Sprezzatura

Last week I finished the book manuscript I've spent the last few months writing. To celebrate, I spent a day doing one of my very favorite things: shopping in thrift stores with my husband. (I will never use the word "thrift" as a verb. This is my pledge to you.) For this particular trip, we left our large city with its arresting moments of post-industrial ruin-beauty and drove out to the small towns of Pennsylvania's Lehigh County, where we enjoyed different but equally arresting moments of post-industrial ruin-beauty. We also visited three of our favorite thrift stores out that way, and at one of them—no, I will not tell you what it's called; it's mine!—I found a real treasure. For $4 I bought a bright red wool coat with large patch pockets, an extravagant lapel, and a wonderful cocoon shape. I saw it and thought: Bonnie Cashin! The coat is no designer label, of course, but it strongly suggests the colors and shapes Cashin favored, so I bought it to wear to the book's launch event next week in New York, where clothing and other objects from the designer's archive will be on display. My jacket is from the 60s, I think, and in very good shape, but I would like to freshen it up a bit and am unsure how to do this because it's made of wool. So I consulted my expert on everything, Youtube. I've now spent the last hour watching videos of people washing their clothing—it makes for weirdly fascinating viewing—and it was worth it because (a) I now have a good idea how to launder my coat (in a machine, on a delicate cycle, using any old type of laundry soap and cold water) and (b) I have learned a wonderful new word. Some of the videos I watched were made by these two handsome young tailors from London, Morts and More. They have one on brushing wool suits using a special suit brush, which I watched just cuz I felt like it. They also made a video about folding pocket squares. In that one, they give a few tips on how to style the handkerchief, but they say the key is to practice sprezzatura—a "studied carelessness"—when arranging your look.

!!! Sprezzatura! How have I never heard this word before? I took to the rest of the internet and found this wonderful short piece on sprezzatura by Roger Angell, who writes that his friend, the writer John McPhee, was bewildered when a student used the word during his writing class at Princeton. He'd never heard it before, and neither had any of his other students, one of whom was from Italy. Apparently the word originates from Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, which was published in 1528. Wikipedia quotes from the text:

I have found quite a universal rule which in this matter seems to me valid above all other, and in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is to avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.[1]

Well I'll be. It is singularly satisfying to find a word for something you already know and care about a great deal, but didn't exactly know how to talk about. Angell called it—simply—cool, which is what I call it too. And it is an attitude I have been cultivating for years.

The article on Wikipedia explains that hiding one's ambition was especially useful for courtiers of Renaissance Italy, which of course was a role totally defined by ambition and self-interest. Again, I totally relate to this. I have always, at least in contexts outside of the classroom and in job interviews, found it necessary to pretend to feel less ambitious than I do. Is that a woman thing? Or an anyone-who-isn't-supposed-to-be-ambitious-but-is-anyway thing? Maybe concealing your desire to get ahead is universally useful in getting ahead, though, I dunno.

At any rate, I've always relied upon the ol' sprezzatura, especially where my appearance is concerned. You have to baffle the eye somehow. Look pretty, for GOD'S SAKE look pretty if you can possibly manage it, but not too pretty. I mean, ew, WHO DOES SHE THINK SHE IS. When I get dressed, I'll get the whole outfit looking just right, and then I undo one thing. Untuck the blouse, put on sneakers instead of shoes with a heel. Lose the attention-getting jewelry and work on getting my hair perfect instead. I'm not saying my system is flawless—sometimes I look too disheveled, or I make an odd choice—but it works pretty well. I don't ever want to be the person clomping around in too-tall shoes, however cute the shoes may be.

Tonight I'm going out to hear some live music, denizen of the night that I am. (LOL.) It's a darkwave show in a little basement club and I have an all-black outfit that's sort of my go-to for things like this. All-black is always cool, in my opinion: It's the embodiment of sprezzatura, since it makes you look chic and sleek but allows you to be sort of self-effacing at the same time; you practically disappear.

