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( Originally Published 1963 )
YOUR BASIC COAT
I'm not sure that it is possible for one coat to serve all the purposes of any woman. A coat that looks casual in the daytime is rarely one that will look glamorous enough at night to go over a shimmering cocktail dress. It is generally assumed that a black, simply-cut, free-flowing coat with cowl collar or with no collar at all will fill the bill. I do not think such a coat is the happiest choice for morning wear. I have very often seen women force themselves to believe that they were satisfied with that one coat over velvets and silks as well as over skirts and sweaters. But the plain truth is that by making one coat serve all your outfits you will probably end up disliking the coat for all purposes. Pick your coat for the life you live most of the time. Then, for the fancy occasions that do arise, you can use a stole which, for at least half the year, will be warm enough and as attractive as any coat. I am a great fan of the fuzzy mohair stole, or, for very warm weather, of the beautiful Indian or Greek fabric stoles.
Besides a stole, perhaps you can supplement your basic coat with an inexpensive velvet cape or coat. Though they seem featherweight they are usually lined with milium or some other fabric chemically treated to retain warmth. These serve the purpose of raincoat, day-coat, or opera cloak at the same time. So many of the new raincoats are dazzlingly smart, moistureproof, sufficiently warm for anything but below-zero weather. I seriously urge any woman working with a modified clothes budget to buy one of these "raincoats" which can serve as dressy coats as well. They come in velvets, corduroys (in floral prints as well as in a wide range of solid colors), in knitted jerseys, in treated lightweight wools, in blended fabrics. Many come with zip-out alpaca linings which greatly add to their year-round usefulness. I have seen awfully good-looking ones for as little as $16.
Now, back to that basic coat.
Your basic coat should not be a bore. What you want is a coat of strong warm fabric, well-lined, cut amply enough to go over suits without seeming bulky (especially if you are not thin or excessively tall), simple enough to be worn with interesting accessories. But you must have a coat with some style and drama of its own, a coat with cut, dash, a coat that in its own way does as much for you as your favorite dresses do. Styles change but the greatcoat, which accentuates a woman's frailty, or the Chesterfield, which gives a clean and classic look are always good taste and attractive. Some of the new cape-coats are exciting and equally practical. To remember: If your coat has a wide cowl-like collar, be sure it is cut to lay flat so you can wear other kinds of headgear. Be sure the coat is as simple and bare of detail as possible so you can add stoles, scarfs, pins, even buttons when you want to. When you buy your coat think of those cold cold days and don't be too drawn to coats with shortish sleeves, open necks (that can't be closed), fabrics that are not really warm. Rich tweeds, nubby wools, heavy worsteds, and broadcloths are your best bets for strength and warmth.
The color of your basic coat depends very much on the colors of the rest of your wardrobe. If your other clothes are very colorful, a subtler or darker solid-colored coat might be a good stabilizing influence. And bright colors peeping from under navy blue, dark gray, wine, black, or beige makes an attractive effect. If, however, most of your dresses and suits are darkish or of low-intensity colors, a brilliant coat can raise the color-morale of your entire collection.
THE BASIC SUITS:
Suit 1-A Warm One A warm wool suit, wearable in temperate climates (which includes most of the U.S.) throughout fall and in the early part of spring is a "must." It must be the kind of suit you can dress down for office use (or neighborhood chores) and up for dinner dates and the theater. A truly classic suit is equally at home in the country or the city and is easily the mainstay of a travel wardrobe.
Choose your fabric from nubby wools, tweeds, broadcloths, heavy worsteds, blends of mohair or cashmere and wool, camel's hair, flannels. The quality of your suit is also determined by the workmanship.
The most wearable suits are usually those with fitted or semifitted jackets and slender lines. The skirt may be gently flared, but a too full skirt makes the suit of limited use, as do boxjackets or costume suits. Keep it simple. Avoid contrasting trims, fur, novelty buttons, tricky details.
For best comfort, I suggest a well-lined jacket and skirt, long (preferably wrist-length) sleeves, a high collar or one that can be worn that way, a jacket that can be closed. Suit .2 -Lightweight Buy your second suit with thoughts of those in between, not-hot, not-cold days in late April or early October. You can always wear it under your coat when the weather is cooler.
Allow for more styling in this lightweight suit than in the winter one. Soft worsteds, light tweeds, flannels, blends of wool with lighter fabrics take well to fitted or semi-fitted designs because they are pliable. If you want a suit to see you into summer, or if you live in a warm climate, think of nubby linens, Shantungs, textured weaves, rough-finished blends of wool and silk, any one of the new synthetics.
