[Frankie George, a young journalist following a story, visits the dressing-room of cabaret artiste Ebony Diamond]
Halfway down a paint-scented corridor, Ebony’s name had been badly calligraphed onto a piece of card and stuck to flaking door. The young stagehand held it open for Frankie. She crept inside, felling slightly violatory, the same way she had felt going into her Nan’s parlour after she had died. The smell was there; poudre d’amour and Old Tom gin…
The mirror reflected back a rack of corsets, all black with jet beads, lace and magpie feathers. The large taffeta dress Ebony had been wearing at the corset shop was upended over a chaise longue, its petticoats splaying out into sooty petals.
‘What was she wearing when she came in?’
The stagehand pointed at the dress.
‘She keep clothes in here?’
‘She moved a few costumes in the other day. Said she couldn’t make up her mind.’ Frankie turned and ran her finger along the corset rack, rough silk and slippery satin. She peeked at one of the labels. ‘Olivier Smythe.’
observations: There’s nothing that Clothes in Books likes better than an entry on corsets – the subject is so fascinating, and we marvel at the pictures available. We’ve also recently been looking at the whole question of what corsets do: please read this entry by a guest blogger expert, which arose from this one. The comments beneath both entries are also well worth reading.
In an earlier entry on this book I explained something of the plot, which deals with suffragettes and trapezes as well as corsets. It’s a very lively book, and although the mystery drives the plot, it is also similar to something more carnivalesque – I mentioned Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus last time, and the scene above reminded me of Fevvers’ dressing room in that – see blog entry.
And then, the trapeze artiste made me think of one of my favourite pictures of all time: Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergere’ which is at the Courtauld Gallery in London. The picture is of a barmaid, but if you look closely in the corner you can just see the dangling legs of a trapeze artiste:
--- and I do recommend you look at the full picture here on the Courtauld website.
The corset shop of Olivier Smythe is a big feature of the plot, so definitely time to bring out the picture for all seasons (from George Eastman House):
- every few months there’s an entry requiring this one, most recently it was for a post on GB Stern’s wonderful The Matriarch.
There are plenty of interesting clothes descriptions in the book – Frankie, a young woman, chooses to wear men’s clothes, tweed trousers and a bowler hat, and there is a description of the hats of the time that had stuffed birds on them.
There is also a particularly grim (and presumably authentic) description of the process of force-feeding, used on hunger striking suffragettes – in this case a man.
Suffragettes featured in Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, frequently featured on the blog last year: the heroine, Valentine Wannop, is a determined campaigner. Suffragettes and music hall are both important elements in one of JB Priestley’s best novels, Lost Empires. Marina Endicott’s The Little Shadows (multiple entries) is another wonderful novel about women entertainers at the beginning of the 20th century.
The picture of styles of 1910 (ie 2 years before the book’s setting) is from the New York Public Library. The second picture is an advert where you can just read A Large Showroom is Now Devoted to Corsets, which could be an alternate title for the book.