Serfs Up


“First off, it has nothing to do with dressing like a real peasant. It is not about wishing you were a serf,” says Valerie Steele, a fashion historian and the curator of the museum at F.I.T., When she’s asked what she thinks about the glut of peasant blouses all over town these days, a phenomenon not seen since the Mamas and the Papas were on Ed Sullivan. There are Woodstock-worthy blouses in the windows of the J. Chuckles at Grand Central Station, utterly transparent and tagged at $14.99; in the vaunted corridors of Saks Fifth Avenue, there are even peasant pants, heavy white twill trousers by Miu Miu that have rich faux-Mexican embroidery outlining their pockets. “These styles hark back to an idea of innocence and romanticism,” says Steele, but lest you think the buying public is longing to look like an extra in The Sound of Music, she’s quick to add, “You know, people are nostalgic for those Saint Laurent peasant things from the late ’60s and ’70s.” (Guess not everyone in the ’60s was buying her clothes on MacDougal Street.) Actually, Saint Laurent is also at least partially responsible for the recent revival, which began when Tom Ford, the house’s current designer, stuck a floppy blouse with a gathered neckline and big sleeves on the runway last fall. (That item, in the rare event that it’s in stock at Saint Laurent on Madison Avenue, is $1575, or just about 105 times as much as the Chuckles version.)

“They’re back in style?” Myron Surmach wonders aloud when he’s asked about peasant blouses. “So that’s why the Times and Vogue have both been in my store in the last three weeks!” Surmach’s family has owned Surma, the Slavic specialty shop on East 7th Street, since 1918. Here, embroidered blouses, along with flowered head scarfs, hand-painted eggs, and copies of The Ukrainian Quarterly have never gone out of fashion. On a recent blustery afternoon, the store, which appears to function as a sort of town square for the Eastern European East Village community, is full of elderly women who traded their peasant blouses and kerchiefs long ago for raincoats and knit caps. They’re crowded around a bridge table in the corner of the shop, where a guy in a tweed jacket—”he’s sort of the town clerk,” whispers Surmach—appears to be helping them with their taxes. The ladies take no notice of the racks of exquisite blouses, which cost around $125 and are imported from Romania, a place Surmach has visited annually for the last 35 years. “They’re made by women working in cooperatives in little villages,” he says. “They gather in a house and sit in a circle with the embroidery on their knees. I asked one once how she remembered the patterns, and she tapped her head,” he adds, tapping his own forehead. When a customer notices that some of the blouses, rather more stolid and earnest than their Romanian counterparts, are in fact made in China, Surmach shrugs. “I get them from another Ukrainian businessman who deals with China. I figured, what the hell—they’ve been making tapestries for 5000 years, they should know how to do it.”

If anyone had told Diana Vreeland, the legendary former editor of Vogue from the mid ’60s to 1971, that in the year 2002, shrunken camisoles would suddenly yield, at least temporarily, to puffy peasant blouses, she would barely have furrowed her dead-white brow. After all, nothing fashion was alien to Vreeland. During her Vogue tenure, Vreeland bombarded her colleagues with brilliant if loony memos—compulsively readable missives of crystalline nuttiness that offered admonitions like “For goodness sakes, beware of curls.” Now a selection from this trove has been reprinted in an almost too elegant lipstick red portfolio by Visionaire, the twice-yearly art magazine, and it’s for sale for $175, or $50 more than a Romanian peasant blouse. Every day, Vreeland cajoled her staff to see things her way, a daunting task when you consider that her directives included “Let’s remember bright orange satin evening slippers . . . ” and “Are we using freckles? Don’t forget them.” Vreeland is the kind of fashion editor you just don’t run across anymore—bossy and imperious, yes, but with a fearlessness and a singular vision that make her observations weirdly compelling. For better or worse, no one today asks, “Don’t you think it will be especially attractive with an all black leotight—a 16th-century short tunic—everything black . . . to put on one leg a garter of gold galloon with a beautiful loop with a jewel?”

Tempted? If you are in need of a galloon (Webster says it is “a narrow trimming especially of lace or embroidery or metallic thread”), there may just be one for sale at the Triple Pier Antique Show this weekend (Twelfth Avenue between 48th and 55th streets, 212-255-0020 for further information). As if 600 antiques and collectibles dealers spread over three Hudson River piers isn’t enough, there are always additional attractions: a Wurlitzer playing in the lobby or an exhibit of something you never thought of buying, like patriotic tablecloths or pre-war beach pails. This time, Mickey Mouse-related ephemera (bisque toothbrush holders; Colorform boxed games) is on display, and there’s a book signing by Robert Heide and John Gilman, who pretty much lead the field of Mickey Mouse biographers, having published three tomes on the subject, including their latest effort, Mickey MouseThe Evolution, the Legend, the Phenomenon. The Pier Show’s promoters claim that this is Mickey’s 100th anniversary, but in fact it is merely the 100th birthday of that old reprobate, the friendly HUAC witness Walt Disney. Mickey, an innocent mouse with no blemishes on his integrity, didn’t show up until 1928. But then again, who knows? It all brings to mind a tale retold in the New York Times obituary of Chuck Jones, the famous Warner Brothers animator who died late last month at the age of 89. Jones recalled that “a small child once said to me: ‘You don’t draw Bugs Bunny, you draw pictures of Bugs Bunny.’ ” Jones said he thought that was a very profound observation.