February 2021 Get Out of a Rut Project day 6

(Reminder that the parameter for this project is outfits guaranteed on weekdays only.)

I knew that I wanted to get some color into this week’s outfits, since the first week was all shades of gray and black. And I remembered that I hadn’t worn this dress in a while. So it’s dark cool purples for this outing. FWIW, I would (and have) worn this outfit to my workplace; this is a nice example of the spectrum of how I define corpgoth.

Rayon/spandex knit dress: Disney via Torrid
Cotton knit cami: Newport News Clothing (out of business)
Boots: Fluevog Enneagram Optimist
Jewelry: Treasured Finds Silver Jewelry (out of business)
Makeup:
Foundation, concealer, undereye: standard
Contour: Aromaleigh Orpheus & Eurydice Deathly Pallor
Eye Shadow: Aromaleigh Valentine Digital Romance (LE) and MEOW Winter Coat (LE)
Liner: Aromaleigh Moulin Rouge Garter (LE)
Mascara: standard
Rouge: Aromaleigh Get Cheeky! Smolder (discontinued)
Highlighter: Aromaleigh Goddess of the Month Nyx
Lips: Butter London Plush Rush Gloss Ultra Violet (LE)

Yes, I am matchy-matchy in this. I own it. I don’t tend to do a lot of color mixing and I like doing a coordinated color palette with a range of shades in the same base tone. I tend to do this most often in purple since I am one of Those People about my favorite color and because of my hair, but my idea of purple can range from basically mauve to blueberry to almost burgundy. And sometimes I’ll do it with red or pink, and even with very dramatic lipstick shades like gray or green.

The dress is licensed Disney and if you look closely at the hem you’ll spot some low-key Villains symbols. I am not a Disney Person as such, though I do have affinity for Maleficent since she was my very first goth influence when I was a whole four years old. (My feelings about art that matters to me being in the iron control of ginormous, IP-hoarding corporations are something I wrestle with regularly, and it’s rough, but in-depth discussion on that is better suited to its own blog post.) The main reason I like this dress is the design of branching brambles, which is among my personal motifs; the goblincore in me finds something deeply compelling about images or silhouettes of bare branches and brambles. And the indigo color is a nice bonus.

Remember back at the beginning of the project when I mentioned that I keep stuff for a long time if it fits? Yeah. I don’t remember exactly when I bought this cami, but I’m confident it’s been a couple of decades. And, in a callback to my gripes about the inconsistency of sizing, it’s tagged M. But it still fits.

The necklace and earrings are iolite in sterling. The vendor for these has been gone for quite awhile as well; I believe I bought these pieces in the early Aughts. I fell in love with iolite as a kid, when my mother inherited some gorgeous floral-motif custom pieces that had belonged to my grandmother. I love pear and marquise cuts, and the settings and links on the necklace give it the feel of stones in chainmail, which appeals to my weird aesthetic sense of jumbled influences.

Yes, the boots are only laced partway. This is because Fluevog, despite my love for them, continues to think that people with powerful calves don’t buy their boots. Every time I wear these I tell myself I need to get longer laces. And then I forget. But partially-laced boots are their own kind of statement.

My hair is out of control. I really need a haircut but I’m not willing to go into a salon yet. None of the options for putting it up felt quite right for this outfit, and/or put too much strain on my head and neck for me to tolerate when my pain is being insistent. (Tangent: When I was considering this I started thinking about how the hairstyles for female Disney villains tend to fall into two motifs: Tightly controlled/covered [Maleficent, Evil Queen] or utterly wild [Ursula, Cruella de Ville]. Feels like there’s some subtext to unpack there.) So today I just let it be wild, kind of like the brambles on my dress.

Noir Alley February 6, 2021: The Killer That Stalked New York

This is the first installment of a new project to write a review each week of the films of Noir Alley, the weekly broadcast of a noir or noir-adjacent film on TCM hosted by Eddie Muller. I’m borrowing an idea from film & TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz and limiting each review to roughly 30 minutes of writing, as much because I’m not up for a long writing stretch at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night as for any real discipline.

The Killer That Stalked New York, 1950

This movie folds a noirish plot about a jewel thief and her cheating husband into a documentary-style narrative inspired by the 1947 smallpox outbreak in New York City. The two are tied together by having the jewel thief be the smallpox carrier who infects the city. It’s a…novel way to frame a story, to be sure.

Evelyn Keyes is Sheila Bennet, who returns from Cuba with a packet of smuggled diamonds and a nasty headache. She’s being tailed by a fed who suspects her, so she puts the diamonds in the mail, calls her husband, and then heads to a flophouse hotel to lose the cop. But she starts to feel really sick, so a smarmy bellboy sends her off to a nearby clinic. The clinic staff, with no reason to suspect something as dire as smallpox, gives her some medicine to prop her up. And Sheila heads out into the streets for a nightmare of infectious contacts before going home, where her husband has spent her time away canoodling with her sister. Meanwhile a little girl Sheila interacted with at the clinic comes down with a horrible headache, high fever, and rash, sending the clinic staff on a hunt for the cause.

This is a really odd film. The noir plot is serviceable enough, with the husband (played by Charles Korvin) becoming progressively more despicable and leaving double-crosses, suicide, and possible murder in his wake. And the scenes of Sheila wandering around the city unknowingly infecting people are extremely tense, with excellent framing and pacing. The film was shot on location and the real-life New York settings bring a sense of realness and place that anchor the story.

