Equal parts porcelain doll and 1920s temptress, Michelle Violy Harper is a modern-day showgirl with a heart of gold
“Style is the furniture of the mind made visible.” – James Laver
The first time I laid eyes on the dramatically dressed Michelle Violy Harper, she was, in fact, rather underdressed; standing on a stage clad only in her underwear at a fashion presentation for the label The Lake and Stars. She was too petite to be a runway professional, yet too luminous and too brave not to be Somebody. I saw her repeatedly – at parties, in the elevator at my manager’s office, in a photo tacked to a board at New York Vintage. Always dressed fearlessly and with no attention to trends, her pearlescent alabaster skin and undercut tomboy hair sent a perfect mixed message of cool and elegant. Her face is an illustration – Betty Boop meets Louise Brooks – that is almost cartoonish with its rosebud mouth and round, wide eyes. It’s definitely a vintage face in any case, one that speaks of decadence, innocence, elegance, jazz and bathtub gin.
You almost assume that her bold, evolved style is somehow a full-time occupation so I was surprised to discover that MVH is a brand consultant and entrepreneur as a board member at Tata Harper skincare (created by her sister-in-law, it’s made at her family’s farm in Vermont – note alabaster pearlescent complexion) and at BOFFO, which builds fashion brands. When style goes hand in had with substance, it becomes truly magnificent.
"I can live in Erte’s world for hours and hours and just get lost in the beauty.
– Michelle Violy Harper on her favorite era"
We meet up at the Manhattan Vintage Fair where MVH was looking for vintage burlesque earrings. She explained that her short hair gives her the freedom to be lavish with decoration around the face. “I love wigs,” she says. “I love hats that look like hair. I don’t plan on ever growing my hair out. I love being able to have that as an area of experimentation and play.”
Musing in the racks of vintage clothes, MVH explains that her attachment and affection for these pieces of art does have limits. “Everything in life is in a process of decay. I think it would be crazy to become so attached that you would suffer over a material object. That’s something that I learned from my grandmother. There was a period where the nuns in our town in Columbia were in dire straits and she basically gave her belongings away. Now am I furious sometimes that I don’t have those exquisite pieces? Yes, but at the same time it is a great example to see how life is movement and things come and go. My friend Sarah and I were saying we’re in this community of incredible women and we’re not possessive and we’re not jealous so why not play in each other’s wardrobes? I think that’s fantastic and beautiful and its one of the things that I really enjoy.”
"She was so glamorous but it was a beauty that came from her heart as well. She cared about her appearance secondary to caring about people. – Michelle Violy Harper on her style icon, her grandmother"
Something we agree upon: The necessity of making an effort. Noting MVH’s penchant for Lurex wigs, gelatin sequin Juliet caps and 18th-century bonnets, all of which require a commitment to wear and require a discipline I don’t think many of us have anymore. “You have to really love hats to do it,” she says. “I love that they are decorative elements of your face and that they draw the eye towards your face. That’s where people should be looking when they’re talking to you; not your waistline or your breasts or your butt or your feet. They’re also items that require a certain level of elegance and confidence and thought, which I also enjoy. The red hat is enormous – I have to be careful going through doorways – but it’s a piece of fantasy and beauty, and let’s face it: I’m not always the most practical person. You would definitely have to take it off to get in a taxi. So big deal. Take it off, then put it back on. I don’t think a little effort is the end of the world.”
On to MVH’s closet, which is more of a costume department than a mere clothes-hanging space, all neatly catalogued and labeled. There’s no recognizable it-shoe, no the-bag, no statement-jewels in Michelle’s repertoire (except a black Birkin, which I am willing to forgive on grounds of being a classic) and she wears her clothes effortlessly and seamlessly as though they are part of her skin. Her fearless sense of style is not contrived. There are no trends slavishly followed.
Harper summarizes her style: “Emotional, risk-taking. I’m not afraid to make mistakes. For me, clothes are an emotional journey, and my emotions shift and they change. I have equal love for a worn and fluid beautiful dress from the ’20s and something very structured and strong, like a sculptural McQueen piece.” Although she insists there are casual clothes tucked away for weekends in Vermont, I can’t see her in sweatpants. It’s easier to imagine her feeding chickens and mucking out horses in a ’30s peignoir and muddied sculptural McQueen sandals.
Several weeks later, after a fashion party, I stumble out onto the West Side Highway and discover Michelle and a clustered gaggle of good-nighters. She is wearing neon with her hair in a topknot, her moonlight skin and towering heels like a lamppost in the Manhattan night. We clutch hands and run down 15th street shrieking and laughing and in search of carriages home. “Good night, Beauty!” she calls out of the window of a taxi.