Monday, June 27, 2016

Finding Marilyn Monroe: 12 Style Elements to Try on For Size


This is supposed to be a Get the Look post, specifically how to get the look of Marilyn Monroe. However, emulating the enigmatic icon without devolving into mockery (think Vegas impersonator) could never be easy. There will always be only one Marilyn.

My suggestion? To find the part of her look that works for you, whether it is the elegant drape of her dress, the simple palette of colors, or the blond curls. Maybe there is something of her attitude that works for you.


Some elements to try on for size:

1. Embrace your curves, and wear clothing that fits exactly. How often have you seen a photo of Marilyn Monroe in something sloppy and over-sized? True, she had a perfect hourglass figure, but there is not a single one of us that wouldn’t look best in clothes that fit us exactly right.

Marilyn Monroe as Rose, costume test for Niagara, 1952, costume designer Dorothy Jeakins. Marilyn was known to wear her movie costumes in real life.


2. Diamonds just might be a girl’s best friend. Not that Marilyn always dripped in bling, but when she did, she glistened. Glittering jewelry seemed to augment the sparkle that was so much a part of her look and act.


3. Find a style and stick to it. Marilyn Monroe had a makeup routine, a hair color, a palette of hues and a personal vibe that were all part of her signature look. Find, hone, repeat.




4. Up the vampage. It’s a given that Marilyn dressed in ways that enhanced and flaunted her shape, but is it ever trampy? No. Think vintage vamp instead, including va-va-voom heels, sweater girl sweaters, halter necklines, finely-fitted sheath dresses and pencil skirts.




5. Classics always work. For many style icons this was true, so it is sometimes easy to dismiss this aspect of Marilyn’s style, but she was a great wearer of a camel coat, a white shirt, capri pants, a simple pullover sweater and other classics.




6. Go with a simple color palette. You don’t see a lot of photos of Marilyn wearing prints. She favored neutral shades and black and white, with stand-out shades of red, pink, green or blue for emphasis.




7. Oh, but don’t be afraid to sparkle. I mentioned diamonds, but also consider clothing in gold and silver. Do you have your headlights on?

The famous gold lamé gown designed by William Travilla for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953

8. Structure is another of a girl’s awfully good friends. Of course, it was the norm for the era, but we can all learn from the positive influence of the right underpinnings. At the very least, consider a swimsuit with a well-designed inner framework (vintage of course!) and the right bra under a sweater.


9. Find a signature red for your lips. Of all her trademark style elements, possibly nothing says Marilyn more loudly and clearly than bright red lips...and red lips are a whole lot easier than platinum blonde hair.




10. A fabulous shoe might also be in the running for a girl’s best friend. As Marilyn said herself “Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world.” Strappy sandals, peep toes, slide-on mules...and who wouldn’t feel like conquering the world in Lucite platforms?




11. Show joy. It seems like fashion comes and goes on this point—first there’s a fad for smiling, then there’s a fad for pouting. Marilyn always appeared natural, healthy, and radiant. She gave joy—she still gives joy—with that beautiful smile.




12. Be bold. It took a heck of a strong woman to grow up not knowing her father, having a mentally unstable mother, living in a series foster homes, and laboring at a young age before being hurled into super stardom. If you want to be like Marilyn, persevere.



“I am trying to find myself. Sometimes that's not easy.” 

“I am not interested in money. I just want to be wonderful.” 
—Marilyn Monroe

Elliott Erwitt photo
Whatever part of Marilyn you find and make your own, I hope it makes you feel wonderful.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

If you want to dress up, Dress Up!


“I love that dress, but I would have no place to wear it.”

Since I hear that quite a lot, I am thrilled when I get to hear about people finding creative ways to wear the clothes they most love.

Meet Kymberli, who has a prom birthday party each year. She first wrote me in March saying “I have fallen deeply in love with the pale yellow frothy 50s dress”...doesn’t that sound like a princess thing to say?

Kym took advantage of layaway through my shop and when she received the dress she wrote “I just got my dress in the mail and I could NOT be more happy I literally broke down in tears. It’s more beautiful than I even imagined!” (I’m not going to lie, that’s one of the nicest things we vintage clothing sellers can hear!)

Straight out of the box—“I think it's going to fit well too”
“Sneak peak! So happy!”

Then the big night arrived, and here was the birthday princess:

“It was a dream!!”

Not to get all Nike-slogan on you, but Just Do It! Kymberli made a place to wear her favorite vintage dresses, and so can you.

