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Finding Marilyn Monroe: 12 Style Elements to Try on for Size

This is supposed to be a Get the Look post, specifically how to get the look of Marilyn Monroe. However, emulating the enigmatic icon without devolving into mockery (think Vegas impersonator) could never be easy. There will always be only one Marilyn.

My suggestion? To find the part of her look that works for you, whether it is the elegant drape of her dress, the simple palette of colors, or the blond curls. Maybe there is something of her attitude that works for you.

Some elements to try on for size:

1. Embrace your curves, and wear clothing that fits exactly. How often have you seen a photo of Marilyn Monroe in something sloppy and over-sized? True, she had a perfect hourglass figure, but there is not a single one of us that wouldn’t look best in clothes that fit us exactly right.

Marilyn Monroe as Rose, costume test for Niagara, 1952, costume designer Dorothy Jeakins. Marilyn was known to wear her movie costumes in real life.

2. Diamonds just might be a girl’s best friend. Not that Marilyn always dripped in bling, but when she did, she glistened. Glittering jewelry seemed to augment the sparkle that was so much a part of her look and act.

3. Find a style and stick to it. Marilyn Monroe had a makeup routine, a hair color, a palette of hues and a personal vibe that were all part of her signature look. Find, hone, repeat.

4. Up the vampage. It’s a given that Marilyn dressed in ways that enhanced and flaunted her shape, but is it ever trampy? No. Think vintage vamp instead, including va-va-voom heels, sweater girl sweaters, halter necklines, finely-fitted sheath dresses and pencil skirts.

5. Classics always work. For many style icons this was true, so it is sometimes easy to dismiss this aspect of Marilyn’s style, but she was a great wearer of a camel coat, a white shirt, capri pants, a simple pullover sweater and other classics.

6. Go with a simple color palette. You don’t see a lot of photos of Marilyn wearing prints. She favored neutral shades and black and white, with stand-out shades of red, pink, green or blue for emphasis.

7. Oh, but don’t be afraid to sparkle. I mentioned diamonds, but also consider clothing in gold and silver. Do you have your headlights on?

The famous gold lamé gown designed by William Travilla for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953

8. Structure is another of a girl’s awfully good friends. Of course, it was the norm for the era, but we can all learn from the positive influence of the right underpinnings. At the very least, consider a swimsuit with a well-designed inner framework (vintage of course!) and the right bra under a sweater.

9. Find a signature red for your lips. Of all her trademark style elements, possibly nothing says Marilyn more loudly and clearly than bright red lips...and red lips are a whole lot easier than platinum blonde hair.

10. A fabulous shoe might also be in the running for a girl’s best friend. As Marilyn said herself “Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world.” Strappy sandals, peep toes, slide-on mules...and who wouldn’t feel like conquering the world in Lucite platforms?

11. Show joy. It seems like fashion comes and goes on this point—first there’s a fad for smiling, then there’s a fad for pouting. Marilyn always appeared natural, healthy, and radiant. She gave joy—she still gives joy—with that beautiful smile.

12. Be bold. It took a heck of a strong woman to grow up not knowing her father, having a mentally unstable mother, living in a series foster homes, and laboring at a young age before being hurled into super stardom. If you want to be like Marilyn, persevere.

“I am trying to find myself. Sometimes that's not easy.” 

“I am not interested in money. I just want to be wonderful.” 
—Marilyn Monroe

Elliott Erwitt photo
Whatever part of Marilyn you find and make your own, I hope it makes you feel wonderful.

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Get the Look: Elsa Schiaparelli

Wit, innovation, transformation, freedom, defiance, chic—and shock. How many of us would dare to take fashion inspiration from the most iconoclastic of designers?

Elsa Schiaparelli was born in Rome in 1890. A defiant girl from the start, she ran away from home at the age of six only to be found several days later, at the head of a parade. When she was 21, Schiaparelli wrote a book of erotic poetry, shocking her aristocratic parents who promptly sent her to a convent. When she waged a hunger strike they were forced to bring her back home.

