Thursday, 31 May 2012

The timeless excitment of a new dress

the book:

Down the Common by Ann Baer

published 1996       Set in an unknown year in the Middle Ages - August

[A group of men from the village have just visited a neighbouring, larger, settlement and the villagers are being shown the goods that came back with them]

[Sir Hugh produced] a roll of woollen cloth of a rich dark red colour. An ‘Oooh’ escaped the mouths of the women as he passed it to Dame Margaret. ‘Your brother and his wife sent this, to make you a new gown.’

Dame Margaret took the roll on her knee and unwound a bit. ‘So thick and soft’ she exclaimed, impressed. ‘Where did it come from?’

Other women peered at it and commented, ‘How did they get that colour? Is it from sloes? Or elderberries? What a loom they must have to make anything that long. There must be yards in that roll.’

‘Your brother didn’t know where it came from’ said Sir Hugh. ‘It wasn’t made in Rutherford, that’s for sure. He said some men travelling north from the seacoast came to Rutherford…[and] brought this great roll of woollen stuff. There was more of it, but your sister-in-law made a gown of it for herself and she’s a big woman, and for her daughter too, and this bit was over.’

observations: This book is an oddity. It tells the story of a year in the life of a mediaeval woman in 12 monthly instalments – although it is never clear what year it is (or what century in fact) or whereabouts she lives in England (in Kent perhaps?). It is made clear how limited her life is, how very different from modern times. The dirt, squalour and cold are stressed, but so also is the quiet, the calm and the beauty of the world around her. The village is very isolated – there is very little contact with anyone else, and in most directions the people are surrounded by impenetrable forest. The people who like this book, love it: many say they re-read it frequently and buy copies for others. Its charms may not be quite so evident to others, and there are claims that it does not reflect modern thinking and research about mediaeval times. It is certainly an easy read, and good to find a book that seeks to show the truth about the lives of the very poor rather than royalty and the aristocracy. But there’s not much in the way of character, plot and development.

All the clothes in the village are made of wool – though linen is about to be introduced – and during the course of the book the heroine Marion discovers that loose weaving can make a warmer, softer garment than the traditional tight weave. And, yes, that’s about as exciting as it gets.

Links up with: The dyes used for Cardinal Wolsey’s robes are discussed in
this entry. The choosing and getting of material features here and here. Also mediaeval: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!

The picture , of a Flemish lady, can be found on Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

"What a sophisticated-looking girl!" - Mad Men style

the book:

The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

published 1958   chapters 1 & 2 set in New York

You see them every morning at a quarter to nine, rushing out of the maw of the subway tunnel, filing out of Grand Central Station… the hundreds and hundreds of girls…. They carry the morning newspapers and overstuffed handbags. Some of them are wearing pink or chartreuse fuzzy overcoats and five-year-old ankle-strap shoes and have their hair up in pin curls underneath kerchiefs. Some of them are wearing chic black suits (maybe last year’s but who can tell?) and kid goves…

Caroline Bender… was wearing a grey tweed suit which had been her dress-up suit in college, and was carrying a small attaché case, which contained a wallet with five dollars in it, a book of commuter tickets, some makeup, and three magazines…

[The next day, April Morrison is going to work:] As she emerged into the street she caught sight of her reflection in the window of a delicatessen next door to her apartment house. Her coat was too short – or was it? She remembered the girl in the tweed suit with the racoon collar who had been working at the desk next to hers yesterday afternoon at Fabian. What a sophisticated-looking girl!
 Something about her looked - right. Was it the leather gloves?

observations: April is going to start copying Caroline’s style, and they will become friends: aspiring actress Gregg will complete the trio, and they will live out their New York years together, in a predictable but enjoyable romp through love affairs, career decisions, and the inevitable illegal abortion for one of them.

The Best of Everything was a massive bestseller in its day, and is reputed to be one of the inspirations for the TV show Mad Men. It is set in publishing rather than advertising, and doesn’t have the advantage of hindsight – but there is a sumptuous
film of the book, and if you can get hold of a copy you would not doubt for one second that the makers of Mad Men had been watching it closely for the office design (nor would you doubt that Joan Crawford is a world treasure, and whatever she was paid wasn’t enough, and she should have had more scenes).

Links up with: All the girls in their big-city apartments (or rooming houses, or hostels) making their way –
Valley of the Dolls, The Town in Bloom, Experiment in Love (“women who live together share clothes”), The Bell Jar , The Country Girls. Why is there no parallel genre featuring men sharing apartments together in their 20s?

The picture is from the
German Federal Archive, a collection of pictures which they have made available on Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The never-failing joys of Little Women

the book:

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

published 1868   chapter 9

[Meg March has been invited to pay a visit to friends, and is planning her wardrobe with her sisters.]

“What did Mother give you out of the treasure box?” asked Amy, who had not been present at the opening of a certain cedar chest in which Mrs. March kept a few relics of past splendor, as gifts for her girls when the proper time came.

“A pair of silk stockings, that pretty carved fan, and a lovely blue sash. I wanted the violet silk; but there isn't time to make it over, so I must be contented with my old tarlatan.”

