Thursday, December 31, 2015

On the Tenth Day of a Feminine Christmas

All over Facebook are folks wishing others Happy New Year.  Many are enhancing their posts with vintage photographs showing people at parties wearing their very finest.  Invariably, someone will lament, "Why can't people dress like that today"?  It is a beautiful thing to see -  grown-ups as we remember them outfitted in stunning formal clothes, but I have my doubts if it will ever swing back that way again. And yet, Instagram devotees seem to gravitate towards those images too so it does seem as though many do want a more elegant way of dressing to be the norm.

Two weeks ago, a friend and I went to a popular local establishment for Sunday brunch.  The dining room was filled with casual dressers as one would expect.  But halfway through our meal three women in their forties were ushered in and seated nearby, all attired in matching pajamas. The hour was after noon.  At first, I was shocked until I realized their clothing choices were not so different than that of the other casual diners:  baggy pants and long shirts with the tails hanging out. I was left with only the question of why women of that age would want to be seen in public wearing pajamas.

I also thought about my mother in her mid-forties and how she dressed at that time.  She was busy taking care of 3 teenagers but when she went out during the day shopping or on errands, she always dressed in nice skirts or pants and a coordinating top or matching jacket.  She didn't have much time for brunching but if she did, I'm certain she would never have worn pajamas.

They say one of the most common dreams is to be caught in public in one's undergarments.  I once had a recurring dream where I was on the busy Main Street of my hometown, wearing only a full slip - a piece of lingerie that is far more covered up than the things some women are wearing to the office these days.  The dream always left me traumatized with embarrassement.

When I was in the fifth grade, our school put on a fashion show to raise money.  The clothes were donated from a sweet little children's clothing shop in town.  For some reason, the sponsors chose my sister and I to wear matching nightgowns, robes, slippers, and carry teddy bears down the runway.  I thought I would die but my mother saw nothing wrong with this - we were children.  The gowns and robes were Victorian in style in a chaste rosebud print.  Looking back, I'm sure we were adorable and I recall the "oooh's and ahhhh's" that elicited forth from the mothers in the small audience.  Today, ten year old's regularly wear pajama bottoms to school.

The beautiful woman toasting us with her champagne glass must surely be dressed beautifully and appropriately.  She's sporting red nails and pearl earrings.  She lives in a world where women knew how to dress for maximum impact and charm.  Actor Glenn Ford, once described his deceased wife by saying, "She stood at the top of the stairs each night looking as pretty as something plucked from the top of a cake".  I'm sure her pajamas never saw the light of day.

I toast you!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

On the Ninth Day of a Feminine Christmas

This is one of my favorite feminine Christmas images which I clipped from a British Vogue many years ago.  I apologize for the quality but perhaps you will understand why I saved the picture if I describe what I see in it.  It's really very pretty.

Our lovely model is wearing a beautiful and simple silk nightgown.  The fire is keeping her feet warm and so, she isn't wearing slippers or a robe for that matter.  A quilt has been tossed to the side in case that changes.  Her tea is at the ready, stacked on some ancient books.  It's Christmas Eve.

The picture was a vignette of images called "Portrait of a Lady" which shows the same model decorating her tree and performing other rituals leading up to the holiday.  But what I see here is a woman at peace, contemplating the season and all it means to her.   This may actually be the first time she has had time to stop, slow down and spend time in front of a tree that twinkles like the infinite night sky outside. Perhaps she is missing loved ones who come to back to life at Christmas as thoughts trail back to the past.

I recently read an article written by a young mother who said she is so exhausted when Christmas day finally comes that it is just one big relief.  But she coined a phrase called "Twixtmas", the meaning of which I have now embraced fully.  Twixtmas represents the period of time between Christmas and New Year's when most of the world slows down if only for a bit.  Without realizing it, I have been honoring Twixtmas for several years.

I make it a point to save vacation days between the holidays for sleeping late, recovering from holiday stress, and to have long stretches of reading and resting.  It is my way of balancing the giving with the receiving.  I give myself a present of uninterrupted time at home.  I rarely go anywhere except to take a walk if it isn't snowing or to pick up grocery items at the market.  I say no to most invitations until at least New Year's Eve.  I find Twixtmas to be a magical optimistic fragment of time that I protect and treasure.  Life suspends in midair and becomes otherworldly.

Twixtmas is also a time of sensory delights - the frost, the darkness, the flicker of candles, flowers and music.  I find my soul speaks louder when the world quiets and my intuition and instincts begin communicating with me.  I don't seem to connect as readily with old grief and worry because I hear my resourceful inner voice again.  My friends have told me that Twixtmas has helped some of their family members who have been scattered, dissipated or struggling with illness and sadness.

If you crave more down time after the holiday rush, I recommend the practice of Twixtmas.  Set aside time to cultivate a part of your busy life that inspires stillness and peace and together we will wait out the darkness with tea, firelight, quietude, and silk nightgowns.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

On the Eighth Day of a Feminine Christmas

This lady is bringing Christmas to someone, at least it appears so since a tree is her passenger.  I always have Christmas Eve at home with family and some friends.  Sometimes there is a new addition as there was this year, a new beau of a friend.  He enlivened the conversation and fit right in.  The weather wasn't fitting in though with its oddly balmy temperatures and it was the topic on and off all night.  I have to admit the fogginess and mild temperatures threatened to steal my spirit but the moon was full this Christmas Eve, a rarity.  We could just see it through the mist.

I may have looked a bit like our tree carrier yesterday, as I drove to my sister's in my little red car, packed with food and gifts.  There were new guests at her house too, and it really added some seasoning to our day.  I was happy to spend time in her beautiful home with my lovely niece and nephew - two young adults I don't see nearly enough of.

There was no need for a fire, but Debbie's mantel was filled with glowing lights and candles.  The roast was delectable, the wine flowed, and as always, we reminisced about those loved ones who live in our Christmas hearts.

In light of my last post on the feminine gifts of the holiday, I thought I would share mine:

~A small basket handbag for summer with leather straps
~An icy-pink cashmere sweater
~Notecards from Orchard House
~A hook for my powder room door made of crystals
~The newest Downton Abbey coffee table book
~A book on practicing yoga at home
~Three sets of earrings!
~French white bakeware

There were other gifts too and one that touched me deeply.  Three weeks ago, I dropped my phone in the toilet at Marshall's while Christmas shopping and was not able to resurrect it.  My new son-in-law bought me a new one with all the bells and whistles I need along with a plan I no longer have to pay for.  The money I save is spearheaded for my 401K.  Despite some hardships this year (attacking woodpeckers to name one) and some life changes (my daughter getting married and leaving home, ending an old job of 20 years and reinventing myself in a new one), I am truly blessed.

Share your feminine gifts with me if you like.  I'ld like to know!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

On the Seventh Day of a Feminine Christmas

Jewelite was a type of plastic that was used for vanity items.  My grandmother had a lovely pink translucent Jewelite dresser set composed of a mirror, brush and comb.  The pretty trio was a Christmas gift from my grandfather sometime during the war years when silver was unobtainable. My grandmother cherished her set and it remained intact (even the comb) for the rest of her life.  I don't think she ever cared that it was not sterling.

I like to imagine the beautiful box of Jewelite under my grandparents Christmas tree in 1942. Feminine Christmas gifts always interest me and when I find a grouping of presents in literature, a diary or a film, I am always thrilled.  I mentioned in a recent post that Lee Leander in the marvelous Christmas movie, Remember the Night, received a crystal bottle of Hour of Ecstasy perfume but she also opened two other tissue-wrapped boxes which contained a sweet homemade pin cushion and a pair of dainty handknit bed slippers with delicate ribbon ties.  Simple offerings that were few in number, exquisite in quality, and pleasing on so many levels.

The first collection of presents that I became enamored with were of course, Marmee's in Little Women.  Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy each gave up their one dollar bills to buy their mother an assortment of feminine luxuries that must have been scarce during the bleakness of the Civil War.  I spent hours imagining Marmee's soft leather gloves, crimson slippers, bottle of cologne, and hemmed handkerchiefs and could see the items arrayed just so on the dining room table awaiting her wintry homecoming.  Are they not the things that any hard-working mother would prize?

Recently, I came across this in Nancy Mitford's romantic novel, The Pursuit of Love:

My presents (from my mother) were the envy of the entire household.  This year (she)...sent a fur hat and a gold and topaz bracelet, whose glamour was enhanced by the fact that Aunt Sadie considered it unsuitable for a child, and said so.

Beautiful and functional gifts...small luxuries to charm and inspire.

In the journal of Alice Stone Blackwell (1872-1874), Growing Up in Boston's Gilded Age, I discovered the following list on a December 25th entry:

~A beautiful necklace and bracelets of little pearly Venetian shells strung together with tiny beads
~A copy of Scott's poems
~A breast pin to match my sleeve buttons,
~A scrolled comb and some notepaper

Some of my favorite Christmas presents have been precious little things that don't necessarily cost a lot but invoke a sense of allure and grace.  These are the kinds of presents I love to give, too.

My grandfather may have wanted his wife to have a fancy ornate sterling silver dresser set.  Instead, he was able to give her something uncomplicated and elegant - decorous in simplicity, yet eminently useful.  And very, very pretty.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

On the Sixth Day of a Feminine Christmas

I found myself with a tear in my eye on the way home from work yesterday, thanks to Sirius Radio's Holiday Traditions station.  Toyland, sung poignantly by Doris Day came on the radio and since I was trapped in a traffic jam, I had a chance to really listen to the lyrics.  Toyland was the very first movie my mother took us to and I recall that cold winter day well.  I had never been to a theater before and the screen was so big and the toy soldiers marched straight towards us from afar.

Soon my reveries turned to my big brother Peter and his manic love of Christmas.  He used to wake us at 5:00 am at Christmas' dawn and I well-remember the darkness and the excitement I felt in the pit of my belly.  We were practically shivering with delight by the time we made it to the living room, and anytime I happen to wake at dawn, - even today, I experience that Christmas feeling.

My brother loved his toys and my sister and I were often the recipients of his new Creepy Crawler set or toy gun.  We reciprocated by making him eat cake from our Easy Bake Oven.  I've never known anyone who enjoyed Christmas as much as my brother.  The run-up to the actual holiday was delightfully excruciating for him.  When I was very small, I asked him why we had Easter and quick as a wink, he replied "To hold us over until Christmas!"

But the words to the song tell us how fleeting childhood Christmases are - there are but a few of them and then suddenly, we are Santa to our own babes.  Mystic merry Toyland, childhood's Joyland...once you cross its border, you can never return again...

Find Doris Day's Toyland on may see yourself and your siblings there, in between the words of its lilting refrain.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

On the Fifth Day of a Feminine Christmas

This is clearly an ad for a blanket.  But I love the cheery disarray of the bedroom, especially the wrappings and ribbons scattered about.  And how will she ever not step on that sweet little tea cup and saucer?  I really love her luxurious sweeping robe too.

I always put some thought into my nightclothes for Christmas.  My mother taught me to do that because so many pictures are taken on Christmas morning while opening gifts.  That's not the case in my house now...and I wouldn't allow it anyway.  But still, I like having new pajamas at Christmas and since a brand new son-in-law will be here, I feel I can't just wear any old thing.

For winter, there is nothing so cozy as a proper robe but I usually wear a long cashmere cardigan over my pajamas.  I love the feel against my shoulders and since I wear spaghetti-strapped pajama tops for comfortable cool sleeping, I need the warmth of a cozy sweater in the morning.  I noticed that a lot of designers, including Eileen Fisher, offer cashmere alternatives to robes and they make great cover-ups when the house is cold.  But mostly, I choose my nightwear just for me and it is still an important holiday consideration of mine.  Call me old-fashioned.

My grandmother gave me a flannel nightgown every year at Christmas.  I still remember some them:  red tartan, printed gold abstracts on a feminine bodice...and I remember one beautiful flannel nightie I bought for myself.  It was creamy white with a wide yoke filled with embroidered flowers.  I remember what it cost too:  $35 and that was a large sum for a new working girl.  That gown is immortalized in my head because of some pictures I have of me wearing it on Christmas morning that year.

Those were the days when nightclothes still mattered.  Lingerie departments were filled with luxe choices and saleswomen actually knew the merchandise and helped out.  Sleepwear and lingerie was a serious business.  Now the largest lingerie store is the local Victoria Secret which always looks to me like an adolescent boy is on the design staff.  I do most of my lingerie shopping online.  I know what I like and I know where to find it.

This year, I have selected a very pretty set of rose-colored flannel pants and matching sleeveless top.  The print is charming with birds and pinecones on branches which contrasts beautifully with the soft color and lace neck trim.  It didn't cost alot because I knew where to look and the exact moment to pounce.  I'll wear my new set with a white crocheted cashmere sweater and pink wool slippers.  I like to match on Christmas.  My grandmother would be proud.

I keep my "robes" across the end of my bed at night.  Someone told me I do that because I'm a lady and although it was a sweet compliment, it's just an old habit.  It's done in almost every vintage film I've ever seen.  I don't think I would take the time to put on robe and slippers if my house were on fire but I find it comforting to have these things close by.

PS:  if you have any Christmas lingerie wishes, I would love to hear about them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

On the Fourth Day of a Feminine Christmas

Love came down at Christmas,
Love was born at Christmas,
Love, all lovely, love divine, 
Stars and angels gave the sign
...Love shall be our token
Love be yours, and love be mine ~ Christina Rossetti

Those are some of my favorite Christmas stanzas.  Rossetti's poem is often referred to as a Christmas carol without a tune.  I love it because it is sweet and sincere and about the sweep of good feelings that often accompany Christmas morning "down the stairs".

The Christmas in the picture depicts a sweep down the stairs of festive boxed perfume sets, the kind of special combinations that perfume and cosmetic houses provide during the holiday season.  I especially like them because one can find coordinating scented products such as body creams and talcs - items that are sold separately at other times of year.  The collections are often boxed with beautiful Christmasy wrappings and sparkles.  But even a lone bottle of scent provides a lovely Christmas gift experience, especially if it's a beloved fragrance.

There is a marvelous scene in the Fred MacMurry and Barbara Stanwyck Christmas film, Remember the Night.  MacMurry's character, prosecutor John Sargent postpones the trial against Stanwyck's thieving Lee Leander because it's Christmas.  Instead, John takes Lee to his family's farmstead where Lee experiences a different kind of holiday than she is used to.  At gift opening time, John's kindly and intuitive mother, played lovingly by Beulah Bondi, gives Lee a bottle of the unopened perfume John had given her the Christmas before.  It is a touching cinematic moment when Lee opens the unexpected gift to find a lovely crystal bottle of Hour of Ecstasy perfume.  She inhales it deeply and gives no clue she knows the present is a re-gift.  Hard-scrabble Lee has not had too many no-strings-attached gifts in her life so I immediately start rooting for her and the budding love that is growing between she and John.  I pray John will be able to drop his lawyer stance and soften his heart for the beautiful kleptomaniac. But most of all, I hope that Lee will be able to receive honest love for the first time in her life and shrug off her tough and suspicious exterior.

A friend told me he still believes that love conquers all, even in today's world.  I cheer for John and Lee every Christmas in the hopes that what my friend knows will be played out on the screen before me again.  I sigh happily when the pretty bottle of Hour of Ecstasy breaks through Lee's icy pain and paves the way for love to come down at Christmas.  Stars and angels gave a scented sign.

Friday, December 11, 2015

On the Third Day of a Feminine Christmas

Without a winter coat during New England Christmastime, you'd surely freeze.  The first grown-up coat I ever bought myself looked very much like this lovely lady's.  It was a rich caramel-color with a luxuriously slippery coral lining.  Voluminous and toasty, it was very comforting, especially on the night I drove home during an epic blizzard.  But I never really thought of coats as comfort until I watched an episode of Joan River's reality show last year.  She had just finished a gig in Wisconsin in the dead of winter and was sitting in the back seat of a limo.  Suddenly, she shivered and then melted into her lush mink coat which enveloped her nearly to the point of disappearance.  A rapturous smile crossed her face.  I knew I had to find a new coat.

Fur was out of the question but I am not opposed to fur-trim or faux fur.  I knew I wanted something cozy and comfortable but it also had to meet my requirement of workday chicness and versatility.  It had to be wool and one that didn't show lint.  I realized I might need to spend a bit more for this dream garment and I was willing to do it.

My hunt didn't take long once an alert saleswoman pointed out that I was trying on the wrong size.  The reason why I never liked buying coats to begin with, is because the larger sizes give me way too much volume in the shoulders and chest even though the fit is perfect for the waist area.  I often sprang for smaller sizes that pulled in the torso but fit perfectly at the collar.  The saleswoman suggested I buy the larger size and consider spending extra money to have the shoulders, chest, and arms tailored.  Brilliant.

The coat I chose is a beautifully saturated eggplant-color in a loden wool.  It has an attached hood with dyed-to-match fox trim.  It looks great but more importantly, it makes me feel secure and protected from dropping temperatures and whatever precipitation falls from the sky.  It's comforting, and like Joan, I burrow down inside it on dark nights in the car as the fur trim gently brushes my cheeks.  I plan on taking good care of my investment piece.  As one gets older, special items like my coat seem to bestow enduring rewards.  Despite the fickleness of changing fashions, I am more and more reluctant to give up the things I really love for the latest models.  My sumptuous new winter coat will have its own legacy.  Definitely to be worn again and again.  Definitely forever.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

On the Second Day of a Feminine Christmas

I just sent this picture to my daughter and wrote, "I am so sorry"... I was well into single parenting when this photograph was taken and I so wanted her to experience a wonder-filled and "normal" Christmas.  She did.  She just didn't like sitting on a strange man's lap.

We laugh about it now and many other things too, but being a lone parent during the holidays seemed a daunting challenge in those early years.  My first Christmas alone, when my daughter was just an infant, I wandered our big echoing house feeling very sorry for myself.  I worried about my future, my daughter's, where I would find work, daycare...time, energy.  I worried the gifts under the tree weren't enough even though my daughter was too young to care.  I realize now it was all the future Christmases that preoccupied me.  But hope came down the chimney that sad first year and I never forgot it.

While sitting before our little tree after having lit a fire by myself for the first time and while my daughter slumbered upstairs, I heard the garage door open.  The only person who had the other automatic opener was my mother.  I raced across the ice cold floors and yanked open the entry to the garage. Her borrowed car was filled with toys, food, and even a cord of firewood.  When she stepped out into the cold garage she said, "Santa came to my house by mistake".  I couldn't speak.  I bowed my head and wept.

Together we propped an old-fashioned doll in a petite wooden high chair and tucked her under the tree.  Nestled nearby was a new pull-sled for hauling baby and groceries which was a welcome gift in the snowy western-Massachusetts hill town where we lived.  There were also muffins for breakfast, orange juice and the aforementioned wood for burning.  Mom didn't stay long and we didn't talk much as we worked -  she had to come back the next morning for the great Baby's First Christmas unveiling, which would not be an easy maneuver for her.  I do remember she held me in her arms before she slipped back out to the garage.  I recall she looked deep into my eyes with a smile that said, "You can do this".  But it wasn't until I watched her snow-covered car disappear down the long driveway at nearly midnight that I realized her visit wasn't to deliver presents and goodies - she came because she didn't want me to feel alone.  And now, years and years later, I have also realized that on that dark first Christmas Eve alone, she gave me a gift that has stood the test of time...courage for the future.  And for a woman who excels at finding the perfect Christmas gift, it is still the best she ever gave.