It’s just a little dinner party in Los Feliz. You might think you could wear anything. But our host choreographs a casual supper as precisely as a Bel-Air bar mitzvah. The peonies will be imported from New Zealand, and her lipstick will match the pimientos in the paella. I run to my closet in a panic. Indian silk caftan? Vintage Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress? Frayed Levis? Sequins?
When it comes to fashion, Los Angeles will always be the Wild West. You see women in head-to-toe Marni squeezing plums at the farmers’ market and guys wearing Tommy Bahama shirts to the opera. A boa is not ridiculous here. Just last week, at a Starbucks in West Hollywood, I stood behind a woman wearing nothing but a tiny red bikini. There wasn’t enough fabric on her body to stanch a paper cut, but a $4,300 quilted Chanel 2.55 flap bag dangled from her tanned shoulder. Her audaciousness thrilled me. Such freedom should be a boon for any confident, stylish woman. But the absence of rules—not to mention the way the temperature pendulates from Eagle Rock to Santa Monica—makes getting dressed every day tougher than it looks.
I’m not the only one who’s flummoxed. My personal style icon is the actress Ali MacGraw—she of the shiny, black licorice hair and fashion legacy. She may have made her name in classic East Coast-centric films like Love Story and Goodbye, Columbus, but to me MacGraw embodied the insouciant Malibu look. So when I get her on the phone, I am surprised to hear she has stumbled, too. “I was always psycho-frightened that I wouldn’t be wearing the right thing at those Hollywood parties,” she tells me from her ranch in Santa Fe. (MacGraw fled Malibu in 1994, after a fire consumed her home and her collection of pre-
Lagerfeld Chanels and Halstons.) “For me, L.A. style was bohemian ethnic dresses and Moroccan sandals.”
I don’t dare tell MacGraw that she’s partly to blame for creating what I view as the undertow of L.A.’s effortless style. From afar women here look so haphazardly chic—as if they got dressed while nibbling on a piece of buttered toast or doing a crossword puzzle. You spot a gorgeous girl slinking down West 3rd in a sheer peasant shirt with flared jeans and a wristful of prayer beads and you snort, “Hell! I can do that.”
Not so fast. That seemingly carefree ensemble is about as simple as a tourbillion. Take a closer look and you’ll see that the faded jeans have been precisely tailored and the voluminous blouse’s scoop neckline highlights a clavicle that juts like a Calder. Those wooden prayer beads are studded with a carat of rose-cut diamonds. Even the drunken zigzag part in her windswept, highlighted hair is a ploy to make you think she just stumbled off a red-eye—and flew coach. That girl probably toiled in front of the mirror for more than an hour to look undone.
The intricacies of West Coast style have intrigued me since I was a kid. Growing up in New Jersey in the late ’70s, I relied on the holy trinity of femininity known as Charlie’s Angels for fashion cues. Farrah Fawcett as Jill Munroe taught me that my older brother’s tube socks looked sexy with snug track shorts, while Jaclyn Smith’s Kelly Garrett made me filch my mom’s silky secretary blouses. Kate Jackson, as Sabrina Duncan—ever the fashion pragmatist—introduced me to the versatility of culottes. Their individual styles—sporty, sexy, savvy—personified the L.A. look back then and are equally relevant 30 years later.
When I first moved here from New York in 1997, I had an arsenal of dark architectural outfits. In fact, you can easily spot recent transplants by their somber undertaker wardrobes. Clothing was my armor, and I glowered at grown women wearing pastels. How could anyone in mint green be taken seriously? But I soon realized that L.A. women disarm with their hypnotic colors, much like jellyfish. A friend of mine, a development executive at Sony who favors splashy patterns, sums it up this way: “The guys assume you’re soft because you’re wearing this romantic floral print. Then you start negotiating.” So I learned from these ladies, and gradually color crept into my getups—a turquoise Lacoste cardigan here, a pair of apple red Dickies pants there. Today my closet is as blinding as a Bollywood musical.
Sunglasses, I now know, must be given their due. I own eight pairs and prefer the oversize owlish frames worn by diminutive personalities like the Olsen twins. My latest obsession, a pair of Balenciaga shades as big as dessert plates, cost as much as two round-trip tickets to San Francisco, and I don’t resent the splurge. Never mind the overzealous sun and threat of fine lines. In other cities tall buildings loom and throw generous shadows on the sidewalks. Here there is no shady refuge, and you’re exposed as soon as you exit your car. Flaws like frizzy hair or egg yolk on your collar are always in high-def. The only place to hide is behind your sunglasses. Of course, as Rachel Zoe and every aspiring starlet know, huge frames make you look thinner, too.
But it’s the pressure to appear younger and sexier that often derails my style. At 43 I can’t glean cues from current fashion icons such as Rihanna and Blake Lively. These girls don’t have upper arms that sometimes sway like porch swings. I want to dress like Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson or Faye Dunaway in Chinatown. They made getting older seem so easy and elegant and carnal. But as a new mom with clots of baby food in my hair, I can’t even muster a please-come-hither look. The other day I found myself turning to Angie Dickinson for inspiration. She was exactly my age when she played the gutsy and glamorous Pepper on Police Woman. Angie with her frothy blond bob sizzled in her fitted button-up shirts and snug high-waisted trousers. On her, a trench coat was as revealing as a bikini.
When I ask MacGraw what she considers the right amount of racy, she recalls having Raquel Welch over for dinner in Malibu one night, back in the day. “She had on white jeans and an oversize white men’s shirt, and it was the sexiest look I have ever seen on a woman,” she says with a sigh. “No cleavage, nothing tight. I’ll never forget it.” I meditate on this for a moment. Here in lawless Los Angeles, I can get away with white after Labor Day. Come to think of it, my husband’s white Zegna shirt just came back from the cleaners.
Photograph courtesy Everett Collection