Friday, March 27, 2009


Here are five more of the Vintage Fashion Victims cards that I designed using photos from my collection of antique images. As I wrote in the text introduction that will be included with the 30 jumbo postcards in the series, once photography was “invented” by Daguerre in 1839 (other men like Talbot were also discovering their own photographic processes at the same time), everyone wanted to have at least one photographic portrait taken in his or her lifetime, and a trip to the photographer’s studio required much thought about what to wear.

By 1854, paper photos mounted on cardboard backing became generally available and not as expensive as the cased images—daguerreotypes and ambrotypes—that came before. (Small ones were called Cartes de Visite or CDVs and larger ones were cabinet photos). Everyone eagerly bought, collected and put in albums photos of celebrities, politicians, freaks from Barnum’s circus (especially “General Tom Thumb”) and actors and actresses, as well as members of one’s own family.

Two of the women in the photos above were celebrities—one was the Queen of Spain and the other was a mistress of the Prince of Wales. Naturally women everywhere wanted to see what these illustrious women wore, so photographers selling their portraits made good money.

I’m also including one of the earlier images—a daguerreotype of two sisters in identical dresses. A friend noticed in my last blog entry that one of the women was wearing fingerless gloves a la Madonna. The two sisters in the dag above are really rocking the black lace fingerless gloves, which were in style in the 1850’s when this daguerreotype was taken. If you click on the photos, they’ll get bigger.

11. The caption on the card says “I’ve got a tiara, a title and an 18-inch waist, and I still can’t get a date.” On the back, the explanatory note says: This cabinet card was taken in Madrid by Fernando Debas, who seemed to make his living photographing the Spanish royals. The lady is “Maria Christina de Habsburgo-Lorena, Queen of Spain”, whom he also photographed in 1893 with a little boy identified as “Alfonso XIII, King of Spain.” The photographer airbrushed a bit to make her tiny waist even smaller. Imagine the corset she’s wearing, and the pain!

The caption says: "Someday I bet, women will get to vote, smoke, and wear skinny jeans.” The note on the back: Image from a stereoview published by George W. Griffith in 1903, a racy photograph of a “fast” modern woman showing lots of leg and smoking a cigarette. The caption on the original stereo card says, “Waiting for the Boys to Come Up.” (Stereoviews were 3-D when viewed through a stereoscope and views of famous sites around the world and comic situations acted out by actors—often in risqué situations-- provided hours of amusement in every home. This is what people did before there were movies!)

26. The caption says: “Does this suit make my butt look big?" The note on the back: Those two bathing-suit beauties are back on the beach in their sassy shoes, shamelessly showing off their bodies on this stereoview, but it has been stamped on the back ‘Approved for Sunday 1930’ by the Commissioner of Public Safety in Boston, despite the risqué display of skin. These flappers are clearly members of the Lost Generation.

The caption on the photo: “My stylist swore it was one of a kind!" The note on the back: A daguerreotype of two sisters(?) in dresses made from the same extraordinary fabric. Both have white lace collars, black lace fingerless gloves and the winged hairstyles that date this to around 1850. Boned corsets underneath bind their breasts flat. The tinting to their faces and hands was done in the photographer’s studio.

The caption on the lady in the foxtails and fur wrap reads “P.E.T.A. Schmetta! These foxes should consider it an honor!” The note on the back: Written on the back of this cabinet card, taken by W&D Downey in London, Photographers by special appointment to Her Majesty the Queen are the words: “Mme. Cornwallis West, June 27th ’83.” Mary Cornwallis West (1835 – 1917), nicknamed “Patsy” , was the daughter of a mistress of Price Albert. She herself became the mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales, when she was just 16. She was quickly married to Col . Cornwallis-West, a loyal man about twice her age. In her fifties, she fell in love with a 23-year-old sergeant who had been wounded in the First World War, causing a scandal that rocked the government. In this photograph, “Patsy” is 48 years old.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


I know I haven’t finished the story of the Hindu wedding – the extravaganza we attended in India that rivaled a Bollywood production. I will! With lots of beautiful photos! But lately I’ve been preoccupied with finishing a project I’m working on called “Vintage Fashion Victims”.

It’s not a book, it’s 30 jumbo postcards (5 by 7 inches) with the subtitle “A humorous look at fashion foibles of yesterday and insights into photography’s roots.”

For over a decade, I’ve been collecting antique photographs from the very earliest (daguerreotypes, beginning in 1839) through ambrotypes, tintypes, CDVs and Cabinet Cards, and I wanted to design a series of postcards showing some of the funniest and/or most beautiful fashion images in my collection. On the front of each card is a caption, making fun of the outfit, although I dearly love each and every one of these women! And as I point out in the text included with the postcards, if these vintage bathing beauties in their bloomers and brides dwarfed by giant corsages could see a photograph of me in a 1960’s mini-skirt, they would fall about laughing. We’re not laughing at each other, but with each other. Really!

