This Girl in Her Summer Dresses
I am not a fan of warm weather, and I have the Celtic genetics behind me to back it up: pale skin, auburn hair, five thousand years of ancestors living in cool northern mists. I hate summer. It’s too hot, it’s too bright, it’s too sticky. It's just...TOO.
But although spring can be lovely here in NYC—and this year we had an exceptional one, protracted (unusual: as a rule it goes from lovely freezing snowy winter to furnace-blast August all within several days in May) and cool—spring inevitably means summer. And summer requires summer clothes.
I HATE summer, did I mention that, and I hate the clothes you have to wear to get through it. I LOVE being swathed in layers of warm, soft fuzziness. Chenille, furs of various sorts, velvet, wool, brocade, heavy woven raw silk. You can’t do that in 98-degree one-million-per-cent humidity weather. So I am forced to resort to cotton. Oh, I still do layers—shirt-coat-y things over t-shirts and kung-fu pants—but it’s just not the same.
In my youth in the 60’s, I wore considerably fewer clothes, because that was what one did then if one was a chick in her early 20’s. Miniskirts, of course. Or even shorter: my sister and I had a rule that if the skirt hit below your wrist when you stood with your arm at your side, the skirt was too damn long. (She also claims I was sent home from high school one time, earlier in that decade, because I’d rolled my skirt waistband so that the hem cleared my knees—the rule was the hem must touch the floor when you were kneeling, and they’d make you kneel just so they could check, the bastards—but I do not recall this. She insists it happened, and says she was soooo proud of me because I was such a nerd otherwise. Uh-HUH.)
When I first started working and supporting myself, I couldn’t afford to really lash out on clothes (though it’s surprising now that I look back and see how MANY nice things I had living on a starting salary of $65 a week, going up to $200 when I was editing Jazz & Pop), so if I wanted the rich-hippie clobber I coveted, I had to make it myself—oh yes, I can sew! To fetching effect, if I do say so, and of course it was soooo cool to be able to modestly and yet boastfully murmur, when some rock god or goddess admiringly asked, “Oh, THIS little thing? Why, I made it myself!” Thus earning big points for style, hipness AND sweet old-fashioned womanly virtues, though it wasn’t quite on a par with Pioneer Woman out there on the prairies weaving her own food. I even made suede shoulderbags with beaded fringe that went down to the floor (carried one in Miami, when I was there with Jim for his trial, and when I was with him subsequently in L.A.).
For my Fillmore East debut as a working rock journalist, I made an ensemble in chocolate-brown velvet (brown is perhaps my favorite color, for its sense of richness and elegance): a long-sleeved cossack hip-length tunic with lovely gold and velvet braid from the trimmings store on First Avenue—there were dozens of them then, all run by ancient Eastern European couples who were all either adorable or mean—to give the cossack effect on collar and front tab, and a tiny, TINY waistband-less microskirt to match, I don’t think it was more than a foot long and only about four inches actually showed from under the tunic.
Inspired by Janis Joplin, I whipped up a long tunic and bellbottom pants out of two lace tablecloths, with design medallions strategically placed so that I didn’t have to wear more with it than lace bikini panties. And lots and lots of beads, of course.
Inspired by Grace Slick (on the jacket of "Surrealistic Pillow"), I fashioned a brown paisley pantsuit with button loops on the Mao jacket and skin-tight bells. I had other bellbottoms that flared alarmingly below the knee, so that they often got tangled up amongst themselves and tripped me off my Olofdaughters clogs or platform cork soles.
In even more California moments, I went in for leather: a gold buckskin jacket/shirt, made by me, with silver conchos and buckskin thongs for fasteners, weighed a TON, a pair of gray suede gaucho pants, a long brown leather midiskirt when midiskirts first hit, culottes in soft brown leather with bronze studs and waist buckles. Worn with Pilgrim-looking square-toed shoes with two-inch heels or knee-high cocoa suede boots or Capezio patent-leather ribbon-tied tap shoes or thigh-high black leather pirate boots. And, as I said, all this on a tiny salary—clothes were a lot less costly then.
But shortshortshort and bralessbralessbraless were the mantras of the day. I look back on this now and wonder that we weren’t all either arrested for exposure or assaulted on the street, but no. Maybe because it was a more innocent time and the tiny skirts and abbreviated dresses and see-through cotton pirate shirts didn’t seem especially sexy. We wore them with no pantyhose or stockings and often with no underwear, and with no conscious sexy intent. It was just what we wore.
And it was all so PRETTY. I had minidresses from Betsey Johnson (one was heavy red cotton with a plunging neckline and tiny white dots all over; Jim ripped it off me one very memorable night—thanks, Betsey! Good job, girlfriend!) and Biba (medieval-style velour or flowy jewel-toned rayon with big leg-o’-mutton sleeves buttoned to the elbow).
To a Doors concert at Madison Square Garden, I wore a black rayon minidress with a bare laceup back probably eight inches wide, except I wore it back to front. Without a bra. When I took my embroidered sheepskin Afghan coat off at my seat, actual silence fell for about twenty feet around. Very pleasing, and yes, that was one of the few occasions I dressed with calculated intent.
