Sunday, 19 October 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Guardian Books Blog & Stockings in Books







Today’s post appears on the Guardian books blog and is about stockings, nylons and tights in literature – and my theory that the coming of nylon took out legwear as a class marker. The lovely Samantha Ellis - who is much admired on this blog for her book How to be a Heroine - described the piece as combining
 'impeccable research & epic frivolity', which is about the nicest compliment I could have. 

The article is here at the Guardian.

This is part of it:



In his final Narnia book, The Last Battle, published in 1956, CS Lewis betrayed every teenage girl with the line: “Oh Susan! She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” With those words, Susan was gone, a lost cause, condemned by her legwear.

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the first limited production by DuPont of nylon stockings, and though Lewis has his fuddy duddy disdain for them, I’m going to claim a bigger and better significance. Nylons (and later tights) meant the democratisation of women’s legs. Until they became widely available in the 1940s, there had always been a sharp division between silk stockings and cheaper, more hard-wearing ones, made from cotton and lisle (respectable) or fake silk (dubious).





In Ulysses (set in 1904, published 1922), either James Joyce or Leopold Bloom has a lot to say: there’s Gertie and her stockings, Zoe and her garters, the display of “rays of flat silk stockings” in the department store and Molly Bloom’s “silkette stockings”. This was a silk-effect material, which AA Milne noted as inferior in his 1922 crime story The Red House Mystery, when a shopping trip to buy silk stockings for his sister throws the jovial narrator into a fret: “Could I be sure I was getting silk and not silkette … ?”

In her memoir The Laughing Torso, Nina Hamnett has brightly coloured stockings in pre-first-world-war Paris, and some with chessboard squares. But she tells us that Gertrude Stein wears grey woollen stockings (she was a bohemian, you see). And Hamnett herself lamented to a market seller that she couldn’t afford silk. He said it would be “an investment”, and she was “flattered that he mistook me for a lady of loose morals”.

“Art silk” stockings are much mentioned in books of the era, and I can’t be the only reader who initially thought they were particularly fancy ones – perhaps with a nice design on them. But actually it was short for “artificial silk”…

READ ON AT THE GUARDIAN BOOKS BLOG



Naturally Agatha Christie features in the piece – she’s always my go-to author for sociological distinctions – in particular the stockings in this entry on The Moving Finger. Also there’s blog favourite Noel Streatfeild, and Viv Albertine coming right up to date.

12 comments:

  1. How fascinating and I'm sure I've misunderstood by "art silk" stocking references before.

    "Long fine stockings" are given as an essential in the shopping list of would-be fashion models in Susan Scarlett's/Noel Streatfeild's Clothes Pegs, published in 1939 and based on Streatfeild's own experience as a model. Obviously a sought-after commodity. Even though the model's have relatively decent pay, they are told to mark them so they don't get stolen by other models!

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    1. Great story Frances, thank you for that addition. I did try to get hold of that book, but failed, I must have another go.

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  2. When I think of stockings and books I'm reminded of the lurid, pulp type paperbacks - 60's and 70's where the hero has the stocking clad beauty with cleavage drapes over him. He's usually packing a gun.

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    1. Yes indeed, I know exactly what you mean. I bet Scott has some great covers like that...

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  3. Fantastic post, Moira!! Trust you to think of some great examples, too. So glad you mentioned Christie. There's a really interesting bit about silk stockings, and people who can afford them, in Cards on the Table. And of course there's another Christie novel too where stockings matter (no spoilers)...

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    1. Thank you Margot. Do you know what, I could have filled the whole column with references from the revered Agatha - it's yet another area where she is completely on top of the sociology. It was agony editing her out to make room for other writers.

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  4. Wonderful post - I was thinking of Margot's reference to Cards on the Table too - it really illustrates the class/money thing.

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    1. Yes, it's a very memorable and clever scene: it tells you the truth about that character. It was in the first draft of the Guardian piece, then it had to be sliced out....

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  5. Moira, I don't know much about stockings(!) but I enjoyed your post as well as the choice of images. I have been wanting to read C.S. Lewis' Narnia stories but haven't because I'm too busy watching the film versions that I quite like.

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    1. Thanks Prashant. I guess the Narnia books were not part of your childhood? They are very popular here. I wonder what children's books were popular in India - you have told us of your teenage reading, but it would be nice to hear about childhood books too.

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  6. Amazing, I did not know that stockings, nylon or otherwise, had figured so much in books. The article was very interesting. And I love your images here.

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    1. I was surprised myself Tracy, I had to leave out lots of references I'd originally thought I could include - there was far too much material! I say this above: seriously, you could write an article just on Agatha Christie's mentions of stockings....

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