Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Few More Black and Whites

Playwright Arthur Miller

U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Writer Robert Crichton
Actor Sterling Hayden 
British Archaeologist Louis Leaky

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Reader Questions: Winter Colors; Maternity Wear; Risk of Sameness


Dear Muffy,

Love your blog! I find this time of year frustrating. All of my winter outfits seem too dark but it is too early for spring clothes, even though I want to wear them. What should I do?

I feel the same way. So this tends to be when I pull out my winter garments in brighter, more spring-like colors that held little appeal for me just a few months ago. I also lean heavily on the color Navy, as it is seasonless, goes with all of my sartorial genres, and can seem somewhat fresher this time of year.

Enjoying Today's Warm Sun

Even my work clothes this time of year reflects this shifting palette.

Dear Muffy,  

I am a regular reader of your blog since January 2011. I am very grateful for your style and advice. After becoming pregnant, finishing work in London and starting to look after a baby full-time, now toddler, I was in need of a change of dress, reflecting my new life. I also have a role in my local community as the wife of the Rector, so I also need to look reasonably presentable in and around home and the parish. I am now pregnant again and was wondering if you have any wisdom to offer on maternity dress. I found last time that the selection of maternity clothes pretty hideous-looking as well as uncomfortable (waist bands that dug in and pulled awkwardly). I have a few ideas: sewing super-soft waistbands onto old trousers and possibly skirts, but that's it so far. Ordinary clothes in a larger size looked odd and rode up over my bump. I would be extremely grateful for any advice.  With best regards.

The best thing I can think of is a blog called SouleMama.  It sounds like you can sew,  so it might be of some help.  SouleMama is a lovely blog about rural Maine living, with a focus on knitting and sewing.  And given Amanda Soule has had five children, she has some experience with maternity wear.  This entry is specifically about that:

Dear Muffy,  

How can a person personalize the classic lifestyle? A Norwegian sweater looks great, but if everyone is wearing the same sweater, then it seems like everyone in the room is following a trend. At the same time, there are certain articles of clothing and lifestyle choices that seem off. Where is the middle ground? Where, in clothing and lifestyle choices, is it acceptable to look a little different from the rest of the pack?

This is also an area where people hate the thought of "rules" or guidelines as it sounds too prescriptive.     Almost any conversation here will invoke "are you kidding me" eye-rolls from at least some people. All I can say is there are people who like to apply literary theory to a novel, and others just want to read it and enjoy it. Some people like the adjectives applied to a bottle of wine, and others just want to drink. This conversation is for people in the first, not the second,  group.

The issue of sameness is a tough one, in part because it is so highly contextual.  Two navy blazers, with two different tartan ties, may be indistinguishable to most, but mean the world of difference to the people whose clans the ties represent. Similarly, one can look at two different soldiers; if one is in that culture, the amount of information presented by a uniform is staggeringly high, and if one is out of the culture, it all blends together. One friend of ours,  a Coast Guard Admiral,  was mistaken for a waiter at the Harvard Club in Boston.

There are a few over-iconic items; the Norwegian Sweater is a perfect example. They may go through steep curves of "everyone has to have one" followed by "no one will touch them." Lacoste shirts ran that gauntlet as well. These have their own issues, but I don't think is generalizable across most classic clothes.

As a sidebar, I would also suggest two other quick thoughts. The first is that there is a lot of variability in a tasteful, classic wardrobe.

Different Bracelets
The second is that mixing in some outside influences can show individuality and whimsy. Of course riffs too discordant with the genre (such as a camouflage cummerbund) force people to react, but the impact can be selfish. It is the equivalent of talking too loudly at a social event.

Given all of that, a heuristic is that a wardrobe is there to highlight the wearer, not be center stage itself. So the best way to look interesting is to be interesting.  Then just throw on some clothes that gently frame yourself. (See When Does an Outfit Become a Costume for the other extreme.)

We all are of our time.Trying to dress differently often results in its own sameness.  Most attempts at rebellion from one style simply puts one squarely and rigidly into another. Even trying to be deliberately eclectic or ironic puts one into a predictable sub-genre with as many rules as the ones that people thought they were circumnavigating.   Finally, most people who don't think they think much about clothes end up being the most impacted by fleeting styles and thus have the most waste in their closets.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Fresh Food on a Snowy Day

Making chicken soup, hot chocolate and tapioca pudding, or Fish Eye Pudding. 

Hot Chocolate Ingredients

Tapioca Ingredients include fresh eggs from this morning.

Many prefer to have my tapioca pudding warm.
It is the freshness of the milk that makes these so good.  It gives both an extra richness and flavor.

Milk is available fresh year round, so one can try to get milk right from the dairy farm, raw, often that had been bottled just hours ago.


Jersey cow personalities remind one of Golden Retriever personalities.   

 Sanitizing the Udder Before Hooking Up to the Milking Machine 

Throughout the entire process,  the milk is untouched by human hands.
Distributing some hay...

...and then applied an udder sanitizer/moisturizer after the cows had been milked.

There is always a lot of hand washing.

Ready for the Final Episode of Downton Abbey (on DVD)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Brothers Joe (left) and Rick (right) Lotuff
In many ways, sartorially, we currently live in a barren, shameless era.
  • Ugliness is status quo, and gaudiness embraced.
  • So many incredibly expensive items are sold that have been incredibly cheaply made.
  • Short term thinking prevails, from customers wanting instant status to vendors wanting crazily high profit margins.
  • The people who should be leading us - publications, celebrities, many of the most well off, and grown-ups in general - aren't.
  • To those who do care, vendors actively mislead us about pedigrees of products. Branding is not just tangential to reality, but often at odds with it.
I believe the assaults on taste and fair value are just trends, not the result of some Hegelian dialectic. These market patterns are cyclical not linear. They will reverse over time. But I am impatient.

So with that in mind, if The Daily Prep readers were asked to imagine a luxury line of products that could compete globally on, for example, the Main Floor of Barneys, what might their commandments be?

I suspect they would include:
  • Be made in the U.S., and for some, preferably even in New England
  • Use very high quality materials.
  • Use very high quality craftsmanship.
  • Epitomize simple, timeless designs. The product should be as understated as possible, yet beautiful. The quality should enable a Shaker-esque (or is it better to say Steve Jobs-esque) simplicity. It should have absolutely no bling or unnecessary adornments. 
  • Design so that the product will be in service 30 years now. Parts inevitably destined to be worn should be easy to replace. In fact, it should get better with age. Of course the company itself should stand behind the products.
These are, interestingly enough, the same guidelines (albeit in my words) Lotuff is following. Their goal is to embody these principles.

I was able to spend an afternoon with Rick and Joe Lotuff and their team in their New England facility.  And I was also able to watch my own handbag being made.

We started off talking about design.
I was reminded of the quote "A designer knows that he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away" - Antoine de St-Expurey
 Craftsmen, some with over 30 contiguous years of experience around building and repairing bags, add a perspective around design, especially when the explicit goal is to create products that will last that long and longer.
Lindy discussed nuanced changes to the Signature Handbag... in Red.
I loved hearing about the design decisions and philosophies in practice.
I learned about interiors and layouts.
I made the faux pas of handling one of the bags gingerly. Joe set me straight. (Insert your own early days of football reference here!)
The manufacturing process starts with the vegetable-tanned leather.
Rick explained why they use vegetable tanned leather. The more popular alternative is to use an iron based process (chromium) which actually rusts over time, leading to cracks in the leather.
Stacks of Leather

For precision, each product is cut one at a time. (Mass producing, in contrast, requires the cutting of stacks at a time, which often results in mismatched shapes.) 

The tools included modern and ancient.

I must say it was a thrill to see my own Navy bag being made.

(And I got to choose my number!)

These bags have no exterior logo (mine just has my initials).    Excuse my effusiveness, but that is just so amazing.  Historically, it recalls the old custom suits.  But in today's brand-obsessed world, when purchases are made first to be shown off, having a product that projects substance from every pore rather than relying on the crutch of a super-sized logo seems so civilized.
And then the real assembly began.
The hammer is an incredibly useful and satisfying tool of the trade.
While my bag was being built, I enjoyed seeing some of the final steps (like fire) being applied to other items.
The final Lotuff products glow.
The Exquisite Lotuff Small Leather Tote

A New Briefcase, the Lotuff Wells Bag...
...and the Lotuff iPad Case.
We ended the day discussing future plans and the state of the market. And hair.

Rick, Joe, Greg, and Lindy
I know of a few authors who visit this blog on a regular basis. This forces me to reflect how frustratingly static my own lack of arc must be for them. 

Having said that, perhaps the substantive journey of record here is not mine but New England's. Because at the same time the largest corporations are pandering to the lowest brow tastes (and collectively scuttling their organizations for the next generation in the process), many emerging companies written about here are competing at all market price points and all over the world by uniquely meeting the needs of new breeds of customers with classic tastes. 

Together, they are creating, taking on, and leading previously ceded market segments (and employing our neighbors in the process). This export of taste and values and even sanity is the true tale worth chronicling.

As I write this, I wait for my Lotuff bag, which needed some finishing steps, to arrive via UPS.  I am excited.  So you will forgive me and understand if I abruptly lea...