Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
published 1949 Part 2, chapter 4
I remember that my mother, during one of her rare visits to England, brought me a little jacket of scarlet cloth from Schiaparelli. It seemed to me to be quite plain and uninteresting except for the label in its lining, and I longed to put this on the outside so that people would know where it came from. I was wearing it, instead of a cardigan, in my house when Cedric happened to call, and the first thing he said was,
‘Aha! So now we dress at Schiaparelli, I see! Whatever next?’
‘Cedric! How can you tell?’
‘My dear, one can always tell… So your wicked mother the Bolter has been here?’
‘Might I not have bought it for myself?’
‘No, no my love, you are saving up to educate your twelve brilliant sons, how could you possibly afford 25 pounds for a little jacket?’
‘Don’t tell me!’ I said. ‘ Twenty-five pounds for this?... Simply silly. Why, I could have made it myself.’
‘But could you? And if you had would I have come into the room and said Schiaparelli?’
‘There’s only a yard of stuff in it, worth a pound, if that,’ I went on, horrified by the waste of money.
‘And how many yards of canvas in a Fragonard?...’
observations: This is the archetypal Clothes in Books extract, discussing the very philosophy of what makes clothes important. I was reminded of it by a discussion with the fabulous writer on popular culture, June Thomas (follow her on https://twitter.com/junethomas to find out what she’s writing about now), where we noted that books feature clothes endlessly, but they don’t often describe that feeling of buying something wonderful just for its beauty: for example, buying expensive gorgeous shoes rather that utilitarian ones. You can keep warm with a nice fleece – so why did people buy Schiaparelli jackets? Cedric says it’s a work of art, which is one justification, but that’s not the whole psychology behind it. And why does this trope not appear in books when we all know it exists – is it because it’s hard to make the buyer sound rational and sensible? There are lots of worthy women scrimping to dress well or buy a special frock – Little Women and Ballet Shoes– but that’s not the same thing. If you have counter-examples we’d love to hear about them.
Nancy Mitford would always have been on Cedric’s side – unlike her narrator Fanny. There is more of Fanny and choosing clothes here, along with a little more on Nancy’s appearance; and this book has featured before here and here - clothes, always clothes.
Links up with: David Copperfield in an entry last week was willing to spend money for vanity, and Stella Gibbons’ characters are interested in whether feminists should spend money on clothes: Women having it all. Schiaparelli again: The slender girls are sharing dresses on a very commercial basis.
The picture – yes it is a Schiaparelli jacket – can be found on the rather wonderful Ye Old Fashion tumblr.