To a Doors after-concert party at the New York Hilton, I wore a cream leather two-piece pantsuit that I’d made myself: scoop-neck sleeveless top that buttoned at the bust with one ornamental frog fastener, all the rest open over skin-tight hiphugger bellbottoms, the hems on both pieces left as the natural edges of the leather. (Jim just seemed to bring out the cleavage-flaunter, hmm, wonder why...)
But New York chicks back then dressed more like London dollybirds than like California girls (either North or South). I bought Biba, of course, and Ossie Clark (one of my favorite dresses from this period is a long black crepe princess-styled dress, with alternating panels of matte and shiny, from his partner Alice Pollock); Annacat (long red hobble-skirted dress of tiny-flower-printed wool so fine it feels and looks like cotton, with big puffy sleeves at the shoulder and then tight down to the wrist; a generic Mary Quant knockoff one-piece with that deep pointed white collar and tiny knife-pleated skirt depending off a hipbelt, all in brown with teensy white dots (I’m wearing it in the one picture I have of myself with Jim—I was far too proud to maybe have him think I was just interested in getting my picture taken with him, though now of course I’d KILL to have more).
Young Edwardian, very London in style, was a favorite domestic brand: I recall a floaty A-line Empire-waisted dress of thin, thin pearl-gray cotton voile, with ruffles at the deep V-neck and at the wrists, couple more. And I still had some of my hipper clothes from college: a green corduroy smock with embroidery; a one-piece dress with a cream- and blue-printed top and matching blue Empire skirt, buttoning up with wooden keg buttons; a self-sewn medieval-looking top in green wool that I modeled after one that Peter O'Toole wore as King Henry II in "Becket", open neck laced with a leather cord, usually worn with suede boots and a soft, soft, wide-wale gray corduroy skirt; couple of capes and cloaks; a nice cocoa suede jacket. But the sorority-girl madras dresses and reversible wrap skirts and Peter-Pan-collared blouses and penny loafers were definitely tossed.
In the handmade corner of the closet, I had a white-on-black Liberty flower print babydoll minidress with wide borders of eyelet lace at wrists and hem, a floor-length straight skirt in red cut velvet that I wore with a rather medieval-looking leather vest, drapey tops, numerous miniskirts (well, they were easy and cheap to make—I could whip one up from a yard of fabric in half an hour, from cutting out the pattern to putting it on and walking out the door).
I wore all of this stuff to work on a daily basis. We hippie chicks were all surprisingly formal in our dress codes: nice pants and tops and dresses; we didn’t schlub around in jeans and sweats; a tour t-shirt and artfully frayed jeans was about as casual as it ever got.
Later, when I had more money to spend on clothes, I got into Gina Fratini, an English designer of pure romance: gorgeous long dresses—I’m wearing my favorite one on the cover of “Strange Days.” I have three or four more of her gowns, including a medieval square-necked number in self-patterned brown rayon with open trailing sleeves that are just two long ovals, reaching the floor (I actually saw the same dress on TV back then in an episode of “Banacek”, or maybe "McLeod," worn by a well-known actress whose name currently escapes me). I’m STILL kicking myself I didn’t buy another Gina Fratini I saw at Harrods in ombré chiffon, shades of brown from cream to toast to chocolate, just fabulous. Oh, and the black and ruby trapunto-fronted Zandra Rhodes gown I passed on at Lord & Taylor’s, again still kicking.
Another Brit favorite was Annabelinda, a designer with a charming shop in Oxford, from whom I purchased two of the loveliest dresses I have, a short one in handpainted cream and russet silk with a fabulous trapunto sunburst beaded bodice and the other a floor-length summer garden party confection in a blue and white tiny print with a blue silk quilted and buttoned bodice, low and bare both front and back, and open sleeves that tie with narrow blue silk cording at the wrists.
In the 70's, when I worked at CBS Records, I would wear dresses like this to the office, because you could. I’d also often wear Arab robes. On a trip to London I found a fantastic boutique in Belgravia called Arabesque, and I bought several abayahs which I still have. Laura Ashley was another favorite, but not the foofy flowery stuff, and Monsoon—ethnic was the thing.
I was thinking I’d eventually donate all these pieces to the Museum of Costume in Bath, England. I don’t wear them anymore, my nieces aren’t interested, and the clothes, which are all in excellent condition, make a nice portrait of their time. Sometimes I just take them out of the trunk and look at them, remembering (Oh yeah, wore that to the private Cream party after their Hunter College gig, right, wore that one to see the Stones at the Garden, Thanksgiving ’69...).
But not today. Anyway, I still have to pick up all the summer clothes off the floor where they’re currently reposing (as a result of my newfound big-wave surfwatching trip, I’m getting a bit more colorful, dare I say Hawaiian, in my recent wardrobe purchases—prints! sandals! coral shirts! turquoise pants! It’s, I don’t know, WEIRD! The Apocalypse is clearly imminent!) and stuff the winter gear away at last and take the furs to storage (it’s like sending your kids off to camp...except they never write).
And dream, of course, of fall.