The heritage from the past is not only about physical objects, and Marcelle Ratafia reminds us of this idea trough her book “L’Abc del Argot”. Writer and cultural reporter, his entry point to vintage didn’t came from his love for langage, but from fashion and dressmaking.
By @mercibandit and @newschoolvintage
When did you started to love vintage?
When I was 7 years old, my mother gave me a dress made by a costume theater designer and also I had a big chest full of old clothing from my grandma… and almost immediately I began to design 1930’s dresses. When I started to see remnants of this style of clothing in my neighborhood, I was fascinated.
Afterwards, I grew a passion for costume design in cinema: “Some like it hot” (Billy Wilder, 1959), “Princess Bride” (William Goldman, 1989), “Fanfan la Tulipe” (Christian Jaque, 1959)… But above all others Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1988), the film that made me love the wonderfully hyperbolic baroque style.
So before being a writer, you worked as a costume designer…
That’s it: when I was 14 I did voluntary jobs to be able to work with theater companies, and at 16 years old I dressed young actors for an stage director. After that I studied Applied Arts and, a year later I had my entry to a musical comedy school, where I could give full rein to this passion. Then I joined “L’Ecole du Louvre”, because of their new Fashion History department. At the same time I helped organize “les bals de la Coupole”, dance parties that animated Paris “rive gauche” with its sumptuous demonstrations of dandys and burlesque dancers.
And then, one day, I had enough. I found a casual job and somehow I managed to forget my liking for retro and vintage culture. But it came back when I wrote “L’Abc de l’Argot”!
How did you came out with the idea?
Even if I wrote the book much later, my love for argot came from a long time ago. When I was 16 I went to St. Pierre (near Montmartre, in Paris) to buy some fabrics and I expressed doubts to a vendor about the quality of his products. He riposted with an expression so extrange, so authentic, that I automatically fell in love with his way of talking.
Some years later I went to a cinema to see some 1930’s french movies and my love story with old french argot just went through the roof.
For those who don’t know classic french cinema, I bet that you have some recommendations…
I love many movies from the 30’s, but let’s branch out a little: «Sous les toits de Paris» (René Clair, 1930), «Battement de cœur» (Henri Decoin, 1940), and «Casque d’Or» (Jacques Becker, 1952).
Movies have inspired you quite a lot… same thing for your way of dressing?
Indeed! For example Barbara Stanwyck’s look in “Mad Miss Manton” (Leigh Jason, 1938) with her long dresses, platform shoes and her fur coat with sharp, square shoulders is absolutely delicious. But my most recent discovery is the crazy attires that Jany Holt wears in another film from the 1930’s: “The Alibi”, by Pierre Chenal.
My look always make smile the hairstylists and makeup crew that prepares me for “Merci Marcelle” (an emission about french argot aired on the french channel Canal Plus), but besides of my liking for vintage fashion, I actually have an athletic figure: that’s why I think that this way of dressing fits me fairly well!
That brings us to another of your books, “L’ABC de la Mode”… While reading it we can see your will to pinpoint how fashion has always mistreated women. Can we consider “L’ABC de la Mode” as a feminist book?
For sure…. that was before the #metoo movement, but when I started to scrutinize fashion history I was shocked by the social violence that it has always promoted. As time passes, I don’t see an improvement in that regard.
As long as the dictatorship of skinny, white and young beauty canon persists, it will be difficult to see a change. Nonetheless, there’s a new generation of women that brings hope to that matter: bolder, more audacious, more creative. They are not worried of breaking the codes of “traditional femininity”. But I think that France is a little bit late on this subject, we don’t dare as much as in other countries…
The final question is an standard for every interviewee… what’s your favorite vintage garment?
Hands down, my Louis Féraud crepe dress buyed in a thrift shop, adjusted for me by my wonderful turkish taylor!
Besides “L’ABC de L’Argot”, Marcelle has also written “L’ABC de la Mode” and “L’ABC du Foot” – Editions du chêne. You can also find her at “Merci Marcelle”, a T.V. program about french slang broadcasted in France by Canal Plus.