The armor of glamour

Manolo Blahnik shoe (31 W 54th St - New York)
Manolo Blahnik shoe (31 W 54th St – New York) I wore Manolos on my wedding day, slingbacks like this. Divine! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you have a chance to see the new film about legendary Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland, The Eye Has To Travel, go!

You don’t have to care deeply about fashion or beauty to enjoy it, although for those of us who do, it’s a visual feast. Some of the people interviewed for this documentary include photographers Richard Avedon and David Bailey, 60’s model Veruschka, and designers Manolo Blahnik and Carolina Hererra.

Perhaps most fascinating are the brief glimpses of Vreeland-as-wife or mother. One of her two sons says, to camera, he wished almost anyone else had been his mother. Vreeland’s own mother called her ugly, so so much for maternal warmth!

Vreeland was what the French call jolie-laide, with broad, flat cheekbones, a high forehead and a personal style she honed to a very sharp edge.

She was very much self-invented, and her boldness came from a sort of social confidence that comes, to many women, from being well-married and well-employed. One interviewee recalls her sending roses to Alaska for a shoot. What Diana wanted, Diana usually got.

I spent four hours the other day sitting at Saks, at the mother ship on Fifth Avenue, to sell copies of my book “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, which gave me a front-row seat to some of the nation’s wealthiest and best-dressed shoppers. It was interesting to watch how carefully some women put themselves together.

I grew up around two women who cared deeply about their appearance, their figures, their clothing and hair and jewelry. For my mother and stepmother, being beautiful, thin and well-dressed was terribly important, and they disdained women who didn’t share their values. My mother modeled for the Vancouver Sun as a newlywed in her early 20s and my step-mother had studied dance seriously.

Neither woman ever attended college, so their wit, smarts and style were essential to their success.

I still remember many of their clothes and jewelry, and very much wanted to have their female self-confidence. But I left my mother’s care at 14 and my stepmother was not someone eager to share her secrets. So I had to figure out this how-to-be-pretty thing on my own.

I was also bullied for two years in high school, called Doglin by a gang of boys, which severely dinged any desire to draw attention to my physical appearance. I was smart, verbally adept and confident, and that was what (and did) would carry me through the University of Toronto, filled with whip-smart men and women, in the late 1970s, a time when second-wave feminism was in full flush and women were a lot more concerned with being smart and listened to than decorative and appreciated for their physical beauty. Thank God!

But I’ve become much more interested in glamour as I age. After 40, it’s unwise to be quite so careless about your appearance — at least if you wish to be taken seriously by your professional peers, employers and competitors.

This is, clearly, influenced by region and industry. The sort of no-make-up asexual look favored in parts of New England, or the T-shirt and jeans schlubbiness of Silicon Valley, just looks weird and unsophisticated in places like Montreal and Paris, where defined personal style is (yay!) both expected and relished.  I lived in both cities in my 20s and 30s, which changed forever my sense of style — great accessories rule!

Details do matter — a high-cut armhole and a properly hemmed trouser, a silk pocket square, a highly polished boot, freshly-trimmed hair all send a powerful message. I thrive on visual beauty and, (beyond the hopelessly selfish and vain and the dreary label-whores), simply really enjoy a man or woman who has taken the time and thought to present an attractive appearance.

When I lived in rural New Hampshire, a man once chastised me (!) for my emerald green ankle high boots for mud season because…they were not black. I moved to New York within a few months after that dreadfully boring bit of bossiness.

I love glamour, and if I were rich, would stock up on clothes by Dries van Noten, The Row, Etro and Donna Karan, my favored mix of simple minimalism and lush bohemianism. Still mourning a pair of ruby red knee-high suede boots I tossed 20 years ago.

Ladies and gentlemen, do you arm yourself with elegance?

If not, why not?

17 thoughts on “The armor of glamour

  1. I love to have several nice pieces…however I rarely wear them because I’m always afraid I will ruin them! Between pets, food, work etc, I just don’t trust myself to pull out something expensive unless it’s a special occasion.
    Not to say I look like a slob the rest of the time of course! I just choose pieces that are a little more wash and wear, and things that won’t make me cry over them when I inevitably stain them 😛

      1. It’s no wonder housewives used to be pictured wearing aprons all the time…They had to have some sort of secret, I look like a disaster after cleaning the house!

  2. @sirenofbrixton

    The idea that your mother and step-mother actively used their appearance (and wit) to carve a niche in the world. I have an issue with the school of feminist thought that says concern about beauty and fashion makes you less of a feminist. I’m around your age and had a similar experience: I didn’t want to draw attention to my appearance when I was younger (I hid my big breasts under baggy clothes) and am grateful that in my time that was a positive choice. Now, in my 40s, dressing up is something I do for fun. I don’t use glamour as armour, per se, but I feel lucky to live in a place where I can try on different appearances whenever I feel like it. And I feel sad that I didn’t appreciate my youthful body more. I missed alot of sensuality in my 20s. But I making up for it now!

    1. This bizarre dichotomy between feminists and women who care about their looks is silly. I’m fully able to argue for my political and economic rights, and those of others, and still rock a frock.

