Curly Queen

Stephanie Wornette is crushing on Sandra Pittana

If you grew up in Toronto, you’ve probably already encountered Sandra Pittana. She is that curly-headed clothing genius on Cityline that can make a cheap and cheerful ensemble sophisticated with her accessorizing magic. She is also full of the kinds of fashion stories you wish were your own (stylist in Mod-era Britain please, with two lumps of sugar). But perhaps what makes her the most crush-worthy is her open-minded approach to fashion that encourages personal style for the masses, pulling off gems like a YSL Russian collection coat 20 years later…

WORN was welcomed into Sandra’s home for hours of fashion musing about her mom the stylesetter, jumping into rivers for British Vogue, and curly hair angst.

God save the Queen.

When did you know that you wanted to work in fashion?
Like so many of us in this business, I had a fashion icon in my mom. She had an innate sense of style that was remarkable to me, topped off by the fact that she was also a business woman, at a time when women weren’t in business. She taught me to sew from a young age; I remember she’d make me clothes for school and would sometimes let me sew a seam. She’d stay up until four in the morning to finish the item, so the next day I could wear it to school and say “I made this.”

I went to school in England and became inspired, especially in London where being an individual has always been really celebrated. There’s something about London that’s quirky, that’s a little more adventurous. I like breaking the rules; I’ve always liked breaking the rules for fashion.

The funny thing about fashion is that it sort of comes and goes in all its incarnations, but the reality is it’s a simplified form of the arts world. You’re basically talking about a torso and two arms and two legs in most instances, there’s only so much you can do with that format, you know?

I think uniqueness will be the new luxury.
North America is such a land of excess and most of us don’t need more stuff. It’s lovely to have fewer, more select, individual pieces, that embody you. I often find that the pieces I buy that are in season are unintentionally worn less then. I tend to wear them more a season or two later, just because it isn’t so expected. You get to morph it into something slightly different because of what you put it with. You’re not so influenced by all the visual tags you see in every magazine, or on every blog.

Turns into a semiotic game to me. You just read the clothes as symbols of what’s trendy when you see the same thing over and over again.
I have a coat I still wear today, that I bought from Saint Laurent when he was doing this whole Russian thing, and it’s probably 28 or 30 years old. And I love it. And is it a bit odd? Yeah, but it’s terrific and I feel great in it and that to me is something that’s withstood the test of time because it’s surpassed being in or out, and I love that.

You worked at British Vogue as an Assistant Fashion Editor in the beginning of your career. Did you find that there was less of an emphasis on trends, and more of an emphasis on personal style there?
As you can imagine, it was a really exciting time in London. We’re talking late ’60s, early ’70s, and there was an awful lot happening. We were dying our poodles to match our suits and parading ourselves on the weekends—not just the women, but the men too. It was a very creative period in fashion and was a great time for me to learn. I worked for a wonderful woman, Melanie Miller, who started by making tea for Diana Vreeland. Our market was exquisite, expensive, one-of-a-kind, high end jewelry—McGraph and Cartier, and Van Cleef and Arpel jewels. I used to cart them around for photo shoots inside my coat! It drew less attention if I walked around disheveled with all of the stuff on me, than in a jewelry store with all of the security one would need…

Melanie would sometimes come up with a story idea that didn’t exist on the market. She would decide that red was the story line and that she was feeling great about embroidery, so they would create one-of-a-kind pieces for her. She taught me that if you have a dress, a model, and a photographer, you never know what’s going to happen in front of the camera. She wanted to make sure that for every dress there were ten necklaces, ten pairs of shoes, ten handbags, and ten hats so that there was always a plethora of accessories.

You can study the history of fashion all you want, but it was often a lot more about hands on, on the job learning, so it was a pretty privileged start. I look back on it and realize how lucky I was to get that knowledge first hand.

Yes, lucky, but you have to be able to handle an opportunity like that too. Do you have any favourite memories at Vogue?
SP: We were photographing with Sir Norman Parkinson (Parks), and we went out to a country estate to photograph ballgowns. We found this meandering river with a lovely stone bridge and low wall, and Parks decided it would be absolutely wonderful if the model laid down across the arc of the bridge, with her gown trailing over the front and blowing underneath. So, we had this beautiful vision but Parks had to stand in the middle of the river to shoot it. He was a very tall man, so willowy and elegant that you felt like he was 6’8″, and he just told me to drag a bench into the middle of the river for him to stand on. Of course, I fell as I went to take the bench into the river, and had to take my pants off and work the rest of the day in a little short jacket with only my underwear on. But we got beautiful photographs and I went home, carrying my pants in hand, soaking wet in the cold English countryside. Some silly memories.