Knitted suits are becoming more and more popular for use as lightweight wear, and for good reason. They are strong, easy to take care of, and extremely flattering to any woman without major figure faults. Terrifically good-looking knits (many of them imports) are now available in stores at moderate prices. Do try one, just to see how you look. I can practically guarantee your delight.
Your lightweight suit ought to be, I think, of lighter color than your winter suit; almost any color, provided you look good in it and it is not of an overpowering intensity. You still want the over-all effect to be simple, but at the same time fresh, young, and gay. The pale suit is always young looking and attractive, and lends itself wonderfully to accessorizing. There are some small checkered plaids that stay in a one-color range (e.g. white, beige, and light brown, or white, pink, and lilac), give a one-tone effect, and can still take a good deal of accessorizing without seeming too busy.
Either one of your suits should look as well without a blouse or sweater beneath the jacket as they do with. A semi-fitted hiplength jacket allows you to wear a lovely overblouse or, jersey; a closely fitted jacket does not.
DRESSES BASIC ONES AND LESS SO
What we call basic dresses are ever-popular not only because they are smart and practical but because they are fun. They dare you to change them in a hundred ways, and more and more women tuck a change of beads, an extra scarf, and dressier gloves into their bags (which, these days are big enough to be trunks anyway) for purposes of transformation.
Choose a dress that can be chameleon-like. A perfect basic dress has one kind of chic in the morning-it can be worn with flat heels, sporty scarves and belts-but in the evening, the same dress accompanied by richer jewelry, satin shoes, dressy gloves, an elegant stole, should be literally unrecognizable as the same dress. The key to your choice lies in its simplicity. Learn to recognize it when you see it; a simple top, a clear plain neckline, the skirt slim or slightly flared, as little detail as possible, and preferably in a solid color. The skirt may have a few simple pleats.If your dress is meant for cool weather, pick a soft strong wool, or one of the sheer ones. Try for a dress that's lined, at least in the skirt. Be sure the skirt allows you walking and sitting room, that the armholes are well-fitted and roomy. As for color, bear in mind that if it is too bright or intense you will be limited in what you can do to change the effect-for anything but the plainest accessories would be overwhelming.
As for style, the most transformable style of all is the fitted or semi-fitted sheath-with long or moderate-length sleeves for winterwear, sleeveless for summer. These very simple dresses can be worn with or without belts; they take kindly to jackets of all lengths or jacket-sweaters and make an ideal background for any sort of jewelry, gloves, scarfs. They come in sheer wools and knits for winter, in rayons, cotton, silks, Shantungs, linens and all the new chemical, man-made fabrics for summer.
A knit sheath, with or without jacket, does more for a good figure than any other type of dress I know. In black or navy, it is amazingly slimming if it is not worn tight. Knit clothes today come in a wide wide variety of styles, but many of them do fit the term "basic." A majority of them fall into the category of what I've listed as a second basic dress need: the suit dress.
THE SUIT DRESS
A suit dress is really part of the bulwark of a woman's wardrobe, be she city girl or country girl. A suit dress can go any where. It is the basis of a summer or fall travel wardrobe. A simply cut suit dress of strong fabric serves many purposes throughout the year. Select a fabric heavy enough to give you some warmth and protection from the wind and whims of spring and fall. Remember, if your jacket is long enough you can top it with whatever you want: sweaters, long-sleeved jerseys or blouses, or a sleeveless little long blousette for a hot day (with the security of your jacket for the cooler evening).
Again, look for simplicity of style-a plain neckline so you can add scarfs and jewelry, a straight skirt, absence of fuss, a semi-fitted jacket. A textured weave or a subtle herringbone can be just as useful as a solid. So can any of the rough-finished silks, Shantungs, linens, wool blends.
The silk suit is, I think, unparalleled for a certain kind of casual elegance. The richness of silk, however, demands your suit-dress be simply cut. A straight skirt with a hip-length collarless cardigan top, the neck cut high and round or V-shaped would be gloriously flattering on anything but a painfully thin woman.
A jacketed dress, while extremely useful in its own right, cannot strictly be called a suit dress, and is less basic in that there are far fewer changes you can make with it. Nevertheless, a selfjacketed dress is an outfit rated high for its comfort, usefulness, looks.
A word about skirt lengths and skirts. Now that the short skirt appears to be with us-it has passed the two year test which means it was more than a passing fad-we women must squarely face the problem of sitting. Whatever happened to modesty? Wherever I go-in busses, restaurants, theaters, I see girls, perfectly lovely neat, fine-looking girls, showing as much as three inches above the kneecap as they sit. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but personally, it looks terrible to me. The short skirt-I'm not talking about the ridiculously short ones that are well above the knee even when worn standing-carries with it the responsibility of knowing how to sit in it without looking half naked. You can not cross your legs in the new skirts, ladies. Accept the fact. The designers were first to admit it. Nor can you, with good results sit with your knees straight together and facing front. The only way you can sit in a short skirt and still look like a lady is with your legs together and swung gracefully to one side or the other.
