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Gatsby Groupies

[whitespace] fashion show Boa-less Broads: A couple of models and Miss Art Deco (Leah Slyder at right) modeled authentic Gatsby-era garb at the Hotel Rex for the lecture and fashion show 'Burn the Boa and Other Fashion Faux Pas.'

Art Deco stars are a bevy of snooty beauties

By Christa Palmer

It didn't take long after we stepped inside the Hotel Rex to realize we didn't fit in. Christine, in her skater sneakers and a long gingham skirt, and I, in my clunky biker boots and black hooded sweatshirt that's been in dire need of a sweater shaver for well over a month now, began to wonder if coming here tonight was a mistake.

Congregating in the hotel lobby was a large group of haughty, weathered men and woman decked out in extravagant 1920s and '30s vintage clothing. Some were dripping in gold jewelry; others were sporting pearls and diamonds. Their well-to-do appearance only made our trendy '90s garb look worse than it already did. What we considered to be acceptable and even somewhat cool streetwear suddenly seemed offensive and even stinky. In a matter of seconds Christine and I--for what we would like to think was the first time in our lives--stood out like two fashion faux pas, the kind of people style consultants only dream about getting their hands on.

To evade the curious and disapproving looks from some members of the crowd, we quickly made our way to the back bar. Standing in the dark shadows sipping wine, we decided to stay after all. Why not? Maybe we could learn a tip or two from these fashion and etiquette pros. After all, we were at the Art Deco Society of California's "Burn the Boa and Other Fashion Faux Pas," a lecture and fashion show on how to achieve an authentic vintage look, with specific pointers for ADSC events such as the upcoming Gatsby Summer Afternoon picnic at the Dunsmuir House and Gardens Historic Estate in Oakland.

It wasn't too long before a woman in a long, drop-waist floral dress and a cloche hat ushered the crowd into the lecture room. Chairs, a podium, a movie screen, a slide projector and an overhead were set up for the evening's festivities. A blonde woman, dressed in a black hat and a beautiful black chiffon dress with a long strand of pearls around her neck, sat in front us and shushed everyone. Another woman, standing at the podium, was dressed in a Chinoise-print jacket over a drop-waist floral chiffon dress, her red hair neatly tied back in a bun with a sprig of peach-colored roses tucked in it. This was Kimberly Manning, ADSC's program director.

"When it was time for our annual lecture on fashion pre-Gatsby Summer Afternoon picnic," Manning told the throng, "I decided this year we would do some dos and don'ts. Every year, we are always very kind, and what we really want to say is, 'Please don't wear the boas with the things stuck in the middle of your head and ruin the event for everybody else.' We must really be intimidating, because we [ADSC] are known as the Art Deco society who knows how. If you go to any other Art Deco society event throughout the world they are dressed in jeans and T-shirts. When people come to ours, it's high drag. But tonight, we hope to dispel some of the myth that you have to be combing the vintage clothing stores every weekend and wearing these fabulous things all of time. It's very easy to dress correctly. It's very easy to dress Deco. And if you go out in the street after you leave, you'll know why it's important to preserve the way they dressed during that period, because, well, just look around at what people are wearing these days."

I sank down into my seat, burying my head into my notepad, while Christine attempted to hide her face with her empty wineglass. Luckily, though, someone turned off the lights, and Manning put on a video, made by her boyfriend, depicting what can happen at the picnic when you wear a boa and bring a plastic igloo cooler, which is also an ADSC no-no. In the video, a couple of snickering, Deco-dressed women take a tackily dressed woman's cooler away from her and torch her boa up in flames.


How to Dress Gatsby 1920s and '30s Style


Lecturer Paul Anders, a former ADSC boardmember, was next on the agenda. Dressed in a three-piece tweed suit with a pair of spectacles set on his nose, he discussed the history of men's attire, specifically the three-piece suit and hats. He suggested Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers and Cable Car Clothiers as places to shop for new versions of old styles. He also talked about appropriate 1920s and '30s men's attire and fashion rules that no one pays attention to anymore but in his opinion should. "The thing to remember," Anders explained, "is that it is very crucial to think about what time of day and what season of the year it is and what the formality of the occasion is before you dress. That's what indicates what you're going to wear."

Anders concluded his talk with a slide show of men in white-collared shirts, bowler and derby hats, shawl-collared dinner jackets, pocket watches, evening slippers, ascots and white string gloves worn for horse shows. What sort of man could stand to be seen in these things, we wondered, because we sure didn't know of any.

Still, there were a few men (and one woman) in the audience who were interested. When Anders opened the floor for discussion, one man asked where he could buy white-collared shirts. Another wanted to know if suspenders were better than belts. A butchy woman dressed in a man's suit asked where she could buy books about men's vintage clothing. And a man in a green polo shirt and khakis shared a fashion story from a Gatsby event 10 years ago.

During the intermission, we nibbled on complimentary chocolates and ordered more wine at the bar. While we waited for our drink order, I overheard a skinny, freckled woman in a beautiful pale pink sheath dress with lace gloves on and handbag made from a doily ask her friend if she had gotten her dress yet for the picnic. When we reconvened, there was more talk about bad boas and then a fashion show, during which one model proved that it's possible to dress Gatsby-like without buying vintage. She had on a chiffon, rose-colored floral dress. "Love it?" the program director asked. "She got it at Ross! Can you believe it?"

After the fashion show, a designer by the name of Teresa La Quey displayed swatches of fabric as examples of suitable and unsuitable Gatsby attire for women. She draped over her arm a bright green and magenta leaf-print scarf, which according to La Quey is a Gatsby no-no. "If you think this is what you want to wear, call your best friend and have her talk you out of it," she advised. "Punch-you-in-the-eye prints and sleazy rayon is something you would wear in 1948 to Trader Vic's."

Next La Quey pulled up the overhead and showed examples of acceptable and unacceptable Gatsby outfits for women, noting the importance of posture and grace. "How you look to other people is very important--no runs in your stockings, hair well groomed and shaped close to the head, fingernails clean and always wear a hat," she said. A list of "Important Factors for Gatsby Attire" was then projected onto the screen in front of us, as well as a chart of what constitutes "Gatsby disaster" and "Gatsby successful." Here audience members were forewarned to never wear satin, taffeta, fringe, fur, feathers, woolens or a boa to an Art Deco event unless they wanted to be the object of ridicule.

As Christine and I gathered our belongings to make a beeline for the door, Manning concluded the evening's lecture with a description of the perfect Gatsby guest. "I challenge all of you," Manning said, "to come up with a warm, nautical evening outfit for ADSC's full-moon cruise on FDR's Potomac, October 3." It didn't take any fashion and etiquette tips for us to know how to politely say: No thank you.

For more information on ADSC or the society's events, call 415/982-DECO.

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From the September 21-October 4, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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