We have a three-day weekend here in California, in honor of the holiday called Columbus Day (traditionally), Indigenous People’s Day (in Berkeley and elsewhere), and Exploration Day (according to a group of scientists who are petitioning the government for an official name-change). It’s a good opportunity to catch up on some long-form reading. Here are three pieces I recommend.
“Villager and Me” is Andrea Lee’s reminiscence—sparked by an encounter with an ad in a 1969 issue of The New Yorker—of the “proto-preppie” women’s fashion brands Villager and Ladybug. “Up and down the East Coast,” Lee writes, “in that American provincial period before the invasion of international brands, before ‘Love Story’ had graven the word ‘preppie’ into the national consciousness, boarding-school girls and country-club wives swathed themselves in Ladybug and Villager. Until, of course, the zeitgeist swept them off to become hippies.”
A typical Villager dress—which I remember well from my own West Coast girlhood—looked like this:
“Rustling softly downwards, like the quality of mercy…”
The clothes were demure, but the ad copy and color names could cause an impressionable girl to swoon with desire. The real story here, though, is about the man behind Villager and Ladybug, Max Raab, “a brilliant mercurial Jewish Philadelphian, son of a garment manufacturer whose ambition was to make the cheapest blouse in town.” Here’s Lee on Raab:
A lifetime maverick with a passion for jazz and movies, Raab flunked out of high school, fought in the Korean war, pumped gas, delivered mail, and sold televisions and Fuller brushes before coming up with the idea that made his—first—fortune. I like to imagine that he built the Villager and Ladybug concept on his wistful outsider’s view of the style Philadelphia débutantes were after when they borrowed their boyfriends’ Oxford cloth shirts. By the time I was mooning over the ads, there were over a hundred Villager shops with rustic wooden floors nationwide, and his line of upscale feminine sportswear had earned a hundred and forty million dollars. “I know women better than they know themselves ” Raab said in a New York Times interview. “The Waspy girls all want that country look, and the Jewish girls want to look like the Wasps. I knew I had a winner.”
Raab enjoyed “a long, sublimely quirky career” that included producing out-of-the-mainstream movies such as A Clockwork Orange. (Lee: “When I read that, I just sat for a minute imagining Shetland cardigans and A-line skirts mingling in his brain with Malcolm McDowell and his droogs.”) When he died, in 2008, Raab was working on a film about Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya.
Andrea Lee used to contribute regularly to The New Yorker; this article—online only—is the first writing of hers I’ve seen in quite a while. More, please!
In a very different elegiac vein is this interview in The Awl with the writer Fran Lebowitz, who achieved meteoric success in the late 1970s and has been famously afflicted with writer’s block—but not talker’s block—ever since. If you’ve seen the 2010 HBO documentary about her, Public Speaking, you’ll be familiar with some of the territory covered in the Q&A—in particular, the gay culture of the 1970s and the effect of the AIDS epidemic on the New York arts audience. Lebowitz is so quotable that it’s hard to pick just one excerpt, but I’ll try: “The memories of people are very short. As we know, because otherwise we certainly wouldn't still have Republicans in office.”
The British author and journalist Steven Poole is fed up with the cult of foodism. Poole’s excellent rant in the Guardian (UK), “Let’s Start the Foodie Backlash,” is an excerpt from his new book, You Aren’t What You Eat; in it, he takes on “food raves,” “feastivals,” cooking shows, and the language of menus:
It is an interesting question, meanwhile, why the word “baby” in menu descriptions does not disgust us. Surely the last things we want to eat are babies. But perhaps once we are lulled into an imaginative world where a “baby” lamb or the “baby” queen scallop can be “resting” (in the scallop’s case, resting itself on another baby, this time a “baby gem”, since vegetables too – baby carrots, baby greens – can share in the general babyhood of all nice things, and participate in tottering towers of babies all stacked up for our gastric enjoyment), we are cocooned in such a euphemistic dream that the incipient act of putting these “baby” organisms into our mouths doesn’t register as the horrific dissonance it otherwise might.
Poole traces the word “foodie” back to 1982 and “foodist” to the late 19th century—for hucksters selling fad diets, “which is quite apt,” he tartly observes.