A collection can be three (or more!) of pretty much anything. Group them together for impact
The large black horse, hand-carved folk art, was found in an antiques shop in Port Hope, Ontario and the little wooden one at auction there. The little metal guy? I can’t remember.
Three of these, the angular ones, we bought in Mexico City, pewter; one is silver plate and one…not sure!
Years of collecting have given me a decent collection of silver and silver-y objects
It’s always tempting to buy cheap stuff because…it’s cheap!
But waiting, saving up and paying a little more for better-quality fabrics, better furniture construction and classic design means you’ll be able to enjoy your things for years, maybe decades.
Classic doesn’t have to mean boring!
I still love the three antique painted rush-seat chairs I sent home from a country auction in Nova Scotia to my then home in Toronto — using them many years later.
Thrift and consignment shops, especially those located in upscale neighborhoods or towns (i.e. drive if necessary!) can be a treasure trove of amazing quality. Craigslist and Ebay, of course, also have a wide range of offerings.
If you know what you’re looking at — (is it a real antique or a reproduction? Oak or maple? Wood or laminate? sterling or silverplate? glass or crystal?) — tag and estate sales are another great source.
Invest in the best-quality framing you can
It forces you to be highly selective once you start using a frame shop, as even the smallest piece can cost $150 for a custom-cut frame.
It’s money well spent to preserve your favorite things, whether a letter from a grandparent or treasured photographic prints (make sure the mat is acid-free and the glass UV-resistant.)
I like the wooden frames from Pottery Barn (on sale!) and Anthropologie has some quirky and charming ones as well; Pier One can be a great source for more ethnic/rustic styles.
Study every room — what shapes are in it, and how does each piece relate to others?
Most furniture is inevitably square (tables, chairs) or rectangular (beds, chests, sofas.)
Before you know it, you’ve filled every room with big fat chunks of stuff, now looking crowded and tedious. Sigh!
Think about including a variety of shapes (ovals? circles?) and scale (large, small?)
Does each room also include a variety of height (chairs, chests, armoires, etc) so your eye moves around it easily?
Make sure you have at least 24 inches between every piece or you’ll always feel hemmed in and irritable as you keep bumping into things.
Our living room — which faces northwest and gets a lot of light — has two mirrors in it; our sitting room has one, and our bedroom has one as well, all decorative.
The mirror pictured above came out of one of my favorite antique shops, in the town of North Hatley, Quebec; it’s clearly Middle Eastern and was filthy…took an hour of Windex and Q-tips to get most of the dust out of all that fretwork! It cost about $225.
A pretty mirror fills a few functions nicely:
1) it fills up a dead wall; 2) it reflects light into and around the room; 3) a lovely frame can add color, interest and texture relating to the rest of the room; 4) you can see yourself!
Of the four mirrors we own, only one was bought new (from Anthropologie); this one. It’s very affordable — $128 — for a lovely and intricately hand-carved wooden frame that feels exotic and vaguely Indian or Celtic.
It now sits on an apple-green wall so there’s a nice contrast between the background and the wood.
The rest came from antique stores.
Several favorite sources for stylish new mirrors include the websites Horchow, Wisteria, and Ballard Designs.
Mirrors are also more versatile than highly-colored artworks, and can easily be moved from room to room as your tastes change.
I’m obsessed with style, the ability to make our home comfortable and memorable, usually on a budget.
Our home is full of books on design, art, art history — and stacks of interior design magazines. I also studied it in the 90s and now teach at my old school, The New York School of Interior Design in Manhattan.
I was lucky to grow up with parents whose visual sense, always, was strong, eclectic and interesting — from Eskimo sculpture to Japanese uki-o-ye prints to faded wool rugs from the Mideast. Mirrored pieces of bright cotton from India, woven shawls from Peru, early silver.
Having studied art and antiques has also helped me recognize good/old things cheaply and quickly when I find one — like the teapot from 1780 I found upstate for $3, (whose exact twin made the cover of House Beautiful.)
Then I married another highly visual man, a career photographer whose own home when we first met was filled with quirky details and strong colors.
Today, 16 years into our marriage, our apartment is a mix of objects old and new, photos and drawings and posters, things and images we’ve collected on our various travels and adventures, from Ontario to Paris to Mexico.
We even bought our hand-made hammered copper bathroom sink in a small town in Mexico — for $30; knowing the exact dimensions we needed allowed us to buy it with confidence, (and bring it home in our suitcase.)
Here are some images and some ideas…
Pick a few colors and start collecting textiles, art and objects that relate to one another
It might be bright yellow or hunter green or pale blue. Once you’ve chosen your palette, your eye will start to see it everywhere and you’ll know it will fit nicely with what you already own.
Breakfast on the balcony — everything in the photo acquired through a mix of retail stores on sale (pillow covers, blue bowls), auctions (vintage blue platter, creamer), antique stores (tablecloth), flea markets (coin silver spoons, blue transferware dish and silverplate cutlery) and on-line sites.
