The fashion designer Bill Blass had a way of expressing himself--hale and hearty yet wickedly, breathtakingly frank--that seemed to be custom-made for print. For years, people in the fashion field urged him to write a book. The result, a slender volume finished shortly before his death in June, is “Bare Blass,” edited by Cathy Horyn, fashion critic for the New York Times.
It’s a miniskirt of a memoir--skimpy but revealing. At 184 pages, including 91 photographs, “Bare Blass” is barely there.
Even so, it’s eerily, unmistakably, irresistibly pure Blass. It’s the voice, you see: that cultured baritone, the gentlemanly hauteur, the self-reductive irony. There was a degree of humbug to Blass--but he, at least, recognized it. By turns rambling, incisive, snobbish, down-home, good-humored and catty, “Bare Blass” is like the man. In a business that is all surface, he managed to convey a bit of depth.
Before we go any further, I should state that I considered Blass a friend. I’ve two-martini-lunched with him. I’ve sat down to the famous Blass meatloaf at his big stone house in Connecticut. (I even discussed his memoirs with him.) This book is not at all what I expected, but it has its virtues. Number one: The book exists. It’s him talking in a natural, unvarnished way. We now have an oral history of Blass’ life and career--and of a unique time in the history and development of American fashion. There are priceless snapshots of American society as it developed in the postwar period, and as Blass moved to its center, perhaps the first Seventh Avenue “tradesman” to do so. Prior to Blass, creative people in the garment industry were relegated to the back room. Blass was among the first to become a “name,” eventually putting his on dozens of licensed products, from fragrances and hosiery to furniture and automobiles. But the process and the social climb were arduous and involved the detailed, nuanced retail courtship--seduction, really--of pockets of wealthy women all across the country.
“There was hardly an American city, or a group of gals, I didn’t know,” he writes. And whether in Kansas City or Beverly Hills, Blass learned a thing or two about tact. As he puts it: “Of course you can’t say to a woman stepping out of a fitting room, her face beaming with hope, ‘Oh, my God, that makes you look fat.’ But you can say, ‘Kid, that’s not you. Let’s try something else.’ ” Words for husbands and lovers everywhere to remember eternally.
The book is peopled with plenty of rich, long-necked women--the Babe Paleys, Pat Buckleys, Mica Erteguns, Nancy Kissingers whom Blass charmed and dressed--with some of the fitting-room titti-poo and ballroom twaddle that comes with that territory.
A number of Blass’ women and men friends contribute little sidebar-type quotations throughout the text. Some of these are revealing. Others involve the carefully crafted in-group flattery that reminds us that in the upper echelons of New York society, mutual admiration is an iron law for both entree and continued membership.
Like real conversation, the narrative tends to meander back and forth across time, change focus in midstream, digress wildly, and then circle back on itself, rather as if Blass were holding forth into a tape recorder while patting his dog (which is probably just as it was). It is not a conventional autobiography.
“Childhood bores the hell out of me,” he tells us in the first sentence, and he pretty much skips his Indiana boyhood, occasionally doubling back to Fort Wayne to discuss the suicide of his father, a hardware salesman. Like countless others, Blass escaped from Midwestern “joylessness” and, as a teenager, succumbed permanently to the allure of New York, freely admitting, “how naive and susceptible to glamour I was.” Along the way he somehow acquired a Park Avenue accent and an unswerving sense of himself as both paragon and instrument of American style.
We don’t get quite how that magical metamorphosis happens to provincial guys like Blass or Halston or even Cole Porter--the transformative moments when they discover this inner confidence that makes them feel they can dictate and pontificate on the art of living--but never mind. His description of Diana Vreeland, the legendary Vogue editor, could just as easily refer to Blass himself: “She combined Twain’s reverence for the reinvented self with Barnum’s love of showmanship, and she spent her life perfecting this blend.” A kind of sadness can exist at the core of such lifelong masquerades (poignantly depicted in the one-woman show, “Full Gallop,” about Vreeland). Though he admits to one or two love affairs, Blass pretty much lived life alone, with his dogs.
Although it appears women, especially the man-killer types like Slim Keith (the model for the Lauren Bacall character in “To Have and Have Not”) had a weakness for him, his own weakness seems to have been for men. But when it comes to his romantic life, he tends to blow a bit of smoke. "[T]o have lived in a long-term relationship with a man would have been to categorize myself too narrowly,” he says. “Because, in so many cases, I’ve been attracted to women. To the romance part plus the acceptance of a hetero relationship--that being the most natural way, in my opinion, to live one’s life.”
Hmm. That doesn’t sound quite right. To a lot of people, including me, Blass had about the best straight act in the business.
But it certainly was a class act. He was neither a hothouse flower like Yves Saint Laurent, nor a leather-bar type like some contemporary designers. He was a product of his times, especially his World War II experience, obviously a vivid and formative one, as a member of the top-secret 603rd Camouflage Battalion, which was involved in the Battle of the Bulge.
After the war, Blass fashioned himself as strictly a Stork Club gent. Husky, hard-drinking, masculine to the bone. He writes: “It wasn’t that I hated the fag elements of fashion; it was that I hated the limits that fashion imposed.... I chose to set myself apart, consciously or unconsciously.”
Unlike a lot of other self-made men, Bill Blass never came on like a stuffed shirt and was surprisingly good company. His memoir, which can be knocked off in an afternoon, is pretty good company, too.