“It will look nice over my new muslin skirt, and the sash will set it off beautifully. I wish I hadn't smashed my coral bracelet, for you might have had it,” said Jo, who loved to give and lend, but whose possessions were usually too dilapidated to be of much use.

“There is a lovely old-fashioned pearl set in the treasure chest; but Mother said real flowers were the prettiest ornament for a young girl, and Laurie promised to send me all I want” replied Meg. “Now, let me see, there's my new grey walking suit - just curl up the feather in my hat, Beth - then my poplin for Sunday and the small party - it looks heavy for spring, doesn't it? The violet silk would be so nice. Oh, dear!”

observations: The whole book is, strangely, based on the structure of Pilgrim’s Progress, and this chapter is ominously called 'Meg Goes to Vanity Fair'. She is going to be shown to be far too interested in clothes, and allow herself to be dressed up ‘like a doll’ by her hostesses, and is ‘in a fair way to have her head turned’ – so that’s going to be a whole other blog entry, when we find the right illustration. Louisa May Alcott is a bit of a cheat here, busy describing lots of clothes in their glory, before saying how shallow and uninteresting they are.

Tarlatan – as we have explained
before – is always being mentioned in old books, and is ‘a thin, open-mesh transparent muslin, slightly stiffened and often rather coarse.’

Links up with: Little Women has featured
before (and certainly will again), and LMA’s book Eight Cousins, obsessed with clothes, has a record three entries – one here, with links to the others – but then all Alcott entries on the blog have proved very popular with readers. In one of the Hunger Games entries, we noted the similar trick of disapproving strongly of an interest in clothes, but making sure to feature them very fully for less Puritan readers.

The picture is from a collection of
Halloween cards at the NY Public Library

Monday, 28 May 2012

Trying not to get your dress wet

the book:

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

published 1889   chapter 7

Girls, also, don't look half bad in a boat, if prettily dressed. Nothing is more fetching, to my thinking, than a tasteful boating costume. But a "boating costume," it would be as well if all ladies would understand, ought to be a costume that can be worn in a boat, and not merely under a glass-case. It utterly spoils an excursion if you have folk in the boat who are thinking all the time a good deal more of their dress than of the trip. It was my misfortune once to go for a water picnic with two ladies of this kind. We did have a lively time!

They were both beautifully got up — all lace and silky stuff, and flowers, and ribbons, and dainty shoes, and light gloves. But they were dressed for a photographic studio, not for a river picnic. They were the "boating costumes" of a French fashion-plate. It was ridiculous, fooling about in them anywhere near real earth, air, and water.

The first thing was that they thought the boat was not clean. We dusted all the seats for them, and then assured them that it was, but they didn't believe us. One of them rubbed the cushion with the forefinger of her glove, and showed the result to the other, and they both sighed, and sat down, with the air of early Christian martyrs trying to make themselves comfortable up against the stake. You are liable to occasionally splash a little when sculling, and it appeared that a drop of water ruined those costumes. The mark never came out, and a stain was left on the dress for ever….

observations: And the scene goes on in a fairly predictable way, ending in the young women being made to do the washing-up, to their great disgruntlement, lying on the bank swishing the dirty crockery in the river. But at least JKJ is even-handed about men’s and women’s vanity and dress, as we have seen previously.

Three Men in a Boat was such a huge success that JKJ followed it up with a sequel – Three Men on the Bummel, about a bicycling tour of Germany. (A Bummel is described in the book as ‘a journey long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started’. Whether it is a real word I have been unable to ascertain.) It is funny too, but just doesn’t have the magnitude of the first one, though apparently was very popular in Germany. There are lots of random observations about Germans, including the prediction that Germans will end up speaking English quite soon, and a claim that Germans like dogs, but only china ones. There is also the revelation that cocoa adverts always show scantily-clad women, and an idea for preventing war: an outrageously stereotypical British couple are wandering around Germany – actually out-of-work actors – being so entertaining that it is thought the local populace will be convinced that ‘war with such would be absurd.’ Sadly the stratagem didn’t work – as the descriptions of long-lost Dresden and Prague remind us.

Links up with: Troubles on board ship feature here and here. JKJ might agree with Uncle Alec in Eight Cousins (and of course with Louisa May Alcott) about rational dress – several entries, but this is the highly-popular
corset one.

The picture is from George Eastman House via

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Goings-on aboard ship again

the book:

Rites of Passage by William Golding

published 1980  chapter 5 set in early 19th century

[Edmund Talbot is a passenger on a ship travelling from England to Australia. He is being shown round by a young midshipman.]

“When shall I see you [take an observation]?”

“Why, at noon, in a few minutes. There will be Mr Smiles, the sailing master, Mr Davies and Mr Taylor, the other two midshipmen sir, though Mr Davies does not really know how to do it for all that he is so old and Mr Taylor my friend, I beg you will not mention it to the Captain, has a sextant that does not work owing to his having pawned the one that his father gave him. So we have agreed to take turn with mine and give altitudes that are two minutes different.”

