“From the moment I was six I felt sexy. And let me tell you it was hell, sheer hell, waiting to do something about it.” - Bette Davis (Sidenote: Slow your roll, Bette Davis)
So. I have spent most of my year studying Old Hollywood and its wanton starlets (PS—what a great word in that it hints of both lasciviousness and greasy takeout), and I’ve also spent that same time doing it alone, in various offices (home with its toppling book piles and easy access to frozen Thin Mints, coffee shops with their mustachioed screenwriters and earthy baristas who use the phase, “sure thing, chicken”, the Allen Room at the NYPL with its oak paneling and old men who belch and we aren’t supposed to say anything about it because it is always silent study hour Coney Island of the mind in there, and various archives, where the male employees still wear tweed and can only be described as persnickety). When you work by yourself, you are (the luckiest girl alive but) also your only coworker, and you are in danger of resenting the person sharing your meta-cubicle. One too many days of showing up to work with bedhead and lycra pants and you find yourself gossiping about yourself, to yourself, very loudly. “Can’t she pull it together? This is a lovely profession, and she’s living like we are the worst-performing salesperson at LuluLemon.” And then you remember it: GLAMOUR. You study it everyday, Rachel. Bette Davis apparently felt sexy and glamorous as a first grader. You can do better. Remember who you are.
I have always had a weakness for the little trinkets of femininity — perfumes, powders, pointelle socks, lavender sachets. And as I have been confronted with myself so much more often this year than most, I really found it an essential thing to tighten up my elegance game and prove capable of smarting myself up in the face of the ability to wear pajamas to conference calls. I figured, how are you supposed to write about Old Hollywood if you can’t channel it, at least in some small and elemental ways, every day? So I have gathered around myself an arsenal of things that snap me back to life, as flimsy as they are, things that make me feel swaddled in a bit of the glittery patina of a different life, one that I have to disappear to in my mind so often. These things are super silly, and mostly unnecessary. Exercises in frivolous consumption. But BUT! I do think that they do something, and might have magical powers. We live in a scary and confusing and insane world. Sometimes you have to bolster yourself up against it with something shiny. I think there really is something to this. Still trying to sort it all out.
In the meantime I am sharing my arsenal! Consider this my Best of 2012 list. My R’s favorite things. These are the ridiculous indulgences that I find one most needs to feel that daily injection of allure, even if your goal is just to bewitch yourself while dancing to Nancy Sinatra records at 3am. Not that I do or have ever done that.
Also — these are all affordable/accessible! I may love Mae West’s quote about how “the only carrots that interest me are the number you get in a diamond,” but who can afford that? And also, I love baby carrots. Those are fine. You can get me those. Here’s to a more glamorous (and also, better in every way) 2013.
(PS—This began as an email and grew into this monster that I wanted to share. Sorry it is such a behemoth.)
1) Hair Powder
Hair powder is one of those cyclical beauty products that is all the rage for a few decades, then goes back underground, then arises like a phoenix made of miracles and talc to alleviate our shampooing needs. The current version that is en vogue are organic powders in tiny, beautiful salt shaker boxes (as opposed to the garish 70s version called Psssst!), and I am in love with them. That sounds like overstating it, but no. I am in a lasting and deep relationship with mine (currently: Lulu’s). Here are the things hair powder does: Makes unwashed hair look clean and fresh, adds Texas-style volume at the roots, makes blowouts last forever, makes your scalp smell like a dream, negates the walk of shame. If you never have to walk in shame again, then that, in itself, is a glamorous development.
2) A Vintage Nightgown
I had a chronic aversion to nightgowns, forever. I was always one of those
girls women (I’m a woman now?) who was content to do the ratty old bleach-stain T-shirt and $8 sale Xhilaration pants printed with monkeys thing, or you know, the lingerie or bare thing, given the circumstance. Nightgowns were the stuff of my Polish landlady, who knows her way around a mumu like she is a spokesperson. But in a moment of improvisation at a New Mexico vintage store last winter, I picked up a 1960s gown in the peignoir style, with a matching chiffon houserobe (or as my friend calls them “whore-capes”), and let me tell you, it changed my bedtime game completely. I now have an Ebay wish list of these things that is embarrassing in its clear time investment, but it’s part of my life now. Have you ever gotten dressed up to go to bed? That sounds like a nightmare to you? THINK AGAIN. Suddenly your nighttime routine becomes this reenactment of that Being a Girl song from Flower Drum Song and you sort of float through your apartment and almost hope that some delivery man comes at 6am because answering the door in a Rosemary’s Baby outfit is one of the more exciting things you can do when you work from home (or really, anytime). Trust me on this. But be warned: It inspires you to improve everything surrounding the wearing of it. Your night creams must be creamier, and I actually bought a breakfast tray so I could eat buttered toast in bed in one of these, just because that’s what you do in it. And should you decide to do an adorable chore (like say, dusting) while wearing it, well, you just might reach nirvana.
