Saturday, 31 March 2012

What the Midwife wore to go out in

the book:

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth

published 2002   set in the 1950s

[The narrator is a young midwife, working out of a religious house, though not herself a nun, in the poorest part of London. She is going on a date.] Thursday evening came. It was nice to be stepping up West for a change. I had found the life with the sisters and the work in the East End so unexpectedly absorbing that I hadn’t wanted to go anywhere else. However, the chance to dress up couldn’t be resisted. Dress was rather formal in the 1950s. Long full skirts that flared outwards at the hem were in vogue; the smaller the waist and the tighter the waistband the better, irrespective of comfort. Nylon stockings were fairly new, and had seams that, de rigueur, had to be straight up the back of the leg. “Are my seams straight?” was a girl’s constant worried whisper to her friends. Shoes were killers, with 5-6” steel-capped stiletto heels and excruciating pointed toes… Like all the smartest girls of the day, I would totter round London in those crazy shoes, and wouldn’t have been seen dead in anything else.

A careful makeup, hat, gloves, handbag, and I was ready.


The text used is from the edition of this book first published in 2002 - a new version came out to accompany the recent TV series, and has probably been tidied and tightened up. The original has great charm, but reads like an unedited, self-published book. Jennifer Worth started writing it after reading a comment that if a vet’s memoirs could be successful, surely a midwife’s should be even more so. The books (she wrote a trilogy of them) became very successful over a number of years, and have reached many more people since being turned into a major BBC series – their most successful new drama in years, with a massive audience tuning in every Sunday. It is a great shame that Jennifer Worth died in 2011 – she seems like someone who would have loved and greatly enjoyed the affection and attention that resulted.

Five- or six-inch stiletto? Doesn’t sound right, far too high. JW mentions (and mis-spells the name of) Barbara Goalen in relation to clothes in the 1950s, and it is well worth doing a
Google Image Search on the name to find out why Ms Goalen was the original supermodel: her angular but shapely charms and innate charisma suit perfectly the clothes of the time.

Friday, 30 March 2012

New clothes as a declaration of war

the book:

Stoner by John Willams

published 1965   Chapter 7   Events in 1930

[Edith is the wife of the protagonist, William Stoner. She has been away because her father has died] She returned without warning on an afternoon train and walked through the living room into the study where her husband and her daughter quietly sat. She had meant to shock them both by her sudden presence and by her changed appearance…

Edith had bobbed her hair and wore over it one of the those hats that hugged her head so tightly that the cropped hair lay close to her face like an irregular frame; her lips were painted a bright orange-red, and two small spots of rouge sharpened her cheekbones. She wore one of those short dresses that had become fashionable among the younger women during the past few years; it hung straight down from her shoulders and ended just above her knees…

Grace kissed her mother on the cheek and looked at her solemnly. “You look different” she said.

Edith laughed and… whirled around, holding her hands above her head. “I have a new dress and new shoes and a new hair-do. Do you like them?... I am different, I believe... I really believe I am.”

William Stoner knew that… beyond her intention or understanding, uknown to herself, Edith was trying to announce to him a new declaration of war…

This is an extraordinary book, but it is almost impossible to describe what makes it so great. William Stoner is from a farm family in Missouri: he gets the chance to study agriculture at university, switches to English literature, and spends the rest of his life teaching at the University of Missouri at Columbia. He has an unhappy marriage, and his career stalls. All this, taking place in the first half of the 20th century, is described in plain prose: 40 years' history in under 300 pages. From the opening words it is clear that Stoner is held in ‘no particular esteem’, that nothing big happens to him, and that he will be quickly forgotten by his students and colleagues. It should be a depressing read, and while it is not exactly full of jokes, it is a wonderful book, and almost unputdownable. It is a true work of art: a picture of a man’s life. John Williams says of Stoner: “I think he’s a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to…” This is all somewhat reminsicient of the closing lines of George Eliot's Middlemarch (or 'long plod' as it is known to a close associate of Clothes in Books.)

The one really sad part of his life is his marriage: it is a complete and horrible battleground, and their competition for the life and affection of their daughter is particularly vivid and awful. In fact, one might venture (hesitantly) that Edith is not a convincing character because she is so dreadful, as seen through Stoner’s eyes: there is surely room here for a Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys’s version of the first Mrs Rochester from Jane Eyre) – the marriage seen from Edith’s point of view could make equally riveting reading.

The picture is of the ballerina Anna Pavlova in 1929: it is from the state library of New South Wales, via

Thursday, 29 March 2012

A Noel Coward Greek tragedy: thinking about clothes 2

the book:

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

published 1949    chapter 3 and chapter 8  events in the mid-1930s

[Two young women, Polly and narrator Fanny, at a country houseparty.] “It was all very dull – this coming-out seems a great great bore – do you enjoy it Fanny?”…

“What I do enjoy” I said truthfully, “is the dressing up.”

“Oh so do I! Do you think about dresses and hats all the time, even in church? I do too. Heavenly tweed, Fanny, I noticed it at once… Is this what you’re going to wear tonight?” Polly went up to the huge red four-poster where my dress was laid out. “How lovely – green velvet and silver, I call that a dream, so soft and delicious, too.” She rubbed a fold of the skirt against her cheek. “Mine’s silver lame, it smells like a bird cage when it gets hot but I do love it. Aren’t you thankful evening skirts are long again?”….

[Later, Polly’s mother is talking with her sister-in-law] “What can be the matter with Polly? So beautiful and no BA at all.” [Lady Montdore is famous for her malapropisms.] “SA” said Lady Patricia faintly “or BO.”

“When we were young none of that existed, thank goodness. SA and BO, perfect rubbish and bosh – one was a beauty or a jolie-laide and that was that. All the same, now that they have been invented I suppose it is better if the girls have them, their partners seem to like it, and Polly hasn’t a vestige, you can see that…”


This blog entry should be read in conjunction with yesterday’s – two women called Frances, at opposite ends of their lives, talking about clothes. Why is the beautiful Polly so bored with coming out? – there is a mystery tied up in her lovelife, which will play out like a Noel Coward Greek tragedy during this book. Polly will have a brief moment “radiating happiness… in a ball dress of last season” getting married, but it will not turn out well, and in the end she will settle for something less, and lose her looks.

