Fashion Statements: the divided elf | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Fashion Statements: the divided elf 

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We met Christina Eason stationed outside the Cozy Cloud Cottage on the fifth floor of Marshall Field's downtown store, where the wait to whisper in Santa's ear had ebbed to 30 minutes.

Her sparkle-spangled suit caroled seasonal high spirits, though the rolled-up sleeves and cuffs conceded to the temporary, and corporate (one size fits most), nature of the job. Paired with high-gloss work shoes and pressed white button-down, her uniform squeaked equal parts spritely cheer and McDonald's quick-serve, the consummate professional elf.

Still, our fashion mythologists suspected some tale had been twisted on the way to the dressing room. They turned back a page to scrutinize early elfish togs.

Most local elves take their fashion cues from the Keebler Clan--green tunic, peaked hat, curl-toed slippers. But this pixie and her doll-sized partner have snubbed their country cousins and suited up at the continental elf outfitters, snapping up uniforms from the commedia dell'arte garage sale, held around 1800 when the Italian improv troupes shut down.

Their model Arlecchino, a crafty valet later known as Harlequin, started life in rags and patches, which were eventually stylized into diamonds. He too wore pantaloons, a doublet with falling (i.e., sloppy) ruff and fool's cap. He clutched a sword, symbol of the trade, which Santa's elfin helper has exchanged for her own professional totems, the crowd counter and the Saint Nick ID.

The Harlequin look merits the occasional encore, taking a bow in Schiaparelli's 1956 collection, Picasso's Blue Period, and perennially at Halloween.

But Eason's red tunic with royal gold applique must have been filched from the wrong prop shop. Commedia actors came from the sort of lowbrow families that couldn't wrangle an official seal. According to Michael Maclagan and Jiri Louda's book on royal heraldry, this "cross flory or" belonged to Charles Cavendish-Bentinck, Duke of Portland. Two quadrants of his family coat-of-arms flaunt the gilded cross. The other two are stocked, amazingly, with reindeer. Could this have been a private joke back at the workshop?

In Santa's own getup, adapted from his North Pole neighbors, form follows function--it's fur trimmed, flannel-warmed, and highly visible in snow. So why dress his underlings in Italian slapstick, layered with English noblesse oblige? Perhaps he's spelling out a Euro-Santa Fashion Statement, tailored for the upscale State Street shopper: "Have you been naughty o brava?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.

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