Death Becomes Her

To say that I have an affinity for period pieces would be about the understatement of the century, and the only thing I love more than watching them is getting to do them myself. (On a completely unrelated note, if anyone knows how it might be possible for me to be Keira Knightley for a day, I just might give you my first born child. Don't tell my fiance.)

My all-time favorite costume: an 1880s-style gown, borrowed from The Metropolitan Opera for HSRT's The Hypochondriac.

My all-time favorite costume: an 1880s-style gown, borrowed from The Metropolitan Opera for HSRT's The Hypochondriac.

I've always found clothing to be an interesting access point for character work. On the most obvious level, costumes give the audience subtle clues about what a character is like: how does this person want to be perceived? What is their social status (or desired social status)? Are they fighting the status quo? Are they rebellious? Do they not care? But from an actor's perspective, shedding my own clothing and donning someone else's inevitably makes me feel very different; just as walking down the street in a hoodie and boots feels very different from walking down the street in a look that's been curated, putting on a character's clothes helps me to access who they are from the outside in.

This is especially true of period costumes and all that they entail: corsets, stockings, petticoats, paniers, bustles, and other accoutrements so elaborate that they take an extra set of hands to get into. First and foremost, the sheer impracticality of the clothing informs (and limits) how you move through space. But perhaps more interestingly, small details provide very specific information as a result of a dress code that was far more extensive than what we abide by today.

To that end, I always jump at the chance to see authentic period clothing in person, and in recent months I've had the opportunity to see two exhibitions about fashion for two very different occasions: wedding and mourning.

In August I ventured to London's Victoria & Albert museum to see a collection, aptly named Wedding Dresses 1775 - 2014. It features seventy gowns ranging from the eighteenth century, when expensive textiles were more important than the design of the gowns themselves, to the two World Wars, when dresses were necessarily more utilitarian, and finally to edgier, more contemporary pieces like Dita Von Teese's purple Vivienne Westwood and Gwen Stefani's white and pink ombre Galliano. Unfortunately the V&A did now allow photography in this particular exhibition, but it's worth perusing its blog on the V&A website, and the exhibition itself runs until March 15 should you find yourself in London.

Four months later I found myself surprisingly fascinated by what I assumed would be little more than a collection of drab black dresses when I visited the Met Museum's exhibition of mourning attire from 1815 to 1915, cheekily titled Death Becomes Her. While a wedding dress was designed to make maximum impact during one event (less on the wedding day itself than when the bride and groom were first publicly presented as a couple), mourning for women could, depending on their relationship to the deceased, require up to two years of full mourning, half mourning, and ordinary mourning, all in accordance to very strict etiquette. When you pair the length of mourning periods with mortality rates of the 19th century, it's no wonder that mourning attire is such a huge part of our sartorial history.

Black is becoming; and young widows, fair, plump, and smiling, with their roguish eyes sparkling under their black veils are very seducing.
— Robert De Valcourt, The Illustrated Manners Book, 1855
From C.D. Gibson's 1901 cartoon, A Widow and Her Friends Subtitle: "Mr. Waddles arrives late and finds her dance card filled."

From C.D. Gibson's 1901 cartoon, A Widow and Her Friends

Subtitle: "Mr. Waddles arrives late and finds her dance card filled."

And drab, they were not. Many young widows found themselves on the market for a new husband, and while it was considered inappropriate to remarry in the year following her husband's death, a widow was all the more desirable for being both available for marriage and sexually experienced. Even common etiquette acknowledged the allure of the widow and her effect on men. A projection on the exhibition wall quoted M.L. Rayne in her 1881 book, Gems of Deportment and Hints on Etiquette: "Her deportment should be grave and discreet, particularly in the presence of gentlemen, who will seek her society; as there is a charm and fascination in the manner and conversation of a widow which is known and appreciated by the other sex." This subtle display of nineteenth-century sexism makes the widow responsible for a gentleman's behavior. Same as it ever was.

