Monday, November 30, 2009

Fashion and Feminism: A Style Interview with Jessica Valenti

Jessica Valenti is the founder of the blog Feministing and the author of three books, including Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters (2007). Representing the fourth wave of feminists, Valenti speaks to young women through her blog, books, and college visits, in language that is both accessible and hip, as she demonstrates that feminism should not be relegated to the days of yore (um, the 1950s through the 1970s).

We bonded over that common cause, decent Italian food, and heels (the kind that you wear). I’m delighted that Jessica was willing to have a chat about the intersection of fashion and feminism, which are, to some minds, antithetical, but equally threatening F words.

Miss Cavendish: How is fashion a feminist issue?

Jessica Valenti: Well if the personal is political, then I certainly think the very personal expression of fashion certainly has to do with feminism! Not only is fashion a feminist issue because of the often-disappointing sexism of the fashion industry—but also because the way that women express themselves through fashion can be used almost as a cultural marker. (I'm thinking the 80s women-get-to-work shoulder pads and the riot grrl stylings of the early 90s.)

MC: A familiar catch phrase used to be “I’m not a feminist, but . . . I want equal pay for equal work.” Now I hear this: “I’m a feminist, but . . . I like to wear high heels.” What do you think is the perceived inappropriateness about “I’m a feminist and I like to wear high heels”?

JV: I think the idea is that heels are an evil tool of the patriarchy or something. (Though, this morning as my feet are killing me, a night after wearing some serious heels to a book event for the Nation—I'm inclined to agree!)

It's unfortunate that we keep putting all of these caveats on feminism—like you can't be a feminist if you wear mascara or heels. Of course you can! What other social justice movement polices the fashion of its activists? I understand the criticism that certain fashion choices are tied to sexism—but so are the majority of the things we do in the world, sadly.

We all have to negotiate our way through a world that's not too fond of women and we all decide what's most important to us. And I say if big tall heels are your thing—so be it! I certainly couldn't do without them.

MC: When you and a number of other bloggers met President Bill Clinton and all posed for a photo with him, one online (female) commentator critiqued not only the clothes you were wearing but your posture as being overtly sexy. How was she attempting to “read” the photo and could you reflect on both her analysis of the photo as well as her desire to engage in such analysis in the first place?

JV: Ah yes, kind of unbelievable that three books and five years of blogging later one of the first things that comes up in a Google search of my name is 'jessica valenti breasts' because of this blogger's insistence that I was wearing a deliberately too-tight top. (Judge for yourself, I say it's pretty innocuous!

I believe this blogger didn't really think much of the photo—but was using the internet's love of anything having to do with women's breasts as a way to drive traffic and cause a controversy. I think the real issue was that we're not used to seeing young women, especially young women who look a certain way, in meetings with powerful people without assuming that something sexual is going on.

I thought of this whole faux-controversy as a reminder to all young women really, that we're there to be looked at and judged. And even if you're successful enough to be invited to a meeting with a former President, your real value is being fodder for tacky sex and intern jokes.

MC: In your recent book The Purity Myth (2009), you argue that girls are given conflicting messages about how to behave as sexual beings. How are those messages delivered via girls’ choice of clothing?

JV: Young women—even girls—are being taught that in order to be desirable they have to dress a certain way (generally pretty sexified). But if they do dress that way, then they're told that they're sluts or being too revealing. There really is no winning. I feel lucky that when I was growing up the trend was baggy pants and the like—I didn't have to deal with any of this nonsense!

MC: If you were designing the t-shirt that says “This is what a feminist looks like,” how would you style it?

JV: Wow, great question! I would take the postmodern route, have it say nothing, and let the awesome woman behind it embody the message herself. ;)

MC: And finally, what do you wear when you present in public? When you write at home?

JV: When I present in public, I generally wear a wrap dress (I have two faves, one from Theory and one from DVF) and heels.

At home, however, is another story. For a long time, I was a hot mess in sweatpants and dirty t-shirts—it's just so easy when you work from home! But I really do notice a difference when I actually dress like a normal human being in terms of how much better I do my work. So now I'm sporting lots of comfortable jeans and casual—but still fashionable enough to be seen out of the house in—shirts. And slippers. Sorry, that's one thing I can't give up!

MC: Jessica, thank you so much for this chat and for helping to demystify the relationship between fashion and feminism.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Queenie's Thanksgiving

Although I am fussy about wine—nothing sweet, please!—I do not do any research before choosing a bottle.

This Thanksgiving's visit to the wine shop was no exception. I knew that I wanted white wine and resorted to an age-old selection process: I chose the prettiest label.

Nothing with surfboards, dogs, or maisons (although I did have a fantastic surfboard wine in Canada this summer)—just flowers and pretty, elegant script.

