Farewell and bye-bye to Roloff Beny, the Ideal Negro, Vogue, Jackie Onassis, Fire and Ice lipstick, the liberal ethic and filet de boeuf à la jardinière
REQUIEM FOR THE HIGH LIFE
Farewell and bye-bye to Roloff Beny, the Ideal Negro, Vogue, Jackie Onassis, Fire and Ice lipstick, the liberal ethic and filet de boeuf à la jardinière
One day last spring I was standing in the reception area of a fashionable hairdresser's in midtown Toronto
waiting to pay my bill ($12 for a stark haircut that made me look exactly like one of the Presbyterian aunts I’d spent most of my life avoiding looking like) and ahead of me in the line was this very slick, chic lady of maybe 38 or so, dressed exactly as such a lady should be when she is going to spend the morning at the hairbender’s (that’s what chic ladies call all those rickety, cheeky Cockney boys who’ve taken over big-time women’s barbering in the last half decade) and then on to luncheon with an old friend from school and maybe a meeting of the women’s committee of the symphony. She was wearing a beautifully cut midi coat and dark stockings and a Kenneth Jay Lane bracelet and the kind of tan you get in Acapulco when your husband feels he just has to get away in that dreary time between the skiing and the sailing, and her hair was pale and perfect.
While the cashier was ringing up her $25 bill (pale and perfect costs more than stark and Presbyterian), she stood looking idly out the window. At that moment, passing in the street, was a couple in their late teens or early twenties, the kind of kids the chic lady doubtless calls hippies, though the way things are going now with kids they may very well have been graduate students in aerodynamics for all I know.
The boy had a lot of hair tied back with a leather thong and one of those Iranian embroidered skin vests and very narrow hips and jeans that did them proud and the girl looked like some kind of curly Pre-Raphaelite madonna in a long wool challis dress with a lot going on underneath that obviously had nothing to do with lingerie. She was sucking an orange and licking the overflow juice from her fingers, and he was holding on to the wrist of her other arm and laughing at her, and they both looked happy or sensually aware, as the Gestalt therapists call it — in any case, as though it was pretty good to be 19 or 21 and with no underwear in the sunshine in late April. The chic lady turned abruptly away from the window and I caught a glimpse of her in the mirror behind the cashier and she was touching her hair with a little rapid patting gesture and in her eyes was this unmistakable look of fear, a kind of o-my-god-why-hast-thou-forsaken-me? look, her god being Good Taste or something like that.
The whole incident didn’t take any more than a minute
but it was a pretty important minute for me because it left me wanting to rush out and phone somebody and say, “Listen, I think I’ve just been witnessing the death of slick.”
Now you may be too young, or too intellectually rarefied or too resolutely plain-Canadian, to care that slick was once alive let alone that it lies dying. But to a certain group of people who grew up in the Fifties (tastemakers, the ad men who merchandised slick used to call them, though the word made the slick wince), who had a certain kind of education and a certain set of aspirations, slick was not just a phenomenon of dress, it was an enveloping sensibility, a way of looking at life.
The sensibility of any era is always difficult to define.
It goes beyond fashion, beyond politics, beyond social history, though it takes all of these into account and synthesizes them into standards that those at the top of the society achieve and those who are moving up through the society envy and try to emulate. Throughout the Fifties and part of the Sixties what most people wanted to be was slick, though they probably called it sophisticated or elegant. (It was neither. Slick was a middle-class interpretation of elegance; it was attainable by anybody who had enough money and could learn the rules. It wasn’t sophisticated because there were rules.)
Slick was strictly an American phenomenon. Europeans disdained it for the most part and held fast to their own real elegance that had been 1,000 years evolving. Canadians got it as a spillover so that the women who roamed Bloor Street in the Fifties and Sixties didn’t have an indigenous slick style but wanted to look as though they could be walking on upper Fifth Avenue or crossing Park at 57th. (Of course, counter-slick, the sensibility of the New Age, the kind of thing you can see pictured on the next three pages, is also an American spillover. It comes out of street theatre and the anti-war movement and Abbie Hoffman and Black Power and it hasn’t very much to do with Canadian realities even though it parades on every main street in every city and town in the country.)