The youngest in this family portrait from 1892
Repeatedly told by her mother that her older sister was a beauty and that she was homely, as a girl Schiaparelli once tried to plant flower seeds in her nose, mouth and ears, presciently imagining she could make herself blossom into a beauty. She gradually found love and admiration through the creation of beauty.

After a hasty, early marriage fell apart in 1914, Schiaparelli began to discover her life’s work. Her marriage had taken her to New York, and with the help of connected friends, she relocated to Paris where she became associated with artists and made her way into the domain of fashion.

Schiaparelli was at her height in the inter-war years, an equal to her rival Coco Chanel, and most of these style elements for which she is known are tied to that time.

Collaborations with artists

Schiaparelli was greatly influenced by the artists whom she considered her soulmates. First by the Dadaists, then even more profoundly by the Surrealists, her friends and collaborators included Jean Cocteau, Christian Bérard, René Magritte, Alberto Giacometti and most especially Salvador Dalí.

Coat; evening suit jacket (both 1937) by Schiaparelli, embellishments designed by Jean Cocteau; Wallis Simpson wearing the Schiaparelli/Dalí-collaboration lobster dress (1937); the famous shoe hat (winter, 1937) another Schiaparelli/Dalí collaboration; Giacometti for Schiaparelli ring (1935).


The dream worlds of the Surrealists particularly appealed to Elsa Schiaparelli, and her creations reflected those dreams tinged with her own iconic wit.

Lobster hat (1939)—lobsters were one of Dalí’s favorite subjects and Schiap took to them equally; gloves (1936); models wearing Schiaparelli in a surreal landscape, photographed for Vogue by André Durst (1936); the iconic Tears Dress in collaboration with Dalí (1938); another image of the shoe hat, this time shown with a suit with red lips for pockets (1937); glasses (1951).

Trompe l’oeil

Elsa Schiaparelli first made her mark on the fashion world in 1927 with boxy sweaters knit in a special double layered stitch to keep them from losing their shape—and most importantly featuring trompe l’oeil in their designs. These caused an immediate sensation and were the basis for her opening her atelier, even if just in a garret to start. By 1935, her atelier was the 98-room salon and work studios at 21 Place Vendôme, which was christened the Schiap Shop. She had had no formal training.

Trompe l’oeil sweaters (1928, 1930s, 1927); woodgrain dress (1938); fabric sample for Schiaparelli (1936); silk gloves decorated with plastic discs reminiscent of chain mail (1935-40).


Surrealism, trompe l’oeil...the humor in Schiaparelli’s work is undeniable. That lobster dress? There are parsley sprigs scattered near the hem. Gloves have manicures, pockets have lips.

Hat and gloves (1949); pair of ostrich clips by Jean Schlumberger for Elsa Schiaparelli, Circus Collection (summer, 1938); Cane Purse (1950s); Schiaparelli Sleeping perfume bottle and suede case (another Circus Collection item, 1938); gloves (1936); Dalí/Schiaparelli telephone dial compact (1935); suit and hat with braid (1951).


Before evening wear, Schiaparelli made her name in sportswear and she never lost sight of practicality in her design. She created a wardrobe of mix-and-match, easy-care separates for her own travel. She dressed the English pilot Amy Johnson in a handsome, work-worthy outfit. In 1931, she put the tennis star Lilí Álvarez in a split skirt, shocking the staid Wimbledon crowd.

Schiaparelli, with her daughter Gogo, St. Moritz (1934); Schiaparelli dressed for travel (1941); pioneering English aviatrix Amy Johnson in Schiaparelli (1936); Lilí Álvarez wearing a divided skirt by Schiaparelli (1931).


Struggling with the curse of being told she was unattractive from early on, Schiaparelli seemed to seek redemption through fashion, both in beautifying herself and through the glorification of the ordinary in her design.

As a girl, Schiaparelli was troubled by the moles on her face, but her uncle, a noted astronomer, said they outlined the Big Dipper, which was good fortune. This later became her symbol and she commissioned a diamond pin of it. The famous Horst photo of Schiaparelli in an oval mirror reflects a wary introvert. Patchwork print evening dress (1936); simple black dress with elaborate jeweled sleeves (1938).