That said, although women were encouraged to dress with "nun-like austerity," they continued to adhere to fashionable silhouettes and fabrics, and although they were black, still included ornate detail. An excellent example is this mourning dress from 1903, complete with black lace, pleated crepe, and a black cross so ostentatious that it is almost tongue-in-cheek.

American Mourning Dress, ca. 1903

American Mourning Dress, ca. 1903

French evening dress, ca. 1902

French evening dress, ca. 1902

As time passed they were permitted to add small accents of gray and white, and as they moved into latter stages of mourning could dress entirely in grays, mauves, and purples, until they finally phased back into their normal attire.

Come World War I, as death was a threat looming over every family and more women were expected to join the work force, mourning attire began to be seen as unnecessary and self-indulgent. According to a 1918 Vogue Magazine, "Women's part in war means, not only giving herself and her time and her work, but her loved ones as well. Women felt, and rightly, that the indulgence of personal grief, even to the extent of wearing mourning, was incompatible with their duty to themselves, to their country, and to the men who cheerfully laid down their lives."

Unfortunately this exhibition closed on February 1st, but they did allow photography (hooray!) so enjoy the gallery below.  I also can't go to The Met without visiting their collection of European Decorative Arts, so I threw those in for good measure.

The Met's Costume Institute will reopen on May 7 with their new exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass.

A Few of My Favorite Things, Part I: Skincare

Fair. Ivory. Alabaster. Porcelain. Translucent. Vanilla. SIBERIA.

What do these words have in common, you might ask? They are all words that the marketing gurus over on Madison Avenue have come up with to make me feel better about my white, WHITE, pale-ass skin. All except for Siberia which, (thank you Nars) seems like a bit of a slap in the (pale-ass) face. Case in point: would you rather go to frigid Siberia or exotic Cadiz? But alas, I'd have to spend a summer on the beach before I could even think of applying Nars Cadiz to my alabaster skin, so Siberia it is. (It should also be noted that Nars' "medium [shade] with olive undertones" is called STROMBOLI. Just think about that for a second. [Really, Nars? Really?])

Ten years ago, when tans were still really in Vogue and I was not above making poor life choices, I fought my natural complexion by using tanning beds and going to the beach sans sunscreen. As I've gotten older I've come to realize that I do not want such atrocities as leathery skin or melanoma, and have since decided to embrace my fair skin. My focus has shifted from bronzers and tanning oils to pretty much anything described as "illuminating" or as giving you (to use another Madison Avenue invention) that "lit from within glow." 

I've come across a range of great cosmetics along the way, things like BB creams and illuminating primers and highlighters; but recently, probably due to the fact that I've been booking more film work and am hyper aware of my skin, I've become obsessed with skincare products and health regimens that can give you that glow naturally. Things are finally starting to gel and I'm feeling ever-increasingly ready for my closeup. On Downton Abbey.

 

1. CLARISONIC MIA FACIAL CLEANSING BRUSH

Clarisonic Mia Facial Sonic Cleansing Brush, $125

Clarisonic Mia Facial Sonic Cleansing Brush, $125

Exfoliation is key in the quest for radiant skin, but many products touted as "exfoliating," particularly cleansers that contain exfoliating microbeads, can be far too abrasive and tear delicate skin tissue. Many of these beads are also made of plastic, making them bad for the environment.

In my experience, cleansing brushes are a far more effective alternative. They effectively slough off any dull, dead skin cells, which not only can reduce fine lines and reveal smoother and healthier skin, but allow cleansers and other treatments to penetrate your skin more easily and deeply, giving all of your other products more bang for their buck. 

I started off with an Olay Pro-X Facial Brush several years ago and liked it well enough as a cheap alternative, but when I sprang for the Clarisonic Mia (brought to you by the makers of the Sonicare Toothbrush), I really saw a change in my skin.

The claim: Clarisonic Mia® features Speed 2 (Universal), suitable for all skin types. Cleansing six times better than hands alone, the Universal speed is developed for normal daily use. Unlike spinning devices, our patented sonic technology works with skin's natural elasticity, oscillating at a sonic frequency that produces over 300 movements per second. The resulting flexing action works to loosen dirt and oil, removing deep-seated impurities from pores and priming skin to better absorb tropical treatments.

My experience: Since purchasing it in November my skin  has been smoother, subtle smile lines have disappeared, and large pores between my cheeks and nose have tightened. At $125 it's definitely an investment, but for me it has been worth every penny, especially since it makes me less inclined to splurge on facials. Between my Mia and the recent addition of a liquid BHA exfoliant, my skin hasn't been this smooth and soft in years. Which leads me to:

2. PAULA'S CHOICE SKIN PERFECTING 2% BHA LIQUID

 

Paula's Choice Skin Perffecting 2% BHA Liquid, $23

Paula's Choice Skin Perffecting 2% BHA Liquid, $23

AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids such as glycolic and lactic acid) and BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acids such as salicylic acid) are naturally exfoliating ingredients that require no additional abrasive element to be effective.  AHAs exfoliate the surface of the skin and are therefore recommended for those with sun-damage, wrinkles, and other superficial skin problems. BHAs, on the other hand, are recommended for oily and acne-prone skin as they get down into your pores and have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. As someone with oily and acne prone skin, I decided that I needed to throw a BHA into my skincare routine - and although many of the skincare products that I already own (most of which are Proactiv) already contain salicylic acid, it is usually under 1%, which is not a high enough concentration to be truly effective. 

I tend to decide that I need a certain type of product, be it makeup or skincare, and then research obsessively until I find the Perfect Thing. My obsessive search for the perfect retinol serum (more on that later) recently led to a brand called Paula's Choice, which has become my new go-to skincare company. It has a refreshingly no-nonsense and scientific approach to skincare, and their products are relatively inexpensive when you consider their quality. They are also recommended by makeup artist Lisa Eldridge, who I want to be when I grow up.

It was a skincare tutorial by Lisa Eldridge that led me to Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, which contains 2% salicylic acid. After reading overwhelmingly positive reviews about this product I decided to try it (a great thing about Paula's Choice is that you can order sample sizes of anything you like, but I took a leap of faith and bought a bottle), and it just might be the actual best thing since sliced bread.

The claim: Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant rapidly exfoliates both the skin's surface and inside the pore, reshaping the pore lining, unclogging pores and improving skin cell turnover rate. The result is a dramatic improvement in the skin's appearance, feel, and function which leads to healthier skin. There is a great deal of research indicating that BHA (beta hydroxy acid) increases collagen production and drastically smooths the surface of skin. Additionally, BHA has antibacterial properties that attack blemish-causing bacteria. The lightweight, non-occlusive formula allows for a faster and deeper exfoliation rate than our gel or lotion BHA products, so it's an ideal choice for stubborn clogged pores or blackheads.

My experience: Remember that feeling, the first time you had a really good facial, and you had no idea that your skin could be so soft and smooth? I've felt like that every day since I started using this. It removes oil without being over-drying. Makeup goes on like a dream. My one stubborn wrinkle from furrowing my brows has diminished significantly. My skin is also noticeably brighter, and as a result I've stopped having to use any highlighter in my makeup routine.

It's only been a few weeks and I've still been breaking out so I can't speak to its effect on acne, but I have noticed that any blemishes, including what appear to be cysts, come to the surface and heal much quicker. I suspect that some deep acne is finally coming to the surface, and while I will say that I'm still breaking out as much as usual, I am breaking out differently (in a good way).

3. PAULA'S CHOICE RESIST INTENSIVE WRINKLE-REPAIR RETINOL SERUM

Paula's Choice RESIST Intensive Wrinkle Repair Retinol Serum, $37

Paula's Choice RESIST Intensive Wrinkle Repair Retinol Serum, $37

One of the many nuggets of wisdom that my mother has imparted upon me is the importance of prevention. I remember as a child seeing her moisturize her legs every day, and as a result she still has the legs of a 25-year old. That said, I'm an an age where I should be seeing signs of wrinkles but my skin is aging quite well thanks to effective products and my natural Italian oils (if you know what I mean), and in an effort to keep it that way I've started fighting wrinkles preemptively with retinol. 

