Melbourne songstress Ilana Charnelle is known for her commitment to dressing up in vintage glamour get-up every day almost as much as she is for her 1940s inspired vocals. “Forget smart phones, skinny jeans and autotune - I’m here to take you back to the days of love letters, bathtub gin, slow dancing and smouldering jazz!”
Except without her smart phone, Ilana wouldn’t be able to share her vintage discoveries on instagram. She looks at fashion the same way she looks at songs - by looking back you can see the music and outfits that stand the test of time. They show that they’ve been created by masters of their craft and possess a quality that makes them timeless. A well crafted line, whether it be the cut of a beautiful jacket, a beautifully poignant lyric or an evocative melody, will stand the test of time.
I sat down with Ilana at The Kettle Black last week to talk about her passion for fashion and performing. But before we delved into that, we spoke about her ‘day job’ at Auslan Stage Left.
She already knew sign language (Auslan) and so when a job opportunity came up a great company that helped make arts and cultural activities more accessible for hearing impaired audiences, she was excited to combine two of her skills.
“Learning sign language has definitely impacted my life a huge amount. When I communicate I want to sit directly opposite someone so I can clearly see their face. That level of eye contact can weird a lot of people out, but it’s a very ‘deaf’ thing to do. When I’m communicating with someone I wanted to be absolutely invested in that conversation.”
To approach this interview from a fashion perspective was brand new for me so I asked Ilana to get me up to speed.
“In Melbourne there is a much bigger vintage and pinup community now than whenI first started dressing this way when i was 17 or 18. It’s really grown. A lot of the pinup fashions focus on the rockabilly look, tattoos and a big hair. But my real interest has always been in vintage day. I love how in the 1940s women would wear a pair of slacks and a nice knitted sweater. That’s the stuff I get inspired by because it’s really wearable.”
“A lot of people I pass in the street comment that I’m ‘dressed up’, but back in the day this fashion wasn’t considered dressy at all, it was just standard. Wearing a collared shirt and a pencil skirt, or simple mens’ style slacks with a knit top and sweater. I guess it’s the equivalent of today’s office wear.”
It was also the era of turbans. “I wear a headscarf almost every day. In the 1940s they’d wear a turban style that would cover the whole head with your hair piled on top.”
Ilana confesses to a ‘headscarf addiction’. “I have nearly a hundred scarves. I started collecting them by accident - and then I kept going because they’re cheap and easy buy.” She owns close to one hundred scarves and they are hung around her bedroom, check this blog post on how she designed her personal scarf storage system.
Most of what Ilana wears is sourced from op (opportunity) shops. “In op shops and charity stores you need to be really persistent. You have to be prepared to dig and think creatively when you see something and try everything on - it takes a lot of dedication!”
It’s a matter of deciding what era you want to style your outfit on and then capturing the appropriate silhouette.
In the twenties you’re looking for drop waists and a boyish square sihouette.
By the 1940s you’re looking for more narrow styles and less detail. Of course at that time there was fabric rationing (due to WW2) and no big skirts. Instead they were narrower, well cut and very structured so they came in at the waist, or had big shoulder pads.
Then in the fifties when the new look came in thats when it started getting into huge skirts and very very narrow hip to waist ratios and bright colours.
In Melbourne Charnelle shops at Savers in Brunswick or Fountaingate. “If you’re spending a weekend in the country, the country shops are the best because they’re not as accessible and are less scoured.”
Ilana is really interested in the “Teddy Girls” of the 1950s and their rebellious, underground movement. In the fifties there was a new wave of rebellious teenagers. Teddy Girls were a subset of that group, a bit alternative, and these girls would go to the charity shops which at that time stocked a lot of Victorian era (turn of the century) clothes.
“Of course nowadays we get a lot of seventies and eighties clothes in vintage stores, but in the fifties the op shops were filled with Victorian era fashions.” Teddy Girls bought bits and pieces from the 1910s-20s and you can find images of these teenagers wearing contemporary slacks or skinny pants and then they’d have these Victorian jackets or they’d have walking umbrellas that they’d wear with long overcoats.