The other part of the film is about issues that are painfully valid right now: diagnosing the mystery illness, contact tracing, mass vaccination campaigns (complete with anti-vaxxers), vaccine shortages and supply-chain issues. It’s framed in documentary style with montages that include footage from 1947 and public-health campaign signs, exposition via long imperious voiceover, and ponderous speeches from actors playing various public health officials. The noir plot disappears for long stretches of time and feels odd and out of place when it comes back. Nothing about the film ever entirely comes together.

Of course it was rough to watch this after nearly a year of being stranded in the middle of a raging pandemic. Many people on the Saturday #NoirAlley hashtag on Twitter tapped out early, saying it was causing them too much anxiety. I did all right with the scenes of infection spread and contact tracing, but started to falter when the vaccine campaigns began, because it’s so painful to know that we had the capacity for this once upon a time and people in power made decisions to prevent us doing this for COVID-19. It also felt like a precursor to Contagion, with similarity in the ordinariness of how the infection spreads, and how the people in public health wrestle with the realization of what they’re dealing with and how to stop it. I have to wonder whether Steven Soderbergh is familiar with this film.

Evelyn Keyes is great in a hard role that requires her to be both a noir femme fatale and a public health menace, balancing the two aspects well enough to remain sympathetic, though the makeup decisions do her no favors. Other standouts are Whit Bissell as her estranged brother, with an amazing scene that has them spitting bile at each other and yet still maintaining a sibling bond, which feels more real than much of the film; and Dorothy Malone, in a small role as a nurse, somehow managing to be sex on heels even in a nurse’s uniform, though she has very little to do after her first scene in the clinic with Sheila. But all the men playing various public officials and health professionals are largely stiff bores, stuck with long speeches and self-righteous anger. Every moment of believable emotion in this movie comes from the female characters, and that, too, feels very relevant right now.

I appreciated the opportunity to see this unusual hybrid and to get a look at how this country handled a dangerous outbreak of a virus 70-plus years ago. But it was a bit of a slog and I’m not sure I’d watch it again.

Fashion recap

I’ve been running a project this past week to dress up and describe my outfits; and while the project is set only for weekdays, I decided that Noir Alley is a good opportunity to go for a kinda-fancy, vintage-inspired outfit each week, since it’s been my only regular Saturday date for the past 11 months and will continue to be for at least the next several months. (I am in the next to last tier for vaccination and don’t expect I’ll get the jab until summer.) And if I’m going to do that, I might as well include it with the weekly recap.

Dress: Unique Vintage
Camisole: Victorian Trading Company
Stockings: GNW tights for Fred Meyer
Shoes: Fluevog Mini Gorgeous
Jewelry: Fred Meyer
Hair flower: bought at Joann, don’t recall the brand
Makeup: Face and eyes Aromaleigh, CoverGirl mascara, LA Splash Golden Gatsby lipstick in Audrey

I decided on this dress not just because of the roughly 1940s silhouette, but because the houndstooth pattern is in line with a theme of checks, plaids, and menswear patterns I did for the weekly project. The cami is because the dress is cut for someone with a much longer shoulder-to-bust ratio than I have and it’s so low-cut that it doesn’t fit correctly on me. (I’m not ashamed of my cleavage, I just think showing off my underpinnings isn’t period correct.) I didn’t do full period-style hair because, honestly, I can’t be bothered to spend that kind of time. When I got to noir city, I take an entire afternoon to do my hair. Saturday night at home in front of the TV, not quite as compelling.

February 2021 Get Out of a Rut Project day 5

I’ve had an outfit planned for today all week. (In fact, it was originally going to happen earlier in the week.) And then I put it on and I disliked it. I disliked it so much that I considered scrapping today. I took some deep breaths and figured out another outfit. That one went so badly that I was briefly in tears and really considered scrapping today. But I gave myself a little time to calm down and looked around my dressing room and decided screw it, it’s Friday, and casualness (if not whimsy) are encouraged. So we end up with an improvised casual-Friday goth outfit instead.

Gray fleece jacket: Soft Surroundings
Black T-shirt: Woodland Park Zoo ZooStore
Black and gray check pants: Torrid
Boots: Fluevog Earl of Warwick Lancaster
Makeup—Aromaleigh unless otherwise stated
Foundation, concealer, undereye: standard
Contour: Insectarium Alucita
Eye shadows: Moth (gray with pink/green interference) and Risque (cool gray satin) (discontinued), MEOW Cosmetics Winter Spirits Sparkling (LE)
Liner: Drama Queen Silver (discontinued)
Mascara: standard
Rouge: Vernal Roses (LE, but Amalasuntha is a re-creation of it)
Highlighter: Luminary (discontinued)
Finishing powder: Orpheus and Eurydice Beloved
Lips: NYX Matte Lipstick Ultra Dare (may be discontinued, but the line still exists) topped with Shimmer Down Lip Veil Goth Love (discontinued)
Earrings: Fred Meyer
Necklace: purchased a few years ago from a vendor at the Mourning Market artisan fair in Seattle
(You also get freshly-washed, still-damp hair that is fairly uncontrollable; I haven’t had a haircut in more than a year and a half.)

How much do I love fleece jackets from Soft Surroundings? So much that I have four (different colors) in this specific style, and two others in different styles, and I’m continually trawling eBay for others. Remember what I said yesterday about the joint need for comfortable and office appropriate? These hit that intersection perfectly.

