Monday, 15 September 2014

Fancy New Fancies

I was meant to be setting up a professional website; instead I found myself creating an entirely different blog. Fancies is my new toy, a brand new blog devoted to brand new things, from fashion to interiors. You can take a look here, follow it on bloglovin here and on Twitter here.

It's going to include the kind of thing I wrote about for Domestic Sluttery and the kind of thing pictured here, plus a few more "in my wildest dreams" pieces. Basically it's a place for all my materialistic urges, meaning Last-Year Girl will continue on its vintage/bookish path: not quite as new, not quite as shiny, but equally beloved by me.

Hope you enjoy reading/looking at the pictures/window shopping along with me!

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Buying Biba

Biba is having a moment. Well, Biba always seems to be having a moment. Remember the excitement about founder Barbara Hulanicki's range for Topshop? Or the Brighton exhibition last year? Even House of Fraser's Biba collection (nothing to do with Hulanicki) can't seem to dampen the love for this 1960s and 70s label. That's certainly reflected in the prices: clothes that were proudly pitched at secretaries, as well as model girls, now go for hundreds and thousands of pounds. 

Part of the reason for the current enthusiasm is down to this gorgeous new looking book, The Biba Years, published by my friends at the V&A and written by Hulanicki with Martin Pel, the curator of the Brighton show. The Biba label is also strongly represented in next month's Kerry Taylor auction, as the sale includes Lorraine Harper's Biba collection. Harper worked for the company between 1970 and 1975 and her role, which included merchandise planning and overseeing production, means she was able to collect one-off Biba pieces as well as the kind of merchandise that defined Biba as a lifestyle brand. Over at FarFetch, they're also promoting a collection of vintage Biba, sourced by the L.A. boutique Decades.

Biba vintage cat print trouser suit, FarFetch

It's amazing how fashionable these Biba pieces look in 2014. Check out this vintage cat print trouser suit for example. See also: culottes, floral trousers, chunky platforms.

Madeline Smith, photograph by David Silverstein. Via

Biba vintage geometric print mini dress, FarFetch

At FarFetch, the Biba items have been listed alongside contemporary pieces that share the same aesthetic, including many of the accessories from the new Saint Laurent collection.

Biba black and white striped lurex dress, early 1970s, Kerry Taylor Auctions

Biba dress photographed by Arthur Elgort for British Vogue, November 1972, via

While Biba's original photography and merchandising, and the almost-mythology surrounding the Biba stores, create a notion of undeniable glamour, perhaps the most noticeable thing about the clothes themselves is that they seem so wearable. They're clothes you can imagine buying for parties and special occasions, or even every day: I'd like to wear an awful lot of these clothes regardless of their label. That combination is as potent today as it must have been in the 1960s and 70s. Imagine what it must have been like when the clothes were also comparatively affordable.

Biba vintage off-shoulder maxi dress, FarFetch

Sunday, 7 September 2014

What's your fashion type?

Bullock's tea room, Los Angeles, 1920s. Via. Is this the "daily fashion showing during luncheon"?

How would you describe your fashion personality type? Are you artistic, with a love of vivid colours, peasant necklines, and bizarre jewellery? Or are you modern, sleek, boyish, “just now shingle bobbed”? I’ve taken those descriptions from a 1920s guide to fashion personality types by L.A. department store Bullocks (as quoted in this post on American Age Fashion), but – according to Elle magazine at least – these questions are just as valid in 2014. Their September accessories supplement asks the question: “What kind of woman are you?” with possible answers including The Athlete, The Lady, as well as The Modernist and The Artist (illustrated with some vividly coloured bizarre jewellery, naturally).

The September issue of Elle UK pushes fashion ‘types’ in a big way. In her introduction to the issue, editor Lorraine Candy writes: "I'm excited about a/w 2014 because there are no style rules - every trend is open to your own personal interpretation, which means fashion is fun again … Now you can be anything from a BMX biker girl to a power woman dressed in superbold colours." Exciting, yes, but it's further into the magazine they get to the real crux of the matter, writing: "In her 10 years on the magazine, Anne-Marie Curtis has seen some remarkable seasons come and go. And this one: It's tricky."

For fashion magazines that thrive on picking out trends and must-have buys, this disparity of styles is tricky. Simon Doonan expands on this in a piece for the FT:

“The fashion landscape has never been more vast, diverse and mind-numbingly confusing than it is today. Where there were 20 designers, there are now 20,000. Where there was serenity, there is now only mayhem and despair.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the fashion commentators – editors, reviewers, fashion directors – are in total denial. Rather than cop to the fact that mother fashion has exploded and fragmented beyond all comprehension, these advice-givers persist in distilling the season into a neat little cluster of trends just as they always have: masculine tailoring! Couture shapes! Grey is the new black!”