“In this example of a photo from the era I love the classic lines of Victorian fashion juxtaposed with 1950s jeans, with shirts untucked and cigarettes dangling from her fingers.”
In terms of fashion icons, Ilana looks to golden era film stars, but rarely does she focus on their most celebrated glamorous outfits.
“I really like pedestrian street wear - thats a big inspiration for me. So instead of searching for movie stars on the red carpet I might look at Audrey Hepburn in a rehearsal room or Marilyn Monroe doing a script reading as opposed to being on set.”
“Marilyn is my number one vintage icon - I love the relaxed photo shoots when she’s at home, when she’s at a cottage wearing some slacks.”
“There’s a lot of great street style to be discovered from college year books. “There are a few vintage blogs that post yearbooks from the 1940s and 50s and it’s amazing to look at these young girls who are doing their own hair and have incredible style - really simple shirts and sweaters, nice brooches. That’s achievable. I can go out to an op shop and buy a nice white collared shirt and a nice cardigan. I don’t think those classic basics ever go out of fashion.”
In 2013 Ilana was invited to perform as part of the Hollywood Costumes exhibition at ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image). She sang the songs of another film icon, Judy Garland.
At this year’s Melbourne Fringe, Ilana Charnelle is channelling her ‘inner Garland’ for the second time in Sophisticated Lady: A Nightcap with Billie, Judy & Ella, collaborating with Mama Alto (who plays Billie Holiday) and singer-songwriter Satta (Ella Fitzgerald).
Mama Alto and Ilana both studied at Monash University and were involved in student theatre. Friends told Ilana that they should meet and weeks later when they finally met they got along like a house on fire and have been close ever since.
Charnelle and Mama Alto share a passion for vintage fashion.
“My grandfather was a tailor when he came to Australia after the second world war. He worked for a label called Los Angeles which was under the bigger label Leon Phillips. When my grandmother was alive, she would pull bits and pieces out of her wardrobe and show me the label saying ‘this is what Zayde made’. Then I was in an op shop once and I found a Leon Phillips coat. I wondered if my grandfather had made it - so I bought it. Then one day I got a phone call from Mama Alto out of the blue asking ‘what was the name of the label your grandfather worked for?’ He asked if there was a picture of a fifties woman with a big circular skirt featured on the Los Angeles label and when I said ‘yes’, he said ‘Great I found you a coat. I’m buying it for you!’ It’s a beautiful black and white coat with lining in red. So now every time I go into an op shop I check the label of every coat in the store.”
Ilana’s two favourite songs from Sophisticated Lady are “The Man That Got Away” and “Love For Sale”.
“I’ve loved The Man That Got Away ever since I first heard the recording of Judy singing it. I love how much emotion is embedded in that song.”
“Mama Alto performs a really beautiful version of ‘Love For Sale’. I first heard the Julie London version of that song and it’s so clever and beautiful whilst it has an underlying bitterness and sadness to it. But when I listen to it I don’t feel sad, just entranced.”
Sophisticated Lady: A Nightcap with Billie, Judy and Ella plays at The Butterfly Club September 23-27 as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival.
An additional Auslan interpreted and mobility aid accessible performance will be held at Hares & Hyenas on September 29.
See more of Ilana’s vintage selfies at instagram.com/IlanaCharnelle,
her blog at http://ilanacharnelle.com/blog/
or keep up with her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ilanacharnelle
Matthew Carey founded Cabaret Confessional in 2009 to promote cabaret artists to the world at large and to archive just some of the amazing cabaret performances that happen around the world every year.
His new initiative is The Business of Performing - helping performing artists learn and develop the business skills to turn their passion into a sustainable career. To sign up to the mailing list and get a free copy of ‘12 Social Media Tips to Sell Out Your Next Show” click here.