The first time I ever thought about life imitating art was in a German literature class in college. We were reading Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther," kind of an 18th-Century version of the 20th-Century movie hit, "Fatal Attraction."
The story's hero, Werther--who dresses in a trademark blue waistcoat and yellow vest--falls in love with a woman who already has been promised to another man she doesn't love. Werther pines for her and longs for her, but in vain. Finally, after he can no longer watch the loveless marriage from afar, Werther puts himself out of his misery with a bullet to his brain.
A passion-packed love story, to be sure. And certainly it is appropriate to remember it on Valentine's Day. But if you stop here, you'll miss the whole point.
The novel swept through Germany during the 1700s, clearly striking some inner chord in the young men of the time. Suddenly, city streets to the north and south looked as if a strangely dressed army had arrived: Thousands of German men donned the garb of their hero, Werther, and wore his trademark blue waistcoat and yellow vest.
So what's the connection between 18th-Century Germany and 20th-Century Ventura County?
Simple. Centuries can come and go, but people basically remain the same. Whether it's in a Berlin Ratskeller or at a table overlooking Ventura Harbor, fashion still is affected by fictional characters in popular culture.
Nowhere, it seems, is that more evident than in the hats people buy.
If you don't believe me, just ask Michelle Renee, manager of the Village Hatter in Ventura. Since the store opened at the harbor in 1984, Renee said she's seen first-hand the impact Hollywood movies have had on Ventura County fashion.
"We see it all the time. When 'Indiana Jones' came out, all of a sudden the men wanted to buy a fedora just like his," Renee said. "Same thing with 'Dick Tracy' and 'Crocodile Dundee.' They come in and say, 'I want a hat just like I saw in the movie.' "
Women aren't exempt from big-screen influence. Movies such as "Annie Hall" and "Out of Africa" both had an enormous influence on women's clothing in the '70s and '80s. Now, Woody Allen's new movie, "Alice," appears to be affecting the sales of ladies' hats in much the same way. In the film, Alice, played by Mia Farrow in the title role, is a modern, New York woman who undergoes a spiritual transformation after going to work in India with Mother Teresa. When she returns to the Big Apple, she gives up her former life of materialism and leisure in favor of an uncluttered, almost monastic existence.
"Mia Farrow wears this short-brimmed, round, turned-up hat called a schoolgirl in the movie, and now it's really in," Renee said. "It's popular in red felt with black, but they're also going to have them in straw now, too. They're conservative-looking, but they're already pretty popular."
County residents don't appear to be particularly huge hat consumers. In fact, a sampling of department stores revealed that several stores have only a small selection in their accessories departments, and others stopped selling hats altogether. Nonetheless, the schoolgirl style already seems to have made its presence felt.
At May Co. in Thousand Oaks, sales associate Monika Alvarez said the store just got a shipment of the hats in white straw with black bows.
"This is the first hat I've seen in the store other than canvas hats," Alvarez said. "To me, they look like something you'd wear to church, but I guess they're stylish now."
Perhaps, but it probably takes a certain kind of person to rush out and buy a blue waistcoat and yellow vest at the end of reading a book, or a schoolgirl hat at the end of a movie's credits. Obviously, some part of you would have to identify tremendously with the character in the book or movie.
Two hundred years ago, some of those wannabe Werthers identified so much that they actually put a pistol to their heads. Now, I'm just waiting to see if Mother Teresa gets any new volunteers.
* THE PREMISE
Ventura County is teeming with the fashionable and not so fashionable. There are trend-makers and trend-breakers. There are those with style--personal and off-the-rack--and those making fashion statements better left unsaid. Twice a month, we'll be taking a look at fashion in Ventura County--trends, styles and ideas--and asking you what you think. If you have a fashion problem, sighting or suggestion; if you know a fashion success or a fashion victim, let us know. We want to hear from you.