I keep adding to this list, Reasons to Dress Up. I’m sure there are hundreds more.

1. DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) meetings, as Facebook reader Leigh Anne mentioned. The women love history and love seeing her vintage fashions.
2. Any historical society gathering: Think museum exhibits, boards, historical preservation groups.
3. “Put even the plainest woman into a beautiful dress and unconsciously she will try to live up to it.” - Lady Duff-Gordon
4. Dress for the every day theater of life like you are the leading lady.
5. All your regular clothes are dirty.
6. Go to a historic hotel for a drink.
7. “Life is a party, dress like it.” - Lilly Pulitzer
8. “It takes nothing to join the crowd. It takes everything to stand alone.” - Hans F. Hansen
9. “If you're sad, add more lipstick and attack.” - Coco Chanel
10. Being well dressed is a beautiful form of politeness.
11. #fancyfriday
12. Attend performances where the style of music is vintage, as blog reader Denise mentioned.
13. You will make people happy...maybe most especially yourself
14. Life is too short to wear boring clothes. 

Another reason to dress up? Stage a birthday prom!

Many thanks to Kymberli for allowing me to show these photos. For creative and inspiring wearing of vintage fashion, she wins the tiara!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Appreciation for the vintage travel poster


Before we traveled in cramped airline seats wearing t-shirts and shorts, before we started carrying tiny bottles of liquids in quart-sized plastic bags, before being charged for even a single piece of luggage—there were real holidays.

These holidays, which I know from looking at stunning vintage travel posters, featured men and women who would alternate between wearing hats and gloves, beach robes, formal wear and linen suits. They traveled not only by plane but by ocean liner and train, funicular and gondola. The scenery was majestic and unspoiled, the accommodations were opulent.

So maybe the traveling wasn’t that good but the posters were. They inspired dreams.








These vintage travel poster reproductions available from Venus Valentino

And why shouldn’t we aspire to see perfectly symmetrical palms against a clear blue sky while wearing flowered organza and carrying a parasol? 

Oh to travel, not just in space but in time—and into the realm of the great poster artists’ imaginations.


What vintage items make the cut when you have the chance to travel on holiday? What vintage travel-themed and tourist souvenir items do you love and collect? 

On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, this week's denisebrain vintage fashion show is about wearable travel-themed vintage. Come join us...I’ve saved you a seat!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Claire McCardell, still fresh at 111


MCardell wearing her “Future Dress”—1945

When I started discovering vintage fashion designers, I fell head-over-heels for Claire McCardell. What woman wouldn’t?


Born on May 24, 1905 Claire McCardell first became interested in style at an early age, cutting out images from her mother’s fashion magazines as paper dolls. Even more presciently, she felt unable to do what her brother did in the outfits she was expected to wear. She graduated from Parsons in 1928, and held a series of positions with Townley Frocks, Hattie Carnegie and Win-Sum, before she returned to the reopened Townley in 1940.

World War II actually unwrapped the package which was McCardell’s gift to women. No longer was American fashion tied so heavily to more expensive and restrictive French fashion.* The entire idea of American design suddenly took on a new significance which McCardell most eloquently expressed. She is now considered the mother of American sportswear, combining style and functional wearability. She designed ski and golf togs, as well as office and wedding dresses—creating for the gamut of the modern American woman’s life.

McCardell evening sweater and rayon satin skirt, Rawlings/Vogue 1945

A 1972 showing of McCardell designs presented at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, reintroduced the designer to the public. “By any yardstick,” declared Newsweek on June 5 of that year, “it was the smash fashion collection of the season.”

Life magazine, in 1990, named her one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century.

On the occasion of the 1998 Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology exhibition of Claire McCardell’s clothing, Constance C.R. White wrote in The New York Times:

From the 1930s through 50s, McCardell’s casual, modern clothes urged women toward greater freedom and flexibility in fashion and promoted an aesthetic that Americans can now claim as their own. Through McCardell, fashion kept abreast of changes like jazz, realism, women’s war-time emancipation and an optimistic postwar nationalism. “We look at her as the founder of democratic American fashion,” Ms. Steele [Valerie Steele, the chief curator at the F.I.T. museum at the time of this exhibit] said.

Timeless is so often used to describe Claire McCardell’s work, literally transcending the over 50 years since her death, but her continuing influence and power is a combination of interwoven elements:


1. Timeless design, literally difficult to date. Would you guess that this unrestrictive dress dates from 1945? Her work from the 40s is astonishingly modern.

