Wednesday, July 28, 2010

At the Beach....

I am at the beach this week. Off from work and trying to cram a year of wishes and desires into one short week. Yet, mostly I am catching up with books under my pink beach umbrella. Here are some of the things I am reading this week:
Jane Eyre - I just completed Charlotte Bronte's novel for the 6th or 7th time. It never fails to soothe and it teaches me that perserverance can offer rewards. Jane is a heroine for all centuries (more on Jane in another post).
Getting the Pretty Back - I am really enjoying this book by Molly Ringwald. It's a take it or leave it read as I'm picking and choosing the chapters that offer me something. Molly is all about taking care of oneself - a great lesson for vacation week.
Good Evening Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Painter-Downes - This is a Persephone Books feature. I grew up hearing my mother and grandmother's homefront stories and this book cuts right to the chase. Painter-Downes wrote these short stories for The New Yorker during WWII and they are both poignant and history-rich and almost all from a woman's perspective. I am really enjoying them after having the book in my possession for over a year.
Is anyone else enjoying beach reading?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

On Bandboxes and Lingerie....

I often think I should have lived in the 1860's. This view was born of a great love of the novel by Louisa May Alcott, Little Women. Reading this book led to a life-long obsession with bandboxes (the March sisters each had one) and the fripperies they contained. A young lady's bandbox held ribbons and bows, lace collars, snippets of trim, all the things to adorn a frock and make it fetching. "She is as pretty (or as neat, or as trim) as a bandbox" is an expression that has merit. If a young lady had a bandbox of such things, then she must have cared about her appearance and making herself attractive.

Gradually, a lack of frippery has pervaded fashion (notwithstanding is this summer which is fashionably notable for its ruffles). But I do know something that still gives a frippery lover her due - lingerie. How else can a woman still wear laces, bows, wee silk flowers, sumptuous fabrics everyday day but on her unmentionables?

If you've been to a lingerie department (a good one), you know how lovely underwear can be. The colors, cuts, styles, fabrics, trim are all exceeding my dreams these past few years. I'm speaking of quality lingerie, not the fall-apart-after-one-wash kind. And it can be costly to have things that last but the investment is almost always worth it if only to feel pastel stretchy lace that doesn't itch under ones arms or a beautifully trimmed strap beneath a plain cotton t-shirt.

It is said that Frenchwomen will spend over $100 on a bra. Some have them custom made for $800! To have a bra measured to fit precisely, to be able to choose between organza trim or lace, silk charmeuse or silk noil, and whether one wants a tiny crystal or a rosette handsewn in the center, must be the ultimate luxury. Imagine the feeling of wearing such a bra to work under office-appropriate attire. It would be a private secret, a reminder of the dreams of a girl who fantasized about bandboxes and their feminine contents.

I adore taking care of my lingerie, mending it, washing it in suds in the sink, wrapping it in towels and hanging it. Knowing that I am protecting my investment and that these things are made to last in today's throwaway world makes me feel good.

I read once that all women are gypsies at heart; that if any woman is given a feather boa to wear, she will begin to dance and move in just the right way. I think the same can be said for lingerie. When I put on a lovely set of lace and trim I find I begin to move in the just right way too and suddenly, I feel pretty as a bandbox.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Perfume Love

The quickest route to sweet yesterday is perfume. Each spring when I bury my face in fresh picked lilacs from the backyard, it is suddenly Flag Day at Hildreth Elementary School and I am outside under the flag pole reciting Flanders Field in ankle socks that have slipped down inside my shoes. The sky is always blue, the day is always perfect. Of course, in a New England spring, lilacs have long passed by June 14th but that is the special gift of fragrance; it elicits a place and evokes feelings and emotions that once existed for an entire span of a season, a full year, or a brief and shining Camelot of one's own.

An actress of a certain age that I admire said that she wept openly upon entering a cab in New York which was filled with evidence of a prior unseen occupant - the perfume scent of her beloved and long departed grandmother. Perfume creates time travel with far more horsepower than music or old photographs. If you want to know who you were once upon a time, open a bottle of yesterday and you will soon be wearing the shoes of your younger self. It's a poignant pull and one of the many reasons why I love fragrance.