Not just a favorite symbol of the Surrealists, but surely of personal significance to a woman who wanted to transform her appearance, butterflies are a recurrent theme in Schiaparelli’s work. Sometimes they are unfettered, as butterfly button-like decorations seem to take flight off a jacket, other times caught, as a black netting over-dress envelopes a butterfly-printed dress beneath.

Dress and over-dress/jacket (1937); jacket with butterfly buttons (1937).


Playing a very important role in many of Schiaparelli’s 1930s creations was the embroidery realized by the House of Lesage. In some cases it nearly covered the fabric on which it was stitched, yet always heightened the design of the garment without overwhelming it. With Schiaparelli and Lesage one feels the sense of great dancers in a pas de deux, their arts completely intertwined.

Zodiac Collection evening jacket (1939); evening jacket with padded embroidery (1938); evening gown (1940); Circus Collection jacket (1938); evening jacket (1937-39); evening ensemble (1940); evening blouse (c.1938); veil (1938); jacket (1938).

Novelty buttons

Somewhere between fastener and jewelry, Schiaparelli’s buttons very often were set free from their usual roles and wended their way diagonally down the front of a jacket or floated onto a hat. The placement, the size and most of all the themes (everything from snails to shell casings) were deviantly inventive.

Trapeze artist buttons on a Circus Collection jacket (summer, 1938); cicada button on a Pagan Collection jacket (winter, 1938), astrological figure button on a jacket from the Zodiac Collection (summer, 1939), lyre and piano buttons from the Music Collection (fall, 1939).

The ‘Lightning Fastener’ 

In another technically inventive inspiration, Schiaparelli took to the zipper (the Lightning Fastener) at the vanguard of its popular use. Instead of keeping its practicality hidden, she glorified it in her designs, using it as a jolting focal point.
Lightning fastener advertisement (1935); evening gown with angled zipper (1935).

Unusual materials

Schiaparelli upended the expected in fabrics, using day fabrics for evening and evening fabrics for daywear. Her couture garments combined even suede with lace. She experimented with new man-made fabrics, including a glass-like Rhodophane (which proved impractically fragile). Her wit extended to prints featuring seed packets, carousel animals and her own press clippings.

Rhodophane ‘glass’ cape - André Durst Harper’s Bazaar photo (1935); evening blouse and bag of silk printed with the number of ration coupons required for each of the garments pictured (1940-45); plastic belt painted with pink stars (1938); cotton seed packet-print dress (1940-41); highly-textured wool dress (1930); carousel animal-print silk dress (1938).

The evening suit

So many of Schiaparelli’s 1930s creations were in the form of suits, most notably and inventively her evening suits. The dresses, sleek and baring gowns, were relatively unadorned, while their jacket mates could be ornately embellished.

Her other advancements include a wrap dress, a backless swimsuit, a built-in bra, culottes/trousers and folding glasses.
Evening jacket (winter, 1937); dinner jacket with insect buttons, 1938; Schiaparelli ensemble in front of Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” sculpture, photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe (1939); dinner jacket (1940).

Design themes

Themes often ran through seasonal collections, giving direction not only to the designs and embellishments, but to the performance art theatrics of Schiaparelli’s fashion shows.

The Music collection of 1937 included music boxes in belt buckles and on hats, colorfully sparkling embroidered musical notation, and buttons shaped like instruments:

The Zodiac collection of winter 1938-39 was an homage not only to astronomy, but to the Sun King Louis XIV, and to Apollo:

In her extraordinarily prolific 1938, Schiaparelli produced not only the Zodiac collection but the Circus and Pagan collections. The Commedia del’Arte came in 1939.

Chic noir 

Edgy black was a Schiaparelli speciality, as brazenly exemplified by the Skeleton Dress from 1938. Made of fine, matte silk in a clingy cut, the ‘bones’ of the dress are formed by normally delicate trapunto quilting thickly stuffed with cotton wadding.

