The Style Files

A Little Tongue-in-Chic

Julie Driscoll blooms in
The End of Innocence

The problem with being a fashion pariah is that anti-style is tough work. One must develop an utter disregard for the conventions as dictated by designers and perpetrated by models and fashion magazines and still look cool. And, as any female with more than two packages of candles on her birthday cake knows, it's hard to dress hip over 40. (This sentiment isn't specific to women; a male friend once wailed to me that he would like, just for one day in his life, to look good in leather pants.)

I used to have a damn good time dressing up. I really loved dying my hair hot pink, painting blue stripes on my face, and putting on high heels just to go to the 7-Eleven with my roommates Dayna and Virginia, as much as the nightly ritual of dressing up to go club-hopping. Punk fashion was anti-fashion and it was a lot more fun before it became co-opted by high fashion -- but even then, my fashion sense was largely limited to oversize black T-shirts and black pants, that traditionally bohemian way of aging with anti-grace. The gap in my sense of style is still staggeringly apparent.

My fashion sense was first formed in the Sixties, which might go a long way toward explaining that lack of style. Had there been a decade since the Twenties when fashion took such a radical turn from beginning to end? What started with crewcuts and chic ended with long hair and anti-chic, and what happened when anti-chic became popular has been a scenario repeated over and over ever since: The best of the underground will always be appropriated and reduced to the lowest common denominator for the masses.

Blame it on rock & roll. At least blame it on the British Invasion -- all that Carnaby Street/Swinging London look went hand-in-hand with the Fab Four, who did enough fashion damage on their own. Not only did English music flood the airwaves, a new look burst forth in names, products, and stores that tripped magically off the tongue: Courreges, Mary Quant, Yardley of London, Paraphenalia, Biba.... The designs reflected a newfound freedom of expression as women's hemlines went shorter and men's hair grew longer, and it was all done to a rock & roll beat. Gone were the binding undergarments of the Fifties and every decade before. Hard to believe that in the Sixties, pantyhose were considered a blessing, and women then were much more anxious to discard girdles than burn bras.

The look of the Sixties was often captured as much in music as in fashion. The End of Innocence: Photographs From the Decade That Defined Pop edited by Liz Jobey (Scalo, $35 hard) is a sweet offering of eye candy for that era. At EMI Records in 1965, a prescient woman named Janet Lord went to work for the London label and organized their already-dilapidated system of promotional photos of their myriad acts. Thirty years later, her efforts in organizing and maintaining those files and files of promos shots paid off in this sampling of artists from Nat King Cole and the Beatles to Marc Bolan and the Jackson Five.

Roughly 200 photographs are shown in a large hardback format that allows for excellent examination of photo and fashion details. Here's early Pink Floyd looking like true dandies and a young Michael Jackson with a clown wig (!). Goofy-looking bands you've never heard of abound: A pretentiously dressed band named Tomorrow, one called Rainbow ffolley decked out in maribou and ostrich feathers, and yet another group of motley modsters called the N-Betweens seem particularly anonymous until you realize they later became Slade.

The Chic Simple series

The recognizable names that bring the biggest smiles: David Bowie, still known by his birth name in Davy Jones and the Lower Third, is shown sporting exceedingly long collar tips and flower-print ties popular in the day while Smokey Robinson and the Miracles dance in matching tuxes with satin lapels and bowties. There's Quincy Jones in a seersucker jacket, Sonny and Cher looking just god-awful. A bearded Rod Stewart in a puffy 'do like the one my mother wore sits in a mink coat with a handsome, sulky Jeff Beck and baby-faced Ron Wood. And Julie Driscoll, the Brit chanteuse who didn't get her due in America until Absolutely Fabulous used "This Wheel's on Fire" as its theme song, virtually blooms throughout the pages. First, she appears as a a softly pageboy'd ingenue, then with a haystack of helmet hair that is so striking I remembered the image for 30 years and smiled to see it again.

The End of Innocence was intended as a pop music reference but its most striking effect is visual. The clothes -- and the hair, make-up, shoes, and accessories -- were The Look. And that's where the power of fashion lies, in its ability to make the viewer want to be the bearer of The Look. We've all seen examples of this to the worst extreme, but it's equally memorable when done tastefully. While one of the dowagers in the film Steel Magnolias sniffed that our ability to accessorize is what sets us apart from the animals, that ability is by no means innate; it is learned. I, for one, never learned it.

A series of books called the Chic Simple Library has offered the first glimmer of hope for the genuinely fashion-challenged among us. This is not idle praise here; the checkstand lure of a $3 fashion magazine offering 25 ways to update your wardrobe can be very appealing, not to mention cheap. But most of us know that good advice, like fashion classics, comes at a cost, and that's why the Chic Simple Library is well worth the investment. Here's practical and easy-to-digest advice you didn't know you were looking for on everything from clothing to home furnishings to tools to scents in a kind of Time-Life library form: Examine the titles carefully and buy only those that you will use. When this series started, the notion of a volume on glasses seemed rather frivolous. Since I've had to start wearing glasses to read, it seems downright ingenious.

Chic Simple: Accessories edited by Kim Johnson Gross and Jeff Stone; text by Christa Worthington; photographs by James Wojcik (Knopf, $23 hard) is another such title in the series that seemed frivolous until I examined it carefully and found myself thinking about it while wandering through a jewelry department recently, its sensible guidance having stuck with me. There is a method to fashion madness, and the Chic Simple philosophy makes it work for almost everyone.

A simple black dress is given five different looks merely by altering its details: One style of shoes will dress it up for work, another will take it out for dinner. A list of icons flag various aspects such as whether or not this style is suitable for all body types, but the icons are tiny in comparison to the otherwise well laid-out illustrations, and hard to remember without constantly refering to the key.

Likewise, Chic Simple: Work Clothes edited by Kim Johnson Gross and Jeff Stone; text by J.Scott Omelianuk; photographs by Robert Tardio (Knopf, $23 hard) and Chic Simple: Women's Wardrobe edited by Kim Johnson Gross and Jeff Stone; text by Rachel Urquhart; photographs by James Wojcik (Knopf, $30 hard) stress the importance of flexibility and possibility in choosing clothing and accessories. Most importantly, it grants the reader the strength to try these accessible notions of dressing well and offers wisdom to tell the difference between fashion and trend.

I found those books infinitely more valuable than Todd Oldham: Without Boundaries (Universe, $27.50 paper). Obviously intended for the fans of the hip young Dallas designer, Todd Oldham is bright, with colorful photographs and essays on fashion, but I found the book's design, like much haute couture, good-looking but impractical. Set and formatted in a difficult-to-read font, it is clearly geared to the Gen X audience, for whom Oldham designs. Todd Oldham makes no pretense of being a fashion guide like Chic Simple, but it's just as well; like so many of his peers, he designs for the bodies that model his clothes, not the ones who buy them.

And -- with tongue in chic -- the ability to accessorize is not the only difference between us and the animals, it's just that they haven't learned to use e-mail proficiently. Yet.

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