The Tropical Print or A Lesson in Hawaiian Fashion History

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When it comes to floral patterns, I’m mercurial in my tastes. I hate everything dainty, delicate or otherwise feminine but sometimes the right colors will lead me to break my self-imposed rules. I love and hate rose patterns with equal measure. I’d never carry a floral bag but love a bold floral pant. I’ve never been able to sort out why one pattern is loved and the other abhorred like the plague. And every time I think I’ve found my rule, I buy another floral print that breaks it.

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The Melodrama of the Seventies

It’s hard to write about the 1970’s. It’s even harder to style it. No matter which way you turn or who you read,  it’s the “decade style forgot.” Every fashion article starts with the decade’s worst violations of aesthetic taste: polyester, shiny pant suits, bell bottoms. It reads like a list of grievances to an estranged relative or if Shakespeare had turned to hate instead of love: 1970’s, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.

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With its countless clichés, the 70’s seem like never-ending fodder for parody. And indeed, no Halloween passes in Minnesota without young freshmen drunkenly wandering the streets in cheap disco costumes. If other decades risk looking too period, channeling the 1970’s means risking someone actually thinking you wandered out of a throw-back Studio 54 jumpsuit party or worse, that you have some sort of left-over teenage fascination for a gimmicky aesthetic.

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It’s a running joke, historically speaking, and so it’s hard to take it seriously, much less for style inspiration. And when high fashion tells us the 70’s are back again (they are), it’s like a cruel game from masters on high, all waiting to laugh at the ordinary as we wander around in unflattering and cartoonish pants. For most people, it’s solid evidence that high fashion is both diabolical and blind. So it’s tempting, very tempting, to declare: I don’t care. I’m not doing it.

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But for me, there is something interesting about taking such a maligned, slandered decade and experimenting (even committing) to its silhouettes, fabrics, colors and accessories.

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It’s like taking a boring vegetable or in this case, an offensively odorous one, and asking: what can I do with this? A good chef is one that can take a hated ingredient and transform it into something spectacular. Style is no different. In thinking about the 70’s, it requires a little sartorial generosity, some willingness to give the decade its rightful complexity and honor its style innovations. As Dominic Lutyens points out (author of 70’s Style and Design), that part of the 1970’s associated with flares and flowery embellishments is only a tiny part of the decade (the early years) but even those have a more compelling history than one might think.

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It was the decade, after all, that jeans and t-shirts became part of the daily American uniform and ordinary people began bypassing mass-marketed clothing for the offerings of the second-hand store and military surplus. Bell-bottoms find their source there (they were originally 19th century sailor uniforms, easily rolled up on the ship and famously kept you buoyant if you fell overboard). Bell-bottoms are like the original thrifted find, the original counter-culture item.

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As a number of sources have pointed out, bell-bottoms are also a bit of delicious political irony. It’s strange that navy pants should be worn by those vehemently protesting, at times paying with their lives, against the Vietnam war. But in borrowing clothing from the navy, those resisting the war effectively turned the military against itself. From an image of force to a style worn by the ordinary teenager, a style defused, appropriated and ultimately disseminated as a form of political resistance, bell-bottoms are a literal exercise in critical satire. It’s not wrong really to associate the seventies with parody, only wrong to dismiss the power of parody, especially in our decade, full of its own controversial wars. A return of the flare? It’s welcome.

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And to be fair, it wasn’t all bad. Think of Angelica Houston’s popped collar plaid coat and Bianca Jagger’s legendary white suit. Pam Grier’s floral tie shirt (and all the incredible costumes from her films), Lauren Hutton wearing Ilie Wacs in this stunning Irving Penn photograph and Farrah Fawcett’s iconic dark flares (I styled my bag after this image).

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And Halston. How can we forget Halston? It was a gorgeous pastel gown by Halston that Beverly Johnson, first African-American woman on the cover of Vogue, was wearing when she made history. And remember Gwyneth Paltrow’s white cape dress (Tom Ford) from Oscars 2012? That too draws its inspiration from Halston, here modeled by another trailblazer, first African-American supermodel, Pat Cleveland. The slinky evening gown, the adored maxi, the easy shirt-dress, we owe this to Halston.

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He was arguably the most important American designer of the 20th century (rivaled only, perhaps, by Bill Blass), not only because his designs were so influential but because hardly an image of the 1970’s cultural scene can be found without him in it, whether at Studio 54 or on the arm of a young Cher. He was America’s Yves St. Laurent, our Valentino, our Cristobal Balenciaga. 

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In fact, the more you search, the more incredible the decade becomes. The more you wish your mother had saved all her 70’s dresses, the more you want to rush out of the house and scour the thrift stores for those memorable silhouettes. You starting thinking about homages and gestures. You start wanting to give it a heartbeat, a sartorial life, a second-chance. You think, this is why I love fashion. The images, the forms, the histories. The way the past comes back and recasts itself (and its hope) again. This time, we’ll do better. 

So in 2015, ask yourself: Why this decade? Why not this decade?

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But if you are still a little gun-shy after this rousing speech, the easiest way is to start with accessories. This is the rule for any style that makes you nervous . They are relatively inexpensive (especially at thrift stores), size/shape free and easy to take off.

My outfit features a few key 70’s pieces: red leather “Farrah” clutch (vintage), a wide-brimmed floppy hat, a beaded tassel necklace and a gold statement belt. Anyone of them worn alone is the perfect nod to the decade, a couple together is a little stronger and pairing them with flares takes you all the way. And since the 70’s come back into style with some predictable regularity, the hat, platforms and frilly blouse were all already in my closet. It’s worth taking a look there first to see what you can find and then topping it off with a few thoughtful purchases.

The key to a good flare is wash and build. The wash on these Mother Denim jeans draws the eye down and the built-in crease keeps the front lines lean. Look for flares in sturdy fabrics with a flare that ‘stacks’ naturally.  Wearing a tailored blazer helps balance out the proportions and a dramatic belt gives shape by defining the hip area.

Whenever an “era” look comes back in, your first stop should be the thriftstore but if you have neither the patience or the time, here are some great options: tassel top (here), paisley skirt (here), fringed clutch (here) wool hat (here), braided belt (here), necklace (here and here )

I’ll be posting 70’s inspired outfits throughout the season but in the meantime, happy disco, friends!

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Details: wool hat (no label, Winners), black blazer (Suzy Shier), beaded tassel necklace (Len), gold belt (H&M), “The Mellow Drama” flare jeans in Stardust wash by Mother Denim (Ragstock), navy blouse (International Concepts, Hudson Bay Company), leather and wood platforms (Minelli France), wool coat (Elie Tahari), red vintage Phillippe clutch circa 1970’s (Rewind Vintage).

Location: Nicollet Island

Photo Credit: Thorn Chen

All That Jazz

People typically think of the 1980’s as a fashion blackhole: acid-wash jeans, teased hair, neon leg warmers. We think of Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, David Bowie. It’s not a decade known for classic feminine silhouettes. I found this All That Jazz vintage dress for a couple of dollars at the Salvation Army and was surprised to learn that All That Jazz was started in 1981 in California.

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In contrast to all the clichés about bad 80’s clothes, this dress is actually a perfect example of the resurgence of 1940’s dress styles that also dominated clothing design in the 1980’s. With its gorgeous peplum detailing on the back, this dress is a brilliant modern reinvention of those ‘slim’ dress styles of the war era.

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It’s a fascinating history, those narrow styles. Born out of the textile rationing instituted by the American government, clothing manufacturers could only use so much fabric in preparing civilian clothing before the American military would come calling for its war uniforms.

What we consider to be a chic evening look (the slim waist-defining dress) was actually a necessary sacrifice of style to the “sober” necessities of war. This is now a well-known piece of fashion history, but it was Christian Dior who broke the silhouette, with the “New Look” girl, in 1947.   

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It’s kind of amazing, really. Standing in this beautiful auditorium, wearing a modern version of a dress that once defined the look of a war.  Fashion seems ephemeral, inconsequential and yet we all wear this living history on our backs. It remembers for us, even when we forget or deny it. It’s an old second-wave feminist cliché to toss fashion into the bin with patriarchy, but there’s a tangible history here, a history of women’s bodies and their daily lives borne out by the cloth they wore.

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But in a decade so notorious for its cocaine and money-fueled excesses, why would womenswear designers want to return to such severe silhouettes from an era of austerity? One answer might, in fact, lay in the most hated part of 80’s fashion: the shoulder-pad designs on the woman’s “power suit.” This too has its roots in the 1940’s which used the shoulder pad to balance out the “thin” profile of dresses made with less fabric.

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Since that decade is also the same decade that saw women entering the factories by the thousands (forever changing the landscape of American labor), the 40’s shoulder pad is effectively a symbol, conscious or not, of women’s participation in the workforce.

That it ended up in the power suit is perhaps not surprising at all.The 1980’s likewise represented a major transformation in labor demographics. Between 1980 and 1985, the percentage of women holding full-time jobs increased dramatically in part due to the rise in “data” jobs and managerial positions.

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Think of Melanie Griffith in Working Girl, or those other countless examples of the wide-shouldered power executive. The look of the woman’s suit, football shoulders and all, wasn’t just a reference to the idea that women needed to look like men to make it in the workplace, it was also a direct reference to the history of American women’s labor. In effect, by borrowing from the 40’s look, the power suit was an homage to the factory workers, a kind of redoing, if you will, of Rosie the Riveter (and lest you think Rosie was white, take a look at this.)

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Think about that the next time you angrily cut out the shoulder pads from a thrifted find! That’s really feminist history there, friends! Give it a good salute! Either way, keep your eye for these kinds of pieces. They are an interesting bit of sartorial history, criss-crossing two decades and ushering in major historical change on both ends.

Like a lot of vintage pieces, mine has a little bit of discoloration and wear (it loves to wrinkle too) but that’s not a reason to leave it behind. Vintage stores now price these reinvented dresses a little higher (according to a few online vintage experts) so it’s worth grabbing them if you find them.

**In case you are wondering how to style something that risks looking too “period,” I modernized this dress by removing the shoulder pads, adding leather ankle-strap heels, statement earrings, a gold belt and a navy jacket topper. **

Details: All That Jazz vintage dress circa 1980s, made in California (Salvation Army), vintage gold belt (Goodwill), black leather ankle-strap shoes (Emerson Fry), black triangle fringe earrings (Buffalo Exchange), Urban Decay Revolution Lipstick in F-Bomb.

Location: Northrop Auditorium, University of Minnesota campus

Photo credit: Marla Zubel. Thanks also to Marla for teaching me about the 1940’s influence on the 80s!

Good Afternoon, Mr. President

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Materials: leather, cashmere, acrylic, rayon

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Patrons: vintage Alfred Dunner skirt (thrifted), vintage gold belt (thrifted), Landsend cashmere sweater (thrifted), Dolce Vita boots, Charlotte Russe pyramid necklace, Joseph A tunic vest, Steve Madden leather bag.

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Scene of the crime: Minneapolis Institute of the Arts

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Tagline: I need a bookshelf

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Camera: working on it.

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Photo credit: Emma Beeching.