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A that has long been praised for its anti-aging properties (in a higher concentration, available only by prescription, it is known as Retin-A). It's an antioxidant that prevents free radicals, stimulates cell regeneration and boosts collagen, and can diminish hyper-pigmentation and unclog pores. 

When I embarked on the search for the perfect retinol product, most of the reviews I read led me to Paula's Choice RESIST Intensive Wrinkle Repair Retinol Serum. Having had no experience with this brand at the time I decided to order a few small samples so I could try it out for a week or so, but after only one use I was sold. I applied it at night and woke up with super soft, smooth skin and ordered a bottle right away. In the interim, when I had run out of samples but my bottle had yet to arrive, my skin felt absolutely deprived. True story.

The claim: Paula's Choice RESIST Intensive Wrinkle-Repair Retinol Serum is an exclusive formula that utilizes a proprietary blend of highly stabilized retinol, potent antioxidants, and skin-repairing ingredients. Its soothing, silky texture goes to work immediately to help skin of any age look and act younger. Anti-irritants reduce redness and soothe sensitive skin, and the serum helps fade red marks from past breakouts. With ongoing use, you will see fewer wrinkles, smoother skin, and improved skin tone.

My experience: Results with this serum alone haven't been as drastic as with the BHA liquid, but it's important to note that retinol is largely a preventative treatment and results can be seen more over time. That said, my skin felt smoother after the first use, and a few weeks later I noticed that it started to feel plumper as well. 

I recommend a google search on retinol as its uses are myriad, but it's also not for those with super sensitive skin. I never experienced any irritation, but while my skin is acnegenic, it is not sensitive, which is an important distinction to make.

That's all for now, but tune in soon for Parts 2 and 3, in which I will delve into my current favorite cosmetic products as well as some alternative regimens (yes, I too have jumped on the oil-pulling bandwagon).

Meh (or, The 2014 Academy Awards)

The show itself is often hit or miss and, let's be honest, the awards themselves are likely more political than artistic; but there is a kid inside of me who is alive and well and still gets giddy at the sartorial majesty of the Academy Awards Red Carpet. It never fails that there is at least one dress that I just covet (italicized to convey the sheer amount of yearning) and fantasize about wearing if only to prance around my apartment for a few hours (coincidentally, I own a small collection of cocktail dresses that have never seen the light of day).

I should say that it never failed until this year, which left me nonplussed.

That's not to say that anyone looked terrible: most everyone looked passably good, and a select few looked passably great, but for the first time in recent memory, most everyone looked safe rather than inspired. This was particularly surprising given that such fashion forward women as Cate Blanchett and Lupita Nyong'o were among the nominees. I'll grant that Lupita's dress was quite beautiful, especially in movement, but it fell short of the very high bar that she had already set for herself this awards season. 

Case in point: 

Lupita Nyong'o in Prada 

Lupita Nyong'o in Prada 

Lupita Nyong'o in Ralph Lauren

Lupita Nyong'o in Ralph Lauren

On the left I see an actress who is beautiful and radiant and checks off all of the Oscar-nominee boxes, but to the right I see the makings of a fashion icon.

As for the rest, it didn't help that there were a lot of variations on the same themes, which can turn a red carpet into a snooze fest:

Blush bridal gowns? Check.

Deco-inspired metallics? I'll take at least four:

Covered in mothballs? Why not?

And don't get me started on Strapless Satin-y Solids.

These stood out as the most interesting, but they still weren't as aspirational as I want an Oscar dress to be.

Now don't get me wrong: I wouldn't say no to prancing around my apartment in any of these. But given their resources (read: access to pretty well anything on the 2013-2014 runways), I can't fathom why stylists weren't getting into fistfights over whose client got to wear one of these, for example:

Alas, maybe next year (side note: I really dig Elie Saab, I discovered today).

I leave you with a palate cleanser, or: Red Carpet Looks that (in my humble opinion) Far Surpass Anything Worn at the Academy Awards This Year.

