Is Vintage Fashion Dangerous? The Guilty Pleasure of Watching Mad Men

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I have a very embarrassing confession to make. I have just discovered Mad Men. I know, I know. It's only been around for about a gazillion years, spawning many a conversation about Don's conquests, Betty's scarves and Peggy's career trajectory - not to mention more serious discussions about the representation of African Americans and women in general, and its characters' changing attitudes to queerness, whether their own or other people's.

Don't think I wasn't tempted to tune in initially. I heard and read all the hype. I even went to the exhibition of the clothes (shown below) at my local shopping mall, and still I kept away.

Picture: Fernando de Sousa
To be honest, I dreaded watching it because of all the noise about the sexism it depicted. I thought, from the publicity, that the show would glorify the sexism rather than critique it. I feared it would be depressingly retrograde.

In fact, it does both. The sexism traps the characters, but is also part of the mystique and glamour of the show. This contradiction is the source of both the danger of Mad Men and its charm. It is also surely one of the reasons the clothes in the show are so fascinating. Clothes are not just clothes in Mad Men. They are clear signals of gender, and the different kinds of power that gender allowed and continues to suggest.

In the biologically driven gender minefield that is the Sterling Cooper ad agency at the dawn of the sixties, the kingpin, the chief ape, the unofficial leader is Don Draper. Charismatic, brooding, tall, dark and handsome and attracting women like Tippex to a typewriter, he is a paradox wrapped in a contradiction, a walking cliche of sixties manhood except for the existential angst, a feature more to be expected in a beatnik. Don's not fooled by his own publicity. He's only good at what he does because he's so familiar with the universal insecurities that his advertisements tap into.

Picture: AP
At the beginning of the sixties when the show opens, men's power came from having a higher social status than women. Revered in the home as mothers and wives, women were essentially second class citizens in the public realm. At Sterling Cooper they play the role of subservient handmaidens and sex objects who are referred to by the men as 'the girl' or by their first names, while they must address the men using 'Mr'.

In this world, male attractiveness is a very different beast from female sexual allure - it's tied up with social power, high status and action. The suits on these perfectly groomed men are designed to reflect their knowledge, ability and authority, thus enhancing their position in the social hierarchy.

For women, clothing has a very different function. The only kind of power women can openly wield is sexual allure, and the most powerful woman in the office at the beginning of the first series is the most sexually attractive, Joan Holloway (below). Joan simply cannot fathom that Peggy, who starts as a secretary but blossoms into a talented copywriter, might want a different kind of power and influence.

Joan, of course, does wield other kinds of power, particularly over the other secretaries in her role as chief secretary. However, that this authority is tied in with her sexual power becomes sadly evident in the second series when she tries to sack a secretary for breaking into the office of the company's head honcho.

The secretary is immediately reinstated by company partner Roger Sterling, because he wants to have an affair with her. The irony is that Sterling had been carrying on a secret affair with Joan for years; now that Joan is engaged to someone else, Roger uses his superior power to get his way.

It's true that Joan is also valued and needed because of her ability to organise the office. In fact she's one of those people that every large office seems to have - the person that manages to hold the whole place together, the person you go to when you want to complain for the umpteenth time that the airconditioning is making the office too cold. However, it's doubtful whether, in the extreme environment of Sterling Cooper, Joan would be afforded the respect and occasional indulgence of the men in this powerful role if she wasn't stunning.

Yet, as the sixties progresses Joan comes to realise that her role deserves credit and she starts to describe herself as the 'office manager' rather than the 'chief secretary'. This reminded me of the way women stopped calling themselves secretaries sometime in the eighties and became personal assistants.

Don Draper's wife Betty also dramatises how limiting gender stereotypes were for women after the Second World War. In the first series this perfectly groomed woman with her porcelain complexion and blonde bob is a fifties ideal of the suburban Mom, but she is also an archetypal representative of  all the discontentments that would give birth to second wave feminism.

Betty starts off representing the staid, conservative fifties rather than the turbulent sixties but her domestic role is no barrier to her being a style icon.