On the back of each postcard are a few words about the woman on the front and the kind of photograph it is. I hope you’ll enjoy seeing a few images from the days when a woman’s visit to the photographer’s studio required a lot of thinking about what to wear. I’ll post a few more tomorrow. (If you click on the postcards the images get bigger.)

Card 1. The caption on the front is; “I like to dress on the cutting edge” and the information on the back says “This cabinet card was created by M. Borsuk in his studio at 124 Norfolk St. in New York City. Both the bespectacled young lady with the extraordinary hat and two fur ruffs and the photographer, who designed the studio setting, seem to agree that more is more.”

Card 5.
The caption on the front is: “Proud to be a full-figured woman!” and the explanation on the back: “She’s an actress with more oomph than Mae West! On the back of this cabinet card (circa 1905) in handwriting: ‘Virginia Drew Trescott, leading woman in ‘Fast Life in New York’, American Theatre, Feb. 6…the lady is an old and valued friend of mine—she is too good an actress for melodrama – and is only in those to get a New York hearing. Hope you can make a picture and come to see her work. Yours, Lawrence H. Eddy.’

Card 30.
The caption on the front is: “Unlike men, women are born with the ability to accessorize.” On the back: “A cabinet card by Brigham of Dover, N.H. shows that the young ladies of Wolfboro, photographed on Aug. 8, 1883, have a far better sense of style and ability to accessorize than the young men in their group.”

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Slasher Films--Who is the Victim?

It’s been a busy week for mass murderers.

On Tuesday, March 10, a 28-year-old man named Michael McLendon in Alabama killed 10 people. He started out by killing his mother and setting her body on fire on the living room couch, then he went to where he used to work and killed nine more people and when he was cornered, he killed himself.

The next day a 17-year-old youth named Tim Ketschmer went to his former school near Stuttgart, Germany and started shooting, and before he killed himself, 15 people died.

Then, on Friday, I read reviews in all the newspapers, of the latest slasher movie to open nationwide. The movie is call “The Last House on the Left” and it’s impossible not to know about it because of the relentless ads on TV. I’ve been trying to ignore them but they make the plot very clear—crazy bad guys terrorize, rape and torture some young girls and then go to a house which happens to belong to one of the girls’ nice parents (dad is a doctor) and when the parents figure out what their drop-in guests did (“Shall I tell you what I did to your daughter” is one line from the TV ads) the parents exact revenge on their daughter’s tormentors using many household kitchen aids like the microwave oven and the garbage disposal.

I stopped watching horror films a long time ago. Isn’t there enough pain in the world without paying money to see more?

Many eons ago when I was young I saw some of the first and best horror movies—including Psycho and a French film that scared us silly called Diabolique. I remember well the end of Diabolique when the presumably dead body floating in the bathtub suddenly leaped up to attack. That was really scary because it was the first “dead body that suddenly comes to life” in a film. Since then, nearly every scary movie has at least one dead body that suddenly leaps back to life and attacks.

And Psycho—the greatest scary movie ever. When Janet Leigh gets knifed to death in the shower—as you probably already know—none of the gore and slashing is actually seen on film. All you see is some blood circling the drain. That’s enough. We were all scared out of our minds. Some of my friends vowed they’d never take a shower again.

Now we have competing exploitation and slasher-porn films in which teenagers inevitably go somewhere they shouldn’t and then are slowly killed by one by one in a variety of ways. Every film keeps trying to push the envelope and increase the violence. Here are some of the lines from yesterday’s reviews of “The Last House on the Left”:

From the New York Post: “Multiplies the horror to an almost unbearable level… One scene in the middle is almost outrageously cruel and graphic. ..This is the most depraved and dreadful piece of screen horror since last year’s “Funny Games.”

The New York Times in a brief review: called the film “a toned-down, tarted-up remake of (Wes Craven’s) infamously brutal 1972 debut film…Mr. Iliadis alternates visceral violence—a knife slowly entering a girl’s quivering stomach, a garbage disposal chewing relentlessly on a man’s hand—with interludes of dreamy anxiety.”

And the Worcester Telegram and Gazette ends its review: “The Last House on the Left” is a dispiriting exercise in ultra-violence that even the gorehounds will find disappointing, and that everyone else will be glad they don’t have to see.”

I’ve known for a long time that these slasher/porn films were out there—every “Friday the 13th” or “Chainsaw Massacre” tries to push the envelope a little farther.

And I think it’s numbing people and acclimatizing people to violence. Not people… men. Not many women rush to these films. Women are usually the victims and women moviegoers are likely to identify with the victims—the girl whose abdomen is being sliced open.

The only filmgoers who will not identify with the victims, who will actually get off on the gore, are men who can convince themselves that the victims are not human beings and deserve to be punished.

This is the same mind-set that made possible things like the Holocaust. If you’re going to spend your life torturing and killing people, you have to convince yourself they’re not really human beings.

The young men who go to these films are being brutalized and dehumanized by the increasingly explicit gore.