But next week, when I go to Rizzoli's to meet Stephanie Lake, the lovely woman who wrote the Bonnie Cashin book, I will violate my usual rules of cool and show her my jacket, and tell her how I bought it with Cashin in mind. Something about the designer, her California-born freshness and the vibrant colors of her designs, makes that sort of posturing seem unnecessary, embarrassing even. In the whole of Lake's book, there is hardly a single picture of Cashin that doesn't show her smiling hugely or laughing with friends. Her clothing is impeccable of course, but her sprezzatura comes from the fact that she looks unusual, like no one but herself. Her look isn't careless—studied or otherwise—but you might call it carefree. Which is a WHOLE NOTHER way of being cool.

In their videos, Mort and More—despite being upscale clothiers in London—have bright spirits and a youthful energy, and they often get the giggles. Still, that coolness. It's there. One of the two men shows the folded and rumpled handkerchief in his suit pocket and says, "All right, now, you're gonna ask me how did I do it. The answer to that is, I don't know."

"She abandoned anything that she found to be a compromise or 'a bore.'"

I'm sitting here drinking in these Bonnie Cashin colors. Do you know her name? I didn't, but as I browsed the spring 2016 publishing catalogs for something to review, I found myself drawn to a new Rizzoli book about her, Bonnie Cashin: Chic is Where You Find It. It's making for such rousing reading; her life as an artist and a clothing designer was uniquely self-directed and totally fabulous. And just look at these clothes (from the Met's Online Collection):

 

Tangerines and limes, orange and raspberry sorbet. The colors are all so delicious. I'm dying to show you the photos of her apartment at the United Nations Plaza—Cashin made her living spaces look as lively as the clothes she designed—but I'd better not, since the book isn't out until April. Here, why don't I do what the kids do nowadays and make one of those palettes you see on Pinterest. The colors she keeps coming back to are these:

cashin_colors

Couldn't you just eat them? It's all lumps of snow and winter gray skies where I live, and I feel greedy for this kind of visual vitality.

Cashin died in 2000, at the age of 93 (or thereabouts; she was a bit vague on the subject of her true age), and this book is the result of a collaboration between the designer and author Stephanie Lake that took place over the last three years of Cashin's life. Rizzoli's books are always sensitively made, but this one is unique because it appears to have grown naturally out of a real closeness between the two. Lake, a jewelry designer, writes that she discovered Cashin while doing research for Sotheby's, and she was simultaneously impressed by the degree of the older designer's influence and puzzled to see how little has been written about her. She set out to make a proper record of Cashin's legacy, and her initial attempts at conducting formal interviews quickly became informal conversations and then a sincere friendship. Lake is now the caretaker of Cashin's enormous archive; the book contains dozens of photos, sketches, and other ephemera from the designer's long life.

On top of being sassy and funny, Cashin was a serious artist and a big reader. Lake quotes her making reference to all kinds of influences, and I'm drinking these in too. Like the paintings of Sonia Delaunay—

sonia

and the Vogue covers Cashin painted for her own amusement when she was first becoming interested in fashion design, after the style of Eduardo Garcia Benito—

(I love reading about artists from back in the day, incidentally. They all got started so young. Cashin oversaw a team of dressmakers while she was still in high school, and she didn't bother with college but went right to work. The illustrator Eduardo Garcia Benito, I just read on Wikipedia, began working as an artist at the age of 12. Who knows if that's even true, and who cares? According to Lake's book Cashin started lying about her age when she was only 25, possibly to make her precocious talent seem even more impressive. It's a reminder to me to continually create and recreate myself—and to people younger than myself, it should be a reminder that you don't need school or any other authority to bestow fabulosity on you. Jobs, maybe, yeah, but not fabulosity. That's all you.)