The image she exudes of the perfect wife and mother is one of the reasons Don has married her, and it's clear the man has a bit of a madonna-whore complex. Betty is the 'angelic' mother of their two children, but he has affairs with career women who are intelligent, sassy and independent.

Of course the turbulent sixties are about to hit Sterling Cooper, and feminism and black power will shake up that cosy little world - which brings us to Peggy Olson.

Young Peggy is easily the most evolved character in the show. Fresh-faced, honest and hardworking, she storms into Don's office and tells him 'I don't understand ... I tried to do my job, I follow the rules; and people hate me. Innocent people get hurt and other people, people who are not good, get to walk around doing whatever they want. It's not fair!' She is The Future, she is Diversity, she is getting there through talent and hard work rather than networking and privilege. She is the secret story of the legions of women who have done battle in a man's world while dealing with their lack of power over their own bodies.

More superficially (!), she also develops a great tailored look as she advances in her career and in her confidence as a young professional.

And she demonstrates that intelligent, ambitious and forthright women are damned attractive, even to neanderthals like Pete Campbell.

So why is there guilt in the pleasure of watching Mad Men for me? Because the show glamorises the power differentials it depicts as much as it critiques them. It wants a bet both ways, but I think we viewers do too. We know what a cost there was to these gender differences, and the fact that the clothes underline the differences makes them somehow complicit.

Given the show's glamorisation of oppression, it's not surprising that so many people don't get the irony. I remember reading the blog of a male copywriter who said something along the lines of 'It's okay to be a bit sexist since Mad Men'. Surely it should be even less okay to be sexist after Mad Men, not more?

The problem is Don, of course. He is confused, emotionally isolated, an imposter in his own life, but he's also in control in so many ways, never more so than with the ladies. And the trouble is, the show seems to like him wielding sexual power over them. It offers him as a role model even as it reveals the farce that is his picture-perfect life - in the first series, anyway. Patriarchy and male privilege have never been so alluring.

Some of the female actors in Mad Men don't get the irony either, their publicity shots showing poses that make them look like objects of lust and not subjects of it. Corporations are also reaping the benefits. The Mad Men cosmetics line by Estee Lauder cashes in on the mystique without the critique - and the actors oblige by allowing themselves to be photographed - or it appears that way - smoking away in retro sixties style.

Perhaps I don't have to resolve the ambivalence I feel watching the show - perhaps I just need to be aware of it. Mad Men is about how the past affects the present, and it is a warning as much as as an exercise in nostalgia. Women are not yet equal to men even today, but even the gains we've made are constantly under threat.

Let's adore the full skirts, shimmery evening gowns, complicated hairstyles, perfectly arranged scarves, and the neatness and tailored suaveness of Pete and Don. But let's also remember that prescribed gender roles come at a huge cost. These roles are appealing because they make us feel secure, and hark back to a time when it was all much simpler, but in the end they bring out the worst in both women and men. The men in Mad Men are too competitive, too 'up themselves', they're rude, self-centred, terrified of intimacy and prone to alcoholism; the women are bored, angry and unfulfilled, passive-aggressive, and chronically insecure. Somehow as a species we have to let these roles go and just learn to be ourselves, to fulfil ourselves as human beings and treat one another with respect. It's a much harder ask but the question is - can we do it and still enjoy the fun of fifties and sixties fashion?

You betcha.

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Fringe Furniture 2013 Delivers a Fresh Burst of Design Imagination

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Melbourne's Fringe Furniture exhibition, part of the annual Fringe Festival, is famous for its fresh, inventive and cheeky attitude. This year's theme was 'Make it true', a call to bring imaginative ideas to life. Many entries combine artistic flair with unexpected uses of recycled materials. I popped in last weekend and took some pics.

Fringe Furniture has become an iconic Melbourne event. Established in 1986, it showcases the work of some of the country's most exciting emerging designers. It is entirely open access and includes an awards program and a mentor program. Its home in recent years has been the Abbotsford Convent  a trip to this artistic hub is an outing in itself.

