I first came across Leimomi Oakes and her wonderful website The Dreamstress when I was looking at Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment – Leimomi had recreated Polly’s army uniform to absolutely stunning effect: see the pictures here on my blog and here on hers.
I’ve been featuring a few Ngaio Marsh books on the blog recently, and she told me that she had created a Ngaio Marsh blouse. JUST LOOK AT IT:
-- and there are more pictures on her blog here.
So then she also said that Marsh’s Colour Scheme had the best clothes descriptions, so naturally I had to read it next – and it also fitted in with my look at wartime and post-war books:
the book: Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh
[A visitor wants to give a young woman a makeover] ‘Shall I make Barbara Claire a present? What was the name of the dress shop we noticed in Auckland?...There was a dress in the window, woollen with a dusting of steel stars. Really quite good. It would fit her. And ask them to be kind and find shoes and gloves for us. If possible, stockings. You can get the size somehow. And underclothes, for God’s sake. One can imagine what hers are like.’
[Barbara Claire wears the new outfit at a local concert] When she walked before him through the audience, he saw that Gaunt had wrought a miracle. Dikon’s connection with the theatre had taught him to think about clothes in terms of art, and it was with a curious mixture of regret and excitement that he now recognised the effect of Barbara’s transformation upon himself. It had made a difference and he was not sure that he did not resent this. He felt as if Gaunt had forestalled him.
‘In a little while,’ he said, ‘even though I had not seen her like this, I should have loved her. I ought to have been the one to show her to herself.’
observations: Leimomi was absolutely right: Colour Scheme is very funny and entertaining, with a great plot, all kinds of interest in its setting and, yes, terrific clothes.
It’s set at a thermal spa hotel in New Zealand’s North Island in wartime. A retired colonial couple are running this enterprise in an excruciatingly bungling, amateurish way. There is a sharp-tempered doctor brother on the scene, and a son and daughter who are both unhappy. The vulgar Mr Questing hangs around causing trouble. Into this bubbling cauldron (nearly as hot and dangerous as the medicinal springs and hot pools) comes a great Shakespearean actor, Geoffrey Gaunt, and his entourage. The spa is next to a Maori settlement, and very close to Rangi’s Peak, sacred in the Maori culture. As if all that isn’t enough, there is a fear that spies might be operating in the area.
The details of the various crimes are – as ever – well-worked out and maybe just a touch less dull than Marsh’s plots usually are. (All that endless discussion of where everyone was at what exact moment, and what they could have seen.) But I have realized that you don’t read Marsh for the plots, but for the marvellous settings and the funny bits, the great characters and the clothes. I really felt I could see the awful single-story spa hotel with the verandah running round it, the thermal pools nearby, and the Peak high above. Every scene with the Great Actor in was wonderful, and usually very funny. (This was exactly the case also with yesterday’s book, Lissa Evans’ Their Finest Hour and a Half, with another actor stealing the scene). There was a nicely-done romance, and the Maori issues (which I feared would be wince-making) were handled with some sensitivity.
There were some hilariously shouty and embarrassing scenes in this one, with everyone anxious to protect the distinguished guest from hearing, while he is busy taking delighted notes for future performances.
Above comes a much trailed and strung-out makeover scene for Barbara Claire, with this splendid moment in the runup:
‘Actually,’ said Dikon stiffly, ‘she’s rather attractive. If you look beyond her clothes.’and also a nice description of her being forced to swim in a very old-fashioned swimsuit – ‘the longest and most conservative garment obtainable at the Harpoon Co-operative Stores’ – which must be covered up with a raincoat for the journey to the water. (For another look at the history of bathing costumes, see this entry, the appropriately-named Witch of the Low Tide.)
‘You’re a remarkably swift worker if you’ve been able to do that.’
Barbara’s mother, ‘who looked as if she had just returned from a round of charitable visits in an English village’, shows a particularly splendid horror when it seemed as though more (and financially much-needed) guests are going to come to the spa:
Her expression suggested astonishment, followed by the liveliest consternation. ‘Oh, no,’ she cried out at last. ‘We can’t have another. Oh dear!’There is a character who is there under a false name: Septimus Falls. I feel this name must have some significance (like Enoch Arden in Christie’s Taken at the Flood, or Mr Datchery in Edmund Crispin’s The Long Divorce) but I have been unable to discover any. (Septimus in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway dies when he falls out of a window, but that seems rather tenuous/tasteless.)
The Ngaio Marsh blouse is, of course, courtesy of Leimomi Oakes.
The lady in the black dress is the dancer Irene Castle, the photographer was Adolphe de Meyer, and the image came from Wikimedia Commons.
The swimming lady is a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty, who can’t ever have suspected she would end up at the Library of Congress.