Is it necessary to say that SA is sex appeal, BO is body odour? There is an odd connection with A Caribbean Mystery,
this blog entry, where Miss Marple reflects on a female character: “not an atom of glamour…What was lacking in Esther had been called by so many names during Miss Marple’s span of existence. ‘Not really attractive to me’ ‘no SA’ ‘lacks come-hither in her eye.’… lacking that something that makes a man’s head turn when he passes a woman in the street.” (She is the woman who is too class-conscious to have an affair with a fellow-employee.)

Lady Montdore, Polly’s mother is (against considerable competition) probably NM’s finest creation: with her ‘worldly greed and snobbishness, her terrible relentless rudeness’ she easily outclasses and outranks The Dowager Lady Grantham, as played by Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey. In this book, Fanny, Polly and Lady Montdore travel home together after a wedding: “Lady Montdore was wonderful when it came to picking over an occasion of that sort, with her gimlet eye nothing escaped her, nor did any charitable inhibitions tone down her comments on what she had observed.” NM points out that people may disapprove and be shocked by such a carryon, but that it makes for lively company and great social events.

Photo of the Baroness de Guestre from the Library of Congress, featured on
Flickr (and a dress that in a modern photo you would certainly identify as coming from Phase Eight.)

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Thinking about clothes all the time 1

the book:

A Party in San Niccolo by Christobel Kent

published 2003  chapter 26   set in 1997

[Frances is about to celebrate her 75th birthday] Perhaps it was because she was fundamentally superficial, Frances thought idly, without distress, but she could always remember clothes. For Frances they were repositories of memory and emotion. She could remember the dress she wore to be presented at court as a debutante, white duchesse satin with tight-fitting sleeves; the colour of the skirt she wore when she broke her arm climbing a tree at the age of nine; almost every one of her mother’s evening dresses, scarlet velvet, black satin, scoop-necked, strapless, chiffon, all fragrant with tuberose and her mother’s perspiration. Frances could remember what she was wearing when Roland first kissed her: a dark-red wool suit with glass buttons, a nipped-in waist and reversed cuffs, a flared, ballet-length skirt. She had bought it from a bombed-out shop on Shaftesbury Avenue with three months’ War Office pay, unable to resist its hauteur as it stood on the wooden mannequin in the shattered window.


This could be the Clothes in Books mission statement. Of course she remembers all her clothes, don’t we all? And of course she’s not superficial. This is the first of Christobel Kent’s novels with a setting in and around Florence: this one is not sure if it’s a thriller or a romantic comedy or a look at life, but is still a good read, and her books have got better and better since this one – now she has a series featuring Florentine private eye Sandro Cellini, excellent.

Tomorrow’s blog entry will feature two Nancy Mitford heroines discussing how they think about clothes all the time – ‘even in church.’ And this love of clothes is also reminiscient of NM’s Fanny (short for Frances, like the heroine above) being ‘obliged to admit’ that she has always had a (human) love object in her mind, for as long as she could remember, in the same book. Style icon Veronica Chaddesley Corbett agrees with her: “from kiddie-car to hearse, darling, I couldn’t know it better. After all, what would there be to think about when one’s alone otherwise?” Well, clothes obviously, and all these heroines seem to enjoy both these key elements without needing to apologize, and without seeming stupid, or uninvolved with other aspects of life.

The photo is from the
Powerhouse Museum, via Flickr.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

A fascinating fact about fascinators

the book:

A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie

published 1964   chapter 23

[Old-lady sleuth Miss Marple is investigating a crime while on holiday in the West Indies.] Miss Marple woke suddenly and sat up in bed. Her heart was beating. She switched on the light and looked at the little clock by her bedside. Two am. Two am and outside activity of some kind was going on. She got up, put on her dressing gown and slippers, and a woollen scarf round her head and went out to reconnoitre….

[Mr Rafiel] was fast asleep in bed...when he was taken by the shoulders and shaken violently… “It’s me,” said Miss Marple, for once ungrammatical, “though I should put it a little more strongly than that. The Greeks, I believe, had a word for it. Nemesis, if I am not wrong.”

Mr Rafiel raised himself on his pillows as far as he could. He stared at her. Miss Marple, standing there in the moonlight, her head encased in a fluffy scarf of pale pink wool, looked as unlike a figure of Nemesis as it was possible to imagine.


Miss Marple does not have on a headpiece consisting of a flower, a waving feather and a square of netting, but she IS wearing a fascinator. It is never named as such in this book, but in Nemesis, a sort of sequel seven years later, Miss M reminisces about the incident above: “She’d been wearing that pink wool – what used they to call them when she was young? – a fascinator. That nice pink wool kind of shawl-scarf that she’d put round her head.” An old definition of a fascinator is ‘a covering for the head of silk, lace, or crocheted net worn by women’ - a lightweight head covering which would give some warmth and protection without ruining a hairstyle. It’s not clear how the term became attached to an item worn by women who want something on their head but not a hat, mostly for weddings.

The books may not describe a world that anyone would recognize as real, but are still good for a few sociological observations along the way – particularly in language and attitudes. In this one, a housesitter is mentioned: “He’s very house proud. He’s a queer.” This may be the only such direct reference in the canon – although there are strong implications of gay relationships in some of the books (don’t even start on the recent TV adaptations.) There is also some speculation about the possibility of a secretary having an affair with a male valet/masseur (oh the career opportunities open to AC characters!): “He hasn’t cut any ice in that direction. For one thing, there’s class distinction. She’s just a cut above him. Not very much. If she was really a cut above him it wouldn’t matter, but the lower middle-class - they’re very particular.”

Connections: In the later book, Miss Marple (who is about 140 by now) is described by a solicitor as being of the type of a
Provincial Lady. She also featured in this blog entry on The Body in the Library.

