Postal Fashion

There is a real dearth of good mail in this world. And I suppose I’m as much to blame for that as anyone. I used to send letters – long, handwritten missives to my mom and long-distance friends. I still have a stack of love letters from a diligently romantic university boyfriend. Picking up the mail was sort of exciting, the potential of finding a fat little envelope filled with scribbles and pictures. Mostly it was because it meant someone was thinking of me – you know, for longer than it took to hit “send.”

These days, mailboxes are sad receptacles reserved for bills and flyers – the only postal cockroaches to survive the e-pocalypse. So imagine my delight when, on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon, I found an honest-to-god parcel on my porch.

Behold – WORN contributor and generally remarkable human, Hailey Siracky, sent me my very own pair of second-hand Ukrainian dancing boots!

After I stopped jumping around like a maniac, I had this Great Big Idea. I’m calling it Postal Fashion. Somewhere in everyone’s closet there is a tee-shirt that never fit quite right or a pair of earrings that are too pretty to get rid of but don’t go with anything. Just stick them in an envelope and send them to someone you like.

Because mail should be this awesome.

- g.

Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity

Has there ever been a fashion designer more enigmatic than Madame Valentina Schlee, the staunch grande dame of American couture? Kohle Yohannan doesn’t think so. And after reading his book you won’t either.

Though her name is lost on many today, Valentina was certainly the most (in)famous American couturier in the early part of the 20th century. Her clothes were status symbols. With evening gowns running between $800 and $1,200 in the late 1940s, they were items that even the wealthy saved for. And save they did. Valentina dressed the most celebrated women of her era: Katharine Hepburn, Dorothy Thompson, Katharine Cornell, and her friend and lover Greta Garbo. Yet for all her accolades, Valentina has become a footnote in fashion history since shuttering her East 67th Street showroom in 1957.

In this sumptuous coffee table book, Yohannan attempts to lift the veil on the designer’s deliberately opaque biography, exposing the woman behind Valentina Gowns, Inc. The result is not only a fascinating account of the designer, but an engrossing lesson on American couture between (and slightly after) the wars. (Full disclosure: WORN senior editor Sonya Topolnisky helped Yohannan with research for this book!) Valentina begins with brief chapters on the designer’s young adulthood in Russia, most of it conjecture. She met her future husband and business partner, George Schlee, in 1919, a well-connected “wunderkind,” who fled revolutionary Russia with Valentina, moving first to Paris, then New York City. The two were heavily involved in theatre: George as a manager, Valentina a sometimes actress-dancer. And they knew Leon Bakst. The couple continued their patronage throughout their lifetime, and Valentina supplemented her made-to-measure business by designing costumes for the greatest Broadway productions of the day. Continue reading

The Red Boot Boogie

I grew up in the middle of prairie nowhere. My hometown has 1,500 people and no traffic lights. My first Ukrainian dancing classes were held in the elementary school gym and, Ukrainian dance being wildly popular throughout Alberta, our local dance club was enormous. I remember very little about my earliest years of Ukrainian dancing. I asked my mom how old I was when I began.
“Four,” she said. “And they made you audition.”
“They did not!” I exclaimed. Not only did I have no memory of auditions, but it really just didn’t seem possible. My mom explained, “They stuck you in a room, taught you a few steps, and then decided whether to put you in Pre-Beginner or, you know… Idiot.”
“And was I an idiot?” I asked.
“No,” said my Mom. “No, you were not.”

Further discussion revealed that, while I was no slouch in the dance department, my mom felt she could have used some remedial lessons in How to Be a Dancing Mother. Sewing my first costume, she told me, was a challenge. “The club bought the material for your skirts in bulk and then sold it to us to sew ourselves. There was a lady who held meetings to make sure we were doing it right, but I never was. Eventually I wised up and paid someone else to do it for me.” At four years old, I could have cared less about my dance costume and I wailed like an ambulance when it came time for her to French-braid my hair. What I l-o-o-o-o-ved, however, was the makeup. I have no idea where this originated or why, but for the longest time one did not perform Ukrainian dancing on stage without these crazy little wings drawn out of the corners of one’s eyes. We used to call them “fishtails.”

“Of course, I never got that right, either,” said my mom. “I was a failure of a dancing mother. It’s a wonder you turned out to love it as much as you do.” But she wasn’t a failure at all. And I do love it. Today, at 20 years old, I dance with Edmonton’s Cheremosh Ukrainian Dance Company. In the years between my very first costume and now, I have worn scores of skirts, aprons, blouses, boots, and headpieces, the details of which both amaze and amuse (and sometimes annoy) me.

Continue reading