February 17, 2010
About five years ago, I went to Joe's Pub and saw a collection of celebrities read other celebrities' books and biographies, showcasing the hilarious words and stories found in the pages of books by Suzanne Somers and Diana Ross. You know, real literary giants. The event was put together by Nancy Balbirer and featured the actor and playwright Charles Busch, who read from the pages of the classic Always Ask a Man: Arlene Dahl's Key to Femininity. He was stellar. Surely you know Arlene Dahl? I did not then. But I was so blown away by her writings that I rushed out and snapped up every copy of the book on Amazon and eBay. Now my secret's caught on. The book, which I paid about $5 a copy for, fetches upwards of $100 nowadays.
But back to Ms. Dahl. She's perhaps most famous for being the mother of 1980s heartthrob Lorenzo Lamas. At one time, though, she was a Hollywood actress. As her career faded, she sold lingerie and wrote advice columns, and later astrology columns, for newspapers. But it is Always Ask a Man that shows her true genius. Case in point:
In the book, she offers borderline-offensive advice to women, telling them to not speak their mind, to be subservient, and to always be dressed to the nines. She also quotes many Hollywood leading men on what they find attractive in women. Men like Anthony Perkins and Rock Hudson. Yes, she asked the gays. And as the chart above shows, she offered tips on fashion and beauty. "Chic Is: A gay dinner hat. Chic Is Not: Sleeveless dresses on overweight women." Dear God.
If they weren't so camp, Dahl's words would be offensive. Yet, many decades later, I find the fashion industry still holds up many of her ridiculous and outdated concepts of femininity and beauty. This saddens me a bit. But, as with a train wreck, I cannot look away from her. Nothing is better than whipping out this book at a dinner party and after a few vodkas reading its passages. A few years ago I met Cynthia Rowley and gave her a copy. Upon receiving it, she sent me a pair of graphic print vintage 1970s underwear. It is my favorite gift to give, especially to design folks.
I went through a strange phase in my Arlene Dahl obsession too, going so far as to buy many of her 1960s paper dolls and framing them and lining the walls of my upstate lake house. But in recent years it had slowed down. Until recently, when I found a video of Dahl presenting dresses on a TV fashion show. In it Dahl talks about the wonders of paper dresses. And as I watched it for the first time, I thought of my paper dolls and all the joy they, and Arlene's words, have brought me.