Past is present (again)

Three new fashion books by Thames & Hudson – about the legendary milliner Paulette, photographer William Helburn and the incomparable Yves Saint Laurent – take readers on a stroll down Memory Lane (or perhaps we should say, the Memory Runway).

Reading them in chronological order turns the reader into an armchair archeologist, peeling away the strata of the 20th century, although instead of sifting through pottery fragments and bits of bone, you strip away layers of tulle, lace and silk.  Here, however, our impressions of decades past are formed not by the actual clothes and accessories but through the scrims of photographs, sketches and reminiscences.

This is particularly true in the recently released “Hats by Madame Paulette: Paris Milliner Extraordinaire” (160 pages, 141 illustrations, 35 in color, $50). With its mauve endpapers, pink chapter introductions, frameable sketches and photographs by the likes of Cecil Beaton and Robert Doisneau, “Hats by Madame Paulette” is as elegant as a Madame Paulette capeline. And what capelines (picture hats), scull caps and signature turbans she created – feathered and festooned with fur, jewels and bows; swirling and soaring like a soft-serve ice cream cone, or a Baroque apotheosis. The text by Annie Schneider, Paulette’s daughter-in-law, paints a charming but uncompromising portrait of a charming but uncompromising woman who was taken to task in convent school for snipping overwhelming white satin rosettes off her school chums’ hats (as well as her own) in a gesture of independence and, no doubt, good taste.

The grownup Paulette would take flowers, fake fruits, tulle and veils to new heights – and lows, literally. (Some of her turbans cascaded, swathing the neck in ’40s film-noir, femme-fatale style.) Like all great designers, she possessed the qualities of the sculptor and the theatrical director. Even if you don’t know her name – her career lasted from the 1920s to the early ’80s – you know her work. Those are her hats, based on drawings by Cecil Beaton, that crown Leslie Caron in “Gigi” and Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady.”

“Of course, in this day and age, hats do not enjoy the status and importance they once did,” milliner Stephen Jones writes in the book’s foreword. “That role is fulfilled by handbags.”

Still, Paulette’s creations give credence to his observation that “…nothing else is quite as evocative of a time and place as a hat, nothing as striking and, crucially, nothing as personal.”

By the time William Helburn became the go-to photographer for the New York publishing and advertising worlds in the “Mad Men” era, hats were on the wane, done in by big hair and anything-goes mores. As Robert Lilly writes in “William Helburn: Seventh and Madison, Fashion and Advertising Photography at Mid-Century” (Nov. 11, 224 pages, 200 illustrations, 80 in color, $65), Helburn could’ve been famous. But flying under the radar enabled him to make more money and so “he sacrificed credit lines to the bottom line, gave higher profits precedence over critical recognition and public acclaim.”

Still, talent will out and so we have this book, which is for anyone who ever thought Jean Shrimpton was simply scrumptious and Pound Ridge native Ali MacGraw, who contributes an affectionate reminiscence, was too modest about her modeling abilities. Part of what makes “Seventh and Mad” – which charts the seismic shift from the demure Eisenhower era to the increasingly freewheeling ’60s – such fun is discovering what’s still in (Coca-Cola, animal prints, eyeliner, lots of eyeliner) and out (smoking, plush thighs, small boobs). Some of the best pictures, however, aren’t ads or fashion shots but celebrity portraits, like Helburn’s black-and-white study of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in a noirish Times Square for a 1960 issue of Town and Country. Sporting a tux, he sits spread-legged on a white wrought iron chair whose heart-shaped back faces us – a nice romantic metaphor for the couple. She stands slightly behind him, legs crossed jauntily, her right elbow resting on his left shoulder, the gloved hand attached to that elbow tucked under her chin while her left hand trails down her left hip.

Woodward’s wearing a brocade shift with black slingbacks. But the real revelation is her straight, cropped blond hairstyle and the way Helburn has captured her steady, slightly amused gaze. Woodward’s good looks were often eclipsed by her husband’s beauty and her own no-nonsense talent. But here she leaps over the ensuing decades to foreshadow Princess Diana’s glamour.

It takes a great photographer to make us notice this.

“Yves Saint Laurent” (Nov. 1, 208 pages, 200 illustrations, 150 in color, $50) has one in Roxanne Lowit, whose pictures have appeared in everything from Vanity Fair to a Vivienne Westwood ad campaign. Here she chronicles an iconic designer and an excessive time – the 1970s and ’80s – with all their flourishes of ruffles, lace, brocade, Frida Kahlo floral headdresses, rose, appliqué – you name it. There’s Saint Laurent kissing  cardboard Empire State building after his triumphant Metropolitan Museum of Art show. There’s his playful muse, Jerry Hall, shimmying in one of his shimmering creations. And there’s a pensive Catherine Deneuve at one of is shows.

You can practically scent Opium.

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