Thursday, 27 June 2013

Last-Year Reads: Hot Tips by Frances Patiky Stein

I don't think Frances Patiky Stein would approve of what I'm wearing today. To set the scene, I'm wearing one of my  favourite summer outfits: flat sandals, a mid calf sky blue cotton skirt, and my Orla Kiely orange striped T-shirt. And then, let me introduce you to Frances Patiky Stein, if you haven't been acquainted yet. She's a former fashion director at Glamour and Vogue (under Diana Vreeland) and has Calvin Klein and Chanel on her C.V.

I heard about her book Hot Tips through the blog Allways in Fashion, and - always eager to expand my vintage tips library - got myself a copy. Published in 1981, this book is aimed at "the busy professional woman" and, I have to say, lots of her advice left this busy professional woman stone cold. The aim of her style of dressing is to look as long and lean as possible. That means dark colours, absolutely no horizontal stripes on a larger bust, a slight heel, and never anything that hits the calf. Oh groan, I thought, skimming over her advice, how boring.

Frances Patiky Stein writes in safe and easy formulae and deals in simple relaxed uncomplicated neutral clothes guaranteed to end up with a sleek and uncontroversial look. To me, the book read like a series of SEO-friendly Refinery 29 articles: twenty-four ways to wear a sweater, twenty-four ways to wear a blouse and so on...

And then you get to her diet advice. Anyone who advises you to weigh yourself every day and to keep a calorie counter in your handbag, in your kitchen and next to your bed is going to win little enthusiasm from me.

The strength and the weakness in Stein's advice is that it's so precise. Here's her formula for one of my favourite subjects - successful summer dressing:

"Navy T, navy cotton pants (or skirt), pale peanut butter belt, pale peanut sandals, wood bracelets, small gold stud earrings, plus careful hair and make-up. Tan canvas-and-leather shoulder bag."

While there is no space for error in her advice, there seems little space for experimentation either. As I was reading the book, I had the words of Kennedy Fraser (from roughly the same period) rattling around my head: "there is a cult of luxurious simplicity which is often mistaken for style, but this is only a sophisticated level of good taste. The woman who extols perfectly plain white silk shirts and perfectly plain black cashmere pants and who expresses utter loathing for frills and ruffles almost never has real style. Her kind of simplicity is costly, and it is usually timid."

Though, at this point, I probably could have left Ms Stein well alone, I did some more research. In 1980, the year before this book was published, she joined Chanel as new director of accessories. In 1987, she founded her own accessories brand which granted her the dubious honour of being one of the brands name-checked in American Psycho. Patrick describes his fiancee Evelyn wearing: "a cotton blouse by Dolce & Gabbana, suede shoes by Yves Saint Laurent, a stencilled calf skirt by Jill Stuart, Calvin Klein tights" with "Venetian glass earrings by Frances Patiky Stein".

But I found her work before this 80s excess more interesting - and redeeming. Stein left Vogue in 1975 and went to work for Calvin Klein as his artistic director. Both this NY Times article and this Vanity Fair piece define her three years as working for Calvin Klein as crucial to defining Klein's signature style. Though there was lots I disliked in Hot Tips, I could see her dressing formula translating across easily to the designer's work and the benefits of her exacting eye on getting something to fit just so. If I was to buy an expensive suit jacket, I think I probably would want to look at her advice on its fit: from the length to the collar, the sleeves, the buttons and definitely the bust darts: apparently on no occasion should you buy a jacket (or any top) with bust darts.

Halston, with Frances Patiky Stein and Joel Schumacher and Joanne Creveling. Photo: Sal Traina. Via

Perhaps the most out-there section in Hot Tips is her "scarf wardrobe" which goes far beyond the usual fancy knots and headscarves. Stein has the reader fashioning bags and bras out of their scarves too. In a 1989 article from the LA Times, she's still espousing the same kind of scarf philosophy:

"'I collect them. It's like buying dishes in an antique store,' said Stein by phone from her Madison Avenue office. 'On my travels, I always include a knitted cashmere that I can use as a bathrobe.'"

So I was interested to come across this quote from her in Radical Rags, describing the late 1960s:

"I remember so well a dinner at my house, at which Loulou de la Falaise, Marisa and Berry Berenson each wore a remarkable turban tied together with Byzantine intricacy out of at least four pieces of thinnest Indian bias-cut fabric. Each one was different and each tied a turban better than the other. I remember standing over them, trying to understand how each of them did it."

These experiments with scarves don't seem too far away from the most bohemian styling promoted in 1975's Cheap Chic. While, through the glasses of retrospect, I find their kind of dressing much more inspiring than the idea of a capsule wardrobe, through Stein's advice you can see the shifting of style in this period, from the fantasy created by Diana Vreeland at Vogue (who Stein worked for), to the kind of dressing for real women and real life that her successor Grace Mirabella promoted. It was a flick through Grace Mirabella's In and Out of Vogue which gave me much more sympathy for Stein's advice, or at least an understanding of the feeling that created it. "Remember: EASE + MOBILITY = MODERN" writes Stein. Mirabella notes of the same period that "new designers stripped the idea of casual dressing down to its barest ingredients and came up with a new style of separates dressing that was so pure, so light and so pure to the move and contour of a woman's body that they redefined the entire notion of clothes ... the result was pure gutsiness, sheer ease, and thoroughly modern beauty."

By the end of my research, I'd definitely mellowed to Steins and, to her credit, I think you could still follow 99.9% of the advice given in Hot Tips and look extremely well-dressed (leave the scarf bra at home). It's just, for me at least, standing out is more of a mark of stylishness than seamlessly blending in - and it's definitely more of a challenge.

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