Fashion and shopping, Melbourne style


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Princesa Tatiana

Francisco Goya’s Doña Isabel de Porcel, c. 1805Many years ago in a grade 9 art class our teacher gave us the task to copy an old painting. He opened the drawers of a plan press full of prints of old masters, and I pulled out Francisco Goya’s Dona Isabel de Porcel. I thought she was beautiful, with her creamy skin and all the drama of that luscious black lace. I rendered her in soft pastels, and impressed my teacher.

So when I was in Barcelona last year, I hoped to find a few traditional garments: a mantilla and comb, a flamenco skirt and fan, perhaps a piano shawl, but I was sorely disappointed.

The only flamenco skirt I found was made in cheap and nasty polyester, and was expensive to boot. On the last afternoon I discovered a little boutique specialising in Spanish shawls. Of course the ones I liked most were antiques, costing over €500 apiece. I did find a little vintage fan however (I assume it was vintage by the very old box it came in), although I doubt it is any older than the 50s or 60s. 

At home, I researched paintings of Spanish women and cobbled together an outfit from the depths of my closet. The taffeta skirt is vintage 50s; I had found it on eBay some time before and forgotten I had it – I thought it was perfect for a Spanish lady. The blouse is an old favourite, the 40s gloves have been with me for years, and my white ‘mantilla’ is a souvenir from Vietnam. The filigree earrings are actually from Portugal, a cheap imitation of the extremely beautiful sterling silver pieces I admired but didn’t buy.

The crowning touch is the flowers in my hair. I found a wonderful blog entry focussing on strong Spanish women in the art of the 19th and 20th centuries. They don’t all wear black lace, but nearly all are adorned with a flower or three of some sort. Click through to admire them at It’s About Time.

(The backdrop in my image is of the Palácio Nacional de Sintra, Portugal, the only palace in Sintra in which one was permitted to take photographs.)


Widow’s Weeds

Really a Portuguese widow, stalking the treacherous cobbled streets of the Alfama district in LisbonBlack is, and has been for a long time, the colour of mourning in much of the western world, so it is interesting that the picture of a black-garbed, mourning widow is popularly associated with the Italians. Perhaps this is because in some parts of Italy it is customary for a grieving widow to never put off her blacks. In fact, this is also common in areas of Russia, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Mexico.

The original ‘Italian widow’ is of course Queen Victoria, famous for her long grief over the death of her beloved Albert. However, strict social rules regarding mourning dress had been established long before Victoria ascended the throne.

Mourning ensemble, 1870

The Rules

Victorian jet mourning broochA widow was expected to mourn her husband for up to four years, which required her to lead a quiet, sober life as well as don the black apparel that showed respect for the decedent. To put off her blacks earlier was to court scandal and, if she was still young and attractive, risk a tarnished reputation as a loose woman.

During the first year of ‘full mourning’ her costume was black and constructed from matt fabric such as crêpe. Decorative trim too was simple, but especially non-reflective – hence the popularity of jet (gemstones cut from fossilised carbon) in the Victorian age*. Even her accessories were black, from shoes and parasols to fans and handkerchiefs. Frivolous hats were strictly forbidden; in their place simple black bonnets and heavy veils were worn.

Mourning bonnet, 1870s (usually worn with veil attached)

Mourning fan, 1887–89

Mourning dress, 1850s

Mourning coat, 1907Mourning dress, 1880

Mourning cape, 1895–1900

Mourning parasol, 1895–1900After a year had passed, a widow entered ‘half mourning’, and grey and lavender could be introduced into her wardrobe, and the widow could now sedately re-enter society, which had been proscribed to her during full mourning.

Unsurprisingly, a complete wardrobe makeover was costly, particularly for the lower classes, and overdying existing garments was a practical way to reduce the expense.

The rather picturesque term ‘widow’s weeds’ comes from the Old English word ‘waed’, which means ‘garment’ …

The rather picturesque term ‘widow’s weeds’ comes from the Old English word ‘waed’, which means ‘garment’, and it is easy to imagine what a somber vision these ladies must have presented on the streets of London, enveloped as they were in acres of fabric. The weight alone must have bowed their shoulders if grief did not!

Fashion Notes

I have often remarked that I rarely wear all black, and one of the main reasons is that I feel far too somber and funereal in it. The last time I wore this ensemble (many years ago now, with different skirt and shoes and sans veil – basically only the crocheted lace top and silhouette is the same!) a co-worker exclaimed that I looked like an Italian widow. I rather like this little outfit however – perhaps because it is so thematic, rather than everyday wear that happens to be black.


Gwyneth Paltrow in Possession (2002) *There is an interesting scene in the film Possession, (adapted from A.S. Byatt’s book of the same name), starring Gwyneth Paltrow, in which her character visits an antiques store in Whitby, England, to trace the origins of a jet brooch. (Incidentally, I really like Paltrow’s costumes in this film.)

Historical costume images from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, except for jet brooch. Click on images for further details on individual pieces. 


Mad Millinery

The Vintage Hat Series: 50s feather hat.

Hats constructed entirely from feathers are completely mad. Not to mention utterly impractical. I am not talking of a bit of sedate marabou trim, or pheasant feather here or there, but a veritable frenzy of feathers. Observe:

Vintage feather hat with matching fan…… modern feather hat with matching fan.

