Readers of Luxe Libris know that I welcome recommendations for feature subjects. This month’s comes from friend of the newsletter Abbie Weil who recommended editor Elda Granata, her former colleague at Oxford University Press (they’ve both since moved on) for her gorgeous Italian style. I needed no further convincing; I loved the idea of talking to an editor about both her work and her style. I’m smitten with women like Diana Athill, Blanche Knopf, and Avis Devoto—the self-possessed editrixes with heaps of panache who discovered, coaxed, and catapulted some of the twentieth-century’s greatest writers into canon. Elda, I was not at all surprised to learn, comes from this tradition of discerning taste and quiet glamor. Here’s our chat.
Tell me a little about your work as an editor. What are some projects you’ve been really excited about over the years?
Up until last month, I was an Acquisitions Editor at Oxford University Press, overseeing reference publications in classics, literature, and linguistics. I just moved to Rome with my husband and two-year-old daughter to take on a new role at Italian publisher Carocci editore. I will be responsible for developing the editorial strategy and acquiring new academic and trade books in classics and other humanities fields. This is in many ways a return to my roots as I’m originally Italian, and I received a PhD in classics from La Sapienza University of Rome before moving to the US. I’m thrilled to start this new chapter of my life and fully dive into the Italian scholarly landscape, but also grateful for the wonderful opportunities I had at OUP over the last seven years. One of the projects I was most passionate about was the digital edition of the venerable Oxford Classical Dictionary, which I helped to transform into a much broader, more inclusive, and dynamic resource for the study of the ancient Mediterranean world. I’m also proud to have conceived and brought to completion many beautiful volumes in the Oxford Handbooks in Literature series. Since we’re talking about fashion, I will mention the Oxford Handbook of Decadence, which of course includes a chapter on decadent clothing. As you’ll find out in the rest of the interview, decadent aesthetics definitely had an influence on me!
Oxford! Handbook! of Decadence! I see it also has chapters on book arts and perfume. This must have been so fun to work on! What’s something you wished people understood about the work of an editor?
It was a lot of fun to work on this project! And the authors were such lovely and interesting people. Working with, and getting to know, brilliant scholars and writers is one of my favorite aspects of being an editor. People often think our job is simply to “edit” books, namely read them and correct the language and style, but in fact that’s the job of the copyeditor or proofreader. The work of an acquisitions (or commissioning) editor is something much more big-picture than that. In short, we come up with an idea for a project, we find an author to work on it, and then guide its intellectual and editorial development until publication, and beyond. Ultimately, by deciding what projects to publish and what perspectives to highlight, we have a unique opportunity to shape the direction of a field.
Moving from editorial to sartorial: how would you describe your style? How do you approach dressing for work as an editor?
It’s hard to describe my style as something abstract because my preferences tend to adapt and evolve depending on different occasions and life stages—and sometimes it just takes a book, a movie, or a trip to get some new fashion obsession! I would say that my natural tendency is toward 1930s–1940s elegance: jumpsuits, plissé, high-waisted pants, stripes, polka dots, pearls, geometric jewelry, “T-strap” heels. My Sicilian origin and my love for the ancient world also influenced my style of course—whether it’s a lace fan, a ruffled dress in summer, or a cuff golden bracelet, I always bring my Mediterranean identity with me. Starting with my hair, which I wear proudly curly.
When it comes to work, my ideal outfit is Katherine Hepburn-style wide leg pants with a turtleneck sweater in winter or a soft blouse in spring, and maybe a blazer. Or a circle skirt with a white shirt. I love bright colors (particularly green, blue, and red), but I rarely mix them and often opt for a monochrome look. My default is total black or total white with one colorful statement piece. Black-and-white is also one of my all-time favorites.
Where do you find your clothes?
I have some favorite stores and boutiques here in Rome and in Sicily, and I try to shop there whenever possible. For someone who always enjoys experimenting with new outfits like me, it can be hard to resist the temptation of “fast-fashion” brands, particularly Zara, whose style I admittedly love. However, I’m increasingly uneasy with these companies’ low ethical and sustainability standards, so I’ve been making an effort to explore alternatives as much as possible. Vintage stores, in particular, are a wonderful source of beautiful, good-quality, and unique clothes. Not to mention my family’s closets—some of my favorite clothes belonged to my mother or grandmother!
Tell me about your favorite thing in your closet and how you wear it.
One of the most special pieces I have is the Hermès silk foulard my husband gave me a few years ago for my birthday. It’s a limited-edition design by Serbian artist Ljubomir Milinkov, produced in support of an environmental non-profit organization. It represents a bateau fleuri, a sailboat made of flowers floating on the waves surrounded by birds and fish. It’s such an evocative and poetic image. It reminds me of an impressionist painting, and the combination of yellow, green, purple, and turquoise is fantastic. It’s incredibly versatile, and I wear it particularly in spring and summer with white outfits—as a regular scarf around my neck with a shirt, as a belt, or as a headband with dangly aquamarine earrings.
Do you have any style icons?
I adore the confident and effortless glamor of women like Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall with their wide-leg trousers, puff sleeves, and soft hair waves. My Italian style icon is Claudia Cardinale. She had an innate elegance and intensity that pervaded all her looks. Her style was classic, but at the same time modern and refreshing.
Bacall and Hepburn are stone cold fashion favorites, but I am now (thanks to you) obsessed with Cardinale. Do you have a penchant for a particular garment or accessory?
Did I say jumpsuit? I’ve always been obsessed with onesies, even before they were trendy. I have about fifteen in my closet—one for every occasion, from elegant ceremonies and book conferences to informal happy hours and beach days. Other than that, I also have a thing for earrings. Whether it’s just small pearls, hoops, or long dangle earrings, I rarely go out without them and sometimes even design my outfits around them.
Would you like to share a book, film, or cultural heritage object with readers of Luxe Libris?
My mind immediately goes to the 1963 movie The Leopard by Italian director Luchino Visconti, based on the book of the same title by Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. It’s one of my favorite novels, but this is a rare case when the movie is as good as, if not better than, the book. It perfectly captures the spirit of Sicily at the verge of the unification with Italy in the 1860s. Visconti was an aesthete and a visionary who obsessively researched perfection and beauty in scenography, furniture, and of course costumes. The Leopard is perhaps his masterpiece, and the stunning costumes are an essential part of the movie. Designed by Piero Tosi, they recreated nineteenth-century style with impeccable historical accuracy. My wedding dress was created by Sicilian stylist Marella Ferrera and (very, very) loosely inspired by the iconic dress Angelica (interpreted by Claudia Cardinale) wears at the ball in the movie. It had large lace sleeves revealing the shoulders, a fluffy skirt made of several layers, each made of a different fabric (organza, tulle, cotton net, and lace), and short tulle gloves. It was much more modern and not nearly as majestic as Angelica’s dress, but it was still a small homage to Sicily and The Leopard!
This wedding dress is divine. Thanks so much for chatting with Luxe Libris, Elda! You can follow Elda on Instagram at @euplokamos.
Barbara Johnson’s Album of Fashion & Fabrics
When I was kid, between the ages of seven and eight, I kept a detailed “catalog” of the outfits my mother and I acquired for my American Girl doll (a Samantha, of course). I cut out pictures of the garments from the official American Girl catalogs (as well as knock-offs ordered from big-box stores), pasted them onto sheets of stapled printer paper, and scribbled notes detailing what I admired about them. I also kept a diary littered with references to afternoons spent “working on the catalog” or guilt over “feeling behind on the catalog.” Within a year, my commitment to record-keeping dropped off and I moved onto other idiosyncratic only-child projects.
Barbara Johnson, an eight-year-old Vicar’s daughter in Olney, Buckinghamshire, embarked on a similar endeavor in the year 1746, but stuck with it for nearly eighty years. The Barbara Johnson Album of Fashion and Fabrics, now held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is a complete record of Johnson’s sartorial choices and expenses over her lifetime, including over 100 fabric swatches, the yardage acquired and at what cost, the date, occasion for puchasing, and the type of garment fashioned. For example, next to a sample of sky blue and violet-striped silk, a note reads, “a Stip’d buff & blue Taffety negligee June 1758, four guineas the piece sixteen yards, yard wide.” Many pages are also accompanied by clippings of fashion engravings taken from publications such as The Ladies Complete Pocket Book that gesture at the style of the garment produced. I find especially endearing the smaller illustrations that peep out among the swatches, like the women in hats below.
While it was not unusual for women to keep track of household expenses, Johnson’s creation is unique since she never married or attached herself to a relative’s household. Instead, after the death of her parents and on an income of forty-five pounds per year, Johnson rotated among friends and family, many of whom orbited fashionable London circles, precipitating her need to maintain a de rigueur wardrobe. Thanks to her careful planning, Johnson was able to acquire an average of two to three new dresses a year.
Historian of material culture Serena Dyer argues that the album provides rich data on consumption and dress outside traditional household structures, as Johnson never became a wife or mother. (Dyer has a wonderful article about the album that can be found in the Journal for Eigteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 42.) After seeing two twentieth-century dress diaries offered by antiquarian booksellers recently, I wondered if Johnson’s album represented a broader genre of scrapbooking and account-keeping by women. Dyer cites a few examples in her article, but fashion historian Kate Strasdin assures me they are a rare phenomenon. All the more reason to cherish Barbara Johnson’s and rejoice that the Victoria and Albert Museum has digitized it.
The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology has opened “Dior + Balenciaga: The Kings of Couture and Their Legacies” on view through November 6, 2022. FIT assistant professor of fashion design Ted Tamanaha has created mesmerizing 3D simulations of several iconic couture dress structures that can be explored on the museum’s YouTube channel.
I will admit to being moved by seeing the Zelenskys featured in this month’s issue of Vogue, especially at a moment when Americans seem to have moved on from the war in Ukraine.
As long as there is war in Ukraine, this newsletter will highlight ForPEACE, an org run by friend Britta Ellwanger doing extraordinary work on the ground for refugees and soldiers-in-need. Our pal John Vsetecka is doing a birthday fundraiser for ForPEACE. Do us a solid—wish John a Happy Birthday, and donate a few bones to his fundraiser today.