SUSAN ZELOUF can’t help but gild the lily …
Little did Cousin Sy know what calling he’d awaken when he drove in from the city to visit us in our new house on Long Island, bringing with him a gift of three bright blue cans of Maxwell House Coffee (“Good to the last drop!”) filled to the brim with a wild assortment of beads and sequins culled from his father’s garment business. It was 1968, and we’d just moved to New York from a small town in Pennsylvania. The Games Room had red, white and blue Formica panelling, a “War Is Not Healthy For Children and Other Living Things” poster, a hi-fi stereo console housing my father’s vinyl collection and a black upright piano I took lessons on, but what drew me were those cans of beads. I’d plunge my hands in and sift through them, teaching myself to string jewellery, attending classes to learn how to make beaded wire flowers, crudely stitching them onto my big girl jeans. But I am easily distracted, too impatient to have mastered the piano or the art of embellishment, described by startupfashion.com as “an aspect of design requiring impeccable taste and great skill, ranging from the lace on a wedding dress to the studs on a leather jacket. It encompasses a number of techniques such as beading, appliqué and embroidery, all of which are very time consuming and can be classified as couture”.
Still, I’ve got an eye for embellishment, and though I may never wear Valentino, my eye hungers for adornment realised by an atelier’s “petit mains” (little hands), the seamstresses and tailors behind the hand-dyed silk lining, the seed pearl-encrusted bridal bodice, the flirty tea skirt kissed by vintage ribbon and crystal, the swing coat made swingier thanks to its hand-embroidered silk velvet border. In the Times Insider essay “Why We Cover High Fashion”, Vanessa Friedman discusses how a couture garment created entirely by hand “is as good a way as any to talk about the current tension between the handmade and human (and historical) and the technological. It’s the fashion equivalent of reading books versus watching YouTube.” Artisan embellishment as fervent as prayer, executed with devotion, somehow serves to bring one closer to God, similar to the cultural history of tattooing, piercing and scarification as sacred ritual, using the body as canvas.
So, what’s behind the urge to embellish? In the animal world, extravagant plumage is all about attracting a mate. Embellishment is, historically, a way to flaunt wealth – think of totting up the bill for 17 of the most expensive dresses of all time, as detailed in Marie Claire: Kate Middleton’s McQueen wedding gown with lace made by the Royal School of Needlework cost £250,000, Cate Blanchett’s Armani Privé one-shoulder number, encrusted with gunmetal grey Swarovski crystals reportedly cost 200 grand, which might explain why it didn’t have a second shoulder, or Lupita Nyong’o’s 2015 Calvin Klein Oscar dress at £97,000, dripping with pearls, lifted from her hotel room (with a crane) by a crook with an eye for detail.
What begins in the dress-up box as child’s play is now all grown up and available to commission from internationally recognised Irish artisans: dazzling gemstone rings by goldsmith Nigel O’Reilly (chart his meteoric rise in an upcoming issue of Vogue), delicate millinery by Laura Kinsella and couture by Helen Cody featuring appliqué, embroidery, feathers and Irish lace. Designer “shoellery” (shoes as jewellery) act as foil to perfectly pedicured toes, embellished with glittery shellac. But why stop there? Become a patron of the decorative arts at home: Irish and Italian team Pigmentti specialise in traditional skills, working with natural pigments, frescoes, murals, gold leaf, verre églomisé and bas-relief.
In February, wear your heart on your sleeve, as long as it’s embroidered/beaded/stitched by hand, with love.
This month’s moodboard
1. I’m embroidering the truth in a Dolce & Gabbana SS19 lace and flower corset dress. 2. I’m saying “I Do” in carnal red lips and a tutu halo, inspired by Rodarte SS19. What bride wouldn’t blush? 3. I’m embellishing my age–inappropriate gear in crystals à la Versace SS19. Why should Kendall have all the fun? 4. I’m travelling incognito in Miu Miu Rasoir semi-rimless sunnies with pink mirror gold lenses. 5. I’m go-go-going wild in Manolo Blahnik’s suede and leather appliqué floral boots for Carolina Herrera. 6. I’m concealing and revealing in a bespoke Orion headpiece by award-winning Irish milliner, www.laurakinsella.com. 7. I’m clicking my Victoria Beckham pink Harper slipper heels together. Repeat after me: “There’s no place like Rome!” 8. I’m tulle-ing around in a pale pink Rodarte confection, but I could use a flower crown; learn how at www.thecrate.ie. 9. I’m brimming with thoughts of summer getaways in a Valentino SS19 hat and Pat McGrath’s MatteTrance Lipstick in Extravaganza, embellished with crystals.
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