And, happily, the wine was just what I had wanted.

As for Queenie, my 110-pound golden retriever, the après-meal turkey remnants, double-wrapped, secured within a third larger bag, (trustingly) positioned by the door until a break in the rain, were just what she had wanted too.

She’d been waiting five years for this opportunity, and made the most of it while her foolhardy humans settled in for a post-pumpkin pie chat.

I think I’d better pour another glass of wine.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Cookbook Chic

It’s rare these days that a book cover fills me with delight, but whenever I saw this Rizzoli recipe book, La Cucina, I was smitten.

And as many of us (in the United States) are contemplating a day of cooking and baking, what better time to ponder a pretty book of recipes?

I’m looking forward to making a pumpkin pie tomorrow; my favorite recipe is from my ancient (1980s) but trusty Silver Palate cookbook. And I love Sheila Lukins' charming illustrations throughout as well . . .

Hope all gentle readers near and far are enjoying a week of culinary delights, whether you’re preparing for Thanksgiving, reaching into your own pantry, or ordering takeout!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Fingertip Length: The New Chic?

I’ve been on a bit of a J Crew kick for basics lately, which surprises noone more than me, because I’m usually highly suspicious of anything I buy from the Crew that doesn’t have the word “shorts” in its description.

And indeed, yesterday, as I was putting on my elaborately beaded t-shirt, I heard a tell-tale tinkle followed by a roll as one bead fell off the (annoyingly untied thread) and nestled under my bed. But no matter: I can easily sew it back on, and more securely too.

Today I had another adventure: I was looking forward to wearing a just-arrived navy-and white scoop-neck, long-sleeve, fitted tissue tee, but when I put it on, the sleeves reached my fingertips(!!!) and the bottom third of the tee had to be scrunchedscrunchedscrunched so that it did not reach my knees (I exaggerate only slightly). And who wants tiny rolls upon rolls of fabric at one’s midsection?

In this image, there is no fingertip-length sleeve. And neither is there any scrunching here, unless it is masterfully concealed by the model's hand. (Did I mention that you can see her hands?!)

Quality control aside though, what is up (or down) with fingertip length? I saw a chic young woman wearing this look only two days ago and, I must say, as someone who always pushes up her sleeves, I do not appreciate even more fabric to deal with.

Are extra-long sleeves the new fingertip-less gloves? Do any gentle readers sport this look?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Miss Cavendish in Selvedge Magazine

I'm delighted to share an early peek at my article in the November/December issue of Selvedge, the London-based textiles magazine.

I wrote an introductory piece to Selvedge's Handmade Holidays section and have posted images of the pages from my online subscribers' edition (I couldn't wait till mid-December for my bookstore to stock its shelves with the print version!).

My piece is a cultural exploration of the DIY movement, with, I hope, a dash of wit. The print below won't be legible, so do take a look for Selvedge on the style racks. It should be arriving in a couple of weeks!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Texture Conjecture

Texture of the moment: would you wear it? (I would, tout suite!)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Olympia Le-Tan's Book Bags

I don’t like to watch films or plays about English professors because it’s too much like going for a long walk on a mail carrier’s holiday. I also avoid professorial style cliches, like sensible shoes, and any other ones you can think of.

However, I’ve just learned of both a witty and beautiful way to integrate my career into my personal style.

Visiting Rollergirl yesterday, I was overcome by the “book bags” from Olympia Le-Tan, Parisian designer, that the always savvy Rollergirl photographed and posted on her site.

These clutches, which I like to call “pocketbooks” (always an editor) are embroidered representations of first-edition literature covers.

Here’s a selection: voici the Lolita bag next to the actual book.

Then there’s Moby Dick, if you like long novels . . .

And Arthur Miller’s The Misfits, if your style is, shall we say, edgy and experimental . . .

And Steinbeck’s The Pearl (and just look at the Liberty fabric inside!) for a classic individual.

My favorite is Carson McCullers’ pocketbook, far above. Rollergirl’s site better captures the really pretty green of the cover.

These pocketbooks (book bags!) will be available at Browns. I know I’ll be checking the online shopping site daily!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Dogs on a Chair (not coming to a theatre near you, but perhaps to a lucky garden . . .)

I'm thinking in saturated collar (oops--color) these days.

And my pulse, it is quickening.

LOVE these hand-painted chairs from Hoop Dog (scroll dowwwn the page after you click on).

Wouldn't they be perfect in a garden or back yard? And instead of setting out a cool bowl of water, one could pour a cool glass (or two) of wine.

Girlbrand Guitars

If I played the guitar, which I do not, I would like to play this one from Girlbrand.

These variations on the verdigris pigment are simply stunning (click to enlarge).