Cashin may have been an unusual woman, but she had a typical woman-artist's story in one way, at least: Her tremendous influence has been largely overlooked and not properly documented. Though she was a hugely successful, both commercially and critically, on her own steam and worked with dozens of prominent houses as well—she was Coach's founding handbag designer!—Bonnie Cashin is not exactly a household name. According to Lake, Cashin virtually invented layering, both as a dressing concept and a fashion term. Same with the word hardware, as it refers to closures on garments and bags. If you're interested in clothing in the slightest, you can't tell me you haven't used those words recently and often. Oh, and lest you think people aren't still wearing her designs, here's a colorful screenshot of a "Bonnie Cashin" term search I did on etsy just now:

cashin_etsy

So snazzy! I'm off to the library for a reading tonight, and I was planning to wear my trusty black jeans and a new dipped-hem camel colored sweater that I've been favoring lately, but I think I've got to take a cue from Bonnie and add a magenta scarf at least.

xx Katie

 

Worn Out, Worn In

I've had my eye on this beautiful book, Worn Stories, since I first saw it in my friend's shop last year. Well, I had my eye on it at the time, I guess, so I added it to my goodreads list, then kind of forgot about it. But yesterday I realized to my horror that CHRISTMAS was upon us, and I knew I'd need some books to comfort and protect me. If I have a good book I can get through anything. I consulted my list, looked up some of the books in the Philly Free Library catalog, and walked to the corner to catch the bus there. I started Worn Stories today and it has not disappointed me. In fact, it's surprised me by being much better than I expected. I spend a lot of time musing about clothing in an intellectual sort of way, and I have no objection to fruity, thinky, noodly pieces of writing on the subject. That's more or less what I thought these pieces—contributed mainly by well-known artists and designers—would be like. But these stories have drama! People are talking about grandmothers emigrating from Sicily, and construction workers fighting off robbers, and Hurricane Sandy. They're writing about silk ties and leather coats, yeah, but also about new babies and race horses and criminal court appearances. There's a lot of life in this book. I'm finding it cheering and more than a little inspiring.

Now, when I was just about to move out of the first apartment I shared with my husband into the house we live in together now, I came across a pair of hair combs I've had for many years. I considered giving them away, but I didn't do that; instead I just considered them. I wrote about them at the time, and I'd like to share that piece of writing with you now, in the spirit of Emily Spivack's engaging, thought-provoking book.

FullSizeRender-7

The Hair Combs

Well, it’s that time again. Time to clear out the clutter, sort through old memories, and decide what should stay and what should go. We’re about to move to a new neighborhood, and all this old stuff can’t come with me. With us. For such a long time it was just me living someplace, just me packing up my stuff to move to some new apartment or new life, but now it’s us. Things have changed and I guess they’ll continue to.

I’ve had a small pair of emerald green hair combs in my bathroom since I was 20 years old—for 18 years now. They’re art deco ones, made of celluloid or lucite in the 1920s in the “Oriental” style that was popular then, with cranes etched into the front. I bought them while I was still in college and exploring the city on my own, which was something I have continued to do in all the years since. Wandering silently, observing the life on the streets around me, then ducking occasionally into some cramped, dim little shop to dig through the old things there and drink in the mysterious energy that always fills those places. Sometimes I’d say hello to the person behind the counter, other times they’d never even see me there as I looked around and they worked, head down as they read or wrote something, their face hidden behind a stack of dusty books or some other fabulous junk.

I hardly ever bought anything for myself back then because I didn’t have much money, and I hadn’t yet grown into the, um, much more developed relationship I now have with the objects I own. I didn’t collect much, didn’t yet hoard things, hadn’t learned the way you can love and relate to an object almost as though it’s a person, with its own life force and set of memories. But one day, in one of those little shops in downtown Philadelphia, I saw these combs and they seemed to glow with the life they’d once seen. Right there in Philly, maybe, tucked into the hair of some beautiful girl who was still young and single and out having fun. The man at the shop was gentle and sweet and he liked that I appreciated what was special about the combs. He told me about their age and what they were made of. I bought them knowing I probably wouldn’t be able to wear them in my fine, slippery hair, and I haven’t. That never bothered me, either. The point of owning the combs wasn’t to wear them, but to begin building a grown-up life for myself, to become that beautiful young girl who was out living it up while her pretty things, her treasures, stayed at home, scattered around the bedroom and on the vanity as though they were half-forgotten, but not actually neglected at all. They were essential, and they played their role seriously and with great dignity, lying around pretending to be unimportant and waiting for me to come back home each night. You can’t be the character without the props. I needed the combs—and the funny wide-legged pants, and the old-fashioned handbags, and all the other stuff I’d eventually acquire that would help to transform me, on the outside, into the person I already knew I was.

The combs have stayed with me all this time, moving back home with me to my mother’s house after my father died, then into an apartment that was just mine—well, mine and Trixie’s, Trixie being the illustrious, glossy black cat who was my closest friend for years—and then here with Joe, where we moved to start a life together. When we were first settling into this place and I was decorating our bathroom, I placed them in the bone china teacup where I keep my earrings, and where I could see them every morning while I did my makeup and hair. It’s never occurred to me before now that I could not have the combs. Like, they don’t even really belong to me, but to the movie set of my life. Could I get rid of them? They’re a symbol of the kind of woman I wanted to become—independent (solitary, even), funny, smart, unflappable—which is an identity I’ve clung to because I’m so afraid to lose it. If I’ve invested all these pretty things with the hopes and dreams I’ve had for myself, would I be giving up on the dreams themselves? Do I need the things and the strength they give me, or could I manage without them?

Right now our hallway is filled with things we’re ready to part with—scarves and gloves and duffel bags, cookbooks and ceramic planters and a wonky little Hibachi grill that tips over every time you pour charcoal into it. Some of them are things Joe and I got together, and some are things we each brought to this new arrangement but don’t need anymore. I took the combs out of their teacup earlier, with the idea to give them away or try to sell them, but now I don’t know what to do. They deserved this little tribute and having written it, I might not need to hold onto them anymore. But here they sit, looking back up at me, almost a part of me now. I can’t decide. I’m a different person now than I was at 20, but that girl still lives inside of me, looks through my eyes, can’t quite believe what she sees in the mirror nowadays. I don’t know if I’m ready to stop being her for good, or to let go of my longing for a future that’s still unfolding.

You Want Beauty? Look in the Mirror.

This movie was so beautifully shot. This post isn't about books exactly, though actually it is a book that saves the day in the end. You'll see.

They show old movies at the Roxy sometimes, and last night they showed Pretty in Pink. It's one of my all-time favorites, so Joe and I went and I dressed in an outfit I'd put together to reference the one Andie wears to the club one night. Most of the people there—most of whom were women—seemed about as devoted to the movie as I am, and even though it was muggy last night and I felt kinda hot in my black blazer and black ankle boots and lace, I had a blast. It makes me want to share a piece of writing I did a few years ago for the Utne Reader on these very topics: my favorite movie, and the art of getting dressed.

***

Whenever I feel fretful I watch Pretty in Pink. I feel fretful fairly often, and I’m not sure I could tell you why. It’s just a thing that happens, especially when I have to get ready to go out and be in front of other people. When I have to get dressed. I’m always able to get over it, eventually, but sometimes I need a little help. Andie Walsh helps me, with her elegance (half on purpose, half accidental), her inventive thrift-store style and orange hair. I’ll put on the movie—for what, the 200th, 300th time?—and watch its opening scene, which shows Molly Ringwald as Andie getting dressed piece by piece. My reaction to the shot of her zipping up the back of her silky, ivory-colored skirt is a nearly physical throb of recognition and longing: That could be me. I could wear that skirt, slinky and sweet. If only I could climb inside the movie and inhabit it, I could possess its main character’s sense of self. I could be that girl.

I’m not really a “fan,” generally speaking. I’m pretty devoted to my favorite bands, and there are a handful of books I love more than most people. But fandom is its own thing, with costumes and conventions, new stories and imagined pairings, and it’s not a culture I’ve ever participated in. I think fan culture is incredible, creative and surprising and useful, but when I’ve tried to negotiate it I feel like I’m visiting a foreign city, never totally sure what people are talking about even though I know a few key phrases.

