Liz and I were at an estate sale, in the basement, rummaging through two racks of dresses, suits, and coats. Liz, with her impeccable eye, tossed item after item over her arm. "Bonnie Cashin!" she said in an excited whisper. "There's tons of it!"
The elderly Italian woman who had owned the house had exquisite taste and a generous clothing budget. And she had kept every gorgeous outfit she bought, including a cache of classic Bonnie Cashin designs that would make the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Curator weep with joy.
Bonnie Cashin, who would have been 100 years old were she alive, revolutionized American fashion. Cashin started her career designing costumes for the Roxyettes at New York City's Roxy Theater when she was only 25 years old. She did a little costume design in Hollywood, too--that's her work in The King and I, for example--and did unattributed designs for Hermes and others.
But today she's mostly known for two accomplishments: her design with the Sills company, and taking Coach from an antiquated saddle company to a national name in women's leather accessories.
With Sills, Cashin took fabrics like mohair, jersey, and wool, fabrics that had never got the respect they deserved, and turned them into luxurious coats, suits, ponchos, and dresses. She valued comfort and freedom of movement, so she patterned her designs after Chinese clothing. Many of her coats had kimono sleeves and loose bodies so that they could be layered with other clothing. (In fact, some say she introduced the concept of layering to Americans.) She favored hardware-style closures--closures that she brought to Coach and that, to this day, allow you to i.d. a Coach bag from down the block. Like Claire McCardell, she imbued everyday clothing with a style that came to define American elegance.
Cashin loved working with leather, and her signature pieces often include leather ties or piping. So, her years at Coach were a natural. When Cashin was hired at Coach, Coach was known for making saddles and bridles. Cashin took advantage of Coach's expertise with saddle leather and designed practical but stylish handbags that have since become hugely sought after. Coach is now re-issuing some of her designs, although "cutey-pied" up and at ridiculously high prices.
At the estate sale, Liz snagged several Bonnie Cashin mohair and wool coats and dress/coat combos that somehow manage to look vintage and yet timeless. They are taupe, ruby red, cocoa brown, ivory, and more. They are indubitably American, and yet they are so elegant that they would kick butt in Paris. Even better, they're a reasonable size 8 or 10. When Liz went into the back basement room at the estate sale and came out with some Bonnie Cashin purses, I vowed I'd wrassle her to the ground if I had to for the red Cashin Carry tote, and it's by my side right now. (No wrassling necessary.) I think Liz kept the lipstick pink one. If you're lucky, you can still buy one tote left, in a rich brown-black.
I'm still dreaming about that estate sale. If you like fashion, for God's sake don't miss out on the Cashins!
Get ready for some great advice on what to wear to the prom this year. Why is this advice so great? Because it is based on experience--my experience of what not to wear, that is. My prom dress was a number my grandma whipped up with a little dotted swiss lace, a few yards of yellow calico, and a racy Simplicity pattern. I looked like Laura Wilder from Little House on the Prairie might have if she'd decided to give up being a pioneer and get herself a pimp.
A vintage dress is the way to go. With vintage, you are sure to (1) be chic, (2) be original, (3) save money; and (4) look like a Hollywood icon. Below I've listed a few of the movie stars I'm talking about, along with some suggestions and some inspiration.
The Audrey Hepburn Look: Who wouldn't want to look like Audrey Hepburn? She had it all: gamine elegance, style, and originality. She broke all the rules of her day. She was brunette, flat chested, and girlish. But one look at her in Breakfast at Tiffany's and she takes your breath away. This look is best for the smaller woman. If you aren't particularly curvaceous, so much the better. An early 1960s cocktail dress cut just at the knee, in black, of course, and a chignon will take you halfway there. Add splashy rhinestones at the neck and gloves up past your elbows, and you have arrived. Audrey wore L'Interdit by Givenchy perfume, but that might smell a little old fashioned these days--try something fresh, like Daisy by Marc Jacobs. Xtabay has a whole rack of black cocktail dresses for the Audrey look. For inspiration, watch Breakfast at Tiffany's, Funny Face, and Roman Holiday.
The Molly Ringwald Look: The '80s are back, ergo, so is Molly. Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club are good inspiration. If you like the bold colors and poof of the '80s, you are in luck, because Liz snagged a bunch of '80s prom dresses in all the primo colors--aqua, mauve, silver--in tulle, satin, and a fabric as reflective as mylar. The Molly look is best for the life-of-the-party type. You have to have confidence to pull it off, but if it suits you, you will command the room. Be sure to listen to some Boston and Foreigner while you get ready. Maybe you can pin the corsage in your hair instead of on your dress. Best 1980s perfume? I'd vote for a whopper floral oriental like Opium or maybe Poison. I don't need to tell you to have fun.
The Rita Hayworth Look: If this is your look, I don't even know why you're reading this, because your dad is going to lock you in at home. By all rights, the sultry Rita look should be saved for girls over 21. But if you're determined, who are we to stop you? If you're curvy and have a little wave to your hair and pout to your mouth, you just might be a natural. The Rita is one look that demands a full-length gown rather than a cocktail dress. Something jewel-toned that dips in the back and shows some cleavage would suit Rita well. I think the Rita look would take well to a 1970s jersey dress, too. Add a chunky bracelet and ankle-strapped sandals--minimum three inch heels--and you are Rita all over again. Shalimar would be perfect for a perfume, or Secret Obsession if you want to try something new. Gilda is good inspiration for the Rita.
Wearing a vintage dress to the prom--a dress that fits well and suits you--will do your proud. Come in to Xtabay, and we'll make sure you're in the right dress for your figure and your style. As for what your date wears, well, that's up to you.