A-Gaga-Ghast over Fact-Checking Error; or, the Lost Entry in New York Magazine's Approval Matrix

Last week New York Magazine mistakenly identified its Look Book model, Frances Pierce, as Francine Prose (the novelist and professor).

I think that this error could have been nicely plotted on NYM’s approval matrix, at the intersection of “middlebrow” and “despicable” (NYM’s terminology).

The women *do* share initials, but I call this goof “despicable” because some simple attention to detail—like an individual’s proper name—would have been only professional.

I’m wondering whether a distracted-yet-starstruck English major intern is doing the fact-checking at NYM.

Maybe we’ll see Michael Bloomberg credited as Mel Brooks (this English major minors in theatre) in a future issue, or Derek Jeter as DJ Salinger, the writer/record spinner.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Simply Red

When I think of musical theatre, I see red.

No doubt this is because I was weaned on the Anne of Green Gables summer musical, which opened, I think, during my year of birth, and which I saw every year from age 3 onward, until I finally worked for the theatre and saw it every day during the summer, twice on Wednesday and Saturday, for three months. (Anne is, of course, known for her red hair, which gets her into many comic scrapes.)

One thrill back then was that the theatre produced a scholarship benefit at the end of each summer season and I was able to sing and dance with the professional actors. I remember that for one number I wore character shoes that had Lenore Zann’s name inked in them, which may only be meaningful for Canadian peeps, but was very exciting to my 17-year-old self.

But back to red.

I’ve been thinking of red again, in a musical theatre context, because I’ve been cast in a musical and must find a smart pair of red trousers to wear onstage.

(BTW, this musical is utterly consuming; singing and script-memorizing is invading my blogging time, so I expect to be quieter than usual for the next few weeks. Apologies in advance if I do not comment chez vous as frequently as I’d like to.)

Back again to red trousers.

Where on earth can a decent (read: remotely handsome) pair of red trousers be found? My saving grace is, I think, the upcoming Christmas season, though my usual suspect, J Crew, which typically sells trousers in rainbow hues, is not pushing red at this time. (Red hats, yes.)

But by some convergence of my desperate need and holiday marketing, I’ve found a pair at the Gap. They’re “boyfriend” in style (I like slim) and cropped (that I like) and they look (online) to be a festive red, which is fine for my character, but maybe not for post-theatre outings. To me, wearing red during the holiday season is like wearing a sweatshirt from the university where one takes classes or works: too matchy-matchy.

So during the next few weeks, I’ll be practicing belting my songs to the back of the house. And that reminds me: I probably need a belt too. Merde!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

S-s-s-spats All, Folks!

Have I ever told you that I wore spats every Saturday for three years?

Of course they were part of my full Highland Dress (yes, that again!) in boarding school, but I imagined that they were atop a sleek pair of elegantly heeled boots instead of the cadet-corps-issue boots that were impossible to shine.

But now, with these smart Prada simulated-spat boots, my dream has come true. Now if I could only find them in my size (8.5).

I don’t even think that these spats would need a spit-shine. Not that I ever did that with my cadet boots. Ick.

Face on a Bench

While paging through T, the fall 2009 travel magazine, I was struck by this image:

I initially thought that that great face was painted on the bench, and was plotting how to make it mine, but soon realized that it can be seen through the thin, industrial material of the bench's back.

No matter; I’ll admire it from here.

The face strikes a familiar mood—one that invokes the fab London shop Granny Takes a Trip:

The faces of Biba:

And the iconic Daisy Buchanan, portrayed here by Mia Farrow.

What is it about thin eyebrows, large eyes, short curled hair, and a sultry-yet-elfin attitude that’s so intoxicating? I’m already imagining a mural of these vamps on the side of my summer house (in the late nineteenth-century context, bien sur; I'm no Gatsby).

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Austen and Zombies and Handkerchiefs?

I do love the discrete charm of old-world accessories.

Handkerchiefs, to wit, remind me of a time less committed to disposable culture (though more committed to doing the laundry).

I’ve been reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies these past few days (as a bit of a chaser to Silas Lapham), and think that these smart modernized handkerchiefs from Tamielle would be perfect for wiping the brow of Lizzy Bennet after she disposes of Lady Catherine de Bourgh during their athletic encounter.

But she’ll have to wait in line, for the handkerchief in the photo above belongs to Mr. C, whose bottle-green racer will never need mechanical work.

Do any gentle readers carry a handkerchief?

On A Tear: From Silas Lapham to Rent the Runway

Am happily reading The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells, the center of which is a fancy dinner party to which the wealthy but socially ignorant Lapham and his family have been invited.

He does not know what to wear, having eschewed owning a dinner jacket “on a matter of principle” and fretting about whether or not he should buy a pair of gloves. (He does, and his hands look like “canvassed hams” when wearing them.)

