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During the day, Mom worked as a teller, and at night and on the weekends she attended classes in tailoring. When I started elementary school, people started noticing the clothes she made for me. Soon she was earning pin money and satisfying her creativity by sewing dresses and pantsuits for the working women in town and making alterations on band uniforms, prom dresses, and store-bought clothes … To her, sewing traditionally, the way she had learned it in tailoring school, was an art.

From the food memoir Bento Box in the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America (Seal Press, 2006), by Linda Furiya.

In this quote Ms. Furiya is speaking of her mother, who was born and grew up in Tokyo where she worked as a young woman in a bank and learned how to sew on the side.

In need of some reading escapism, I was shopping my bookshelf and came upon this book. I actually started Bento Box years ago when it first came out and enjoyed it but, I put it down and didn’t go back to it until now. That is strange as this time around I could have read it in one sitting.

In her memoir, Ms. Furiya shares with us the challenges of growing up in a small Indiana town in the 1970s. Her hardworking immigrant parents spoke English awkwardly, the Furiyas (she has two older brothers) were the only Asian family in town, and she felt somewhat lost – disconnected from her Japanese culture but also less than a part of the American culture into which she was born.

Traditional Japanese cuisine played an important role in the family and Ms. Furiya uses food as a entrée into her stories. A food writer and former food columnist for the SF Chronicle, she offers details of her father’s Japanese produce garden, long road trips to secure essential ingredients sold only in large cities, and her mother’s impressive cooking skills. Sprinkled into larger tales, are descriptions of family meals that included steamed buns, rice balls, and other mouthwatering delights. (There are recipes at the end of each chapter.)

My favorite stories are of the family travels to visit other extended family in Brooklyn, NYC, New Jersey, and Japan. In the early 1970s Ms. Furiya travels alone with her mother to Japan. Meeting her mother’s family for the first time and settling into this new yet familiar culture, she finally is able to connect to her heritage but not without some inner conflict. I really enjoyed the descriptions of Tokyo and the family from the unique perspective of a ten-year-old girl.

Of course I also love that she includes fashion and textile references throughout. Food, travel, fashion. What an excellent pandemic escape book.

On another note – today is International Women’s Day, a day when we honor all that women have achieved. How to celebrate? Add a touch of purple to your outfit. Purple is the official color of IWD and one of the three suffragists colors, it symbolizes loyalty. Another way to celebrate the day is to buy and read a book written by a woman. I recommend Bento Box.

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When I was taking a fashion history course earlier this year, I was determined to avoid the Internet for any research I had to do. Why? Because I prefer books and thanks to the many fashion history books I’ve collected over the years, it was easy to keep the promise I made to myself.

One book I didn’t own (and it would have been quite handy) is 100 Years of Fashion by Cally Blackman (Laurence King Publishing, 2020).

Blackman, a fashion historian, university lecturer, and author, digs into fashion history from 1900 to circa 2000. She discusses high society, the everyday lady, designers, and all the trends from the S-Bend silhouette to Grunge.

The book is divided into two sections: 1901-1959 and 1960 onward, making the subject accessible for the serious student and the casual fashion admirer. Both sections include an overview of the fashion trends of each decade and the historical context for those trends. A complete index makes for quick and easy research.

Another reason I prefer fashion books to a search on the Internet is I can more easily study the provided photos. Similar to an exhibition catalogue the bulk of 100 Years of Fashion is photos and illustrations with captions. The over 400 images provide a visual documentation of twentieth century fashion history. Such examples are essential for fashion study, not to mention the eye candy factor.

The compact size of the book makes it a great choice to take on the road if attending a fashion conference or traveling to take a course (yes, one day the pandemic will be over).

I noticed while researching various fashion history topics that each book I went to offered a little different angle, giving me a more complete understanding. In other words, you cannot own too many books on fashion!

Books are on everyone’s gift list this year and 100 Years of Fashion is an excellent choice for anyone interested in fashion. Support your local independent book store! Most will special order whatever title you’re looking for.

Let the holiday shopping begin.

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The bodice was from a red satin gown I found at the thrift store where I work – halter neck, structured, water-stained in a couple of spots. I hacked the top part off the dress, altered it, and water-stained it all over so it looked like a pattern. The skirt was one of the first things I made out of completely new material … At first I made it in a pretty basic shape – fitted at the waist and flaring outward to glorious fullness. A good twirling skirt. But it wasn’t quite speaking to my soul. So, I started adding on to it. I sewed on some ribbons, flowing along the hemline. I added sequins to match. And then I saved up and got myself some fancy fabric paints and painted this wild, multicolored … things all over it. The whole thing came together when I found that red satin gown and realized it was the last piece I needed to turn this initially simple skirt into the beautiful dress it was meant to be.

Kimi Nakamura – protagonist in I Love You So Mochi, by Sarah Kuhn (Scholastic Press).

I can’t resist a novel whose protagonist has a thing for fashion. I Love You So Mochi is a charming young adult novel that tells the story of high school senior Kimi Nakamura and her struggle to figure out what she really wants to do with her life. Her mother wants Kimi to become an artist (what? not a doctor?) but Kimi isn’t feeling it, and is drawn more toward fashion.

Kimi is Japanese American and when her grandparents, whom she has never met, invite her to visit them in Japan, she goes and makes discoveries about her family, herself, and falling in love.

I really enjoyed Kimi’s journey, which speaks to everyone – those of us who already went through this stage and those young ones who are facing their wide open futures right now. The Kyoto travel guide is fun as are the Japanese food references, particularly the mochi. And of course, Kimi’s inspired fashion designs are the most fun.

I Love You So Mochi is an excellent holiday gift choice for any young fashionista.

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When I was a kid growing up in San Francisco on the occasional Sunday afternoon my father and I would drive to Chinatown, park (because you still could), and walk around looking in all the shops. The stuff in the stores was fun to peruse but I was more captivated by the older Chinese people I saw strolling along Grant Street and the unique way they dressed. Their style was was bold and bright – mixing patterns with checks, layering unexpected color combinations such as red with yellow, and sporting something like my Mary Janes but made from black fabric (they looked so cute and comfortable).

Fast-forward quite a few years and not only is Chinatown style still thriving (with a new generation of older people), but we have a recently published book on the subject by photographer Andria Lo and journalist Valerie Luu, Chinatown Pretty: Chinatown’s Most Stylish Seniors (Chronicle Books, 2020).

As second generation Asian Americans, Lo and Luu have a shared fascination with the clothing of poh pohs (grandmas) and gung gungs (grandfathers) in San Francisco Chinatown. Curious about the people behind the clothes, they began to approach individuals on the street and ask how they put their outfits together. “The Chinatown seniors’ dress and demeanor,” the authors explain, “also reminded us of our own grandparents – their permed hair, their sock-and-sandal combinations, and the way their expressions could switch between extremely tough (and intimidating) and overwhelmingly affectionate.”

Their interest turned into a book, which covers six city Chinatowns – SF, Oakland, LA, Chicago, Manhattan, Vancouver, BC. – and dozens of stylin’ seniors. The people are as varied as the clothing with ages ranging from 60 to one woman over 100. Most immigrated decades ago from China or Vietnam, and they have worked as seamstresses, gardeners, store clerks, vendors, accounts, and social workers. Each person featured shares a lot or very little of their story and the authors say that 90 percent of the people they approached declined to be photographed or interviewed.

A theme among those featured was that their style is unintentional. They just wear what they have, some of it vintage, some hand-me-downs or purchased on sale. “At my age we don’t care about fashion,” says Show Chun Change from Vancouver Chinatown. “We just wear what’s comfortable.” How it’s all put together is more of a practical consideration, such as layering to keep out the cold. One gentleman had hand stitched several hats together for warmth and another used safety pins to close a buttonless vest, which made for a very cool look. I love that their style came from their ingenuity. (See slideshow.)

Several among the group do dress with intention. Anna Lee is in her 90s and immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada in 1989. She worked as an accountant and a social worker and although now retired she still enjoys dressing well in her custom-made dresses, high-waisted pants, and silk blouses, all accessorized with beaded necklaces she makes herself. (See first picture in slideshow.)

Another woman’s more artistic flair reminded me of the Advanced Style set, a group of older women in NYC who have become style superstars thanks to photographer Ari Seth Cohen. Dorothy G.C. Quock (called Polka Dot), 75, was born and still lives in SF Chinatown and works as a tour guide there. (See picture nine in the slideshow.) Growing up, Polka Dot spent a lot of time where her mother worked as a seamstress at the sweatshop that manufactured Levi’s:

As a preschooler, she got her first experience trimming thread ends. In second grade, she learned how to use an embosser to stamp the Levi’s logo onto the leather tag. At age ten, she mastered the buttonhole, which appeared on Levi’s before zippers became the norm.

I enjoyed the glimpses into these people’s lives and I also appreciated that the authors included a brief history of each of the six Chinatowns.

Chinatown Pretty is a fun read, a visual treat, and important documentation of an overlooked segment of fashion history.

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IMG_20180117_151930Marchesa Casati was quite the It Girl in early 20th Century Europe. With a family fortune backing her, she lived a large life in several Italian palaces and another one in Paris, bespoke and designer duds, jewels not just for her neck but also adorning the collection of the live exotic animals she kept close at hand – black panthers, snakes, and monkeys.

Infinite Variety The Life & Legend of the Marchesa Casati (University of Minnesota Press, 3rd ed.) by Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino fills us in on all the details of the Marchesa and her surrounding admirers.

Her grandfather and father made their money in cotton milling during a time when Italy was a great exporter of the fabric. Luisa Adele Rosa Maria Amman was born in January 1881. Although pampered, Luisa was not the favorite of the family and not the beauty her older sister was, which made her a somewhat shy child.

As teenagers the girls lost both parents and inherited a great fortune. It was after marrying Camillo Casati at age 19 that Luisa began to reinvent herself, her style, and she discovered ways to spend her money. She was an unusual looking woman for the times standing tall and thin with a long neck, large dark eyes, and a mop of curly hair. Luisa decided to “exploit her type to the full” by chopping off her long tresses and dying it red and outlining her eyes with black coal.

Here she is described in 1920 by a Russian royal exile:

In the room where I was introduced, a woman of singular beauty was (reclining) on a tiger pelt with translucent veils outlining her slender body. Two greyhounds, one black and one white, were sleeping at her feet … I hardly noticed the presence of  an Italian officer … Our hostess raised her splendid eyes. They were so large in her pale face, you could not see anything but them. With a slow and undulant movement, like that of a royal cobra, she offered me a hand decorated with rings of giant pearls. The hand itself was ravishing. 

IMG_20180117_133130Sporting a new look and money no object Luisa was soon holding grand parties for which she created outlandish costumes. She caught the eye of artists Augusts John, Man Ray and a host of others who painted, sculpted, and photographed her. Isadora Duncan was a friend, Worth and Leon Bakst, costume designer for the Ballet Russes, are credited with dressing her.

Luisa overcame her timidity and successfully created a persona that men and women alike could not resist. She had that certain elusive something, which made her an early 20th century icon such as a modern day Lady Gaga. Indeed at first she reminded me of British fashion follower and muse Isabella Blow (1958-2007) but the Marchesa went way beyond the antics of Ms. Blow.

It was the aim it seems of the Marchesa to be seen, clothed or not, (she would have fit quite nicely into our modern world of selfies and social media). But why is the question I kept asking and this book did not answer. Although a great documentation of just about every outlandish party she ever held, what I found missing is any discussion as to what made this woman tick.

Infinite Variety is an interesting peek at an interesting woman but description after description of party after party and quotes about how extraordinary she was got repetitious. After awhile I got fed up with the Marchesa whose superficial ways cost her her only daughter and the family fortune. (Although I do applaud Luisa for stepping outside the conventions of the day. Something only a woman with money could do.)

For anyone interested in fashion, the Marchesa is worth knowing about since she was such an icon and muse even in recent fashion history to the likes of Alexander McQueen, Tom Ford, and John Galliano, but it’s hard for me to recommend a cover to cover read of this 259 page book. A brief skim and for sure spend some time with the images.

 

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