Thursday, October 28, 2010

Q&A with Rebel Without a Cause Screenwriter Stewart Stern

Back in 1999 at the beginning of my magazine career, I interviewed Rebel without a Cause screenwriter Stewart Stern for Seattle magazine, where I was an editor. In the spirit of today's Cinemode, Rebel without a Cause, I thought it would be fun to dig up this lost interview after all these years and post it on On This Day In Fashion. The short Q&A with Stern centers around the fact that I'd recently discovered that the author—the nephew of Paramount Pictures founder Adoph Zukor and actress Mary Pickford, and first cousins to the Loews, who ruled MGM—had traded in the jungles of Hollywood for the wilds of Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, where he was a hiding out as a docent with the gorillas. Stewart was nothing less than a peach, and we talked in his garden and living room for about three hours. I didn't ask him about fashion or anything stylewise, of course, but he told me about James Dean and surprised me with a cool story about Jim Morrison and another about his aunt, the legendary actress and "It" girl, Mary Pickford.

It took me hours to find this little gem—probably the fourth or fifth story I ever published—on an old disk, and now I'm determined to find the mini-cassette tape I recorded the whole thing on. I don't remember exactly what was on that tape (lots of family bits and a conversation about the homosexual undertones of Rebel comes to mind), I only remember that as a young writer I was devastated at all the words I had to cut. When (if) I ever find that tape, I'll maybe transcribe it and post the whole long-lost interview. In the meantime, this conversation is what made the cut for publication:

Cinemode: Rebel Without a Cause

It was supposed to be filmed in black and white. Rebel without a Cause was already in production when the studio made the decision to switch to color Cinemascope, introducing entirely new concepts for the cinematographer and costume designer. Thanks to the inexplicable change of plans, when Rebel was released on this day in 1955, audiences were able to drink in James Dean’s saturated red jacket, bright white shirt and deep indigo blue jeans. These three everyday items of clothing worn together by Dean have become the most iconic jean-and-T-shirt combination in movie history, and literally changed the way teenagers perceived what was cool. For the first time, dressing down was suddenly more favorable than dressing up.

The film about a troubled new heartthrob in town looking for a little love and respect followed the success of Blackboard Jungle and The Wild One, the first films to depict young people as complicated and unhappy rather than obedient and cheerful. Director Nicholas Ray was passionate about wanting to depict the teenagers as realistically as possible, and he obsessed over every minutia of detail, even homing in on the symbolic use of color and how the costumes interacted in a landscape of primary tones.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Skirting the Law

I haven't posted a story in reference to the history of the skirt in a while, but this item is too good to pass up. Yesterday the mayor of Castellammare di Stabia, a southern Italian resort town, "has ordered police officers to fine women who wear short miniskirts or show too much cleavage, as part of a battle to raise what he describes as the level of public decorum," according to an article in the Guardian today.

Banning short skirts and arresting women for the length of their hemlines began long before the miniskirt was introduced in 1964, though Tunisia was the first country to ban the skirt altogether, soon followed by other African and Muslim nations, including Malawi, Madagascar and Swaziland. Twenty-six years later miniskirts were again outlawed in Swaziland in 2000 when it was believed that wearing them encouraged the spread of AIDS. Many men vocally defended the ban, vowing to rape any women they saw wearing miniskirts, saying, "They want to be raped and we're giving them what they want." The classic "they're asking for it" theory often comes up when a skirt ban is on the books. One example is from 2006, when then South African deputy president Jacob Zuma allegedly raped a 31-year-old AIDS activist because she crossed her legs in a knee-length skirt, signaling her desire to be raped, according to Zuma. "In Zulu culture you can't leave a woman when

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Bra That Wasn't There

This post was reblogged from the October 22, 2010, edition of On This Day In Fashion.

They called him an “enemy of the church,” a menace and, my personal favorite, “the Bolivar of the Bosom,” a reference to the 19th-century general who helped lead Spain to independence. But Los Angeles–based designer Rudi Gernreich didn’t have a fixation on breasts, as many critics angrily contended. Nope, Gernreich was quite happily gay, for one thing, and his appreciation for nudity transcended gender and singular body parts. He insisted his interest was not in exploiting women’s bodies, but in freeing them from binding, structured garments. He aimed to create clothing that followed the tides of fashion, though most of his designs—the topless bathing suit, the thong, the see-through blouse and psychedelic color combinations—were more innovative than consequential. Which is how on this day in 1964, Gernreich came to launch the No-Bra Bra, a featherweight pairing of two bias-cut triangles of sheer nylon net molded with only a single small dart. The elasticized shoulder straps, wrote fashion doyenne Eugenia Sheppard, “are as narrow as strings…and invisible as nothing.”

Light and invisible as it may have been, from Gernreich’s perspective, the bra wasn’t small enough. “I kept trying to make it briefer,” he said, “but there’s still too much going on.”

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cinemode: West Side Story

The film starts with finger snaps, of all things. Snaps as intimidation, snaps as tension, snaps as power and control and, of course, snaps as cool. Somehow, through coordinated snapping, West Side Story sets a tone for a different way of experiencing film: through color, angles, movement and sound. It might be the coolest film ever made and one of the most stylish, too. It’s the musical for people who hate musicals, a love story for people who hate love stories, a play about guys and gang warfare adapted for the screen that guys and, I’m guessing, gang members, like as much as gals typically do. When it premiered in New York City on this day in 1961, it created a new dialogue about teenagers, immigrants and the inner city, all while looking very, very cool. It’s no wonder it won 10 Academy Awards—one of which was for costume design—and reinvented what we think of when we think of musicals.

To critique or discuss just the costumes of West Side Story without folding in all of the other elements—sets, dance, songs, choreography and dialogue—would be like telling just the fourth chapter of a 10 chapter book. Because all of the artists working on the film carefully coordinated to blend their piece of the story with the others, so that one element—costumes, for instance—are never in

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cinemode: All About Eve

This post is reblogged from the October 13, 2010, edition of On This Day In Fashion.

In 1947 Bette Davis already had a dresser, the famed costumer Orry-Kelly, who had worked for Warner Bros. since the early talkies. But the two fought like cats, and Kelly’s ongoing bitchy comments about Davis’s aging looks and expanding figure didn’t help the relationship. Perhaps that’s how Paramount costumer Edith Head came to accompany Davis on a shopping trip to advise her on what to wear for the upcoming film, Winter Meeting, even though it was a Warner Bros. project. Head favored the longer hemlines that were coming into style and told Davis, “Don’t let anybody talk you into wearing a tight skirt. You’re not the type.” Davis was so smitten by Head’s straightforward advice that she bought everything Head told her to, and even copied her trademark schoolmarm haircut for her Winter Meeting role as a New England spinster and submitted a request to Paramount to loan Head out to her for upcoming projects, becoming the first star to do so. This is how Edith Head came to design the costumes for 2oth Century Fox’s All About Eve, which premiered on this day in 1950.

All About Eve is a deliciously sharp and snappy behind-the-scenes look at the cutthroat world of New York theater, and well-known for its biting dialogue, particularly the famous “fasten your seatbelts” line. But another quip, an aside from the comedic actress Thelma Ritter, who plays the maid to Davis’s Margo Channing, could have summed

Friday, October 8, 2010

Ali and On This Day In Fashion on the Radio!

I just wrapped up a great Cinemode segment about fashion in film on KUOW, the local affiliate of NPR, for "KUOW Presents." Host Jeannie Yandel and I talked about three movies that demonstrated the power of personal style, even when the means at hand are entirely limited. Can you guess what the movies were? Okay, I'll save you the suspense: Grey Gardens (the documentary not the Drew Barrymore remake), Times Square and Pretty in Pink. I especially loved how Jeannie spliced in bits from each film: Edie's famous monologue about her revolutionary costume, Nicky's call to arms, and the scene where Andi's dad marvels at his daughter's creative seamstress skills. You can listen to the segment here (it's about five minutes long), and while you're at it, throw a few bucks toward KUOW—it's pledge-drive time! Thanks to Jeannie and KUOW for having On This Day In Fashion on the air!

Photos: Four very different fashionistas from three very different films (left to right): Grey Gardens, Times Square and Pretty in Pink. What do they all have in common? None of them have any money but they've got a lot of sartorial spirit.

Claire McCardell Knew What to Wear

This post was reblogged from the October 8, 2010, edition of On This Day in Fashion.

“Clothes should be useful.” “I like comfort.” “I do not like glitter.” These are just a few edicts from mid-20th century designer Claire McCardell, and if they sound severe, well, she meant them to. This is a woman who earned popularity with the unseemly sounding “Monastic” and “Popover” dresses and tie-over “Diaper” bathing suit, who eschewed embellishments (“I like buttons that button and bows that tie”) and used “common” fabrics like denim and sprigged cotton—even in eveningwear—so that everyone could afford her garments. Given the elitist eye attached to those who tend to green light who and what passes muster in the hallowed halls of fashion, it’s any wonder McCardell’s comparatively plain garments weren’t purposefully tucked away in a museum basement in hopes that Americans would forever forget their yen for comfort and function and develop a never-wavering taste for poorly made and rapidly changing trends. And they could have, had the Parsons Museum not launched a retrospective of McCardell’s work on this day in 1998, and the Museum at FIT hadn’t launched its own retrospective of her designs a month later. Forty years after her death, the fashion community found a newfound appreciation for the one-time Time magazine covergirl, gushingly crediting her as a chief contributor to the “American look,”

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Introduction of the Little Black Dress

Sound the trumpets and hail Chanel! October 1 marks the Officially Recognized Day of the introduction of the designer’s iconic and history-making Little Black Dress. Yep, it was on this day in 1926 that American Vogue magazine ran a small illustration (left) of what it called Chanel’s “Ford” dress, likening the modest garment to the reliable Model-T of the era and hearkening Henry Ford’s line, "any customer can have a car painted in any colour that he wants so long as it's black." This was a time when twice a month, Vogue faithfully offered lengthy reviews of the Paris fashions, page after page of sketches of the latest coats, dresses, hats and gloves from the top French designers. Jeanne Lanvin, Jean Patou, Jeanne Paquin, Madeline Voinnet and Jacques Doucet received pages of descriptions detailing every element of their designs, from cuff to hemlines to buttons, and, occasionally, Mlle. Chanel earned a paragraph or two. But in 1926, Chanel’s casual designs were hardly considered true haute couture to Manhattan society ladies and Vogue editors; her jersey sportswear and unadorned dresses alone didn’t garner the six-day trip across the Atlantic by boat. So when the small sketch appeared in the October 1 issue it barely caused a stir, and it definitely didn’t incite the kind of rapturous praise the LBD, as we now call it, has received in recent decades. No, on this day, Vogue even curbed its usual gushing prose and accompanied the illustration with the following text: