Tog to the Bricks
My quest: to become a 1939 bon vivant. You see, I'm hosting this party, and I want to be the one. The one Herb Caen would have written about in his column, society snobs would have gossiped about behind gloved hands and men would have ogled shamelessly. Striking like Jean Harlow. Exotic like Marlene Deitrich. Statuesque like Greta Garbo.
What's the occasion? A celebration of the opening of the World's Fair on Treasure Island, with all of its oddities: Willie Vocalite the robot, who talks, smokes cigarettes, winks and waves, Chinese puzzles that confuse even the most tenacious, a peek though the largest telescope in the world and an actual demonstration of that twisted novelty called Television.
The evening's sure to be downright decadent as ladies and gents raucously drown out any memory of the depression with gin fizzes and bootlegged absinthe, the piano keys are tickled mercilessly and opulent fashion is paraded about Le Club. And with the Golden Gate bridge having just been flung across the Bay, there's the feeling that anything is possible.
I'm going to tog to the bricks, dahlings, and I know just the person to help me.
Cicely is a woman who transcends. Have you ever met such a person? Who seems to be from every era and yet none at all? When I arrive at Decades of Fashion, her shop in the upper Haight, she's so girlish and earnest and spirited I can't begin to guess her age. Her green eyes sparkle under her cowgirl hat, and she talks with the authority and charm of a hostess.
I ask to see some cocktail gowns from the late 1930's and we wade through the Halloween crowd to the appropriate rack, hung with silky purple rouging, red Spanish ruffles and metallic georgette chiffon. After a moment of shuffling through the dresses, she lowers her voice to a husky whisper. "Would you like to see the back room?" The back room? Why, of course.
Brushing aside a velvet rope, we enter her cabinet of curiosities. My eyes adjust to the light and then widen to see a room so full of wonderment it could have only been created by the obsessive hands of a collector: a wall of hats adorned with strange fronds and flowers, enough costume jewelry to make a drag queen cry and a startling array of clothing, dripping feathers and knotted beads and taffeta ribbons.
We go straight to the evening gowns. Though they're packed together tightly, Cicely pulls out each piece with reverence, explaining the different occasions they'd be worn for. The dresses are floor length slinky numbers, cinched to emphasize tiny waists and tailored to cling to each curve. The backs of the dresses plunge low, and the draping mimics the geometrics of art deco.
Aha! I find "the dress." I can't rest though until I have a fur, and her selection is pure decadence. My hands reach out to touch floor-length fox coats, mink stoles, ermine jackets and feather numbers – looking like retired royalty ready to return to their thrones. I spot the soft hide of baby seal adorning a tiny clutch purse. Apparently no animal was safe in 1939.
I’m excited about my party outfit, but Cicely is somewhat of a purist. Unless I wear a rhinestone necklace, long evening gloves, a perky hat, some Mary Jane t-strap heels and a matching handbag to boot, I'm not going to cut it.
I forgo the intimidating accessories (for now) in favor of lingerie.
Peeking into Dollhouse Bettie is like looking into the combined boudoirs of every lady sex symbol of the 20th Century. Michelle, the owner, is pulling gorgeous little things out of hat boxes when I arrive, and I realize she's brought in her private collection. A theatre performer in years past, her obsession with all things vintage has led her to worship the unmentionables of the ages.
The first thing she reveals is a French chantilly lace black bra. Now, every woman (and man, for that matter) knows the allure of the black lace bra, but this is perhaps the sexiest, skimpiest version ever made, with sheer lace delicately hand crafted to cup curvy bosoms. Apparently the derriere was superior to breasts in the 30's, so often the ladies wore "not much at all" under their clothing up top, which explains the existence of this barely-there bra.
Not to get too carried away with all things lace and French, Michelle reminds me that the real essential for every woman of the time was the satin stretch girdle, to emphasize her hourglass figure. Stockings were another must-have item – fishnets were popular, nylons had just been invented and pronounced seams up the back of the leg were the standard.
With my underthings taken care of, I look in the mirror and realize my hair is a travesty. I decide make like a typical '39er and go straight to the beauty parlor.
When I walk into Honeycomb Salon, Gillian is sitting waiting for me, and looking at a photo of Greta Garbo. As she studies it in the light of the computer screen, I'm struck by her classic face and wavy red hair. The irony of booking a two hour appointment just to look like my hairdresser when she wakes up in the morning dawns on me.
Moments later though, I'm in her salon chair and we're staring at my long tresses, trying to figure out how to mimic a 1939 hairstyle. Whereas the flapper girls of the 20's wore their hair in short, molded finger waves, by the late 30's women were starting to grow their hair out, with feminine curls that framed the face.
To give my impossibly straight hair the illusion of body, she decides to do a soft finger wave over my bangs and the crown of my head. Here's how to do it yourself:
1. Part your hair on one side.
2. Grab a section of hair, and turn your curling iron upside down to clamp the hair closest to the scalp so that your hair forms a U, with a crimp on both ends.
3. As the curling iron sets the wave, use the long end of a rattail comb to hold the hair down and away from the iron, creating a crimp.
4. Repeat further down the section of hair.
5. Do as many sections of hair as necessary to create the look of a perm.
Luckily, Gillian has no perm plan for my locks, and reassures me that some ladies opted out of them altogether in favor of pinning their hair up overnight and then taking it down in the morning for a full, soft head of curls. She skips the overnight step, instead curling my hair with an iron and pinning the coils of hair securely in the direction in which it's ultimately to be combed.
As my curls set, Gillian gives me some make-up advice. First, the brows have to go. "Wait, what?" Apparently the ladies of the 30's would tweeze their brows off entirely with the intention of painting on a very fine arc to give a permanent look of surprise. Some even went so far as to tweeze their hairlines for that perfect framing effect. I decide to pass.
Fake lashes are a must though, pronounced with the measured stroke of a liquid liner on the top lid. The eye should be somewhat smoky, but not too smoky, and the lips must be penciled into a heart shape. A short manicure completes the look, in the color of 1939 – jungle red. Rawr.
When I leave the salon, my locks have been shaken down and combed out, my bangs are in full finger wave mode and no one knows there's a ponytail of hair tucked underneath at the nape of my neck.
Somewhat intimidated by the thought of needing to recreate this heavenly halo of hair for the party, I decide to look into hats.
Goorin Brothers has been making hats since 1895, so I figure they'll be able to steer me in the direction of something authentically, fabulously 1939. Walking into their tiny outpost on Geary Street feels more like walking into a hat-fetishist's walk-in closet than a milliner's outpost, with each piece elegantly on display for worship.
Rose is the hat-master, and to my surprise, she pulls out the feathers. I hadn't realized the feathered headbands I'd seen on so many hipsters around town were inspired by 1930's cocktail wear. I make a mental note to add some big flowing ribbons and netting to the mix for a surrealist head piece that would make even the most over-the-top Parisian jealous.
Later that evening back at my studio, I slide into my party dress and stand in front of the mirror. I might not have that classic silver screen look, and I may not even end up in the gossip columns, but when I walk into Le Club on November 18th, I want the 1939 version of Rachel Zoe to say, "I die. She is killing it."