He concludes with the advice: “In order to traverse this endless fashion landscape … you need only take one simple step: you must adopt – drumroll – your own signature look.”

Except it’s not that easy, is it? No matter how closely you opt in or out of trends, they do influence the way we get dressed in the morning and they help us judge, for better or worse, the people we encounter. Most importantly, they help drive that urge to go shopping, because (if you're me, something along the lines of) you realise you don’t own any culottes and suddenly they look quite fresh and fashionable and actually you quite fancy trying some.

We’re not in the early 70s anymore, but – according to Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s account at least – towards the end of Diana Vreeland’s editorship at Vogue she being criticised for not letting her readers know about trends: by encouraging them to create their own style, she was alienating them. Moreover, she was losing the support of the magazine’s advertisers who needed her to push trends.

Thanks to the internet, it’s easier to go shopping and buy anything we fancy. Perhaps we’ll see more fashion ‘types’ used again in editorials and by shops to help us navigate all the choices, with future purchases governed by BuzzFeed-style quizzes. Back to September 2014, “Here's how to nail it, whatever your style” states Elle, giving you options whether you are A Rock Chick, Ladylike, Boho or A Minimalist (these types all distinguished by the Use Of Capitals). However, just like Bullock’s insistence that dark hair and dark eyes qualify you as the artistic type, this argument isn’t terribly convincing either. We can have days when we want to look ladylike, (perhaps a job interview), or like a rock chick (at a gig maybe?). Talking about people in terms of fashion types seems even less persuasive than talking about wider fashion trends.

In a much wider field, how we going to be made to Buy More Things? And to Buy The Things the huge clothing brands want us to buy? The answer is probably closer to Doonan’s suggestion of a signature look. But I imagine that signature look won’t be your own: it’ll be the look of a celebrity or, more likely, one of the uber bloggers, who can attract dedicated and devoted readers. Read about their lives; shop their wardrobe. Less fashion personality types; more fashion personalities.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Behind the velvet rope at New York's El Morocco

Last year, I took you behind the scenes of Studio 54 as a collection of memorabilia from that legendary club was put up for auction.

A collection from another famous New York nightspot, El Morocco, will be auctioned next month, giving us a chance to step behind their infamous velvet rope.

It’s the collection of John Perona, who opened the club in 1931, initially as a speakeasy. In its heyday which latest from the 1930s to the 50s, El Morocco became known as a haunt for the international rich and famous. The auction itself is largely made-up of the objects Perona bought with his profits from the club, a mix of fine French treasures and complete kitsch (this balance of class and kitsch seems to typify El Morocco), but there is also plenty that those obsessed with this apparent golden age of glamour can salivate over.

El Morocco is attributed with starting some of the customs associated with the most exclusive establishments today. There was the velvet rope, lifted only if you withstood the doorman’s intense scrutiny. You were then led to your table, and heavens forbid if it was the remote part of the dining room nicknamed ‘Siberia’. And then there are the countless photographs of the stars, shown against the distinctive zebra-banquettes. There are many of these photographs available in the auction, sold in lots of 125 a go, and they feature the most starry of names: Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth, Clark Gable, Salvador Dali (he did like a party – remember he was also pictured at Studio 54?).

These pictures, most likely taken by the in-house photographer Jerome Zerebe, who perhaps helped invent the idea of the paparazzi. He said in an interview quoted here: “The social set did not go to the Rainbow Room or the El Morocco until I invented this funny, silly thing of taking photographs of people. And the minute the photographs appeared in the paper, then they came.”

This photograph of the famous debutante Brenda Frazier meeting autograph hunters is press-ready, caption and all. I would also love to sit and read through the scrapbook of carefully assembled press cuttings that’s also available in the auction.

VIPS were certainly made to feel welcome at El Morocco. They appear to have been lavished with gifts, if sample of Pucci scarves, ashtrays and jewellery pictured here are anything to go by. There was a newsletter. Then there’s the El Morocco Family Album, published in 1937 as a gift for regulars and featuring their photographs taken at the club (see, for example, the page featuring Little Edie Beale, shown here). Copies of the book already sell for thousands, so no doubt Perona’s own volume, signed by the likes of Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and Gloria Swanson, will attract some considerable interest.