I’m not normally given to buying T-shirts from attractions, but this one is special. First, it’s absurdly goth, and that alone might have been enough. Second, Woodland Park Zoo is very special to me. I originally became a volunteer there in 2010 (which is when I bought this shirt), and spent a year serving as a keeper’s aide, where I got to make food for red pandas and tiny deer, help weigh swans and southern screamers, and assist in hand-raising of a flamingo chick. It was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life and ultimately led to me changing professional paths into the nonprofit world, as well as other volunteer work with organizations focused on environmental and wildlife conservation. I returned to WPZ as a volunteer in 2015 and am currently a docent with focus in snow leopard conservation, bats, Komodo dragons, and African Savannah and Pacific Northwest ecosystems. Of course, I haven’t actually volunteered in nearly a year; it’s not yet safe to have volunteer educators on grounds. But I will go back eventually, and in the meantime my absurdly goth shirt helps me remember this place I love.

The pants are notable because for a really long time—somewhere in the realm of 15 years—I did not wear pants at all. I had a really hard time finding pants that fit (see my diatribe about fit on day 2 of the project) and I didn’t like how I looked. When I did start wearing them again it was mostly for my volunteer work. But over the last year or so, I’ve stopped feeling quite as negative about I how I look in them. Since last August I’ve bought five pairs, all skinny. Most are from Torrid, which has a lot to do with it—I can be confident that pants from them will fit in the challenging places. They’re still mostly too long, but that’s easier to deal with than the rest of it.

Technically, by the (self-imposed) rules of the project, I’m done for the week; weekends aren’t required. But since I make the rules, something else might happen. If not, though, I’ll be back for the second week of this on Monday 2/8.

February 2021 Get Out of a Rut Project day 4

Today ended up being a day for comfort. I’ve had really wretched sleep for a couple of weeks now, we had storms move in (after a break yesterday) which ramped up some chronic pain issues, and the cold is really getting to me. But I figured comfort could also accommodate a little bit of postpunk.

Cotton cowlneck sweater: Value Village (don’t remember the brand)
Plaid skater skirt: Torrid
Leggings: Carousel Ink (transitioned to Fox Savant but they no longer offer these cotton leggings, alas)
Boots: Fluevog Hopeful Serene
Makeup is Aromaleigh unless otherwise stated
Foundation, concealer, undereye: standard
Countour: Medusa Menagerie Amphisbaena
Eyes: Shadows and liner all discontinued; mascara is standard CoverGirl
Rouge: Goddess of the Month Psyche
Highlighter: Catherine of Aragon Humble & Loyal
Finishing powder: Fatalis Convallaria majalis
Lips: NYX Macaron Chambord (discontinued) over Slim Lip Pencil Black Berry
Heart earrings: A vendor at Norwescon a few years ago, unfortunately can’t recall the name
Necklace: Fred Meyer

This sweater is one of my favorite pieces because it’s soft, not too heavy but still warm, and I really like how it fits, so it’s one of my first choices when I have days where warmth and comfort are primary factors. Leggings are a no-brainer on these days, and I have a variety of knee-length skirts I can wear over leggings. (I’m old school and believe that Leggings Are Not Pants, and I like doing this kind of layering.) I hadn’t consciously intended to go with the plaids & checks theme this week when I started, but when I realized I was doing it I figured I’d carry it through, and picked this cozy sweater-knit plaid.

It’s not the most exciting outfit, so I figured I could spice it up with some callbacks to my postpunk youth, which was supported by the plaid skirt: sparkly contrast-y eyes and black lips, as well as the kinda stompy boots (which are also comfortable–my need for comfort doesn’t stop at shoes). I didn’t feel like going fully matchy with jewelry colors like yesterday, so instead I picked these pieces in silvertone and clear, which are fun and easy to wear.

Truth is, a lot of my wardrobe over the past several years has prioritized comfort. I have several health conditions that can mean chronic pain or weather-related achiness, and when that happens I really want the option for soft, non-restrictive clothing. But I also needed to achieve a degree of appropriate corpgoth for my job back in the days when being in the office every day was a requirement, and I needed to be able to get dressed quickly and easily at crackofdawn o’clock. (I have learned to function early in the morning for a variety of reasons, but I am absolutely not a Morning Person, which also contributes to my chronic pain issues.)

The solution to both of these challenges ended up being a lot of knits: sweaters, jersey dresses and tops, knit skirts with soft waistbands, and leggings. (I own SO MANY pairs of cotton leggings. SO MANY.) So I have a lot of pieces that would give me the option of being stylishly appropriate for the office without sacrificing my need for comfort. And that ends up being a lot of what I wear day to day, even when I’m working from home.

I do have wardrobe pieces that are more obviously or dramatically gothy, and some of them will likely turn up during the course of this project. Today, though, comfort had to take priority. One of the things you get good at when you’re an Eldergoth is figuring out how to reconcile the goth and the elder in a stylish way.

February 2021 Get Out of a Rut Project Day 3

Today I felt like some contrast: Black and white, Victorian lines with strong patterns.

Dress: eShakti
Leggings: Torrid
Boots: Chelsea Crew
Jewelry: April Cornell
Makeup: Face and eyes mostly Aromaleigh
Foundation, concealer, undereye, mascara–all standard
Contour–Insectarium Alucita
Eye shadows all discontinued–Aromaleigh Fume (metallic silver) and Moonlight (pale gray frost), Hard Candy Trash (dark gray)
Finishing powder—Glamoured Avena
Rouge discontinued—Brilliant Deductions Purple Shirt of Sex
Highlighter—Insectarium Diaphora
Lips discontinued–J.Cat Beauty Flash Metal Matte Metallic Sonic Boom

You might have noticed a couple of themes so far. Yes, I do like checks, plaids, and patterns traditionally considered “menswear,” and I like combining those with more traditionally femme influences like Victorianesque silhouettes, lace, and ruffles. While my own style overall is decidedly femme, I’ve always enjoyed playing around with contrasts like this and incorporating harder or more masculine elements. And I enjoy the strong contrast of black and white together, especially when there’s a pattern that’s really bold like in the leggings and the boots. Finally, I wanted to add some additional contrast with the metallic silver eye shadow and the metallic plum lip, contrasted with more subtle tones and finishes.