Our main living room colors are sage green, a Chinese red, black and cream, echoed across the sofa, rug, throw pillows, curtains; the bedroom a range of soft blues and greens. The living room and hallways are painted a soft yellow-green (Gervase yellow, Farrow & Ball) and the bedroom the crisp green of a Granny Smith apple.
We live on the top floor, staring at tree-tops — inspiration!
Mix old and new things
If you love clean, simple minimal design, mix in some older elements to soften the feeling of all that metal, plastic and glass.
You can often find gorgeous bits of silver, glass, crystal and porcelain at local thrift and consignment shops for very little money.
A mix of textures helps as well — linen, wool, velvet, cotton.
Brown furniture is currently deeply unfashionable — hence cheap — and often of terrific quality
Flea markets, auction houses, tag and estate sales and thrift and consignment shops are full of this stuff, often inherited.
One of my best finds, a reproduction Pembroke table, (a style with a drawer and two leaves), came out of a consignment shop in Greenwich, CT. It wasn’t super-cheap ($350) but in excellent condition and is light and versatile.
If you really hate a brown piece of furniture, but it’s well-priced and handsome, you can always paint it.
Keep your eyes peeled
You never know where you’ll find just what you’re looking for, and sometimes in the least likely spot.
We recently dropped into West Elm — a national retail brand known for modern pieces — and found, on sale, four metal brackets to hold wall-mounted plants for our balcony. We also scored three faux branches of mountain laurel, for the price of one week’s fresh flowers.
One day, out for lunch in small-town Ontario, we stopped in at antique shop across the road. Boom! The perfect small lamp we needed for a corner of the bedroom, an early ginger jar, in an unlikely shade of gray. (I had a new white linen shade made to fit.)
Five red goblets — $10 — at our local thrift shop. Score!
I found two large wooden storage boxes at a local plant nursery. I’m not sure what they were supposed to be used for, but I stacked them and made them into a side table. A former grain measure (I think!) now holds magazines.
When I needed a lot of fabric, cheaply, I found a couple of printed cotton shower curtains on sale and used them for curtains, a headboard cover and a table cover.
Keep a tape measure handy and use your camera phone
The only way to be sure that a piece of art of furniture is going to fit into your home, (and play nicely with your current belongings), is if you know exactly what dimensions you need.
If you see something you love in a store but aren’t sure, snap images of it from every angle and measure it carefully.
You can have things shipped
Two of my favorite pieces came from very far away — a great vintage Chinese chair I found in New Orleans and shipped home via UPS and a teal armoire (possibly 18th century) no one wanted (!) when I bid by phone on it through a regional auction house I used to visit when I lived in New Hampshire.
Even with the shipping charges, it cost less than a new piece on sale, made in China.
One of my favorite belongings is a photo I found in Sydney, Australia and sent home to wait for me.
Don’t forget the charm, color and texture of live flowers and plants
We keep fresh flowers and/or plants in every room year-round.
Invest in a few frogs (metal and glass holders for floral stems) and some blocks of Oasis (the green foam florists use to make arrangements), and you can use almost any container to make a pretty display.
Nothing is less expensive or as easy to change if you need a new look — and it can be a chair or stool or box, not an entire room.
If a wooden floor is hideous, paint it!
Don’t be terrified, as so many people are, of: 1) using color; 2) choosing the wrong one. There are tremendous design websites all over the internet to help; I like Apartment Therapy.
A few things to consider: 1) what direction does the room face? (north light is colder); 2) how do you want to feel in that room? Revved-up? Soothed? (choose accordingly); 3) remember that the floor and ceiling are also “colors” in themselves; 4) choose the right finish — glossy is a nice touch here and there, but matte finish usually looks more elegant.
Keep it clean and tidy
There’s no point creating a lovely home if it’s dirty, dusty and cluttered.
It’s easy to say…why bother? It’s a rental or a dorm room or I’m only here for a few years.
It’s your life! It’s your home, whether shared or solo.
Let its beauty nurture you, every single day.
There are people who couldn’t care less about how their home looks — but some of them are simply freaked out by the whole idea of decorating or home improvement: Where to start? What to choose? I’m broke, dammit!
Every image, every bit of light and shade I see, can inspire me visually. It might be the symmetry of an allee of trees or the curve of a Moorish arch. It might be the bubbled glass of a 17th century window.
Put down your phone/computer and really look, long and thoughtfully, at the world around you.
I’ve been following it for years, for which she’s won all sorts of awards. Fuss worked in Portland, Oregon for 14 years as a props stylist and lived like a nomad for a bit, (no husband or kids.) Now, at 37 — an age when some of us are deeply mired in conventional-if-bored-to-tears work and domesticity — is happily re-settled in, of all places, Lisbon.
I enjoy everything about her blog, and her spirit of adventure. She really has the perfect name for a woman who creates lovely images for a living!
I also share her values: a devotion to connection, to beauty, flowers, travel, quiet, making a pretty home, wherever you live, that welcomes you without spending a fortune.
