Fashion and shopping, Melbourne style


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Entries in 1930s (36)



When I was shopping for vintage paper to use in my fine art work, I bought a French women’s fashion and lifestyle magazine called Nouveauté (Novelty). This issue was published on the eve of World War II, in August 1939.

I do find the cover rather odd however: the model’s attire is unappealingly reminiscent of juvenile folk costume – and what on earth is that strange spiky thing skewering her straw hat? I cannot hazard a guess!

Most of the content inside is uninteresting to me (and unintelligible since I only speak a few words of French), but there are a few wonderful fashion illustrations, which you can see below. What I’d really love is to get hold of some French Vogues from this era!


One Blanket Skirt: Check!

At the end of last summer, when I started thinking about my new season wardrobe, I was also starting to lean back towards a more minimalistic approach to fashion. I have gone through these phases before, when deep in the throes of eccentric bohemia, I suddenly start dreaming of its antithesis: minimalism and paring back. It is certainly a startling contrast, and I am not sure why I suddenly change tack, except that it seems to be a natural wave, an ebb and flow in my sense of personal style. It’s as if, after years of minimalism, I find myself longing for simplicity. I make the switch, and years will pass before the pendulum swings again.

Last time I made an abrupt turnaround to minimalism (when I was about 28) I was quite strict – I culled virtually everything vintage from my closet that I had collected during and shortly after my years at art school, and I started from scratch, with a very small colour palette too. This time around (more than ten years later) I have been less rigorous. I have for some time been rather enamoured of the 1970s, as well as the 30s and 40s (my other favourite vintage styles), so I have kept a few vintage pieces in circulation – so long as they fit into a more minimalist aesthetic.

I wanted … a plaid wool skirt that was reminiscent of a blanket – those cosy checked blankets I remembered from my 70s childhood.

Autumn fashion in the USA: a block plaid coat nipped in at the waist, worn with a jaunty hat, 1938. (From Style Book, by Elizabeth Walker, published by Flammarion 2011.)For winter I had decided on what kind of pieces I wanted to keep an eye out for in my various secondhand haunts, both online and in the real world. One of the items I wanted was a plaid wool skirt that was reminiscent of a blanket – those cosy checked blankets I remembered from my 70s childhood. I was very particular on what kind of plaid I wanted: it could be nothing fussy with numerous stripes such as a traditional Scottish tartan.

Jean Shrimpton wears a classic, checked collarless jacket, 1960. (From Style Book, by Elizabeth Walker, published by Flammarion 2011.)I didn’t hold out much hope of finding exactly what I wanted, but browsing one Saturday morning in a Salvos op shop (thrift store), I actually stumbled upon it. Instead of the soft reds and white I wanted, the skirt was woven in quiet tones of smoke blue, soft grey and off-white – basically a blue version of what I had dreamed up in my head. I couldn’t believe my luck: made of 100% wool, the midi skirt fit, and only cost around $8–12.

I wear it usually with a grey jumper, like this short-sleeved sweater, or sometimes with a matt sequin grey tee (another thrifted bargain). In perfect condition, the skirt is so warm too. It’s just like walking about wrapped in a cosy blanket, perfect for some of the very cold days Melbourne has given us this winter.



(Dressed to the nines includes a white tie)

Once upon a time, people used to dress up to go out. Not just on a special occasion – every day was an occasion. There were particular outfits for all sorts of activities, whether a woman received her girlfriends wearing a teagown, wore a pretty pleated white tennis dress to run round the courts in, a smart suit and gloves for a trip to the city, or a dramatic floor length gown for a Saturday night at the theatre. Today you can go from morning to night in the same outfit, and so much glamour has gone out of our lives thereby. Life has become much less exciting.

I have a little theory – which I have not researched at all, but I like it: the cult of celebrity has reached such heights today, with people obsessively following their idols, precisely because their own lives are so dull. Normcore has been western culture’s downfall. People’s own sartorial adventures are virtually nonexistent that they must vicariously live through the wardrobes of the famous. They have nothing much in their own lives to look forward to, so they read about others’.

Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in a scene from his play Private Lives, 1930Fashion magazines and bloggers report celebrities’ fashion follies and triumphs both, with a fanatical degree of attention to the minutiae of a star’s wardrobe. Look at the frenzied degree of interest provoked by the Duchess of Cambridge’s recent tour in the Antipodes. Fashion websites crashed, dresses sold out in minutes after photos of Kate were published online.

Of course not everyone is so dully clothed all the time, but certainly many Melburnians – especially in our cold winters – dress purely for practicality, and in a style that is hardcore normcore. One can venture into the city and be greeted by a sea of black, grey and navy blue.

White moiré dress with terraced shoulders and train, by Maggy Rouff, 1930; illustration by Carl EricksonI work at a theatre, so I am lucky enough to regularly attend shows, and many opening nights. I have found it remarkable that even on opening nights many theatregoers dress casually, even in jeans. Where is their sense of occasion, their sense of fun? Part of the delight of an evening out is the anticipation prior: planning one’s outfit, getting ready in the hour(s) before. It’s what you look forward to at the end of the week.

Earlier this year Volodya and I attended Melbourne Theatre Company’s opening night for Noël Coward’s Private Lives. Cocktail dress was stipulated for the evening, with an emphasis on the Art Deco style of the era the play is set in. My choice of gown was easy: a black satin crepe floor-length backless gown in a style very reminiscent of the 1930s, while Volodya wore a suit (though not the one in this picture). It was lovely to receive many compliments from both friends and strangers on the night. I was still surprised however to see a few attendees completely ignore the dress code and come in casual weekend wear.

Clark Gable and Constance Bennett in After Office Hours, 1934Volodya and I had a few amusing wardrobe misadventures that made the beginning of the evening memorable: first the bottle of soda water I opened at home burst into a fountain all over the front of my dress breast to thigh; then Volodya discovered a button on jacket was hanging by a thread so that I had to resew it on; on the way to his car my favourite dainty black heels broke and I had to run back upstairs to find inferior replacements; and finally after we exited the car, I spotted a stubborn white mark on Volodya’s rear, which I had to remove with the aid of a bit of spit and a tissue. Fortunately we both have a sense of humour. It was like a sitcom, but only the prelude to a hilarious evening with lots of laughter.

So go on, dress up – and live the movie of your own life.

Coco Chanel’s 201 gown from 1933; illustration by Carl Erickson


Thou Shalt Know Thy Style


Everyone talks about style. What is it? It is not fashion, which comes and goes, changing fundamentally between generations and eras, influenced by social mores and pervading attitudes; it is not in the successive polar opposite trends that sweep through the seasons as though designers deliberately wish to confound us; or in the week to week harassment of chain stores and online purveyors of goods and eager bloggers that bombard us with newsletters, urging us to enter the lists and race the clock with ever increasing speed, to be more fashionable and up-to-the-minute than anyone else. Fashion is driven by mass consumerism touting a desperate theology of looking younger, cooler, thinner, sexier, faster – and, inevitably, just like anyone else.

Checks of all sizes are chic, eye-catching and elegant. Four models at Roosevelt Raceway, USA, 1958. To make such a suit modern, I would wear a pair of fierce heels and definitely NO pearls.

Style, though, is innate. It is an instinctive and discriminating response to fashion, and sometimes it is in fact against it. Style embodies the spirit within, and encompasses elegance, grace, and wit. It is far more than simple obedience to fashion rules, for a stylish woman knows which can be broken and when - she is not moulded after a pattern card of classic chic, for that would be too easy. She is confident in her sartorial choices, she knows who she is, and sometimes she must be more than one woman in a single day. But whether she is athlete, professional or mother, her clothing will always possess a certain sense of style, unique to herself. It cannot be entirely quantified, for it is as individual as her own personality.

Style is confidence in your choice. It is the ability to carry off the outré or the merely witty with panache.

A Parisian dress of black tulle with a cape of black lace is worn with a cloche hat. Here’s a more elegant way to wear sheer, and uneven hemlines, than today’s inelegant mullet dresses. No visible bra spoils the plunging line of this backless dress either: take note!A stylish woman will draw attention and admiration not only by her attire, but in her bearing or posture – and the way she carries herself, walks, stands, gestures, speaks – and certainly also in her grooming.

This sense of style takes time to develop – years, sometimes – and some never quite find their footing, puzzled by and rendered indecisive by the myriad of options clamouring for their attention.

In the simplest of terms, personal style is about what you like, rather than what arbiters of fashion say that you should like. It is knowing your figure and what suits you, in taking pleasure in dressing to please yourself, rather than others. Style is confidence in your choice. It is the ability to carry off the outré or the merely witty with panache. Equally, style can be dazzling by its sheer exuberance, or it can possess a quiet force in minimal elegance.

Anna Wohlin, girlfriend of Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones wears a spotted blazer and wide white loons with big shades and a floppy hat in 1969. Elegant, chic and oh, so cool. A different take on trousers in 1976: Charlotte Rampling dons mannish tailoring on a film set, with accessories that look just so.Style cannot be taught however, and it is not necessarily inborn, it is rather developed over time through self-awareness and conscious choice, which eventually becomes unconscious habit and even instinct.

This probably sounds daunting and a lot of work for something so apparently frivolous (although I would present the argument that feeling one looks one's best is an enormous boost to the self-esteem, impacting on every aspect of life), though it is an evolution that usually begins in the teens, developing fully in adulthood.

But for the fully-fledged adults that believe themselves entirely lacking in style, beginning may be an entirely pragmatic and truncated step, rather than the wild experimentation of teenagerhood that is gradually honed over the years. So in an entirely practical vein, what is required to achieve a stylish appearance with the quickest results?

The first commandment states: Thou shalt know thy sartorial identity, understand thy figure and garb thyself accordingly.

So where to begin?

Click to read more ...


Fine and Dandy

Dandies, also known as beaus or gallants, have been around for a long time. A dandy’s raison d’être is Style – through ‘physical appearance, refined language, and leisurely hobbies, pursued with the appearance of nonchalance in a cult of Self.’ [Wikipedia]

George Bryan ‘Beau’ Brummell, caricature in watercolour by Richard Dighton, 1805Though not the founder of the movement, Beau Brummell (1778–1840) epitomises the notion of the dandy in English society, and was the arbiter of fashion in Regency days (think Jane Austen for you non-history-nerds). He was elegant, immaculately dressed and groomed, and despised the extremities of fashion as worn by the outlandish ‘Macaronis’ of earlier decades.

Fond of plain, dark suits worn with perfectly starched linen and accessorised with an elaborately tied cravat, Beau Brummell instituted a style of men’s dress that has reigned for the past two centuries. He was one of the first celebrities, famous chiefly for being famous, as a ‘laconically witty clotheshorse’. A socialite of olden days in fact. 

This fashion shoot elegantly photographed by Jurgen Teller for Arena Homme in the 1990s is inspired by the dandies of Evelyn Waugh’s era. There is an elegance in these pictures, with a dash of subversive wit to leaven them. The (mostly) black and white photography with faint echoes of René Margritte and the minimal set are immaculate, and the styling and art direction clever.

Enjoy this wonderful homage to the dandy of the twentieth century.

Click on the images for larger versions.

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