Neely Swanson

“Calendar Girl” – Timeless [MOVIE REVIEW]

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Ruth Finley in the Fashion Calendar office, just before it closed in 2014. Photo courtesy of Christian D. Bruun.

by Neely Swanson

If you aren’t into fashion with a capital F, and you’re not a New Yorker, and maybe even if you are, you will have never heard of Ruth Finley. But “Calendar Girl” directed by Christian Bruun and written by Natalie Nudell will enlighten you, emphasis on the light.

For 65 years, Ruth Finley ran a journal called the “Fashion Calendar.” Talk about a niche! “Fashion Calendar,” created in 1945 by Finley, was, literally, a paper that listed the times and locations of every fashion event in New York City.

Finley who had started her career after college working for Eleanor Lambert who was the primary and most powerful moving force in promoting American Fashion when the French and Italians thoroughly dominated the field. It was the beginning of World War II; the Nazis had shut down the French fashion industry and Lambert saw an opening for pushing forward American designers. She ruled her field with an iron hand and Finley learned much about the politics of fashion from her.

When Finley began her career, Lambert dominated access to showings and could control who was seen (those who paid her) and who was not (those who didn’t). There was no centralized listing of who was showing where and when, so Lambert essentially controlled who was seen and when.

Starting on a shoe string, Finley gathered all the information and became a clearing house, publishing the who, what, and where of all events in the city. Designers began coming to her to consult on the best times to show and find out what else was going on. Working from her own “excel-type” grid, rearranging times, dates, and locations as they were given to her; she was alert to conflicts that needed to be rescheduled, informing the necessary parties and negotiating resolutions. She then produced and mimeographed her listing, always on bright pink paper, mailing it out to her subscribers. Pink, she reasoned, would stand out among the morass of white papers on a desk. She was right.

At first weekly and then biweekly, it was the must-have bible. New designers would come to her for a time slot; established designers confirmed their information. She was the behind-the-scenes guru of data. Before you introduced your line, you consulted with Finley for an available time slot and then she would make recommendations about available event venues in the city. There was no encroachment. When she guaranteed you a time, it was your time; her work was respected. When difficulties arose, Finley proved herself a fair negotiator.

Bill Cunningham and Ruth Finley at City Meals on Wheels event honoring Ruth. Photo courtesy of Christian D. Bruun.

The major change in her distribution method was when she went from mimeographing the newsletter to photocopying it. The film is a tribute to a woman who changed an industry but then, eventually, couldn’t change enough with it. Finley was never able to convert to the computer as a tool for record keeping and distribution. For her, the computer was a more convenient typewriter. She clung ferociously to the U.S. mail and never converted to online distribution despite the entreaties of her clients. Until Fashion Calendar was sold to the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in 2014, it was produced by hand, on paper, on her literal desktop, using white-out to make changes, and then typed (on a computer). She kept all the information on index cards; she lived by and through her Rolodex (a now ancient address book kept on index cards).

A tiny gnome of a woman, this charming documentary intersperses photographs of her early life and career with present day footage of Ruth in her office, at various events, some honoring her, and in conversations with her beau.

We learn that from an early age, Ruth always wanted to work. An early marriage produced two sons but ended after a few years. He wanted a homebody and she was already a successful career woman with a blossoming business, Fashion Calendar. She married soon after to a man in the business who supported her fully and whom she adored. They had a son and he died suddenly at the age of 42, leaving her devastated. She moved the business into her apartment so she would be a constant presence in the boys’ lives and continued on, increasingly more successful in both the business world and her life as a mother. Her sons, who she eventually gathered into her business, speak lovingly of her influence on them.

But Fashion Calendar was not a “family” business, as her sons well understood. Fashion Calendar was Ruth Finley and she held on for 65 years. When she reluctantly sold the newsletter at the age of 94, she continued as a consultant. Fashion is a tough business but there was still room for Ruth Finley, who despite appearances, was tough as nails. She was honored appropriately by both the CFDA and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). Her archives of every Fashion Calendar produced since its inception in 1945 to its sale in 2014 was donated to FIT. It is an invaluable resource documenting the rise of American fashion and a who’s who in the past and present of the industry. Her life and her work was in good order when she passed away in 2018 at the age of 98.

This is a documentary in the same style as “The Times of Bill Cunningham,” the iconic New York Times fashion photographer and “Iris,” Iris Apfel, the 93-year-old style maven. It is interesting to note that Finley helped Cunningham establish himself as a hat designer when he first started out in New York. Like Ruth, they were strictly New York fashion but fascinating individuals. It’s a nice peek into a rarified window.

Opening as part of DOC NYC on November 11. Tickets may be purchased on the DOCS NYC website or by clicking on Purchase Tickets Here.

 

 

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