When you spend your day driving around town in a cargo van buying $1000’s of dollars worth of props from Anthropologie and West Elm [NOTE: chic chain-store shops, for those who don’t know them] for photo shoots, those products start to mean very little. I am very detached (possibly to the extreme) from possessions! There are very few stores I walk into and find myself ooh-ing and aww-ing. As a prop stylist, after a while, you’ve seen it all. What’s really special are the one-off pieces, the heirlooms, the perfectly weathered linens, or the family postcard with old script that tells just the right story.
As I sort through my stuff, organizing/ditching/selling/donating/offering for consignment as much as I possibly can, it’s a powerful time to reflect on what we own, what we keep and why.
Even as I’m pitching, Jose and I are treating our home to a few nice new pieces: framing a lovely image by the talented pinhole photographer Michael Falco (a gift); a striking striped kilim we’re having shipped from Istanbul that I found online, rewiring and adding a fresh new white linen shade to an early pale grey ginger jar lamp we recently found in Ontario and a spectacular mirror, probably mid-Eastern in origin, I found dusty and grimy in an antique shop in North Hatley, Quebec.
So…how can I possibly advocate less stuff?
Because we live in a one-bedroom apartment, with very limited closet space. I’ve lived here for decades, and we both work at home now and don’t plan to move into a larger space any time soon, so a constant attention to add/pitch is crucial to our sanity and tidiness. (Yes, we do have a storage locker and keep some things in our garage as well: out of season clothing, luggage, ski equipment, etc.)
I grew up in homes where my parents’ primary interests were travel and owning fewer/better quality objects than piles ‘o stuff. My family home, and ours today, was filled with original art, (prints, paintings and photos, some of them made by us, Eskimo sculpture, a Japanese mask and scroll) and a few good antiques.
I’m typing this blog post atop a table my father gave us last year, which is 18th.century English oak.
It boggles my mind to enjoy and use every day in 2015 an object that’s given elegant service for multiple centuries. I prefer, for a variety of reasons, using older things (pre-1900, even 1800, when possible) to new/plastic/Formica/mass-produced.
Many people inherit things from their families and cherish them for their beauty and sentimental attachment. Not me.
I own nothing from either grandfather, and only a vintage watch and a few gifts from one grandmother — she was a terrible spendthrift who simply never bothered to pay three levels of tax on her inherited fortune. Her things were sold to pay debt; if I want to see a nice armoire she once owned, it’s now in a Toronto museum.
So…no big emotional draaaaaaama for me over stuff. I’ve bought 99% of what I own, as has my husband.
I’m also of an age now when too many of my friends, even some of them decades younger, face the exhausting, time-sucking, emotionally-draining task of emptying out a parent’s home and disposing of (keeping?) their possessions. One friend is even flying to various American cities from Canada to hand-deliver some willed pieces of jewelry, so complicated is it to ship them across the border.
When my mother had to enter a nursing home on barely a week’s notice four years ago, we had to clear out and dispose of a life’s acquisitions within a week or so. Most went to a local auction house.
It was sad, painful and highly instructive.
Today I’m lucky enough to enjoy a few of her things: a pretty wool rug by my bedside and several exquisite pieces of early/Indian textiles; she lived in a one-bedroom apartment so there wasn’t a lot to deal with.
But if we’re lucky enough to acquire some items we really enjoy, parting with them can feel difficult.
First admission — we brought with us an empty duffel bag to contain our purchases, which cost us an additional 70 euros overweight charges (about $85.)
But my suitcase came in five kilos below the weight limit on our way to Ireland for three weeks’ holiday while Jose’s came in .7 kilos over, thanks to a lot of heavy camera equipment. (He is a professional photographer, after all.)
When I travel, and knowing everyone has their own style, I prefer to dress well when in European cities, (and all cities, really.)
I hate “looking like a tourist” — I saw many women my age wearing T-shirts, thick-soled running shoes and hiking clothing in a stylish urban place. Because I work alone at home in sloppy casual clothing anyway, travel offers me a nice chance to dress up. So, when in town in Dublin, I wore skirts or dresses and flat shoes. I didn’t pack a rain jacket (I find them clammy) and knew I could buy one there if I needed it — we enjoyed the driest Dublin June in 40 years!
I also would come back to our hotel sweaty and tired after a day’s exploring, so always wanted to change into fresh, clean clothing for dinner.
Jose typically wore dress shirts and khakis or nice jeans, with a great pair of Vans denim sneakers or, in the country, hiking boots. He also brought a lightweight navy blue blazer for dinners out and brought two ties.
In the country, I wore yoga pants and long-sleeved T-shirts and sneakers.
Before we left, I scored some great clothing at the Canadian store Aritizia, whose clothes are affordable, stylish, simple, comfortable and washable, perfect for travel.
three dresses (here’s one of them, although mine is a deep burgundy, which I had shipped to NY from their Chicago store)
five cotton long-sleeved T-shirts (could have done with three)
a warm fleece (Patagonia)
one short-sleeved cotton T (for working out or hiking)
one dressy black T shirt
one black duster (long jacket)
one pair of flat sandals, one pair of light mesh sneakers (Merrells), two pair of black leather flats
bathing suit (unused!)
a small portable umbrella
a pair of leggings (worn for hiking, relaxing, golf)
two pair of yoga pants (dark gray, dark brown), worn as trousers
three light sweaters, (one cardigan would have been enough)
two purses, one dressy, one casual
two necklaces and other jewelry
five scarves (very well used!)
Binoculars, a headlamp (for reading in bed) and a very tiny pocketknife (which cut a lemon into slices for our in-room end-of-day gin & tonics!) I also brought a small sketchbook, pocket-sized watercolor kit, colored pencils, several brushes and a pencil.
Depending on your budget and sense of style, I love almost everything from this American, woman-owned company, Title Nine (nope, I get nothing for saying so), from great sports bras to bathing suits to sneakers to casual/comfortable/stylish skirts and dresses perfect for summer travel.
Because I’m a voracious reader, some unread Irish and UK newspapers and magazines, (lots of story ideas in there!), guidebooks, maps.
In Dublin, on sale, Jose scored two gorgeous blazers and two shirts; in Ardara, a thick wool turtleneck sweater. We bought two copies of a book illustrated by artist Pete Hogan — whose watercolor work we admired hanging from the fence around Merrion Square one afternoon. We had a great conversation with him and he allowed me to photograph his paintbox.
I bought little in Ireland, which is unusual for me (and I did hit the sales!): a pair of olive suede sneakers, (84 euros, made in Portugal), several books, five antique forks and an antique Indian bag and a purple wool sweater for a fat five euros at the flea market.
I also bought, (yes, weirdly), a pile of great/affordable lingerie at Brown Thomas, Dublin’s poshest department store and at Marks & Spencer. Much nicer quality and lower prices than here in New York!
This was a journey documented with many photos, some of which you’ve seen here, and memories and new and renewed friendships. Ireland has many very beautiful objects for sale — from wool scarves, hats, sweaters and throws to ceramics, glass and porcelain.
Getting in and out of these three cities, and around them while staying there, can feel overwhelming. It’s not. Download whatever apps work best for you (I am not an apps person!) or, as I do, grab a few really good maps, including separate maps of the bus and subway systems. Study them in bright light at your leisure — i.e. not in the dark/wind/rain when you look like a gormless tourist inviting thieves to snatch your purse, backback, phone or suitcase.
In London and Paris, the lines have names; in Paris for the final destination, and in Paris they also have numbers. In NYC, they have numbers or letters — the L, the Q, the 4. The problem with NYC? Sometimes they go express and you’ll have to get out before the stop you had planned.
I was heartened in Paris and London to see sliding glass panels at some station platforms that open in concert with the train’s doors — which prevent the horror of suicide or homicide. In NYC, which has nothing so civilized, be careful.I can’t say this too strongly; people have been shoved onto the tracks and killed by mentally-ill people standing near them. Stand as far back as possible from the platform edge and be aware of who is near you.
Cabs cost a fortune in London, less so in Paris and are not terrible in New York. In NYC, you’ll see bright green cabs — they won’t stop for you if you’re in Manhattan as they are designated for the outer boroughs. You’ll also go crazy around 4:30 p.m. trying to hail a cab as that’s the time of shift change and many are racing to the garage.
Take the bus whenever possible. You’ll see so much more of the city and start to understand its geography. Buy a weekly transit pass in each city to save money and speed you up; in New York, you slide your Metrocard to enter the subway, dip it when entering a bus.
Remember that others work there and are weary/late/in a hurry. Don’t hog seats/space with your bags and packpack!
When walking do not, ever, walk slooooooooowly and in a large pack of bodies that spans the width of the sidewalk. It’s rude, dangerous and obstructive. Nor should you abruptly stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk or stairs or the entrance to the subway. We’re in a hurry, dammit!
It’s too easy to assume your default setting of hotel/Air BnB/couchsurfing. How about house or apartment-sitting? A home exchange?
As I blogged here earlier, I spent my three Paris weeks in two people’s homes, both of them professional photographers and photo editors, (hence, great taste!) It was so much more relaxing for me to lounge away my mornings at the kitchen table or dining table, reading the paper or a book. I was able to spread my stuff out, do laundry, cook my own meals — and listen to music as loudly as seemed prudent.
In short, I felt truly at home in a foreign city. I loved food shopping, coming home with my baguette and gooey hunk of Reblochon (cheese) and some fresh figs for breakfast. I bought several sorts of loose tea and enjoyed it as well.
Unless I can afford a really lovely hotel, I’d rather rent a place.
A whole set of blog posts on its own!
If you love antiques as much as I do, you’ll quickly suss out the best vintage stores and flea markets in these three cities; in Paris, I scored a gorgeous fedora and 80s earrings at Eponyme in the 11th and was deeply disappointed by the sky-high prices at the flea market at Clignancourt. In Manhattan, check out the East Village — East 7th and East 9th — for lots of vintage and some great indie shops; I just discovered Haberdashery on East 9th. Heaven! It has one of the best-edited collections of serious vintage I’ve ever seen.
All three cities offer boatloads of style from smart, savvy retailers, whether the fabric department in London at Liberty (swoon) or the jewelry in Manhattan at Barney’s (bring a Brinks truck full of money.) Pick a cool/chic neighborhood and spend a leisurely afternoon exploring it, whether Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Marylebone High Street in London or the 6th or Marais in Paris.
Don’t forget — you can, (as I did twice on that trip) — box and ship home your new things from the local post office or a bunch of your less-needed clothes/shoes to make room/reduce weight in your suitcase; mine weighed just one pound below the limit when I returned!
These are three of the world’s most stylish cities. Sure you can schlub around in baggy pants and white sneakers and bright pink nylon, but you might as well wave a flag shouting “Tourist!”
Many of their residents take serious pride and pleasure in how they present themselves, whether the hipsters of Willamsburg or the Sloanies of London. In NYC, assume that wearing black makes for good native camouflage; women favor a good, fresh manicure (easily acquired in many affordable nail salons), and haircut, with polish in cool dark non-frosted shades or pale.
Parisian women, and men, are justifiably known for their style and it’s easy enough to fit in if that’s fun for you. Women rarely wear prints or leggings and many sport truly eye-catching accessories — an unusual hat, a terrific muffler, interesting shoes. I rarely saw anyone wearing high heels; cobblestone streets chew them up. Many men, of all ages, also wear mufflers or scarves to add a dash of color and texture. Look for unusual color combinations and flashes of wit — a lavender sock, a tangerine pair of gloves.
London men, especially, dress with care: narrow-toe, highly-polished leather shoes, narrow trousers, a great briefcase. Women dress more eccentrically and playfully there than in Paris or New York — all black in London and Paris just feels sad and lacks imagination, while the pom-pom-studded skirt I saw on the Tube in London would raise dubious eyebrows in much of New York.
Bring an umbrella to all three cities! In a month, (late December to late January), I faced a frigid low of 33 F to a high of almost 50. London was more humid. A small umbrella, (with a sealable Ziploc bag for when it’s soaked and you need to tuck it into your bag or backpack), is a must.
To stay warm, I’m a big fan of cashmere, even socks, mitts, scarf and/or hat. Light and silky, it’s super-warm but not bulky. Add a thin layer of polypro or silk beneath your clothes on the bitterest of days. Woolen tights aren’t easy to find in the U.S. but also make a big difference.
Eating and drinking
London will bankrupt you! I have little great advice other than…expect it and bring money. I save hard for my vacations and refuse to make myself miserable, so I mix up splurges, (a cup of tea at the Ritz in London [not the full tea!] for about $10) and a cocktail in their gob-smacking gorgeous bar for $30), with a quick cheap sandwich for lunch.
Keep in mind that museums and art galleries often have excellent dining facilities; I loved my lunch at Tate Modern,
Paris restaurants typically offer a plat du jour, always less costly than dinner. For about $15 to $20, you can enjoy a hot meal of two or even three courses. Wine can be a little as five euros a glass — about $7. Enjoy!
New York City has a terrifically wide array of options, from the hautest of elegant bars and restaurants to the usual national chains like Olive Garden, Friday’s, etc. The city excels at diners, old-school, all-service restaurants whose enormous laminated menus go on for pages. Few things make me as happy as settling in at the battered Formica counter, (look for a shelf or a hook beneath it to hang your purse or pack so no one can grab it and run), and eating there. Try Neil’s, at 70th and Lexington, or Veselka, on the Lower East Side, in business since 1954.
Whatever you do, flee midtown: boring, crowded, filled with tourists.
When you’re a visitor with limited time, it’s tempting to rush around all day and forget how tired, hungry and thirsty you’ll end up. Allow for a two-hour lunch or a glass of wine or an espresso sitting outdoors in a Paris cafe — which has heaters for the winter. Slow down.
And do not keeping staring into your bloody phone. Just….be there.
Read about your city!
These might be histories, or fiction or guidebooks. I always take my London A-Z, (a highly detailed set of maps), and my Plan de Paris, (ditto), both of which are small and slide into a pocket or purse easily.
There are, of course, dozens of great blogs written by savvy, stylish people living in each of these cities whose posts will be timely and give you all sorts of fun ideas; I like Small Dog Syndrome for London and Juliet in Paris (whose August 2014 posts about London were super-helpful and detailed.)
Pick up the local newspapers; in New York, compare the New York Times, New York Post and New York Daily News to get a real picture of this city’s diversity; in London, the Guardian, Times and Daily Mail; in Paris (if you read French), Le Monde, and Liberation. The letters to the editor, alone, offer some serious insights into what people all around you are thinking and care most about.
Yes, you can read online but don’t. Go old-school and savor it.
Gives you something to tuck under your arm, and look like you belong!
I arrived in Paris on December 20 with 30 days ahead of pleasure and business, spent in two of the world’s most stylish cities, including festivities like Christmas and New Year’s. I live near New York City, so already have a big city wardrobe with a lot of black, which I knew, from previous visits, would work just fine in Paris.
But which clothes for comfort and style?
For temperatures ranging from near 50 to a frigid 33?
For business meetings in London and long afternoons walking Paris streets?
To fit into local norms?
To be comfortable out walking for hours?
I chose very few colors: black, cream, white, scarlet, purple.
My weapon of choice…
I see you eye-rolling at its cost, but cashmere can be found on sale, in thrift, consignment and vintage shops. It costs more than wool every time, but it lasts. It has the supreme value of being really, really warm but also light (i.e. not bulky) and, oh yeah, elegant.
So I brought a black cashmere T-shirt dress that hits mid-calf. The damn thing is, literally, 20 years old, and I have to keep sewing up little holes in it. But it’s the best investment I’ve ever made. A garnet-colored long-ish cashmere cardigan and a black cashmere turtle-neck.
I’m deeply regretting leaving behind several more cashmere turtleneck sweaters, (but whose colors didn’t fit the bill.)
My coat, (and I debated long and hard about the wisdom of this choice), is a black wool sweater-coat that I pin closed. Even at 33 degrees — which is damn cold! — I’ve been fine, wearing layers beneath it, a wool shawl, a wool hat and wool or lined suede gloves. I can shuck it off easily when on the Metro or stuff it into my carryall. It’s stylish, comfortable and adapts easily to any layers beneath it. (My other options were too bright and/or bulky.)
Also, two nylon T-shirts (warm but not bulky), one pair of black leggings.
Three skirts, black, scarlet and a dressier DVF one with those colors in it. Stockings in black, purple and scarlet. A black H & M cotton dress. Several pairs of comfy/warm yoga pants and a cotton sweatshirt for lounging and sleeping in. Two pretty caftans for when I’m a houseguest visiting friends in London.
Two pairs of shoes and one pair of boots, all black, all low-heeled, all comfortable and tested before I left home. I’ve been walking all day here, on wet cobblestones and pounding the Metro stairs, all good.
I did pack (hah) a set of clothes for working out, and very light gym shoes. Unused, so far!
My one concession to dressy is a very thin print silk jacket I’ll wear over my black cotton dress, add purple stocking stockings and a devore brown velvet scarf, nice for New Year’s dinner here in a restaurant.
I did laundry in the laundromat across the street — Charlie Chaplin-esque! Washing only one washer full cost eight euros, (about $12), so I skipped the additional cost of drying and used the clothes dryer, (the non-electric kind that is a rack across which you lay or hang all your clothes), in our borrowed flat.
There are sales only twice a year in Paris, in January and June. They start January 7 and I’m back here January 11 ready to run for it! I’ve already mapped out some of my targets.
French women do dress differently than Americans — a lesson I learned at 25 when I lived here for a year. They generally buy many fewer items than Americans do, take good care of them and keep them for many years.
I’ve been checking out some of my favorite shops already and you can have anything you want, as long as it’s made in black, white, camel or navy. You see, at least in better stores, few prints or clothing made badly of cheap fabric. So you buy less, spend a bit more and love it.
I also love the colors you find here that are much more difficult to find in the U.S. — navy blue, a soft neutral peach, deep emerald green and every possible shade of gray.
One of the other things that makes a long trip easier is how many shoe-repair shops line the streets here! Our NY town of 10,000 lost its only cobbler a few years ago necessitating a 10-minute drive to another town — here in the 7th arrondissement, an upscale neighborhood, there are four cobblers within a five-minute walk of this apartment.
Dry-cleaning is expensive here (which I knew) so I’m hand-washing anything delicate.
It’s been an interesting reminder how few clothes you really need and how many ways you can combine them to make a cool look.
A few wardrobe items worth buying here:
— Jewelry, especially costume. The French make amazing costume jewelry! I’m still wearing and loving pieces I bought here 20 years ago. Look for bold, unusual pieces. A trip to les puces, the flea market, (esp. Vernaison) at Porte de Clignancourt, offers fantastic options.
— Underwear. If you’re small enough! There are gorgeous colors on offer, and look for chains like Princesse Tam Tam. Much prettier than that old American standby, Victoria’s Secret. I’ve seen the most gorgeous jewel-toned lacy silks ev-uh!
— Vintage. If you’re a label-girl, you’ll find plenty of Hermes, Chanel, Issey Miyake, etc. Just bring a sack full of cash.
— Scarves. My weakness! I passed up a terrific wool piece with maps of the Megeve ski slopes at the flea market, but scored two pretty ones (so far) for $15 and $20 each.
— Shoes. I’m forever fascinated by what stylish Frenchwomen wear on their feet. My favorite pair so far this trip? Petrol green patent oxfords. You don’t see many women tottering along on stilettos, so you’ll find plenty of cool, stylish flat or low-heeled options. (I’ve got my eye on a fab pair of pony-fur desert boots.)
According to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a magical order active in the United Kingdom during the late-19th and early-20th centuries, a talisman is “a magical figure charged with the force which it is intended to represent. In the construction of a talisman, care should be taken to make it, as far as possible, so to represent the universal forces that it should be in exact harmony with those you wish to attract, and the more exact the symbolism, the easier it is to attract the force.”
As regular readers here know, I’m not very big on woo-woo stuff. Really not a crystals/shaman sort of girl.
But I have two small collections of charms I wear together on a piece of cord that I consider my talismans:
The heart is solid silver, bought in Vancouver from a jeweler on Granville Island after one of the most miserable weeks of my life, putting my mother into a nursing home after having to very quickly sort through and sell/toss/keep a lifetime of her belongings. Not to mention the creepy/weird/bizarre friend of hers who stressed me out so badly I called the police. Not fun. So…that’s my heart…solid but battered.
I found the “C” in a shop in Tucson, Arizona, where I and my husband taught at the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, and met a few lovely young professionals we are still close friends with.
The three other charms came from a shop in Atlanta, Georgia and express how I feel about my life and my hunger for beauty, fun and adventure.
On the black silk cord are the three charms from my childhood that resonate for me today:
The blue enamel heart was given to me by my mother when I was eight, sent off to boarding school. I wore this collection under my dress for my second wedding, in September 2011 in Toronto, because she was not going to be there.
The Art Nouveau charm was a gift to me at 12 from one of her beaux, a lovely older man. A few years ago, a I received an email from his daughter, who I had met, (and forgotten), who is, like me, now a globe-trotting ex-patriate Canadian, also a writer and editor, also happily married. Small world!
The gold charm is from my late maternal grandmother, Gemini, my birth sign. She died the year I turned 18 and I miss her still.
On good days, I wore flowers, butterflies and balloons, and on bad days, horrible insects and carnivorous animals.
I was the only woman on the Security Council at the time. The ambassadors noticed, and they asked, “Why are you wearing . . . ” whatever brooch. President [George] Bush had already said “Read my lips: no new taxes”, so I just said “Read my pins.”
Do you have, own or wear something of similar sentimental value or emotional power?
I think for someone to make something that’s going to last, there is undoubtedly an amount of love as well as skill that goes into that. And things that last are important. I’m happy to pay more for something if I see it as an investment. I would rather spend £80 on a saucepan if it means that I’ll be buying one that lasts. I’ve always felt that about things, rather than thinking something is too expensive. I’ve noticed that the French think like that about clothes – they’ll have fewer but better quality.
I agree with her.
I’m grateful for having grown up in Canada, a country whose consumer market was small enough that going shopping meant limited choice, (no Internet then). Canadians generally earn lower salaries and pay higher taxes than in the U.S., (where I now live,) so the whole notion of shopping-as-recreation never made much sense to me.
I also spent a year living in Paris when I was 25. That, and many visits back since then, also shaped how I view the buying/keeping/mending of my wardrobe.
I love beautiful things, (and have expensive taste), which de facto limits how much I can acquire. Keeping good things longer also lowers the CPW, (cost-per-wearing), a wiser use of limited funds. The CPW calculation essentially amortizes the cost of acquisition as the more you wear/use something, the less it costs you in the long run — if you buy a $30 pair of shoes that last six months, and have to go buy another pair — you’ve spent $60.
I’d rather find a $200 pair on sale for $120 and get many more seasons from them instead. I have limited time, energy and patience for shopping as well.
(Which is also why blowing $$$$$$$$$ on a white satin wedding gown you’ll wear only once is a crazy use of hard-earned coin.)
Like Howell, I’d much rather have one or two thick cashmere sweaters, (found in thrift or consignment shops for a fraction of their original prices), than a dozen cheaper ones that will probably shrink, pill or date.
Here’s one of my go-to high-end finds, found in a consignment shop, still cosy and warm after…five? years.
Like Howell, like French women, I prefer to buy fewer things and keep them in good shape for years.
— It saves money
— It saves time
— It helps the environment
— It’s a good practice to consistently care for your things — polishing your shoes and boots; using shoe trees to keep their shape; making sure your footwear has new heels and lifts so you don’t wear them out; mending your clothes; tailoring things to fit you properly. The idea of simply throwing something away because it needs a little work? Bizarre and wasteful.
— If you can make/mend your own items, even better!
— Doing so also employs skilled experts, like tailors and shoe repair shops
— It re-focuses our attention away from the hamster wheel of get-spend-get-spend-getmorenow!
— It reminds us to focus on what we have, and to savor it, not simply to greedily rush to the next acquisition
— Wearing vintage, thrift or consignment shop clothing is a smart and frugal way to recycle
— Vintage clothes are often better-made of finer materials like silk, cashmere or wool
— We tend to care more for things we plan to keep for many years, so shoe trees/polish/suede brush and a good sewing kit, lint roller and steamer, good-quality hangers and storage options all matter
I admit, I’m also enjoying a few new purchases as well: a thick new Patagonia fleece (half-price), a long black four-season dress and two cotton midi-skirts.
