One part Eastwood,
One part Astaire.
Add a dash of Bogart.
Shake, strain and enjoy.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Few, The Proud, The Pressed

The obsession started young. I remember the steam from the iron snorting like a dragon each time my mother would lift it from the freshly laundered linen. While the rest of the family sat entranced by 80s sitcoms, she stood tirelessly pressing my father's shirts with military precision. He was lucky to have worked before casual attire became the norm and was in constant need of an army of dress shirts at his disposal. His stylistic preference favored maximum starch, which produced shirts so stiff they stood at attention under their own control. As the nights drew closer to bedtime, the readied soldiers would hang from the door jam awaiting their call to duty and the dragon would return to its resting state.

Children are impressionable and I was no different. The hours I spent seeing my mom produce masterfully curated garments and idolizing my father's crisp appearance created a monster at quite a young age. As the story goes, around 5 years of age, my mother delivered a pair of pants to my room before I was to head off to another day in the salt mines of Catholic kindergarten. She returned back to her room only to be followed by her incensed offspring; the scathing little stomps indicating displeasure. Little did I know that the foundations of a New Yorker were forming in me already as I threw the pants to the floor at her feet and demanded that they be re-pressed… correctly. In my advanced pediatric mind, I felt her work subpar, inadequate and quite frankly unprofessional. She clearly did not understand the consequences of walking into class dressed so slovenly. How could I command respect overseeing the construction of a block fort? Who would want to sit at my kidney bean shaped table and discuss school politics and the latest Ninja Turtles episode?? What good would learning to tie my shoe be if the crease in my goddamn pants was incorrect??? It would affect the entire line of my trouser, not to mention meddling with the break! Although I don't remember much else, my guess is that her initial instinct to slap me was subdued only by the stupefaction that a wee creature could insist upon such strict protocol on his appearance.

To this day I have a love affair with laundry. It's been many years since my mother has had to iron my clothes, but every once in a while she'll jump at the chance to press a shirt while I'm home. It's an opportunity to iron in her personal touch to my love of sartorial flair and atone for her once shoddy performance. She will present her finished work for inspection like a proud peacock, and I, having grown (slightly) less demanding, now appreciate all her efforts. Those shirts feel different because they lack the normal faceless service. Instead they shine with the most paramount of care - a mother's loving touch.

Living in New York I have had to forgo the pleasures of laundering my own clothes in favor of drop-off service. From a monetary and time perspective it makes more sense to outsource the work and stimulate local business. But after 5 years it still saddens me to have to relinquish control over the maintenance of my most prized possessions. Just like my beloved Turkish tailor, my dry cleaner has become a trusted ally in the preservation of my closet and image. Although the drop off saddens me, I find picking up my freshly cleaned shirts to be one of life's little pleasures. For then my arsenal is replenished and stands ready to fight the casual world again.

Unlike my father, I adamantly request no starch on my shirts. I find that the chemicals and forced rigidity deteriorate the fabric quicker, in addition to making for an unpleasant wear. I desire the natural cotton against my skin and not the seared varnish of starch. But to each his own in the details of dress. Once the troops have returned to home base I immediately redress them with the standard issue barracks uniform. The cheap wire hangers are removed and the pressed shoulders are draped over sturdy wooden frames.

Recently though I have decided to spice things up and opt for pressed, folded shirts (Yes, I know, things get wild here in NYC). In the first episode of Mad Men, Don Draper arrives at the office one morning after a night of adulterous and debauched acts. While conversing with his superior, he reaches down into his desk drawer, which happens to be stocked with clean, folded white dress shirts. As he changes, the sins of his prior evening are wiped clean by the fresh linen and he is ready to demoralize another day. Similarly, at the start of the film, George Falconer in A Single Man retrieves a folded white shirt from the stacks in his bedroom's dresser as he delivers his internal narrative - "It takes time in the morning for me to become George. Time to adjust to what is to be expected and how he is to behave." His regimented drawer of folded shirts is part of the uniform that he adheres to each day to "become" himself.

Draper's desk drawer

Falconer's dresser drawer

There is something about the folded dress shirt that I find exciting. I feel that it strips away the commodity of the laundering process and returns your garment with a personal touch. The precision with which it's folded highlights the care that someone placed in looking after your possessions. As we all know, presentation accounts for much of a product's value. A laundered folded shirt takes us back to when it was new and the overwhelming anticipation of the first wear.

From a practicality standpoint, folded shirts are a must for travel. I myself have a wedding to attend next week and Easter with the family the following weekend. I try to think ahead and plan my outfits accordingly so that I may be adequately prepared for the packing process. I'll separate my shirts out for travel and regular wear when trips are imminent. Folded shirts stack nicely into a suitcase, or fit easily in an overnight duffle while maintaining their integrity and form. But more regularly I have been getting one or two folded each drop-off just for fun. A little change to the banality that the weeks can bring. I regularly say that what gets me out of bed each morning is the walk to my closet - the chance to define myself and shape my image before entering the world. But one or two days of the week, it's the drawer that draws me from the covers. It's knowing that there awaits a little gift for me to open.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Frank Roasted, Dean Toasted

Charisma, class and camaraderie captured on film.

Stuffed on stage amongst the wide lapels and flagrant disregard for political correctness is a deus of comedic talent that may never be topped. The likes of Milton Bearle, George Burns, Red Foxx, Jonathan Winters, Flip Wilson, Don Rickles and many others pay tribute to The Chairman himself, through jokes, insults and not so gentle ribbing.

Unlike the modern garbage presented on Comedy Central, Dean Martin hosts an evening of hysterics that will make you glad you just wasted the last hour on the internet. If I had a time machine, after I hit The Sands in '63, I might swing on by a Dean Martin Roast!

Come for the floppy bow ties, stay for the laughs. But be warned, smoking is allowed:

See all 12 parts at shotinthedark20000's page (right side bar) on YouTube.

Highlights include:
Part 2: Ronald Regan and Dom Delouise
Part 3: Peter Faulk as Columbo*
Part 4: Jimmy Stewart and Flip Wilson
Part 5: Milton Berle (Skip to 5 minute mark)*
Part 6: Charlie Callus and Redd Foxx
Part 7: Telly Savalas
Part 8: Lawanda Page and Ernest Borgnign
Part 9: Orson Welles, Red Buttons and Jack Klugman
Part 10: Jonathan Winters*
Part 11: Rich Little, Jillie
Part 12: Don Rickles and The Man of the Hour

In full disclosure, I sat at my computer for three and a half hours watching bits of other roasts afterwards on the likes of Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis Jr., Lucille Ball, Don Rickles and many others. It never felt so good to laugh so long...

Special thanks to my good friend Dan for finding such treasures and sharing the wealth.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Man Behind the Lens, Exposed

"Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of every day life"
-Bill Cunningham

This phrase awakened goosebumps as I sat in the dark theater on W. Houston Street. The quaking voice of a journalistic legend delivered this candid metaphor to describe the attitude that I and many others take into the world each day. We all may harbor anxiety, fear or insecurity under the surface, but the clothes we wear, stitched with our personal style, is the thick skin we need to battle and thrive.

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of an evening at the movies. Film has always been equal parts escape and inspiration and is generally my default choice for leisure. What I admire about the genre is its ability to entertain and educate through visual stimulation. While I can enjoy Hollywood's blockbusters I have come to love Indie projects more, especially in the form of documentaries - films that open the window on a person or subject that has been locked away or seen only through smudged glass.

The subject of the screening I attended was Bill Cunningham, the iconic and venerable style photographer for the New York Times. In an interview, the creator of the movie stated that the film was eleven years in the making, nine of which were trying to convince Bill to participate.

Anna Wintour, the Editor-in-Chief of American Vogue, has been quoted as saying "we all dress for Bill". In the era of fashion blogs and street style, Bill Cunningham is the original. He has been documenting street fashion for 40+ years and holds a vast archive of New York history in his filing cabinets of film. Though he has also become a staple of the runways in Paris, Bill is known for believing that the best fashion show takes place on the streets. He could care less about celebrity fame, designer's names or societal pomp and circumstance, for him it's all about the clothes.

What we as an audience were treated to was an intimate look into the life of a modest man with an unbridled passion for personal style and an eye for trends. From first glance he looks no different than a common octogenarian puttering along on his classic Schwin, but his influence and mark on the fashion world is indescribable.

From his humble beginnings as a milliner in New York to a godfather of the runways, Bill Cunningham has lived without ever abandoning his principles or compromising his dignity for money or notoriety. As a man, he is funny, focused, spiritual and spry. He holds a unique perspective on life and has eschewed such "trivial pleasures" as eating or romance for the pursuit of his passion of clothes. For years he has lived modestly in the artist studios above Carnegie Hall and has never capitalized on his abilities or influence for monetary or personal gain. He quipped that "if you don't take money, they can't tell you what to do". He is a man after Sinatra's heart and purposefully does it "his way".

The film exposed the man behind the camera as someone of strong will and integrity; his tireless energy compromised only by a sense of loneliness in his approach. He desires nothing from outsiders and prefers to blend into his surroundings and document style as it naturally happens, not for popularity or endorsement. He is said to be an egalitarian, with an awareness of society but an indifference to its class and restraints. Whether you are an heiress or an outer-borough youth, the clothes are what he sees above all else.

I had the great honor of being shot twice by Bill this past summer while attending the Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governor's Island. At the time, I was blithely unaware of his existence and prominence in the fashion world. As he approached my girlfriend and I on both days of the event, I assumed that he was no more than a retiree entrenched in his hobby. When I tried to speak to him, he simply smiled and, without a word, scurried on to his next style muse. In my five years as a New Yorker, I can mark those occasions as hallmarks of my city life. Knowing that the grainy negatives of my humble attempts at style reside in his expansive sartorial catalog makes me proud to be a part of the larger scope of fashion in New York.

My experience with this film has come at a time when I find myself battling for a personal freedom. In what I can only guess is an attempt to commoditize their employees, my company recently instituted a uniform policy, depriving me of the great joy I take in dressing myself each day. In its essence they have stripped me of my armor, leaving me defeated and vulnerable to the elements of society. Although I have fought for my convictions, I can't help but think that Bill would have resigned out of a respect for himself and the preservation of his dignity (although, ironically, Bill wears a quasi-uniform each day - his signature blue jacket is part of the uniform of Parisian sanitation workers). New York is a place where individuality shines and where people like Bill take note. To be forced into daily stylistic monotony is as detrimental to a creative person as an arrow to the heart. I feel lucky to have seen this film during my current debacle, as it gives me added motivation to stand strong in my beliefs and fight for the freedom to embrace personal style. Bill's love of fashion and dedication to his principles is inspiration of the purest form.

Bill Cunningham's New York is an endearing, funny, insightful film that gives a rare glimpse into the life of a modest visionary that has influenced fashion for decades. If it is playing in your area, I highly recommend an evening at the movies.