Her edginess carried into a sort of eek chic, with a brilliant array of realistic bugs crawling around an innovative clear plastic collar (as if directly on the wearer’s skin), and fine silk printed with what look like gaping wounds used for the Tear Dress.

Outfit and veil hat (1949); insect necklace (1938); Skeleton Dress (1938); detail of the Tears Dress, showing both the printed silk of the dress and the 3-D effect used for its companion hood (1938).

Shocking pink 

Famously described as “ aggressive, brawling, warrior pink” by Yves Saint Laurent, this vibrant color was the non-sweet signature of the designer, giving name to her most famous perfume, color to her packaging, and finding its way into her fashions from head to toe throughout her career. Her autobiography Shocking Life sealed her own sense of connection to the color, the connotation of the hue expressing her provocative, enthralling work.

Cotton suit with mermaid ceramic button (1938); detail of evening jacket (1947); Shocking de Schiaparelli perfume ad by Marcel Vertes (1950—the perfume was first created in 1936); boots designed by Elsa Schiaparelli in collaboration with André Perugia (1939-1940).
The cover of Schiaparelli’s 1954 memoir.

“Ninety percent are afraid of being conspicuous, and of what people will say. So they buy a gray suit. They should dare to be different.” 

—One of the “12 Commandments for Women” from Shocking Life

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Get the Look: Jean Seberg

Jean Seberg (1938-1979) was the most stylish French woman to have ever come out of Marshalltown, Iowa. In fact, she seemed to have been born in the wrong place, embodying as she did effortless Parisian chic.  She developed her iconic look in sync with her career.

Although Seberg’s first film, Saint Joan, was panned by critics, she gained the attention and affection of the French public for her portrayal of Joan of Arc, and soon she became the darling of French New Wave films, particularly for her role in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (À bout de souffle). If no one saw or heard anything else of Jean Seberg’s work, they would still have a strong sense of her style from that movie.

Seberg’s life turned tragic after being blacklisted by the FBI for her support of the Black Panther Party (among other organizations devoted to civil rights, the others not controversial). She was insidiously “neutralized” (the FBI’s term) and it is assumed her death of a barbiturate overdose was suicide. She was then 40.

Perhaps the tragedy of her death makes Jean Seberg’s life, work and iconic style even more dear.


Jean Seberg, c.1958-60: Above all was the perfect pixie cut on the perfect girl for a pixie cut—

There was the fresh look of pared down makeup, light on the lipstick and without the usual heavy-lidded eyes of the time.

In button down shirts, straight pants and oversized sweaters, Seberg looked the perfect gamine.

With Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless

Her sporting, boyish, youthful looks presaged the Mod aesthetic of the mid 1960s—

Accessories were mainly kept to rounded cat eye frames, simple scarves, and here and there a hat—

Unmistakable were the Breton stripes—

—and the simple, clean, modern aesthetic—

Jean Seberg didn’t always wear her hair in a pixie cut, she didn’t always wear stripes, her roles were not all youthful—but this is her time, place, and style that seem to reach right out of photos, fresh as new. This is the eternal Jean Seberg.

Dress by Givenchy for Seberg’s role as Cecile in Bonjour Tristesse, 1958


Inspired by Jean Seberg, a collection of vintage items on Etsy:

Click to view these and more on Etsy

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Get the Look: Katharine Hepburn

Do you ever wear a skirt, by the way? the intrepid young reporter Barbara Walters asked Katharine Hepburn in a 1981 interview. I have one. I’ll wear it to your funeral, came the quip back.

Yes, Hepburn wore trousers, and not just because they looked great on her and she felt comfortable in them.

Photo from “Kit Houghton Hepburn, Her Daughter’s Mother”

Katharine Hepburn was born into a family of progressives. Her mother, Kit Houghton Hepburn, worked tirelessly for women’s rights. The family was devoted and loving, and both parents saw to it that their three sons and three daughters were given equal opportunity, education and independence.