The picture is from the Library of Congress, via
Flickr, and shows a Queen of Romania – apparently Queen Elisabeth. Not quite the right queen, but no excuse not to quote Dorothy Parker's Comment:

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea,
And love is a thing that can never go wrong
And I am Marie of Romania.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Yes the rich are different...

the book:

The Wings of the Dove by Henry James

published 1902   chapter 5

A less vulgarly, a less obviously purchasing or parading person she couldn't have imagined; but it prevailed even as the truth of truths that the girl couldn't get away from her wealth. She might leave her conscientious companion as freely alone with it as possible and never ask a question, scarce even tolerate a reference; but it was in the fine folds of the helplessly expensive little black frock that she drew over the grass as she now strolled vaguely off; it was in the curious and splendid coils of hair, "done" with no eye whatever to the mode du jour, that peeped from under the corresponding indifference of her hat, the merely personal tradition that suggested a sort of noble inelegance; it lurked between the leaves of the uncut but antiquated Tauchnitz volume of which, before going out, she had mechanically possessed herself. She couldn't dress it away, nor walk it away, nor read it away, nor think it away; she could neither smile it away in any dreamy absence nor blow it away in any softened sigh. She couldn't have lost it if she had tried--that was what it was to be really rich. It had to be THE thing you were.


Visiting this book again, because it makes such an impression. Milly Theale, the beautiful, red-haired, good-natured heiress, is described many times in the book, with no sense of repetition but nothing added:

her black dress, her white face and her vivid hair

duskily draped, sable-plumed, all but incongruously shod

her big black hat, so little superstitiously in the fashion, her fine black garments throughout, the swathing of her throat [with lace and pearls].

And she is a memorable believable character, but one who has no point of view, we never find out what she is thinking directly, she always appears via other people. She could be a cipher, a pawn in the game, but she isn’t. She is a strange and clever creation. See more about this book in
this blog entry

Another example of the odd, strangely-constructed sentences:

He came to let her know that he knows better than she for whom it was she had a couple of months before, in her fool's paradise, refused him.
And a very odd visual metaphor:

When that was the case the reason, in turn, could only be, too manifestly, pity; and when pity held up its telltale face like a head on a pike, in a French revolution, bobbing before a window, what was the inference but that the patient was bad?
And yet again, the view that this book is worth ploughing through the difficulties and the complex language, and rewards the effort a hundred times. The mysteriousness, whereby sometimes you have to work hard to find out who is being discussed, let alone what is being said, and what any of the main characters know and understand at any one time – well, it is reflected in the fact that the book is full of secrets, meetings that don’t take place, a forever unread letter, events that take place offstage.

The picture is by William Orpen, called Bridgit, a Picture of Miss Elvery, and can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

So what should we be wearing, Louisa May Alcott?

the book:

Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott

published 1875    Chapter 18

[The orphan Rose is trying on another outfit, after changing out of the restrictive suit described here]
…"Well, I don't see anything remarkable. That is a neat, plain suit; the materials are good, and it's not unbecoming, if you want her to look like a little school-girl; but it has not a particle of style, and no one would ever give it a second glance," said Mrs. Clara, feeling that her last remark condemned the whole thing.

"Exactly what I want," answered the provoking Doctor, rubbing his hands with a satisfied air. "Rosy looks now like what she is, a modest little girl, who does not want to be stared at. I think she would get a glance of approval, though, from people who like sense and simplicity rather than fuss and feathers. Revolve, my Hebe, and let me refresh my eyes by the sight of you."

There was very little to see, however, only a pretty Gabrielle dress, of a soft warm shade of brown, coming to the tops of a trim pair of boots with low heels. A seal-skin sack, cap, and mittens, with a glimpse of scarlet at the throat, and the pretty curls tied up with a bright velvet of the same colour, completed the external adornment, making her look like a robin redbreast wintry, yet warm.
"How do you like it, Rosy?" asked the Doctor…

"I feel very odd and light, but I'm warm as a toast, and nothing seems to be in my way," answered Rose, with a skip which displayed shapely gaiters on legs that now might be as free and active as a boy's under the modest skirts of the girl...


So this is the rational outfit – in earlier blog entries we have heard about the corsets, and seen the fussy outfit. Goody-goody Rose chooses the sensible outfit, and jumps over the sofa to show how practical it is. She also admits that she was going to choose her Uncle’s outfit come what may: “I’d wear a bag if he asked me to do it."

Reading this book for the first time as an adult, (and again at the helpful suggestion of Theano Mouratides Petersen) I assumed that Uncle Alec was in love with Rose’s mother, who became his brother’s wife, and that was the reason for a certain estrangement in the family. I talked to someone who read it as a child, and she told me confidently that the book ended with Rose marrying her Uncle Alec. This is plainly not what happens, but if you re-read the ending with this in mind, it is clear how the misunderstanding could arise to a child’s view:

I know who I love best, who I'm happiest with, and I choose uncle. Will he have me?" cried Rose… If she really had any doubt, the look in Dr. Alec's face banished it without a word, as he opened wide his arms, and she ran into them, feeling that home was there.
This very creepy mother/daughter idea has parallels with a real-life story. Thomas Hardy wrote a poem called Lorna the Second, based on an incident he had heard of - the man concerned went to the funeral of his childhood sweetheart, met her daughter there, and subsequently married her. In a different twist, Bloomsbury figure David Garnett visited the cradle of the baby daughter of his lover Duncan Bell, said he would marry her when she was older, and did (to her parents’ horror).

The photograph is of the artist Georgina Klitgaard, is from the archives of American Art, and is featured on

Saturday, 24 March 2012

An appearance like a composed salad

the book:

Insignificant Others by Stephen McCauley

published 2010  

[Narrator Richard is talking to Doreen, who is in business with his lover Conrad]

She was sitting in a black leather Le Corbusier chair – Conrad’s idea of shabby chic – with her legs crossed and her head pulled back in that appalled and condescending way. She was a tall woman of extreme slenderness that seemed to be her natural body type, exacerbated by an apparent belief that there was something lower-class and demeaning about eating in front of other people…

She had a flair for clothes and accoutrements that gave all of her features a stylish glamour. Big earrings that drew attention to her long neck, Bakelite bracelets to adorn her slim wrists, and heels that made a statement out of her thin legs. Her overall appearance was so carefully but unnaturally arranged, like a composed salad, that it was hard to imagine her walking in the outdoors…

She had a habit of lightly touching the corners of her mouth with a finger and thumb when she smiled. Probably it had something to do with her lipstick, but it always looked to me as if she were manually stretching her lips for the desired effect.