Crazy, right? These hats are for showoffs: exhibitionists who strut their stuff and puff out their plumes; the peacocks of society. But, but … they are so much fun!

So inherently airy and light, feathers are full of life. Plucked out of the natural world and sculpted into fantastic creations by artists, they adorn the heads of human birds of paradise.

And you need to be a little exotic to dare to flutter out of the house in one of these numbers…

(L-R) Designer unknown, Getty Images; Philip Treacy, V&A Images; vintage 60s conical hat.

These hats are for showoffs: exhibitionists who strut their stuff and puff out their plumes…

When feathers are dyed such vivid colours as the pink above, or whimsically transformed into signage (below), it is easy to forget their origin, but they certainly do not look any less wild for that. The natural properties of quills and vanes combine strength and flexibility, as well as a delightful frivolity that must easily capture the imaginations of mad milliners, both past and present. Philip Treacy patently adores them, as did his muse, Isabella Blow.

Mad hats by Philip Treacy and all worn by Isabella Blow.Historically, feathers were not merely a fashionable accessory, but like jewellery an indicator of rank. Juju hats are traditionally worn by village chiefs in the Cameroon region of central Africa, and are made from brightly coloured feathers sewn onto a raffia base. A continent away, feathers again are utilised to signify leadership in Native American tribes, to create headdresses that are both fierce and beautiful.

I want them all, delicious and impractical as they are. There speaks my frivolous, exhibitionist little soul!

Juju hat in vivid pink. Popular with interior designers today as wall hangings.Made from 2000 Ginni feathers, this beautiful hat is traditionally prepared, wrapped, and hand sewn by artist Sunshine Stam, an Apache/Cherokee Elder.


London is the capital of Paris*

“I’m sure I’m not Ada,” she said, “for her hair goes in such long ringlets, and mine doesn’t go in ringlets at all, even when I slave away for hours with the curling wand and use product and everything.”

“Besides,” continued Tatiana as she fanned herself with the White Rabbit’s quaint antique wooden fan trimmed in navy silk ribbon, “I don’t like the name Ada at all. It is so unglamorous. Not like my name.”

“And I’m sure I can’t be Mabel, for I know all sorts of things and she, oh! she knows such a very little! She’s the sort who would show her ankles in public,” Tatiana continued her snide internal monologue, forgetting for the moment that she was a giantess and sitting cross-legged on a tiled floor in a most unladylike fashion.

“I don’t like the name Ada at all. It is so unglamorous…”

Tatiana tossed the white kid gloves about thoughtfully. “Let me see: four times five is twelve, and London is the capital of Paris, and Paris is the capital of Rome – no, that’s all wrong. I’m certain! I must have been changed for Mabel! I’ll try and say ‘How doth the little—’”

How doth the little snake
Weave its snakey little way
Through the grass and take
Me for its prey?

How cheerfully he seems to smile,
And speaks with lying tongue
Of merely basking in the sun,
Yet strangling me all the while.

“I’m sure those are not the right words,” said poor Tatiana, and her eyes filled with tears again as she went on, “I must be Mabel after all.”

Tatiana mournfully gazed at the large pool of tears, and just moments before she wholly gave way to hysterics she suddenly remembered. The absinthe! It was surely all crocodile tears, she told herself, and cheered up immediately.

Any moment now she’d shrink magically back to her proper size and slip through that door into that lovely garden.

If only it were that easy for all of us.

*With apologies to Lewis Carroll for butchering his text.


Words From the Bluestocking Salon

You might have noticed by now that I rather like stockings. I don’t mean pantyhose. Yuk. I hate the constrictive feel of them around my tush. You feel like a sausage. Even more annoying is when you go to the loo, you have to pull them down and up again caaarefully so that you don’t twist them (urgh, even more uncomfortable!). And you have to make sure patterns are straight, or you don’t just plain old go stick a finger right through those 10 deniers.

Stay-ups or thigh-highs, or whatever is your preferred appellation for them, are traditionally known as ‘stockings’. Stockings, before the invention of nylon and later, Lycra, were held up with suspenders. Men might find them sexy in the bedroom, but have you ever worn them out? The horror when one of the buttons come undone! Surreptitious fiddling, sideways looks … I’ve been there; it ain’t pretty, and I ain’t going back.

Of course, you may have read of my misadventure with stay-ups – I don’t say they always stay up, but they do add a little spice to your day!

I have managed to collect a few different pairs. You’ve seen the red ones, and the black and white striped pair. And now you’ve seen the cobalt blue ones with the saucy bows. Apparently (according to Wikipedia) in the mid-eighteenth century, blue stockings were daytime or more informal wear; however, I won’t be wearing these out in public any time soon.

They were in fact my attempt to locate some like the pair Kirsten Dunst wears as Marie Antoinette in a love scene that is the epitome of sugar and spice, and all things nice.

Once upon a time, calling a woman a ‘bluestocking’ was deemed an insult; aimed at educated, intellectual women. (Of course, that’s been reversed these days with the affectionate term, ‘bimbo’.) There was even a Blue Stockings Society of England in the mid-eighteenth century – women met together to discuss arts and literature. (Select males were invited on occasion.) That sounds rather like fun, especially when you learn that ‘tea, biscuits and other light refreshments would be served to guests by the hostesses’.

Below you’ll find some vintage ads from the 40s and 50s which are gorgeous to look at, even if they hark back to a time when many women were more bimbo than bluestocking.