The standout exhibit for me was the scary chair pictured above. Made from a recycled piano and plumbing fittings, with lighting coming from open mouths on curved tentacles, it has an uncanny touch of the Addams Family about it. Titled 'The festering', it was indeed inspired by Uncle Fester, who would power lightglobes by putting them into his mouth. It's the brainchild of Amanda Gibson and Peter Drofenik.

A very different kind of seating (and colour scheme) can be seen in this comfy looking bench by Celine Huggins. Its materials include food cans and synthetic ply towelling and the slats are pool noodles, no less.

The piece below is the very definition of conceptual elegance. By Adam Raphael Markowitz, it's called the Möbius Chair and is made from laminated birch plywood.

The uncanny crops up again in  'Fledgling', a striking light shade made from ostrich feathers, stainless steel and rusted steel. It's by designer Alex Sanson.

Why hasn't someone thought to combine the chair and the sleeping bag (or is it a windcheater) before? The result is an invitation to withdraw into domestic comfort. This design, 'Cocoon', is by Evan Mery.

I loved the bold yet natural colour shades on this coffee table, which is made from a salvaged pallet, with a base of black zinc steel. It's by Marcus O'Reilly and is fittingly titled 'Palletto to pallete'.

Here's a close-up of the surface.

The flash photo below doesn't fully convey the charm of this next piece, which has a 'steampunk' feel. Known as 'Jacklight', it was made from mixed materials by Donna Kirkwood and Patrick Neil at Zom8ie.

This trio of a stool and two tables had a pleasing spidery feel and an earthy asethetic. Created by Christopher Herman, the tops are Australian limestone and the legs are corten steel.

The striking light shades below are porcelain designs from Colin Hopkins's Porcelume collection, created in his studio at the Abbotsford Convent. Hopkins's delicate, translucent designs are hand thrown on a potters wheel and then etched by hand, creating a shimmering feel. 

These are only a few of the almost 100 pieces in the Fringe Furniture exhibition, which runs until 6 October. Opening hours are Wed – Sun, 11 am – 5 pm. It's at the Abbotsford Convent, 16 St Heliers St Abbotsford. It's well worth a look if you're in Melbourne  stroll around the convent grounds afterwards, and have a cuppa in one of the cafes.

Until next time!

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Advanced Style – A Fashion Blog that Advances the Image of Women

Picture:  Caitlin Bussey

There are so many great fashion blogs on the web these days, it’s difficult to keep track of them all. One blog that stands out is Advanced Style, which celebrates the fashion flair of older women. 

The blog’s creator, Ari Seth Cohen, roams the streets of New York taking beautifully styled photographs of older people with creative personal style.

The success of this blog has been phenomenal. It attracts around 150,000 visitors a month. It’s featured on television many times, there is an upcoming documentary and Advanced Style coffee table book and colouring book. One of Cohen’s favourite subjects is Ruth, a 100-year-old woman who dresses elegantly every day, exercises daily, travels overseas with her boyfriend and still does Pilates.

There are so many reasons to love this blog, but it’s what it avoids doing as much as what it achieves that makes it so radical.

Advanced Style doesn’t talk down to its readers. Just the opposite – it invites their participation. For the women who regularly showcase their outfits on the blog and have become friends with Cohen, it often becomes a collaboration. Their involvement helps to shape the blog.

There’s hardly a tight forehead in sight. No judgement on those who succumb to ‘enhancement’ such as Botox or plastic surgery, and I’m sure a few of those featured have had the odd nip and tuck, but it’s refreshing to see women who aren’t trying to look young. Instead their aim is to look great and stylish at whatever age they happen to be.

It encourages diversity of expression. Traditionally the only option for the stylish woman as she grew older was to choose the elegant, refined route – pearls, linen, crisp suits and so on. Luckily that no longer applies. The blog includes plenty of traditionally elegant women, but this is just one option. And often a chic line is combined with a bold use of colour and shape to provide eye-catching looks that are both elegant and adventurous; in other words, elegance doesn’t have to be boring.

It encourages creativity and fun. Advanced Style demonstrates that as we grow older, style can become more individualised. These women dress to be noticed, but they also dress for themselves and for creative freedom. The approach is lighthearted. Too often fashion is presented as a serious business. This blog celebrates the creative, fun aspects of fashion.