Stephen McCauley’s books are generally very similar (one, True Enough, is a bit different): a gay protagonist, living in the Boston area, having troubles with his relationship and his job and his friends. And they are similar in that they are all wonderful, and it is astonishing that he isn’t better known and read everywhere. The books are very funny, and very clever, and full of great, recognizable descriptions of people, places, conversations, situations. They are, perhaps, comedies of manners, a lovely take on life today, with a positivity and kindness about them. The description of Doreen above is sharp but not mean, and during the book Richard will warm to her: both of them are worried about their mutual friend Conrad. There is a great scene later where she comes to dinner, helps with the cooking, then asks if she can keep her apron on while they eat, because she feels over-dressed. (She still doesn’t eat very much.)

There are great throwaway lines like ‘From what I can tell, the chief distinguishing factor between children and adults is that children hear everything while appearing not to, and adults hear nothing while pretending to listen.’ Doreen’s shoes are described as ‘art opening’ shoes.

McCauley is also always very good on work and offices – the kind of conversations people have and the way they interact, and also how companies and organizations operate.(After reading each of his six books, you would be sure that the author in real life did the job held by the main character.) Richard in this one works in HR for a high-tech computer company, and it is a most convincing and (again) recognizable picture.

Connection: Conrad, Richard’s lover, has “an astonishing ability to sit down at a piano and play with great feeling the first three bars – but only the first three bars – of Moonlight Sonata”. ‘Queen’ Lucia, in the books by E F Benson featured here, can only play the first movement, and always finds an excuse to go no further.

The picture is early dance pioneer Ruth St Denis (again - she featured here) from the Performing Arts collection of the New York Public Library. It can be found on

Friday, 23 March 2012

Difficulties with tight skirts 2

the book:

Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott

published 1875    Chapter 18

[Rose, a 13 year old orphan, is wearing a full winter costume of the latest fashion, chosen by her aunts.]

The suit was of two peculiar shades of blue, so arranged that patches of light and dark distracted the eye. The upper skirt was tied so tightly back that it was impossible to take a long step, and the under one was so loaded with plaited frills that it "wobbled" - no other word will express it - ungracefully, both fore and aft. A bunch of folds was gathered up just below the waist behind, and a great bow rode a-top. A small jacket of the same material was adorned with a high ruff at the back, and laid well open over the breast, to display some lace and a locket. Heavy fringes, bows, puffs, ruffles, and revers finished off the dress, making one's head ache to think of the amount of work wasted, for not a single graceful line struck the eye, and the beauty of the material was quite lost in the profusion of ornament.

A high velvet hat, audaciously turned up in front, with a bunch of pink roses and a sweeping plume, was cocked over one ear, and, with her curls braided into a club at the back of her neck, Rose's head looked more like that of a dashing young cavalier than a modest little girl's. High-heeled boots tilted her well forward, a tiny muff pinioned her arms, and a spotted veil, tied so closely over her face that her eyelashes were rumpled by it, gave the last touch of absurdity to her appearance.


Louisa May Alcott is not one to leave you in any doubt that she disapproves of this outfit – soon Rose is stumbling, unable to walk freely, and there is about to be trouble over corsets – this blog entry here. LMA herself was a supporter of rational dress for women: simple, trouble-free clothes. The more sensible outfit suggested by dear Uncle Alec will feature in another blog entry.

The book is very much about the best way to bring up children, particularly girls, LMA not noticeably reluctant to have a view just because she herself never married or had children – though to be fair, the people involved in bringing up Rose in this book do not include any parents. And in fact in 1879, four years after this book was published, her own younger sister died and LMA took in a 2-year-old daughter, her niece. It would be interesting to know if she changed her views at all with some practical experience.

blog entry, about the 1985 Peter Dickinson book Death of a Unicorn, a young woman in the 1950s claims to have difficulty moving around in a tight skirt. Eight Cousins has featured before. Thanks again to Theano Mouratides Petersen for the fruitful suggestion.

The photo is from the Bain Collection at the Library of Congress, and can be seen on Flickr.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

A black dress that cost $40 - the Plath view 2

the book:

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

published 1963     chapter 1 & chapter 9

I wore a black shantung sheath that cost me 40 dollars. It was part of a buying spree I had with some of my scholarship money when I heard I was one of the lucky ones going to New York. This dress was cut so queerly I couldn’t wear any sort of bra under it, but that didn’t matter much as I was skinny as a boy and barely rippled, and I liked feeling almost naked on the hot summer nights. The city had faded my tan, though. I looked yellow as a Chinaman. Ordinarily I would have been nervous about my dress and my odd colour, but being with Doreen made me forget my worries. I felt wise and cynical as all hell…

[last night in New York.]  I stood quietly in the doorway in my black sheath and my black stole with the fringe, yellower than ever, but expecting less. ‘I am an observer’ I told myself, as I watched Doreen being handed into the room by the blond boy to another man, who was also tall, but dark, with slightly longer hair. This man was wearing an immaculate white suit, a pale blue shirt and a yellow satin tie with a bright stickpin.

I couldn’t take my eyes off that stickpin.


The Bell Jar again – last time we had Esther’s friend Doreen, the southern belle in her white dress. Before the second night out above, Esther complains about her clothes to Doreen, saying she can’t face them, and Doreen stuffs them all out of sight under the bed. This black dress is the one item Esther saves: ‘Hey. Leave that one out. I’m wearing it.’

This particular evening is not going to end well, the man with the stickpin is not a nice man at all, and the black dress will end up very muddy. When Esther returns from the night out, she – ‘quiet as a burglar in my cornflower-sprigged bathrobe’ - throws her clothes off the roof of the hotel where they are living. And after the clothes go off the roof, Esther’s life is going into freefall too.

