Friday, October 31, 2014

The Custom of Costume

The OED ( Oxford English Dictionary) defines “bal masque” in short shrift : “masked ball”, and states as it’s origin : French.  The French may very well have brought the art of masquerade to a pinnacle, but costumes are loved the world over.  After all, any opera or theatre piece in effect becomes a bal masque,  as the actors are all garbed as alter egos.  And actually,  costume is something we also put on everyday, to go to work, or school.  It's the uniform we wear through school, or the shirt and tie we put on every day.  But here, we're discussing an extra-ordinary occasion, when a "costume" is a special article of clothing or  an ensemble that helps us to change visibly into someone or something else in an instant. Dressing in a costume becomes a definitive way of shedding inhibition when it’s cloaked in velvet and sequins.  An uber-costume. 
Choosing a costume  sometimes bleeds into the psychological boundaries we place on ourselves in everyday life.  Our favorite characters in literature, or popular culture are invoked all around the world once we step into satin breeches or a vampire's mantle.  History can play a part in the inspiration of costume, too, as we stream personage famous or infamous before the curious eyes of the beholders.  Halloween has become that day when the erstwhile Headless Horseman can roam suburban neighborhoods alongside the likes of Edward Scissorhands, accompanied by his own personal Bride of Dracula.  Movies are fodder for ideas, and costume pop-up shops have become as common across the land as mushrooms every Fall.  Which character are you? 
With the popularization of  readymade mass -produced boxed costumes sold at Woolworth’s, the 1950’s were underlined with Roy Rogerses, Lone Rangers, and many a cowboy hero from the then new entertainment called television.
 Contemporary horror flicks, vastly popular since Mary Shelley first penned “Frankenstein” ,  have helped create a crop of home-grown zombies, draculettes, and sundry dead and decaying creatures.  But costume is not defined by Halloween alone.  Throughout history, in royal court and private manse, the Bal Masque has stood as an outlet for this personification projection in any season.  Not limited to one day or one ghost- filled night per year, the Bal Masque lends a theme to a superlative party, to the crowded streets of New Orleans at Mardi Gras time, or the canals of Venice, with their richesse of silks and tricornes.
Comicon is a strolling feast for the eye of the beholder, with fans of subculture, popular culture and mythology dressed to fit the bill.  Whether that bill is Dr. Who,  Jamie Fraser or The Flash is a simple personal choice of the costume- garbed .  Whom do you love?  Become that person for a day.  Favorite hero?  Salve your worries and insecurities in drag, or caped, tiara-d, or masked. Halloween spirit, extended to Silly Putty boundaries. 
In 1966, when Truman Capote invoked the spirit of long- forgotten  party demons and threw his Black and White Ball at the Plaza in New York City, the hoi polloi flocked to mingle with each other, all rich and famous , bedecked in finery .
 The Metropolitan Museum Ball every year recreates this same spirit, with celebrities walking a red carpet, in costume or simply fancy dress.  The bolder, braver souls take any costume opportunity to the limit, and use their expertise and resources to come up with the perfect evocative ensemble.
  Costume plays an important part in entertainment , with children and adults participating in  momentary delusion and just having fun with it all. 
For those of you who say “I don’t do costumes” : we say: “Why not?”.  We already know the answer.  Whether it’s your own personal fear that disallows you from wearing a hat, or your own lack of imagination, we can vouch for the fun of dressing up.  Becoming that blonde bombshell, or dead diva isn’t really a transformation.  It’s simply an extension of what you are inside.  And that, as Martha Stewart has been known to say, is a good thing.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Pocket By Any Other Name

A Pocket by Any Other Name

Photograph of the village women (Wauking Women) in Outlander as designed by Terry Drespach

Watching historically relevant drama on tv might spawn interest in minor details, as well as in the heroic brawny actor on the screen.   Take pockets, for example.  Watching Starz' sky-rocketing original series Outlander, you might notice the dangly things hanging on the front of the Highlanders' kilts.  Those thingies are called "sporrans" and served as pockets for the dashing men in Scottish 18th Century life.  Please note that women's clothing isn't always showing little dangly things.  Where was she hiding that spare key? or her whatnots? Normally, pockets were something made as  an addition to the wardrobe.  In the men's case, with kilts not having built-in compartments for carrying much of anything, a sporran acted as the catchall.  For ladies, there were pockets.  Made as a separate reality, much like the sporran, but usually worn under her skirts.  No shoulder bags, no tote bags.  Perhaps a basket for marketing, and gathering of herbs and such.  Saddlebags, to be sure, because one needed as many places to stash stuff as we do today.  But there wasn't as much stuff.  So women in the 18th Century developed their own style, as women have a tendancy to do.