All this has important implications for both the cultural image and self-image of older women. The point is not to look alluring to a man, but to dress for yourself and, if you are so inclined, to create your look as a work of art. Attention, originality, detail and experimentation are the catchwords here.

This has the potential to lift the confidence and self-esteem of older readers. Not that all readers need such a nudge of course: the women featured in the blog have truly come into their own, and this is where the message to the wider community – that older women are to be respected and their power acknowledged – comes in. (The blog doesn’t exclude stylish men – they are in the minority of course, but some extremely stylish older men are featured.)

Younger readers also get the message that not only is it okay to get and look older, but getting older is an opportunity to grow as a person, and to develop a stronger sense of self. In a sexualised, youth-obsessed culture, these women are role models for younger women.

There are a few drawbacks. Many of the women do wear clothes that are, well, pricey; New York’s well-heeled are not absent from Advanced Style, and sometimes the lifestyle aspects are, ahem, aspirational. However, there’s also a fair bit of upcycling and op shop chic, and plenty of vintage and alternative designers. Overall the blog is refreshingly free of fashion ‘snobbery’.

You don’t have to be rich to gain from this blog. You just have to love the idea of expressing yourself through what you wear – you can do this at any age, of course, but the older you get, the better you’ll get at it.

Advanced Style is not the only blog to celebrate getting older with flair. Pilgrim’sMoonNot Dead Yet Style and The Style Crone are also well worth a look.

Until next time!

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Fabulous Vintage Fashion at Sacred Heart Spring Fashion Parade

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Last week, frugal fashionistas crowded into the Sacred Heart Mission Op Shop in Elsternwick to watch its spring fashion parade, showcasing a fabulous range of one-off vintage and designer fashion for the coming season. All proceeds from the store go to the Mission's wonderful work for people facing crisis in Melbourne.

The MCs were celebrity milliner Peter Jago (shown below wearing one of his own amazing creations) and comedian and writer Fiona Scott-Norman (in the following picture), who also modelled some stunning sixties and seventies designs. 

The fashion items, just a fraction of the cost of buying new, included designer labels such as Alannah Hill. Sacred Heart staff and volunteers featured in the parade, wearing top-to-toe ensembles that the fussiest fashionista would be proud of. The bubbly flowed and the atmosphere was merry.

Picture: Sacred Heart Mission

Picture: Sacred Heart Mission

Picture: Sacred Heart Mission
Sacred Heart Mission provides many wonderful outreach services for disadvantaged people. These include short term crisis services, meals and support as well as long-term housing and aged care. Sacred Heart has a philosophy of empowering people and bringing them back into the community, and partnering with research organisations to provide best practice services. Volunteers are welcome to join its vibrant range of programs.

Until next time!

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Spring Offer: 30 per cent off The Inspired Shopper

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It's spring in Melbourne, and everyone's feeling playful because it's sunny, there are blossoms on the trees and the drunken smell of freesias wherever you go.

Spring is even more special than usual because last month, the Inspired Shopper blog received over 2000 page views for the first time ever! To celebrate, I've cut the price of my book, The Inspired Shopper, by over 30 per cent to only $1.99, and the equivalent in other currencies.

Buy it here if you're in the US or Australia, and here if you'e in the UK - there are also Amazon websites for Germany, India and France.

This offer only lasts until  next Tuesday morning so get it while it's hot : )

Find out more about the book here.

Until next time!

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Uniquely Melbourne: Alternative St Kilda


Ah, St Kilda - surely the place in Melbourne with the richest combination of social ingredients. Glorious, diverse, artistic and a little bit seedy, Melbourne's young bohemians started flocking to St Kilda and its bay beach after the Eastern Europeans who settled there after the war gave the suburb its alternative cache.

Traditional Jewish food culture flourished in the delis and Hungarian restaurants of Acland Street, musicians played at the Espy, penniless artists rented out crumbling old-style apartments for a song, the windows of the cake shops became a drawcard for tourists and the Kooglhoupf made its appearance on Melbourne's Sunday lunch tables.

