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Revised Cover - In the Name of GucciI just finished reading – In the Name of Gucci: A Memoir, by Patricia Gucci, (Crown Archetype, 2016).

Gucci is still around but do you remember the brand in its heyday? You might be conjuring up images of the iconic red and green stripe or the double G logo.

Gucci began in 1921 but by the 1950s it had become THE luxury fashion brand on everyone’s must-have list. The family-run business continued to soar in popularity around the world until 1989 when it was sold to Investcorp.

In her memoir, Patricia, the love child of Aldo Gucci and his mistress Bruna, shares for the first time the compelling and complicated story of her parents, the Gucci family, and the history of the status brand, which was the first Italian company to open retail shops in the U.S. prompting the Made In Italy phenomenon.

When Patricia was born in 1963, her father was middle-aged, the head of (and powerhouse behind) Gucci as well as a married man with three sons. Her mother was 32 years his junior and a former employee of the Gucci shop in Rome. The couple kept their relationship and their daughter a secret … for as long as they could.

Did I mention it’s complicated?

Well, it is and I tip my hat to Patricia and co-writer Wendy Holden for their excellent crafting. The authors successfully keep clear for the reader all the various elements to the  story, which begins in 1897 with Patricia’s grandfather. At 16 Guccio immigrated from his small Italian village to London to work as a page for the Savoy Hotel. After returning to Italy several years later Guccio opened a luggage shop in Florence, which was to eventually become the Gucci we think of today.

A man of impeccable taste, my grandfather hoped to create the kind of superior leather goods he’d been handling since he was a boy, only using cheaper hides enhanced by skilled dyeing and treating techniques. His own elegant designs based loosely on English tailoring and style were pieced together by Florentine craftsmen with their eye for detail. Each new item carried the first Gucci monogram – a tiny image of a young page in full livery and a cap carrying a suitcase in one hand and Gladstone bag in the other. It was my grandfather’s nod to his formative days.

There is so much to this memoir – a love affair, the rise and fall of a fashion brand, secrets and family betrayal. It’s an operatic story for sure but Patricia doesn’t take advantage of that; she simply tells it like it was. Although her affection for her father, who died in 1990, comes through she remains honest and does a nice job balancing her emotions.

Relationships can be tricky to navigate. Those we have with our parents can be the most complicated and often require compromises once we come to the realization that none of us live in a perfect world and that the people we love are flawed.

I enjoyed most reading about the history of the company and Patricia’s later involvement as a spokesperson, model, and board member. Indeed she was the first female board member in the company’s 90 year history. I am curious about who was designing for the brand during Aldo’s reign. Who for example came up with the Jackie O handbag?

It’s been thirty years since the sale of Gucci and 26 since Aldo died. Why a memoir now? Patricia was under a gag order for ten years after the sale but beyond that, she never really knew the whole story between her parents. Any time she asked her mother for details, she was shut down. Until 2009, when Bruna unexpectedly opened up and handed over a stack of Aldo’s love letters written while the couple were secretly courting. That was the beginning of In the Name of Gucci.

I became so captivated by this book that time flew by unnoticed. I didn’t want to put it down and I didn’t want it to end.

It can’t get any better than that.

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Image courtesy of Basic Books.

Image courtesy of Basic Books.

Linda Przybyszewski is a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame as well as an author and an award-winning seamstress. In her book The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish  (Basic Books, 2014) she discusses what she calls the Dress Doctors, women in the first half of the twentieth century who taught young girls and women how to dress well. In Home Economics classes and women’s clubs, in magazines and on the radio, the Dress Doctors, armed with basic fashion knowledge and some serious sewing skills, imparted their wisdom on what was appropriate attire for home, school, work, daytime and evening.

Ms. Przybyszewski became interested in these remarkable women when she stumbled upon a 1950s Home Economics textbook in a used bookstore. Clothes for You taught that beauty in dress is achieved by applying the five principles of art to clothing. In other words, when creating an outfit one should keep in mind – harmony, rhythm, balance, proportion, and emphasis.  Ms. Przybyszewski writes: The art principles capture truths sensed even by people who have never heard of them … For any woman who has realized that a certain outfit looks terrific, the principles will tell her why it does.

Intrigued, Ms. Przybyszewski went on to search for other books on the subject and discovered a whole movement in dressing well headed by the Dress Doctors –  accomplished women who were teachers, authors, and saleswomen – and supported by the USDA and the WPA. Young girls and women in cities or working the farm were taught how to sew as well how to be thrifty about fashion (farm women learned how to make dresses from feed bags, which came in surprisingly attractive fabrics). Following the guidance of the Dress Doctors everyone could and did look their very best.