Brace Yourself: Winter is [Overstaying its Welcome]

Don't get me wrong: I love a good coat.  I love scarves and boots and layers, and if you were to look at my browser history as early as July you would find it chock full of search queries for fall sweaters, leather jackets, and cashmere.  All that is to say that I've always preferred dressing for cool weather, but this winter in New York City has been so heinous that lately I can't help but dream of shorts and nautical stripes and shorts with nautical stripes, and sandals and wedges and tanks (oh my!), so much so that I have a growing collection of crop tops that I have yet to wear, and a few days ago I was thisclose to purchasing this (divine) pair of shorts:

j.crew Textured Stripe Short in Navy, $65.00

j.crew Textured Stripe Short in Navy, $65.00

Zara Duffle Coat with Fur Trimmed Hood

Zara Duffle Coat with Fur Trimmed Hood

Thankfully I came to my senses and realized that by the time I would be able to wear them beyond the threshold of my apartment they will I have gone on sale, so I opted instead to channel my retail therapy into something that might help me to trudge through the frigid eternity that has been this winter: a change in outerwear.

I have two winter coats that are going through my rotation at the moment: a black, double-breasted military-style wool coat with an A-line skirt that by some miracle I acquired from H&M on sale for $15.00 four years ago and still get compliments on to this day. The other is a Zara duffle coat purchased this year.

This winter of course has necessitated a down coat more than ever, but despite my best efforts over five New York Winters I have yet to find a puffer coat with the right balance of style and substance. Every attempt to attain this necessary staple in my wardrobe has come up short, being either a. sufficiently warm but vile to look at, or b. relatively stylish but impractical. I know that the unspoken understanding in New York is that looking like giant, depressed marshmallows four months out of the year is a necessary evil (perhaps it is the one great social equalizer in this town?) but I will continue in my quest for the perfect coat that I can feel good in both physically and sartorially until I find the one. In the mean time, I've found that a surprisingly effective alternative is to wear a Uniqlo Ultra Light Down Jacket under my wool coats. This jacket is not as warm as your average puffer, but combined with the weight of wool it gets the job done.

Anthropologie Montaigne Coat, Orig. $288, on sale for $99

Anthropologie Montaigne Coat, Orig. $288, on sale for $99

And then, enter the Plenty by Tracy Reese Montaigne Coat from Anthropologie:

I started eyeing this coat when it came out in the Fall but as is the case with most Anthropologie clothes, I swam in the regular sizes. Then lo and behold, while perusing their Fresh Cuts last week I was delighted to discover not only that it had gone on sale for a fraction of the price, but a 0P was still available. I took a leap and ordered it, and it sold out the next day. Check mate.

Coat: Anthropologie Montaigne Coat. Bag: Kate Spade Dixon Place Blaine. Sunglasses: Ray Ban Small Wayfairers. Jeans: Express. Boots: Unisa.

Coat: Anthropologie Montaigne Coat. Bag: Kate Spade Dixon Place Blaine. Sunglasses: Ray Ban Small Wayfairers. Jeans: Express. Boots: Unisa.

I've come to love this coat on a variety of levels:

1. I never thought I'd say this, but I am tired of wearing black. And you know what they say: Orange is the New Black.

2. I love a good fur collar. I've tried to attain this look by wearing a fur stole over an existing coat but it never looks quite right. Also, it's a baby step in the direction of my ultimate outerwear fantasy: this red coat that is equal parts ridiculous and fantastic, worn in Igby Goes Down by Amanda Peet and perhaps even better by Jared Harris.

3. It has a vintage vibe without being precious about it (I'm looking at you, ModCloth). It feels like a bit of a throwback to the 40s, which years of being costumed has taught me is a good silhouette for me (the 20s  are decidedly not, but I digress).

4. I love the idea of pairing such a dramatic piece with a pair of kicky boots, skinny jeans, and a simple cashmere sweater.

So I think it's safe to say that I've bought myself at least a month and a half of going outside without boring myself to death, and by that time I'll have about a week back in a Trench coat before we're all sweating and sticking to the furniture again. 

Oh, New York.