Slick as a sensibility had its beginnings in the Twenties when it played a valid role in American life. It represented a coming of age of America after the First World War, a moving away from the turgid provincialisms and rigid concepts of Society that had dominated the U.S. in the
FIVE AND DIME CHIC
Shed no tears for the passing of slick. Jackie Onassis is content with her little corner of history. Roloff Beny will continue to find civilization in ruins far from Medicine Hat. The question is: do we care anymore? For every idea whose time has passed another comes to take its place. Consider the girl’s costume above. It’s fashioned entirely from stuff bought at Woolworth’s. The dress is made of velvet souvenir pillow slips, the necklace is a Corticelli shoelace which supports the finest of mothballs (25 cents), the bracelet a Hartz Mountain cat collar with optional bell (59 cents). For every Dior in decline there is a kid on the street creating original fashions. For them clothes have become an opportunity to project the most private of styles. Their clothes are their personal, public-address systems. As Charles Reich says, “Costumes raise existential questions for the person wearing them.” Could be. But for such veteran five-and-dime shoppers as the lady in the background they raise other kinds of questions.
If you are what you eat, Fiorenza Drew was not a hot-beef sandwich with mashed and gravy. She may very well have been a filet de bœuf à la jardinière and that shows you how times have changed. In the ambience of youth culture filet de bœuf might be a great name for a pet hamster, but a pretty corny thing to eat. Every style has its implicit rules. Slick could not have endured without support from the rich. Being poor was not amusing. Now (power to the people, etc.) poor is okay. It is especially okay when it is a middle-class attitude rather than a lower-class reality. The rule is, food must be not only cheap but good. The people (cabdrivers, Ronnie Hawkins, etc.) go to the Tops Restaurant in Toronto because it is open 24 hours a day, you don’t need reservations and the food is real good. Part-owner Phil Feder (above) will sell you the meal he stands behind for $2.70. The tip is up to you. If you are what you eat, then Mr. Feder is a hot-beef sandwich with mashed and gravy. Power to Mr. Feder!
This is where Gerald MacAdam, a Toronto artist, and his friend Regan Fleming, a model, sit down for breakfast each morning. It is the kitchen of their Spadina district flat and is designed to drive an interior decorator mad. There is no room in the slick world (except maybe in the attic of the country house) for junk. Ever since California artist Ed Kienholz used things other people threw away to make art objects, junk has had an increasing vogue among young people. Many a pad in the hip community is decorated by furnishings found in garbage cans and recycled objects from such funky institutions as the Salvation Army and Crippled Civilians. As one officer of the Salvation Army put it: “A lot of young people buy our furniture because they don’t mind it being old. Older people prefer something newer. It’s the older people who are ashamed to admit they shop at the Salvation Army.” Salvation is all in the eye of the beholder. So, Power to Woolworth’s! Power to Mr. Feder! And Power to the Sally Ann!
Nineties and the early 1900s. It was the evolution of the jazz age, it was the morganatic marriage of American insouciance with European aristocratic insolence, it was café society killing real society, the coming of a form of meritocracy (if you were talented and socially acceptable, like Richard Rodgers, say, you could be an important part of the world of slick but if you were talented and a shade déclassé, like Frank Sinatra, you couldn’t). But slick didn’t really become the prevailing sensibility in North American life until the Fifties when it had hardened into a lot of meaningless rules and affluence allowed it to blanket the urban and suburban reaches of the continent. It probably achieved its peak at the end of that decade when the Kennedys got to the White House. (The slickest thing anybody ever saw may very well have been Jackie Kennedy on the night before Inauguration, dressed by Oleg Cassini, on her way to the Inaugural Gala in a lighted limousine, as recorded by Arthur Schlesinger. Remember, “It all began in the cold ...”?)
Which brings us to a curious anomaly — that you could be slick and liberal at the same time. (Though you couldn’t, of course, be slick and poor. Slick, after all, was firmly rooted in money.) In truth, liberalism was a slick philosophy; it had a set of rules, an acceptable terminology that allowed its adherents to recognize each other, it was comforting to the fearful and it had very little to do with what was actually going on.
But all this is too solemn. It turns slick into pseudosociology, a way it never was. Perhaps .slick is best defined in terms of the things that actually were slick:
Slick was wearing strapless red velvet and a diamond necklace or black silk and three strands of pearls and knowing you looked exactly right.
Slick was saying things were “in faultless taste.”
Slick was driving obviously expensive cars like Lincolns and Cadillacs without feeling in the least embarrassed.
Slick was Vogue under the editorship of Diana Vreeland, which served as the slick bible and was widely and imperfectly copied.
Slick was engineered breasts, pearl earrings, Fire and Ice lipstick painted on with a brush, alligator bags, blacktie dinners and believing Ralph Bunche was the ideal Negro.
Slick was spike heels, Porthault sheets and lacquered mannequins like Dorian Leigh and Wilhelmina, who were photographed unsmiling and unattainable in furs in front of large houses with circular drives.
Slick was calling the movies “the flicks” and saying actually you preferred “going to the theatre” and quoting old aphorisms from Somerset Maugham as though they were Truth. (“You can’t expect marriage to be amusing. If it were, the law wouldn’t protect it and the church wouldn’t sanctify it.”)
Slick was listening to Cole Porter being played on a piano in a cocktail bar on a hotel rooftop in the early evening in October.
Slick was never saying your grandfather came to Canada steerage with an immigrant tag pinned on his coat. In Canada, the world of social slick and showbiz slick never, ever mixed — nobody could imagine Fiorenza Drew talking to Joyce Davidson, though Roloff Beny did a masterly job of introducing the homegrown socially slick to slick people of all stripes abroad.
Slick was being impressed by the description, “She always looks as though she just stepped out of a bandbox.” Slick for men was not wearing colored shirts after five o’clock and never appearing in suede shoes in town in case you might be mistaken for an actor or for someone who worked for the CBC.
Slick was sex without sweat, as with Gregory Peck
and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.
Slick was knowing and caring that champagne should be served in tulip glasses.
Slick was an ad for face powder that featured a woman in a tiara in a gold coach (jewels by Cartier, the cutline read) that said in effect, you, too, can be a princess or look like one. And Grace Kelly really did become the Princess of Slick though Jackie Kennedy was later its Queen.
Slick was pretending you often ate filet de bœuf à la jardinière and that you liked œufs en gelée better than a toasted Western with ketchup.
Slick was owning a designer’s signature scarf, always wearing white for tennis, paying $400 for a copy of a Paris original and taking holidays in Greece before Diners’ Club and the Colonels got there.
Slick started out innocent with slumming in Harlem in the Twenties and ended up naïve with Black Panthers in Leonard Bernstein’s living room.
On that last point, it might even be argued that a study of the factors that have come together to kill slick would define it far better negatively than anyone ever could define it positively. During the last four or five years, slick has been savaged from within and without. For one thing, it became so accessible through magazine articles and howto books that women from Scarsdale, and even Forest Hill and West Vancouver, could understand it perfectly and emulate it successfully. As a result, the avant-garde of slick was forced more and more into abandoning “good” taste for camp taste or pop taste and into trying to take over the self-consciously lumpen proletariat enthusiasms of the very young — enthusiasms that were really so alien to slick they couldn’t be encompassed. (People who believe slick can survive are still trying to do this; they were selling blue denim in the old expensive slick New York stores this summer for $115 for a skirt and jacket.)
Far more important to slick’s demise, though, was that the young stopped believing in it and started saying things like “Let it be” (slick never let anything be) and started realizing that it was wrong to go around sad-mouthing it about the ghettos while wearing a Mainbocher, that it was right to want to look like yourself instead of some unbelievably perfect Beautiful Person, that bad taste could be good taste if it meant I-put-it-together-myself taste. In brief, the young robbed the slick of an essential response: envy.
This is not to say, of course, that there aren’t a few ghosts of slick around. The Nixons are the prototypes of the kind of people who’ve taken over slick and reduced it to its knees. (Truman Capote’s masked ball at the Plaza was the last great slick event, done with a certain sly and campy grace. But Trida Nixon’s wedding, which was obviously meant to be slick, by its naïve public espousal of all those dear dead principles turned into a piece of pure camp slick. The moribund nature of slick showed up in the reportage of that wedding. Only the most banal of the established newspapers and magazines even attempted to treat it seriously. The non-established press indulged itself in joyful sniggering, as with Rolling Stone, which titled its report, The Making Of The President’s Daughter.) It may just be that poor Tricia will be written into history as a terrible example of the generation that falls between the two sensibilities of slick and non-slick. To be truly slick, you almost had to have been born before World War II. To be truly, unselfconsciously non-slick you have to have been born after 1950.
One last definition. Slick in its latter days was degraded by writers who took a subject of sophistic complexity and turned it into a magazine article of glib generality. Like this one. ■
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