I put my hand to my forehead. “And the safety of the whole hangs by such a spider’s thread?”


“Our position, my boy! Good God, we might as well be in the hands of my young brothers! Is our position to be decided by an antique midshipman and a sextant that doesn’t work?”

observations: We’re really pushing it today – the justification is that accessories do count for Clothes in Books, so we’ve decided that sextants count as accessories. This book combines being very funny with being quite horrific and disturbing, and does show off William Golding’s ability to write convincing characters. To call Talbot an unreliable narrator is to simplify too much: he is someone learning his lessons, rather – as the title indicates. The book is the first of a trilogy, though there can be a feeling of diminishing returns in the later books, this one seemed complete in itself.

Links up with: There’s something about protagonists at sea, and the closed world, and the opportunities to behave badly: see Evelyn Waugh’s
Gilbert Pinfold. Rites of Passage beat Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers to win the Booker Prize in 1980.

The photo is from the
Library of Congress.

Friday, 25 May 2012

A satisfying child, drawing in the street

the book:

The Eye of Love by Margery Sharp

Published  1957    chapter 17   set in the 1920s

When Martha, in Almaviva Place, stood memorising the chestnut tree, she had confidently expected to be able to put it on paper as soon as she got home; but this was not so. She couldn’t get the two triangles, into which the whole tree should fit, in the right proportions. She put the attempt aside, but now and then took it out to look at; it bothered her to leave any piece of work unfinished. In the end… she returned for a check on site…

Martha propped her back against a convenient lamp-post, emptied her pockets, and set to work. It was a brilliant October morning, but the first cold snap; her hands were awkwardly cold. This difficulty Martha overcame by pulling down the wrists of her jersey inside her reefer-jacket and cutting slits to push her fingers through. Thus mittened, her hands warmed; only her feet froze. She looked around for something to stand on…. Martha considered; she knew her temperature would rise as soon as she started drawing, and her jersey was thick; so she removed her jacket and stood on that. It took her ten minutes or so to get comfortable, then she settled down for a good long spell.

observations: Nine-year old Martha is the supremely un-annoying child in fiction: she is not sweet, she doesn’t endear herself to people, and yet she is lovely. An orphan, she lives with her aunt, and their relationship is refreshingly unsentimental.

Martha is an extremely good artist: it is always difficult to describe this in a book, but Margery Sharp succeeds in making you at least want to see the little girl’s pictures of, for example, the wire shelves of the gas oven. And she knows exactly what to do about the presuming lodger, Mr Philips: when his come-uppance arrives, she throws his luggage over the bannisters.

Links up with: Her story plays out in parallel to that of her aunt, whose romance made for a heart-stopping
St Valentine’s Day entry. The aunt likes to call her suitor Bluff King Hal, though not otherwise resembling Anne Boleyn or Cardinal Wolsey. Fiona in this entry was an art student.

The photo, of Miss Flora Whitney, is from the
Bain Collection at the Library of Congress.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Does he really know what it's like to be a geisha?

the book:

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

published 1997     chapter 17

Finally the day came when Mameha and I were to perform the ceremony binding us as sisters. I bathed early and spent the rest of the morning dressing. Auntie helped me with the finishing touches on my makeup and hair. Because of the wax and makeup covering my skin, I had the strange sensation of having lost all feeling in my face; every time I touched my cheek, I could feel only a vague sense of pressure from my finger…. Afterward as I studied myself in the mirror, a most peculiar thing happened. I knew that the person kneeling before the makeup stand was me, but so was the unfamiliar girl gazing back. I actually reached out to touch her. She wore the magnificent makeup of a geisha. Her lips were flowering red on a stark white face, with her cheeks tinted a soft pink. Her hair was ornamented with silk flowers and sprigs of unhusked rice. She wore a formal kimono of black…

Beginning at the hem of my gown, an embroidered dragon circled up the bottom of the robe to the middle of my thigh. His name was woven in threads lacquered with a beautiful reddish tint. His claws and teeth were silver, his eyes gold – real gold. I couldn’t stop tears from welling up in my eyes.

observations: Everything about this book is strange. It’s a first-person narrative about a Japanese woman growing up in the first half of the 20th century, written by an American man born in 1956. Arthur Golden is a member of the family that owns the New York Times. He wrote this long book, a massive bestseller, and seems to have written nothing else before or after. It is very gripping when you’re reading it, and when you manage to fight back the feeling that he can’t possibly know what it was like to be a geisha, however well-researched and factually accurate it is. Afterwards it tends to slip from the mind…

Links up with: A very different lady
getting ready for a date. Clothes defining women’s status and job here.

The photo is from the University of Washington’s digital collections, via

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Gasp at the Dodie Smith heroine in her Bo-Peep outfit

the book:

The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith

published 1965    Book 2 Chapter 2  set in the mid-1920s

[Narrator Mouse is an aspiring actress, going to an audition, advised by her friends]

I wore a circular cape and a straw hat that resembled a coal-scuttle bonnet… my dress was pale-grey, tight-bodiced and full-skirted…  and my black shoes had cut-steel buckles… When I studied my face in a dressing-table glass I knew I could play Lady Macbeth; when I pranced in front of a long glass I felt I should make an ideal Puck. I was thankful for such versatility…

‘I’ve cheered things up a bit,’ said Lilian. She had taken a small pink feather from one of her own hats and pinned it on to my coal-scuttle bonnet…. I also had a grey umbrella, a tall umbrella, unusually so, with its length increased by the ivory shepherd’s crook which formed its handle. I thought highly of this umbrella. We all went downstairs and out to the bus-stop…

Molly instructed the bus conductor to put me down as near as possible to the Crossway Theatre. He eyed my umbrella handle with interest and said he would take good care of Little Bo-Peep.

observations: OMG what DOES she look like? No, she isn’t meant to be in costume, this is her everyday outfit for 1920s London. This book is a complete (and probably new) treat for any Dodie Smith fans – it is like a cross between I Capture the Castle and Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes, so what could be nicer? It is a classic story of four young women living in a hostel together, trying to make their way in theatrical London, falling in love and so on, bookended by a reunion of the grown women 40 years later. Mouse is not exactly an unreliable narrator, but throughout the book her comments on herself, her bizarre clothes (“seriously, Molly, if she goes out in that she’ll be mobbed” Lillian says) and her very, mmm, individual style of acting are hilarious – her appearance as an emergency understudy a particular delight (“I jumped on the footstool… this winning idea just came to me… I rather expected people would be in the wings to congratulate me, but no-one was.”)

The book is lightweight, but it is laugh-out-loud funny, and Mouse’s naïve new-girl ponderings are refreshingly free from prissiness.

Links up with:
Dodie Smith, and also mentioned here. An entry on Hilary Mantel’s young-women-sharing book looks at the genre a bit more. Ballet Shoes is here, and emergency understudies feature in this entry.

Colm probably remembers The Heathen - the converted mews flat, so referred to because the conversion hasn’t been very successful.

The photo is from
George Eastman House, via Flickr.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The dangers of having clothes altered - The Box 3

the book:

A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark

published 1988  chapter 7

To my great joy my black lace evening dress needed to be taken in a good inch both sides when, in January of 1955 I tried it on with a view to wearing it at a smart dinner party…

There I was in Wanda’s room, having my dress pinned and tucked, and the nceckline cut low, with a view to its being reduced to my latest size and remodelled, as Wanda put it, to bring it up to date.

Wanda’s room was still the workshop of old. Piles of clothes to be altered, and among them another dress of mine. She often altered dresses for me, but this was the first time she had to take one in.

‘I have such terrible rheumatism,’ said Wanda, who was on her knees, with her pins, sticking them abundantly into my dress. ‘I’m behind with my work.’ I told her the lace dress was urgent.

It was difficult for her to move. She was having treatment, she said.

observations: This book was written a lot later than the other two Box books (here and here) but is set a little earlier. It has an extraordinarily complex and well-worked-out plot, many aspects of which are glanced on in this short excerpt. Wanda the dressmaker operates The Box – the ‘treatment’ –for herself and others, and is later going to be persuaded by malign forces that it is her fault that Mrs Hawkins, the narrator, has lost weight. Wanda perhaps uses the dressmaking sessions to get hold of hair from her victims, to put in The Box. Mrs Hawkins herself is a fabulous character, with her changing shape, her good advice, and her surprising romance.

At one point Mrs Hawkins and her landlady Milly are sitting on the stairs watching through the window as the couple next door have a row. “Milly, always with her sense of the appropriate, dashed down to her bedroom and reappeared with a near-full box of chocolates. We sat side-by-side, eating chocolates, and watching the show.”

Links up with: As well as the other Box books,
here and here, Kensington should really be read in conjunction with Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent (here and, in a date-related manner of speaking, here). The twice previously-featured Lucky Jim is mentioned as being recently published.

The picture is another
John Singer Sargent - see also this entry here and a mention here.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Smoke Mirrors and Murder - The Box 2

the book:

The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie

published 1961   Chapter 17

[Mark Easterbrook, narrating, is going to a séance which will also involve The Box]

Thyrza Grey, wearing a plain dark wool dress, opened the door, said in a businesslike tone: “Ah, here you are. Good. We’ll have supper straight away.”…

Bella waited on us. She wore a black stuff dress and looked more than ever like one of the crowd in an Italian primitive. Sybil struck a more exotic note. She had on a long dress of some woven peacock-coloured fabric, shot with gold. Her beads were absent on this occasion, but she had two heavy gold bracelets clasping her wrists…

[Thyrza] went to a cupboard in the wall and took from it what appeared to be a kind of long overall. It seemed to be made, when the light caught it, of some metallic woven tissue. She drew on long gauntlets of what looked like a kind of fine mesh rather resembling a “bullet-proof vest” I had once been shown. “One has to take precautions” she said…

[Thyrza] went over to what I had taken to be a radio cabinet. It opened up and I saw that it was a large electrical contrivance of some complicated kind. It moved like a trolley and she wheeled it slowly and carefully to a position near the …inert figure on the divan.

Observations: Following on from yesterday, another use of The Box in a book published four years later. The hero is investigating a claim that people are being killed for money, but using supernatural means: so he is pretending he wants to get rid of his wife. He has brought one of her gloves, and the scary evening is a combination of the traditional séance (the 'inert figure' is Sybil in a trance), a witches’ blood sacrifice, and The Box – “the big box-like machine had started to emit a low hum, the bulbs in it glowed… could there be physically-produced rays of some kind that acted on the cells of the mind?” Obvious nonsense – but the pretend victim is definitely starting to feel ill…

Of course as this is Agatha Christie, nothing is quite what it seems.

Links up with: Lots of Agatha Christie – click on the label below to see them all. In this entry we mention that despite the unreality of her world, she is good for sociological observation of the 20th century – The Box has disappeared totally, and is very hard to research, but everything was grist to AC’s mill, so we have this record of it. Evelyn Waugh’s version of The Box features in the book in yesterday’s entry.

The picture is from an alarmingly spooky collection of spirit and séance pictures held at the UK’s National Media Museum.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Going mad on board ship: The Box 1

the book:

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold by Evelyn Waugh

published 1957

[Gilbert Pinfold, a middle-aged novelist, is on a cruise ship which is about to go through the straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean]

At table Captain Steerforth carried his anxieties with splendid composure. Mrs Scarfield actually asked him: ‘When do we go through the straits?’ and he replied without any perceptible nuance: ‘Early tomorrow morning.’

‘It ought to get warmer then?’

‘Not at this time of the year,’ he answered nonchalantly. ‘You must wait for the Red Sea before you go into whites.’…

[Some time later he reaches his destination] Ceylon was a new country to Mr Pinfold but he had no sense of exhilaration on arrival. He was tired and sweaty. He was wearing the wrong clothes. His first act after leaving his luggage at the hotel was to seek the tailor Glover had recommended. The man promised to work all night and have three suits ready for him to try on next morning…

The three suits were pale pinkish buff (‘How smart you look’ cried Margaret); they were not entirely useless. He wore them on successive days…

observations: Not one of the better-known Waugh books nowadays, and with good reason. Evelyn Waugh in the 1950s went through a very peculiar experience as a result of mixing sleeping drugs and alcohol: he went on a sea voyage and conjured up a whole family who were tormenting and threatening him, he could hear voices and plots. As soon as he stopped taking the drugs, the problem ended. This novella, openly based on his experiences, is a most uncomfortable read. To take just one example: Waugh often referred to his daughter Margaret as his favourite. In the book, the only member of the (imaginary) cruel family who is at all nice to him is called Margaret, and there is an indescribable scene in which Pinfold imagines that ‘Margaret’ is being sent in to his cabin to sleep with him – pimped out by the rest of her family. It is close to unreadable. Of course, the whole thing is very well-written, he is a master stylist, but it’s hard to know what could have possessed him to lay himself bare in this way.

Gilbert Pinfold is convinced that all his troubles are tied up with a mysterious item called The Box, a weird craze in the 1950s, whereby people tried to influence the lives of others using ‘life-waves’. Hair or blood from the ‘subject’ was needed – the Box combined elements of spiritualism, voodoo, and modern pseudo-science in an extraordinary way. It’s almost forgotten now, but turns up in books of the 1950s.

Links up with: Evelyn Waugh featured here. More of The Box to come. The Provincial Lady
dresses for her holiday.

The picture is from the
National Archives of the UK, and was an illustration for the Empire Marketing Board. Presumably the idea was to stress the warmth, and to bring out whites and linen a long time before Captain Steerforth – and what a fine Dickensian name that is for the captain - suggests.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

The last days of disco

the book:

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

published 1978   set in San Francisco

[Brian, young (32) single and straight, is feeling bored with life, and planning a night out, hoping to meet someone]

He climbed into the shower and sublimated his sex drive in a Donna Summer song. So what would it be tonight? Henry Africa’s. It was far enough away from Perry’s and Union Street to provide at least token escape…

He couldn’t get into it. He was dying of fern poisoning. OD-ing on Tiffany lamplight. He was sick of the whole plastic-fantastic scene. But where else….?

Christ! The Come Clean Center! He had picked up some hot women there last month. Hot women flocked to the Come Clean Center like lemmings headed for the Sea of Matrimony. But you didn’t have to marry ‘em to nail ‘em!

Perfect! He towelled off hurriedly and climbed into corduroy levis and a gray-and-maroon rugby shirt. Why the hell hadn’t he thought of it before?

observations: The Come Clean Center, in case you haven’t guessed, is a laundromat (UK = launderette) and, apparently, a great place to pick up women. When this series of books started – as regular articles in a San Francisco newspaper – there was a lot of emphasis on the lifestyles of the young and single, and the places they met, and the roots of the book lay in the Marina Safeway as pickup spot. As the books moved on, the characters became more important, more rounded, less single-trait. And in Brian’s case a lot less horrible.

Armistead Maupin’s early books were as much a part of the disco era as Donna Summer, who died this week – he had some great scenes set there, and we are sad that we haven’t been able to find a picture to illustrate Connie ‘bumping with a black man in Lurex knickers and glitter wedgies.’ (UK readers should note that knickers would be knickerbockers rather than underwear. But still…) The books are funny and very much of their time, and we read the first ones with melancholy nostalgia, knowing AIDS was just around the corner.

Thanks to Colm for the idea.

Links up with: Lucia’s husband Georgie
knows how to dress up; whereas the stepmother in I Capture the Castle chooses to dress down. The three men in a boat take their clothes seriously.

The photo is by James Jowers and is held at
George Eastman House. His pictures have featured before, here and here.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Housekeeping - a regime of small kindnesses

the book:

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

published 1980  Ch 7    Set in a small town in Idaho in the 1950s

[Ruth and Lucille are being looked after by their unconventional aunt, and Lucille is becoming increasingly unhappy about this, and anxious to fit in]

Two older girls whom Lucille had somehow contrived to know slightly sat down beside us and started to show us patterns and cloth they had bought to sew for school…

When Lucille came home she was carrying a bag in which there was a dress pattern with four yards of cream-and-brown-checked wool. “It will all be co-ordinated” she said. “It will go with my hair.” She was deeply serious. “You have to help me. The instructions tell how to do it.” We cleared away the clutter on the kitchen table, which was considerable…

[The girls fight over the dressmaking project, and Lucille carries on alone]

Lucille had taped a sign on the door that said, in letters of unctuous neatness and clarity, DO NOT DISTURB… For many days there was no sign that the dress would ever be done, or the hostilities ended. But one day I was sitting in the kitchen eating a sandwich and reading a book when Lucille came downstairs with her dress bundled up in her arms and stuffed it into the stove. She bunched a newspaper and pushed it in, and dropped a lighted match on it. The kitchen began to smell like smouldering hair.

Lucille sat down across from me. “I didn’t even bother to take the pins out” she said.

observations: Housekeeping resembles no other novel, and is one of the finest books of the 20th century. This is a heartbreaking scene, most particularly because you can see Lucille’s point – Sylvie is one of the greatest aunts in fiction, but she IS most peculiar, and it would be hard to withstand the feeling that you really weren’t like everyone else in this small town. Lucille just wants to feel normal. Ruth, quiet, silent, passive, doesn’t mind nearly so much – though even she isn’t certain about Sylvie’s ways. The differing fates of the sisters lives on in the mind – ‘there was an end to housekeeping.’

Marilynne Robinson is in the UK at the moment, and (like
this author) proved to be a wonderful speaker. She has a new book out, a collection of essays called When I was a child I read books, and the title piece is largely about the American West, and how that bears on the range of allusions in Housekeeping and the ideas behind it.

Links up with: Anne Shirley had a dress
made for her, Miss Read taught useful sewing, and Flora Poste makes a petticoat at Cold Comfort Farm.
Thanks to Barbara for the idea and for the opportunity.

The picture comes from the Oregon State University collection via

Thursday, 17 May 2012

A young woman with true grit

the book:

True Grit by Charles Portis

published 1968    set in the late 19th century

[14 year old Mattie Ross is seeking to avenge the murder of her father in Arkansas, and is about to set off with her ally Rooster Cogburn]

I rolled up the blankets with the sack of food inside and then wrapped the slicker around the roll and made it fast with some twine. I put Papa’s heavy coat on over my own coat. I had to turn the cuffs back. My little hat was not as thick and warm as his so I traded. Of course it was too big and I had to fold up some pages from the New Era and stick them inside the band to make for a snug fit. I took my bundle and my gun sack and left for the stock barn…

I could see no good place to carry the pistol. I wanted the piece ready at hand but the belt was too big around my waist and the pistol itself was far too big and heavy to stick in the waist of my jeans. I finally tied the neck of the gun sack to the saddle horn with a good knot the size of a turkey egg.

observations: There’ve been two very successful, and quite different, films of this book, and both are very enjoyable. But no film could possibly do justice to Mattie’s peculiar voice and tone, consistent and hilarious throughout the book – she is narrating it in her old age, an unmarried wealthy lady who owns a bank (“I would marry an ugly baboon if I wanted to and make him a cashier”) and has forthright opinions. She had them at 14, too, and this book is one you can read over and over and notice new turns of phrase and strange locutions every time. And after reading it you tend to talk like Mattie for a day or so. “Keep your seat, trash!” is at all times a useful phrase.

Links up with: young female narrators with distinctive voices,
here and here. The Hunger Games’ Katniss was daring, brave and strong – we asked in this entry for a comparable female heroine, and perhaps Mattie is the one.
Chosen for another Mattie, for her birthday.

The picture is from the
Southern Methodist University archives, via Flickr.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Shakespeare, men's legs, and layers of status

the book:

Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt

published 2005   chapter 2

[The last will and testament of Augustine Phillips, one of Shakespeare’s fellow actors, includes detailed bequests of costumes]

Phillips’ “mouse-coloured velvet hose” were no doubt designed to show off his legs – in this period of long dresses, it was men’s legs, rather than women’s, to which eyes were drawn…

Players were supposed to be able to mime convincingly the behaviour of gentlemen and ladies. That is, boys and men, drawn almost entirely from the 98 per cent of the population that were not “gentle”, had to assume the manner of the upper 2 per cent… these were repertory companies in which most of the actors were expected to play a range of social types. And it is clear from the budgets of the playing companies that they were willing to invest a great deal of money in making the impersonation of the gentry convincing. Their single largest expense, apart from the physical building itself, was the cost of costumes – the gorgeous, elaborate clothes that audiences expected to see gracing the bodies of the actors playing the parts of lords and ladies…

Dress was the opposite of democratizing – nothing could be further from Shakespeare’s world than a culture in which magnates and workmen often wear the same clothes. It wasn’t simply a question of money. By royal proclamation, silks and satins were officially restricted to the gentry. Actors were exempted, but outside of the playhouse they could not legally wear their costumes.

observations: It’s an arresting image: Sumptuary Laws whose provisions meant you were banned from wearing beautiful clothes – except at work. It’s the kind of detail this author provides to make the past so real and vivid.

This is a factual book, for once, and a truly fascinating one. Stephen Greenblatt is a noted academic, the man who invented New Historicism (where literature, history and cultural studies overlap) and a major Shakespeare scholar. He is in the UK at the moment, and it turns out he is a fantastic lecturer too. This book is scholarly, but very very readable and accessible too, and gives the best possible insight into Shakespeare and his world.

Links up with: Actors, acting and costumes feature in this blog entry. Shakespeare has an uncredited cameo in this featured book.

The picture is A procession of Characters from Shakespeare’s plays, by an unknown artist. It is held at the
Yale Center for British Art and is used with their permission.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The holiday dress that just doesn't cut it

the book:

The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield

published 1930

[The provincial lady has been on holiday in the South of France without her family, and is getting used to domestic life again.]

July 31st: Photographs taken at Ste Agathe arrive, and I am – perhaps naturally – much more interested in them than anybody else appears to be. (Bathing dress shows up as being even more becoming than I thought it was, though hair, on the other hand, not at its best – probably owing to salt water.) Notice, regretfully, how much more time I spend in studying views of myself, than on admirable group of delightful friends, or even beauties of Nature, as exemplified in camera studies of sea and sky.

Presents for Vicky, Mademoiselle, and Our Vicar’s Wife all meet with acclamation, and am gratified. Blue flowered chintz frock, however, bought at Ste Agathe for 63 francs, no longer becoming to me, as sunburn fades and original sallowness returns to view. Even Mademoiselle, usually so sympathetic in regard to clothes, eyes chintz frock doubtfully, and says Tiens! On dirait un bal masque. As she knows, and I know, that the neighbourhood never has, and never will, run to bals masques, this equals unqualified condemnation of blue chintz, and I remove it in silence to the furthest corner of the wardrobe.

observations: All totally recognizable here, in the Provincial Lady’s gentle but telling observations: the photos, the hopeful vision of ourselves, and the vacation purchase that just doesn’t cut it once you get home.

This trip with women friends arose after the narrator received a letter from ‘dear Rose’ describing tempting holiday. ‘I am moved to exclaim - perhaps rather thoughtlessly – that the most wonderful thing in the world must be to be a childless widow – but this is met by unsympathetic silence from [husband] Robert, which recalls me to myself, and impels me to say that that isn’t in the least what I mean…(should be very very sorry… to explain exactly what it is that I do mean).’

Links up with: The Provincial Lady has
prior form, and we’ve heard about her hair before. Summer dresses here and here.

Photo comes from the State Library of Queensland, featured on Flickr.

Monday, 14 May 2012

"She's a bad lot, that one is"

the book:

Morlvera by Saki (H H Monro)

Short story from The Toys of Peace, collected for publication in 1919

Prominent among the elegantly-dressed dolls that filled an entire section of the window frontage was a large hobble-skirted lady in a confection of peach-coloured velvet, elaborately set off with leopard skin accessories, if one may use such a conveniently comprehensive word in describing an intricate feminine toilette. She lacked nothing that is to be found in a carefully detailed fashion-plate--in fact, she might be said to have something more than the average fashion-plate female possesses; in place of a vacant, expressionless stare she had character in her face. It must be admitted that it was bad character, cold, hostile, inquisitorial, with a sinister lowering of one eyebrow and a merciless hardness about the corners of the mouth. One might have imagined histories about her by the hour, histories in which unworthy ambition, the desire for money, and an entire absence of all decent feeling would play a conspicuous part.

observations: And two little poor children, Emmeline and Bert, do indeed imagine a history for her. By happy chance, a rich boy comes along and completes Morlvera’s story to the satisfaction of all the children, even though they never directly encounter each other. The story is slight, but has all the features that make Saki so satisfying: good dialogue, character-drawing in a few lines, and cold charm and humour.

H H Monro had no children (he never married) but he must have known some well: his pictures of them are convincing and clear-eyed – perhaps he was the ideal godfather or uncle. In the story The Strategist, a child is asked to share her peach: ‘But Agnes was fat first and good-natured afterwards; those were her guiding principles in life.’

Stories and attitude are both rather like Roald Dahl 50 years later.

Links up with: Another Saki story
here, and a very splendid doll for the Little Princess.

The picture is a 19th century photo from
Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Bring Up the Bodies, wearing yellow dresses

the book:

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

published 2012   chapter 3   1536

Anne the Queen wears yellow, as she did when she first appeared at court, dancing in a masque: the year, 1522. Everyone remembers it, or they say they do: Boleyn’s second daughter with her bold dark eyes, her speed, her grace. The fashion for yellow had started among the wealthy in Basle; for a few months, if a draper could get hold of it, he could make a killing. And then suddenly it was everywhere, in sleeves and hose and even hairbands for those who couldn’t afford more than a sliver. By the time of Anne’s debut it had slid down the scale abroad; in the domains of the Emperor you’d see a woman in a brothel hoisting her fat dugs and tight-lacing her yellow bodice.

Does Anne know this? Today her gown is worth five times the one she wore when her father was her only banker. It is sewn over with pearls, so that she moves in a blur of primrose light. He says to Lady Rochford, do we call it a new colour, or an old colour come back? Will you be wearing it, my lady?

She says, I don’t think it suits any complexion, myself. And Anne should stick to black.

observations: We are back at the court of King Henry VIII, delirious with happiness because Hilary Mantel’s sequel to Wolf Hall is with us at last. At the court they are delirious with happiness because the King’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, is dead, and they are not even pretending to mourn. ‘Should stick to black’ indeed.

As in the previous excerpt, protagonist Thomas Cromwell is shown bringing his values and knowledge as a trader to the table, and he is always shown as having an understanding that the history of women is hidden, but key to the history of the world, and to his own rise to power.

From the arresting opening line – ‘His children are falling from the sky’ – it is a wonderful book. Sadder and darker and harsher than the first one, and with one change. The first had an oddity that you had to work out: if Mantel began a sentence with ‘he said’ – ‘he went’ – ‘he thought’, then the subject was Thomas Cromwell, even if the previous sentence suggested it might be someone else. This was satisfying to work out and work with, but caused complaints, and regrettably this time around she often says: ‘He, Thomas Cromwell, shrugs’ – ‘He, Thomas Cromwell, stands very well…’.

And more for readers who wanted to feel clever: the book makes good on the incidents early in Wolf Hall, where anyone who knew the historical details of Boleyn’s downfall could see a Mantel-plot-device developing, just casually thrown in without too much attention.

Links up with: Wolf Hall,
of course. More yellow fabulousness for young ladies here and here. There’s a woman refusing to mourn in this entry – but check the date.

More than 300 years later, a yellow dress still suits a beautiful dark girl. The picture is by the Viennese artist Max Kurzweil, dates from 1899, and can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Second-best mantles and crinolines

the book:

The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett

published 1908    Book 4 Ch 2

Constance [was] in her bedroom, withdrawing crumpled balls of paper from the sleeves of her second-best mantle. Constance scarcely ever wore this mantle. In theory it was destined for chapel on wet Sundays; in practice it had remained long in the wardrobe, Sundays having been obstinately fine for weeks and weeks together. It was a mantle that Constance had never really liked. But she was not going to Knype to meet Sophia in her everyday mantle; and she had no intention of donning her best mantle for such an excursion. To make her first appearance before Sophia in the best mantle she had—this would have been a sad mistake of tactics! Not only would it have led to an anti-climax on Sunday, but it would have given to Constance the air of being in awe of Sophia. Now Constance was in truth a little afraid of Sophia… but she did not mean to show her fear in her mantle. After all, she was the elder. And she had her dignity too—and a lot of it—tucked away in her secret heart... So she had decided on the second-best mantle, which, being seldom used, had its sleeves stuffed with paper to the end that they might keep their shape and their 'fall.' The little balls of paper were strewed over the bed.

observations: A lovely description of the decisions women make about clothes. A mantle is outdoor-wear - could be more like a cloak or, as in this case, have sleeves. Constance is going to meet her sister for the first time in 30 years. Sophia eloped to Paris with an unsuitable young man ("After all," her heart said, "I must be very beautiful, for I have attracted the pearl of men!") and lived through a busy time of history, including the Paris Commune and siege, apparently without noticing much:

Sophia, in her modestly stylish black, mechanically noticed how much easier it was for attired women to sit in a carriage now that crinolines had gone. That was the sole impression made upon her by this glimpse of the last fete of the Napoleonic Empire.

Crinolines feature a lot in this book – they arrive at the beginning and are gone at the end. Early on, Aunt Harriet climbing into a small carriage is described as being “an operation like threading a needle with cotton too thick.” But once in, “her hoops distended in sudden release, filling the waggonette.”

Links up with: More Old Wives Tale
here and here – this book is packed full of descriptions of clothes.
The photo is from the National Galleries of Scotland, via Flickr.