At a recent reading in San Francisco Ms. Przybyszewski commented that while collecting and reading over 700 pamphlets written by the Dress Doctors and published by Bureau of Home Economics (a subdivision of the USDA) she started to recognize that these women had good ideas. “… they knew some valuable things,” she explained. “Things that have been lost and things that I hope to bring back to American culture by writing this book.”

Dense with information yet accessible, The Lost Art of Dress takes readers on the most interesting of adventures describing the rise of the Dress Doctors at the turn of the twentieth century and their eventual decline in the 1960s (due to casual-wear in the suburbs, the youth craze, and designers’ simplification of their fashions). In addition to discussing the women themselves,  Ms. Przybyszewski goes into great detail about what they taught including a description of the five art principles and appropriate dress for occasions. A nice addition to the text are quite a lot of illustrations, a rarity in books these days. The Lost Art of Dress is a useful history of 20th century American fashion, making it required reading for all fashion design students.

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It was a pleasure to meet Linda Przybyszewski at Book Passage in SF. I wonder what the Dress Docs would think of my outfit.

I really enjoyed The Lost Art of Dress and I recommend it to anyone interested in fashion history, vintage fashions, and women’s history. Although one may not subscribe to everything the Dress Doctors had to say, there is still much to learn from them and apply to our modern fashion sense. What these women were doing and how they influenced society is quite impressive and worth knowing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Image courtesy of Schiffer Publishing.

Image courtesy of Schiffer Publishing.

We ladies love our hats. Well, at least some of us in the 21st century do. But in times past most women enjoyed sporting a handsome hat and even if they didn’t, the proper chapeau was an essential element to a well-conceived ensemble. Everyone wore a hat, ladies and gentlemen alike.

For modern-day hat gals, Schiffer Publishing has just come out with Decades of Hats, 1900s to the 1970s, by Sue Nightingale. A handy reference book, Decades of Hats opens with an introduction by Ms. Nightingale, an avid vintage clothing collector, offering a brief overview of women’s hat history – trends over the decades and what societal events influenced the trends. That’s most of the text, the bulk of the book is reprinted illustrations of hats with descriptions from catalogues and magazine ads.

A serious hat enthusiast could spend quite some time on each page poring over illustrations of bonnets, cloches, caps and pills. Something interesting that I noticed was that the beret hit the scene in the 1920s and shows up in every decade after (the beret is a mainstay for me). Decades of Hats is also a useful guide for costumers and folks who like to dress up for period events. Flip to the right chapter and discover numerable examples of what was worn when. Milliners and designers will find great inspiration from studying the illustrations, and fashion history buffs would reach for this book repeatedly.

Decades of Hats, 1900s to the 1970s by Sue Nightingale is a welcome addition to any fashionable’s collection.

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Caroline-CharlesBritish fashion designer Caroline Charles is called The Thinking Woman’s Designer for her smart styles – classic yet feminine yet chic. After 50 years in the business, Ms. Charles is as popular now as she was back in the Swinging Sixties when she hobnobbed with the likes of Mary Quant and Mick Jagger.

Over the years, in addition to creating her own line Ms. Charles has been a design consultant for brands such as Burberry and Marks & Spencer. In 2002 she received a OBE  for her services to British fashion.

To mark five decades in the business the successful designer has published a book, Caroline Charles: 50 Years in Fashion (ACC Editions, 2012). Full of diary entries, press clippings, and photos this memoir is a unique peek into the fashion world of the 1960s through today.

Ms. Charles got her start in 1963 when as a young London designer she was invited on a Pop-Tour of America. Twenty-four cities in one month with pop rock bands, dancers, and models showing up at department stores to give a fashion show.  

The stores were massive and the shows were exciting … at the end the audience would get up on the catwalk and join the models, the band playing on, the go-go girls with fishnet tights in their cages … They loved the music and the clothes, which were by their standards short and unconventional – little shifts rather than the shirtwaisters they were used to, short hair rather than pony tails.

Ms. Charles succinctly describes her business happenings for each decade, 1960s right up to today and there’s a Q&A with fashion writer Ian R. Webb. Her stories are compelling as are the photos. Almost for me the best part, the images are informative, inspirational and an excellent documentation of silhouettes and styles for the past 50 years. I enjoy flipping through the pages studying them (and wishing I had lived in Swinging London).

I say Ms. Charles’ memoir is another must-have for anyone interested in fashion history.

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Image courtesy of Viking Press.

Image courtesy of Viking Press.

Author and stylist Stacy London starts off her latest book The Truth About Style (Viking, 2012) telling her readers what her book is not. It’s not a fashion how-to, but more of a why we have the style problems we have and what can be done to fix them. Here’s what Ms. London has to say:

We all put obstacles in our own path toward personal style, myself included. If we understood why we constructed these practical and emotional obstacles, we might move beyond them to healthier, happier perceptions of ourselves and, ideally, a better sense of self-esteem. Style can change your look, certainly, but it can also change your life.

