Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Hats for Thanksgiving

American Thanksgiving is a time for thanks and hats. Just go to your local elementary school this week and you’ll see children decked out in Pilgrim hats, playing with their fellow Indians in homemade headdresses. I’ve always been a hat girl, growing up on Prince Edward Island, Canada, where the ocean breeze kept a chill in the air. There, my Scottish grandmother would bundle me in coarse tam o’shanters, made from scratchy undyed wool. During my university years in bilingual Ottawa, I graduated to French berets, jet noir; loden festooned with a raccoon’s tail (what was I thinking?); creamy cupcake pink.

On bitter days, and there were many, I’d pull the beret over my brow, slap on a pair of ear muffs, and ice-skate down the Rideau Canal toward my campus. I’d share the ice with various Members of Parliament (Parliament Hill was just beyond the university), their long winterized trench coats ballooning around them, their briefcases somehow not throwing them off balance. During her lunch break one senior MP would don a racing suit and make slow, steady strokes up and down the canal, stopping later at the stands selling deep-fried beaver tails, a Canadian winter delicacy.

I wore berets throughout my undergraduate and graduate education, from Ottawa to Bloomington, Indiana. They were functional, fit my large-ish head, and, I liked to think, marked me as “other” in the United States: a beret was a subtle symbol of Canadian pride. But this steady relationship was rattled when I went to New York City to visit my husband’s family one Christmas. After visiting the requisite art galleries, I always ducked into my favorite store, Bergdorf Goodman, to check out some living art—the impeccably dressed patrons who glided through the corridors—and, of course, the fantastic displays of merchandise. Getting somewhat lost among the mirrored walls on the accessories level, I took a turn and found myself gazing at a hat: a Philip Treacy design. To be exact, an asymmetrical trilby, with navy cotton exterior, pewter satin lining, silver unicorn logo on the brand, provenance England. I was smitten.

For a Philip Treacy hat n’est pas un chapeau. Rather, it is an idea. Picture Treacy’s former muse Isabella Blow wearing a large orange acrylic disc that overwhelms her face, a slender wedge of pie extracted for her mouth and nose, or a model wearing a sculpture—a representation of a gently askew top hat spelling out h-a-t in lissome, sky-scraping letters. But this Irish-born, London-bred milliner known as the mad Hatter for his confections also makes wearable fantasies; hence the—no, my—assymetrical trilby.

Reader, I bought it. What else could I do? And I carried it down Fifth Avenue in its glistening silvery BG hatbox, feeling, perhaps for the first time, like a lady rather than the feminist scholar that I am. I, who critique Sister Carrie’s seduction by the snug little jackets in a Chicago department store, fell prey to the same siren song. And like Hortense, in another Dreiser novel, I wanted the hat so badly that my lack of cash didn’t stop me; whereas Hortense lures her boyfriend into purchasing her a coat with vague promises of affection, I used my BG charge card, with half-hearted assurances to myself that I’d pay if off in no time.

Geography, though, was the wild card I hadn’t counted on. Although my eccentric new navy asymmetrical trilby didn’t stand out on the fashionable streets of New York, it practically screamed “Outsider” when I returned to the Midwest farmland where I lived and taught college. In the Midwest, where people pride themselves on four-post homes, three square meals a day, and unwavering moral values, asymmetry isn’t exactly a virtue. Rather, it makes people suspicious of you.

Usually I tend to court my outside status. I quite like to be contrary, and have ever since I was a teenager, when, yearning for the black velvet pants and pastel pink satin blouse that all my friends had, my chic grandmother returned from Montreal with forest green velvet trousers and a burgundy satin shirt. I wasn’t immediately sure about this combination, but quickly saw how one could work within a fashion concept while executing your own take on it. Couldn’t my asymmetrical trilby coexist with the John Deere farming caps and the German Baptist bonnets? After all, I’d worn a beret for many a year and the Midwest wasn’t exactly a bastion of French style.

But whereas my beret was looked on with grudging acceptance, my trilby was more a source of humor. Noone actually said anything directly, but locals would talk to my hat instead of my face, colleagues would be overly smiley when I’d stalk around campus. I felt self-conscious and soon found myself wearing my trilby only at home, happy to catch surprise glimpses of my reflection in the windows as I’d go about my evening. And eventually I put it away, nestled inside its hatbox, sitting at the bottom of my armoire, as I gradually forgot about it.

Until, that is, last November, when, in a burst of enthusiasm for cleaning out my closets via eBay, I rediscovered the box and its contents. I listed the hat on eBay, enjoyed a mild bidding war, and prepared to ship the trilby and box to its new owner, known to me only by her excellent feedback rating. But when I received the eBay-generated message containing the winner’s email and home address, a different kind of feedback quickly flashed in my mind. For the new owner of my Philip Treacy trilby was a Famous New York Personality of TV and Movies, she of the high cheekbones, sassy persona, and megawatt smile.

A celebrity bought my London-via-Bergdorf’s hat. A beautiful, edgy New York celebrity. We must be soul sisters! We could bond over our love of Philip Treacy hats! She would totally “get” me; we could chat over email like fashion insiders; we could meet, even, when I returned to New York on my twice-yearly pilgrimages! We’d go hat shopping together and she could show me how she sports my—our—no, her hat in the city and makes it her own.

Or I could mail her the hat with a note saying that I hope she wears it in the best of health. Which I did.

Like Chaucer sending his “littel book” out into the world, I sent my hat back to New York, where it is meant to be, with its citified asymmetrical attitude. Perhaps it will go dancing, to a movie premiere, to a little bistro. Perhaps one night it will even get tipsy. And I am thankful that it is with its rightful owner, someone who can literally take the hat out of her closet, who can enjoy it out in public. And I can enjoy it too, from the distance of my imagination.

It’s not chilly enough here yet for my beret. But it will be soon.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Liberty Bunting

Some photos of Liberty bunting I completed today. The colors cheer me on this stark fall afternoon.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Dress for Success?

Yesterday I wore this dress to my American lit class. I accessorized with opaque tights and pointy tweed flats that had a chartreuse ribbon woven in. When I arrived to class, I took note of all the students who had arrived early, got out my books, and never took off my overcoat. I am the professor. I am 42 years old.

At home earlier that morning I felt as fresh and crisp as a fall day in Manhattan--on upper, upper Fifth Avenue, near the Met. I felt like Marisa Berenson, mod and spare. But as I looked at my students, all 20 years younger than me, I felt inappropriate, a classic case of mutton dressing as lamb.

I guess this is what's meant by a midlife crisis, though mine is solely sartorial: my clothing does not match my age or, I admit, my station. Surely professors have more leeway than other professionals; indeed, we're often stereotyped in books and films as being rumpled, patched, or (ugh) sensible. I am none of those things; I've always thrived on being a little askew, original, and daring. That doesn't mean plunging necklines and teetering heels, but it does mean mismatched prints and eccentric shoes by Chie Mihara (before Saks, courtesy of Tootsie Plohound). But in order to pull off daring, the clothes must have an underlying sense of propriety; just as years of musical scales precede the jazz artist's improv, proportion, fit, professionalism and, yes, age-appropriateness are the foundations of a true fashion original.
So, what to wear, or--not? Even Stacy London's been rocking these sheath dresses on TV, though I must admit that I've been growing concerned about the baby-doll-and-long-locks look that she's been sporting lately. When even the divine Ms. L could use a fashion intervention, should the rest of us give up? Or start watching Finola Hughes? (There's no way I'm taking fashion advice from a former soap opera queen. A queen's a different story, though. Love you, Clinton!)
I still really do like the line of the J Crew dress above. Christiane Celle makes a similar one in silk, and with a flat pair of gladiator sandals, one could be Jackie Bouvier in Capri. Perhaps the problem isn't the overall cut of the dress; it's the label. Although J Crew tosses a couple of 60-something models into their catalogues, their target audience is really the 17-26-year-old set. Perhaps I simply have to find similarly priced labels for--ahem--women. But that's the difficult part. And when you're surrounded by 20-somethings all day, you subconsciously begin to assimilate. Stay tuned for The Professor Wore a Hoodie.