Saturday, December 30, 2006

Clothes on Film -- Pandora's Box

Oh, I love the history, art and style of the 1920s. That's the wonderful decade that gave us Fitzgerald and Hemingway in Paris (just typing those words makes me want to read "The Sun Also Rises" again), jazz, Art Deco, Cubism, the wits of the Algonquin Round Table, bootleggers, flappers, bobbed hair and fabulous, fabulous, fabulous clothes.

This week the Independent Film Channel (IFC) broadcast a beautifully restored version of "Pandora's Box," staring the ultimate flapper, Louise Brooks, as Lulu. Besides staring the divine Ms. Brooks, "Pandora's Box" is about as 20s as you can get: made in 1928, just months before the Great Depression and a few years before Germany put a 12-cylinder Mercedes engine in its handbasket and drove it straight to hell, it's a German Expressionist film set in Weimar Berlin about a beautiful but damned street girl who drives the Bürgers to hell through the sheer force of her sexuality. The film features an aged and decrepit sexual predator, a Lesbian countess, an obsessed father and a faithless son, high and low-class prostitution, adultery, blackmail, murder and the chicest wardrobe east of Paris, all those decadent things that make for bad society but great art. It's no surprise that it was banned in Germany from 1933-1945.

The restored film is so sharp that you can see the seams in the clothes and how the panels of the dresses were cut to fit the body. I was so busy staring at the well-dressed extras that I at times I lost track of the action. I think I'll invest in the Criterion DVD so that I can stop action and drool over the lamé cocoon coats and hankerchief-hemmed dresses at my leisure. In meantime I'll just have beautiful black and silver dreams of slender satin-clad girls dancing on the edge of the abyss.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Getting lost and letting go.

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while. I was called back to my hometown in Connecticut because my 89-year-old mother had been hospitalized. Not realizing how serious the situation was, I thought I could spend some of the time between visits to Mom sorting through all the clothes from highschool and college, many of which I had sew myself, stored in the basement of my parent’s home. My plan was to clean up a little corner of the family landfill, sort the things I wanted to save from the things I want to sell, and, in the process, collect months of material (in every sense) for this blog. I was particularly interested in retrieving the dress I had made in 1974 from the YSL pattern pictured in the corner. I made it in red fabric, as pictured, and even wore it with a headscarf and wedge shoes like the model. I thought I was the shit.

Now, the contents and condition of my parents’ home ranges from crazy to scary. They built the house in 1957, moved my two brothers, me, and the contents of our previous home into it, and in the next 49 years moved lots more stuff in, tossed very little out, and changed nothing. My father is the worse packrat among us. Among other things, he’s got a two-tier 20 foot workbench in the basement covered in tin cans containing assorted screws, nails, nuts, bolts that he's found and collected from the beginning of time along with tools and mystery parts for mystery machines. In the living room tucked between a love-seat and a bookcase that holds, among other things, a 1942 edition of the Good Housekeeping Cookbook, there’s Dad's favorite vacuum cleaner, a working 1940s art-deco style canister Electrolux. There are at least three other more recent model vacuum cleaners around the house, and probably one or two in the garage that I haven’t entered in about 20 years for fear of causing an avalanche of stuff.

Another section of the basement holds a 1958 vintage ping pong table the surface of which is covered with a pyramid of impedimenta, mostly engine parts (one of my brothers is a mechanic), topped off by a shocking pink wig box still containing, I believe, a shag wig I wore in 1972. (I was a great fan of Jane Fonda in “Klute” – now there’s a subject for a Clothes on Film post!) Next to the ping pong table there’s 40 years worth of televisions in several stacks. Upstairs, under the beds in my and my parents’ room, there are storage boxes containing 60 years worth of curtains and drapes. While looking through my mother’s dresser drawers for important papers I found my freshman high school report card (I got As or B+s in everything except gym and religion, foreshadowing my future as a couch-potato atheist), and all of the letters I wrote to her while I was in college.

What wasn’t there, anywhere in the house, were my old, now vintage and perhaps somewhat valuable, clothes, including my beloved red YSL. Most of my mother’s old clothes, including some nice dresses from the 1950s, were gone too. All these clothes had still been stored in garment bags in the basement during my last visit in October 2005.

I guess what happened was that my mother, sensing the end was near, decided that it was time to start cleaning up . . . something. Getting rid of my clothes and hers was obviously the path of least resistance, because my father is the type of guy who retrieves anything of his we attempt to discard from the trash. That old Electrolux will have to be ripped from his cold dead hands. I don’t know why Mom didn’t tell me she intended to dispose of all that clothing. Perhaps she made the decision to clean house after one of our more bitter battles and just didn’t get around to acting out her revenge until this year. Perhaps she thought I wasn’t being attentive enough, and this was her way of sending me a message: “out of sight, out of mind, out of the basement.”

Whatever. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, ask Mom what happened to the clothes. I arrived in Connecticut late on December 1, she was only lucid on the first day I visited her, she passed away early in the morning of December 9, 2006. In that context, and given that on the Absolute Disaster Scale (a car accident being 1 and the current Bush Administration being 100) the loss of my old clothes doesn’t even register, it wouldn't be worth discussing except that talking about clothes is what I do here. It’s just that disappearance of my now vintage and interesting dresses left me feeling very strange and foolish, if not rather stupid. How dare I assume that just because my old wardrobe hung in the basement for 35 years it would be there when I wanted it? And the vanishing of my clothes, a little loss on top of the big loss of my mother, had quite the last straw effect. I’m still rifling through the dictionary for a word that accurately describes the exact combination of “huh?” “whaaa?” and “oh shit!” I feel when I think about my stuff, out of all that other stuff, being gone.

I did, however, find a file cabinet full of vintage patterns. There must be at least 100, most of them mid-1960s and early 1970s variations on the A-line shift. (That simplicity pattern pictured at left is one). No wonder I still like that style; it must have been imprinted on me the way their human keepers are imprinted on baby geese. But here’s the thing: most of the patterns were used, but I couldn’t remember my mother or me sewing that much or having all those different dresses to wear. When I later unearthed some snapshots of my mother and I wearing our home-sewn dresses my first thought was “boy, did we have some bad taste in fabric.” We must have kept the manufacturers of polyester double-knit in business. So I left those snapshots home and won't be sharing any of those with you.

I did pack up the patterns, along with the only two articles of my home-sewn clothing I found, and ship them to this address. I did that about a week ago, and they haven’t arrived yet. If that box goes missing I’ll probably cry for days.