But then there’s this Pretty in Pink ... thing ... that I have. I was a little kid when the movie came out, so when I saw it a couple years later — when it started playing on TV — I watched it like I was doing research. Okay, this is what being a teenager will be like. I’ll know about music and drive a Karmann Ghia and hang out, incredibly, in a smoky rock club. When the time came, what I actually did was spend four years in uniform at an all-girls’ Catholic lockdown, with mean nuns for teachers and not a single rock club, though my best friend Laura and I did teach ourselves to smoke. It was the 90s by then and I had new, tougher heroes, but the idea of Andie still haunted me, like the promise of something I was about to become. In that opening scene she reveals her sources: All the stuff she’s wearing she either made herself or bought in a thrift store. Thunderstruck, I was. Her good looks weren’t movie magic, but something I could do myself. I didn’t have to wear the same old boring clothes everyone else did! I could look weird. For fun!

Since then I have met people, now and again, who I identify as being like the other characters in my favorite movie. There’s a lovely consignment shop in my neighborhood that’s run by a woman with impeccable taste, who goes by a name she made up and spells with an umlaut. She’s tall and elegant like a teenage Molly Ringwald, but since she’s both older than me and a shop owner (and kind of a kook), I view her as a Iona type. (Iona owned Trax, the record store where Andie worked.) The woman I know doesn’t look half as outrageous as Iona, who was all rubber dress bondage punk one day, beehived nostalgist the next, but she’s got a similarly appealing Betty Boop thing going on. I look up to the Pretty in Pink people I meet in real life. It’s still an aspirational thing for me.

I don’t necessarily need to watch the whole movie, which I own on a special edition DVD called “Everything’s Duckie” that includes interviews with the cast, writer John Hughes, director Howard Deutch, and costume designer Marilyn Vance. I can get some of the same comfort from looking at stills, which by the way blow up tumblr on a daily basis. The images are all so perfect: Andie wearing her rock-star sunglasses, soulful, chin in hand. Duckie pointing down at his busted shoes, with their dirty white leather and pointy toes. In times of stress the movie is never far from my mind, and since I can’t bring it around with me and watch it all the time it’s lucky I have an encyclopedic knowledge of the silly thing in my head. Remember in The Shawshank Redemption, when Tim Robbins comes out of his months in the hole all dazzled and weird, but he’s okay? And he talks about having Mozart or whatever memorized so that he can listen to it whenever he wants? As long as I have the movie up here, I’ll be cool.

A lot has been written about John Hughes and what his early movies meant to 80s teenagers, who allegedly hadn’t see many realistic representations of themselves in the mainstream media till then. People valued the way he gave kids an identity that wasn’t smiley and fake, but spoke to all the passion and pain and utter seriousness folks feel at that age. And I can understand all that, but I was too young to get that from it, and I don’t think that’s quite what I was responding to. As a kid I identified with Andie, but I also used the idea of her to piece together the person I wanted to turn into. And honestly? An awful lot of it was about the clothes.

Andie has influenced my style directly, for sure. There are a few pairs of black ankle boots on my closet floor—when I saw the flat ones with the pointy-ish toe at the secondhand store my heart did this alarming fluttery thing it sometimes does when leather products are really inexpensive. I’ve got a long skirt I never would have looked at twice if it weren’t for the character, and a pair of white mesh gloves that just seemed like something she would wear.

But the role of clothing in Pretty in Pink is, honestly, bigger and less silly than that. One of the movie’s important lessons is that looking like yourself is an integral part of being yourself, so even if you get taunted for it, you absolutely must leave the house every day dressed like the character that is you, and keep your head held high. Andie didn’t look like any of the other kids at school: In old-lady lace and clusters of dangling earrings, she looked like herself. “Where’d you get your clothes, the five and dime store?” says class mean girl Benny to Andie during American history. In that scene Andie has on these fugly round John Lennon specs and a sort of lumpy boiled wool-looking jacket thing, and she couldn’t possibly look better. Can you remember what the bully was wearing? I can’t. (FYI: I watched that scene again just now, and actually Benny looks gorgeous, in a pale yellow blouse to match her pale yellow hair. But who cares? Her meanness makes a caricature of her, all broad brush strokes to Andie’s fine details. She’s forgettable, and the movie doesn’t even bother giving her a comeuppance at the end. She just kind of dries up and blows away.)