‘Yellow as a Chinaman’ is of its time – normal usage then, seen as a racial slur now.

J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye
this blog entry – was published in 1951, two years before the time of The Bell Jar, and also featured a young person wandering round New York, trying to make sense of life, and headed for a breakdown. ‘I felt wise and cynical as all hell’, above, sounds exactly like Holden Caulfield.

The photo is from the
Florida State Archives and is featured on Flickr.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The knock-on effect of a new hat, and it's not good

the book:

The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M.Delafield

published 1930

January 22nd:... Feel that life is unendurable, and decide madly to get a new hat. Customary painful situation between Bank and myself necessitates expedient, also customary, of pawning great-aunt’s diamond ring…

Visit four linen-drapers and try on several dozen hats. Look worse and worse in each one, as hair gets wilder and wilder, and expression paler and more harassed. Decide to get myself shampooed and waved before doing any more, in hopes of improving the situation.

Hairdresser’s assistant says, It’s a pity my hair is losing all its colour, and have I ever thought of having it touched up? After long discussion, I do have it touched up, and emerge with mahogany-coloured head. Hairdresser’s assistant says this will wear off “in a few days.” I am very angry, but all to no purpose…

January 23rd: Very uneasy about the colour of my hair, which is not wearing off in the least. Think seriously of keeping a hat on all through lunch, but this, on the whole, would look even more unnatural… Dear Mary, always so observant, gazes at it in nerve-shattering silence [then says] she cannot imagine why anybody should deliberately make themselves look ten years older than they need. Feel that, if she wishes to discourage further experiments on my part, this observation could scarcely be improved upon…


The Diary of a Provincial Lady is another of those books (see also the previously featured I Capture the Castle and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) which you can re-read every few years, always funny and entertaining, always to be relied on to cheer you up. It is a very clever and funny book, apparently artless but deft and beautifully written. The Lady herself is a bit wistful about her bohemian and literary past in Hampstead, when she shared a flat and went to parties – she is now the wife of a country agent, living a life of perfect respectability, loving her children and dealing with the servants. But she still has literary leanings – she mentions that she was ‘perfectly able to talk most intelligently [about Virginia Woolf’s Orlando] until I read it, and found myself unfortunately unable to understand any of it.’

Orlando featured in
this blog entry, as does Vita Sackville-West, who turns up in the diary later:

August 31st: Remember that V. Sackville-West and I once attended dancing classes together at the Royal Albert Hall, many years ago, but feel that if I do mention this, everybody will think that I am boasting – which indeed I should be – so better forget about it again, and in any case, dancing never my strongest point, and performance at Albert Hall extremely mediocre and may well be left in oblivion.

The photo is from Cornell University Library and can be found on Flickr.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

A bag cover to match your white dress: the Plath view 1

the book:

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

published 1963     chapter 1

Doreen singled me out right away. She made me feel I was that much sharper than the others, and she really was wonderfully funny. She used to sit next to me at the conference table, and when the visiting celebrities were talking she’d whisper witty sarcastic remarks to me under her breath.

Her college was so fashion-conscious, she said, that all the girls had pocket-book covers made out of the same material as their dresses, so each time they changed their clothes they had a matching pocket-book. This kind of detail impressed me. It suggested a whole life of marvellous, elaborate decadence that attracted me like a magnet…

[they are going out to a party]

Doreen looked terrific. She was wearing a strapless white lace dress zipped up over a snug corset affair that curved her in at the middle and bulged her out again spectacularly above and below, and her skin had a bronzy polish under the pale dusting-powder. She smelled strong as a whole perfume store…[She was] fiddling with her white lace pocket-book cover.


The narrator, Esther, is one of a group of college students doing what we would now call an internship in New York in 1953 – ‘the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs’, as the opening line of the book tells us. They are working at a teenage girls’ magazine, as Sylvia Plath did herself. Plath does a great job of giving us the atmosphere of the girls living and socializing together, bitching and forming alliances. Doreen calls one of the other girls ‘Pollyanna Cowgirl’, and Esther is torn between the sophistication of the one girl and the respectable values of the other. Doreen has a peach silk dressing-gown and see-through nylon and lace nightdresses, whereas everyone else has ‘starched cotton summer nighties and quilted housecoats, or maybe terry-towel robes that double as beachcoats.’

It is impossible for us to read Plath’s book without knowing that she attempted suicide when she was Esther’s age, and eventually succeeded not long after this book was first published. As one literary critic says, ‘perhaps it is not that she rejects society, but that she genuinely does not feel she can belong to it or understand it… Plath seems to have interrogated every situation she was in until she could not abide it any longer.’

Doreen wears a white dress, Esther a black one (and Esther has a black evening bag, so doesn’t need a special cover for it…); the black dress will feature on the blog later in the week.

The photo is of a wedding dress by the Italian designer de Cesare, and, like
this blog entry, came from Perry Photography: you can see more of her pictures at Flickr.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Arnold Bennett & Calvin & Hobbes: smocks unite humanity

the book:

The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett

Published1908    Book 2 Ch 8:The Proudest Mother   events set in 1893

[Constance Povey, who was brought up in a drapers’ shop, is in awe of her son Cyril]

...She laboriously interested herself, so far as he would allow, in his artistic studies and productions. A back attic on the second floor was now transformed into a studio—a naked apartment which smelt of oil and of damp clay. Often there were traces of clay on the stairs. For working in clay he demanded of his mother a smock, and she made a smock, on the model of a genuine smock which she obtained from a country-woman who sold eggs and butter in the Covered Market. Into the shoulders of the smock she put a week's fancy-stitching, taking the pattern from an old book of embroidery… When the smock was finished he examined it intently; then exclaimed with an air of surprise: "By Jove! That's beautiful! Where did you get this pattern?" He continued to stare at it, smiling in pleasure. He turned over the tattered leaves of the embroidery-book with the same naive, charmed astonishment, and carried the book away to the studio. "I must show that to Swynnerton," he said.... Later, he discovered her cutting out another smock. "What's that for?" he inquired. "Well," she said, "you can't manage with one smock. What shall you do when that one has to go to the wash?" "Wash!" he repeated vaguely. "There's no need for it to go to the wash." "Cyril," she replied, "don't try my patience! I was thinking of making you half-a-dozen." He whistled. "With all that stitching?" he questioned, amazed at the undertaking. "Why not?" she said. In her young days, no seamstress ever made fewer than half-a-dozen of anything, and it was usually a dozen; it was sometimes half-a-dozen dozen.


The Old Wives'Tale has featured on the blog here, and is full of descriptions of clothes. Cyril is a rather unsatisfactory son, with his artistic ways, and he certainly isn’t going to take over the drapers’ shop. But here he shows that he is not completely lost to simplicity and real life.

As a baby his parents argued over whether to go into him when he cried in the night – a very real scene that could have come from any recent book featuring babies. And he has been spoilt since childhood – his parents ‘both really did believe, at that moment, that Cyril was, in some subtle way which they felt but could not define, superior to all other infants.’ There is another very funny scene describing one of his young birthday parties, with the adults standing behind the children’s chairs at the dining-table, like so many extra footmen.

If smocks are to feature, immutable laws mean that
this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon by Bill Watterson, must be referenced: ‘Don’t mock my smock or I’ll clean your clock.’ Hobbes (that’s the tiger) is like Cyril and needs a smock before he can do sculpture, but eventually reveals that he just likes saying the word ‘smock’. Can’t argue with that.

The picture, from the Archives of American Art, is of the sculptor Fernando Miranda, and is on Flickr.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Mother's Day special: a clothes sacrifice

the book:

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

published 1949   Chapter 8   set in about 1935

[The Mortmains are going to dinner with the new family at the big house. There are hopes for the elder daughter, Rose, with a young man there.]

...Father came from the bathroom and went through to his bedroom. The next second I heard him shout: ‘Good God, what have you done to yourself?’

He sounded so horrified that I thought [stepmother] Topaz had had some accident… She was wearing a black evening dress… her hair was done up in a bun and she had make-up on…The result was astounding. She looked quite ordinary – just vaguely pretty but not worth a second glance.

“Oh Mortmain this is Rose’s night. I want all the attention to be focused on her - ”

I was bewildered at such unselfishness… I knew what she meant of course – at her most striking she can make Rose’s beauty look like mere prettiness… Oh noble Topaz!

I heard Father shout: “To Hell with that. God knows I’ve very little left to be proud of. At least let me be proud of my wife.”

When they came down, Topaz was as white as usual and her silvery hair, which was at its very cleanest, was hanging down her back. She had her best dress on which is Grecian in shape, like a clinging grey cloud, with a great grey scarf which she had draped round her head and shoulders. She looked most beautiful – and just how I imagine the Angel of Death...


It is Mother’s Day in the UK, so let’s hear it for the stepmothers and substitute mothers. The wonderful Topaz shows a true generosity – particularly kind as Rose is often rude to her.

Those of us who re-read this book every few years, having started at the age of about 14, may have the shared shock of growing older than Topaz. Heroine/narrator Cassandra is 17, and to her and her teenage readers, Topaz is quite grown up. It is quite a surprise to realize, years later, that Topaz is all of 29. She has an exciting past, only ever hinted at, is prone to some affectation, but is a lovely person. The book, so specific in its time, place, milieu, gender, is one that anyone could read and enjoy. It is so much more than its surface, and Cassandra is one of the finest heroines in English literature, as well as one of the funniest.

Dodie Smith is best known for writing the Hundred and One Dalmatians, but it this book which is her great legacy. A casual description would make it sound as if it were a first-time writer’s autobiographical novel of first love, but there is no trace of her own life in the details, and she was over 50 when it was published. She spent years writing it, revising it and polishing every word, and it shows. It is full of descriptions of clothes, so expect to see it again. (It has already been mentioned in this blog entry.)

The photograph shows Ruth St Denis, one of the American pioneers of modern ballet. Martha Graham was her pupil, as was the heart-stoppingly beautiful silent movie star Louise Brooks. (Brooks was sacked from the dance company with the accusation that she wanted everything presented to her ‘on a silver salver.’ Bewildered, she said ‘what is a silver salver?’ – lines that could have come from I Capture the Castle.)

The picture comes from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and can be found on Flickr.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

"In the full glory of some passion": James Joyce

the book:

The Dead by James Joyce

From short story collection Dubliners, published 1914

Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others. He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terra-cotta and salmon-pink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man's voice singing.

He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.


For St Patrick’s Day, one of Ireland’s finest writers and one of the most beautiful short stories ever written. Gabriel Conroy has been at his aunts’ Twelfth Night party in Dublin, and is about to take his wife Gretta to a hotel for the night. He is filled with love for her as she listens to the song ‘The Lass of Aughrim’. When they are alone, they will have a conversation, and she will tell him why she was listening so intently, why the song meant something to her. Gabriel has his epiphany as she sleeps, and he thinks about what she has told him. The snow falls – it is general all over Ireland. He looks out at it.
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
There are several versions of the song – which is chillingly sad – on itunes, and the 1987 John Huston film of The Dead is unexpectedly good - faithful to the original with wonderful acting.

The photograph - from the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, featured on Flickr – is of an early silent movie star known, understandably, as Louise Lovely.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Using your eyes to see what's around you

the book:

Peripheral Vision by Patricia Ferguson

published 2007     Section: After the Lecture 1983

[Medical student Sylvia Henshaw has been offered a lift home by one of her lecturers, Rob Wilding, on a very wet day]

‘May I ask you something?’ he said.


They drew up at a red light.

‘Do you often wear leathers?’

She turned to look at him outright, in surprise. Their eyes met. It was all a bit much for Sylvia. She felt herself hotly blushing.

‘Oh well of course I do realise I look a bit peculiar – ‘

‘Not at all - ' he said.

‘But my bike got stolen. I mean I don’t usually, well, it’s to ride a motorbike in.’

Helplessly she began to giggle. Somehow she had felt so angry at losing the bike… that she had not for a moment considered what she might have looked like standing at the bus stop in tight leather black trousers and matching figure-hugging zip-up jacket. And sleek wet hair, oh, gods of lucky chance, what more could a girl want?

‘I’m sorry to hear that’ said Mr Wilding, deadpan. ‘I thought it might be another side to your character.’


No-one has heard of Patricia Ferguson, although she is long-and short-listed for prizes, and her first book – Family Myths and Legends – won three literary prizes. Her writing could be described as quietly clever. This is how her agent describes this book: "Peripheral Vision is a funny, moving, enthralling story of love, separation, deception and betrayal spanning two generations from the years of post-war austerity to the modern era of consumerism and affluence." The book has many strands and time periods, and a recurring theme of vision, eyes, and eye problems. It is very readable and memorable, though some sections work much better than others. The character of Iris in the book is particularly strong, someone who is shown as deeply problematic but very likeable, and real and believable. Sylvia, above, also just feels like someone you might know. Yes well -  proving that it’s difficult to describe what it is about Patricia Ferguson’s writing that is so - winning - and unusual: perhaps that is why no-one has heard of her.

From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales
and featured on Flickr.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

"Poor old dead legs" 2: Wedding dresses and the male voice

the book:

Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess

published 1980    Chapter 28, 1919    &  Chapter 42, 1928

"...He and Hortense had spent some time with me in Paris, she to see about her weddingdress and trousseau. The dress was made by the rising house of Worth and was very modern, that is to say it had a tubular bodice, low waist, gathered skirt that only just covered the knees, shirttype sleeves, flared lace oversleeves, low U-shaped neckline, and a fine chiffon veil with embroidered edges. It was in Paris that she said, while Domenico was meeting the composer Germaine Tailleferre somewhere, that she would never forgive me…"

[Nine years later] "...Tom’s marriage took place the following afternoon in a church in Soho patronized by Catholic stage performers…The demands and responses of the ceremony rang clear, the timing was good. Estella wore a shortskirted wedding dress with shirttype sleeves and flared lace oversleeves, a low U neckline, a chiffon veil with embroidery on the edge, soft kid shoes with straps over the instep. Late in the ceremony Augustus John and Peter Warlock (or Philip Heseltine) came in drunk, but were ejected by two strong men later, jocularly, identified for me as Cough and Spit the Flemish twins..."


Isn’t that a coincidence? If two different people had written these extracts, one of them would have a case for plagiarism. But one can only assume that Anthony Burgess – expert in so many things – asked someone else for a description? Or saved one up then forgot he’d used it already? There is nothing in the text to indicate it is anything but a mistake.

The book is probably most famous for its first line:
It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.

This and the (highly typical) sentences surrounding the wedding descriptions above might tell you if you would enjoy it or not. It is a cracking read, a long busy book with ideas and questions bursting out in all directions, real people and historical events featuring throughout. It doesn’t really resemble any other book.

All kinds of connections here: The House of Worth is very much a real fashion house and was often featured in literature – Edith Wharton and Frances Hodgson Burnett both liked to drop the name, and Dorothy L Sayers’ Harriet Vane got her wedding dress from Worth in this blog entry. However, to say Worth was ‘rising’ in 1919 is not at all correct – by then it had been the main Paris couturier for upperclass women from the USA and the UK for around 50 years – again suggesting A.Burgess doesn’t know everything.

And of course these two brides will have to worry about their ‘poor old dead legs’ just like Nancy Mitford’s Louisa, see
this entry here….

With thanks to Blog Follower Audrey (again), who cleverly remembered this anomaly after 30 years..

The photo is from the state library of
New South Wales and is featured on Flickr.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Posh girls, pencil skirts, and the male voice

the book:

Death of a Unicorn by Peter Dickinson

published 1984   Part 1 chapter 2   events set in about 1952

[Lady Margaret Millett, a bored debutante suffering through the season, has been invited to try out for a job in journalism, writing a gossip column about her fellow socialites for a magazine.]
"...I hit the typewriter as hard as I could, furious and disgusted. The machine looked and felt like a spare part for a mechanical elephant… the dusty, drab-yellow room smelt of nerves and unemptied ashtrays. The hem of my stupid pencil skirt caught my calves when I tucked my legs back under my chair, the way I used to, so I’d hoicked it up round my thighs and the hell with creases. I re-read what I’d written…

I pulled the paper out and rewrote the paragraph about Fenella’s dance in pure, illiterate debutese. The words seemed to flow straight out through my fingers without my thinking about them at all.

I tugged my skirt down and minced along with maddening nine-inch steps to Mr Todd’s office. He was on the telephone, and something the person at the other end had said had caused him to explode into a harsh bellowing laugh. He took the sheet of paper from me and read it, still apparently listening to the telephone…"

So obv she is going to get the job, that’s how this scene always ends up. What is interesting is the skirt. This is a young woman wearing a pencil skirt and high heels, and throughout the scene she stresses how awkward it is – at one point she is waiting for the lift, and says ‘in any other skirt I could have gone clattering ostentatiously down the stairs’, and she says she can’t sit in a low chair because of her skirt. But this is totally unconvincing – pencil skirts aren’t that bad, and the bit about the legs and the chair and the hoicking simply doesn’t make sense. (The Clothes in Books photographic team worked objectively at it.)

Peter Dickinson is a wonderful author, sadly under-rated and largely forgotten, and he writes very good female characters – Eva, in his Young Adult novel of the same name, is an absolutely extraordinary creation, for a reason which would spoiler it if you knew before you started reading the book. But this little bit is a male author imagining himself into a female situation and trying to be too clever and it doesn’t ring true. If you read this blind, which gender would you think had written it? Later in the book the heroine wears ‘a new dress, flame-coloured silk’ and – sweeping generalization – that sounds like a male description. On the other hand, here’s a lovely bit of posh-ery worthy of Nancy Mitford: ‘We had all suffered mildly from my mother’s conviction that the daughter of a previous Cheadle under-gardener could make us more becoming hats in her little shop in Bolsover than anything we could buy in Sloane Street, and at a tenth of the price.’ And this sounds fab: ‘I’d fallen for a little Dior suit, dark grey silk with black lapels and cuffs.’ (Jane Eyre, this entry, could wear it to get married in.)

Lady Margaret gets her job at Night and Day, which as it happens is a real magazine – but one that closed down in 1937, after a bizarre libel case (worth googling) concerning Graham Greene and Shirley Temple. The book creates a fake rescue and continuation for the magazine. The actual details of magazine life were probably based on the British humour magazine Punch, where the author worked.

Peter Dickinson wrote books for all ages, he wrote scifi and detective stories and children’s books. The detective stories, like this one, are particularly clever and haunting – the mean-minded nitpicking above should by no means outweigh a strong recommendation to hunt down second-hand copies of his books: other favourites include The Last House-Party and The Yellow Room Conspiracy.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

We've all known someone like YOU, you George Eliot heroine

the book:

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

publishes 1876     chapter 9 & chapter 11

[Gwendolen Harleth is choosing what to wear at the archery contest featured in this blog entry]

When it had been decided that as a touch of color on her white cashmere, nothing, for her complexion, was comparable to pale green—a feather which she was trying in her hat before the looking-glass having settled the question—Mrs. Davilow felt her ears tingle when Gwendolen, suddenly throwing herself into the attitude of drawing her bow, said with a look of comic enjoyment—

"How I pity all the other girls at the Archery Meeting—all thinking of
Mr. Grandcourt! And they have not a shadow of a chance."…

Mrs. Davilow, piqued into a little stratagem, said, "Oh, my, dear, that is not so certain. Miss Arrowpoint has charms which you have not."

"I know, but they demand thought. My arrow will pierce him before he has time for thought”…

[Later that day] "I wish I were like [Catherine Arrowpoint]," said Gwendolen.

"Why? Are you getting discontented with yourself, Gwen?"

"No; but I am discontented with things. She seems contented."

"I am sure you ought to be satisfied to-day. You must have enjoyed the shooting. I saw you did."

"Oh, that is over now, and I don't know what will come next," said Gwendolen, stretching herself with a sort of moan and throwing up her arms. They were bare now; it was the fashion to dance in the archery dress, throwing off the jacket; and the simplicity of her white cashmere with its border of pale green set off her form to the utmost. A thin line of gold round her neck, and the gold star on her breast, were her only ornaments. Her smooth soft hair piled up into a grand crown made a clear line about her brow.


Flinging herself backwards, waving her bare arms around – yeah, we’ve all known a Little Miss Drama Queen like Gwendolen. If there’d been a swing at the party she’d have been jumping on it too, with all the men staring at her, and she’d be saying "oh I wish I were more like Catherine, oh why is everyone looking at me?"

Gwendolen is a very odd heroine. The opening lines of the book (curiously to be echoed in the opening lines of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, 60 years later) are:

 "Was she beautiful or not beautiful? and what was the secret of form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or the evil genius dominant in those beams? Probably the evil; else why was the effect that of unrest rather than of undisturbed charm?"
She is gambling in a casino at the time. It’s a long way from goody goody Fannie Price in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (60 years earlier). And in fact it is pretty clear that Gwendolen, like Scarlett O’Hara, IS beautiful – and that is what she has to offer against the Arrowpoint riches. When they first meet, George Eliot clearly intends us to understand that Catherine suffers from the comparison: “Miss Arrowpoint, unfortunately also dressed in white, immediately resembled a carte-de-visite in which one would fancy the skirt alone to have been charged for.” Does anyone have any idea what that means?
More about the romantic rivalry between the two women in this blog entry.

The picture is from the UK National Archives, and is featured on

Monday, 12 March 2012

Suffering for beautiful hair

the book:

What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge

published 1872     chapter  4

"...Monday was apt to be rather a stormy day at the Carrs'. There was the big wash to be done, and Aunt Izzie always seemed a little harder to please, and the servants a good deal crosser than on common days. But I think it was also, in part, the fault of the children, who, after the quiet of Sunday, were specially frisky and uproarious, and readier than usual for all sorts of mischief.

To Clover and Elsie, Sunday seemed to begin at Saturday's bed-time, when their hair was wet, and screwed up in papers, that it might curl next day. Elsie's waved naturally, so Aunt Izzie didn't think it necessary to pin her papers very tight; but Clover's thick, straight locks required to be pinched hard before they would give even the least twirl, and to her, Saturday night was one of misery. She would lie tossing, and turning, and trying first one side of her head and then the other; but whichever way she placed herself, the hard knobs and the pins stuck out and hurt her; so when at last she fell asleep, it was face down, with her small nose buried in the pillow, which was not comfortable, and gave her bad dreams. In consequence of these sufferings Clover hated curls, and when she 'made up' stories for the younger children, they always commenced: 'The hair of the beautiful princess was as straight as a yard-stick, and she never did it up in papers—never!'...."


We have already met the Carr family in What Katy Did at School, this blog entry (and the hat decorated with soap, sponge and towel is the Clothes in Books avatar). This is much earlier, before the incident which leaves Katy unable to move; and before the later bit memorably described in The Pursuit of Lovethis blog entry – thus: “the children… yearned to be total orphans – especially Linda, who saw herself as Katy in What Katy Did, the reins of the household gathered into small but capable hands” (though Katy not actually an orphan).

Clover and Elsie are the younger sisters, and this is just about the only difficult or bad thing to happen to Clover ever – she is a bit of a goody-goody, compared with Katy, but really more of a nonentity. Aunt Izzie looks after the children (for now) because their mother is dead.

Curling the hair at night pops up in literature now and again - in Dickens and Trollope for example - right up to recent days: the narrator of yesterday’s Hilary Mantel book, An Experiment in Love, also has to pin up her hair in curl papers every night in the 1960s.

The girl in the photo – a McCall’s cover from George Eastman House, found on Flickr – looks a lot happier than any of them, in her spotty PJs and nail varnish. Hussy.