One of best aspects of quality vintage clothing is how well some of it holds up. I peered through riding boots that are decades old but look and feel more solid and better than half of what I could find new at a store for the same price.
If you haven’t read this book, it’s worth considering what an addiction to trendy/cheap/fast fashion really costs.
But I was struck by his comment, the headline to this post, as it resonates for many women I know, mostly those of us north of 40. Good to know it’s a challenge for some men as well.
Bits of you head south. Bits of you are little less appealing, (upper arms, upper thighs), than they once might have been. The late Norah Ephron wrote a whole book, published in 2008, called I Feel Bad About My Neck.
Choices that are cute or fun in your 20s and 30s suddenly start to look cheap, tacky and weird in later decades. Grooming — hair, nails, pedicures and (yes, please!) trimming men’s nose and ear hair — becomes even more essential. Careless starts to look disheveled.
Do you know about this terrific blog — Advanced Style? Ari Seth Cohen focuses his lens only on older New Yorkers with panache.
Have you heard of Iris Apfel? Now 91, the self-described “geriatric starlet” gave an interview to Harper’s Bazaar in April, 2013. I liked this:
If your hair is done properly and you have on good shoes, you can get away with anything. That and having a good attitude — try to keep yourself on an even keel. All the plastic surgery in the world isn’t going to help if you are unhappy.
My father just turned 84 and, when he dresses up, still sets a very high bar for elegance — navy blazer, polished loafers, a silk pocket square. My husband, in his 50s, is known around his Manhattan office for a splendid array of socks and ties. I bought him a great pair of fawn suede Lacoste sneakers as my wedding gift.
I see far too many women in their 50s and beyond who look like hell, as though they have simply folded the tent of style, (if they had one in the first place) and jumped the express train to schlumphood. No, I say!
I’m not arguing for the size-2-ropy-arms drama very prevalent in the wealthier precincts of America, as much a uniform as a diktat. But surely we have better options than crappy haircuts and dumpy clothes?
Then what? Shop where?
For me, it’s a varied mixture of vintage, J. Crew, an H & M shift, a bit of designer, some classics: an Hermes silk carre or a pair of Ferragamo suede loafers or an Edwardian necklace.
Then something unexpected to shake the whole mess up. This week I did something utterly out of character, emboldened by a surprise check, and bought a big, blingy watch. I wear it loose, like a bracelet. It’s a hoot and I love it.
The worst sin we make as we age is to give up, to stay stuck in a style rut, to assume that color and wit and fun is something only enjoyed by the young ‘uns. There are several women on my apartment floor who are north of 80 and look great — sparkling eyes, make-up, coiffed hair, fab outifts. Bless them for being a role model.
And so I still read Vogue and Bazaar and Elle and Marie-Claire. I buy very little of what they suggest — both the sizing and prices shoving much of it beyond my reach — but I have fun keeping up, knowing what the cool kids are wearing, and sometimes snagging an H & M copy for $30 or $50 instead.
I’m more willing to invest real cash on great shoes, accessories and jewelry.
Ladies and gentlemen, how has your look changed as you’ve aged?
If you’ve been watching (?) the hit television series Downton Abbey, you might have caught a scene with Isabel Crawley wearing a very Fortuny-esque black silver-printed sheath. Fortuny’s timeless designs are a perfect period fit for a quirky, rich, bohemian Edwardian like her.
He certainly began his artistic life with some major advantages — his father and grandfather were directors of the Prado, the exquisite museum in Madrid. Coming from a wealthy background allowed him the time and means to travel widely and to find and cultivate rich women eager to wear and collect his gowns.
His images and references are from Africa, Morocco, the Middle East and earlier historic periods. His shimmering, softly draped fabrics look embroidered with gold or silver threads — but it is metallic paint pressed into silk velvet or cotton or linen with a carved block.
The clothes were considered too daring — uncorseted! — for daytime, outdoor use, but women who began wearing them in public were making the case for being beautiful and comfortable at the same time.
I first saw his work at a museum in Lyons, when I was 23 and traveling Europe alone for four months, and I still treasure a poster I bought there then. On that same trip, I went to Venice to Palazzo Orfei, his studio, whose windows are made of round circles of glass, like the bases of wine bottles. The space is filled with his textiles and in the corner is a small white porcelain sink, its edge stained — decades later — with the dried paint he casually smeared off his brushes. It felt like he’d just gone out for a coffee and might return soon.
I went to this show in Manhattan with a friend, a woman who is very slim and tall and elegant and who I knew would also appreciate his work. It felt like introducing her to some of my old and dearly beloved friends. What a delight to see them again!
As we were leaving the show, I began wrapping my throat in a cream-colored pleated silk scarf/muffler I bought at Banana Republic about 15 years ago — and realized, with a grateful smile, that I’ve been wearing a simulacrum of Fortuny all these years.