And Andie’s clothes aren’t just about who she is, but who she wants to be. She’s embarrassed that her dad is unemployed, and tired of being humiliated by the spoiled kids at school. When dreamy “richie” Blane wants to take her home at the end of their date she refuses, eventually confessing desperately that she doesn’t want him to see where she lives. But even though she’s in pain, she knows that demographics isn’t destiny. In that opening scene, after she finishes getting dressed in her protective armor of jangling jewelry, she shows her dad her outfit, identifying the origin and price of each element of this “latest creation.” The price is significant because Andie’s character doesn’t have much money, unlike the richies with their “American Express Platinum cards.” But for me, a solidly middle class kid who didn’t have the worry of being perceived as poor (but also definitely did not have access to anybody’s credit card), Pretty in Pink spoke to the concept of self-invention in a larger sense. I didn’t fit in—not within the confines of my Catholic upbringing and, because of it, not outside it either—and it might be an adolescent cliche but believe me, it hurts. Sometimes, the movie seemed to be telling us, the place and time and body we’re born into can be a kind of cosmic mistake. You might be unliked or come from an unstylish part of town, but you know that’s not you. If you can make yourself look like the thing you’re meant to be, you might be able to transcend the thing that you—oops! accidentally—are.

Fans of the movie know that it was originally written and shot with a different ending than the one that got released. In that version, instead of ending up with Blane after he’d broken her heart and repented, Andie rejected him at the prom and danced with Duckie instead. The idea wasn’t that she chose her devoted best friend as a boyfriend, I don’t think; it was more like a punky morality tale about taking pride in who you are and not letting anybody trash you around. In the sequence that precedes the dance, Andie sits at her sewing machine and concocts a (you can say it) fugly pink prom dress out of the pieces of a couple of only slightly less atrocious ones, while “Thieves Like Us” by New Order plays. It’s so stirring, watching her work—she’s getting her mojo back. When she explains to her dad why she’s going to the prom even though Blane dumped her and she has no date, she says, “I just want to let them know they didn’t break me.” In case you missed it, the whole point of making the dress was to tell people that they could kiss her ass. Have you ever heard of anything better than that?

According to the interviews on my DVD, that first movie was screen-tested to focus groups of teenage girls who hated the Duckie ending. They wanted the heroine to end up with the stupid dreamboat, so the final scenes were rewritten and shot again (this time with Andrew McCarthy wearing a horrible wig because he had already started shooting another movie for which he’d had to cut his hair). In the new version, Blane finds her at the prom and blurts out an awkward “I love you” (haha what!), and with Duckie’s encouragement Andie forgives him. In the darkened parking lot, lit from behind and through a mist of soft rain, the two have what has got to be one of the all-time great movie kisses. It’s still a major let-down of an ending, though. With respect to you Blane apologists out there (and I know, he was really lovely), that isn’t the Andie I know. She liked herself better than that, would have done something surprising and cheeky and sweet. When it comes down to it, the cheesified Hollywood ending just doesn’t make good on the promise of Andie’s incredible clothes.

As I’ve gotten older, watching the movie sets off pangs of wistfulness in me that never used to be there. Molly Ringwald’s skin is so perfect, and neither she nor I (or any of the rest of you jerks) will ever be that young again. But within the universe of the movie nothing has changed, and I can see now what I couldn’t see then: That the movie isn’t just about teenagers, but seems to live in the mind of a teenager as well. It’s the deadly serious idealism, the unblinking belief in true love, yeah, but it’s the outfits too. Those kids knew that looking cool was important—worth much more, in fact, than most old people would have you believe, and I say this as a getting-old person myself. If you ever feel misunderstood—and really, who doesn’t—get yourself to the thrift store and channel Andie. Let them know they can’t break you. I’ve been doing it for going on 20 years now, and it’s never become one tiny bit less fun.

p.s. A little Pretty in Pink novel came out in 1986, the same year the movie was released, and it was based on the screenplay with the original ending, so if you’re having trouble imagining Andie choosing Duckie over Blane you can buy yourself a used copy and read it. It’s really nice.