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May 20, 2011

Ralph Lauren, Cars, Fashion, and a Real Automotive Woman Pioneer

17IHT-fcar17-line2-popup Ralph Lauren is an American icon, indisputably.  The most recognizable US fashion designer has a passion beyond the runway, though, and that's his cars.  He has a fabled collection of classic, rare, and exotic automobiles that is the envy of many an aficionado, and some gems from his auto collection are currently on display in Paris at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which has 17 of the designer’s classic vehicles on display through Aug. 28.  

Known more for polo shirts and country elegance, the quintessential American designer confesses to taking inspiration from his personal collection of 64 classic cars.  So much so, in fact, that recent collections have focused surprisingly on leather, including not only leather jackets but classic driving attire, including leather hoods with goggles and stylish driving gloves, a fashion sentiment now that echoes a time when driving a car was a more demanding and dirty affair - but the clash of masculine textures with feminine curves warrants a historical discussion worthy of the AskPatty blog, I believe.  Follow me past the jump to take part.

Now, I don't know much about fashion.  But I know what I like, and there's a timeless elegance to vintage driving attire - though I am quick to note an interesting point: Mr. Lauren's designs, stylish though they are, all echo a masculine sensibility.  The leather, straps, and steel all echo components of men's driving clothes from the early 20th century, but I haven't seen anything resembling a woman's driving suit from the period.  While the men wore sleek and stylish aviator-style duds, women wore something akin to a cross between a jungle explorer and a bee-keeper when traveling in cars, with heavy outer coat and a mesh full-head wrap to keep bugs at bay. 

Drivingsuit Allow me to digress a bit:  The image to the right is an actual women's driving suit from the period - that one in particular belonged to Edith Stuyvesant Dresser Vanderbilt, wife of gilded age mogul George Vanderbilt, heir to the Vanderbilt empire and builder of the massive Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.  Edith was quite the amazing lady, and an avid driver herself.  Her husband George died relatively young in 1914, leaving her to tend to his massive estate alone; a task which she took in stride.  She ultimately sold much of the surrounding forest land so that it could become part of Pisgah National Forest, protecting the land and doing what was necessary to keep the estate running.

I bring her up because Edith Vanderbilt is something of a role model to me, especially when it comes to the automotive side of things. Edith, as I said, was an avid driver and owned many vehicles.  Back in those days, since cars were so different from each other in their operation, a person had to get a separate drivers license for each vehicle they drove.  In an age when the well-to-do typically employed chauffers to handle their driving and vehicle maintenance, Edith Vanderbilt drove herself, and had an impressive eight driver's licenses - for several of her own cars and, believe it or not, two Harley-Davidson Motorcycles.  Truly an amazing lady.

So - Ralph Lauren, if I may offer a small tidbit of advice for what it's worth, if you're looking to echo some vintage driving fashion, you really should look to the feminine side of things as well.  Though men were most often in the driver's seat in those days while women typically took the role of the glamorous passenger, women were not always the shy demure things history would have us believe, and the classic automotive look had a strong feminine side that deserves exploration in the fashion world, too.  I'd love to see a modern interpretation of Edith's old driving clothes - perhaps without the bee-keeper headgear, of course.


  Kaeli Gardner, Inc.
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