Friday, 31 August 2012

The slender girls are sharing dresses

the book:

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

published 1963   set in 1945    chapter 3


‘I can’t lend you any soap this month,’ Selina said…

 Anne said ‘I don’t want your bloody soap. Just don’t ask for the taffeta, that’s all.’

By this she meant a Schiaparelli taffeta evening dress which had been given to her by a fabulously rich aunt, after one wearing. This marvellous dress, which caused a stir wherever it went, was shared by all on the top floor on special occasions, excluding Jane whom it did not fit. For lending it out Anne got various returns, such as three clothing coupons for a half-used piece of soap…

Haggling bouts... took place with Anne when the taffeta dress was wanted to support the rising wave of long-dress parties.

‘You can’t wear it to the Milroy. It’s been twice to the Milroy… it’s been to Quaglino’s. Selina wore it to Quags, it’s getting known all over London.’

‘But it looks altogether different on me, Anne. You can have a whole sheet of sweet coupons.’

‘I don’t want your bloody sweet-coupons.’


observations: The girls (and they are undoubtedly ‘girls’ throughout the book) live in a very respectable hostel, the May of Teck Club in Kensington, in the months between VE day and Hiroshima. Long dresses have briefly come back into fashion, rationing will go on for years, and the girls obsess about being thin, and the number of calories in stewed cherries. But don’t be fooled by the clothes and the sharing and the attention to love lives: this is a serious novel, Muriel Spark at her best, and although she does these peripherals superbly, she has a tougher story going on underneath.

May of Teck – a fascinating person in her own right – was the grandmother of the current Queen of England.

For Willo, who is having her slender means years... and blogging about it.

Links up with: Princess Diana has her connection with
Kensington. We’ve looked at some excellent women-sharing-flats books in other entries, but the only one with comparable seriousness is Hilary Mantel’s Experiment in Love. Girls or women? They were all girls to Yeats, at least until they were old and grey and full of sleep.

The picture is a sketch by Schiaparelli - you can find a lot of images of her clothes on the web, and very beautiful they are too. The label is apparently about to be relaunched.


Thursday, 30 August 2012

The aged king's retainer: Anthony Powell

the book:

A Buyer's Market by Anthony Powell

published 1952   set in 1928   section 1


[Narrator Nick Jenkins, out and about in London late at night, encounters Giles Deacon, an artist acquaintance, and a young woman]

 [Deacon] looked much the same, except that there was now something wilder – even a trifle sinister – in his aspect; a representation of Lear on the heath, or Peter the Hermit… the former role was additionally suggested by the undeniably boyish exterior of his companion, whose hair was cut short: barbered, in fact, in a most rough-and-ready fashion in the style then known as an ‘Eton crop’. This young woman might, so far as outward appearances were concerned, have passed easily on the stage for the aged king’s retainer, for, although her manner was more actively combative than the Fool’s, the shortness of her skirt, and bare knees, made her seem to be clad in a smock, or tunic, of the kind in which the part is sometimes played…

Miss Gypsy Jones nodded to us, without showing much sign of friendliness. Her face was pale, and she possessed an almost absurdly impudent expression… she looked like a thoroughly ill-conditioned errand boy.

observations: Nick Jenkins is accompanied by Widmerpool, who rather unexpectedly will become entangled with Gypsy Jones – he will end up paying for an abortion for her, though the child is not his. Widmerpool is famously a great comic creation, his career threaded through the Dance to the Music of Time sequence of novels, running as he enters the first book, running at the end of Hearing Secret Harmonies, by which time he is – like the character above – a Lear-like figure. Nick Jenkins will also sleep with her. Gypsy Jones – small, neat, feisty, free with her sexual favours – sounds a lot like Louise Brooks in manner and character, although there is no indication that Gypsy is as outrageously beautiful as Brooks was.

Links up with: A Buyer’s Market has featured
before, and Louise Brooks is mentioned in this entry and has a starring role in this book.

The picture of Louise Brooks can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Things you wouldn't guess about gloves

the book:

Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for a Murder by Catriona McPherson

published 2010  set in the 1920s

[Detective Dandy Gilver is poking around in a department store, on the pretext of buying gloves]

‘Do you know your size?’

‘Seven,’ I said.

‘Seven,’ she repeated, pulling off one of my own gloves by pinching at the fingertips and tugging. She spread my hand on the counter and screwed up her nose. ‘I’m sure you were once,’ she said. ‘Are you a horseback rider or is it tennis?’ Thus having informed me that I had the thickened fingers of a hoyden to go with my scrawny arms she took a sizing board out of her counter drawer and got to work on me.

So it was with some satisfaction then that I found myself able to reject the gloves she showed me without a pang. They were elbow-length kid, had cuffs like gauntlets, and were rather yellowed along one edge; I supposed that there was not much turnover and this pair had been in their drawer for some years now with the light getting in through the glass front of it. ‘Besides,’ I said, ‘I was thinking of black satin, actually. Or mauve.’ Miss Torrance physically recoiled. Of course, I would no more wear black opera gloves than I would stick feathers in my hair and dance a can-can but [ladies' maid]Grant keeps me up to date with the fact that elsewhere, far from Dunfermline and even Perthshire, such shocking articles were being worn. ‘I’m sorry, madam,’ said Miss Torrance in low tones. ‘But Aitkens’ Emporium does not stock anything of that kind. We have a rose beige that is most becoming.’


observations: Dandy did not think a shop in Dunfermline would stock opera gloves – they are the very long ones reaching up to the elbow - and her questioning doesn’t get very far, but she gives us an excellent and detailed couple of pages about fitting and buying, including the obscure word mousquetaires for the gloves. Catriona McPherson is by far the best of the historical detective novelists, her books are a joy to read. It has to be said, the plots are unlikely in the extreme, and not remotely realistic, but the character of Dandy is sheer delight – she is a nicely brought up matron, living on a Scottish estate with her husband and growing sons, who has taken up detection as a pastime. She is caustic and funny and completely believable in her unlikely way.

With thanks to Emma Weatherill.

Links up with:
This photo features a fine pair of gloves, and gloves indirectly bring Lawrie to Jo in Little Women. Miss Squeers wears long gloves for a date with Nicholas Nickelby. This Agatha Christie book suggests you don’t want to let your gloves fall into the wrong hands.

The picture is of the actress Betty Blythe and is from the
Bain Collection at the Library of Congress. The point about these gloves was that you could remove your hand while keeping the rest of the glove on your arm (if you can imagine such a thing) – in the picture you can see the keyhole design and buttons that make that possible.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Shoes don't fail me now: Javier Marias

the book:

All Souls by Javier Marias

translated by Margaret Jull Costa

published in Spanish 1989, English version 1992

The shoes Clare Bayes wore were never English, always Italian, and I never once saw low heel or buckle or a rounded toe on any of them. When she came to my house (which was not that often) or when we managed to end up together at her house (even less often) or we met in a hotel in London or Reading or even Brighton (though we only went to Brighton once), the first thing she would do was to ease her shoes off at the instep and then with a kick, one for each shoe, send them ricocheting against the walls, as if she were the owner of innumerable pairs and cared nothing for their ruination. I would immediately pick them up and put them where we couldn’t see them: the sight of empty shoes always makes me imagine them on the feet of the person who has worn them or might wear them, and seeing that person by my side – with their shoes off – or not seeing the person at all upsets me terribly.


observations: It’s hard to know who the British equivalent of Javier Marias might be: he is a wonderful novelist, something of a superstar in his own country, and an academic, and he has also translated many classic English authors into Spanish. Perhaps it’s unfair to say that you can’t imagine Ian McEwan or Martin Amis doing a new version of Don Quixote.

All Souls is narrated by a Spanish academic working at Oxford University (he is talking about his mistress above) and is very very funny, but also unexpected, you never know where he’s going next. There is quite a lot about a very very obscure English writer called John Gawsworth. A photo of Gawsworth appears in the middle of this novel, suggesting a move into WG Sebald territory (always a good thing). But there is also a very strange follow-up to this book, intertwining the real legacy of John Gawsworth and the life of Javier Marias – it is far too complicated to describe, but readers should certainly look at the relevant
Wikipedia entry.

Links up with: WG Sebald and a particularly
beautiful photo, Gatsby always claimed to be an Oxford man, and Dorothy L Sayers imagines a young man attracting attention there. What women wear in Oxford is also the subject of this DLS entry.

The photograph is from the State Library of
New South Wales.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Detection through fashion

the book:

The Advocate's Wife by Norman Russell

published 2002   chapter 6 set in the 1890s


Inspector Box perched himself on a tall stool, and watched Anton Berg as he spread the green silk dress carefully over a wide, shallow table standing before a tall, uncurtained window in one of the many rooms at Syria Wharf. Below them, the Thames was alive with river traffic, stately merchant ships, busy coasters, and officious tugs, but Mr Berg’s keen, dark eyes saw only the green silk dress

‘Would you say, sir, that it was a young woman’s dress?’

 ‘Young? There are degrees of youth, Mr Box. This dress would not look amiss on a lady in her late thirties. It would be frightful on a young person of twenty. On a lady of – shall we say, forty-five, fifty? – it would be perfect.’

‘You’re a shining ornament, Mr Berg. You’re helping me to see this dress in its proper light. I knew you would! How much would a dress like that cost?’

‘This? You would pay thirty guineas for such a dress in Bond Street. I tell you, Mr Box, I think I know who made this dress. Do I know this business or do I not?...’

observations: Norman Russell has written two series of detective stories set in Victorian times – lots of period detail and solid-seeming research, if this one is typical. There is a huge market for such books, and as soon as you see that the publisher is Robert Hale you know exactly where you are, and that there’ll have been a big sale to the crime sections of public libraries. It’s certainly a good enough read, and naturally Clothes in Books absolutely loves the idea of detection via clothes examination. We should set ourselves up as forensic fashion experts – ‘ah yes, the cut of the skirt and the label inside tell me all about the wearer, from age to social status…’

Links up with: This
AS Byatt heroine wore green, as did a Royal lady living anonymously. A dress trimmed with green was key in this murder story.

