Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Hat of One's Own

Valerie says:

Jean called me one Wednesday night early this year, adamant that I visit one of her favorite thrift shops. Knowing my love of felt, she wanted me to see a felt bag put out for sale with a marvelous “sea creature” on it. I was reluctant. Partly, I thought, what’s wonderful for one person is not always wonderful for another. What if I didn’t like it? I would have made a long trip for nothing, and I would have to sheepishly confess to my very dear friend that it didn’t catch my fancy as it had caught hers. Partly I thought that by the time I got there it would be gone. And finally I thought I didn’t want yet another bag. I must have a dozen lovely bags, most of which I have consigned to the closet. I live now with one of two bags, both black, lightweight, foldable, with a million useful pockets, and compatible with almost everything. Heaven for women who hate always forgetting something in “the other bag”.

She called me Thursday night. Had I seen it? No. She called me Friday night. Had I seen it? No. So, more guilt-ridden than enthusiastic, Saturday I went out to see it, thinking for sure that it would be gone. But how could I not follow my friend’s advice when she was so excited on my behalf?

It took me about 15 minutes to find the bag (although it was exactly where she said it would be). It was black felt, about one foot square, with a felt shoulder strap and a small tuft of deep blue Mongolian lamb's fur at each end of the strap. One side was decorated with the sea creature, which was sewn on with a few stitches. To some extent I was amazed that it was still there, because it truly was fabulous. But then again one could see how it didn’t fit into most consumer categories. It was not a Coach or a Judith Leiber, not Hermes or Chanel or the legendary Birkin bag. And the sea creature Jean referred to was an octopus, so faithfully rendered that although it didn’t have eyes or a beak (because the maker envisioned it from behind???), it did have a very realistic crease in its baggy round head. How many women compete to have an octopus bag? Knowing fully well that this one foot square thing with no pockets would never do as a bag, I nevertheless took it home, intent on doing something with the octopus.

On arriving home, I went through my collection of hats and found one that I had bought disassembled at the now defunct dollar flea market in Chelsea. It consisted of a black felt 1950s juliet cap, and black felt discs with pinked edges, about the size of silver dollars, strung on a long wire covered in the same black felt. I had never managed to put it back together in its original form, and it seemed destined never to be worn.

I got out my sewing box, and cut the octopus away from the bag. Then I put the juliet cap on my head, and juxtaposed the octopus against it this way and that to see whether the combination would work. In less than a minute I had it arranged so that the head looked like a brooch, and its tentacles looked like feathers springing from the brooch. I used a few needles to hold everything in place, took it off my head, and sewed the octopus to the cap with three or four basting stitches. In no more than five minutes the whole operation was complete.

The following day Jean and I had a date to see the Valentina exhibition at The Museum of the City of New York, and I wore the hat there (see the photo below), to show her the results of her sharp eye and astute advice.

A little research revealed that the felt octopus is a stunningly accurate rendition of the blue ringed octopus, a very small and highly venomous denizen of the Pacific Rim, lending new meaning to the expression “killer hat”.

In this photo, Valerie is wearing the octopus hat, multicolored and shibori'd Issey Miyake shirt and pants, spring green Uniqlo stockings cut and worn as sleeves, and apparently no shoes.

Jean is wearing a vintage grey felt "toy" hat from the 1940s, silver Donna Karan silk parachute pants, light grey modal DKNY top, black Calvin Klein T-shirt and "charm" necklace, and also appears to have neglected to wear shoes.

The fabulous photo of the real blue ringed octopus is from

The octopus hat later appeared in the New York Times Style section.

Do Try This at Home: Other Hat Projects

Because many people have an irrational fear of hats (also known by its improbable taxonomic name, cocklaphobia), we thought we'd show our readers several other hats we created out of this and that, and previous incarnations of other hats.

Here is a hat put together with a black fiber place mat (from gallery gen), a black grosgrain ribbon (from M&J Trimmings on Avenue of the Americas), and a vintage Bakelite or celluloid dog puzzle (from the new DUMBO flea market), seated on a small bit of oak tag for stability, and lashed to the hat in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the way Gulliver was lashed to the ground by the Lilliputians. It took probably 15 minutes to assemble, although it took two years for all the parts to come together.

Here is a detail of the hat showing the dog and the knotted ribbon.

Some might feel reluctant to use tchotchkes as decorations for hats, wanting something more upscale. This hat could just as easily have had real or fake pearls as its centerpiece, a piece of coral, a large vintage button, an upstanding tight spiral of the same grosgrain used for the neckband, or any number of other decorations.

But let's not be too quick to dismiss tchotchkes for hats. There is an old and revered tradition of just that. The milliner best known for the use of tchotchkes was Chicago’s Bes-Ben, during the heyday of hats. In fact, one of the most expensive hats ever sold at auction was a Bes-Ben creation. (See the link above for details.)

This is a vintage brown suede hat from the ‘40s that used to be decorated with a large fiber bird. When the poor bedraggled old bird went the way of all things, it was replaced with three African porcupine quills from the much-missed Craft Caravan, late of Greene Street in Soho. The very sharp points on the quills were easily rounded into submission with an emery board. Holes were punched in the quill tips with standard sewing needles, and the quills were then sewn to the hat.

This is Strawberry's version of the Afghan hat, a shapeless fulled wool tube, usually rolled at the end to form a brim, bringing the crown of the hat very close to the head. By folding the tube once, instead of rolling it, the hat becomes tall and slim instead of low and wide. Added to the hat is a brooch made of alternating black and gray felt squares, layered and cut in ever smaller sizes, to form a pyramid (made by Danielle Gori-Montanelli), adding a bit of flavor, fun and mystery to an otherwise very simple form.

Jean says:

For the Fifth Avenue Easter Parade last April, I improvised by embellishing a black nylon and elastane Titan athletic skull cap from Duane Reade (originally designed for football players to wear under their helmets). After reinforcing a 3" diameter circle with nail polish on the inside (to prevent runs) and allowing it to dry, I cut a hole and inserted a 7" tall metallic green paper vase through the hole, so that the vase would appear to protrude from the top of my skull. The vase's 3 1/2" diameter plastic base was secured in place by the stretchy fabric of the skull cap. From the vase sprouted a fountain of 8" strands of multi-colored colored mylar flowers topped by silver strips, lavender Easter eggs, and pink bunnies.

Paired with a Norma Kamali 80's leopard jacket, the hat beautifully survived numerous wind gusts and post-parade cocktails at the restaurant at MOMA. Total cost (excluding nail polish) was $9.00. Judge the results for yourself here. (Click on photos to enlarge.) For details on Easter outfits and hats worn by Shiho, Valerie and me, please see our blog entry entitled "Stalking the Wild Bill".

Speaking of hats, November 18th marks the St. Catherine's Day Fete of the Milliners Guild. St. Catherine is the patron saint of milliners, and the Milliners Guild will be sponsoring a hat walk which will depart from the Milliners District Synagogue. If you have an interest in hats, this is the ideal place for you to meet like-minded people and see some wonderful creations. For more information, click here.

If you get started now, you can have a hat of your own to wear to the festivities.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

'Tis the Season of the Bat

One of Jean's favorite times of the year is Halloween because skulls, black cats and bats are "a few of her favorite things". (Valerie shares an affinity for the latter two categories.) Before the retail and advertising industries inundate us all with cheesy images of witches, goblins, spiders, pumpkins, and skeletons (and, god forbid, Bernie Madoff masks), we wanted to share with you one of our exotic NYC expeditions that took place before we launched our blog: our Bat Walk in Central Park.On Friday, July 24, we took the Bat Walk with twenty-three other intrepid souls who, for a $25 donation, spent two magical hours in the heart of Central Park at night. Sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History, our tour was led by a scientist (a post-doctoral fellow named Chandra who wore a Batman t-shirt) and a self-confessed "bat geek" (a guy who wore a dinosaur-shaped head lamp on his baseball cap and who described with great delight how he and his wife trap and band bats in South America with a team of scientists). Both proved to possess a wealth of knowledge which they cheerfully shared with our group.

The tour started at 8:30pm on the steps of the museum, under the statue of Teddy Roosevelt. (As an added fashion and sports treat, since the museum was hosting the World Cup Soccer Gala that evening, we made friends with the paparazzi and critiqued the handsome players' outfits and their escorts' gowns. But we digress...)

We were first given an overview of the history and terrain of Central Park (a totally man-made park specifically designed by Frederick Law Olmstead to look "natural") and its flora and fauna. Originally, sheep (hence "Sheep Meadow") inhabited the park, but its current denizens include raccoons, opossums, squirrels, chipmunks, turtles, hawks, egrets, owls and occasional feral cats and insects (something like 20 species of butterflies and 100 species of moths, but don't quote us). There are three species of bats in Central Park: small brown bats, large brown bats and red bats. (Those are both formal names and descriptors.)

At about 8:50 PM, armed with our trusty flashlights and two of the museum's battery-operated bat sensors, our merry little band headed off into the park. Ages ranged from 5 to about 70. (And no, kiddies, we were NOT the oldest. No jokes about old bats out hunting for old bats - or for young bats!) We'd barely entered the park before encountering our first wild animal (hit with the glare of our flashlights at the first rustling): a large, lazy raccoon rummaging for a snack. As we had bigger fish to fry, we soon moved on. We sat on a rock at the edge of Central Park Lake for about 45 minutes and, in between a question and answer session, tried to listen to the bat sensors click in response to bats' ultra-high frequency calls. (Note to the file: Next time, dress more sensibly and bring something soft to sit on!)

The good news was that the evening was cool and not humid (optimum from the human comfort standpoint). The bad news was that bats greatly prefer hot, muggy, buggy nights (optimum conditions for bat sightings and hearings). None of us saw any bats silhouetted against the sky, despite our best efforts, although our host and hostess said faint clicks on the sensors indicated two or three fleeting bat cameo appearances. We were, however, treated to the dramatic arrival of a black-crowned night heron which swooped past us, barely clearing the surface of the lake. (Who knew such large birds were nocturnal?) With a 48" wing span, it was positively majestic. Since our Bat Walk turned out to be a Bat-less Walk, the great bird's arrival was the perfect ending to a wonderfully entertaining evening. Needless to say, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and were elated as we exited the park with our compatriots of the evening.

Valerie is wearing a cap of white perforated leather by Antoinette, gray nylon vest by Final Home, printed tee shirt by H&M, vintage Issey Miyake leather, metal and elastic belt, cotton and acrylic resin pants with drawstring knees by Oska, and her perennial favorite comfortable shoes - nubuck flats by Arche.

Jean is wearing a DKNY knit jacket, Calvin Klein t-shirt, Urban Outfitters harem pants, Titan nylon skull cap with Art Deco Bakelite domino pin, Ice Pirates watch, charm necklace (with idiosyncratic charms of her choice), white Bakelite chain necklace (from the Brooklyn Bridge flea market), Lounge Fly bag and Gucci glasses.

On a more serious note, our host and hostess suggested that one of the reasons they did not get the number of bat sightings they expected might have to do with white nose syndrome, a fungus which has wiped out whole colonies of northeast bat population who hibernate in caves. As bats play a major role in controlling insect populations, their loss is very threatening to the balance of nature. Scientists have not yet learned the source of white nose syndrome, or how to combat it. Anyone interested in finding out more, or making a donation, is encouraged to visit the Bat Conservation International website.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

In 2003, when Elizabeth Gibson unwittingly rescued Rufino Tamayo's Three People (Tres Personajes) at a curbside where it was waiting to be hauled away by the Sanitation Department, she gave new cachet to the pastime of dumpster diving. Almost two years ago, the Tamayo was auctioned at Sotheby's for just over $1 million, and Gibson received a nice finder's fee.

So on our way to The Japan Society for the opening of the Serizawa exhibition, we were not above stopping in front of an array of garbage probably 25 feet long to inspect a 34" x 50" framed cotton textile with psychedelic '70s characteristics carelessly placed on a discarded sofa that had clearly seen better days. Jean guessed, with admirable accuracy, that it was a Marimekko. Printing on the selvedge identified it as "Eve" by Katsuji Wakisaka, from 1972. In a moment, like car thieves, we were working - in all our finery - to strip the print from its frame so we could pocket it and get to the opening. But the framer had stapled the textile professionally, and as we had both neglected to bring our staple removers with us, we were forced to make a decision. We took the Marimekko home in its frame, making us late to the opening. (Well, what would YOU have done?!) While not exactly a million dollar lost Tamayo, it was nevertheless a small and enjoyable coup.

From the small Marimekko Outdoor Art Fair we proceeded to the rather more lavish show at The Japan Society. We went to the Serizawa exhibition primarily to have a look at his wonderfully idiosyncratic kimonos which, given their large size, allowed Serizawa to make some very bold and original statements. Keisuke Serizawa (1895 - 1984), designated a Living National Treasure by the Japanese government, was beloved in Japan for his lyrical color combinations and immediately identifiable woodcut-like designs. Check out the link above to see some of the wonderful pieces selected for the show. Here we are with Roxane Witke, a fellow admirer of all things Japanese.

Reluctantly, we rushed through the exhibition, because on this particular night we were faced with the singular pleasure and dilemma of two shows to see on the same night. (By a stroke of luck, we had separate benefactors who invited us to the same Whitney reception and guided tour.) So off we rushed to the Whitney for a small evening tour of the new "Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction" exhibition.

We flagged down a sweet young taxi driver who peppered us effusively with questions ("Where are you two going dressed like that?" "Do you always wear such hats?") and compliments ("You both look great"), leaving us in great spirits as we alighted, and ready for the next part of our adventure.

Our readers might remember that we were recently able to take photographs of ourselves inside the Guggenheim Museum. Having been raised in the '50s, when the zeitgeist turned away from the fast-talking women of the '30s and the capable, sacrificing women of the '40s, and morphed into the culture of that miserable Good Girl Who Values Her Reputation Above All Else, we are still trying to shake off the last vestiges of that deeply ingrained early training. Sometimes that means daring acts of slightly uncivil disobedience, like taking surreptitious photographs in museums. Our small group of about 15 people was followed everywhere by a guard (since the very informative and thoughtful tour was conducted after hours), so we took very few photographs. Just small gestures, really -- mostly to prove to ourselves that we are indeed Very Bad Girls. Below you can see Jean, apparently following the talk yet standing just slightly apart from the crowd, while Valerie, ostensibly resting her feet (why isn't there a bench in every room?), takes the forbidden picture.

We had more than enough time to see everything at the Whitney, and the paintings showed a side of O'Keeffe that is less known than -- but every bit as interesting as -- the O'Keeffe of gigantic sensuous flowers and stark bleached skulls. It didn't hurt to hear our guide tell a few Bad Girl tales about O'Keeffe, either.

After the tour, we looked for a small cafe in the neighborhood where we could have a wee post-lecture drinkie. At the first place we tried, which had two tiny tables free in its charming picture window, we were only invited to sit in what were clearly its "B List" seats. The waiter insisted that even after 9pm the petite tables at the window were reserved for patrons ordering dinners, not wee drinkies. This was puzzling because the tables were barely big enough to fit our elbows, much less dinner plates, but never mind. Off we went to the welcoming arms of Lumi's, just a few blocks south.

Lumi's is a cozy Italian bistro that one steps down into, giving a fresh perspective on passersby as one gazes out the windows, and the sprial staircase in the center of the front room also delights the eye. The staff invited us to sit wherever we liked, so we chose to sit in the back, warming ourselves after the chilly evening walk and the chillier reception at the previous restaurant (which we shall not name).

After ordering champagne cocktails, we realized that we were being photographed by a gentleman at the table next to us. He introduced himself as Fadil, and said he was a professional photographer. When he told us that he and the party at his table (including Lumi, the welcoming young owner, and Patrick, her gallant husband) had been talking about us and LOVED our style and our hats, we were hooked. (How easy it is to flatter us.) But when Fadil further stated that he was meeting the peerless Carmen dell'Orefice there for dinner, and that he would introduce us when she arrived, we were floored. Carmen is a role model for all women of a certain age, and all women who will one day become women of a certain age. She was the subject of Fadil's Rolex ad campaign geared to our demographic of choice.

Although mourning the loss of her dear friend Irving Penn (whose obituary was The New York Times' front page news that morning), Carmen arrived looking flawlessly beautiful, and Fadil, true to his word, kindly introduced us (and took the photo above). We mentioned having seen Carmen's '50s fashion shots at the International Center of Photography's "AVEDON FASHION" show (May-Sept 2009). Carmen was as warm and gracious as she was stunning. When we told her we'd admired her pictures at the Metropolitan's "Model as Muse" show in the Costume Institute, Carmen conspiratorially shared that she'd had to stand in heels for hours at the exhibit's opening night, striking a cord with us! To further underscore her point, she then drew one of her feet out from under the table to reveal that she was wearing flats. A fellow traveler on the flat road! By way of contrast, Lumi then showed off her black Alexander McQeeen studded stilettos to our oohs and aaahs. As their entrees arrived, we bid the merry quartet adieu and headed off into the night.

After that serendipitous encounter, our high spririts could not be daunted even by the vagaries of the New York City subway system. Despite the fact that the entire floor of our subway car was sticky with spilled Dunkin' Donuts flavored coffee, and the aroma of hazelnut wafted through the air, we were positively giddy as we reflected on the events of the evening. Our good humor and high style were memorialized by a fellow traveler in a photo finish.

Jean is wearing a black feathered '40s vintage hat (purchased at last spring's Metropolitan Pavilion Vintage Show), black Comme des Garcons wool jacket (with shoulders like a linebacker), black Michiko Koshino skirt, painted wood folk art rosary necklace from New Mexico, black Linda Leal long sleeve T-shirt, Dansko clogs, Gucci glasses and Lounge Fly bag.

Valerie wears a pink spiral velvet vintage Bonwit Teller hat, black silk Elizabeth Arden coat, black and gray shibori'd Gianni Versace jacket over a black Ivan Grundahl dress, James Minson glass necklace and black Aerosole flats.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Isabel Toledo

On 9/26, we ran to W. 27th Street & 7th Avenue to catch FIT's Isabel Toledo show ("Fashion from the Inside Out") around 4pm on its closing day (Procrastinating Fashionistas, anyone?). Better late than never, we quickly joined the crowds admiring her colorful geometric designs.

The show was masterfully curated by Dr. Valerie Steele, Director, and Patricia Mears, Deputy Director of the Museum at FIT. Our vintage hats off, ladies!

Isabel Toledo's mid-career retrospective was divided into themes based on categories of clothing construction (.e.g., Origami, Suspension, Liquid Architecture). The Cuban-born designer's dresses, jackets, skirts and tops were artfully displayed on playful faceless mannequins. Fabulous whimsical sketches by her husband, Ruben Toledo, appeared high atop the displays on a seemingly endless roll of white butcher paper. His illustrations encircled the entire main room, as if wrapping Isabel's show in a warm hug. We felt as if the show catalogued decades of their creative collaboration.

Isabel's Origami designs consist of geometric shapes folded into three dimensional sculptural garments. Jean's personal favorite was the black armadillo-sleeved shirtwaist dress from Fall/Winter 2008. (Sometimes when we go on these excursions we are allowed to pick one item for ourselves, always an interesting challenge, especially when we are faced with an embarrassement of riches.

Valerie wanted the red jacket with the tiny waist [the remembrance of things past] and overstuffed peplum [the disguise of things present].) Karlo got it "spot on" in his assessment of Isabel and Ruben Toledo as the "it" couple ("Talent, passion, style, vision, culture ... Woof.") in his COMA blog on Isabel at Barney's on Fashion's Night Out.

After exiting the Toledo show, we met Maureen, a wonderfully beautiful octogenarian, who chatted and posed for pictures with us in the lobby. Among other tidbits, she mentioned with great pride that both she and her parents had been born in the Village. She had a short shock of gorgeous stark white hair under that hat. Before bidding a fond farewell, she did invite us for "tea ... or cocktails." Smart cookie!

Jean is wearing a vintage hat (originally from The Blum Store in Philadelphia) atop an aubergine Emporio Armani peplum jacket, black Michiko Koshino skirt, Comme des Garcons T-shirt, Dansko clogs and Lounge Fly bag.

Valerie is wearing an asymmetrical vintage black curly lamb and purple velvet military cap from Bonwit Teller (like Jean's hat, also from the city that brought us both Grace Kelly and the highly idiosyncratic Dr. Barnes of the eponymous Collection), a black and purple cotton and rayon polka dot jacket by Perry Ellis, a creature brooch in beads and layered yellow and purple felt by Lynn McClain, purple cotton camisole by H&M, purple cotton and polyester harem pants by Issey Miyake and cornflower Mary Jane shoes by Land's End.
We were ever so strictly forbidden to take pictures inside the exhibition, so we took pictures of ourselves instead!