      Dressing up is fun and I’m glad you’re now enjoying it. I am eager to shed another 15+ pounds so I can once more buy really pretty clothes.

  3. I also grew up the daughter of a very fashionable mother who was thin and beautiful with great skin. I was always slightly heavier than her, or rather normal-sized and it was tough to live in her shadow. I never felt I could reach my full potential because she would always look more beautiful. I couldn’t live by her fashion rules, the idea of never eating carbs and picking ‘extras’ out of my salads with dressing on the side. I grew up and now I realize that fashion, and my weight can be effortless if I only do it my way. I figured out a way to be healthy as opposed to thin and as a result lost the weight that had always held me back from being the me I saw inside. I also learned that just because clothing doesn’t look right on me, does not mean it’s because I’m ugly or because I’m fat, it could just be that the cut isn’t right. Not all clothes look good on all people and trends fade. I try to stick with effortless classic looks that highlight my best features. Now I have people telling me I look beautiful for the first time in my life. I wish young girls growing up could know that true beauty is doing beauty your way and not anyone else’s. Thanks for posting this. It really got me thinking. Sorry for the overly long comment. Great post as always.

    1. Thanks for such a great comment…

      I’ve only, in the past five years (!) finally gained a lot of self confidence about my looks — since the death of my stepmother five years ago this week. She had a ton of cash to drop on the most beautiful things. I’ve never earned that sort of income and was never, even in my 20s, as thin and petite, so I hear you on this one.

      I tend to buy pretty classic styles and amp them up with newer accessories…last night I wore a navy suede jacket I bought in the market in Tunis in 2003. And it can take a while, indeed, to find your own style and not feel dictated to by others. Thank heaven for a good tailor!

    1. That is indeed battle wear! I was at Lincoln Center last night and watched a woman in a stunning color-block sheath dress with those ropy arms and wondered if she worked in law, finance, publishing…It was a very powerful look.

  4. I really enjoy your posts Caitlin, today’s in particular. Love the detail of the high-cut armhole. I’d never noticed or thought about that as a mark of good tailoring, but the words put an instant picture in my head and now I’ll be staring at armpits wherever I go.

    I also had the great fortune to live in France for a year when I was 20 and ever since have appreciated the classic, understated style of French women. It was even evident way out in the country where I was living, near Arnay le Duc in Burgundy.

    I came home and gave away all the clothes I’d stored while I’d been abroad. Ever since I have maintained a strictly pared down closet of mainly classics.

    I confess I’m not inherently stylish. I lack the flair I so admire and as a work-from-home writer and mom, spend way too much time in yoga pants. A rare in-person client meeting dragged me out of the cave and left me scrambling to clean myself up! LOL.

    Had just over 24 hrs to cram in a hair cut, shopping for new makeup (mine was past its best before date), hair straightener and shoes, and OH NO! get a new passport. Stayed up late with 2 hr Crest white-strips for my coffee stained teeth.

    Was reasonably presentable. Am much happier today back in yoga pants.

    1. Thanks so much! Once you notice really good tailoring, it’s hard to go back…and most garments just don’t have it, which is why I evangelize for having and using a great tailor to alter clothing so it’s truly flattering. I’m often quite shocked at how many people simply don’t even notice that their sleeves or hems are way too long.

      I love the way French women dress, and shop. Fewer, better things very well-maintained and lovely grooming.

      I love your last-minute scramble…well-done! I think it’s really challenging when you work alone at home all day (or with kids) to remember that when we meet clients or would-be clients to be ON OUR GAME. So I now keep skedding in regular color appointments and manicures just in case so that when (as has been happening lately) I get a few last-minute invites to a super-professional event I feel totally confident. I shop much more frequently now (thereby snagging more sales!) so I have a few pairs of great dress shoes, several go-to dresses and a good handbag. I scored a fab pair of black snakeskin slingbacks at $50 from $200+ this summer…That and my Hermes scarves and I’m pretty much ready for anything. 🙂

  5. You had me at glamour, Caitlin! My mom used to joke that even when I was sick, I would drag myself to the shower and change into a prettier pair of pajamas. Now, when I spend a day working at home, I still put on jewelry and makeup. How I look affects the way I feel about myself–and not in an oh my god, where did that wrinkle come from? way. If I dress sloppily, I feel lethargic. If I’m well put together, I feel energized. Besides, you never know what a day will bring or who you’ll meet. And adding a bit of glamour is so simple: a little sparkle, a smudge of pink on the lips. I love the way you combined great imagery and autobiography in this post.

  6. Glad to hear from you…your blog photo is SO elegant! I agree that dressing up is very cheering. I try to make sure I sked at least 2 out-of-home meetings or meals a week, even just with friends to catch up face to face, and now dress up much more to do it.

    Thanks for the kind words…It’s a subject dear to my heart.

  7. Julia

    I always felt there was a difference between fashion and style. I am less interested in fashion though I always look at what’s new. I have so many pieces that I wear from my wardrobe of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and some from my mother from the 40s and 50s, and from my daughters from the 90s and the 00s. Good design, well made is timeless. I still wear a blue and white striped sailor shirt whenever possible, and so did Coco Chanel.

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