The eldest daughter Katharine was strong in mind and body, a tomboy and excellent athlete. She attended Bryn Mawr, graduating with a degree in history and philosophy. While in school she decided to become an actress, and her talent, intelligence, focus and energy created for her a remarkable 60-year long career. Hepburn “wore the pants” in her life not only in reality but metaphorically, in every matter that required her authority. Like her mother, she was a pioneering modern woman of the 20th century.

In private life Katharine Hepburn chose comfort and quality for her wardrobe. Her signature outfit was a pair of tailored beige trousers and a linen jacket, often paired with a white shirt. She needed to be able to sit on the floor or drape her legs over the arms of a chair. In this outfit she portrayed an effortless elegance as well as a down-to-business attitude.

In the 1930s and 40s, seeing a beautiful A-list Hollywood star frequently wearing trousers was quite unusual. In her early career many considered Katharine Hepburn an anti-style icon. Her studio once tried to hide her slacks from her and she threatened to walk around the studio lot naked. ...She got the slacks back!

She is definitely a style icon. After all, what makes a such an icon besides fame along with an original sense of style? Hepburn certainly had both in spades. As her fame increased and her persona became better appreciated, Hepburn influenced American sportswear design and attitudes about dress.

For her movies, Katharine Hepburn engaged with costume designers to get the right feel for the women she would portray. You can see the influence of her personality and attitudes on the costumes that she wore: Effortlessly glamorous as Tracy Lord in “The Philadelphia Story,” costumed by Adrian; ready to forsake the constraints of high society as Linda Seton in “Holiday,” costumed by Kalloch; sporting as Pat Pemberton in “Pat & Mike,” costumed by Orry-Kelly; chicly eggheaded as Bunny Watson in “The Desk Set,” costumed by Charles Le Maire—and so many more.

She had copies made for herself when she particularly liked a costume. A Norman Hartnell silk dress and coat from “Suddenly, Last Summer” were among the pieces that she had copied.

Upon her death in 2003, 700 pieces of Hepburn’s clothing, including iconic stage and screen costumes, were given to the Kent State University Museum. In 2012, a collection of this clothing was displayed at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts...and a unique style icon finally got her due.

What might be considered the essential Katharine Hepburn wardrobe?

1. Trousers most of all, of course. Not just any will do, but well-tailored wide-legged trousers in good quality fabrics. Some of Hepburn’s slacks were inventively displayed at the 2012 exhibit, paying tribute to her ease of motion.

2. Button-downs, also impeccably constructed.

3. Tailored suits.
4. Jackets, from simple linen to dressier tuxedo in style.
5. A classic briefcase.
6. A comfortable full-length coat with room to move and no worry about rain.
7. When considering prints, make them clean and graphic, like stripes...
...and polka dots.

8. Actual sportswear—and you should actually play sports in them.

9. Some gender-bending pieces, the more iconic the better.

10. By all means, have a drop-dead stunning evening gown, preferably in black—feminine but not frou frou. 

And when the evening is over, make sure you are the one wearing the trousers!


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Style Icon: Phyllis Diller

OK, not your typical style icon, but if style means being true to yourself and unforgettable, Phyllis Diller is most certainly an icon.

Phyllis Diller, who passed away in 2012, made her costuming, hair and makeup an integral part of her self-invented comedic persona. Diller’s 2005 autobiography is titled Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse. That is so her.

So what if her wig was unkempt, her colors loud and her makeup gaudy—She was all there, a complete package day in and day out, long before Lady Gaga.

Killer Diller style: “My photographs don’t do me justice - they just look like me.”
I feel a great affinity for this woman’s unconventional and wacky style. I’d rather be fun than elegant, at least some of the time. Most of all, I want to be myself. Phyllis Diller once said “I wanted to become me, totally me. The more me, the better. I instinctively knew this and I was right.” Apparently her famous window-rattling laugh did not need invention.

She was a beautiful woman. It took courage, talent and self-assurance to pull off an act in which being unattractive was part of the gag.

The mid to late 1960s were good years to have an over-the-top style. I love the way her style just goes one (or maybe two or three) steps too far, but always with fashion in sight.

House of Patou, 1968
Phyllis Diller in her cotton ball dress 
Schiaparelli, ca. 1930
A caged bird
A 1978 photo of Phyllis Diller in her closet (Los Angeles Times) “Honey, I adore clothes. Always have, even as a baby. I follow fashion like a scientist follows rats. If I like something, I buy it in all colors.”

This week at the Vintage Fashion Guild, the Parade is dedicated to the style of Phyllis Diller. Go funny and fearless...go maximalist! 

You think I'm overdressed? This is just my slip!”—Phyllis Diller
These items and more are found in the VFG Parade forum

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Get the Look: My Mother

Every now and then I highlight favorite vintage style icons, such as in my blog posts

Finding Marilyn Monroe
Billie Holiday, style icon
Get the Look: The Thin Man, 1934
Get the Look: Audrey Hepburn
Get the Look: Emma Peel
Dream Girls: Girl Groups of the Sixties

Today, in honor of Mother’s Day, I'm celebrating my very first favorite style icon. I've talked of my mother before (Flowers for my motherStyle ideas from my parents) but I'm devoting this post to her style alone.

Mama would laugh and blush at the thought of this. My mother did not consider herself stylish; she wasn’t particularly interested in clothing, but she most definitely had a discernable style, and it’s a style that influences me.

Born in 1920, she was in her twenties in the 1940s, and 40s style suited her and remained a lifelong influence on her. She was big on navy blue, plaid, good basics, scarves, gloves and generally what I'd call handsome clothing. She wasn't the frilly type. On the other hand she rarely wore trousers but preferred dresses. She emphasized her waist. She knitted, sewed and tatted, and I don’t remember her ever wearing a commercially-made sweater. I'm choosing to highlight my mother’s style in the 1940s and 50s, my two favorite decades for clothing and coincidentally when my mother was a young woman.

Have you ever noticed that people tend to like clothing from the era when their parents were young?

{The items with me in the pictures are for sale...just click on their captions to take you to the listings}

My mother in the 40s
There’s that waist emphasis and another simple and flattering dress
40s fern print rayon dress
Mama knitting
50s hand-knit cream wool sweater
Her ubiquitous white blouse, plaid skirt, and great shoes that (it must be noted) caused some havoc for her feet later
50s white cotton blouse
My parents, with my mother in the midst of creating something
40s navy gabardine suit
Mama in a plaid skirt, sporty jacket and gloves
50s rayon dress with plaid scarf and trim
I’ve always been convinced that every woman needs a classic coat
40s burgundy gabardine coat
...and a classic scarf
My mother in plaid again, leaning on my father’s MG. The jacket was most likely his. 
50s plaid summer dress
My parents on a ferry in 1956. I love the flowered circle skirt!
50s fish print circle skirt
My mother, very soon to give birth to me, with my aunt Marie and brother John
Happy Mother’s Day to all the First Favorite Style Icons out there!



Get the Look: Emma Peel

I think I may have seen one or two Avengers episodes as a child, and I remember how funny, bright and eccentric everything seemed. Fast forward to college when a fellow musician walked up to me and said I looked like Mrs. Peel. I stayed up to 2AM to see reruns of the show and loved it; I just had to know everything about Mrs. Peel and John Steed, my favorite of The Avengers.

Since then, even with a somewhat vague appearance connection, I like to think, act, speak and even dress like Emma Peel, at least some of the when I need to foil some diabolical mastermind. She is my heroine extraordinaire.

Emma Peel's fashions evolved in her 1965-67 stint on the show, starting where Honor Blackman's Cathy Gale character had left off, with pretty but rather conventional 60s clothing, and a solid dose of black leather. Then came inventive styles by John Bates, and later Alun Hughes. Bates created haute mod black and white get-ups, and mini skirts before they had become mainstream. Later she was known for wearing Hughes' bright stretch knit (crimplene) "fighting suits," used for her highly accomplished martial arts and fencing scenes.

Some items in my shops that seem good for both a karate kick and a glass of champagne: