Friday, 30 November 2012

Tartan for St Andrews Day

the theme:


Writers on clothes like to talk about their tartans. So today for the feast of Scotland’s patron saint, St Andrew, we’re featuring a whole load of references to tartans in a wide range of books.

An early Clothes in Books entry – back on Burns Night in January - dealt with a young woman choosing a dress that her Scottish father was horrified by. It’s Mrs Gaskell’s wonderful Wives and Daughters.

In the much-featured Wings of the Dove, Henry James describes a mother and two daughters visting an art gallery:
The mother, the puffed and composed whiteness of whose hair had no relation to her apparent age, showed a countenance almost chemically clean and dry; her companions wore an air of vague resentment humanised by fatigue; and the three were equally adorned with short cloaks of coloured cloth surmounted by little tartan hoods. The tartans were doubtless conceivable as different, but the cloaks, curiously, only thinkable as one.

They seem to have no role in the plot whatsoever. Meanwhile in An Experiment in Love, one of Hilary Mantel’s wonderful books (we looked at the girl in fox fur back in March), Karina wears a tartan pixie hood - not much otherwise in common with The Wings of the Dove.

This little boy wears a tartan kilt in Josephine Tey’s The Singing Sands.

In another blog favourite, The Old Wives’ Tale, there is this, as one of the sisters works together with her future husband, pricing items for the shop:
Povey thought of some new and wonderful word to put on a ticket. His last miracle was the word 'exquisite.' 'Exquisite,' pinned on a piece of broad tartan ribbon, appeared to Constance and Mr. Povey as the finality of appropriateness.

And at the Yule Ball in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Professor McGonagall “was wearing dress robes of red tartan, and had arranged a rather ugly wreath of thistles around the brim of her hat.”


Rosie - from Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie so not an insignificant character – is wearing a tartan frock and a brass necklance when she leads young Laurie under the wagon, 
and astray, at harvest-time. Isn't she lovely?

 Follow the links to the entries to find the picture credits.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The eternal attractions of fancy dress

the book:

Justice Hall by Laurie R King

published 2002    set in 1923


I had no intention of getting caught up in the fray, and made along the front wall of the Great Hall in the direction of the western wing, but even that backwater was pulsing with full-throated conversation. I edged around a three-sided argument involving a woman wearing a sort of Roumanian peasant gown with a multitude of scarfs over it, a tall, cadaverous man with a handful of turquoise chips hanging from his right ear-lobe, and a short plump individual in a man’s lounge suit who might have been male or female. This last person wore a small ill-tempered spider monkey on the left shoulder of the suit; the creature was plucking irritably at the jewelled collar and gold chain that kept it from leaping to the heights. I gave the monkey wide berth, nearly knocked into a huge betasselled sombrero someone had perched on a marble bust of the third Duke, avoided the peculiar green drink thrust in my direction by a woman dressed predominantly in beads and fringe, and escaped.

observations: This isn’t even a fancy-dress [US: costume] party, though a fancy-dress ball will feature at the end of the book. These are just some rather louche friends of the slightly villainous (or at least very much looked-down-on) Darling family, and they seem to have wandered in from an early Evelyn Waugh novel – more Vile Bodies than this week’s Handful of Dust - and don’t have a huge impact on the plot. Though they form quite a cheerful background, they sit strangely with the Darlings’ keenness to be gentry, and in other circs would surely be friends of heroine Mary and her bohemian friends, and not to be despised. And another unreasonable complaint: the possibilities offered by the Egyptian Ball at the end of the book are sadly wasted though Mary’s costume as a young Arab boy does sound lovely.

There are a perhaps surprising number of pictures of fancy-dress parties available on the web: it is most enjoyable, but also touching, to sift through them, looking at those amateurish efforts, the inspired home dress-making, the hats resembling lampshades. It is, apparently, an eternal human instinct to dress up in something daft and have fun.

Links up with: the book has featured on the blog
before, explaining the Sherlock Holmes connection. The rules of fancy dress parties are given an outing here. These clothes sound like fancy dress but are definitely professional working gear. Jane Thynne’s Weighing of the Heart has another 1920s fancy dress party.

The photo is from the Jewish Historical Society of the MidWest, and can be found on
Flickr. Isn’t that the UK’s new comedy heroine (and star of Call the Midwife) Miranda Hart in the back row, 50 years before she was born?

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Handful of Dust again - Brenda walking downstairs

the book:

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

published 1934   chapter 2

Shafts of November sunshine streamed down from lancet and oriel, tinctured in green and gold, gules and azure by the emblazoned coats, broken by the leaded devices into countless points and patches of coloured light. Brenda descended the great staircase step by step through alternations of dusk and rainbow. Both hands were occupied, holding to her breast a bag, a small hat, a half-finished panel of petit-point embroidery and a vast, disordered sheaf of Sunday newspapers, above which only her eyes and forehead appeared as though over a yashmak.

Beaver emerged from the shadows below and stood at the foot of the stairs looking up at her. ‘I say, can’t I carry something?’

‘No thanks, I’ve got everything safe. How did you sleep?’


‘I bet you didn’t.’

‘Well, I’m not a very good sleeper.’

‘Next time you come you shall have a different room.’

observations: Should be read with yesterday’s entry.

This is pretty much the start of the attraction between Brenda and John – an affair that’s most shocking moment will be [SPOILER] when Brenda is told that ‘John’ is dead and is relieved when it turns out to be her only child and not her worthless lover (they, obviously, share the name). But you don’t think ‘what a monster she is’, you think ‘my oh my Waugh must have really hated his first wife to give her that moment’ – a wholly imagined one as the Waughs had no children. It’s a fine example of what Martin Amis splendidly describes as an author putting his thumb on the scales.

Tony, her husband, is at church during the scene above (yes really, the thumb pushes down farther) and has given 2/6 (modern equivalent: £4 or $6.50) to the collection and picked a camellia for Brenda – in the
Dickens novel which sent us off re-reading this book, David Copperfield spends 2/6 on a camellia for his ladylove of the moment. (Only a striking coincidence to us, we do see.) Half a crown is also the sum that Tony tips a seedy commissionaire to make a phonecall for him later on.

Fortune-telling features in the book – including a version of reading people’s feet – and is always faked as there is no great future for these characters. Tony in particular suffers a dire fate: he is tedious during the first half of the book, although the story to this point is highly entertaining. The second half is, honestly, close to unreadable as he crashes around in South America before reaching his grim ending. Dull as ditchwater. Poor man.

With thanks to Wendy for the suggestion.

Links up with: More Waugh everywhere – click on label below.

The picture is Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. True, Brenda isn’t nude, but this lovely description of her, and the light surrounding her, was hard to find in a realistic form, while this picture did seem to give an idea of the light. 'Lancet' and 'oriel' are types of window.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Handful of Dust - the other ending

the book:

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

published 1934


The chauffeur said, ‘Shall I have the big trunk sent on by train?’

‘There’s plenty of room for it behind the car, isn’t there?’

‘Well, hardly, sir. Her ladyship has a lot of luggage with her.’

‘Her ladyship?’

‘Yes, sir. Her ladyship is waiting in the car. She telegraphed that I was to pick her up at the hotel.’

‘I see. And she has a lot of luggage?’

‘Yes, sir, an uncommon lot.’

‘Well… perhaps you had better send the trunks by train.’

‘Very good, sir.’

So Tony went out to the car alone, while his chauffeur was seeing to the trunks. Brenda was in the back, shrunk into the corner. She had taken off her hat – a very small knitted hat, clipped with a brooch he had given her some years ago – and was holding it in her lap. There was deep twilight inside the car. She looked up without moving her head.

‘Darling,’ she said, ‘your boat was very late.’

observations: If you know the book well, you might even be wondering why you don’t recognize this bit…

After the Dickens entry
yesterday, we got to thinking about the end of A Handful of Dust, which features The Man Who liked Dickens - a desolating twist in the life of Tony Last. Imagine our surprise on finding an alternate ending in the new Kindle edition of the book. Apparently, Waugh wrote it for a US magazine which couldn’t use the first ending for copyright reasons, and it is added as an appendix – you can still have the original misery. This new one is very marginally more cheerful.

The book is considered one of Waugh’s masterpieces, and is, of course, extremely well-written. It’s generally thought that he wrote it out of despair at the breakdown of his own first marriage, and that Brenda is a mean portrait of his ex-wife (who, confusingly, was also called Evelyn). In fact Brenda is so awful, so shallow, so selfish that a) it is hard to believe in her, and b) you end up thinking Tony is a passive-aggressive idiot, not the putupon martyr that Waugh seems to intend. It is all reminiscent of a small American classic called Stoner, published 1965, with an equally miserable marriage and hurt hero – what we said on
that book was that we’d like to read the wife’s version. Same applies.

The only nice characters are the stable-man, Ben, who tells the fated little boy John that he is an ‘ungrateful little bastard’, and the vicar who gives his congregation sermons written 40 years before in far-off places, talking of Victoria on the throne, the beating sun, and saying that ‘we have for companions’ tigers and camels.

More tomorrow.

Links up with: Evelyn Waugh has featured a lot on the blog – click the label below - often as a commentator rather than author. But
this entry from Brideshead has another hat with a brooch, and a spot of Clothes in Books research.

The picture is from the site called, in a most self-explanatory way,
Free Vintage Knitting.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Young, vain and foolish: all that money on a flower?

the book:

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

published 1850   chapter 18

What other changes have come upon me, besides the changes in my growth and looks, and in the knowledge I have garnered all this while? I wear a gold watch and chain, a ring upon my little finger, and a long-tailed coat; and I use a great deal of bear's grease - which, taken in conjunction with the ring, looks bad. Am I in love again? I am. I worship the eldest Miss Larkins…

The raging agonies I suffer on the night of the Race Ball, where I know the eldest Miss Larkins will be dancing with the military, ought to have some compensation, if there be even-handed justice in the world. My passion takes away my appetite, and makes me wear my newest silk neckerchief continually. I have no relief but in putting on my best clothes, and having my boots cleaned over and over again. I seem, then, to be worthier of the eldest Miss Larkins. Everything that belongs to her, or is connected with her, is precious to me…

When I dress (the occupation of two hours), for a great ball given at the Larkins's (the anticipation of three weeks), I indulge my fancy with pleasing images

observations: This is from a chapter called A Retrospect, which is a tour de force – bridging a period in young David’s life in a rueful and self-deprecating way, totally convincing as the older man looking back, and as Dickens writing about his hero. Some details tie it to the early nineteenth century, but it has a very modern feel, is done in quite an adventurous style, and with suitable changes could appear in a modern novel and seem just as fresh and real. David is keen on his clothes, something of a dandy, and later will tell us of his sumptuous waistcoats and toe-pinching shoes. Bear's grease is the 1830s equivalent of hair gel. (This is generally supposed to be a very autobiographical novel, and Dickens too always took care to be well-dressed.)
David wears a buttonhole to the Ball – a pink camellia japonica, priced at half-a-crown. Using our favourite new toy, the National Archives Currency Converter we find that means about £6 ($9) in modern terms – a lot to spend on a single flower, especially if you are just going to give it away to the woman you fancy.

The reader is helpless before David Copperfield. Of course the women characters are a weakness, of course the famous bits (the likes of Mr Micawber and Aunt Betsey) are so familiar as to seem meaningless – but it’s a book that creates its own world to live with you forever, a book that can be read over and over, and a book that never fails to entertain and amuse and grip the happy reader.

Links up with: Nicholas Nickelby has a lady friend in
this entry, and Holden Caulfield famously compared himself with David Copperfield in the opening lines of Catcher in the Rye.

The image of male costume from 1825-30 was made available by the
LA County Museum of Art.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Dress Down Sunday: Best Sunday Undies

Dress Down Sunday -
Looking at what goes on underneath the clothes
the book:
There's Trouble Brewing by Nicholas Blake
published 1937 chapter 8

‘Hey, Lil!’ he called up the stairs.

‘Yes, Dad?’

‘Gentleman wants to see you.’

This announcement was received with an audible giggle, and ‘Tell Ed not to be so fresh! I’m all in my best Sunday undies. He’d better try!’

‘It’s not Ed. It’s a gentleman— he’s staying with Dr Cammison. Look sharp and get dressed, my girl!’ There was a stifled shriek. Then silence…

Whatever Nigel was expecting— and certainly, after the exchanges he had just heard, he expected the worst— he could not have anticipated the apparition that entered the room five minutes later. Lily Barnes inherited her long face, long arms and lanky body from her father; on this groundwork she had built up a remarkably accurate representation of Greta Garbo. .. she wore an old raincoat— and nothing between it and the ‘best Sunday undies,’ Nigel suspected. She slouched into the room, her hands in the pockets of the raincoat, leaning her back against the door and mooed huskily at Nigel. ‘You want to see me?’

observations: If only we had come up with the phrase 'Best Sunday Undies'! -  it would have been a great alternate title for Dress Down Sunday.

Nicholas Blake was the pen-name of Cecil Day-Lewis, a noted British poet on the 1930s, who wrote detective stories on his days off (although apparently they were successful enough to subsidize the poetry). The books aren’t bad, and some of the poems are terrific – he later became the UK’s Poet Laureate, no guarantee of quality but giving some indication of his reputation.

Nigel Strangeways is investigating a murder in a brewery, and as in many Golden Age stories, gets a bit bogged down in interviewing witnesses and drawing up lists of suspects with notes on motive and alibi. Lily is a refreshing change – but, with the standard class-consciousness of the time, she is a figure of fun, her feelings unimportant. Bizarrely, it is claimed at one point that she is pregnant – she is single so in the 1930s this would have been a disaster for her – but the book does not bother to tell us whether this was ill-natured gossip or true, she is abandoned to her fate. Day-Lewis/Blake had the usual left-wing principles of a poet of the time, but the book is as snobbish as many another by more conservative figures.

Links up with: More Dress Down Sunday by clicking on the label below, and another suspect compared with a film star in
this thriller. There were more film references last week and at Halloween, and Louise Brooks is a blog regular. Greta Garbo was in the film of the play in this entry.

The picture is of
Greta Garbo.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The things that change your life

the story:

Those Cousins from Sapucaia!  by Machado de Assis

 Translated from the Portuguese by John Gledson

1st published in Brazil in the 1880s. From the collection A Chapter of Hats


[the narrator has been to church with his visiting cousins]

It happened at a church doorway…It was a lady, who’d passed by right next to the church, slowly, her head bowed, leaning on her parasol; she was going up the Rua da Misericordia. To explain my agitation, it has to be said that this was the second time I’d seen her. The first was at the races, two months before, with a man who, to all appearances, was her husband, but could just as easily have been her father. She was a bit of a spectacle, dressed in scarlet, with big showy trimmings, and a pair of earrings that were too large; but her eyes and mouth made up for the rest. We flirted outrageously. If I say I left there head over heels in love, I’ll not put my soul in hell – it’s the simple truth. I was giddy, but frustrated too, for I lost sight of her in the crowd. I never managed to see her again, nor could anyone tell me who she was.

observations: An exclamation mark in a title is not usually a good sign, and the title phrase has the terrible ring of a deeply unfunny piece in the [British humour magazine] Punch of the same era. But this story is well up to the standard of the previously-featured others by the same author. The premise is simple – you are going about your life, and you have the chance to do something, and those annoying visitors, the cousins, are in the way and stop you achieving your aim. This narrator imagines to himself the future he could have had with the beautiful lady in red. But later he finds his alternate life has been lived out by someone else, and perhaps he should be grateful to the cousins.

The fascination of his stories is hard to describe. One young woman’s experience is described so: “it wasn’t a whole adultery novel, not even a chapter, just a prologue – but it was interesting and violent.” And that could apply to a lot of the oeuvre: The Fortune-Teller is spooky; The Hidden Cause is so shocking that, supposedly, the BBC refused to broadcast it a few years ago; in Midnight Mass the adultery is revealed by a ‘living breathing euphemism’. A Famous Man is a sad and affecting story about a composer who wishes to be more serious – but there are moments of hilarity where his highly successful polkas are given meaningless titles such as and Hey Lady hang on to that basket and Hurrah for direct elections! (‘It’s not a political statement’ the music publisher says, ‘just a good topical title.’)

Links up with: red dress in
Proust, red clothes are important to Adrian Mole’s mother, and a red gown will be made with this material. Machado de Assis has featured before, here and here.

The picture is by Pietro de Rossi, from
Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, 23 November 2012

An arm black-gloved to the shoulder...

the book:

The Green Hat by Michael Arlen

published 1924 chapter 4


You danced again in the Bois in Paris, the trees like monstrous black pagodas against the night, the stars brilliant as sequins on an archangel’s floating cloak, the magically white faces of women, the lights in the night making love to the black shadows in their hair, their lips red as lobsters, their armpits clean as ivory, the men talking with facile gestures, the whole tapestry of the Chateau de Madrid like a painted fan against the summer night. They call this rhythm the Blues, which is short for a low state of vitality brought about by the action of life on the liver. O Baby, it’s divine!

That is what they say, our elders.

Astorias, chef d’orchestre, stood at rest by the edge of the balcony, his violin under his arm, his bow gently tapping the edge of a bowl of nameless ferns that hid his feet. His negligence is informed with depression, his poise leans on melancholy. The Blues, that man knows. He seems to wonder why he is there, why anyone is there, why everyone is there. No-one can tell him, so he goes on doing nothing, lonely as a star in hell. He does not toil, nor spin, nor play his violin. From the crowded floor a woman, her face powdered brown, her mouth scarlet as the inside of a pomegranate in a tale by Oscar Wilde, beseeches him with an arm black-gloved to the shoulder to continue to play. He yields.

observations: The overwrought style (Why the inside of a pomegranate? Why Wilde?) is the joy of Michael Arlen, and this book. When we visited it before, we mentioned Claud Cockburn’s excellent study in his book Bestseller – as he points out, readers got to hear about sinful lives, and after some long lavish descriptions they were reassured to find out that no-one was really happy. Job done. The book has a splendid subtitle: A Romance for a Few People – as Cockburn says, this ‘caressed and flattered’ each of the hundreds of thousands of readers.

Apparently everyone is wearing green dresses at this night-club – ‘ there were 39 green dresses’ – jade green, October green, rusty green, soft green, sea-green.

There’s a nice line pour √©pater le bourgeois as a haughty woman walks through the club: “She suspected they might be thinking she was going to more than powder her nose. They were, she was, who cared?”

Links up with: this entry really needs to be read in conjunction with the
earlier one on the book. A lot more discussion of long – or 'opera' - gloves in the 1920s here, and gloves are very important to the Little Women.

The picture is of Hollywood actress Jeanne Crain.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Verdict on a king

the book:

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

published 1951  chapter 2


[Inspector Alan Grant, recuperating in hospital, has been looking at pictures of faces, and turns to the last one]

He picked it up and looked at it.

It was the portrait of a man dressed in the velvet cap and slashed doublet of the late fifteenth century. A man about thirty-five or thirty-six years old, lean and clean shaven. He wore a rich jewelled collar, and was in the act of putting a ring on the little finger of his right hand. But he was not looking at the ring. He was looking off into space.

Of all the portraits Grant had seen this afternoon this was the most individual. It was as if the artist had striven to put on canvas something that his talent was not sufficient to translate into paint. The expression in the eyes — that most arresting and individual expression — had defeated him. So had the mouth: he had not known how to make lips so thin and so wide look mobile, so the mouth was wooden and a failure. What he had best succeeded in was in the bone structure of the face: the strong cheekbones, the hollows below them, the chin too large for strength.

observations: Inspector Grant is about to take on his strangest case: he is going to investigate the murder of the Princes in the Tower, but 500 years after the (alleged) crime was committed. And (this is not a spoiler as it is the whole premise of the book) he is going to pronounce Richard III - the man in the picture above - innocent.

It’s a
typically infuriating Josephine Tey book, full of side issues, her own opinions, and some quite tendentious arguments. But, as a way of making history fascinating and exciting it is unmatchable – it’s a great book for young people. A personal view (not, so far as we know, shared by anyone of importance or credentials) is that historical fiction is a great way to get the basic facts into your head, and then you can get the real stuff from proper books. Chasing down the fuller history of Richard III you can find where Tey has smoothed the story over or chosen her facts carefully. An example – she repeatedly says that Elizabeth Woodville’s behaviour towards Richard III is impossible or incredible if he HAD killed her sons. But one of her other sons (not Royal, and much older) WAS undoubtedly (legally) executed by Richard’s orders, so the argument is a bit shaky.

And whatever you read about the case, it is very difficult to disagree with her and Grant’s conclusion that there is no reason at all to believe that Richard III was guilty.

Mean-minded comments on Inspector Grant on previous Tey
entries, along with a favourite picture. Henry VII succeeded Richard III - more historical fiction on the Tudors all over the blog: samples here and here. A 20th century King of England here.

The picture of Richard III comes from
Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Gloves for bloomers

the book:

The Borrowers by Mary Norton

published 1952   chapter 12

[Pod] was well away on his yearly turn-out of the storerooms, mending partitions, and putting up new shelves. Arietty usually enjoyed this spring sorting, when half-forgotten treasures came to light and new uses were discovered for old borrowings. She used to love turning over the scraps of silk or lace; the odd kid gloves; the pencil stubs; the rusty razor blades; the hairpins and the needles; the dried figs, the hazel nuts, the powdery bits of chocolate and the scarlet stubs of sealing wax. Pod, one year, had made her a hairbrush from a toothbrush, and Homily had made her a small pair of Turkish bloomers from two glove fingers for “knocking about in the mornings.” There were spools and spools of coloured silks and cottons and small variegated balls of odd wool, penpoints which Homily used as flour scoops, and bottle tops galore.

observations: Looked at with adult eyes, this is a dark and haunting book. Funny, charming and inventive as well, but definitely with a streak of lamentation and sadness. The Clocks have lost all their relations, they look back to a time when there were a lot of them around, but now they are dispersed, they don’t know exactly where everyone is, and they are trying to decide when exactly would be the right moment to accept the inevitable and go themselves. There are disquieting echoes of the situation in Europe some years earlier (from publication – the book is set mostly in Victorian times). And the framing device of the book is mysterious and strange: the big boy grows up and becomes a colonel – and is it possible he even made up the whole thing? But then the dialogue is hilarious, and just look at the perfection of that phrase ‘knocking about in the mornings’. A true children’s classic, right up there with the very best.

Links up with: The Borrowers has featured
before. Much discussion of gloves here, though no-one else has thought of the use the Clock family puts the gloves to.

Arietty’s bedroom is a cigar box, with pictures of beautiful women, so while it is wholly inappropriate to imagine her smoking, the picture above seemed right on two levels – as well as showing bloomers, it is a cigar box lid. The image can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

300th entry: Beautiful Dresses and Economic Independence

the book:

Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers

published 1932  chapter 3

[Harriet] looked about the room. Long skirts and costumes of the [1870s] were in evidence – and even ostrich feathers and fans. Even the coyness had its imitators. But it was so obviously an imitation. The slender-seeming waists were made so, not by savage tight-lacing, but by sheer expensive dressmaking. Tomorrow, on the tennis-court the short, loose tunic-frock would reveal them as the waists of muscular young women of the day, despising all the bonds. And the sidelong glances, the down-cast eyes, the mock-modesty – masks, only. If this was the ‘return to womanliness’ hailed by the fashion-correspondents, it was to a quite different kind of womanliness – set on a basis of economic independence. Were men really stupid enough to believe that the good old days of submissive womanhood could be brought back by milliners’ fashions? ‘Hardly’ thought Harriet ‘when they know perfectly well that one has only to remove the train and the bustle, get into a short skirt and walk off, with a job to do and money in one’s pockets. Oh well, it’s a game, and presumably they all know the rules.’

observations: Nobody's favourite Sayers book, but  the seaside resort is done very nicely, and Harriet, who is always a bracing if sometimes annoying treat, features a lot. (Yes of course a treat can be annoying, before you ask.)

This particular passage was brought to mind by a recent  entry from Miss Pettigrew – Harriet’s firm beliefs about women’s shapes would be contradicted by Joe. But her thoughts about feminism and women’s independence are very interesting, and how nice to know that DLS was writing that in the mainstream in the 1930s – a big plus for the book. DLS was no lightweight herself, had a keen interest in clothes, and would never have let her own shape stop her from having a view. Good for her.

Also, more important and mind-blowing than all this, Have His Carcase was the very first book ever featured on Clothes in Books. So its place in history is assured, and that is why we have picked it for the 300th entry.

The dress was designed by Madeleine Cheruit. The picture came from a French fashion magazine, via Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Building an anthology of film moments

the book:

Have you Seen....? by David Thomson

2008    Broadway Melody of 1940

…With films it is our habit to say that this one is good, that one a masterpiece, whereas maybe the most truthful approach would say that in John Frankenheimer’s I Walk the Line there are two or three minutes when the look on Tuesday Weld’s face is from some other film, a film made by William Faulkner, while the rest is, well, decent filler. I think once we got into that way of looking, we could all build an anthology of moments while admitting that elsewhere a film rests or glides downhill.

So, in Broadway Melody of 1940 (a 102-minute picture) there is 9 minutes 43 seconds of Begin the Beguine…

[Fred Astaire’s] in a white tux, black tie; [Eleanor Powell's] in a swirling white frock that stops at the top of her calf. Now it’s a flat-out tap version of Beguine, one of mounting speed and exuberance, with a gaiety and an energy so great that if you’d been Hitler in 1940, you might have looked at this and called a halt. Fred and Eleanor had no artillery, no cavalry, no infantry. But they had the assurance to do this dance as if in the front parlour, for millions of people. And as it ends, there’s a quite enchanting moment where the dancers stop and Eleanor’s loose white flower of a frock keeps dancing for a second and half.

observations: This entry is about how much life has changed for filmfans who like to read about the movies. David Thomson (a really wonderful film writer) wrote a version of this piece in an English newspaper in approx. 2005. I read it and – as surely anyone would be – was desperate to see Begin the Beguine. In order to have any hope of doing that, I had to go to an American website, order an ancient second hand video/VHS (not DVD) of this movie – because that was all that was available – pay for it in dollars, and wait weeks and weeks for it to travel by surface mail and arrive. And a) it was well worth the trouble and the wait and b) I felt incredibly lucky, because I could get hold of a copy, and because computers had made that easy, and because by then the US/UK different video standards had been (somewhat) sorted, and so the US video was playable on an English system – 10 years before that wouldn’t have been the case. Ten and twenty years before, if you heard of a wonderful film, or a wonderful film moment for your anthology, you had to search for a video, or wait for it to come on TV, or hope for a film club to show it. So in 2005 that was fine.

But also in 2005, YouTube started up. I’m sure you couldn’t get any of Broadway Melody of 1940 on it straightaway – but now, you can watch the end of Begin the Beguine, and you can see Eleanor Powell’s dress as David Thomson wanted you to. Result.

So the picture shows the exact moment (and a half) he is talking about: they are stationary, they have stopped moving, but look at that skirt.

You can see the final couple of minutes of the number (despite all above, have not found the full 9+ minutes)

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Dress Down Sunday:

Dress Down Sunday -
looking at what goes on underneath the clothes
the book:
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
published 1939  chapter 7

There was a broad low divan of old rose tapestry. It had a wad of clothes on it, including lilac-colored silk underwear… Miss Carmen Sternwood was sitting on a fringed orange shawl …Her eyes were wide open. The dark slate color of the iris had devoured the pupil. They were mad eyes. She seemed to be unconscious, but she didn't have the pose of unconsciousness. She looked as if, in her mind, she was doing something very important and making a fine job of it. Out of her mouth came a tinny chuckling noise which didn't change her expression or even move her lips.

She was wearing a pair of long jade earrings. They were nice earrings and had probably cost a couple of hundred dollars. She wasn't wearing anything else.

She had a beautiful body, small, lithe, compact, firm, rounded. Her skin in the lamplight had the shimmering luster of a pearl. Her legs didn't quite have the raffish grace of Mrs. Regan's legs, but they were very nice. I looked her over without either embarrassment or ruttishness. As a naked girl she was not there in that room at all. She was just a dope. To me she was always just a dope.

observations: Philip Marlowe, a private detective, has been employed by Carmen’s father to try to sort her out. She has been photographed in the setup above, and will be blackmailed. She is a bit of a lost cause, and her sister Vivian (the Mrs Regan above) is a lot more promising. But to say that Carmen 'was always just a dope' isn't quite true.

The plot is famously complex, though this is really just a trope that people repeat without thinking about it – there IS one unanswered question in the plot, but everything else is fine, it is not true as people merrily say, that “no-one knows who did it.”

Links up with: The stepmother in I Capture the Castle, the revered
Topaz, had been painted wearing a jade necklace and also in the nude. (Topaz is very pale and the picture “is called Composition… but Decomposition would suit it better” Cassandra says.)

The picture is by Boris Kustodiev (who also painted the wonderful man in a robe illustrating
this entry) and we have only used a part of it: the merchant’s wife in the picture has a strange visitor, but you would have to see the whole thing to see what it was. It’s not Philip Marlowe, that’s for sure.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Women having it all

the story:

Cake by Stella Gibbons

from the collection Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm

story published 1938, collection 1940

As the taxi moved steadily northwards through the quiet Bloomsbury squares, the light coming through the window showed a slender young woman of 28, dressed in about a hundred and fifty pounds’ worth of clothes. Every trace of exuberance, childishness and indecision in her manner had been planed away, and replaced by an expensive quietness in dress, and the simplicity of a sophisticate. Her black broadtail coat and Mainbocher suit matched her low voice, small movements and unaffected glance. She was a very perfect specimen of the Successful Careerist, 1938 Model, and she was all her own work…

[she is visiting a former suffragette, a Miss Allworton] Miss Allworton stood up, leaning her arm on the mantelpiece and looking down at the girl in black with the tan chiffon scarf tucked at her neck, sitting groomed and young and successful in the shabby old chair… ‘You’re not a bit like a feminist to look at. You’re well dressed (oh I know how a woman ought to look, though your sort of clothes never suited me; I’m too big) and I like that little hat, and you… I don’t know. Thirty five years ago there simply weren’t women like you, Miss Roscoe, anywhere in the world… Women were either fools or feminists. But you don’t seem to be either….’

observations: So even in 1938 there was discussion about who was a feminist, and whether it affected how you dressed: it is quite surprising to read such modern-sounding dialogue. But this short story is rather discomfiting for modern eyes. Jenny Roscoe has just split up from her husband, after she discovers he is having an affair. The authorial voice is clear: Roscoe is wholly to blame, she has tried to have everything (hence the name of the story) but has not worked to keep her man, and hasn’t agreed to have children. The former suffragette is going to make her see how she’s missing out, and send her off to recover her man. It does not make a great read for modern women, though it is possible  that Roscoe does not have to give up her entire career...

Using a splendid
currency converter provided by the UK National Archives, we can say that £150 in 1938 would have the purchasing power of £5,500 (approx. $8700) today. The construction – giving us the value of her clothes - is admirable, and could be used to advantage in more books.

The picture is of a woman called Vivian Kellems, a very successful and apparently very happy ‘career woman’ who ran an industrial manufacturing firm with her brother. It comes from the Smithsonian Institution.

Links up with: There’s a picture we used before -
this entry , Harriet Vane being given a fur coat by her fiancé Рthat would fit well with this story. Stella Gibbons is a blog favourite: click on the label below to see more.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Even princes don't want to look silly

the book:

A King's Story by The Duke of Windsor

Published 1951 Chapter 5   1911

[The narrator is about to be formally invested as Prince of Wales]

The ceremony I had to go through with, the speech I had to make, and the Welsh I had to speak were, I thought, a sufficient ordeal for anyone. But when a tailor appeared to measure me for a fantastic costume designed for the occasion, consisting of white satin breeches and a mantle and surcoat of purple velvet edged with ermine, I decided things had gone too far. I had already submitted to the Garter dress and robe, for which there existed a condoning historical precedent; but what would my Navy friends say if they saw me in this preposterous rig? There was a family blow-up that night; but in the end my mother, as always, smoothed things over… “Your friends will understand that as a Prince you are obliged to do certain things that may seem a little silly. It will be only for this once.”

observations: Earlier in the book the Duke of Windsor has described how the other young Naval cadets had opened a sash window, thrust his head through it, and brought down the window on his neck, as a “crude reminder of the sad fate of Charles I and the English method of dealing with Royalty who displeased”, so you couldn’t say he was wrong to worry. At least he never had to go through a coronation in stupid robes: this is the Prince of Wales who became Edward VIII, abdicated, and lived out his life as the Duke of Windsor.

It is surprising that this book isn’t better-known and widely read – it seems to be out of print at the moment, and has been published in recent times only by small reprint specialists. But it is unique – how many actual monarchs have produced honest(ish) memoirs, let alone Kings who have been part of one of the biggest British controversies in a century?

He has had a bad press, but it is a sad story, and he does seem to have been treated shabbily. His main problem was that he wasn’t prepared to be hypocritical, and keep divorced Mrs Simpson as his mistress while marrying a suitable princess. And as he points out in this very entertaining book, it was quite hard to find a suitable bride after WWI – the Russian royal family was gone, all Catholics had always been ruled out, and the remaining princesses were mostly German, highly unpopular after 1918.

Links up with: In the notes on
this entry, we have Evelyn Waugh wondering about the abdication, and about whether the Duke and Duchess of Windsor regretted it.

The photograph of the Prince in his robes is from this Welsh cultural heritage site.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Shopping in New York

the book:

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

published 2012   set in the 1920s


[Cora is in New York for the summer with Louise Brooks. Her husband Alan has written to her]

‘I can only send you my best wishes.’ And money, of course. He’d wired a good amount to a Western Union, and told her she should go claim it at once. He hoped she would buy herself something pretty, he wrote, something she could show off when she came home. She supposed she should have been excited. She’d gone walking past the big department stores on Broadway, and she’d seen so many beautiful things in the window displays: afternoon dresses of crepe de chine, and hats trimmed in taffeta bows or smart feathers. There were many times at home when just the feel of new silk or a pretty shoe had brought her real comfort, and there was the satisfaction in usually being able, with the assistance of a good corset, to fasten a button on a narrow waist. But now the idea of shopping for clothes, even expensive New York clothes, only depressed her. She was irritated by the way he had written his suggestion. She wasn’t sure if it was the show off or the home that made her feel tired, even of taffeta and silk. She never knew when a gift was just a gift, truly given in caring, or just part of the charade.

In any case, she had a better idea

observations: Cora’s whole life is going to change as a result of her trip to New York, and Alan is going to be very surprised indeed when she comes home. She is accompanying the lovely Louise Brooks – the real-life figure who will become a movie star – chaperoning her as she attends a dance summer school. Cora is certainly changed by being with Brooks but, unusually for a good narrative story, the reader doesn’t seem to get any impression that Brooks takes much from Cora, at this stage of the story anyway. Moriarty resists the easy path there, to the benefit of the book. The picture of Brooks is very convincing, as she behaves badly, shocks Cora, questions everything. You always get the feeling she wouldn’t at all have been a comfortable, or particularly nice, person to know. But always fascinating.

Links up with: the book has featured before, here and here – the corsets mentioned above are a continuing feature. Louise Brooks has probably featured more on the blog than anyone else: click on the label below. Shopping for clothes is quite a trope – looking for
bras, or a Chinese robe, or a new hat.
The picture, of a dress shop in 1925, is from Flickr.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Hats, hats, hats

the book:

Vermeer's Hat by Timothy Brook

published 2008   chapter 2


Vermeer must have owned several hats. No document mentions this, but no Dutchman of his generation and status went out in public bare-headed. Take a look at the people in the foreground of View of Delft and you will see that everyone, male and female, has a hat or head covering. A poor man made do with wearing a slouch cap known as a klapmuts, but the better sort flaunted the kind of hat we see in
Officer and Laughing Girl. We should not be surprised to see the officer wearing his lavish creation indoors. When Vermeer painted a man without a hat, he was someone at work: a music teacher or a scientist. A courting man did not go hatless. The custom for men to remove their hats when entering a building or greeting a woman (a custom generally forgotten today) was not being observed. The only person before whom a European gentleman bared his head was his monarch, but as Dutchmen prided themselves in bowing to no monarch and scorned those who did, their hats stayed on. Vermeer himself wears hats in the two scenes into which he painted himself. In his cameo appearance as a musician in The Procuress he wears an extravagant beret that slouches almost to his shoulder. In The Art of Painting ten years later he wears a much smaller black beret, even then the distinguishing badge of the artist.

observations: We do like a hat at Clothes in Books – the history and customs associated with them are so much more than just keeping the head warm. We’ve visited this non-fiction book before, and this particular trail (in the book’s fascinating look at trade and the transportation of objects, ideas and people in the 17th century) is going to lead to the dealings in fur, and particularly beaver-for-hats, that opened up large parts of North America at that time. The book will also explain that the word ‘klapmuts’ was also used for a kind of soup bowl, and why, although oriental porcelain was all the rage, Chinese soup bowls were no good for European diners. Timothy Brook is a positive fountain of information.

The picture, from the
Biblioteque Nationale of Canada, formed part of a monograph on the history and traditions of the Canadian beaver. The Officer and Laughing Girl is in the Frick Collection in New York – link above. The Procuress is in Dresden and The Art of Painting is in Vienna.
With thanks, again, to JS for the book.

Links up with: A favourite previous hat entry is
here. More on when men wear their hats and when they take them off in the comments on this entry – hats and trains, two of our favourite things. What was a Tom and Jerry hat? Find out about it (though not in all truth very definitively) here.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

What Would You Do For Your Career?

the book:

The Aspern Papers by Henry James

published 1888

When I went back on the morrow the little maidservant conducted me straight through the long sala …as the door of the room closed behind me I was really face to face with the Juliana of some of Aspern's most exquisite and most renowned lyrics. I grew used to her afterward, though never completely; but as she sat there before me my heart beat as fast as if the miracle of resurrection had taken place for my benefit. Her presence seemed somehow to contain his, and I felt nearer to him at that first moment of seeing her than I ever had been before or ever have been since. ..

Then it came to me that she WAS tremendously old—so old that death might take her at any moment, before I had time to get what I wanted from her. The next thought was a correction to that; it lighted up the situation. She would die next week, she would die tomorrow—then I could seize her papers. Meanwhile she sat there neither moving nor speaking. She was very small and shrunken, bent forward, with her hands in her lap. She was dressed in black, and her head was wrapped in a piece of old black lace which showed no hair.

observations: Not a nice young man at all, but only too believable. He is an academic who has come to Venice to try to find the aged mistress of a great poet, the Jeffrey Aspern of the title. Miss Juliana Bordereau must surely have some letters from the great man tucked away – papers that no-one else has seen, papers that will make the young man’s career and fortune.

He had been surprised to find she was still alive: “it was as if I had been told Mrs Siddons was, or Queen Caroline, or the famous Lady Hamilton, for it seemed to me that she belonged to a generation as extinct.” Henry James is thought to have based his story on the idea of one of Byron's mistresses living into extreme old age.

This is one of the most creepy, atmospheric stories you could ever read; the picture of Venice is such that the city forever becomes James’s version; and there is a moment of shock in it to match the best ghost and horror stories. It also makes you wonder about James - who seems a blameless and honourable chap with a very restrained life – and his ability to portray the oily man's totally cynical manipulation of Miss Bordereau’s niece, and his contemplating selling his soul in marriage to her. What a great book.

Last week’s My Search for Warren Harding – about a young man trying to find the papers of a lost president – is clearly based on this novella, and in many ways couldn’t be more different. For a start it is hysterically funny, which The Aspern Papers isn’t. But reading them both in quick succession you can see how cleverly Plunket followed Aspern, there are endless parallels, and you can also see how absolutely brilliant both books are in very different ways.

Links up with: Venice was one of the settings for another Henry James book, blog favourite
Wings of the Dove, and carnivale came on the right day. Don’t Look Now is another classic Venice book.

The picture is by Sandor Bihari, and can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.