The picture, by Antonio Maria Esquivel, can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Dress down Sunday: Carrie on in New York

Dress Down Sunday -
looking at what goes on under the clothes

the book:

Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell

published 1996   chapter 7


[Amalita is explaining to Carrie about her romance with a Lord in England]

 For the first two weeks, everything was great… Then, when they got back to London, the trouble began.

“You know I’ve got all of my lingerie that I’ve been collecting over the years?” Amalita asked. Carrie nodded. She knew all about Amalita’s vast collection of designer clothing, which she’d been acquiring over the past fifteen years – knew it well, in fact, because she had had to help Amalita wrap it up in special tissues to be put in storage, a job that had taken three days. “Well one evening he comes in when I’m dressing,” she said. “’Darling’ he says, ‘I’ve always wondered what it would be like to wear one of those merry widows. Mind if I … give it a try? Then I’ll know what it feels to be you.’”

observations: Originally, Sex and the City was a column in the New York Observer. Candace Bushnell then turned her idea into a book, and one that is more than just a collection of the columns, it is a real book. Those of us who discovered it at this stage were a little – disappointed by the wildly popular and successful TV programme, which seemed to lack nuance and subtlety in comparison. In fact one of our followers, who had read the book, told officemates that they should try this new TV series, as the book was so good. He came into work the next day ready to apologize, as he’d found the programme so bad, but his colleagues were grateful and delighted, having loved it. As with so many things, if you hadn’t read the original… Perhaps fans of the column hated the book.

Carrie in the book has a much sharper, less sentimental, but very distinctive voice, and the whole style of narration is very unusual. Well worth seeking out (though not if you’re just missing a fix of shoes, It bags and cupcakes).

A merry widow (named after an operetta and film of the same name) is a longline bra (or short corset) with what in the UK are known as suspenders. It was a specific corselette produced by Warner’s lingerie company, as above, but has become a generic term for any such item.

Links up with: Stella Gibbons’
bra collector in Cold Comfort Farm. The Bergdorf Blondes are more like the TV programme version of Sex and the City. More New York entries – click on the label below.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

On not getting to Moscow

the play:

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov

Transl Gerard R Ledger

Written 1900, first performed 1901

The action takes place in a provincial town.


Inside the Prozorov house. A sitting room with pillars, behind which is seen another large dining or reception room. It is midday; outside it is bright and sunny. In the dining room beyond the table is being laid for lunch. Olga in a blue dress, the official school dress for a teacher of the Girls' High School, is continually correcting exercise books as she stands or while she walks around. Masha in a black dress sits on a chair with her hat on her knees and reads a book. Irina in a white dress is standing deep in thought.

OLGA. Father died exactly a year ago, on this very same day, on the fifth of May, on your name day, Irina. It was very cold, and snow was falling. It seemed to me as if I would not live through it, you were lying in a faint, as if you were dead. But look, a year has gone by and we can remember it lightly, you are already wearing white, and your face is full of brightness…

(The clock strikes.)

And then also the clock struck in just the same way.


observations: Black dresses are obviously suited in Chekhov’s mind to women called Masha: In The Seagull, a completely different Masha is asked why she always wears black, and replies ‘I’m in mourning for my life’ – one of the great opening lines. He described this play as ‘more gloomy than gloom itself’ and indeed it is not cheerful. Apparently he was inspired by the story of the Bronte sisters, but at least there was some literary success to console them. These sisters are not happy, and matters will get worse as the play goes on, and they will not achieve their (symbolic-but-also-literal) ambition to return to Moscow. But it is somehow not as depressing as it should be – partly because of Chekhov’s ability to write very detailed stories, rooted in a real place, yet to make them seem applicable to the whole human race. The world of the play is very specific, but we can recognize characters and situations that we know.

Links up with: black dresses and white dresses feature in various entries – click on the labels below. WG Sebald’s visit to
sisters in Ireland surely contained a nod to Chekhov. A real Bronte here, and an inspirational one here.

The painting is the Three Sisters by Ilya Mashkov, which can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Not a children's book: Nina Bawden

the book:

The Odd Flamingo by Nina Bawden

published 1954   chapter 2


There was no door into the club; a curtain hung across the opening where the door had been. I pushed the curtain aside and beyond it there was a long, narrow room with apparently no ventilation so that the heat inside was solid, like a wall…. It was all much as I remembered it… the people were the same kind of people. There was the usual mixture of lesbians and pimps with a sprinkling of students who had come to see the fun. Most of them looked bored.

I leaned against the bar and watched the doorway. After a little I felt too conspicuously alone and went to a table against the opposite wall. The club filled up slowly and noisily with grey-haired women in mannish coats and pretty boys with lipsticks on their mouths.

observations: Nina Bawden died this week. She was probably best known for the children’s books Carrie’s War and The Peppermint Pig, but she wrote more than 50 books altogether, many of them for adults. This was an early entry, a rather serious, dark book contrasting bourgeois suburbia with the louche underworld of London, and sinister nightclubs like The Odd Flamingo. It’s a detective story/ thriller, narrated by a male solicitor, Will Hunt, and is full of girls going wrong, missing girls, spivs, drugs and wrong uns. When he is not on the trail of crime at the Odd Flamingo, Will calls in at his gentleman’s club. There is nothing very cheering in the story, and no jokes. You would guess that Ms Bawden wanted to write something as far from a cozy as possible, something that was not in ‘lady author’ territory.

