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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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