My introduction to perfume was the day my grandmother pulled down a cobalt blue bottle of Evening in Paris from a shelf in her linen closet. It had been a gift she detested and was about to pour it down the sink when she let me sniff it. I thought it had an intriguing scent but because she clearly disliked it, I wrinkled my nose in support and then enjoyed watching it disappear down the drain. My grandmother always smelled fresh, like lemons but when she was dressed to go out, she wore the single flower scent of Lily of the Valley.

My next foray into the perfume world was when I would secretly open and smell my mother's Woodhue. It was a warm fragrance which was very different and more complex than my grandmother's. I haven't smelled it since but I'm sure if I did, it would remind me of my longing for my mother's closeness and how beautiful she was to my little girl's heart.

My maternal grandmother lived in a city apartment and took buses to her job and exposed to me the power of Jean Nate splash. It made a hot day bearable. Her regular scent was White Shoulders and anytime I smell its heady violets now, I am transported to her bedroom with the 30's style vanity and round mirror and the hot sunlight edging through the slats of closed venetian blinds.

A former chic boss sprayed her office everyday with Elizabeth Arden's Eau Fraiche. It had become a cult favorite only asked for privately at the counter and drawn from a cabinet in the back. It's not really a perfume but a form of toilette water that lingers just a short while and is meant to be a cooling refreshment. My boss bought me my first bottle of Eau Fraiche and advised me to keep it in the refrigerator for summer spritzing. I always have a bottle on hand and share it with a friend who brings an empty atomizer to my house every summer for a fill-up. Eau Fraiche takes my friend back to her "disco days" of yore. I'm glad I can help her make that trip.

As a teenager, fragrance was always tucked into my Christmas stocking and I began to feel the power of perfume as a feminine tool. For a time, I wore Chantilly and my high school boyfriend loved it and begged me to wear more of it. I was conservative then and afraid of overdoing it or afraid I couldn't handle the reaction of my boyfriend to even more of what he liked.

With perfume, we have supernatural powers. We can "haunt" people we love or more specifically, people whom we want to love us. I was at Jordan Marsh in 1978, the day Estee Lauder's White Linen hit the selling floor. It was fresh and clean and people began to associate it with me. My ex said he smelled it on his sweaters after our dates. This time I used more.

With perfume, we can become immortal, at least for a time. Our scents may linger in our closets and on our clothes long after we are gone. How dear to pick up a scarf that belonged to a beloved relative and smell her scent one last time. Another friend of mine experienced this and kept her mother's scarf in a plastic bag until she found the perfume online. Now she wears both the scarf and the perfume whenever she needs her mother.

Today, I am fickle when it comes to my perfume choices. Chanel # 5 is my go-to fragrance, especially in the winter. It's warmth and comfort envelope me like my favorite wool boucle coat. It's familiar and soft and I know I am always right when I have it on. But I am not true to #5. Lately I've been cheating with a new love, Balenciaga's latest, shown above. It's been my favorite thing to wear this summer, as much as my well-loved linen cargo pants, my silk Pucci headband, and my rattan tote. The bottle is lead crystal with a charming cracked egg stopper. It feels great in the hand and meets all esthetic requirements, a very important perfume criteria for me.

I don't know a lot about base notes, dry-downs, etc. but I do know that Balenciaga begins as a symphony on my skin, with brass trumpets and horns. Soon, it turns into a delicate harp where it floats until the next day. There's a flute of a peppery note in the beginning but if I wait just a half hour, it melds into a soft ethereal ever-present delicacy that cheers me during a tough day at the office and reminds me of who I truly am. I cannot be without it right now even at bedtime. It's that good. Perhaps the violet in it calls out to that 30's style bedroom where I am able to find my grandmother once more dabbing on her White Shoulders and smiling at me from her vanity mirror on a hot summer day. Or maybe perfume is just water that smells nice. When you find the fragrance that does what Balenciaga is doing for me this summer, perhaps you will know the truth.