3) A fur stole
I know, I know. Fur isn’t for everyone. I watched The Fox and the Hound a lot growing up, too. And though I can do the whole, “mine was my grandmothers!” write-off with my soft brown fox fur, I realize that it doesn’t technically make it any better, as I am just adopting the sins of an earlier generation and dismissing it as if there is some get out of jail free clause for said sin being over four decades old. But the truth is, I love my stole and I wear it all the time and I would buy another one (vintage, of course. No new mistakes, people.) in a heartbeat. It is the thing I look forward to the most about winter, the ability to pop this on top of ev-er-y-thing and instantly upgrade. Coats become fancy, sweaters become these slouchy Hollywood Monroe-reading-Dostoyevsky affairs. People talk about it whenever I wear it, which is everyday, so it kind of keeps reasserting itself to me as an essential. I understand if you can’t go there. But if you can, please report back on how your life has exponentially improved. Because it will.
4) A salt pig
A salt pig (and/or a pepper pig) is a small, perfect container that lives in your kitchen next to the stove (and later, on your dining room table) and allows you to easily add a pinch of salt to whatever you are cooking or dressing or baking or sauteeing or roasting or in the middle of eating already. I got one this year, and I mean, sure, yes, I did live without it, as a devoted cook, for many years. I have a salt grinder, and a shaker, and also a back-up carton of Morton’s that lives in the back of my cupboard like every dutiful Jewish girl does. But this really changed my approach to the finishing touches of cooking, that dramatic flourish of reaching in and grabbing the salt and really committing to seasoning your dish. This superfluous counter egg made me excited to make delicious things. (PS Nigella makes ‘em real nice).
5) Hot Rollers
I became a redhead this year, which is sort of besides the point, because I am a brunette again, even though I loved it, but who can do all that upkeep, I am exhausted just typing about it, etc. But in the end, it meant that I spent more time in the salon than usual, and so became fascinated by all of the accoutrement at my stylist’s station (PS her name is Kristin and she is incredible and go see her), and one day I asked her about her set of ceramic hot tools. She offered to show me the ways of hot rollers, and with her gentle guidance into this bold new world, I lost my virginity and then became a convert. So much so, that when I went to a wedding in California in November, I brought my rollers and they took up half my carry-on and I didn’t care because what’s a few days?, and then Hurricane Sandy hit and I was stuck on the West Coast with just two outfits and a ton of rollers. And I still like them, even after that debacle. Here’s why: I used to think, oh, these are just for Toddlers and Tiaras updos, which, while I admire them on the toddlers, are not an everyday lewk, per se. But here’s what they are really for: After your hair has been dirty a day (it will hold the curl better), use these with some hairspray. Wait 20 mins, paint your nails, or do something actually productive with your life, your choice, remove them, brush your hair out, and voila. You have volume to play with in 100 new ways. Any style you thought you couldn’t do before, now you can. Big, meaty buns. French twists. Chignons. Curly ponies like an extra from Grease. A thick Challahesque braid. A beehive. This is the secret, guys. This is it. Speaking of which…
6) A hair donut
As I discovered this year, this is how women get their hair to look like the picture above. There really is no other way.
There I am, wearing one at my holiday party. After I saw a photograph of my grandmother Mimi (she always went by grandmother, never grandma, like a proper WASP), with her long cigarette holder, and wiglet with cheek curls, standing by a bowl of holiday punch in an orange-and-pink tribal caftan situation, I knew it was in my blood and I could take the leap. You will not be regretting it should you decide to make a similar decision. Here are some inspirational caftan/kimono pictures for your salivation.
8) Monyette Paris
I am a big perfume person, and I am promiscuous — my guilty checkout-line-of-the-internet purchase is always the tiny vial samples from Luckyscent.com (do not click if you have no self control). But I am ready to settle down. Monyette Paris is a perfume oil, meaning it is super concentrated and stays on your skin forever and keeps changing in this organic way that is always surprising, and sometimes you are typing late at night and catch it and remember the morning when you put it on, and the day comes full circle in this beautiful mandala of scent and memory. If you are into that sort of thing. It is intensely floral, as to almost be spicy — like so many flowers that it ceases to be flowers and becomes this other thing. Or as they describe it, “the quintessential expression of a warm yet white floral scent inspired by a romantic notion capturing the the French Polynesian essence of the south Pacific. Its unique floral properties are rumored to have an aphrodisiac effect.” Get into it, temptress!
8) Solid Kohl
If fashion blogs are to be believed, this is the year of the Cat Eye going mass (AGAIN), and judging by the number of tween girls I have seen with full Cleopatra makeup on the subway, I guess they speak truth to us. But the cat eye is not for every day— it is for when you have time and the desire to actually put in as much effort as Elizabeth Taylor, and when you do, pure kohl stick is the way to go. I only started doing this last spring, and I will admit that it is very hard to master and you end up 9/10 times looking like Tammy Faye Baker meets Alice Cooper in the beginning and you want to give up and why are you spending time on this and you are a smart, intelligent capable woman with goals and ambitions and ideas and this is just eyeliner for god’s sake, no thank you return to sender. But then you overcome, and then it is this weird skill you carry around inside your chest ever after, and it is a skill that when properly deployed, makes you look like every 60s bombshell you love staring at on Pinterest. You want to talk about how you now have this skill, and it isn’t really classy to do so, so you have to wear it and eventually someone will ask for your wisdom, I promise (PS showing and not telling until someone asks is the secret of life. Obviously I am not doing as I say). I recommend Guerlain, because it’s less easy to fuck up. Fancy really is better when it comes to smearing Byzantine cosmetics on your face.
9) A Typewriter
This year, I met my Remington Selectric (same color as above), and we like each other. I got it on a whim, on the street, though I had been looking for one for a while. Fitzgerald, who I am (weirdly?) writing a book about, wrote on an Underwood from the 1920s, which costs about $750 now, and I wasn’t about to channel him that much, but I did want to feel the clickety-clack of words underneath my fingers, and see how it went. Re-typing the last chapter of Gatsby on a machine is a spiritual thing. Second to seeing Gatz this year (which is 8 hours long and I know you all have lives), it was the closest I got to my material. I also got to hang out with Robert Caro a bit and the fact that he still does everything on typewriter is so charming to me that it almost hurts. Unfortunately, mine required a little bit of TLC before working again, and so led to one of my greater NYC experiences. I visited Gramercy Typewriter Repair Co. near the Flatiron Building in Manhattan, a business that has been the same for decades upon decades. An old man shuffles out, gives your machine a once over, shouts out a figure in a native accent, and tells you to come back in a few hours, cash only. On the ground floor of the shop is a delicatessen where you can get an egg cream and a tuna melt while you wait. It’s a heady, not of this era one-two punch.
10) Smoking Herbs
Cigarettes, blech. I have doctors for parents. I know what evil cigs do. I also love them outside bars in under 30 degree weather. But I do try to avoid. Smoking anything, I realize, sticks to your ribs and shows up later, and it’s a real choice towards the dark side, and we can’t all be Fran Lebowitz. But I did discover and take great happiness from these herbs this year. They are mixed together in Brooklyn, and, when rolled up in a wisp of paper and smoked while reading or thinking, provide a real sense of peace and clarity.
11) The Advanced Style Coloring Book
No one, and I mean no one, is more glamorous than the collection of elderladies on Ari Seth Cohen’s site, Advanced Style. This is a great thing to have. I recommend also Ari’s coffee table book.
12) More Memoirs/Biographies. For everyone!
I also made an effort this year to add to my huge (and ever growing) biography collection some tales of women who made life it look easier than it really is, or even better yet, made it look incredibly difficult and unattainable and aspirational and glorious. Here’s the thing I discovered about elegant women: It’s okay to be one. Or rather, to want to be one. It comes from within, and also from without, and it does take effort and care, and a certain philosophy, and it is a lifetime’s worth of progress-making and risk-taking and failing along the way, and mostly you feel like a seven-year old in a grownup’s oversize pumps. But every now and then, it all comes together, even when you are by yourself, clacking away, drinking tea from a real porcelain cup, with a flame crackling somewhere, and you feel this sense of oneness, with females of the past, with something autochthonous to being a woman, something primal and warm. Here are some books I read this year that enhanced that.
—Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
—Grace: A Memoir, by Grace Coddington
—Some of My Lives by Rosamond Bernier
—Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford
—Chanel by Justine Picardie
—5th Avenue, 5AM by Sam Wasson
—Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
—Zelda by Nancy Milford
—Everybody Was So Young by Amanda Vaill
—Mae West by Simon Louvish
—Furious Love by Sam Kashner
—The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm
—Georgia O’Keeffe by Roxana Robinson
—Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation by Noel Riley Fitch
—Lola Montez: A Life by Bruce Seymour
—Catherine the Great by Robert Massie
Anyone who knows me knows that I LOVE bubble baths. I should have mentioned it above as my fifth office. I conduct all my calls from the bath, and do half my reading there too. I work out stories in the tub, contemplate my history and my future, and get right with the world. I always think that there should be a therapy-bathside option in psychology, though I suppose that is far too Freudian to work out in just a few years worth of sessions. A bathtub was a dealbreaker in my New York apartment hunt, which ruled out a good half dozen candidates, but now I have a porcelain second home and I don’t even pay more rent for it.
Here are the five requirements for a good bath:
1) Bubbles AND salts. Salts make the water soft. Bubbles make it fun. They work in tandem.
2) Candlelight. I recommend the $1 tall bodega candles that come with or without our Lady of Guadalupe printed on them. You can buy a lot and turn your bathroom into a small chapel where you worship your own potential, or reflect on the state of the world, whatever works for you. They also don’t threaten to burn anything down if they tip over, and for that quality, this klutz is eternally loyal.
3) An old-fashioned phone headset. You can attach these to your iPhone now. They cost less than $12.
You do NOT want to drop your iPhone into the bathtub. That move is for amateurs. This helps. Plus you feel much more like Sandra Dee this way.
4) A bath desk.
TRUST. A random wooden plank works just as well as anything you can buy, but if you want one immediately without having to scrounge up a 2x4, this one is $50 and has a real sensual bamboo thing happening.
5) This record playing somewhere in the distance.
14) A Kaweco Fountain Pen
I get my pen obsesh from my mother, who at one point in my childhood decided to take a continuing education course in calligraphy (very glamorous, continuing education), and suddenly our house was flush with skittle-colored felt tip chisel nib writing implements of all kinds, which to this day I have not figured out how to properly wield. And you know what? Caliigraphy: overrated. It looked nice on my Bat Mitzvah invitations, I guess. It has little daily application. But what does come up everyday is the need to write words down on paper, and for that, there is no better tool than a Kaweco Sport fountain pen. This is not an impersonal fancy pen that you give to a boy becoming a man or a woman becoming a CEO. This is an affordable ($23 at JetPens — PS, JetPens is the pen-lover’s crack dealer and you should likely stay away if you are in a Ballpoints Anonymous program), stylish little fountain pen that you buy for yourself and then maybe buy three more to keep in all your bags. You will hoard the twee ink cartridges in every color. Look at them!
This can and will replace all of your other pens — the Kaweco makes a Uniball feel like a year-old Bic with the cap left off. Everything you write with this becomes more special, even grocery lists. Also, you will begin to make grocery lists.
15) Marvis Toothpaste
As we come to the end of my 2012 favorite fancy things, I have to say that this may be my favorite. Don’t tell the others. Backstory: last winter, I was reading that Vanity Fair column, “My Stuff,” in which a very rich person talks about the very expensive things that they simply cannot live without. I love this column, because a) approximately 99% of the “essentials” mentioned are absolutely the opposite and frankly a bit insulting to normal human beings in a pretty profound way and b) sometimes someone will slip something quotidian like “speed stick” into their recommendations and suddenly it all seems so absurd and you are forced to confront your own mortality while staring at extravagant leather goods. I have always wanted to write one (and I suppose this is it?). Anyways, THE POINT IS that some Countess was telling us all about Her Stuff and she was going on and on about the wonders of this pasta dentifrica direct from Italy, and how it is so very different from American toothpaste. As my teeth have no national loyalties, I decided to give it a try, and well, Contessa knows her shit. Yes, Marvis is is $8 a tube, but you will use it every night and morning and it makes brushing your teeth an event. The paste is a different texture — very thick, like putty. The flavors are intense — I’ve tried the Aquatic Mint, which is Altoid strong, and the Jasmine, which is this delicious floral-herbal-tonic flavor that leaves your mouth feeling like springtime. And if you are going to start anywhere, shouldn’t it always be with a mouth like springtime?
Here’s to a more glamorous, smarter, wiser 2013. I hope to find you all swaddled in kimonos, smoking lavender and smelling like mediterranean nightshade.