As for the length of the skirts of your clothing, the current fashion is-short. How short is up to you: Cover your kneecaps if you're out of high-school. An inch or two below them adds dignity but cuts down a bit on the high-style. It's the proportion of your legs to your body that really should determine how long you wear your skirts. A short-legged girl looks less so in a wellstyled short skirt. But a longer skirt can make a short girl look a bit taller. There's no substitute for trying on one of the short skirts, if you haven't already, and seeing how you look in it. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the new short skirts are flattering to all except girls with problem legs (very heavy, bowed, etc.).
My legs are far from perfect, but I discovered that wearing a skirt longer than the current vogue called far more attention to them then going with the tide. Then, once I began wearing short skirts, I became terribly fond of them-even of the way my legs look in them. And why, oh why do so many of the women who live away from the big cities go on wearing skirts almost down to their ankles. Whether or not the reason is that we've become used to seeing short skirts, the fact remains that those long ones make even young women look like their own grandmothers. I refuse to believe they really want to. And it only takes a few minutes to do a hem once you've made your mind up.
THE LESS BASIC DRESS
Since dresses are a delicious topic of conversation even when not so basic, lets talk about some of the less adaptable dresses you own or may want to.
A costume dress is one which is styled around an idea expressed in cut, detail, and sometimes has special accessories that come with it. The best example of a costume dress known to all is the sailor dress. The sailor dress has been a part of fashion so long it has fully earned its right to be called a classic. Variations of the sailor dress are worn by women from two to fifty. Almost all come in sailor-colors, that is red, white, blue, or navy, have a big sailor collar with (or without) stars, other decorations, gold brass buttons, braid, matching scarfs, or what have you-but all based on the sailor's jaunty uniform which has evidently been attractive to women whether on the sailor or on herself for over a hundred years. I'm sure you can find photos of your grandmother or great-grandmother wearing one in an old family album.
The appeal of the French school-girl dress lies in the combination of demureness and-well, something a bit less than demure. I've seen one recently that I felt sure few men could resist. It was of black lace and had a large white organdy collar. The collar was appropriately school girl and demure, but the peekaboo lace was undeniably seductive and a fine boost to anyone's feminine morale, yet it had that covered up look which so many women do like in their dressier dresses.
Some costume dresses, or costume suits, come with fur collars and cuffs, special touches (buttons, jewelry, a scarf, etc. ) without which the dress or suit loses something meant to be part of it.
There are also what I call mood dresses-dresses intended to express the special temperament of a woman. They may be "whimsical," pixie-ish, dramatic-but please, ladies, don't buy a dress that tries to make you look as adorable as a four-year-old with ribbons in her hair. Beware of dresses that have bows, froufrou, petticoats, too many ruffles. Details like these require the subtlest and most talented sort of designing to come off well.
Some dresses are meant to make you a siren-which brings us to the topic of cocktail dresses.
I simply cannot think of a cocktail dress as being "basic." Of course, if you own only one, you want a dress that can change its look from time to time. Sophisticated simple lines and clear solid colors will not fail you. As for fabrics there really is no rule anymore. I have seen cottons look elegant at a really snazzy party. It's the combination of cut, fabric, color and you that tells the story.
Even in a cocktail dress I think it important that you feel comfortable and right. I, for instance, do not feel comfortable in a low V neckline. Many of my friends say I look well in it. I may, I may not. But the fact remains that I am not happy in that kind of a neckline, nor do I feel comfortable in any dress which shows too much of me. In that kind of dress I spend the whole evening holding my bag in front of my bust. I do not consider myself prudish. I simply know that I am not relaxed in a deep decollete nor will I allow public opinion or the current fads to sway my beliefs or feelings. Never permit public opinion to destroy your belief in yourself or in what you know you know.
There are some women who can not feel comfortable unless they are wearing a Balenciaga or a Traina-Norell dress which is all very well if they can afford it. But, happily, the poorer woman who can not afford an original top designer dress can buy that same look today, if not the dress itself, at much less money. There are wonderful copies of such dresses on the market now. You can pick up a "Dior" copy and a good one for as little as $25.00.
THE UNFORGETTABLE DRESS
I'd like to think that every woman does or will own one of these. But it has been the experience of most women I know, including myself, that when you set out to find a devastating dress you do not find it. That very special dress, the one that makes you look simply sensational, is, like most of the wonderful things in life, something you stumble on unexpectedly. You've accompanied a friend shopping at a time when you didn't need a thing and hadn't the remotest interest in buying a dress and there it is. You've been in a wild hurry to make a bus when a glimpse of fabric in a store window caught your eye, sent you back for a second look and the immediate and fateful conclusion that you had to buy that dress. I firmly believe you did right to buy it. For in cases like that, when it is a question of buying your heart's desire, money, if possible, should be secondary. In fact your unforgettable dress may cost very little. For what is it that makes a dress "unforgettable"? Definitely it is the combination of the dress and you. Before sitting down to write this chapter I asked several men what it was that made a dress unforgettable to them. The over-all consensus of opinion was that it was not the dress that was unforgettable but the way a woman looked in it. Naturally a few of the comments implied that the dress was unforgettable because the lady looked poured into it-but it all added up to the same thing-that it was the meeting of dress and female that left its indelible imprint on the male eye.
Since this is true, your dress does not need rhinestones, gold and silver threading, or layers of silk and satin to be unforgettable. It may have some of these characteristics, or it may be as simple as a white wool sheath. But you must know once you put it on that you are at your loveliest.
The short formal in this age can go just about anywhere, except perhaps to a Queen's ball. It is, as far as I am concerned more beautiful, more practical, easier to pack, much more adaptable to different occasions. For myself I prefer fabrics that take draping well-chiffons, peau de soie, moire. I think net and tulle should be left to the teen-age set. Velvets and velveteens, taffetas and stiffened silks I consider best for winter or fall.
The dazzle dress is almost always costly, but I don't believe it has ever been out of vogue since I was born. Beautifully beaded gowns are in a class by themselves and take the eye, provided the lady wearing it has remembered the first rule-that such dresses demand the simplest cut, can take almost no other accessorizing, require a neat classic haircomb. Recently, we have seen fabulous beading concentrated on the little bolero jacket worn over simple little silks, chiffons and velvets-and removable. The all-over appliqued dress of pailettes, rhinestones or other glitter is usually very expensive.
In a more modest price range: a plain silk of a wonderful color-a soft orange, a pale yellow, a sea-shell grey, heather-that has an individual cut worn with but few imaginative accessories; a white crepe gently draped and gathered in the best ancient Greek tradition-or a hand-crocheted lace that perhaps you inherited from your mother but which, like so many of those beautiful old things lasts and lasts and looks like new. Any of these may be the dress in which you are so unforgettable you will soon be shopping for an even more unforgettable dress-one you'll wear (most probably) only once.
BUT WHAT'S UNDERNEATH?
I've assumed throughout this chapter that you know perfectly well that no piece of clothing can look really well on you unlessit is:
a ) worn over the right foundation or undergarments.
b) well-fitted to your form or altered so that it will be.
Women who wear raggedy underwear under $400 dresses are undermining the whole effect. Besides, my mother always said: "Make sure your undergarments are clean and have no holes in them, you never know when you may have an accident." Don't underestimate the value of your mental attitude when you know you look well from the skin up-or from having the absolutely right foundation under your dress. Girdle engineers have almost solved the problem of making girdles that combine enough control (of you) with enough freedom and a truly lightweight feel. A new fabric called lycra spandex has helped to do the job. So there's no reason for any woman (unless she has a specially difficult amount of flesh to confine and shape) to suffer from claustrophobia inside a hot imprisoning too-boned foundation garment. A nice little pantie girdle should be enough for any woman carrying her normal weight. In summertime, slim girls should be able to go without any extra help below unless they are going to wear tight sheaths, skirts, slacks, or shorts. And a good bra, for any woman with a bosom that measures more than 32" is more important than any other piece of clothing she can put on her back-or front.
AND PLEASE, WHEN NECESSARY, ALTERATIONS!
Unless a dress fits you right it will never look well on you. The most gorgeous dress with a back that blouses where it shouldn't or hugs you too tight when it shouldn't is money out the window. If a dress needs adjusting, automatically add the cost of the adjustment onto the cost of the dress before you decide whether or not to buy it. That's the only way you will realistically face the actual cost of the dress. I am long-waisted, and if I buy a dress that is short-waisted I have it adjusted immediately because otherwise I just won't be able to wear it, and, like all women, T can't wait to put on a new dress.
Some women don't alter their clothes because they think the errors are too small to be noticed. Usually a discerning eye will see them. But even if no one is aware of a slightly too-long hem or a skirt that isn't quite smooth, I'm convinced that if you know the dress doesn't fit you perfectly, the way it could, you can not really be at ease. You are shortchanging your own enjoyment of dressing.