The crowd was carefully cultivated. Along with the names who would attract newspaper coverage, there would also be the businessmen who could pay their way into (and would actually pay in) the club, as well as debutantes, European nobility and the likes of Truman Capote, a regular at El Morocco long before he was famous because Perona thought he was interesting. It was where, according to a 1930s advert, “smart New Yorkers welcome the elite of the world.” Or, in other words, the place to see and be seen. In D.V., Diana Vreeland recalls visiting with Clark Gable: “We arrived; we stood behind the red velvet rope. By then, word had gone out that Mr Gable was in the house, and Mr John Perona, the owner, came to take us to our table. Clark grabbed my hand. 'Don't look left,' he said, 'and don't look right, just keep walking. Hold on to your hat kid, this place is gonna blow!' As he said it the place went berserk, I mean berserk! The stares! The people leaning out over their tables! It was almost animalique, like a roaring zoo.”

Nights spent amongst the plastic palm trees and zebra upholstery were fondly remembered. Powers Model Carroll McDaniel recalled: “From my point of view, El Morocco was the most glamorous place in the world. It had an atmosphere that was magic and which you couldn't get in any other place.” Laura Shaine Cunningham, meanwhile, collected some wonderful memories in this piece for the New York Times, from getting dressed up in Hattie Carnegie to dancing with Gershwin. This lost glamour was evoked by Truman Capote in his story “La Côte Basque, 1965”:

Mrs. Matthau extracted a comb from her purse and began drawing it through her long albino hair: another leftover from her World War II débutante nights—an era when she and all her compères, Gloria and Honeychile and Oona and Jinx, slouched against El Morocco upholstery ceaselessly raking their Veronica Lake locks.

Perona died in 1961, not long after the club had relocated to a new address. The auction includes letters of condolence sent to the family, including this one from Joan Crawford. While the era of El Morocco has gone, and its zebra banquettes sadly long rotted, this auction gives tantalising hints of what lay behind the club and its velvet rope. Who wants to come in with me and buy one of those sets of photos?

All pictures from El Morocco: The John Perona Collection auction catalogue by Doyle New York, 16 September 2014.

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Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Last-Year Travels: Porto and Lisbon, Portugal

Back in the frantic pace of a rain-lashed London, it's hard to imagine that this time last week I was skipping (read: walking at that extra slow pace only achieved by tourists) around a sunny Portugal, enjoying my first visit to Porto and my second to Lisbon.

Lisbon has changed a lot in the intervening seven years. It's certainly noticeably easier for tourists in regards to things such as finding good meals, although some locals we spoke to feared it was changing for the worse, becoming much busier, much dirtier. But, for now, both cities have so much to offer visitors. They're beautiful places to explore for starters, with brilliant museums and architecture, with beaches and spectacular scenery close by. There's some great shopping to be had in high streets not yet dominated by chains. And with specialities such as Port (obviously) and ginjinha, they're a great place to imbibe, relax and be merry.

Here are the rooftops of Porto in the historic Ribeira area of the city, a maze of twisting streets and steps with wonderfully seedy back stories. Today the story is that the riverfront is packed with visitors who take advantage of the stunning views as a backdrop to their food and drink. Across the river is Vila Nova de Gaia dominated by the very English names - Taylor's, Graham's - of the Port wine manufacturers' lodges. 

There's many more examples of stunning architecture to be discovered. The Art Deco Serralves Villa definitely falls into the category of my fantasy home.

Out towards Lisbon, meanwhile, the castles of Sintra verge on the fantastical, with the make believe views to match.

This was the holiday I also discovered I share my name with a glorified meat sandwich. This is the Francesinha (meaning little frenchie), a combination of ham, sausage and beef sandwiched in bread, covered with cheese and covered with a brandy-infused spicy sauce. And served with chips (these were half portions, apparently).

Lisbon's food scene has been enhanced meanwhile by the opening of the food court at the Mercado da Riberia - you could have another Francesinha, if you really wanted to, or speciality seafood, hamburgers, sushi and many tempting desserts (we may have been tempted).

Portugal does good drinking. Some of Porto's good bars are clustered around Galeria de Paris and Rua Cândido dos Reis, although at this stage of the holiday we were still struggling with the British vs Portuguese drinking hours so perhaps didn't explore as fully as we could. Last time we went to Lisbon, we hung around those lining the streets in the Barrio Alto. The crowds seem to have got younger (or - more likely - we got older), so this time our drinking seemed to be more centred around the formerly down at heel, you'd only go there to get the train to Cascais, Cais do Sodré. Above is one of the restored drinks kiosk in the area, adding prettiness and yet another opportunity to drink to the area.

And you could paint the town pink on this street, the Rua Nova do Carvalho. We really liked Sol e Pescais - a tiny bar packed with fishing equipment and tinned fish. Never has tackle seemed so hip.