See :

for an overview, academically speaking.  Watch  in Outlander as Claire puts her hands in what seem to be pockets while she's wearing 18th Century garb.  This isn't as odd as it might be, because in this case, the character is coming from another time where pockets, and pocketbooks  already exist.  So the practical Claire may well have had her garments made with the additon of a pocket or two for convenience' sake. Most women hid their pockets  under their petticoats to protect their valuables,
but we can imagine some of them might work as men wore their sporrans: on the outside of their skirts.  In the evolution of fashion, not everything is cut and dried.  Since we can only go by what we see in paintings, drawings, and literary references, and cannot time travel to see for ourselves, imagination may take flight and create alternative pockets.  This was the 18th Century, and as the 19th Century looms nearer, reticules become the norm.  They were just the same idea as the pocket, but carried as a separate item, and therefore tended to be embellished more often than not.   Accessories have always been women's fancy, and what would become a major economic status symbol began to become more important visually. Women were still not allowed to actually own anything outright, so the necessity of carrying the massive amounts of paperwork, wallets, etc.  that we haul around today simply wasn't there. As sporrans go ( , the evolution of style warrants taking note of the refined, yet traditional forms they have taken in contemporary usage.  Women's pocketbooks, on the other hand, have become quite another subject indeed.

 ref: Barbara Burman in of "Pockets of History: The Secret Life of an Everyday Object." 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Men in Skirts

With the Gallic onslaught of Outlander, an involved series of books by the brilliant author Diana Gabaldon, newly produced by Starz, the world is becoming more aware of costume and its history.  History that leads us all to delve further, not just into the making of gifs ( Jamie Fraser as the new  global heartthrob ), but dipping into Wikipedia, and praise be!  even your local library, to find out more.  Lead into this  world of research via shows like Madmen, Boardwalk Empire and other small screen productions like Downton Abbey, costume becomes so much a part of the story that detail is assimilated subconsciously.  Or so those of us enmeshed in costume history would hope.  The surge of popularity on sites like Etsy, where handcrafts are being supported and sought after in an accessible marketplace, and the production of historically- oriented story lines help raise the bar for researchers.  Oh, sure, not all the details are historically correct, that's a bit of a stretch even for a magician,  but the mood and the feel is projected through dynamic set design and and brilliantly executed costume.  Inspiration becomes the underlying force here, for fashion and beyond . Fans and admirers may want exact replicas of a Titanic costume, or a Clan MacKenzie kilt, but for fashion, these shows are springboards for a dynamic interplay . And vice versa. In the 1940’s ( and before) cinema-goers longed for Lauren Bacall’s suit, or Roz Russell’s hat. Shop for your favorite heroine/celebrity/character has always been a mainstay of trend. Now we see a resurgence in  avarice for all things put up on a screen, and the web helps to popularize obscure fashion details that lend whimsy and fun to a contemporary look.

Madmen created a vibe in the counterculture vintage clothing world by bringing back the hot , sexy side of 1950’s-60’s fashion, both for men and women.  Brooks Brothers ran a collection of suits for the MadMan, and who knows but that Don Draper isn’t part of the reason that the stingy brim fedora has taken such a strong toehold on fashionable heads once again? These styles exert a  quiet influence onto the world of fashion in general, as we see a play between runway and street fashion. Designers like Thom Browne and Tom Ford bring a sleek line back into menswear, and tuxedos and dinner jackets may even be showing up more frequently in the wardrobes of not just the rich and famous.  Menswear will always reflect a certain constancy, where female fashion tends to lean into the trend wind of the moment.  MadMen dames find that curves are big in selfieland and the color green has crept back into our reality.  Green hasn’t been so popular since the 1960’s.

Boardwalk Empire gave birth to more Brooklyn hipsters than other shows, since it’s filmed here in the NYC vicinity, and lends the repro flapper/gangster look to both men and women.  Hats and headpieces are de rigueur, whether they be a feather pad glued onto a headband, or a hand beaded headpiece from a couture house. The thin line rules in the 1920’s, with narrow trouser legs, slim short frocks and sleek automobiles. Just come to the intensely popular Jazz Age Lawn Party and see the 5000 plus revelers in present day party mode to see the influence that shows like Boardwalk Empire have created. 

With Outlander,  costume designer Terry Drespach has summoned her creative powers to build an entire world not so accessible to flea market and easy finds.  Set in 18th Century Scotland, this show celebrates the tonality of the Highlanders’ garb, their wardrobe, their armory, and their milieu in a very believable and successful way. Launched at ComiCon, the Starz series has already snowballed into podcasts, blogs and posts not just in awe of  the wonders of Jamie and his kin, but the backstory.  The producer and costume designer issue weekly reports on “the making of” each episode.  Chanel had already produced its own Highland collection that precedes this show, but watch it to appreciate how fashion and history are symbiotic. The dialogue is fascinating, and for trackers of style and trend, interaction becomes tantamount to a chess game, where the world is a stage indeed.
History, not fantasy, becomes the driving force behind  shows such as these.  Unmentioned are the legion of fans who participate in cosplay , Burning Man, the Renaissance Fairs.  Halloween used to be the only dress up time for most of us .  Now it’s an also-ran.  Celebratory  fairs, parties, festivals make Woodstock just the first gathering of like- minded counterculture .  With television cable, and film actively fomenting and participating in costume drama,  history becomes part of the research.  And it will ultimately trickle down into popular fashion.  Perhaps not just with more kilts being seen on gentlemen at fancy dress and formal occasions, but in the application of tartan, knitwear, felting and weaving. Handcrafts will abound, and perhaps we will not lose all of ourselves in a pot of glue, finding a fast fix for a quick costume.  Perhaps the research will be inspired and build a new fan base for “the making of” in design on a more academic level.  What came before, will come after.  Fashion provides a lectern upon which we can espouse any theory, and help maintain a culture, a trend, a style, and appreciation for all those involved in the creative process, be it in an haute couture atelier, or in your own studio workroom.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Yves Saint Laurent on screen

