to survive and my theoretical place in the food chain, although there are probably a lot of tigers who could take me. I feel something like what Scrubb and Puddleglum seemed to feel in C.S. Lewis' The Silver Chair when they found that they'd eaten a talking stag: "Puddleglum, who was Narnian born, was sick and faint, and felt as you would feel if you found you had eaten a baby."

I do not find guilt a satisfactory reason to hold a moral position, however. I need a an-overarching ethical plan, planted only in principles I can respect--something like actively loving, or at the very least, not causing pain.

There is something else, though--pleasure. I never feel as warm, as cozy, as safe, or as human as when I am wrapped up in some animal substance--under a pile of fleecy down, sheathed in leather, cozy in a yak-hair coat. And I've always been against fake--in idea and in substance: fake flowers, fake wood, and fake leather deaden my soul. There is something about being connected to the real and the animal that affirms that I am an animal. I feel wrapped in the embrace of the world, in the embrace of my planet. I remember the green things more when I eat leaves and berries. And I remember the mammals more when I wear their skins. I also remember the crucial role they played in the survival of my ancestors.

I cannot take a position because it is popular. And I cannot take a position because someone tells me it is "right." I have to feel the rightness inside of me. But these are things that I am thinking about. I have made a point of eating less meat because I little desire it, because I don't really need it, and because I might decide that it's wrong. And I haven't purchased any new leather products, because I don't need them, though I do desire them, and because I might decide it's wrong.

I am for pleasureful living, but not when my pleasure suspends that of another, or worse, harms another

(October 2014:  So in way of an update, I have had periods of complete vegetarianism and even complete veganism, or as my brother would accuse, complete flexitarianism, in the intervening years.  This may be one of the slowest transitions in the history of humanity, but you're welcome to join me.  I suppose I'm of the school that some change is better than no change.  I've pretty much given up eating mammals, unless my Grandmothers make it, and then I eat it because I won't always be able to eat food that my Grandmothers make, because this food connects me to the past, and because when my Grandmothers cook food made from animals they knew a different sort of farm.  I'm still debating internally the fish question.  I've eaten some poultry, more out of perceived need for protein.  I do not have at present much in the way of a grocery budget nor do I have my own kitchen.  My parental hosts have been very kind to purchase cage-free eggs and to accommodate my gluten free diet, and buy the occasional Boca burger.  I want to explore the dietary merits and demerits of veganism--chiefly my ability to obtain the nutritionally essential amino acids from non-animal sources, and will share my thoughts when I get around to doing that.  I have had some considerations on veganism and poverty.  For instance, there are parts of the world, even parts of the United States, where veganism seems a nutritionally dubious option.  I would like to explore this further.  Also, there are parts of the world, like the part where I live, where prolonged exposure to the cold can actually be dangerous.  It has been my experience that evolution has prepared animal materials well to handle climate conditions.  Persons without personal vehicles and the luxury of moving from heated garages to heated car seats, may be much benefited by having winter gear of these better materials.  Aside from the fact that moving away from factory farming is imperative for the health of the planet and thus all life, I am inclined to think that veganism is a luxury for those with nutritional options.  It is my perhaps naive belief that addressing human poverty is prior, and my hope, that when our species no longer suffers from regular food, housing, educational, and healthcare insecurity, we may do a better job of looking out for the suffering of others.  Look for the "all creatures" label for posts pertaining to animal ethics.) 

02 January 2010

The History of Fashion and Ideas

"Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street. Fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening." Coco Chanel

In the T-straps of Eleanor Roosevelt I believe that "the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams." In Edwardian ankle books I remember the fight for women's suffrage. In leather Oxfords I remember the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that civil rights are the birthright of every citizen of the United States.

I call them the human arts: fashion and domestic architecture. Fashion may be superfluous, but it does not follow that the fashionistas of the world are superfluous. There is a dialog between the ideas and the fashions of a time.

I once wrote a somewhat facetious paper on the parallel history of Renaissance soles and souls. As a student of history and of ideas, I see clothes as linked to the ideas of their wearers. Fashion has long been used to signify membership in a group, to separate tribe from tribe, to separate the patrician from the plebeian. Fabrics tell us about native crops and cloth production methods. They tell us the history of labor--homespun or factory produced. The proliferation of dyes tells the story of colonization. And tailoring choices tell us about a culture's sense of modesty.

Fashion is a language we use to dialog with ourselves, with those around us, and with the past.

"Window" Shopping

My virtual mall contains approximately 140 stores. It is essentially just a pull-down menu on the Bookmarks bar of my browser, whereby, with the click of my mouse I can be happily deposited at any of my favorite stores to buy, dream, or contemplate.

A few guidelines for online shopping. Always check the size charts. There are many different understandings of the size "8" or "large," so look at the measurements they're pairing with each size category. If you don't own a measuring tape, I recommend buying one from your local fabrics store. Once you know your measurements you can shop anywhere there's a size chart. (Know your size in centimeters as well. One inch (in) equals approximately 2.54 centimeters (cm), so just multiply your measurement in inches by 2.54 to get your measurement in centimeters.)

Most online stores have sales and clearance sections just like walk-in stores do, granted online clearance sections are more selective than your walk-in's sprawling forest of clearance wares. But when the online store says they have it and they have it in your size, they do. And they deliver right to your door.

Some might think that online shopping is more likely to enable over-spending. Many stores keep your credit card on file and offer one-click purchasing. I am aware of the risks and I am learning to deal with temptation. Online stores have wish lists, which allows me not only to list items of interest but to rank them in terms of priority. For me, online stores are primarily for window shopping. But when it comes time to buy something you need, nothing competes with being able to compare competitor prices cozy at your computer.

The Goodwill 50% Off-Day Workout

"...I think they should list shopping as a cardiovascular activity." Sophie Kinsella Confessions of a Shopaholic

A benefit of shopping which is too little extolled is that it is a workout. I find the monthly Goodwill 50% Off Day especially grueling. Thrift shopping is a more labor-intensive version of shopping anyway. It also draws crowds, which means competition. The workout is as follows:

1. Pull things off the racks until you can't possibly hold any more.
2. Try on said haul.
3. Discard what you don't want, retaining what you do want.
4. Refill to maximum capacity.
5. Repeat steps 4-3 until satisfied with haul or with level of exhaustion.

Health benefits:

1. The biceps remain flexed under enormous weight for enormous periods of time.
2. The cardiovascular benefit of having to move quickly around the store (to be faster than everyone else).

Don't forget to check in the books section too. I've found a thesaurus, classics and children's books there. And of course, books are heavy, and therefore fall within the scope of the workout plan. Flowers do not.

Night Baking

There were times, in college, late at night, when I was restless. When more than mental activity was called for. When chocolate was called for. And so, while all the lovely ladies of my dorm slumbered, I would take myself off to our little kitchen and bake... cookies, brownies, many and many. All the while, tasting the chocolate and dough and sorting through whatever happened to be on the mental docket that night. It was cathartic. And in the morning the girls woke to fresh-baked cookies.

It always made me feel like the Proverbs 31 wife, burning her lamps at night, working to provide for those around her. "She also rises while it is yet night, and provides food for her household...". If you're stressed and can't sleep, I recommend night baking.

A Dozen Roses

 I love to buy flowers. I love to put together a bouquet, selecting an ensemble of shapes, scents, and colors. It can be expensive, but I recommend it--especially for occasions with guests. There's nothing like sharing beauty.

Sometimes I just buy them for myself, and when I do that, I buy roses. To me, they are the paragon of flowers. They have a lovely, sweet, fulsome scent. They unfurl in the most exquisite crescendo--like a soprano opening her arms to her audience or a diver taking the form of a swan. The juxtaposition of the velvety softness of the petals and the rigidity of the thorns has always fascinated me as well.

I've started reading Foucault's trilogy. One of the things he points out about Victorian public society is the muting of the expression of desire in the public sphere. I find it interesting that the Victorians often expressed their feelings through muted media. Flowers had standardized meanings so that one could encode a message within a bouquet. (Kate Greenaway's The Language of Flowers is a popular reference for such meanings.)

The rose has long been associated with love--each color with a different aspect or species. White is for purity. Pink is for affection. Yellow is for friendship. And red is for romantic love. But my favorite is the rose whose petals are light at the base and
darken to the tips. The meaning of this rose is that of long-lasting love.

And so I advocate, now and then, spending a little money on roses, or the flower of your choice. Buy them for yourself. Send them to a friend. For life is too short not to company with and to share

All the Seasons of Shopping

There is "a time to gain, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew," a time to buy and a time to refrain from buying.  Ecclesiastes 3:6-7

"For years now I've kind of operated under an informal shopping cycle. A bit like a farmer's crop rotation system. Except, instead of wheat-maize-barley-fallow, mine pretty much goes clothes-makeup-shoes-clothing (I don't bother with fallow)." Sophie Kinsella, Confessions of a Shopaholic

After a long celibacy from clothes shopping--hunting them online--looking, but not touching, with desire so pent up, I touch a piece of fabric which thrills my body and brings tears to my eyes. There are indeed seasons to shopping. For Kinsella, it is clothes-makeup-shoes-clothes. For me it is books-clothes-books-clothes.

Shopping is a reincarnation of the ancient human practices of hunting and gathering. I stalk sweaters. I track sales.

Shopping is a sport. It is an art. I write for the practitioners of this most fun art; for those who live in hypothetical fashionista land, and dream of unending walk-in worlds with forests of dresses and oceans of shoes, I write for you.