How did you get to do Fashion Fridays on City TV Toronto?
I left Vogue and worked at Eaton’s doing market research and writing trend reports, but staying with the European market. I came back to Toronto and John McKay, the fashion expert on the Dini Petty show (today’s Cityline), was asked to find someone to give a female perspective. He originally recommended Jane Musset, who in turn suggested me. I took the position, and went on for what was really going to be a one-time thing—I’d have to say, after 23 years I’m the longest standing guest host! But the reality is that now I am the demographic of most people who watch TV. For a lot of younger people, TV moves way too slowly for them although we still do have our fair number of younger viewers.

A lot of people are on blogs, etc. but I think having something like Fashion Fridays with an expert stylist who will analyze a look and play around with it in real time still occupies a niche.
Often the stuff you see printed in magazines and elsewhere is not actually available. Buyers buy what will sell, editors buy couture. The one thing about Cityline is everything you see you can find in a store. Hopefully we are [instructive], because as we’ve talked about, you need to find your own comfort zone. Some people want to stretch a little while others want to play it safe.

One of our mottoes at WORN is “My style icon is anyone who makes a bloody effort.” – Isabella Blow

I love when someone makes an effort and makes a mistake, because at least they tried something outside of their comfort zone. But that’s just not the way it generally happens. Everybody just gets comfortable.

Issue 15 is all about hair. How do you feel about your curly hair?
I feel good about it. I straighten it occasionally, and I never feel good about it being straight, but I do love being able to put a comb or brush through. It’s a trade-off. I believe we should all embrace what we were given, because generally it tends to work the best for us. I look at a lot of people with curly hair who try to straighten it, and think, “Why don’t you just let it go?” But that’s me. I also think curly hair suits my personality while I’m not sure straight hair necessarily does. My daughter Daphne definitely agrees with that! She has curly hair too, and uses lavender oil and sea salt to take care of it.

Why do you think there is curl angst and this general movement to straighten it all out?

I think there is less curl angst now than before. But the strange thing about curly hair is that while I’m shopping when my hair is straight, I’ll gravitate to clothes that are quite different from what I’d try on when my hair is curly. You can’t exactly do a ruffle neck [with curly hair]. Whereas, if your hair is quite straight you can have some softness. So I like it better when your hair is almost the exact opposite of your clothing style. I think people aren’t as aware of that as they could be. The jewelry you choose with straight hair is different with curly hair. You have to look at it as part of the whole package.

Rumour has it you had little champagne pink highlights…
I had pale pink, but everyone thought I did it for breast cancer. I started experimenting with hair dyes when I was working at Vogue. I used to blow dry my hair out and would take water-based markers and put my hair on an ironing board and colour [my streaks] to match my outfits. I would do a lot of green and purple or red and pink. They looked a bit like feathers because of it being blown out soft. I had extensions for a while, but I never liked the feeling of the clip part. Today I don’t even think you hide the clip thing. Celebrities have made extensions the norm. It’s like you have a whole head of purple hair. That’s not punk; to me it’s just celebrating something being false. I don’t think it would be frowned upon today though. I was so conscious back then to make sure everyone thought it was natural.

That reminds me of the Hunger Games. The richest district is full of people with surreal hair celebrating the power of having no limits. Imagine Stanley Tucci with a blue bouffont! When your daughter was growing up, what did you want her to know about curly hair?
Celebrate whatever you have. It’s okay to embrace it. It’s fine. At first you braid it, to keep it under control, because the hair gets in your way. I watch Daphne now and she’s still always tying it up. And then she straightened it for a really long time. I celebrate the changes, but I also think you shouldn’t run away from what you already have. Experiment, have some fun, but don’t do it because of discomfort. Do it because you’re exploring the changes. I think that’s what I feel about fashion too. Just go with it, let it be, and see where it runs its gamut. Hate to think of what I’ll look like when I’m old. Curly hair and all the jewelry…

photography //Brianne Burnell

Past Present

What the minutiae of 19th century daily life can teach us about our wardrobes

Museums and clothing have a longstanding history together. The John L. Wehle Art Gallery is home to the fairly extensive Susan Greene costume collection: 3,000 garments spanning from the late 18th to the early 20th century (think many crinolined skirts and satin tuxes). It’s a collection that Karen Augusta, Antiques Road Show appraiser, calls “a gem” that “stands alone as one of the finest collections of its kind in North America”. So what is it that makes this particular collection so unique? Susan Greene kept everyday possessions belonging to men, women and children that no one thought people would want to see. Displayed in shiny glass cases are dish rags, undergarments, and beloved frocks that have been Frankensteined together over and over to resurrect the dead. Visitors see the material lives of New Yorkers from eras past, approachably presented.

The museum is situated in the Genesee Country Village & Museum, a historical village in Mumford, New York, complete with Ye Olden Shoppes. I got to wander through the collection with Bevin Lyn, Coordinator of Interpretive Programs, who I found walking through a cobbled street. In a full Jane Austen style get-up, Bevin gave me a tour of the collection, first recollecting how she came to the Genesee village. “As a child I was really into Jane Austen,” she says, “so when I came here I was like ‘Wow! These people are like me.’” Bevin worked in banking but came back to work the museum, linking herself with this past. She hasn’t turned back and I began to see why.

Thrifty Hist’ry
Since the Greenes collected the garments of the working and upper classes, a history of thriftiness is woven through the exhibition. Bevin points out that most New Yorkers “valued each and every garment [they owned]…so they patched, maintained and took care of [them]…and that’s why they survived today.” “Thrift” today conjures up exciting trips to Salvation Army to find quirky leftovers. A 19th century American’s idea of thrift was simply NOT discarding or giving away their clothes, but preserving them for their own usage. With a tighter economic climate, Bevin warns that “we’re having to come full circle.” Perhaps we can learn to take better care of our clothes by following the Wornette lead

“Without foundation there is no fashion”
Bevin quotes Christian Dior as she leads me through the incredibly user-friendly plexi-glass covered drawers of women’s undergarments. She talks of corsets and stays, words which perplex me at first – what is the difference between these undergarments? Push-up vs. just keeping them in place? My guide tells me that the terms are interchangeable. This collection encompasses that interesting time just after the French revolution when non-fussy, cotton shift dresses became popular and foundation garments thus evolved accordingly. Women did not want bone in their foundation garments, but opted for softer more flexible stays that allowed for greater movement, just like their dresses did. Much in the same way, we opt for sports bras- versus underwire cups and hydraulic cleavage pressure systems for our more bouncy pursuits.

Paisley Knock-offs
Staring at a case saturated in paisley, Bevin relates that paisley shawls were once a status symbol. Cashmere shawls in paisley designs were produced in Kashmir, India and were created by sewing needles and hand-weaving. Small sections would be sewn together so masterfully that seams were invisible. In the second half of the 19th century, paisley scarves were woven on looms in Paisley, Scotland. In Franc,e attempts were made to domesticate Indian goats which produced the soft wool, all in the hopes of replicating the pricey Indian original. When these “knock-offs” came out, Bevin emphasized that wealthy women were upset: “in the fashion articles of the time you’ll read that rich women think it’s so gauche that these poor women are copying them.” Lest we forget the Fendi baguette incident from Sex and the City.

The Wehle Gallery has put together a relevant fashion exhibit in that it has exposed many of the fashion concerns of the 19th century only to reveal they have become trendy again. The gallery however breaks with the prevailing style of museum exhibits by including numerous hands-on drawers, displaying cheap and chic garment examples, and on some fortuitous occasions, offering period-costumed tour-guides. These are some trends I wouldn’t mind having catch on.

photography // Stephanie Herold

Book Review – Roberto Capucci: Art Into Fashion

In 1962, Roberto Capucci was touted by Life magazine as one of the “rising stars of Paris haute couture” along with Yves Saint Laurent. That same year, the choosy French fashion press nicknamed him “Le petit Balenciaga de L’Italie.“ If Capucci was such as big deal, why had I never heard of him? (Roberto Cavailli, Fiorucci, Ca-Pucci?) I blamed my own ignorance, but I couldn’t help but wonder why such a seemingly revered designer was absent in my fashion lexicon. With the help of the Fondazione Roberto Capucci and the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s parallel Roberto Capucci Exhibition, Dilys E. Blum thoroughly introduced me. Picking up this picture-heavy book, I also didn’t realize its apparently monographical purpose would be coupled with a more covert, even subversive task. The title should have given me a hint, specifically the second part: Art Into Fashion, perhaps better titled Fashion into Art.

Blum relays the story of Roberto Capucci (b. 1930), an 18-year-old Italian couture designer who blossomed out of the burgeoning post-WW2 Italian fashion scene and matured into the comparatively remote and revered couture sculpture artist he is today. Three-quarters of this book’s colour-soaked pages offer a photographic retrospective of Capucci’s garments—pictured are all the naturalistic motifs, painter’s palette colours, exaggerated folds, and proportion distortion that characterize Capucci’s thoroughly clean and modern oeuvre.
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