I don’t believe in censorship at all. I’m a journalist and I know that censorship is unacceptable. But I think it’s time for the entertainment industry—that means both film and television—to start self-censoring and to think what they’re creating in those movie theaters packed with unhappy, often mentally unbalanced men who ultimately decide it makes sense to go out and kill a lot of random people.

Why would anyone sit through a couple of hours of graphic torture and gore? Women don’t do this, but some men do. They feel powerless—maybe they’re unpopular or preyed on by bullies or fired from their job or yelled at by their parents. And they feel helpless and small. And then they can go to a movie and identify with villains who are torturing and killing just for the power trip and the surge of power it gives them

And I’ll bet that by the end of this weekend, the film “The Last House on the Left” will be the number-one film in the country and will have earned its makers multi-millions of dollars in its opening weekend. And I’ll bet the filmmakers—the director and producers and actors and scriptwriters—will not spend a moment wondering what they have created.

“What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Hindu Wedding -- at Last!

A friend (Hi Althea!) wrote: “I read your blog Monday (snow day) expecting to have a full accounting of the wedding. I loved everything else you wrote about, but no wedding? Maybe it’s going to be a book?”

It’s true I’ve been putting off describing the Hindu wedding that was the centerpiece of our trip to India, because there’s just so much to say. So I’ll do it with photos. And in two parts. (If you click on the photos they get bigger.)

The bride’s parents spent months planning a wedding so fabulous –three days of celebration, with fireworks, marching bands, dancers, musicians, buffets, and so much more. I ‘m sure I’ll never see another wedding to compare with this one.

The first party—New Year’s Eve—was western style so I won’t show any photos. It was held in a nightclub called “On the Rocks”, next to our hotel, the fabulous Ajit Bhawan which was a Maharajah’s palace and is still decorated entirely in the style of the Raj, with vintage autos and a staff of tall Rajput Warriors in turbans, who always greet you with the prayerfully folded hand gesture of greeting and the word “Namaste.” The brother of the Maharajah still has his private living quarters in this hotel and he invited the entire wedding party to come from the nightclub to his place after midnight so, as fireworks greeted the New Year, we were running through the palace grounds to the afterparty in a bar which seemed ready for Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Greenstreet to walk right in.

The next day the bride’s family led us to their local temple to Ganesh, the elephant god, to make offerings in honor of the wedding. We all rode in the ever-present motorized rickshaws—called Tuk-Tuks—and the one for the bride was specially decorated. The offerings in the temple given by the bride’s parents were sweets, money (distributed to beggars and holy men) and the marigold necklaces called malas given to the god.

That night, the bride’s parents’ front yard –about the size of a football field, it seemed—had been converted by miles of draped fabrics and sparkling lights into a huge tent complete with stage, dance floor , tables, chairs and an immense buffet that reached around two sides of the field. All sorts of vegetarian delicacies were prepared before our eyes, from the round breads dipped in ghee at one end to huge vats of a milky sweet dessert drink and fried pastries at the other end. I took a photo of one of the lady servers because I was fascinated by the bracelets she wore on her upper arm. How did she get them on?

The invitation to this event came with a real peacock feather, for peacocks were the theme of the night—visible everywhere including behind the stage. The ladies were invited to come early for the Mehendi—when everyone’s hands were decorated with henna by artisans hired for the occasion. The bride’s decorations were the most elaborate—she and the groom (who is not Indian but from California) had their feet and hands decorated. Both their names were worked into the bride’s design—which the groom has to discover for himself.

In addition to the henna-decorated hands, each woman was given bangles to match her garments, made by a man who created them from resin and sized them on a hot iron. The bride emerged from her house, looking like a film star in her red and gold sari, her arms heavy with gold bangles, and flowers woven into her hair. Her good-natured groom was dressed in a traditional groom’s outfit.

Couples began to arrive, piped inside and announced by musicians. This before-wedding party is the Sangeet which literally means “singing together”. Traditionally, it’s a time for good-natured teasing of the bride and groom. A troop of tribal musicians and dancers performed first. The women dancers gave me my first look at a popular trick—they would bend over backwards until they could pick up a ring from the ground using their EYELASHES. Don’t ask me how. Later I saw other dancers pick up things like a razor with their eyelids!

The bride’s family and siblings and cousins offered their own entertainment—dancing and singing popular Bollywood love songs. A group of their friends (including my daughter Eleni, the blonde in turquoise and pink) had been practicing a Bollywood dance number—similar to the dance at the end of Slumdog Millionaire. (I’ve heard that taking Bollywood dance lessons is becoming a craze in the U.S. now.)

At the end, the bride and groom and their parents also danced, and the bride’s funny uncle—the man in a dark suit with a long pink scarf-- performed a hilarious parody of the traditional bride’s dance—shy yet seductive.

The little children fell asleep on the canopied divans, while everyone else sang, danced, cruised the buffet, and admired each other’s saris or salwar kameezes or other traditional dress. No one wanted to go home, but the next night was to be the even more lavish wedding itself!