Friday, July 29, 2016

Stop the Presses for these Adrian Dresses (1940s Novelty Glamour at the Met)

Hi-ya, folks!!

When's the last time you saw a dress that made your heart skip a beat? I was minding my own business. prowling through the Met Museum's fashion textile collection (like you do), when I came across this knock-your-eye-out novelty print and about lost it. 

Where did you come from, you little piece of heaven right here on Earth? Where are you going so I can follow you there? This dress was a gift to the museum from Patricia Pastor, a former designer for Perry Ellis (!!), and Barry Friedman, an art dealer. When I traipsed over to the search bar and typed in their names, the Met yielded up fifty other charitable donations, including around 20 other Adrian designs! Somebody had an eye for the designer. What did I start doing but googling all the Adrian dresses I could get my hands on.

The artist at work

Adrian (real name Adrian Greenburg, b. 1903) wasn't unknown to me before I espied the dress of my dreams on the Met website-- he was the preferred costume designer for none other than The Bird's patron saint, Joan Crawford, in the 30's and 40's, at the height of her trendsetting starlet days. It was Adrian who dreamed up accentuating JC's wide, wide shoulders with yet wider shoulderpads, and created the eyepopping designs for 1932's Letty Lynton, including the famous dress from that film, for which a glamour-starved Depression era moviegoing audience lost its ever-loving mind. Department stores were flooded with knockoff "ruffle dresses" for quite a while after, as prom-goers and debutantes across the country struggled to fit the voluminous gown into their beaux's Studebakers. Oh, and the ruby slippers, a little piece of iconic costuming in a minor movie called The Wizard of Oz ? ALSO Adrian (he did all the wonderful and memorable clothes in that movie). He married winsome, petite Janet Gaynor (the wronged wife in Murnau's Sunrise) in 1939 and, two years later, quit MGM to run his own boutique. It was on the sales floor of this boutique that he suffered a heart attack in 1959, cutting short at 56 the life of one America's most inventive apparel designers.

What SHOULDER RUFFLES you have, my dear. The Letty Lynton dress.
I'd give my eyeteeth for a movie-quality pair of these in a 11...thanks...

I thought of Adrian through the lens of those Crawford designs and similarly sleek dresses he conjured up for other preternaturally beautiful screen stars, including Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. This "Adrian type" dress involves a lot of bias cut, slinky, femme fatale type designs that ran more refined than rococo-- what the shopgirl in your 1930's movie would wear after she was plucked from obscurity to be a rich man's mistress and society hostess. However! I was so surprised to see a number of whimsical and downright outré gowns in the Met's holdings, and more so to read that they were the backbone of his apparel collections. While a number of somber and sedate black frocks, always elegantly cut, always sharply executed, are present among the pieces (showcased in an exhibition in 2002 called "Adrian: American Glamour"), the real show stoppers are these crazy, GORGEOUS novelty print items.

Let's take a look, shall we?

If you're an art nerd like me, you might have immediately been struck, in the closeup of this black, white, and pink print, by the similarity between this print and the work of Salvador Dali. I love the frisson of indignation I felt for a moment thinking the good surrealist had been ripped off by some 1940's admirer of far-out art. Turns out, there's a good reason for you thinking this print designer owes a debt to Dali-- as the design was created by DALI HIMSELF. Could you die? Note the linebacker shoulder pads, accentuating the tiny, tiny waist of this dress, and the drama of the single patch of darkness on the left shoulder across an otherwise white-background textile. What "oomph!" this dress had!

Looking at this and the rest of the dresses in the collection, only makes me wonder why so many women's 80's and early 90's shirts/dresses/jackets go for the wrong kind of silhouette with this padding. There's nothing particularly butch or even oversized about this dress, save that lovely, clothes-hanger shoulder line. Most times when I try on clothes from the shoulderpad revival era, they're so billowy and just "bulked up" in the shoulders that it feels like I'm wearing a padded bra cup on either shoulder-- and it has that oddly humped look, too! Le sigh. 

This next dress is called the "Roan Stallion" dress-- can you figure out why?

I loooooove the starkness of the all-black background against the large scale of the horse. The columnar-shape of the dress and again that draped, feminine bodice with shoulderpads in a straight line... this is such a "dress as art" garment. Imagine walking into a crowded New York social event circa 1945 with just a chic chignon and a big gold cuff as dream life is so active, you guys.