I also really like cameos. There’s something about the pattern in relief that appeals to my tactile side and my appreciation for both 18th and 19th century fashion. I particularly like the cameos in these pieces since they’re matte and single color. The matte aspect appeals to my tactile side again, while the single color is a contrast to a contrast—they’re going against the contrast in the boots and leggings. Plus it’s another iteration of the softer, more feminine jewelry with the menswear influences.

I don’t typically analyze the foundations of why I choose particular ensembles. I have a mental shorthand that says “I like this and this and this and this all together.” Spending many years collecting the types of pieces I like helps with that, as does a lot of time spent studying the fashion of various historical eras and a tendency to want to break things across strict period lines. I can look at one or two items and readily envision what else I have that would help achieve what I have in mind. It’s a weird skill set and not all that applicable to anything else. But I appreciate my weird skills.

February 2021 Get Out of a Rut Project Day 2

Today was one of my days this month to be onsite at work, which meant getting up an hour earlier than usual, and thus required an outfit that I could put on fairly quickly with minimal effort. I really like the swooshiness and lines of this dress, and with knits underneath it’s a really comfortable and easy outfit.

Silk/cotton turtleneck: Chadwicks
Cotton poplin dress: eShakti (pockets!)
Leggings: Roamans (not really visible but they’re there)
Boots: Miz Mooz
Necklace and earrings: Fred Meyer
Most makeup: Aromaleigh
Foundation Dewdrop 2N (standard)
Concealer Pashmina 1C (standard)
Undereye Illuminata Eye Perfecting Powder
Contour Fatalis Heloderma suspectum
Inner half of eye area Proserpina Windflowers
Outer half of lid and brow bothdiscontinued
Liner
Feast of Lupercal Trivia (LE)
Rouge discontinued
Highlight
Goddess of the Month Cerridwen
Finishing powder Orpheus and Eurydice Beloved
Mascara: CoverGirl LashBlast Waterproof black (standard)
Lipstick: NYX Cosmetics Diamonds & Ice, Please Icon Living (LE)

A note on makeup: I didn’t detail or link anything for the makeup in yesterday’s outfit because most of what I was wearing is no longer available. Today a lot of what I’m wearing is still available so I’m including details and links where possible. Going forward I’ll do that for items that can still be purchased, but after today I won’t list standards like my foundation and mascara unless I do something different.

There was some interesting synchronicity in today’s outfit when I riffed on a Twitter thread about the impossibility of RTW women’s clothing sizing. (Note: at the time I write this the original user’s account is locked, which it was not earlier today, but she was talking about how she has five different T-shirts ranging from L to 2XL that all fit her but are all cut slightly differently.) First I agreed with the originator about how clothing sizes and fit vary so much: In this outfit, the top is an XL in misses’ sizing, the leggings are L in plus sizing, and the dress is a 20 in eShakti’s standard sizing, which doesn’t differentiate and simply goes by a range of consistent measurements for each size. (eShakti fans, hold on, I’ll address that.) It’s simply absurd to have all these different standards and size markers with no consistency of fit.

I do appreciate the malleability of knit fabrics and I wear a lot of them because of that—I have knits I bought three sizes ago that still fit comfortably. And I certainly know what my usual size is from brands I shop frequently. At the same time, though, it’s frustrating to have to know that for so many different manufacturers, and to have to play roulette when I want to try a new brand. And if a brand changes their fit model and sizing scales, all bets are off. Back in the Aughts, items from J. Peterman fit me pretty much perfectly even across sizes, because their fit model worked with my build and their sizing was always consistent; even now, when I’m a larger size than I was then, I can buy certain items used a size or two down and know they’ll still fit. Last decade, though, they changed everything: the fit model is different, the sizing varies among items, and now I can’t ever tell with any certainty if an item that is listed as my current size will indeed fit me.

After the grousing about variability of size markers came the griping about cut. (This is where we get to the eShakti stuff.) One of the reasons I like eShakti is that their standard sizing is reliable. I know that a 20 from them will fit the way I expect…depending on the cut. One of the things eShakti does a lot of is dresses with seamed waists that are set at a specific length. As it happens, I’m long-waisted. And the waist seams on eShakti dresses never fall at my actual waist—they’re always high. I bought a lot of seamed-waist dresses from them before I figured this out. I got this dress second-hand (I don’t remember if it was eBay or thrift store), which I could do because I knew it was the right size, but it was before I figured out the waist seam thing. I think this dress was designed with a high seam based how the shoulders and neckline are designed, and it works okay because of that, but most seamed eShakti dresses put the waist seam squarely in the middle of my rib cage. That’s not a good silhouette, and it’s not comfortable.

“But,” you say, “eShakti offers custom sizing! You can have the waist cut where you want it!” That is true. It also requires getting properly measured in the first place, hoping the measurements don’t change, keeping the measurements handy and entering them when ordering, and being willing to pay the customizing fee every time. And honestly, that’s a lot of work for what is essentially RTW that you can make small changes to.

One of the reasons I like eShakti is that even without choosing the customizing option I can rely on their sizing, and they offer enough non-seamed-waist styles that I can find things that work for me much more often than I can with other manufacturers. And I still wear some of my dresses with seamed waists and just live with the waists riding high, because somebody decided that’s how dresses for fat girls should be cut. (Torrid, I’m looking at you.) I know it’s not realistic to expect a huge variety of cuts from manufacturers living on razor-thin margins and seasonal style changes. I know where not to shop and what styles don’t work on me. But sometimes it’s so frustrating to have to do that, and today’s combo of outfit choice and Twitter conversation gave me opportunity to gripe. So there.

February 2021: Get Out of a Rut Project day 1

Being stuck in a rut right now is hardly surprising, considering that we’re coming up on a year of pandemic isolation. And January made it worse; as someone with seasonal affective disorder, I find January in Seattle, with short days compounded by long stretches of gray rainy weather, to be a major challenge to my capacity to be more than basically functional. I’ve spent a lot more of the past month in pajamas than I care to confess. But I decided at the end of January that I needed to try and kickstart myself into something more than that. Wardrobe stuff is an easy starting point for that. Hence, the start of the Get Out of a Rut project for the month of February.

The basic concept is that I promise to put together a full outfit–including shoes, jewelry, and makeup–each weekday of the month (weekends optional) and post photos to social media. The intent is to keep me accountable for doing it and inspire me to not spend every day in my pajamas. The skills needed to plan and assemble outfits help get my executive function operating steadily, and putting it all together helps my sense of creativity and aesthetic pleasure.

I did this in August last year, when I was hitting six-month fatigue from isolation, and it helped. I didn’t do it consistently in the intervening months because I got busier with work than intended, and the advent of winter and SAD sent my function into a nosedive. But the days are getting longer, there’s some glimmers of hope for mitigating the disaster in the U.S., and I simply got tired of my own schlumpiness. The previous version was done just on Twitter; I decided to do blog posts to go with it this time so I can talk about the details and maybe get in the habit of posting regularly (another thing that has vanished in the nightmare of the past year).

A note about my wardrobe philosophies: I keep things for a long time. Yes, I do buy fast fashion–and then I take good care of it and hold on to it. If I like something and it still fits, I’ll keep it until it starts to fall apart. I also buy a lot of stuff second-hand, through thrift stores and eBay, partly because it can be difficult to find styles I like in my size in retail stores, and partly because I’m cheap and I love the thrill of the hunt. I also buy a fair amount of vintage, limited edition, and indie designers, especially in jewelry. Thus, it’s not all that likely you’ll see things in my outfits that are currently available. But you can see where I shop and get an idea of what inspires me in assembling an outfit. I will link to some of the indie businesses in the text details.

All that tiresome expository introduction over with, here is the outfit for day 1.

Lace mockneck top: Metrostyle
Glen plaid waistcoat: Torrid
Bias seamed wool skirt: J. Peterman
Lace textured socks: Sock Dreams
Shoes: Fluevog Mini Momo
Necklace: BellaLili
Earrings: Art of Adornment
Makeup: all Aromaleigh except lips, which are Wet ‘n’ Wild
Hair (because I know someone will ask): one pack of Splat Lusty Lavender, one pack of Splat Purple Desire, 1/3 bottle of Arctic Fox Purple Rain

I got the inspiration for this outfit years ago, amusingly enough from BelaLili’s old website. She used to photograph her necklaces on a dress form dressed in a frilly high-necked blouse and a glen plaid waistcoat, and I found it to be a charming look. But it took me literally a decade to find a suitable waistcoat; I got this one on eBay a couple of months ago. So when I decided to do this project again, I decided this would be the first outfit.

To be honest, this outfit didn’t work entirely the way I intended. The waistcoat is both shorter and cut lower than I realized, and the first two tops I tried weren’t right with the cut of the waistcoat. BUT I put it all together and I took photos and I’m posting them despite my personal nitpicks, which right now is a success. I’ll go with it.

Sweeping the Fragments Together

Today the term of the 45th President of the United States ended, and the term of the 46th began. The past four years have been a living nightmare that was both exactly as bad as I predicted, and somehow so much worse than I could have imagined. Everything has been so terrible for so long–and we came so perilously close to it not happening–that it was kind of hard to believe it would really take place.

And as it turned out, so much was wonderful. The first moment that caused me tears was, unexpectedly, around jewelry. Many of the attendees at the inauguration chose to wear pearls, in honor of new Vice President Kamala Harris and her favorite accessory, which was charming in itself. But Representative Barbara Lee revealed that she was wearing pearls that had originally belonged to Shirley Chisholm. The story behind this–and that Chisholm was Lee’s mentor, and Lee was Harris’s–was what sent me into tears. I wasn’t expecting to cry over a necklace. (I also appreciate Lee’s mask, covered in butterflies, which symbolize renewal and re-forming. Yes, my hyphenation on that word is deliberate; it’s carrying multiple meanings.)

Then there was the inauguration itself, with the Pledge of Allegiance delivered by a black woman firefighter who also delivered it in ASL as she spoke; with Jennifer Lopez singing a song by a notorious socialist artist and partially in Spanish; with the swearing-in of the first woman/Indian-American/Black American to be Vice President; and with the new President’s inaugural address, which condemned the racism, fascism, and criminality of his predecessor’s administration, including using the words “white supremacy” more than once, while also talking about the need to repair all the damage done and deep empathy for the suffering of the people he is now sworn to serve. And it was capped off by the reading from Amanda Gorman, the Youth Poet Laureate, who delivered the soaring, luminous, ambitious rhetoric and grand vision in her words (which were inspired by the failed coup carried out just two weeks earlier) that Biden knew better than to attempt himself.

And then there was a somber, respectful visit to the Tomb of the Unknowns, acknowledging Biden’s solemn responsibility as Commander in Chief and his understanding of the weight of that role. And Harris, in her first action as vice president, swearing in two new Democratic senators from Georgia, that state that gave Democrats both the Presidency and the Senate. And joyous walks down Pennsylvania Avenue, despite the ferocious security and presence of fences and tanks everywhere, as Biden and Harris had their families accompany them to their new workplaces. And Biden signing a raft of Executive Orders as his first acts, trying to turn back some of the damage. All of this was good and uplifting and infused with hope, something that hasn’t felt possible in a long time. I am so grateful that we have a new administration with competent, serious public servants who care about the country, not their own selfishness and narcissism.

But today has also been terrible, because I’m so traumatized by the past four years. When I learned that the previous president’s nuclear codes had been deactivated, I couldn’t speak or breathe for several seconds. As a GenXer, I carry the trauma of 1980s nuclear-armageddon threat, and the revival of that threat during the Trump admin has caused me deep panic; I’ve worried pretty much every moment since the election that he would choose to exercise that option out of his petulant, aggrieved narcissism.

Then I didn’t know how to react to the Bidens hugging and showing deep emotion before they walked into the White House. After four years of people whose only emotions were greed, anger, and self-aggrandizement, seeing a family that is genuinely loving and genuinely grateful and moved by the momentous thing they’ve achieved was difficult to process and upsettingly confusing.

I started crying when Biden told his agency appointees that they are expected to be respectful and decent to the people they work with, and thanked them for their willingness to join his admin and work very hard. This was unheard of in the preceding admin, and it seemed so rare and so alien in comparison.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki opened the first press briefing by thanking the journalists, saying how honored she is to be doing this, and emphasizing that truth and accuracy are the admin’s goals when talking to the media. She answered all the questions she was asked, didn’t lie or make up nonsense, and was respectful to everyone she spoke to. And she ended by saying she looked forward to doing it again. I teared up multiple times and had multiple “OMG WE’RE DOING THIS AGAIN” moments, because it all seemed so novel after the past four years.

None of this should be making me feel like that, because these kinds of things should be normal. But for four years we’ve experienced a presidential administration that gleefully destroyed all our norms and much of our day to day life; that harmed marginalized people of all types; that did everything imaginable to strip our rights; that engaged in grotesque corruption and graft out in the open; that destroyed relationships with countless nations and made us vastly less safe; that eagerly courted the support and violence of white supremacists and fascists; that gaslighted us about everything; and that allowed a deadly pandemic to rage unabated causing the worst death event and biggest existential crisis of our lifetime. And we also had Republican legislators who gladly enabled it all, capping it all with an actual coup that only barely failed. For four years, that was our “normal.”

We have been damaged by all of this, and that damage leaves trauma. That trauma makes it difficult to stop reacting to good things and things that should be normal as if they are instead potential harms, and creates significant emotional confusion and ambivalence.

On the day that it was confirmed Biden had the necessary electoral votes, I told friends that I felt relieved, but not necessarily happy, very much how I felt when my abusive relationship ended. I feel much the same today. I don’t know how to react to good and ordinary things now occurring. I can’t yet trust that the abuse and gaslighting is over. I feel conflicted about reacting with tears and mixed emotions. And I’m very, very tired. This is what trauma does. And I’m guessing I’m nowhere near being alone in having this trauma.

Biden wasn’t my choice for this role, but it’s who we got. And I still believe fervently that we have to push him unceasingly to make him hold to the more progressive things he’s said and get him to move further left. But I think he understands really deeply how much the trauma of these four years has harmed the people of this country, and he cares about helping us get through it. I saw that in the things that he and his administration did today that are so profoundly normal and reassuring. And in that regard, he might actually be the right person for this moment.

Noir City: Day 4

Day 4 was kind of a grab bag, with films from multiple countries. We chose two films that featured very famous stars in early roles.

A Woman’s Face: From 1938, this film features Ingrid Bergman before she went to Hollywood. Already a star in Sweden, she wanted the opportunity to play a less-glamorous role and stretch her skills. This mesh of noir ideas with a romantic drama was the result, and it seems to have achieved what she was after—well enough that Hollywood remade the film a few years later with Joan Crawford.

Bergman plays a woman left disfigured by a childhood tragedy. With her options limited by her disfigured face, she has become hard and bitter, driven to taking part in blackmail schemes to get by, with the hope that wealth might ease the emptiness she feels. On a mission to squeeze as much money as possible out of one target, she ends up getting caught; but the person who catches her makes a choice to offer her kindness, and a path towards changing her life. This one choice provides her a new identity, new opportunities, and the discovery of what warmth and love can mean. But the ties to her old life are still there and threaten what she’s built.

Eddie Muller argued that this film isn’t really a noir—“too much redemption for my taste,” he said, citing the happy-life and romance elements it contains. But the setup for this story isn’t all that different from noir classic Kiss of Death: a criminal is given a second chance and finds the happiness they crave, but it’s threatened by their criminal past. The only thing we’re really debating is the framing, and I feel like saying this isn’t really noir because the framing is more about a realm of stereotypically female-focused elements is, well, not the most thoughtful position in this context.

American noir tends to be hard-boiled, sure. But that’s not a requirement, particularly when working with conventions of another culture. The redemptive elements in this film (particularly Anna’s final choices) are very Scandinavian, reflecting a utilitarian viewpoint that looks at a broader view of a person’s life and the impact one has on others. A Swedish noir isn’t going to look like the American version no matter what. And I appreciated seeing a noir story that came from this cultural viewpoint, and that centered a woman’s choices.

As to the draw of Ingrid Bergman, she’s fine in this movie, but she was only 22 and it’s clear she wasn’t yet fully in control of her craft. Too much of her characterization as the bitter disfigured version of Anna revolves around spitting her lines and smoking furiously, using markers rather than a sense of personality. In other parts of the film she’s over the top in strong emotion, not yet fully confident in commanding her voice and her abilities. It’s astonishing that Casablanca was only four years after this one; her abilities grew enormously in such a short time.

Never Let Go: This 1960 British film builds a noir story on the conventions of the kitchen-sink drama. The owner (played by Peter Sellers in an early and very rare dramatic role) of a garage runs a chop shop on the side, hiring young bikers to steal cars that are given new tags and papers to be resold. They steal a car belonging to a cosmetics salesman (Richard Todd), who is distraught at the loss; living on the edge of solvency, he made an expensive investment in the car as a bid to improve life for himself and his family. He becomes obsessed with recovering his stolen car, which puts him up against the garage owner, who is equally invested in hiding his side hustle and maintaining his own appearance of respectability. These conflicting goals cascade into increasingly violent circumstances that ripple beyond just the two men.

This is a really well-structured noir thriller. Todd’s character’s obsession with the car and his recklessness in pursuing it have drastic consequences for his life, but he’s so focused on the car as an icon of improving his situation that he can’t see beyond that…which means that he doesn’t grasp how dangerous Sellers’ character is. He also can’t understand that the interest of the police investigating the case is to break the car-theft ring, not merely get his individual car back; this leads him to undercut their efforts for his own specific goal. He won’t listen to his wife and he makes unbelievably foolish choices at work while trying to manage the stress of the search for the car. (One of the most shocking moments isn’t an act of violence, but when he insults a salon manager who refuses to grant him an appointment because he was an hour late.) And he also endangers others in his overwhelming obsession.

The cast is all good, but Sellers is extraordinary. His public face is sharp clothes and careful details, unction with a toothy tight smile, surface-level accommodating to the police and insisting that he runs a “legitimate business,” a phrase he returns to with increasing urgency as the plot unfolds. Behind the public face is a dangerous predator, ferociously controlling every tiny detail around him (including things like scolding his young mistress for not using a coaster on the expensive console table) and just enough violence (as much emotional as physical) to keep people cowering and in thrall. As Todd’s character continues to press on the stolen car, Sellers’ control of his world starts to come apart: his exquisitely detailed apartment becomes messy, he doesn’t shave, he stops paying attention to his careful wardrobe. And as his control comes apart, his violence increases. It’s a fantastic, terrifying performance, and while certainly unexpected for the time (when he was entirely known as a comedian), it captures the sense of emotional violence that often lurked under his comedy (and was, by all accounts, present in his private life).

But the thing that made me truly love this film, the reason I’m going into so much detail, is that it is a feast of class issues in the rapidly-changing culture of late 1950s/early 1960s Britain, which is what cements the noir feel of it. This isn’t merely a clash of law-abiding vs. criminal; it’s a clash of regional cultures and stereotypes that inform everyone’s behavior.

Todd’s character and his wife are ostensibly middle-class Londoners and should be living comfortably; but they’re hanging on by a thread and his choices are compounding the problem. His issues at work are embodied by a younger colleague who is dressed more sharply, has a more posh accent, and is adopting new sales methods that rely on data rather than personal connection. The social upheaval of this era stranded many people who thought they had a comfortable place in the world.

Sellers’ character is a Northerner (the accent dances weirdly between Merseyside and Yorkshire, but is definitely from the northwestern part of England), a demographic that is typically derided by middle and upper class London as thick, uncultured, and suitable only for rough labor; this means he has to work extra hard to overcome the stereotype. Thus the public image of expensive clothes and trappings and the carefully controlled details, along with the insistence that he runs a “legitimate business,” even as he’s leveraging the benefits of criminal activity to support his lifestyle and image. His resentment at being treated as a criminal (even though he is one) arises in part because of the way he is boxed in by where he came from.

His employees are mostly East Enders, locked out of the good life by their upbringing and accents, yet ubiquitous in manual trade in London, their value to the day to day operation of life made invisible by their class. The mistress of Sellers’ character is also from this demographic and dialogue indicates that she was an orphan who ran away from care; she’s the definition of someone discarded by society, unwanted because of her class, her family status, and her gender. She’s attached herself to Sellers’ character because she has little to offer aside from her beauty and her willingness to give up her body; he accepts her despite her drawbacks because her youth and beauty support the image he seeks, and he offers her a measure of physical comfort, which she pays for by surrendering much of her autonomy. She naturally gravitates towards one of the young thieves, because they have more in common due to both age and background, and because he offers her respite from the garage owner’s violence; and when the salesman and his wife show her kindness and treat her with dignity, it changes her approach to the world.

Finally, the kids in the bike gang, clearly intended to evoke the Teddy Boys and Mods, are presented as rowdy, undisciplined, and threatening to “good” people (like the protagonist), even though part of their behavior arises from the limited options available to them as lower-class kids. They are trying to find their space in a world that has made decisions about their vale solely because of where they came from; their rejection of who they are supposed to be based on their class is part of what makes them threatening.

A good noir story will work even without a rich context like this. But this foundation of class conflicts and challenges provides an additional level of story that makes everyone’s choices more understandable and more sympathetic—even Sellers’ monstrous criminal. I spent this film feeling like I was chewing on the most satisfying meal, reveling in the sociology used to underpin this tense story. This was a real discovery for me and I’m thrilled to have seen it.

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Noir City: Day 3

Day 3 was all Japanese 1960s gangster films that also crossed over into noir. I have a long-standing love for Japanese gangster/detective films generally; there is something about the style of these, the way they break the conventions of Japanese propriety while still exploring Japanese mores, that I find extremely compelling. So three of these films, of wildly different tone and style, was really a feast.