St Kilda's popularity has changed the suburb, which is much more upmarket these days. But when I went in search of its soul recently I didn't have to go far. There's plenty of life left in St Kilda, as these small cafes and retailers attest. Come with me on a journey to the soul of St Kilda. (As you can see, my photography skills are still 'evolving'.)

Before we hit the shops, let's stop at a hidden oasis south of Acland Street, the Blessington Gardens. I once lived opposite them, and they weren't as superbly maintained then as they are today. There are several discrete sections - a rose garden, an area of native Australian plants, a rotunda for weddings, and a lake with white ducks. Here's a pleasing vista.

Now we're ready to hit the road. Our journey starts at a charming group of cute little cafes bunched together in Blessington Street. Kotch Lane is arguably the sweetest of these.

The cafe has some lovely personal touches.

Next door is the famous Lentil as Anything with its 'pay as you feel' philosophy. There are no prices on the menu - instead you decide how much the meal is worth. There are now three Lentil as Anything restaurants in Melbourne, and St Kilda was the first. The 'pay as you feel' model has since been adopted internationally.

Below is a shot of the restaurant's interior.

It's now time to cross Barkly Street, lured by this charming clothes store, dot & herbey, on the corner of Barkly and Blessington.

dot & herbey is an independent Australian label, with all clothes manufactured in Australia.

Crossing to the corner of Acland and Barkly streets, in need of refreshment, we find Leroy Espresso Bar, which takes its coffee very seriously. Manager Sam obliged with a pic:

Striking exposed brick walls make the interior of this cafe distinctive, giving it a warehouse feel.

Here's the cute tiled exterior.

Wandering in a north-westerly direction up Acland Street, we hit the group of cake shops that first made the street famous. One of these is Monarch Cakes, which has apparently been recommended by Tourism Australia as one of the top 25 places to visit in Australia. This cute window display caught my eye.

This store interior definitely retains the feel of 'old St Kilda'.

Crossing the street, we come to the St Kilda RSL on the corner of Albert Street, where we find the Southside Handmade and Vintage Market. This is held on the last Saturday of each month (except September and December) on the first floor of the RSL, a charming art deco building. It's the perfect setting for the market, which is full of lovingly crafted clothes, soft furnishings, jewellery, knick-knacks and vintage fashion. There's even a cafe at the back.

Wendy Scully's wonderful hats, Chapeaux by Wendy, caught my eye - the hats are all handcrafted original designs, and there are plenty of summery designs as well as the winter ones shown here.

We then head off to the Galleon, a long-established cafe around the corner from Acland Street, in Carlisle Street. I used to come here in the late eighties - my favourite dish was the spanikopita, which was about four bucks! The Galleon is still a retro oasis, much-loved by the locals; the ones there on Saturday looked as if they had settled in for a good few hours.

The bold use of colour gives a funky feel to the place.

Soon after this point in our travels we meet Rebecca Kennedy, a creative fashion stylist known as the 'style guru' who lives in the area. (I'd never met Rebecca but thought she looked amazing and had to stop and ask for her photo. As I had unintentionally added an arty setting on my camera, the pic doesn't do justice to her great use of colour but it shows her amazing style, which I'd describe as 'street glamour'.)

It's time to leave Acland Street and head off down Barkly to the corner where Inkerman Road becomes Grey Street. This is a groovy corner indeed and the hilly topography combines with the terraced shop fronts to create a village-meets-inner-urban-cool atmosphere. Scout House is a charming homewares store in Grey Street that has  a carefully curated collection combining the old and new.

Here's part of the store interior:

Next door is Mollisons, a contemporary homewares store with a shabby chic feel. I fell in love with this charming group of knitted light shades in the window.

So ends our visit today, but I've really only scratched the surface of the soul of St Kilda. There's still a lot to discover in this town.

BTW, if you're in Melbourne, the StripFest festival, in Acland Street and surrounds, runs until 30 August.

Until next time!

If you enjoyed this blog entry, you might also like Uniquely Melbourne: Alternative Carlton.

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