Continuing the equine theme:

How gallant is the French chevalier on his mount? This is another of the Pastor/Fielding Met gifts. I wondering idly while pawing through these listings if they were the result of years of collecting or one lucky swipe-- I've definitely been in estate sale situations before where someone really liked a thing that it turns out YOU really like, and voilà. an instant collection is born. Imagine a closet in North Hollywood of some rich studio exec's wife who was just the bee's KNEES in 1945 and needed a wardrobe to match...all these dresses packed in tissue in boxes marked in a distinctive "A"...carefully put away the last time they were worn for the next time that became years and years later, and then finally not at all! I can't decide, as an incorrigible hoarder, whether it's better or worse for items like this to be in a museum-- while I appreciate them being protected for generations to come, isn't it a little sad they won't make a splash at any more ladies' luncheons or draw an audible gasp at a pre-theater cocktail party?

The pink and black motif here reminds me of Schiaparelli (shocking!) :
I can't quite tell what this would look like off a mannequin and on a real human form-- it looks like there's a scalloped sort of edge in the back, and that the skirt's draping gathers into a kind of mushroom shape? Which is interesting with the little swag over the right shoulder... and, goody! This one came with an Adrian label for us to ooh and aw over. Go ahead, I don't mind:

This item looks a little worse for wear for fading or dinginess in the bodice, but it's still a humdinger-- a field of daisies overrun by lambs! Nice work if you can get it, lambs.


I AM SO DISAPPOINTED ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF THIS DRESS. Look at what it obviously is-- a five foot swag printed with a Prussian uniformed officer...and yet we can't SEE the officer because of the way the item is hanging! I wonder if it was originally pressed in a way that you could get a better look at the main attraction of the dress, or if it looks better in person. Love the idea, hate that I can't see it better. How about that beautiful collar though? The draping and that red highlight is sick-en-ing.
Lastly, if you have around thirteen grand lying around that you're not doing anything with you can snatch up an Adrian of your very own! Check out this "The Egg and I" print from 1st dibs. I don't usually go for barnyard, golf, or hunting themes (three of the very rare exceptions from my buy-everything-and-conquer approach to vintage collecting, haha), but this is a very definite exception I would make. The colors!! 

Hope I'll be seeing you in some forgotten trunk at an estate sale or flea market some day, Adrian dresses! You are deeply loved by me!

What do you think? Which dress is your favorite? Are you a novelty print wearer or do you keep your clothes sedate? Seen any designer dresses that have knocked your eye out lately? Let's talk!!

I gotta get going, but have a WONDERFUL weekend and we'll talk again soon! Til then. :)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Where Does Love Go (1965) : Charles Boyer Sings!

Good morning!!

Long time no see! How've ya been? I'm peeping back in from the BLAZING, SCORCHED EARTH of Nashville, Tennessee to update you with a celebrity oddity I ran across the other day. Yep, the kind of thing only you and I would enjoy.

Confession: I cancelled my Spotify premium subscription the other day in a bid to cut down on some of the superfluous digital services we seem to mindlessly become entwined with (it's so easy to do!). As much as I love commercial-free listening, I figured with all the things out there, there had to be somewhere else I could get my music (legally, semi-legally, whatever) for free. And, in my spendthrift haze, I had completely forgotten that Freegal, a service provided by my local library, totally allows unlimited music streaming from something like 10,000 music labels, including Universal Music Group (which has subsumed SO. MANY. OLD SCHOOL. LABELS). While the user interface is barest of bare bones, hey, it's free! And no commercials. And so....many....weird things.

Such as? A contender for the prize of "Weirdest Midcentury Spoken Wordish Singing Record by a Celebrity" (the mantle formerly held by Dirk Bogarde alone)... this compilation of Gallic import Charles Boyer speak-singing, in French has flipped my wig to where it is completely on backwards.

Let's talk!

It's funny, but as with a lot of classic Hollywood stars, you don't get the full picture of Charles Boyer's movie impact in a still photograph. His receding hair and average stature, coupled with even but unprepossessing features, are nothing to write home about at first glance-- and yet put him in a movie and you're sure to be swept away by his suave, continental bearing, his smoldering glances, and above all, his dreamily pronounced French accent. Also, ascots. Boy, all the ascots. A heady combination for old school romantic movie-lovers such as ourselves.

Born in the Pyrénées in 1899, Charles Boyer became famous in America for a line from the trailer of the Pépé le Moko remake, Algiers, that never even made it into the finished film. "Come with me to the Casbah", pronounced trippingly on Boyer's tongue, became the "Come wizz meee to de Cazzbaaah" of a million celebrity impressionists, as famous in its day as "I vant to be a-lone". The sonorous, deep quality of his voice, combined with the rakish French accent, is pretty much irresistible. The year before his catchphrase was born, he played in a romantic weepy that won my heart, opposite Irene Dunne in Love Affair. That film would later be remade as the four-handkerchief classic An Affair to Remember... and if you'd have told me, pre-screening, that the person in the photograph on the left would give Cary Grant of all people a run for his money in a romantic who-played-it-best, I would have been skeptical to say the least. However! Boyer carries with him an urgency verging on pathos in most of his good scenes-- while he may start a movie haughty and remote, arch and distant, it seems as if there's always some turning point along the course of the filmplay where the music swells and you realize he's been torturing himself trying to suppress his love for you  his onscreen lady love for the better part of the movie. AND THAT, my friends, is what makes a truly indelible heartthrob in the Mr. Darcy mold. I've seen plenty of movies that were just "eh" (see: The Garden of Allah, in spite of its jawdropping Technicolor gorgeousness) in hopes of capturing one of those true heart-string tugging moments that the best of his movies include (see: All This and Heaven, Too). 

Which brings us to why I would be psyched to see his name next to a record in the Freegal holdings!

Initially, I was like "Whoa, TWO records of...wait, these are the exact same songs." Waaah. 

Is this record perfect? No, it is not. Is it totally fun? Yes it is. Is it weirdly more listenable than the Dirk Bogarde record (which, itself, has kind of grown on me)? Indeed! INDEED IT IS. My favorite part, bless my little beating francophone coeur, is that Boyer slips into French in half the songs-- "Autumn Leaves" and "La Vie Rose" both feature passages of the original French lyrics, a real treat for French speakers. I love the series of ideas that sprung to mind as I listened and sighed a swoony sigh:

  1. Do old-time French actors have a specific accent that is dated by its age/time period, in the way that 1940's actors (Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, etc) have a very specific way of talking even outside of their individual idiosyncracies? People in 1940's movies, stylized or not, have a very identifiable way of speaking specific to that era, which made me wonder: if a native French speaker listened to Boyer speaking in French, would they get a sense of old-fashionedness from his in-French accent that misses us for not being born francophones?
  2. Imagine going back to some dude's apartment in 1965, and he puts THIS on the hi-fi as a "mood setter"/possible makeout music? I think that's technically the intended audience for this and the Bogarde record, as a swoony-romance-y dim-the-lights music, but I would have fallen into a fit of giggles at the preposterous nature of the whole endeavor I'm pretty sure from Minute One. "Bolero" is obvious enough, but a record of a French actor speaking his way through love songs would just advertise subtlety as NOT being one of your strong suits, sixties' Mad Men era would be lothario.
  3. Also, think of Charles Boyer himself giving a "I'm game" go-ahead for this album, though professing to possessing no great vocal ability. Record company: "Charles, we're going to bring you in here to do a record." Charles Boyer: "And whhhy nawt?" with an insouciant toss of his diminutive shoulders. Go on, get your life, Charles Boyer.
Give it a listen yourself, and see what you think-- you can catch a lot of these songs on Youtube or Spotify or even Freegal, if your library subscribes.


And if you won't take my word it being good, did you know that no less a shining star than Our Elvis Presley who art in Heaven expressed a deep love of this record around the time of his Las Vegas performances? Read for yourself:

Whaaaat. You heard it here first! Or possibly second, if you've read those two Elvis books I just grabbed pull quotes from (the latter of which, Peter Guralnick's epic two-volume bio, is essential reading). My favorite part of that passage is that no one else liked the record because of its melancholy nature-- I guess there is a kind of sad undertone to the music, but that's about the only way I like it-- dramatic, romantic, BIG!

Anyway, it's good to get a chance to check in! I've definitely missed writing and interacting over here, and as always, hope to make good my promise to return to a more regular blogging schedule as time permits. In the in-between-time, I hope you're finding lots of great stuff out at the sales and enjoying the summer months as best you can for all this oppressive heat! Stay cool, and see you again soon! Til then. :)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Monkey Fur Success (Coat of My Dreams)

Salutations, friends! How's tricks? Not much new here in this life of Riley except for one startling development of a few weeks ago. Would you believe....COULD YOU believe...that I finally have a monkey fur coat of my very own??

Let's just cut straight to the goods here, there's no time to spare!

Just as I'd put my oversized foot down about buying more fur coats (and actually passed up a mink or two under $50...who even AM I any more?), an amazing vintage-buying opportunity popped up out of the blue to pick up this 1940's monkey fur coat. Was the coat in question extraordinarily beautiful? Yes, ma'am. Were the terms of the sale extraordinarily, pinch-me-I'm-dreaming reasonable? Oh hayyyull yes they were. And the seller was super nice/prompt, to boot. You'd better believe I jumped on it quicker than you could say Jack Robinson, and now, I have the Marlene Dietrich jacket of my dreams I first mentioned here almost exactly two years ago (how the time does fly!). My only problem at present is trying to finagle an invitation to somewhere swank enough to show this sucker off ( this point, I'm pretty sure I would take any opportunity to give these guy a I become the most glamorous girl the Gallatin Road Sonic has ever seen).

Check it out:

I love the white-on-black, Cruella de Ville ness of the color, and the pelt is so much like human hair it's almost creepy. How it hangs! Look at those boxy shoulders! Chic, chic.

If you don't remember from the previous post, monkey fur coats had a few separate rise and falls in popularity, ranging from the Victorian era, to the 1920's, to the 1940's...just about every twenty years there seemed to be a resurgence in interest in the weird, wild texture until colobus monkeys became endangered towards the end of the forties' and a halt was put to their use in fine furs. Today, glad to hear, the little guys are doing fine, but the scarcity of the coats make them super rare. Not to say that they're not still a buzzing about! I saw an all black variety on Cookie Lyons in an episode of Empire the other day and decided my life's work was

Some monkey fur coat news articles collected from Google News Archives for your perusal:

1940 (l), 1933


And just for good measure, these gorgeous gals... I want that HAT, Lord, I want that hat.

Sorry for the brief update, but I'm telling you, my time is not my own these days!

What do you think? Have you scored any bucket list items off your must-have vintage dream collection? What's the best offer you've ever gotten as a result of a random blog post/friend of a friend/happenstance? Let's chat!!

I've got to run, but have a fantastic Tuesday, and we'll be talking again before long! :)

Monday, March 7, 2016

Calvin Black's Possum Trot Dolls (Outsider Art Americana)

Good morning!!

How are things? Same old, same old here in my camp-- I've been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen, going to a lot of estate sales, and eating as many tacos as my conscience will allow...but don't worry, things aren't as dire as they were in the last blog post. I'mma survive, people! I'm looking forward to going to the beach in a week and giving new meaning to chillaxing by my egregious example of self same behavior. But enough about me-- how you? I hope 2016 has been treating your well thus far!

Hi-ya, friend!
What brings me back to my own private corner of the internet? I was watching a trailer for a movie on Amazon Prime called Almost There early last week and had completely forgotten, the next day, the title of said movie. I googled "outsider artist movie" and came across this helpful list of things I really, really needed to know about, which included an entry on a short film called Possum Trot: The Life and Work of Calvin Black, 1903-1972 . In the words of the list author:
Folk artist and ventriloquist Calvin Black created a makeshift tourist attraction in California’s Mojave Desert in 1954 known as Possum Trot. Black created more than 80 life-size female dolls, which he used to perform with during shows set inside his Bird Cage Theater -- each one with their own personality and voice. You can see the strangely grotesque figures in action in Possum Trot: The Life and Work of Calvin Black, 1903-1972. Their odd, misshapen forms combined with Black’s quavering impersonation and the desert landscape is a truly surreal experience.
"Truly surreal" is an understatement. I came away from this short documentary completely obsessed with the idea of these dolls and the man who fashioned them, whittled away from salvaged wood and his own feverishly febrile imagination, and it inspired me to come tell you all about it over here at She Was a Bird. Folks, let me introduce you to the weird, weird world of Calvin Black, pictured below with some of his creations:

Does the dollmaker not weirdly resemble the dolls?
Throughout the twenty-eight minute runtime of the documentary, I was sitting with my mouth slightly open. I started watching it in the background of my computer, figuring, like a bunch of the folk documentaries I've been through in recent weeks (as work doldrums threaten to consume my living mind, haha), that it would be as much an aural experience as a visual one. When the tape-recorded, falsetto warblings of Calvin Black in the voice of his dolls started in the first minute or two, I had to stop the movie and back it up to the beginning. Because I would need to see EXACTLY what was going on with this.

The documentary opens with a helicopter shot of a series of ramshackle buildings, the whistle of a desert wind filling the silence of the isolated California landscape. The silence gives way to a reel to reel recording of Calvin Black doing the voice of "...Helen Marvel of the Bird Cage Theeee-ater, out here on Ghost Town Road, out in Possum Trot, California", and the camera begins to cover the exterior of the buildings in detail. Every outdoor surface is festooned with weirdly stoic wooden figures in varying weatherbeaten stages of still life. Some are rigged to be wind powered, arms akimbo, one pair of legs pedaling a stationery bike. Some are just lashed different parts of the building, hair blowing in their eyes and those eyes unblinkingly painted into close-set recesses on their smooth laquered faces. Handpainted signs litter the property: "We don't know where Ma is but we have Pop on Ice", "Often seen Jim and his Limb". And most importantly, in large letters over the main building: "BIRD CAGE THEATRE: FANTASY DOLL SHOW."

Out from the rabbit's warren of outbuildings emerges Ruby Calvin, a stout woman in a kerchief and a man's pullover, a shaggy black dog in tow.  The following dialogue ensues:
1: Hello!
2: Hello.
1: What is this place? What do you have inside?
2: Uh, have...all kinna stuff. Jewelry and rough rocks and postcards...and things.
1: Who made all these dolls?
2: My husband carved the dolls. Head and body's made out of redwood, and uh, their noses and arms, feet, legs are made out of sugar pine.
1: Do you have more dolls inside?
2: Yeah, have some inside...even have one with teeth carved in his mouth. 

TELL ME MORE, I says, PLEASE DO TELL ME MORE. Over the next half hour, Ruby Black, Calvin's widow, takes us through the buildings, describing the life she led with Calvin and the business she shared with her husband for almost twenty of the thirty four years they were married. After moving to the desert for Calvin's health to a parcel of land they bought from ad in the back of a magazine (!!), the self-taught artist and former carnival worker began carving the dolls shortly after the building was finished.

The isolation of the desert setting, the palpable absence of showman/dollmaker, the eerie motionlessness of the totem-like dolls in the amateur roadside attraction he created...those are all just parts of the draw here. Look at the actual dolls themselves, in place in their Birdcage Theatre:

Each of the dolls were lovingly carved by Black from downed telephone poles or highway posts and other scrap materials, featuring "doll gowns by Ruby" (as you can see on the sign above the stage), stitched and sewn by his wife. According to another interview subject who actually saw one of these performances, Calvin would lead tourists into the building and give a short speech before the stage, then play guitar and sing in synchronized routines with the dolls, some of whom had been outfitted with recorded tapes of dialogue and snatches of songs. Think "Showbiz Pizza" but in the most primitive of settings. An "admission" of a twenty-five cents or greater donation, and any other  tips for the girls in "kitty boxes" displayed in front of the figures, would go towards buying new clothes and even perfume for the figures, which grew eventually to number over eighty individual dolls. I couldn't help but think of taking some road trip circa 1970 and stumbling across this great big piece of weirdness in the middle of the California desert. At the same time as I probably would have been afraid for my life, it must have been SOMETHING. ELSE. to see this place in its heyday. 

One of the more extraordinary parts of the film features a stop-motion animation of the dolls frolicking around the building at the twenty two minute mark. If you thought these things looked unsettling sitting still, you can imagine my feelings towards them when they take on human motion, swinging their arms and rocking back and forth to the atonal singing and guitar strumming of their predeceased creator. It reminded me of Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer -- and just in the way this his work can be uneasy watching, it shares the same fascinating singularity. It's WONDERFUL by sheer dint of it unusualness. Where ELSE are you going to see something like this?

All of this, but moving. It is WILD.
Though Calvin initially asked that the dolls be burned upon his death, Ruby kept the figures and the property together as it was at his death until 1985, when she herself was found dead of heart failure at Possum Trot. An eyesore to the community, there was a failed attempt to leave the collection intact before the outfittings of the buildings and dolls were sold to an art dealer in Los Angeles for around $36,000 in today's money. In 2007, the Sherion doll alone (pictured below), sold for $96,000, and are hot pieces of "outsider art" for collectors of the same.

Which brings me to a secondary concern, besides what a trip the documentary was-- is the old "it BELONGS in a MUSEUM" chestnut applicable here? And if not in a museum, certainly not in some millionaire's Neutra-style LA house, right? As a frequenter of estate sales myself, I do often ask myself where heartfelt, beloved items "belong" after the person to whom they had such significance passes away...and in this case, the intimately-connected, sense of self-expression of the dolls makes this issue resonate twice as strongly. Robbed of their context, are these pieces not kind of "wrong"? Not wrong in the sense of morally unsupportable, but wrong in the sense of "not correct", inauthentic.? As magical as the dolls seem, outside of their "home" and with their creator long gone, re-invented as collectibles rather than personal totems, they do seem weirdly sad to be orphaned, scattered to the four winds, never to perform again?

The people initially trying to save Possum Trot put forth the following idea in the 80's, shortly after Ruby's death, but as you can see, none of it came to fruition:


I could see someone posting this documentary or photos of the dolls to Reddit's Creepy thread, but I think there's something so much more interesting at play here than "ooh look, what a weirdo, how weird, bet he's a murrrrrderer or something!!" that I'm sure a first glance would gain the Possum Trot gang. Eerie as the place is (especially at night! See: last few minutes of the film), set aside the idea of some James Wan creation taking place in the Birdcage Theatre. Instead, think about the earnestness that went into making this one man's wonderland out in the middle of the California desert. No, the figures are not Disney-quality, but they're pretty ingenious for a man with no formal training or education to dream up out of his own imagination, with what he had on hand. And, besides that, the WHY of it, THAT'S the most fascinating part. When you think of all the time and effort and single-mindness of vision that went into executing the theater and its "girls", it's nothing short of amazing. I have always liked, as is the subject of many of these folk documentaries and short films, the idea of art being made in a vacuum, without encouragement, some times in the face of open discouragement, in spite of lack of resources, in spite of lack of interest-- because you just have to create whatever it is you're moved to create. Think of how there must have been some keening wail of creativity deep down in Calvin Black that drove him not only to make the first doll, but to make almost a hundred more where that came make them a theater to work in and a world to inhabit, to keep working with them. And, as he says in recordings from the documentary, if people come and pay to see it, sure, that's great-- but it's the act of having pulled it off and having it seen and appreciated for which the man worked, far more so than the monetary gain of it.

The dolls in situ at the Possum Trot site, with Calvin
So, taken from that context of being a single vision, without their creator, put up on an auction block for thousands of dollars...what does that make the dolls now? And what else can you do with them, except appreciate them as art objects, now that their creator and the space they were created in are both long gone? ((sighs)) I don't know. I DO KNOW I would give my eye teeth to see some of these in person. I wonder if I'll get the chance!

Here are just about as many of the dolls as I could find online. If you've seen any others, bring 'em to my attention, I'm-kind-of-obsessed, thanks-in-advance:

Bob Greenberg's collection of Possum Trot dolls, now displayed in a case in the office of his ad agency's waiting room

Watch the whole documentary here and see for yourself:


I've got to get going, but do tell me-- how'd you like the documentary? What do you think of the dolls? How do you feel about things being scattered to the four winds? 

You'd better believe I have a back log as long as it is tall of vintage stuff to tell you about-- will try to hurry back before too long and give you the scoop! :) Have a great Monday afternoon, and I'll see you again soon! Til then.


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