The Film Forum has seen fit to extend the  movie about Yves Saint Laurent probably because so many of us didn't get around to seeing it.  And thank God!  Filmed in a luxurious state of mind, about a luxurious young man who became a luxury brand, Yves Saint Laurent comes onto the screen as a visual delight.  And. Then. Some. Tracking early YSL through the days of becoming the newly appointed big boss at Christian Dior after the Maestro dies, to the almost end, this film warrants being seen again, and then again.  Take it from several points of view: the visuals, the sets, the actors, the direction, and, of course, the costumes.  Although they are not really costumes per se, but the entitled inspirational collections of a young man's vision, the clothing offers time and again fresh insights behind the scenes of a designer's life.  Not in a tawdry sense, but depicted in a matter of fact life -in -the -trenches way.  Drugs, sex, backstory, ego.  All of the above do not over ride the reality of this film: Yves Saint Laurent was a genius.  And for those in the fashion world, the fact that the quirks come with that title is a given.  Perhaps to the newest fans of fashion out there, the hedonistic and indulgent world of the 1970's and 1980's is news.  To those who lived the time, the mindset, and the mood, it's a flashback . The lush quality of M. Saint Laurent's thinking process is embellished by placing us within their homes, not just within the confines of the atelier.  Pierre Berge, the keeper of the flame (and the other driving character depicted so ably in the film) gave his consultation and stamp of approval, as well as allowing many of the archived original haute couture pieces from the Maison  to be featured in the film  .  Given the white glove treatment, to be sure,  it is said that the garments were cast first,  followed by the models who filled in the dresses.  An uncanny, but logical way of casting some of the iconic models of the era.
The delicate phraseology of the young Saint Laurent is part of his persona.  He seemed to look at everything in a telescoped fashion, focused, with subtitles.  His business life was managed by Pierre Berge, but those who loved him could not control the uncontrollable.  One of the fascinating feats that this film accomplishes underlines the gentle soul that was Yves Saint Laurent.  In spite of the whirlwind of fashion , fame and backstory that surrounds a supremely successful man such as himself, his ability to hone in on a point of design is evident.  From the first shot of the young man slicing into a bolt of silk and draping it under the watchful gaze of Christian Dior himself, to the luxe collections he produces one after another, the director frames this ability with brilliance.  In those moments of calm, found throughout the film here and there, we can commune with the mind of YSL, and pause for one slice of time, before plunging back into the fray.
Color and personae is what this film is all about.  If you're a designer, you'll know this world.  If you're a design student, see it now.  If you're a design teacher, see it to learn more about methodology, atelier activity and results.  And for the rest of the world: take it all with a grain of salt, or a teaspoon of sugar. Films of this ilk are much loved in the world of fashion, and will long serve as standard bearers for the rarified world of haute couture .

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Welcome Aboard

We have a new website with wonderful pictures of our hats taken by brilliant photographers with whom we have been working for eons.  Please come and visit, send us your input, as we tweak,  update and upgrade the new site so that it works to your advantage.  More in tune than ever with the hat-wearing public, Ellen Christine provides unique design, local confection, and unlimited imagination to her public and her product.
The first set of pictures  you see on the new website were taken for a local magazine to be distributed in Hudson Square, where we are located.  We loved David Carlo's shots so much, they're our new portraits.
We'll include news that will change on a regular basis so you can see all of our exciting projects.  Uploaded at the moment is the exclusive headpiece we designed for Va Bien Lingerie, a French/NY/Puerto Rican company that is using the shot of our headpiece with their new collection in their Fall campaign.  If you wish to inquire about owning one of these headpieces, ask Va Bien directly for information about them.
You'll see the lovely Sophie Pera, stylist at Town and Country, in a unique take on retail.  This video is by Cinematique, and it lits you shop while you watch.  Go to the company website for more information, but do watch our video with Sophie in our showroom.  We love it, too.
Our collections will expand as our photoshoots progress and we edit the pictures.  We've included our favorite campaign, and our shoot by Sandy Ramirez "The Metropolitan Opera Collection" because it's so very beautiful.  The shot was inspired by a famous photographer from the 1940's, and we loved doing it. there are beautiful gallery shots taken in some of the collections by our dear Tom Bloom.  some of you may know him as a star of stage and screen, but did yo know that he is one of the premier portrait photographers in NYC? He's taken some glorious shots of pieces that merit hanging as art.
Our Press Kit is highlighted on the home page, and further developed on the Press page.  Feel free to inquire about any of the hats or headpieces you see on those pages. Although they are not in stock, we are happy to reproduce our own past archival collections for you.
Pass along the site to your friends, and welcome aboard to the scintilatting hat world of Ellen Christine Couture.
Information about the special order headpiece can be addressed to: