It’s tough to really commit to doing what Jesus would do in any given situation. I’m not generous enough, wise enough, or turn water into wine-y enough. There are T-shirts that suggest one do whatever Joan Jett would do, but I’m not bad ass enough. Not good enough to be Jesus, not bad enough to be Joan — I need a role model whom I can realistically emulate. As I sashay (ok, waddle) through life, I’d like to do so with intelligence, humor, grace and guts. I’d like to be capable of both sacrifice and sexiness. I’d want to have a big heart, a strong self of self, and to be able to do a cartwheel whenever I feel like it.
In other words, I’d like to be Barbara Stanwyck.
You’ve probably seen Barbara in a couple of her more famous roles —The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity or Stella Dallas. (By the way, you need to see all of those, stat.) But if you’ve only seen her as the devious Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, or the self-sacrificing rachet mama in Stella Dallas, you’re missing out. One of the most talented and versatile of classic movie actresses, Stanwyck is the ultimate embodiment of the iconic dame. (In fact, when she died, every obituary copiously used the word.)
Despite a wealth of roles where she plays all kinds of woman in all walks of life, Barbara Stanwyck carries with her a certain inherent dame-ness that comes through with every character. She seamlessly combines sensitivity and toughness, courage and vulnerability, insouciance and substance. She could be regal and sexy and formidable, says Karen Stabiner, “She could say more walking slowly down a staircase or putting on a shoe than most actresses could in a five-page monologue. She managed somehow to be tough and brassy as well as sensitive and expressive.”
Quick with a quip or a savvy insight, yet she always proves to be as soft of heart as she is sharp of wit. She’s a real straight-shooter, except when she isn’t, but even films where she’s plotting and scheming, there’s a no B.S. quality to even the most deceitful character.
Though not one of the screen’s great beauties in the style of a Hedy Lamarr or Ava Gardner, the audience never doubts her seductive powers for a second. Add to that her underlying steely determination, street-wise savvy and heartbreaking vulnerability, and you get a package that’s hard to beat.
No doubt these qualities were the product of her hardscrabble childhood. Born Ruby Stevens, when she was only 4 a drunk man pushed her mother off a streetcar. Her mother died, and soon after her father abandoned little Ruby and her 4 siblings. She was shuffled from one foster home to another, picked up cigarette smoking at age 9 along the way, and at 15 began working as a chorus girl in speakeasies. Just stop for second to think about what kinds of abuse, molestation, and horrors young Ruby must have encountered before changing her name to the less Brooklyn-y Barbara Stanwyck at 18.
After a brief stint on Broadway, Barbara came to Hollywood with her first husband, Broadway star Frank Fay. She persuaded Frank Capra to use her in Ladies of Leisure and her performance started her on the road to stardom, as well as cementing her as Capra’s favorite leading lady – he used her in many more films over the next 10 years. (He also professed to having a big crush on her, as did many of her co-workers among the cast and crew. He claims to have proposed to her during the making of Forbidden – while she was still married to Fay.)
Foxy and feisty, femme fatality came easily to Stanwyck on the screen, effortlessly seducing the likes of Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, and William Holden, and icily snaring and shooting Fred MacMurray’s otherwise savvy Walter Neff in DoubleIndemnity. In Baby Face she stars as a seductive golddigger in the pre-code film that brought on new censorship rules with all its racy pre-codeness. But off-screen, she didn’t always have the upper hand. Frank Fay’s drinking and pouty petulance as Babs’ star eclipsed his ended their marriage, and matinee idol Robert Taylor walked out for good after 12 years. (When she landed Taylor in the late 30s it was considered quite a coup; he was considered the handsomest of leading men, though I always found him to be too pretty and kind of a sap. He spent his wedding night with his mother, need I say more?) Despite the fact that he had cheated on her and caused her a lot of grief (there’s talk of her suicide attempt in the early 40s), Barbara completely lost it at Taylor’s funeral and always referred to him as the love of her life.
One of the reasons co-stars like Stephanie Beacham called Stanwyck a “stand-up dame” was her legendary professionalism. She came early to the set, hung with the crew, always knew her lines, and did as many of her own stunts as they’d let her. (She let herself be dragged dozens of feet behind a horse well into her 50s.) She was a trouper through and through, with not a drop of diva in her. Maybe that’s why she wasn’t prone to putting up with it in others. During her last acting job, a 1985 stint on The Colbys, Barbara was getting ready to do a scene, when a co-star said, “I don’t feel it right now. The vibes aren’t right.’” According to producer Aaron Spelling, “Missy” (as friends called her) told the starlet, “Fuck your vibes and get your butt in here and start acting!”
Linda Evans remembers Stanwyck telling her that a certain Big Valley scene needed more presence. When Evans asked what she meant, Stanwyck said she’d show her during the next take. “As the rehearsal went on, I waited for an explanation from Stanwyck about ‘presence,’ but she didn’t say anything,” says Evans. “I had to walk in this door and walk into the scene, but she didn’t come over. Finally the director said, ‘Action!’ She came over behind me just as we were supposed to walk in the door. I thought, ‘When is she going to tell me what to do?’ Then, as I opened the door, she picked up her boot and kicked me in the butt! I went flying onto the set with my eyes wide open and she said, ‘Now that’s presence!'”
“Missy” had a history of being supportive of other actors, and they were very appreciative. Both William Holden and Robert Preston loved to gush about how Barbara helped them when they were young and uneasy co-stars. They had crushes on her, as did Henry Fonda. And let’s not forget Robert Wagner, who had an affair with our Barbara when he was 22 and she was 45!
Perhaps my favorite Barbara Stanwyck anecdote involves asking for a hotel room in Indianapolis. There for a movie with Clark Gable, the studio put up its stars in the best hotel in town. When she came into register, she was told her maid and companion could not stay with her; the hotel was “restricted – no coloreds allowed.” Unfazed, Barbara said, “Well just tell me the name of the best Negro hotel in town and we’ll go stay there.” The hotel ending up relenting and Stanwyck and her companion got their room.
That tiny incident evinces Barbara’s grace, gumption and class. You can tell right away that she was indeed “a stand-up dame.” That’s why, when I’m wondering how to behave in a given situation, I feel I can’t go wrong if I just ask myself, “WWBSD?”
Let’s face facts: I’m less the “Lean In” and more the “Lie Back” type. Don’t get me wrong — I’m aware and an advocate of the fact that hard work, diligence and effort are what make success. In life, if you want to get ahead, or get somewhere, anywhere, you have to get up. As in, out of bed. Of course.
Being a working woman in New York City, columnist for the LikeaBossGirls website, a mentor to young women, an example of fierce and fearless feminism, and a shining beacon of all that’s good and true, I’m often asked about how important it is to “Lean In”. Of course, I say, girls must let nothing stop them in pursuing their dreams. One must be proactive and persistent in achieving one’s goals. One must have goals.
But what if your goal looks a lot like relaxing on the couch, online shopping with a big bag of chips and a six-hour Law & Order marathon? It’s not that I don’t have goals; it’s just that they never seem as appealing as, well, sitting around. It’s like I’m two people. One reads all kinds of books on fulfilling your potential, time management, focusing on your priorities, using Native Advertising and Google Analytics to get the word out.
But the other never gets the lead out. That person likes salty snacks, petting her dog and routing for Jack McCoy. The only position to which she aspires is reclining. I used to think this lounging, loafing side of me was the ruin of me. But now I’m not so sure.
It’s not like I’m incapable of action, and working hard. At various times in my life I’ve had 3 or more jobs all at once. I used to be someone who famously could not pass a “Help Wanted” sign without thinking I should go in and apply for the job. “I could work a cash register” and “I could sell beds, baths and things” or “I could dance topless.” Before my knees betrayed me, for decades I ran between 15 and 36 miles a week. I’d get up at 5am to run 12 miles before work. Back when I was a bodybuilder, I’d spend all day teaching second grade, then take an hour-long subway ride downtown to my gym where I’d do heavy lifting 6 days a week.
But I’ve never been what you might call ‘super ambitious’. For example, ambitious people usually don’t major in Philosophy in college, and then hightail it to the Bronx to become elementary school teachers. But it wasn’t because I was lazy. (This is when I’d get up early to spend my day teaching, then take the long subway ride to Greenwich Village to lift weights for an hour or more, and then ride back up home to the Bronx.) I’m not so much lazy as unmotivated. I’m only indolent when I’m not into it.
I can work and work up a sweat, but I seem to have a hard time working up enthusiasm for traditional concepts of success. I want to be useful, to be kind and helpful. I want to use my brain, and I want to be around people who are smart and funny. Mostly, I want engage and be engaged. Then there’s the whole me really-not-liking-stress thing. Stress, don’t like it. Office politics, don’t care for ‘em. Craziness, no thanks.
Of course, there’s always going to be a certain amount of insanity, stress and mishigas in any occupation, and that’s fine. I want to be challenged, I like rising to a crisis, and getting shit done in the occasional frenzy can be rewarding. But as I mosey through life I generally like to be happy, peaceful, and relaxed. (The word ‘mosey’ is a clue right there.) I believe the trick is to be excited without being nuts, to be hard-working without being hard. Besides, there can only be a ‘turned on’ if there’s a turned off.
This coming year, I’m going to stop beating myself up for being unambitious. I’m going to embrace what I really want and who I really am. But where I do need not to be laid-back, where I do need to lean forward, is in pursuing things that motivate me. I need to ignite the power of prioritizing, to find and focus on things where I can engage and be engaged.
What if you had an interest that made some people think you were weird (and made other people think you were awesome)? What if you could take that weird/awesome passion and turn it into a successful business where you called the shots? AND…what if you had a super cool look to boot?
Well then, you’d probably be Annamarie von Firley, the owner and designer of reVamp. creating fine reproduction vintage clothing focusing on 1910-1957 for both men and women. (Um, did I mention even her name is pretty groovy?)
The sexy secret agent name, the cool Louise Brooks-on-acid look, the amazing business incorporating her passion for vintage clothing – it seems too good to be true. I, for one, am envious, but I’m even more incredibly inspired. I have been into 40s clothing for a loooong time, and was a big-time swing dancer, but all I ever did was shop, and the lindy hop.
As a Goodwill-trolling vintage clothing freak, I gobbled up Sophia Amuroso’s #GirlBoss and learned how about how I missed the ball and how she ran with it. (Seriously, check out #GirlBoss, great book!) And while I didn’t get it together to start my own vintage clothing business (I suck), I was savvy enough to be a reVamp customer, and smart enough to catch up with Annamarie and get the goods for us all:
How did you get interested in vintage clothing?
ANNAMARIE: I started collecting in high school. I would go to the Salvation Army and buy 1950s ball gowns for $25 each. I did not really know what I was doing. I just bought what I liked. In my 20s, I met a group of people who were really into vintage clothing and culture. I started collecting vintage more deliberately. I collected vintage magazines that informed me about the periods from which the silhouettes I owned and ones that I responded to. It helped me to identify the difference between 10s and 20s clothing or 30s and 40s silhouettes.
What does dressing vintage mean to you?
ANNAMARIE: I respond silhouettes from 1910-1957 because they celebrate the female form. After 1957 designers start to deconstruct the female form. The designs are less about making the wearer look the best that she can, and more about the designer flexing his/her design muscles. Before 1910, there is too much body modification. This window of time was the Golden Age of Fashion to me. I wear clothing from this period because the designs are fascinating and flattering. Although the designs are at least 50 years old, they have a timeless quality to them.
ANNAMARIE: Why do you think women like to dress in vintage clothes and accessories?
Because the designs are figure flattering and have design details lost in modern garment design. Design is always a balance between Form and Function. There are periods of time where design is all Form and no Function like the Victorian period. Now design is all Function and no Form. Clothing is designed exclusively for comfort and not to make you look good.
Are there particular vintage role models or icons that resonate for you?
ANNAMARIE: My favorite film is “My Man Godfrey” (1936) with William Powell and Carole Lombard. I can watch that movie 100 times and find something new that is funny that I did not catch before. Carole Lombard is also one of my favorite actresses. She is funny, smart and playful. You can see that she is having fun which is great to see. She portrays characters that are both strong and vulnerable. Lending a complexity that is fascinating to watch and aspire to.
If you are asking about designers who I admire from the past, then, yes, I think Vionnet was a genius. If you are asking if there is anyone today who “lives vintage” in a way I find admirable, then I would say no. I think that if you dabble in vintage that is great and if you are a “vintage immersive person” that is great as well. I wear vintage everyday, but I would not say that it makes me more or less interesting than anyone else.
Why this fascination with women and style of yesteryear?
ANNAMARIE: I am fascinated by it because it is elusive…like ghosts from the “silver screen” dazzling us with a version of history that was not and will never be. We cannot go back in time. But we can hold the artifacts from the past like books, magazines, garments, shoes, purses, etc. They are touchstones to the past. Vintage garments are fossils skins of women who no longer live. I like to imagine the woman who worn them before. Whose body was just like mine. Was she a Gold Digger, mother of 5 or a secretary in a law office? What did she do while wearing this dress, these shoes, or while holding this purse? Did she fall in love, see a play with her lover or find out that she is now a young widow. You can imagine, but never know. Fascinating.
For women who don’t yet know how great vintage style is, what would you tell them?
ANNAMARIE: Once you realize that you can have a garment that fits you properly and celebrates your best assets, it will be hard to go back to contemporary designs. Vintage clothing does not necessarily need to mean uncomfortable, stained or stinky. There are companies, like mine, that bring back the past. We offer historically accurate vintage clothing without the vintage DNA. You can wear it without contributing to its inevitable destruction. It is all out there. Now is a great time to enjoy vintage style. You can have your cake and eat it too.
OK, now that everyone’s psyched to rock a vintage look, can you tell us more about Revamp. How’d it start?
ANNAMARIE: I was Swing Dancing on the USS Jeremiah O’Brien with a friend. We were lamenting on how poorly people were dressed. She suggested we start a company that recreates vintage clothing. Initially I said no because I worked for a start-up -and saw that my boss never got paid. But, soon after the business was sold and I did not want to go with it, so since I was between jobs, I decided to give her idea a shot.
How did you grow Revamp, what were the “steps” you took?
ANNAMARIE: reVamp was founded in 1998. We always had a website; you might say we grew up with the Web. As more people became comfortable with purchasing clothing online, so did we. Our growth was organic. We tapped into the peak of the Swing Scene in the 90s where there was pent up demand for vintage reproduction clothing. For about 10 years, we and a couple of other companies pretty much owned the market for vintage reproduction clothing. We never needed to work hard to get sales or hits on our website until Google’s “Penguin update” in 2012 (see below). Now we have to do all of the social media, blogs and website optimization like everyone else.
At the time reVamp was opened, there were only 3 companies making vintage inspired clothing: Stop Staring, Dixie Fried, and us. Stop Staring grew a lot because they wholesale their clothing. We are not as big because we retail clothes made here by our own in-house cutters and sewers and have no economy of scale. It costs us the same amount to make 1 garment as 100. So our wholesale price is a full 2/3 of our retail price. This makes us too expensive for most stores to carry our line, so we mostly sell directly to the consumer — plus museums, theaters, TV, movies and national parks. We do a lot of bridal as well. Since we aren’t really set up to wholesale, we are really limited to how much we can grow.
What kind of clothing is most popular?
ANNAMARIE: When I started reVamp in 1998, we sold about the same amount of clothing to men and women. Originally we catered to Swing Dancers. Men in the early Swing Scene dressed the part. Then in about 2003, they didn’t. I sold mostly women’s clothing. Now I think I sell more men’s clothing than women’s.
Is this surprising to you?
ANNAMARIE: Yes and no. Yes because I don’t see more men dressing vintage and there isn’t a “scene” that I can see that they are attaching themselves to like the “Swing Scene” or “Cocktail Culture”. There are some great period shows that might have pique their interest. But it seems that these men are buying because the recognize great design. It is not that they are vintage junkies.
As far as the “no” part of my answer, there are way more companies making repro vintage dresses now. When I started reVamp in 1998, there were three. Now there are a whole lot more plus sellers on Ebay and Etsy. However, there are not so many focusing on men’s vintage. So I seem to be in the “catbird seat” there.
I know we all benefit from the clothes you make, we “vintage vixens” out there. What are the biggest rewards in doing what you do?
ANNAMARIE: Seeing my designs on the big and small screen, on a happy bride or on a satisfied customer who has sent me a photo of herself in reVamp clothing!
My favorite part of my business is doing the research for new designs. I have 1000s of vintage patterns as well as 1000s of vintage garments in my private collection, hundreds of vintage magazines and fashion plates. I love to pour over them and decide what extinct design I want to reintroduce to the world. It is like bring new life into a dried flower.
Clearly, Annamarie never rests on her adorable laurels; she’s coming up with new ideas and strategies to not only superserve loyal customers and keep them coming back, but to make her products more accessible and desirable at multiple price points. Not rich – use the payment plan. And for those who can afford it, now vintage repros can be as exclusive and luxurious as a couture item.
P.S. Interested in learning the biz? Annamarie and reVamp have an Apprenticeship Program where I train people in Sales/Marketing, Patterning/Grading, Cutting and Sewing. Each section is 3 months long, and the apprenticeship lasts one year. Go to the reVamp website to find out more!
Photo credit: Jon Lile
Parts of this interview were also published in LikeaBossGirls.com
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