Sunday, 3 January 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Sales and stockings



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES


the book: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

published 2009


One morning, when she had been there for three weeks and was on her fourth, Eilis knew that something strange had happened as soon as she reached the other side of Fulton Street and could see the windows of Bartocci’s. They were covered in huge banners saying famous nylon sale. She did not know that they had planned to have a sale, presuming that they would not do so until January. In the locker room she met Miss Fortini, to whom she expressed surprise. ‘Mr Bartocci always keeps it a secret. He supervises all the work himself overnight. The whole floor is nylon, everything nylon, and most at half price. You can buy four items yourself. And this is a special bag to keep the money in because you can only accept exact change. We’ve put even prices on everything. So no dockets today. And there will be tight security. It will be the biggest scramble you’ve ever seen in your life because even the nylon stockings are half price. And there’s no lunch break, instead there will be free sandwiches and soda down here, but don’t come more than twice. I’ll be watching. We need everyone working.’ 

Within half an hour of opening there were queues outside. Most women wanted stockings; they took three or four pairs before moving to the back of the store, where there were nylon sweater sets in every possible colour and in most sizes, everything at least half off the regular price. The job of the sales assistant was to follow the crowd with Bartocci carrier bags in one hand and the cash bag in the other. All the customers seemed to know that there would be no change given.




commentary: A second look at this book - it's not a January sale above, but there's a fellow-feeling.

The passage is so specific, and so detailed, that I feel it must have been based on actual events in Brooklyn, but I have not been able to identify any similar sale. Bartocci’s was the department store invented for the book.

Equally gripping is the description of the store’s deciding to start to ‘welcome coloured women’ through its doors: they will offer new shades of nylons – Red Fox, and Sepia, and Coffee. Eilis, the heroine, is one of the young women assistants chosen to help the new customers – something she does without any 21st century priding herself on her tolerance. Toibin IS a very good writer, and I think  many others would have put some out-of-time thoughts into Eilis’s head.

In the previous entry I said I was less enthusiastic than others about the book – but I do admire the writing. I liked the landlady, Mrs Kehoe, when bad news has arrived:
Mrs Kehoe was full of kindness and sympathy, but there was also, Eilis thought, a sense that the news and the visitors had caused excitement, distracted her pleasantly from the tedium of the day.
--the watchful Eilis notices these things. And then later:
And she saw all three of them – Tony, Jim, her mother – as figures whom she could only damage, as innocent people surrounded by light and clarity, and circling around them was herself, dark, uncertain. She would have done anything then, as Nancy and George walked down the aisle together, to join the side of sweetness, certainty and innocence, knowing she could begin her life without feeling that she had done something foolish and hurtful.
The whole book comes through Eilis’s point of view, and it certainly is an achievement.


The Chief Guest Blogger, Colm Redmond, wrote about Elizabeth Smart with this strangely appropriate line from By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept:
I see her often, battling for bargain stockings in Macy’s basement…
Sheers, O you mad frivolous sisters, sheers.
 






And there are many other entries about stockings and nylons on the blog - it’s a Clothes in Books special subject, what with our piece for the Guardian as well – click on the labels below for posts and pictures.

The 2nd picture is a department store in California, but right era. The long legs are a 1950s advert for seamless stockings. 

10 comments:

  1. It does sound so realistic - that bit about not coming more than twice for the sandwiches, for instance. Your posts from this book are making me more and more curious about it -- not an author I've read as yet.

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    1. It is a very strange book, and it does not get my whole-hearted recommendation, but its description of everyday life is fascinating, and it contains just the kind of details that you and I like...

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  2. I do like that passage about the sale, Moira. It conveys the sense of urgency, and the sense that this was as much a social event as anything else. And that's what department store sales used to be like, I think. And it's fascinating the way stockings used to be such an important part of dress.

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    1. Yes, he certainly gets that right, and reading contemporary fiction shows, as you say, the importance of stockings, and the comparative expense compared with today.

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  3. Oh, stockings. Can't help but ask since I just saw this, in which Hercule Poirot book does an episode with stockings provide a clue to the Belgian detective about which suspect is dishonest?

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    1. Cards on The Table! Good catch Kathy. I am always fascinated by the way women's clothes reflect the 20th century, and have written about that for the Guardian, using eg stocking or trousers as the framework. I generally quote from many books, but I always think a) crime fiction provides the best examples and b) Christie alone could give you the full sociological history of 20th cent England.

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  4. Thanks, but an author I'll pass on (did I say that last time? probably)

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  5. Might be interesting but I can only read so many non-mysteries in a year. And I am way behind on the ones I already have. I am just a mystery junkie.

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    1. Stick with your genre if that what suits you Tracy! Don't forget, I read some of these books so you don't have to...

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