Links up with: We’ve featured a number of post-war detective stories, some written at the time, some written now as historicals – the most recent was
this one, which lists earlier entries. Nightclubs with a bit more glamour in this entry and this book.
The photograph is by George Brassai – his work is widely available on the Web, and he is famous for his photos of Paris nightlife and underworld.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Women and Politics and Beauty: Yeats

the poem:

In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz

by WB Yeats

Written 1927 published 1933


The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
But a raving autumn shears
Blossom from the summer's wreath;
The older is condemned to death,
Pardoned, drags out lonely years
Conspiring among the ignorant.
I know not what the younger dreams -
Some vague Utopia - and she seems,
When withered old and skeleton-gaunt,
An image of such politics.
Many a time I think to seek
One or the other out and speak
Of that old Georgian mansion, mix
Pictures of the mind, recall
That table and the talk of youth,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.

Dear shadows, now you know it all,
All the folly of a fight
With a common wrong or right.
The innocent and the beautiful
Have no enemy but time;
Arise and bid me strike a match
And strike another till time catch;
Should the conflagration climb,
Run till all the sages know.
We the great gazebo built,
They convicted us of guilt;
Bid me strike a match and blow.

Observations: The opening image is immensely, strikingly beautiful, but the poem as a whole is strange to modern eyes and ears. Yeats wrote a lot about the loss of women’s beauty (or girls’ beauty as – very much of his time – he puts it), and eventually, amid the well-phrased regrets, you want to say: maybe there was more to life for them than being beautiful for you and then losing it.

Con Markiewicz had an extraordinary life, well worth looking up: she was the first woman elected to the British Parliament, though she never took her seat, and she was ‘condemned to death, pardoned’ (this is no metaphor) for her role in the 1916 Irish Easter Rising. She was Minister of Labour in the new Irish Government, surely one of the first women ever to hold such a role, and her ‘lonely years’ were spent in admirable-sounding political activity.

Both she and her sister Eva had died in the 16 months  before Yeats wrote this.

Here he rhymes 'politics' with 'mix': another of his poems has these lines:

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?

His most famous poem is probably The Second Coming. The great Marilyn Robinson says this in When I was a Child I read books:

WB Yeats wrote of the world in his time, “The best lack all conviction, and the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” As we nod in recognition, it is important to remember that Yeats’s sympathies were with fascism.

Links up with: A
Japanese kimono, and a Korean one, and the whole Chinese robe thing here and here and here. Irish women and their love affairs here.

The picture is a cheat as it is, plainly, one woman and her reflection. It was painted by Alfred Stevens and is called
La Parisienne Japonaise.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Not Downton Abbey

the book:

Snobs by Julian Fellowes

published 2009  

Edith’s voice behind me made me jump. ‘What do you think of the show so far?’

‘There’s nothing like starting at the top,’ I said...

Edith laughed. We were almost alone in the room for a minute and I had time to marvel at her beauty, now reaching the years of its zenith. She had chosen a [wedding] dress in the style of the 1870s, with wide flounces and a bustle behind. It was of ivory silk with a tiny self-patterned sprig of flowers. What I assume was someone’s mother’s lace fell from her thick blonde hair, held there by a light, dazzling tiara, fashioned for a young girl, like a glistening diamond-studded cobweb, not one of those heavy metal plates made for dowagers to sport at the opera, which always look as if they belong in a Marx Brothers comedy. I imagine it was part of the Broughton trove.

‘You’ll come and visit us?’ she said.

‘If I’m asked.’ We stared at each other for a moment.

observations: Between his Oscar for writing the 2001 film Gosford Park and the start of Downton Abbey, his hugely successful TV series, Julian Fellowes produced two novels: this one, and Past Imperfect. They are much better than you might be expecting: funny and sharp and clever. JF is selling himself over and over again – like the guide at a stately home he shows you round a world he plainly knows well, although perhaps he doesn’t belong to it all that naturally. The really surprising thing is that he doesn’t particularly repeat himself. The novels take a more caustic and cynical look at the world of the social season, and are set in modern times. They are highly enjoyable, and perfect holiday reads – this one is the story of social-climbing Edith, marrying into the gentry and less than enchanted by what she finds there.

Links up with: more weddings and wedding dresses all over the blog, click on the label below. Snobs is the world of
Nancy Mitford, 40 years on. Downton Abbey is mentioned in various entries - here and here.

The photograph is of the incomparable Lillie Langtry, and is from the
UK National Archives.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The mysterious gate-crasher in fancy dress...

the book:

Why Shoot a Butler? by Georgette Heyer

published 1933

[At a fancy dress ball]

‘Why are masks de rigueur, Marguerite?’ he inquired.

‘You mean we ought just to have had dominoes with them? I know, but I specially wanted a fancy-dress ball, and masks are such fun that I thought we might have them too.’

