Book Report: 60s Supervixen Tells All

Vicky Tiel: It’s All About the Dress

I haven’t dated one in decades but I must say I have a lot of fondness for the women of my generation–the ones who pioneered the pill, hiked their skirt up to their thighs, dropped acid and frugged the night away in shirts you could see right through. They thought they were revolutionaries, and they sure were, but they were fighting with weapons of romance not hate. I’m still meeting those heroines of the sexual revolution and I’ve got to say the youngsters have got a lot of living to live up to.

I had never met Vicky Tiel until very recently. To tell you the truth, I had never heard of her before her book, It’s All About the Dress, arrived in my mailbox. The cover shows a cute twenty something girl with long hair walking down a Paris Street in a miniskirt, wearing a kind of cat that ate the canary after torturing it look, and a hip guy has turned around to check her out and a Paris flic (a cop in a kepi) has turned to check her out too. That’s Vicky about 40 years ago, an American girl who invented the miniskirt and then ran off to Paris to become a couturier. I can tell by the look on her face that she was big trouble.

So I opened the book. Here’s how it starts:

“Vicky Tiel? Isn’t she dead yet? The beautiful, slim young woman pointed to the sign in Bergdorf Goodman’s couture salon. Whe and her friends stopped briefly to inspect a Vicky Tiel gown on display. They didn’t seem to notice me, the designer, sitting nearby. In my white lace peasant dress and gold platform sandals, I probably looked like another customer. Some designers might have been embarrassed or angry, but not me. I knew that being ‘undercover’ could be instructive.”

She had me. First of all, I like writers that start a book with their own demise. Secondly I like people that don’t embarrass easily and go with the flow. And the flow just begins there. She gets thrown off a movie set by Mike Nichols, snubbed by Coco Chanel, arrested in the Middle East, kicked off a plane for the way she was dressed, and has her life saved by her best friend Liz Taylor pulling her back inside the helicopter she’s falling out of. And that’s just in the first chapter.

In the second she meets Bob Dylan, Woody Allen and Fred Neil and becomes a guinea pig for a new thing called the birth control pill and gets photographed by David Bailey who says “Wet your lips. Open your mouth and look at me like we’re having sex.” Then there’s an apple pie recipe. It’s that kind of book. I couldn’t put it down. It’s like a box of candy. I got Vicky’s phone number and called her. She told me about how met Edith Head and designed costumes, how she started with Bergdorf Goodman (involving Dawn Mello and Ira Neimark,) and about her first fashion show (the models included Luana de Noialles, the first black supermodel, and Amanda Lear, the ambiguous muse of Salvador Dali and Bryan Ferry). She told me about Antonio Lopez and Joe Eula sketching her and her boutique partner Mia Fonssegraves, (our whole career started with a Joe Eula sketch, I promise you!”). She told me about Rudi Gernreich, (“He invented the topless bathing suit and he’s really shy?”), about writing her Parson’s School of Design thesis on Coco Chanel, about hanging out with Miles Davis (“He actually liked me!”), and about falling in love with Balenciaga (“So handsome!). And I heard some stuff that couldn’t go in the book. Like a banned box of candy!

Mia and Vicky in the new invention hot pants:

I must say that I don’t think much about the past but talking to Vicky did give me a sudden nostalgia for the uninhibited (wild, when I think about it) sixties. She writes about her see through blouses and miniskirts (she insists that she and Mia invented it, not that London designer) and, in autumn, pasting fallen leaves over her nipples. I said, “Well I guess in those days people in New York wer hip enough that they weren’t really shocked.

“Oh no,” she said, “They were shocked!”

“But obviously those fashions were designed to appeal to men. Do you think that back then women dressed for men, and now they dress for other women?” I asked.

“But darling, that’s what my book is about. I have been put down by so many intellectual women, and the fact I am actually able to personally write a book shows that I am not an idiot. I can write and think and I read books. But they divide women into categories. They say, ‘You have to be modern and sophisticated, and not sexy because sexy is low-level’—and it’s not true! I went to France, and realized that there is a whole country there where women are like me. They’re always unbuttoning their blouses and showing their lace bras.”

America didn’t understand you?

“When I was 20-something, I had a contract to design for Sears in Europe. I went to a meeting at the corporation headquarters, at the Sears Tower in Chicago. I’d come from Paris and Mr. Dickey, the head of Sears said: ‘You have to turn your top around.’ I said, “What?!” And they marched me off to the bathroom to turn my top around.”

Funny, the Sears Tower was at that point the biggest erection in the world.

Forty years later Vicky Tiel is still about sexy, with her top on the way she wants. She recalls being accidentally booked for a trunk show on the same day as James Galanos. “We didn’t have a problem…our clients were opposite ends of the spectrum. Mr. Galanos refused to dress large women (he meant busty.)…He didn’t sell size fourteen or above. The point of my fashion, I told him, was less clean chic, more sexual chic. My dream client is any women with curves….The right dress has magical power.”

Here’s the magic diamond bra:

There’s lots of magic in It’s All About the Dress, some about dress some not: there’s designing the costumes for What’s New Pussycat (the Vicki Tiel dress that Ursula Andress used to clinch Belmondo); the Noel Coward and Tennessee Williams crooning competitions in Sardinia; lunches with Andy Warhol (“He liked my jeweled bras”); squeezing Baryshnikov’s leg; visiting Warren Beatty in a towel; drinking with Elizabeth and Richard. It’s totally dishy but it’s really a philosophy book with recipes, if you can believe it. I loved the book; can’t wait for the movie. Maybe it will subvert the younger generation of supervixens.

Vicky Tiel’s It’s All About the Dress is available from St. Martin’s Press.


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