A Colt is My Passport: This film is fairly famous in the U.S. but somehow I’d never encountered it before. It’s a moody, atmospheric story of a hitman’s existential challenges that also contains a couple of the most wildly-imagined shootouts I’ve seen. A hitman (the legendary chipmunk-cheeked Joe Shishido, a.k.a. “Joe the Ace”) is commissioned to take out the boss of a rival gang, but the way he chooses to do it angers his own gang as well as the rivals. When their escape plan falls apart, he and his apprentice are sent to a small seaside town to hide out until things cool off, unaware that agreements are underway that will make them collateral losses in a larger plan. They find unexpected allies in the truckers and ship workers, as well as a young woman with a story of her own.

The story here is fairly straightforward; the joy is all in the telling. The film synthesizes a number of other film elements of the time, including nouvelle vague camerawork and story structure, spaghetti western blocking and closeups as well as music (love the flamenco-flavored jazz on the soundtrack), and the “doomed protagonist running out of time” conventions of American noir, all expressed with uniquely Japanese style. The way all of the gang members show up everywhere in sharp suits, no matter the setting, emphasizes Japanese propriety and the importance of role and status. The use of many natural elements like birds, insects, and the waves and wind in the hitman’s decisions call to mind aspects of classical Japanese poetry and Shinto. And the final confrontation, rightly notorious, is over the top, absurd, and yet perfectly in tune with the rest of the film.

Is it noir? It’s noir enough for my purposes. The overall tone is right, and the sense of racing to beat impending doom along with betrayal certainly fits. Even Mina, the woman who brings her own backstory to her interactions with the gangsters, is well in line with the tradition of complex noir dames, including holding on to her agency and refusing to be intimidated. I might not have considered this a noir film if I’d seen it outside this context. But in this context, it’s a great fit.

Branded to Kill: This was the film that made be bounce and clap my hands in glee when I saw it in the listing for this year’s Noir City. I’m an unabashed fan of the deliberate chaotic weirdness of Seijun Suzuki’s films, and my introduction to his work was Tokyo Drifter, so seeing another gangster pic from him, in this context, was a joy. And it also meant introducing my spouse to Suzuki, on a big screen, which couldn’t be better.

There is theoretically a plot to this but it’s not all that important. Joe Shishido is our star again, and again playing a hitman, though this time far more dramatically than in the previous film. There’s a framework of a legendary “ranking” of hitmen with everyone desiring to be No. 1. And there’s an instigating incident when our protagonist encounters a mysterious woman who hires him to carry out a highly specific, absurdly difficult hit. But everything around that is just surreal, delightful weirdness.

There’s a hugely dramatic story surrounding the existence of this film, built on the notion that Suzuki didn’t have the resources to make a coherent, saleable movie, and ended up being fired for his inability to deliver. But c’mon. There’s nothing unintentional in this film, and Suzuki always did just what he wanted to do. There’s a lot of deliberate surrealism, timelines broken out of all coherence, avant garde camera work, and over the top performances. It’s highly (almost comically at points) symbolist, and it includes elements I’ve seen in other Suzuki films referring to the conventions of traditional Japanese theater styles. And sometimes it’s just funny and dumb, because it can be. All films about hitmen are fundamentally existentialist and wrangling with the presence of mortality, which is something they have in common with many typical noir concepts. Very few such films are as deliberately outlandish as this one, though.

Did I enjoy it? Of course I did. I find Suzuki’s films exhilarating in their weirdness, even when they don’t totally work (which is often, and which this one doesn’t in several points). There is real joy in watching an artist throw out all expectations and make something weird; and while you might not like or agree with Suzuki’s choices, he was always very good at what he was doing even if the result was chaos. He’s one of the best examples of an artist who understands his form well enough to break the hell out of it. You should finish a Suzuki film alternately laughing manically and with a headache from the bizarreness.

Oh yeah, and it was a successful introduction for my spouse. At multiple points I caught him grinning and giggling gleefully. So there will be a trip to Scarecrow Video for Tokyo Drifter and Pistol Opera, at minimum, in the near future.

Pale Flower: Going from Suzuki’s chaotic existential carnival ride to the quiet, measured melancholy of this film was a big shift; but it was also an excellent demonstration that the genre can contain so many styles. Another hitman story, another mysterious woman, another reckoning with mortality, this time in a way that asks the viewer to travel into the loneliness of this life.

This time our hitman is recently out of prison for a previous killing. In the time he’s been away his gang has formed an alliance with the gang he killed a member of, which leaves him uncertain of where he fits in. Drifting into a gambling session, he encounters a young woman who bets recklessly and intrigues him with her sensation-seeking approach to her existence, even as he struggles to figure out the meaning of his own life.

There’s an unexpected delicacy to this film, even though there’s nothing delicate in the story or characters. Every moment feels achingly evanescent, framed in gorgeous use of light and shadow and camerawork that emulates the way people look at each other and around them. The soundtrack builds the music on the sounds of the actions onscreen, like the clicking of gambling tiles and the betting call of the dealer, the rhythm of city trains and cars on city streets, the actions of people eating and drinking. The performances are measured and slightly opaque; we aren’t meant to know exactly what the characters are thinking, and it contributes to the sense of loneliness that suffuses the film. Despite this, I didn’t find it depressing or nihilistic; it’s more of a meditation on how we find meaning in our existence, and how we deal with the consequences of our choices. This is a genuinely lovely expression of this eternal search, and an essential noir concept.

This was an unreservedly excellent day of screenings, and gave me new ways of thinking about the idea of noir.

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