Shopping in both these cities are great if you want a break from the usual chains. Porto's Livraria Lello & Irmão is the stuff of Pinterest dreams, regularly featuring on lists of the world's best bookstores. Photography is restricted to an hour each day, and it's so rammed with tourists there's no space for casual browsing. Nonetheless it's undeniably stunning.

The picture is taken in Ler Devagar in Lisbon's LX Factory - also a place with a claim to world beauty - a huge converted factory space with art installations and the chance to eat your dinner squeezed between the components of a printing press (surely the ultimate for any book geek). The LX Factory is a 19th century factory complex, now transformed into a hub for design and the arts. It sounds pretentious but it's delightfully laid-back, a great place to spend a sunny Sunday.

Talking of design, MUDE - the Museum of Modern Design and Fashion - has also opened in Lisbon since my last visit. Set within the sympathetically converted environment of what was once the huge main branch of a bank, there's an interesting changing rostra of exhibitions and a great display that gives the potted history of design in the twentieth-century, all for free.

There's plenty of opportunity to shop vintage too - pictured is Porto's lively fleamarket. I made a return trip to Lisbon's Outra Face de Lua too (where I previously picked up this dress and some deadstock Pop84 trousers this time). Also check out its neighbour Viúva Alegre (which translates as The Merry Widow, and comes complete with a cute cat!) and Ás de Espadas.

Perhaps the very best kind of holiday. And definitely with no need to heed this command, spotted from our hostel window.

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Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Elsbeth Juda, 1911 to 2014

I’ve only just heard that Elsbeth Juda died last month. While not a household name, Elsbeth was a connector and supporter, devoting herself to help artists and designers to become the household names.

Elsbeth Juda (on chair), at work, via

I was lucky enough to meet her when working on a book about the Ambassador magazine (I briefly mentioned it back here). The Ambassador Magazine grew out of the Dutch magazine International Textiles, and became The Ambassador thanks to Elsbeth’s husband Hans after the Second World War. It was used as a vehicle to promote British textiles and industry.

But that’s the barest headline details. Hans and Elsbeth were childhood sweethearts who fled Germany in 1933, carrying – as described by Elsbeth – only two suitcases and a violin. They threw themselves into their new British life with gusto (really, it’s hard to imagine them doing anything without gusto). Hans coined the slogan ‘Export or Die’ and The Ambassador, as suggested by its name, was his vehicle for taking British design and innovation around the world.

It was a trade magazine, so copies are extremely rare to find today, but it was a trade magazine with a difference. Artists such as Graham Sutherland and John Piper were commissioned to design covers, or illustrate the pages – frequently they found themselves encouraged by the Judas to design textiles as well. Elsbeth – working under the name ‘Jay’ – photographed many of the features for the magazine. How do you make a visit to a textile factory more appealing? Elsbeth’s answer was to wrap model Barbara Goalen (a frequent face within the magazine) in the cloth. This was the photograph – still so eye-catching and modern-looking today – we chose to use on the cover of the book. They took models to Switzerland and to Rio, injecting some of the gloss of their consumer counterparts into the industry. We also reproduced some of the features in full in the book to try and give a sense of the wit and energy that ran through the pages of the magazine.

Spread from The Ambassador Magazine book, showing imagery taken by Elsbeth to promote Lord & Taylor's British fortnight. Via Lizzie B design (Lizzie designed the book). 

The Judas were ambassadors in their own right too: Elsbeth, for example, went to the United States to forge vital connections that enabled the establishment of British fortnights in Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus. While clearing the photography permissions for the book, I corresponded with the relatives of the artists and designers with which the Judas had worked so closely. I was told again and again what a difference they had made to their parent’s careers, encouraging them, publishing their work, pushing them further, putting them in touch with the right people.

Some Ambassador magazine covers. Again via Lizzie B Design

One afternoon after the book had been published, I went with my manager to visit Elsbeth, who was then aged over 100, and to take her copies of the book. It should have been a 30 minute courtesy visit. Instead, we were encouraged/told to sit and join her for some celebratory drinks. We drank and talked and found ourselves introduced to a steady stream of people, of all ages and occupations, who had dropped into her apartment to pay their regards to Elsbeth, and really to have a good old gossip. The champagne was opened… I left 3 hours later (and only because I had another dinner invite). A quote from Maureen Lipman, used in Elsbeth's Telegraph obituary, sums up precisely how she appeared: “Elsbeth is a living affirmation of the staying power of being eternally curious.” As no doubt, many, many others will remark, I feel privileged to have met her.

To find out more, as well as The Ambassador Magazine book, you can view copies of The Ambassador magazine at the National Art Library at the V&A. The V&A also holds the archive of the magazine, while the National Portrait Gallery holds some of her work, including this lovely portrait of her and Hans. Elsbeth was one of the centenarians included in a project by Chris Steele-Perkin: Elsbeth's portrait is in the bottom right and was taken on the balcony of her flat. 

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Thursday, 7 August 2014

Last-Year Reads: Seven Sisters Style by Rebecca C. Tuite

Saddle shoes, plaid skirts, sports jackets: we’ve been here before when I wrote about how the spring/summer 2014 collections resembled the pages of a 1940s edition of Life magazine. With these fashionable reworkings of preppy style, the publication of Rebecca C. Tuite’s Seven Sisters Style this year is extremely timely – this book explores how the fashions worn in this prestigious group of American women’s colleges became markers of prestige and, in turn, set fashions and continue to have a powerful grip over the popular imagination.

As a British reader, I may need to look up the names of the colleges that make up the ‘Seven Sisters’ (that’s Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley Colleges), but I’m already well-versed in the style, thanks to films such as Mona Lisa Smile or Love Story, fictional graduates and students including the likes of Betty Draper from Mad Men and Baby from Dirty Dancing and countless magazines editorials, as well as looking at too many Life magazine pictures online. The influence of these students is powerful, yet perhaps not as well explored or fetishised as their male counterparts.

Tuite’s book explores the female version of “The All-American Preppy Look”, to quote her subtitle. Arguably, it’s slightly more interesting than looking at men’s preppy style, because of the intense scrutiny that is always given to how young women dress and appear in society. There are definite overlaps between the styles of the two sexes, the women taking cues from the campus styles of their brothers and boyfriends and dressing in button-down shirts and penny loafers, but there are definite items that belong to the girls. There are their weekend suits, for example – the subject of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s Vogue writing competition winning essay (she’s pictured in her suit, white gloves and pearls in the book), or the cardigan – apparently as early as 1916, Modern Knitting promoted patterns for seven different cardigans, each named after one of the Seven Sisters colleges.

Seven Sisters Style traces the commercialisation of the look, from the foundation of the colleges to the first college shop at Stern Brothers in 1930, under the supervision of former Barnard Student Estelle Hamburger, to the rise of brands such as The Villager in the 1950s and 60s in creating a mainstream version of collegiate style (especially interesting to me, due to this favourite vintage piece of mine). But what I loved about this book was discovering some of the individual fads that held sway on campus, such as the raccoon coat, pictured here on astronomy students at Smith in 1929. Initially worn to watch football games by Princeton students, they became popular with women students in the 1920s, a fad revived in the 1950s. However, the most desired coats were the most well-worn and “ratty” looking numbers, as “old and seedy as possible”. Some enterprising Smith students even set up their own secondhand raccoon coat agency for those not lucky to inherit an authentic hand-me-down. Visiting Vassar in 1947, Simone de Beauvoir noted a similar trend for denim, worn and dirty jeans contributing to the “studied carelessness” that defined these young women’s dress. And there’s no denying how many of their styling tricks still look undeniably cool today, from pushed up sleeves, to the embroidered name pictured running across the thigh of one pair of jeans that had me eyeing up my sewing kit. 

What’s also amazing is how well reported these trends and fads were, thanks to the likes of Life. It’s a 1937 Life article on Vassar that Tuite cites as the turning point in the influence of Seven Sisters style, while a 1944 feature, showing two Wellesley girls wearing “sagging jeans” and “baggy shirts”, “made the nation’s jaw drop and set tongues clucking round the country”, according to The New York Times magazine.

Looking through the beautifully illustrated pages of Seven Sisters Style, it’s easy to understand why these images held such influence. Photograph after photograph shows young women, sometimes with their young men, looking young, vital, handsome and happy. It’s very seductive. These college uniforms carried a status, and promised a corresponding lifestyle. Books such as The Bell Jar and The Group (both quoted in Seven Sisters Style) gain some of their power by their challenge to the happy-ever-after so inherent to the marketing of this style.

I wonder how much my fascination stems from being a British reader, an outsider (interestingly, the Tuite was also born in the UK, and went to university here, although she did spend time at Vassar as an undergrad), where our own ideas of college style is very much restricted to the male Oxbridge type. The style certainly has a currency outside of the States: just think of the continued popularity of American brands such as Ralph Lauren who are synonymous with the preppy look and the corresponding lifestyle. While Tuite is excellent on explaining the development of the Seven Sisters Style in all its permutations, and its influence on American fashion, she’s not quite as convincing in explaining why the look carries such global appeal. It turns out everyone wants to be an elite American college student. Young, envied by the world: it's no wonder the women pictured in Seven Sisters Style look so happy.

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