His daughter and wife, however, can purchase an “imported” dress, which meant European, hence, “klassy,” without carrying the “third-world sweatshop” connotations that “imported” does today.

This novel started me thinking about clothing anxiety before a big event, and the NYT has reported on one possible solution: Rent the Runway, a company that rents designer dresses (not haute couture, as erroneously noted in the Times’ headline) for $50-200 per four days.

I’ve applied to become a member, to check out the actual dresses, because one can’t window shop, apparently.

But here’s a semantic question: What meaning would you prefer from this declaration:

I’ve rent my dress!

1. (I’ve ripped my dress!)

2. (I’ve paid money to borrow this dress, which I’ll return!)

In response to the first interpretation, with a needle and thread, one could have an—ahem—rent-stabilized dress.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Piece of Cake

Nov. 9, my two-year blogging anniversary, has arrived and caught me by surprise!

Gentle readers, please help yourselves to a piece of virtual cake (from my favorite joint for gaily decorated cakes, the Cupcake Café in NYC [I like the one on 9th Ave]).

And thank you for visiting and for visiting and commenting over these last two years. It’s been delightful to make your acquaintance, and to read a choice bon mot or two from you.

Indeed, without you, this address would be a cake sans frosting. And frosting is certainly my favorite part of any dessert.

Friday, November 6, 2009

J Crew Pays Homage to Alabama Chanin?

It’s taken the fashion world a while to follow suit, but the homespun styling of Natalie Chanin (designer of Project Alabama, then of Alabama Chanin; see right) seems to have firmly buried its knot in the oft-described-as-preppy fabrics of J Crew.

Appreciated for her reverse appliqué, her ragged hems, her reliance on the tradition needlework of local women, Natalie Chanin makes clothes that look both lovingly homemade and irresistibly chic. She’s up for one of Vogue magazine’s design awards; indeed, this is her second nomination.

So strong is her distinctive look that it has, I believe, infiltrated the twill, the repp stripes, the twin sets of J Crew. In fact, I, who rarely am tempted by anything beyond the basics (shorts, cardis, pencil skirts) chez J, have been happily ordering tiered tops (one tailored and silk, the other a raggedy-chic Alabama homage [see below]):

I wore this top yesterday (in blossom pink; see below) with a soft gray v-neck cardigan, held together by my grandmother’s large vintage cameo pin. I’d been wondering how to wear this pin, for I don’t like fussy or formal in my look (my personality, however, incorporates both).

Two other possible Alabama homages are this appliquéd t-shirt, which I do not own:

And this beaded t-shirt, which I have in blue:

They both combine sophisticated but primitive needlework with a keen eye and “eye” like what I see.

Maybe it’s time to change the company name—temporarily at least—from J Crew to J Craft?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Hair of (my) Season

This is my pick for the hair of the season, as worn by the lovely Karlie Kloss.

It has a shorter fringe than looks from earlier years, and terrific layering that begins just at the chin. I like how swingy this hair is, as well as how one can actually see from beneath the fringe (yes; I’ve had side-swept fringe and it drove me crazy).

I’m especially bemused that I’ve fallen for this look just two short months after I instructed my stylist to chop some six inches off my own locks. But that’s OK; it’s almost inevitable that one yearns for long when short, and vice versa.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Military Jacket

It must be all those Saturdays at boarding school spent in full Highland Dress, for I truly do fall for military-inspired jackets every time.

Take this one from Anthropologie: it’s probably a bulky mess, what with all that fluffy, thick velvet and lining, but I’d happily don it with jeans and boots for a stomp across the meadow a la Mr. Darcy. (And I don’t even wear jeans, I just remembered.)

Costume-y, perhaps. But I don’t mind a good dress-up stoked by my favorite A&E Austen interpretation.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Claus Porto: A Soap for All Seasons

Yes, gentle readers, there is a Claus for grown-ups.

While it’s far too early to be in the Christmas spirit, I can’t help but begin musing on my gift from last year—a luxurious box of six Claus Porto soaps—because the last lovely soap has just left its wrapper.

I’ve noticed that Garnet Hill is offering a very pretty assortment of Claus Porto soaps this year—in stunning paper wrappers that aren’t in my current collection.

Claus Porto is also unveiling a new soap—the Madrigal—whose wrappings are as sumptuous as the earlier ones.

If you haven’t tried one of these soaps, they’re a feast for the eye, the skin, and the nose (those fragrances!). I’m plotting a purchase as I write this!

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Sartorialist and "The Driver"

I'm annoyingly late to this discussion, so I won't add anything (in this venue, anyway) except to say that the Sartorialist has put one, if not two, of his shoes in his mouth.

For some smart commentary on the topic, please visit Threadbared, upon whose blog I would comment, were there only a comments section!