In The Truth About Style Ms. London profiles nine women who are in fashion ruts- with-a-cause. For example, 19-year-old Ashley had developed an eating disorder after a romantic break-up and with the weight gain she lost her sense of style. Ms. London identified Ashley’s underlining cause as: emotional strength sapped by two years of an eating disorder.  At age 57, June was having a hard time shifting from a youthful look to something more mature. Her underlining causes according to Ms. London: facing getting older, frustration with fewer shopping options for women her age, and mourning the end of cute.

After identifying each cause, Ms. London moves on to helping these women see themselves differently by putting together chic and appropriate looks just like she does with co-host Clinton Kelly on the popular television show What Not to Wear. The book is loaded with before and after photos as well as a discussion about why her choices work.

What makes The Truth About Style different from other fashion guides is that Ms. London delves into some of the reasons behind style ruts, much like Suzie Orman does for financial issues. Additionally, she discusses her own life facing psoriasis as a child, an eating disorder, and life as a forty-something single woman.

Ms. London’s writing style is professional and succinct, although her constant attempt to be humorous and parenthetical asides are distracting. Still, I enjoyed the read and would recommend it to women who are looking for some style assistance as well as design students, who could learn a lot from this book about what fashions work for real women.

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Every fashion enthusiast from designer to collector must own at least one reference book on clothing history. I have several but nothing that quite matches the breadth of information contained in  Fashion: The Definitive History of Style and Costume (DK Publishing, 2012).

Definitive is the word for this book as it traces 3000 years of men’s and women’s clothing. Each of the ten chapters  includes:

  • timeline
  • highlights of social and political issues that influenced fashion
  • detailed descriptions of trends
  • features on fashion icons of each period
  • discussion of top designers
  • and of course, lots of illustrations

Additionally there is a quick reference section with pictures, a glossary, and an index.

I am most impressed with Consultant Editor Susan Brown who made sure to discuss subtle changes in fashion from year to year as well as organize an amazing amount of information into a manageable format. What a helpful resource to have at hand when researching a period, looking for inspiration, or to just gaze at the eye-candy.

Fashion: The Definitive History of Style & Costume is a bargain at $50, but I have to point out that it’s printed and bound in China. Having said that, the quality of the paper, print, and binding is excellent. I say a perfect holiday gift for your favorite fashionable.

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Image courtesy of Sourcebooks.

What’s a girl to do when facing unemployment and mounting credit card debt? Well, in 2008 website copywriter Gretchen Berg reluctantly decided to sign up for a two-year stint teaching English at the American University of Iraq. Then she wrote a memoir about it – I Have Iraq in My Shoe: Misadventures of a Soldier of Fashion (Sourcebooks 2012).

Although Ms. Berg has a fondness for travel and has been to all seven continents, she is clear right from the start that Iraq is not on her must-visit list. She’s in it for the money -$75,000 (tax-free) to be exact, which will more than cover her debt and buy a few pair of designer shoes to boot.  

With a lot of self-effacing humor, Ms. Berg takes readers along on her visit to Erbil in Northern Iraq where she does her best not to venture outside the campus compound (called English Village). She brings as much America with her as possible dragging nine duffel bags full of stuff including a blender and Sex and the City DVDs. For the necessary home comforts, she’s forced to pay close to $3000 in overweight baggage fees.

I started out with I Have Iraq in My Shoe entertained and hopeful that Ms. Berg would change her mind about not wanting to stray too far from the compound. About a third of the way through I realized that wasn’t going to happen. I do have to admit I would not even go to Iraq for the same reasons Ms. Berg doesn’t want to go exploring – safety, heat, the second-class-citizen status of women, excessive cigarette smoke – so I tip my hat to her for at least getting there.

Ms. Berg does such an excellent job describing her compound residence that I started to feel claustrophobic myself and aching for a change of scenery and topic. Since she used the fashion spin, I was disappointed she didn’t do a little research about fashion in Iraq. Perhaps discuss with her female students about what role fashion might play in their lives and how they feel about the restrictions. But I also realized that Ms. Berg isn’t really into fashion, just shoes which she continued to buy online while in Iraq and have them sent home. (She does give us one bit of interesting fashion information: While at a local shopping mall Ms. Berg observed that as long as a woman is completely covered and wearing a hijab, skin-tight colorful clothing and high heels are acceptable, at least in Northern Iraq.)

What we have is a humorous read about the ups and downs of an American woman stuck in a place she does not want to be. For the most part I Have Iraq in My Shoe is engaging enough. The narrative is straight forward and Ms. Berg does poke fun at herself and her co-workers, who are an eclectic bunch united in partying and staying put in the compound. But other than the men in Iraq have terrible body odor, there’s very little cultural insight.   

Still, if you’re in the mood for a light summer read with plenty of good humor give this one a try.

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