Portlandia and the 1890s

(Yes, we realize that's a 1920s flapper costume...it's a part of the joke)

In case you missed the latest episode of Portlandia (on IFC), be warned that it is a marvelous example of history and popular culture repeating itself, and repeating itself again. Apparently, the 1890s are a growing trend in Portland and this episode satirizes the mutton-chop wearing, meat-grinding, modern pre-industrial men and women of Portland. I’ll admit, these things are all pretty hip here in the SF Bay Area too – I know a good deal of canners, knitters, beard-growers and straight-razor-users.

Cheers to costume designer Amanda Needham, who won an Emmy for her work on the show last year, for creatively capturing this unique and comedic version of the steam-punk(ish) trend (though it’s admittedly more utilitarian and less glamorous)! Enjoy the clip if you haven’t had a chance to see it:


*Image via OregonLive

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Noir City Film Festival starts tomorrow!

The 10th Annual Noir City Film Festival starts tomorrow in San Francisco, and Eddie Muller (the Czar of Noir) is pulling out all the stops. The festival runs January 20-29 at its traditional home, the Castro Theatre, and features films from the 1930s-1960s. For the uninitiated, the Film Noir Foundation is dedicated to “rescuing and restoring America’s Film Noir Heritage” and they put on this amazing festival every year. Here are a few highlights to keep in mind when buying your tickets:

  • Angie Dickinson in Person (for a live interview on her career): Saturday night, January 21
  • Laura (1944) with costumes by Bonnie Cashin: Sunday, January 22
  • A brand new 35mm print of 1949’s The Great Gatsby, starring Alan Ladd: Saturday night, January 28
  • A special 10th anniversary celebration, Everyone Comes to Eddie’s, a swanky, sexy, and slightly sinister soiree in which the Swedish American Hall is transformed into a vintage 1940s-era nightclub: Saturday night, January 28, 2012.
  • Noir City Tours of San Francisco: Sunday, Jan. 22 and Wednesday, Jan. 25.
  • The original Maltese Falcon (1931) and a Dashiell Hammett Marathon: Sunday, Jan 29
  • More amazing vintage films that you’ve never seen and aren’t available anywhere else

Sorry to get gushy here kids, but I love this festival and its always got some great gems (not to mention some pretty amazing costumes!). Double-features abound so you really get your money’s worth. But if you can swing it, the Passport ($120) may be the way to go. More details (and a list of films) are available here:

Noir City X

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Vidal Sassoon and the 1960s five point cut

Actress Nancy Kwan with a haircut by Vidal Sassoon, published in Vogue 1968, Photography by Terry Donovan (Click for source)

Over the holiday break, I had a good bit of time on my hands to do some leisurely fashion research, reading and watching. I’ve been on a fashion documentary kick, and most recently watched Vidal Sassoon: The Movie. The film was initially conceived by Michael Gordon (founder of the now-famous salon and product line, Bumble and Bumble) as a short film to give to Sassoon upon his 80th birthday.

I have to say it’s one of the most well-done fashion biographies I’ve seen in a while. It provides wonderful context for the man’s personal history: discussing not only the social contexts of his upbringing (class-ism), religion, and world events) but also the contexts for his most famous haircut – the five point cut. It was popularized by the likes of designer Mary Quant, actress Nancy Kwan, models such as Peggy Moffitt and Grace Coddington (now an editor at Vogue), as well as by designer Rudi Gernreich.

I was struck by how thoughtful and mindful Vidal Sassoon was and is. He reminds me a lot of my grandfather. Sassoon is primarily self-educated, but he sought education in whatever form he could in order to succeed. At one point he even took elocution lessons at the Old Vic Theater in London to help him get rid of his Cockney accent. He is also yet another fashion industry professional fascinated by architecture (both Vidal Sassoon and Charles James had similar affinities for architecture, and geometry played significant roles in both of their design aesthetics).

The film also provides some behind the scenes on the production of the accompanying book, Vidal: The Autobiography. If you haven’t yet seen this marvelous little film (it opened in February 2011, but is now available on Netflix), I would encourage you to check it out (see clip below). It’s surprisingly inspiring.

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Tuesday Teaser: Chorus Girls from a pre-code 1933 film.

Nov. 20, 1933: Fan Dance, Where is Thy Charm. It isn't very difficult to beleieve that these three charmers were selected as the most beautiful chorus girls in Hollywood. They are appearing in the Charles Roger's RKO production, Sitting Pretty. From left to right, they are: Helen Splane, Mae Madison and Peaches Jackson.
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Walter Plunkett’s wild ideas for An American in Paris (1951)

Gene Kelly and Nina Foch in An American in Paris (Click for reference)

In the beaux arts ball sequence of ‘An American in Paris’ [Walter Plunkett] really went imaginative. His materials included newspapers, oilcloth, canvas and felt. The hats were even more extreme. They featured cardboard boxes, sofa pillows and bird cages. One, of papier-mache, took the form of a woman’s leg.”–Quigg, Jack. “Have Nothing to Wear? Use Ingenuity,” The Washington Post; Jul 8, 1951, pg. S10.

You can see a clip of the scene referenced (the New Year’s Eve party)  here.

A nice side-bar for this is that Nina Foch’s gown, according to the organizers of the recent Debbie Reynolds auction, was designed by Orry-Kelly for Walter Plukett in this scene. (Click the image below for more on that!)

Gene Kelly and Nina Foch in An American in Paris (Click for source)
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Marlon Brando on his rebellious ‘Wild Ones’ costume (1953)

Marlon Brando in the Wild Ones (1953) (Click for source)

I had fun making it, but never expected it to have the impact it did. I was as surprised as anyone when T-shirts, jeans and leather jackets suddenly became symbols of rebellion… Sales of leather jackets soared, reminding me of It Happened One Night, when Clark Gable took his shirt off and revealed that he wasn’t wearing an undershirt, which created a disaster for the garment industry.”

–Marlon Brando (with Robert Lindsey) in Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, New York: Random House, 1994, p. 175-6.

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How the Million Dollar Mermaid costume almost killed Esther Williams

Esther Williams in “Million Dollar Mermaid” (1952) Click for source

“Designers Helen Rose and Walter Plunkett fitted me in an extraordinary swim costume—much like a diver’s body suit, only covered, including the soles of the feet, with gold sequins, fifty thousand of them—like chain mail. Atop a gold turban, which was wrapped around my head, they perched a gold crown. And it was the crown that held the dagger. . .”

“I took my position on the disk and the hydraulic lift started rising. Up…up…up I went, the pool, the crew dropping away. The lift finally jolted to a stop. I was perched on the height of a six-story rooftop. Acrophobia! Dizziness! My equilibrium was gone because my inner ear had never fully recovered from the seven broken eardrums I’d suffered through years of living underwater. I suddenly couldn’t tell if I was leaning or standing straight, and my mind—as well as my body—must’ve frozen up there. ‘We’re waiting, Esther!’ Busby barked. ‘Jump!’

I forced a smile for the camera and swan-dived from that tiny platform. Hurtling down, I muttered a silent, ‘Oh, shit.’ I suddenly realized what was going to happen next. The gold crown on my head. Instead of being made with something pliable like cardboard, it was lightweight aluminum, a lot stronger and less flexible than my neck.

I hit the water with tremendous force. The impact snapped my head back. I heard something pop in my neck. I knew instantly that I was in big trouble.

Totally unaware, Mervyn called out, “Great. . . Time for lunch.’ (219) Magic words. You only had to say it once. Everyone—Mervyn , Busby, the crew—trooped across the soundstage and within seconds vanished. Only Flossie Hackett, my wardrobe lady, remained, and only because it was her job to get my costume off for later shooting.

I could kick my legs, so I desperately treaded water; but my arms and shoulders were virtually paralyzed. The back of my neck was in screaming pain. In my mind’s eye I saw the headlines: ‘Esther Williams Drowns in MGM Studio Pool.’ I cried out, ‘Flossie, you’ve got to get some help for me.’

She thought I was joking. ‘C’mon, Esther, you’re such a kidder. I want to go to lunch. I’m hungry.’

Flossie, I’m really in trouble,’ I gasped. “Find two guys who can lift me out of the pool.’

Finally she believed I was serious. She ran to the big soundstange door and shouted, ‘I think Esther Williams is dead. She can’t get out of the pool.’

Some men came running in, quickly stripped off their shoes and shirts, and jumped in to pull me out. I was crying by that time, because the pain was so intense. They carried me to my dressing room. While we were waiting for the ambulance, Flossie carefully removed my gold fishnet bodysuit, rolling it down my body like pantyhose, and those fifty thousand tiny metal sequins were like little knives, nicking and cutting me. (Flossie was supposed to keep my costumes in good repair, so I’m sure the absurdity of peeling off the suit, instead of swiftly cutting it off, never crossed her mind.)

At the hospital, I blacked out from the pain. The X-rays showed that I had broken three vertebrae in the back of my neck. I’d come as close to snapping my spinal cord and becoming a paraplegic as you could without actually succeeding.”

-Esther Williams (with Digby Diehl). The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999 (219-220).


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