‘Your brother doesn’t wear one, I notice,’ remarked the sheikh, nodding to where Fountain, an imposing Cardinal Wolsey, stood talking to Mme de Pompadour.

‘No, because he’s the host. Shall I find you a partner, Mephistopheles?’

Amberley was watching a girl at the other side of the ballroom. ‘Will you introduce me to the contadina?’ he asked. Joan glanced in the girl’s direction. ‘Yes, of course, but I don’t know who she is.’

‘Kitty Crosby, isn’t it?’ said the sheikh.

‘I thought Kitty was coming as a gipsy.’

‘Oh, was she? It might be Miss Halifax. No, I don’t think it is, though.’ Joan looked up at Amberley. ‘That’s the fun of it. Do you know, I didn’t recognise one of my oldest friends? Come on, I’ll introduce you.’ She led him to where the contadina was standing.  

[They dance] …‘A bit a mob, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘Do you think the Fountains can really know everyone here tonight?’

 ‘Oh, but surely!’

 ‘In these days of gate-crashing …’ murmured Mr Amberley.

 ‘I don’t think that is done in the country,’ she said. ‘I expect you know much more about it than I do,’ he agreed politely.

observations: The first couple of lines of this extract could almost come from one of Ms Heyer’s regency romances, where much is made of dominoes (experienced readers know these are cloaks) and masks. But the costume ball is rather wasted here, as, sad to say, it is in many books – lacking in details and in genuine advances of the plot. The description of the Cardinal and Pomp is eerily prescient – only too imaginable as Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel in a famous photo of them as a different Cardinal and Marie Antoinette.

This book has some funny moments, but not much in the way of really impressive detection, and it goes on a bit – perhaps Heyer kept her best plots for her romances (The Unknown Ajax, 1959, has an extremely impressive, far superior plot involving covering up a crime).
There is one very unusual feature of this book - the characters are: Amberley, Brown & Baker, Collins & Corkran, Dawson, Fountain, Gubbins, Harper, Jenkins, Ludlow, Matthews. It’s hard to say if that shows imagination or the lack of it.

Links up with: Most recent fancy dress party on the blog is
here – click on the label below for more. Cardinal Wolsey in his robes is here.

On first reading, Clothes in Books (so snobbish!) vaguely assumed that a contadina was some kind of Italian contessa, but it is revealed later that it means peasant-girl, countrywoman.
The picture is by photography pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron, and is kindly made available on Flickr by the National Media Museum. (A different photo on the same page is described as the contadina, but this looks more likely).

Monday, 20 August 2012

Portugal or Italy - we maintain it's a fine book

the book:

Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi

Translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh

1994 - set in Lisbon in the 1930s

That afternoon, Pereira maintains, he had a dream. It was a beautiful dream about his youth, but he prefers not to relate it, because dreams ought not to be told, he maintains. He will go no farther than to say he was happy, that it was winter and he was on a beach to the north of Coimbra, perhaps at Granja, and that he had with him a person whose identity he does not wish to disclose. Anyway, he awoke in a good mood, put on a short-sleeved shirt, didn’t even pocket a tie, though he did take a light cotton jacket, carrying it over his forearm. The evening was hot, though happily there was a bit of a breeze. At first he considered going all the way to the Café Orquídea on foot, but on second thoughts this seemed folly. However he did walk as far as Terreiro do Paço and the exercise did him good. From there he took a tram to Rua Alexandre Herculano. The Café Orquídea was practically deserted, Monteiro Rossi had not yet arrived because he himself was too early. Pereira sat himself down at a table inside, near the fan, and ordered a lemonade. When the waiter came he asked him: What’s the news Manuel?

observations: You could argue all day about this book, starting with the title. Some version of the phrase is used close on 200 times in the book, so it’s obviously pretty key. The Italian title is Sostiene Pereira, which – apparently – could equally be translated as According to Pereira, or Declares Pereira. The repetition is a strange feature – is it implying that the book is some kind of statement, or legal document? It’s never explained. The story is a charming affecting fable about a man worried about the political direction his country is going in. But is it really Portugal in the 1930s, or, as some people believe, Italy at the end of the 20th century?

Whatever, the hot dusty days in Lisbon, and Pereira’s daily routine, and his trips out of the city, are described in convincing detail. The picture builds up: the atmosphere of avenues and cafes and good weather, the undemanding job that gives Pereira just enough to do and gets him out of his apartment, the obvious fact that he is a good man, lonely and missing his wife, who eventually cannot ignore what is going on about him. The book takes no time at all to read – it is very short – but lingers in the mind afterwards.

Links up with:
Gatsby wears a light summer suit. The Finzi Continis are worrying about fascism in Italy in the same year, 1938.

photograph is of Baron Ladislaus Hengelmuller de Hengervar, a long-term Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to the United States, from the DC Public Library.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Dress Down Sunday: " her petticoat"

the book:

Dress Down Sunday -

taking a look at what goes on under the clothes

The Years by Virginia Woolf

published 1937    1880 section

Kitty went on upstairs to her own room…She opened the windows and drew the curtains. It was raining as usual. Arrows of silver rain crossed the dark trees in the garden. Then she kicked off her shoes. That was the worst of being so large-- shoes were always too tight; white satin shoes in particular. Then she began to unhook her dress. It was difficult; there were so many hooks and all at the back; but at last the white satin dress was off and laid neatly across the chair; and then she began to brush her hair…The candles flickered and then the muslin blind, blowing out in a white balloon, almost touched the flame. She opened her eyes with a start. She was standing at the open window with a light beside her in her petticoat. "Anybody might see in," her mother had said, scolding her only the other day. Now, she said, moving the candle to a table at the right, nobody can see in. She began to brush her hair again. But with the light at the side instead of in front she saw her face from a different angle. Am I pretty? she asked herself, putting down her comb and looking in the glass.

observations: Apparently this was Woolf’s best-selling book when she was alive, but is little-regarded now. It’s the kind of book you have to be in the mood for - it is something like a longitudinal study of a group of people, a slice of society, for more than 40 years, and does not have much in the way of a conventional plot or narrative. But if you like the way Woolf writes then it is full of entrancing passages. Her original plan was to have the book consist of sociological essays interspersed with the stories of the Pargiter family, but she eventually separated the essays into another book, Three Guineas. Probably a good decision.

You feel that Kitty, the young girl on the cusp of womanhood, looking for something but not sure what, wondering if she is pretty, stifled by her academic family, is almost too easy for Woolf to write.

Links up with: Woolf’s Orlando was an
International Women’s Day entry. You can find more Dress Down Sunday entries by clicking on the label below.

The picture is a Russian stamp issued to mark the 125th anniversary of the birth of the painter, Zinaida Serebriakova. The painting is called At the Dressing-table (The Self-portrait). Why can’t we have cool stamps like this in the UK?

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Stage school in the 21st century

the book:

Olivia's First Term by Lyn Gardner

published 2011 chapter40

Olivia, Eel, Tom, Georgia and Aeysha sat with Abbie in a steamy café, eating iced buns. An old TV on the counter was tuned to a rolling news channel. Very soon they would have to set off for the Palladium, where the final of the Children’s Royal Spectacular was being televised, to meet up with the rest of the cast who were going there straight from school. They had been to the costumiers to see the dress that Abbie was going to wear to play Liesl in The Sound of Music. It was a treat decreed by Miss Swan, who had said that as Olivia and Tom had been working nonstop over the last thirty-six hours, they deserved a break. ..

 “Oh, Abbie, your dress is soooo beautiful,” sighed Georgia. “I wish I could wear a dress like that on stage.”

“You will one day, Georgia, if you keep working really hard,” replied Abbie. “In any case, maybe Miss Swan will put you up to play one of the children in The Sound of Music? They’ll be holding auditions at the start of next term. Your singing has really come on beautifully. I’m sure you could do it.”

“Could I?” said Georgia, looking both chuffed and worried at the same time.

 “You could,” replied Eel firmly, “but only if you believe in yourself.”


observations: Aficionados of the stage school book will recognize all the key elements here, updated to modern times. Lyn Gardner ‘s character are attending theatre school and know all about costumes, auditions and, as it turns out, circus skills. There is also a more modern thread about bullying – very well done, showing why people follow a Queen Bee, and how difficult it is to resist a mean girl.

This is the start of what looks like being a long series…. presumably there are still plenty of children who love to read about stage school, and, as in days of yore, there is no need to have the slightest shred of talent or desire to perform oneself.

Links up with: the entire oeuvre of Noel Streatfeild, click on the label below for previous entries.

The picture is artistic licence: as Lyn Gardner doesn’t describe the dress, we felt at liberty to find something we (with an excessively long history with stage school books) felt appropriate. It is from a fashion magazine of 1920, and shows a ballerina called Paulette Duval in a costume designed by Georges Doeuillet.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Cosmo girl has a date after work

the book:

The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

published 1958   chapter 24

[Ronnie, newly arrived in New York, has been given the phone number of a girl called April]

 ‘As a matter of fact’ April Morrison said, ‘I am free tonight. But just for cocktails. I could meet you in front of my office at half past five.’…

‘All right’ he said, trying not to stammer. ‘I’ll have on a light gray suit.’

 ‘So will I’ April said. She laughed. ‘See you soon.’

He didn’t have the faintest idea where to take a girl for cocktails before dinner in New York, but he supposed she would know. She had sounded sophisticated…

He saw her, standing in front of the statue of Atlas, her hair blowing in the slight evening breeze that had come up. It was going to rain. Her hair was very golden in the lowering late day, with touches of red in it, short and blowing and bright. She did have a gray suit on, made of something silky and thin, so that he could see the curving outlines of her body. And she had a beautiful face. When she saw him approaching her she smiled at him.

observations: Helen Gurley Brown, the original Cosmo girl, died this week, so in her honour we’re visiting The Best of Everything again – no direct connection with HGB, and preceded her Sex and the Single Girl by several years, but definitely the right mood.

This entry should really be read in conjunction with the
earlier one about this set of young women making their way in New York. It seems as though every such fictional group must include an aspiring actress (the audition scene, being feisty with the director, going on as an understudy, having an affair with another actor during out-of-town tryouts) - and Gregg, who takes the role in this book, has an unexpectedly chilling story. Caroline is the smart one, who wants more out of life than marriage and being a housewife, the one who most wants a career. April has (on the whole) enjoyed her bachelorette adventures, but (spoiler) is finally going to find true love after a few false starts and a bit of misery, and will be happy to say farewell to the New York years.

Links up with: The earlier visit to this book has a list of other entries on
girls in the big city, to which should be added The Group. Dee Wells's Jane was another Cosmo girl.

The picture is from
Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Helping Brighton with its enquiries

the book:

Brighton Belle by Sara Sheridan

published 2012 set in 1951

[Investigator Mirabelle Bevan is discussing plans with co-conspirator Vesta.]‘So, today,’ she picked up her cup, ‘I’m going to the racecourse. It’s the last place we can actually place Ben McGuigan.’

‘OK,’ Vesta agreed, her mouth still full. ‘And I’ll stay in the office...’

‘Do you suppose people dress up for the races?’

Vesta shrugged. ‘What – like they do at Ascot? Shouldn’t think it’s quite so swish.’ She pondered the question with tremendous seriousness. ‘Have you got a nice hat, though? That’s what ladies wear to the races, isn’t it? A hat?’

Mirabelle disappeared into the bedroom and emerged wearing a glamorous pink silk confection on her head. She had bought it to wear at a wedding – it seemed like a hundred years ago. The coral shade brought out the hazel of her eyes, which were quite startling when you noticed them, thought Vesta. It was the first time she had seen Mirabelle wear anything frivolous. The splash of colour sparked her dark understated brown dress into life and easily knocked five years off her age. ‘That’s lovely!’ Vesta giggled.

‘I have to look like I belong there but I don’t want to attract attention,’ Mirabelle said.

observations: Sara Sheridan has written in a number of genres and this, her latest, looks as if it is the first of a series. It’s set in post-war Brighton and Sheridan has obviously gone to some trouble to research the details – though a hat later in the book is described as a ‘fascinator’, a usage that Clothes in Books does not believe was current in 1951( we can’t help being pedantic, and we have a whole blog entry devoted to the word).

Mirabelle is, as befits a series heroine, given plenty of potential material in an elaborate backstory – working for intelligence and a tragic love affair. As with some previously featured entries, the unsettling atmosphere after the war is well done. It’s an uneven book, with some problems of tone and point of view – you would hardly guess that the girly scene above is part of a desperate race against time to rescue a friend of the heroine’s in dire jeopardy - but the keen detective story reader would certainly read another in the series.

Links up with: Interesting to compare this with the post-war detective stories written at the time – for example
Tiger in the Smoke , the Summer School Mystery and London Particular. Graham Greene wrote the classic Brighton crime novel.

The photo is from the
State Library of Queensland, via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A Dreamy Young Man With No Hat

the book:

The Dreamer by Saki (HH Monro)

short story from Beasts and Superbeasts, published 1914

Cyprian was a boy who carried with him through early life the wondering look of a dreamer, the eyes of one who sees things that are not visible to ordinary mortals, and invests the commonplace things of this world with qualities unsuspected by plainer folk - the eyes of a poet or a house agent. He was quietly dressed - that sartorial quietude which frequently accompanies early adolescence, and is usually attributed by novel-writers to the influence of a widowed mother. His hair was brushed back in a smoothness as of ribbon seaweed and seamed with a narrow furrow that scarcely aimed at being a parting. His aunt particularly noted this item of his toilet when they met at the appointed rendezvous, because he was standing waiting for her bare-headed.

"Where is your hat?" she asked.

 "I didn't bring one with me," he replied.

 Adela Chemping was slightly scandalised.

"You are not going to be what they call a Nut, are you?" she inquired with some anxiety, partly with the idea that a Nut would be an extravagance which her sister's small household would scarcely be justified in incurring, partly, perhaps, with the instinctive apprehension that a Nut, even in its embryo stage, would refuse to carry parcels.

Cyprian looked at her with his wondering, dreamy eyes.

"I didn't bring a hat," he said, "because it is such a nuisance when one is shopping; I mean it is so awkward if one meets anyone one knows and has to take one's hat off when one's hands are full of parcels. If one hasn't got a hat on one can't take it off."

observations: Love the line about the poet or the house agent.

A Nut – though the term is mysteriously hard to track down - was an extravagantly fashionable young man of around the turn of the last century, assumed to be idle, also known as a masher, or a swell. How slang fades – one of the few citations for usage of the word in this sense is this exact story. The OED says it was in fact pronounced Knut, and it seems to have come from a music-hall song of the time: Gilbert the Filbert, the knut with a K.

The lovely dreamy Cyprian is going to prove to be more alert than you might think - after drifting around after his aunt for most of the day, his hatlessness is going to make people think he is a shop assistant. And that is going to prove profitable.

Links up with: The natty men in the boat. More Saki here and here. Lucia’s
Georgie was always well-dressed. Waugh's Gilbert Pinfold starts singing the musichall song about the k-Nut during his Ordeal.

The dreamer man is a Norwegian photo from

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Princess Diana is an expert on clothes

the book:

Untold Story by Monica Ali

published 2011

[Clothes store owner Amber, in the small US town of Kensington, has invested in some new gowns, and is showing them to her English friend Lydia]

Closet, the store, turned over nicely on the staples of wraparound dresses, A-line skirts and little beaded cardigans favoured perennially by Kensington women, supplemented by the prom-season business, flirty numbers in fuchsia and gold and white that retailed around $300, and formal floor-length durables that offered good bosom support and value to the Kensington matrons who invested for a silver wedding and expected, God willing, to be seen through to the diamond anniversary…

 The dress was a pale green column with silver embroidery and soft ruffle flowers sweeping up diagonally, which made Lydia think of Valentino, though of course the work was not as fine.

‘Come out here,’ called Amber. There was no mirror in the fitting room, because Amber said Kensington women were too quick and ready to make wrong-headed assessments without giving the outfits a chance: a few pins in the hemline, a switch of blouse, a scarf at the throat, could make all the difference. Lydia strutted out like a catwalk model, hand to hip, face set, head turning left and right. Amber applauded and whistled and then took Lydia by the shoulders and turned her to face the mirror. ‘Beautiful,’ Amber murmured, ‘just beautiful.’ Lydia took a breath. Ten years since she’d worn a floor-length gown. There was a hot little hole in her stomach that she would not on any account pay attention to, focusing instead on equalizing the length of her inhale and exhale. ‘Fits like a glove,’ said Amber. ‘How about that?’

observations: It is not a spoiler to say that this book is an alternate life for Princess Diana – one in which she survives the car crash, subsequently fakes her own death, and goes to live in a small town in America, called, with hammer-handed symbolism, Kensington. So far, so bizarre. In terms of the mysteries of life here is a huge one (though maybe only for me): Brick Lane was Ali’s first book, a massive bestseller about the life of a Bangladeshi woman living in London. It was hugely praised for its authenticity, (though it wasn’t at all clear how much Ali would know about poverty, or life as an immigrant) – but I found it patronizing, uninvolving and unconvincing. But Untold Story, with its unimaginable premise, its unworkable plot, its complete air of fantasy – well, it had me from the first line. It’s not that you think it is possible or true, it’s just that you feel IF such an incredible plotline was conceivable, then this is a totally reasonable work-out for it. The picture of American life, and clothes, is excellent, and you can just give yourself up to it. Highly enjoyable.

Links up with:
American Wife took another real person’s life and made a fiction from it. Valentino dresses feature here and here.

The picture is by the American artist John White Alexander, and is called
The Green Dress.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Grouseshooting special - CSI: Bunter

the book:

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers

published 1926  chapter 3

[Lord Peter Wimsey’s man Bunter is chatting up the maid as she cleans Lady Mary’s tweed skirt]

He gallantly intercepted Ellen's hand as it approached the skirt with a benzine-soaked sponge. “For instance, now, here's a stain on the hem of this skirt, just at the bottom of the side-seam. Now, supposing it was a case of murder, we'll say, and the person that had worn this skirt was suspected, I should examine that stain.” (Here Mr. Bunter whipped a lens out of his pocket.) “Then I might try it at one edge with a wet handkerchief.” (He suited the action to the word.) “And I should find, you see, that it came off red. Then I should turn the skirt inside-out, I should see that the stain went right through, and I should take my scissors” (Mr. Bunter produced a small, sharp pair) “and snip off a tiny bit of the inside edge of the seam, like this” (he did so) “and pop it into a little pill-box, so” (the pill-box appeared magically from an inner pocket), “and seal it up both sides with a wafer, and write on the top 'Lady Mary Wimsey's skirt,' and the date. Then I should send it straight off to the analytical gentleman in London, and he'd look through his microscope, and tell me right off that it was rabbit's blood, maybe, and how many days it had been there, and that would be the end of that,” finished Mr. Bunter triumphantly, replacing his nail-scissors and thoughtlessly pocketing the pill-box with its contents.

observations: Although the shooting party in the book takes place in October, the grouse-shooting season has just opened in the UK in real life. It is usually 12th August, but there is still one area in life where Sundays are sacred, so this year it is today, 13th August.

Lord Peter has quite the time in this book, as he tries to clear his brother, The Duke of Denver, of murder – is he going to have to accuse his sister, Lady Mary, of the crime instead? Her fiancé is the victim, though Ellen thinks she didn’t love him THAT much, she just wanted to get away from home. Lady Mary was wearing her tweed skirt for a day with the guns [= people, not just their weapons. Metonymy or synechdoche?] at the shooting lodge, and of course the blood must be related to that, mustn’t it? Surely?

But it is the Duke who will be tried: by a jury of his peers, so that means in the House of Lords. If he’d been found guilty and sentenced to hang, a silken rope would have been used, no doubt a great comfort. It is not an enormous spoiler to say that no such shame shall visit the Wimsey family, and that Lady Mary will find a new fiancé among the investigating policemen.

Links up with: More Sayers here and here. Mattie is a good shot in True Grit. A smart tweed suit makes for smart office wear in
The Best of Everything.

Picture of silent movie star Dorothy Gish in her tweed coat and skirt is from the
Bain Collection at the Library of Congress.