Dahl-Wolfe/Harper’s Bazaar

2. Responsible (even frugal) use of materials. When war rationing took effect, McCardell is said to have done little different, as she always oriented to humbler materials and a relative lack of extravagance, like wool for swimsuits, cotton and wool for evening wear.

McCardell wool dress and bathing suit, both c.1945/Met Museum photos

3. Sensitivity to the many roles of women. As the description of one sundress in the Met Museum collection succinctly states: “McCardell designed for herself, but the truth is that the transformative possibilities of her clothing allow for one modern woman and thereby for every modern woman.”

Sports clothes changed our lives because they changed our thinking about clothes. Perhaps they, more than anything else, made us independent women. In the days of dependent women – fainting women, delicate flowers, laced to breathless beauty – a girl couldn’t cross the street without help. Her mission in life was to look beautiful and seductive while the men took care of the world’s problems. Today women can share the problems (and possibly help with them) because of their new-found freedom.
– Claire McCardell, in an essay for Sports Illustrated, 1955

Claire McCardell sits in the middle with models wearing her sportswear, 1954—Mark Shaw photo

4. Flexibility of fit. Much of her clothing was truly ready to wear, contingent on the wearer and adaptable in size. Arguably McCardell’s most iconic fashion was the monastic dress of 1938. With no fitted waist seam a woman was to use McCardell’s signature spaghetti ties to create the waistline. She explored this concept for years, including this 1949 incarnation—

Horst/Vogue

and even this 1950 bathing suit, which feels monastic in influence—

Detail of photo by Dahl-Wolfe/Harper's Bazaar

5. Reasonable, even inexpensive prices. Her 1942 popover dress with attached oven mitt sold in the thousands for $6.95 while Norells, Mainbochers and Hattie Carnegies ran in the hundreds of dollars. She adroitly took advantage of American mass production capability.

Met Museum photo

6. Applying real design know-how to clothing for sports. These 1940s bathing suits show the freedom that McCardell was bringing to a formerly (and even for years later) restrictive woman’s garment.

Chester Higgins Jr./New York Times

Bicycling outfit, ca. 1940
7. Adventure. How else to describe denim or men’s shirting used for evening wear? Her use of wool for evening became an American design phenomenon. What about the freedom to roam in ballet slippers, as she promoted in 1944?

McCardell wool dress, 1948/Met Museum photo

8. Versatility. Clothing designed for work had the flexibility and charm to be worn after work. Designs were not anchored to only one event in a woman’s life. As early as 1934, McCardell was creating mix-and-match separates.

A McCardell “work suit” in silk, dating from the 1950s, denisebrain photo

9. Originality. Some of her original ideas included pedal-pushers, bareback summer dresses, and strapless swimsuits, along with the use of common materials for evening wear. In her 1955 book What Shall I Wear? McCardell herself observed: “Most of my ideas seem startlingly self-evident. I wonder why I didn’t think of them before”...but no one else did either!

McCardell bathing suit, John Rawlings photo, 1950

10. Function and style. McCardell is considered in the same league as Frank Lloyd Wright, an American designer who created pieces largely shaped around the lifestyles that included them. Since I will most likely never afford a house by Wright, I plan to keep this McCardell dress and bolero as a timeless piece of American history!

1950s dress and bolero in navy silk shantung with white shantung lining, denisebrain photos

Claire McCardell died far too young, in 1958, of cancer. She was still at the height of her career, and one can only imagine what more she would have accomplished. Nonetheless, her work lives in modern American sportswear design. It is hard to imagine where American fashion design would be without her.


*It is interesting to note that McCardell collected the work of Madeleine Vionnet, whose influence is seen in her design techniques, particularly involving wrapping, draping, and bias-cut fabric. In many ways, she became the direct descendant of the French designer’s aesthetic, when many new French designers had taken a turn in direction.



[This is a repost, with a few changes, of a blog I wrote in 2009. I had just been on a long bicycle ride in honor of Claire McCardell’s birthday. I might do that again today...it seems a fitting tribute!]

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Mother's Day


A couple of years ago I photographed a 1940s dress inspired by one of my favorite photos of my mother dating from the 1940s.


Can you see why I like vintage fashion so much?

One more image of my mother, when she was a blonde six-year old in 1926. The sweet photo of her inspired Anna Davies to do this illustration, which of course I had to have!


Some other posts about my mother: