Thursday, 25 May 2017

Hat Heaven: Mosaic by GB Stern

 
published 1930

 
 
Mosaic Hat 3
 


[Aged aunts Letti and Berthe are entertaining young relations from England in their Paris apartment]


Letti staggered in with the albums, busily dusted them, and they were plumped down in front of Val, Berthe sitting beside her to explain, Letti leaning over her other shoulder, Helen poised nonchalantly on the table, surveying her ancestors upside down….Val flipped over page after page, stopping every now and then for a luscious explanation from Berthe, or to give a shout of recognition at the sight or Truda in a particularly dressy blouse… Pretty little Susan Lake, the first Goyisher girl to marry into the Rakonitz family, looking sweet and modest and religious under a hat that had practically everything on it that a hat could possibly hope to have in this or the next world


 
Mosaic 2


[Helen] pulled off her hat, and held it, a fantastic two-cornered shape, flat and black, across her knees… With her Punchinello nose, her black and…white Chanel jumper cut into lozenges and diamonds, each posture as though it were snipped by a pair of flashing scissors, she might well have been a figure from an ultra-modern form of harlequinade.


 
commentary: I’ve already done an entry just about corsets in this endlessly rewarding book. The hats also are overflowing in Mosaic – there’s a nice 1885 mention of a ‘high bonnet with a bird’s wing on one side’, and endless trouble arises from the fashion for directoire hats ‘whose crowns were one inch in depth, very disconcerting for the Rakonitz ladies with their heritage of thick hair.’


 
Mosaic Hat bird


But all the clothes descriptions are wonderful throughout.


And then there is this on mourning, after a rather distant connection has died:
Papa did not think it necessary to go into full mourning… he went into Peter Robinson’s and asked for grey gloves, and the shop-walker, a very polite young fellow, said to him: ‘Grey gloves, sir? That will be in our Semi-Bereavement Department.’ We simply couldn’t stop laughing…
Me too.


On another semi-bereavement occasion – light purple colours are the key - the bridesmaids at a wedding:


Mosaic Hat mauvewere quietly dressed in mauve taffeta; but for the dinner and dance in the evening, they changed into full evening dress, white satin with broad mauve velvet ribbon running round the edge of the bodice, and a fringe of violets, and mauve cotton stockings with lace-work up the front, and mauve leather shoes… and mauve suede gloves - right up the arms.


 
Which sounds rather festive, but then ‘nobody cared very much for the elderly Czelovar-Bettelheim relation who had recently died’.


(The picture, by Giovanni Boldini, via the Athenaeum, shows a dress that is probably far more revealing than those of the bridesmaids, but is nicely dashing, and all those chairs in the way of the dancing looks exactly like a wedding…)

The characters are described as fully as their clothes, and their (many) foibles are treated with kindness. Berthe, one of the key characters in the book, whose adult life is followed throughout, is the kind of person you can recognize completely – as she gets older she is forever boasting about the great singing career she could have had, and about all the men who were in love with her.
On her 67th birthday she finally made a stand at ’20 years ago’ and did not depart from it: ‘Helas, it is too late to start now!’
The descriptions are funny, Berthe is sharply skewered, and the descriptions of her singing are absolutely hilarious. But there is a kindness that is missing from, for example, George Eliot’s dealing with the singing of Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda, or the despised music of a character in Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows

And I am, always, endlessly grateful to Hilary McKay (someone else who writes so well about families) for telling me about the books. There are multiple earlier entries on the first two books, The Matriarch and A Deputy was King.

The harlequin photo is from a much later date than the extract, but the hat and diamonds seem right, and Helen was always way ahead in fashion…

























39 comments:

  1. I love that picture of Helen's hat! It has given me such pleasure that you 'get' these books. I don't think I have ever managed to get another person reading them. The characterisation is so good, and the descriptions so detailed and delicious...
    Well, anyway, thank you for another lovely article.

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    1. Hilary, thanks so much for commenting, I know blogger doesn't make it easy for you! And I am so grateful to you for introducting them to me, there is just something about them that is very difficult to describe. I don't know that I can sell them to anyone else, we both have to just keep on trying...

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  2. Stern really makes things come alive visually, doesn't she, Moira? It really takes talent to be able to make you see patterns shades, and so on, without overburdening the text. And if the story is also interesting, so much the better.

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    1. Absolutely - I can totally see that family group poring over photos in a Paris apartment, laughing and pointing as they turn the pages.

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  3. That enormous hat! I do sometimes wonder though if we have lost something in discarding mourning so completely. It was a way of signalling your loss and warning people that you were fragile - and for the Victorians even indicating how much time had gone by. I find it fascinating. We have so few rituals now and are not necessarily the better for it.

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    1. Yes - maybe throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The rituals had become over-formalized and too restrictive (it's surprising anyone was ever out of black) but there was still value in the idea, something we've lost.
      When someone I knew died far too young, another friend said something like 'she'd have wanted us to carry on.' The partner of the deceased said 'no she wouldn't, she'd have wanted the world to come to a stop'. And you could see what he meant..

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  4. Corsets really do seem to be a bit evil depending who you talk to. God knows, I could do with a corset these days (ahem) ... how about a post of the gentleman's variety, Moira? :)

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    1. What an excellent idea! there are mentions tucked away in various places, always a bit secretive. These days for women the big thing is Spanx (or equivalent). Maybe there is Spanx for men...

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    2. Aren't there sometimes men in Trollope novels who are suspected of wearing a corset - and it is regarded as an attempt to disguise their age and as a pretty unmanly thing to do? Yes, please do something on this, Moira!

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    3. I think you're right Chrissie, and other authors too. I haven't been noting them down, but I'm sure I could summon up some others from memory...

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    4. Yes, every time I've seen a man wearing a corset in a book he's usually either a comic figure or somewhere on the evil scale.

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  5. I love the nod to Peter Robinson. REALLY good research there, exactly the right shop to go to for just that, and they would DEFINITELY have had a Semi-Bereavement Department. If not, they should certainly have had. As you may recall from Edwardian Fashion, there is an advertisement in there for their Mourning Warehouse....

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    1. Such a fertile field. And wasn't Peter Robinson where Topshop is now? Something deeply ironic there...

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  6. This really is the perfect series for you, Moira. I remember the post about the corsets. I will continue to let you read this series for me, Moira.

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    1. Yes indeed Tracy. I will keep on reading her...

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  7. OMG, that hat. It alone is worth this entire blog entry!

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    1. I know. Someone gave me an entire book of hat photos, best present ever!

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  8. Those hats! Seems as if an entire bird's nest could fit on top of a big hat, with twigs, baby birds and all!

    I did just see an enormous hat with live birds on it; now I can't remember where. It was online.

    Forget corsets! My memories of a teenager with garter belts and stockings are enough for me. I also had pettipants, like a slip only with legs. It fell off me one day as I got off the bus to high school. Yep, and there it was, pink pettipants around my ankles a block from the school.

    I just stepped out of them and kept on walking. No one said a word.

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    1. Oh such a fruitful area for personal anecdotes, such possibilities for embarrassment. I'm glad to hear of pettipants, that's a new one on me.

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    2. Oh, Kathy, you and I must be the same age. I totally remember pettipants, and as, I remember, the elastic on mine wore out rather quickly, too. I'm glad I avoided your incident! Also, I was just old enough to have to wear a garter belt and stockings. Sitting in those hard wooden school desks those garters would cut into the back of your thighs. Ugh. Also, the length of stockings didn't keep up with the (shrinking) length of skirts. It was always such a chore to make sure the band at the top of the stockings or -- heaven forfend -- the garter clasp didn't show. Unless you were of a rather exhibitist nature, as one of the girls in my class was.

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    3. Pettipants are wonderful - I must try to find a book reference. And you make a convincing case for the discomforts of stockings and garterbelts.

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  9. I haven't worn anything but pants for the last 20 years, except for awhile after a health issue, I had to wear a long skirt for several weeks. Other than that, pants. No need for stockings.
    But, oh, young women don't know what they missed with garter belts, pettipants -- and (gasp), do I say the word -- girdles?

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    1. Ha! When I was little I thought I'd be so grown up when I could wear a girdle. Thank all that's holy they'd gone the way of the dodo by the time I was old enough.

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    2. You two should write something about the underwear journey of people your age...

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  10. Ha ha, yeah, we've seen it all (almost). Now, no one wears stockings at all. Weird how it goes.

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    1. You do see them worn in a self-conscious way by young woman setting out to be vampish... but no-one would wear them for practical purposes would they?

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  11. Women do wear panty hose though. But no garter belts and stockings. And while girdles per se aren't worn, there are Spanx which every woman on TV wears them, it seems.

    And there are lots of slimming garments; they just are not called girdles.

    I am so glad we're liberated from all of that. But they do exist under other names.

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    1. Yes I agree with you - it's funny that we pride ourselves on having freed women from corsetry, then found another way to hold ourselves in.

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    1. No, not your book or author at all.

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  13. Moira: I loved the hats. They were so memorable.

    Sharon has come to enjoy wearing hats. Watching her with their different styles and colours I think there has been a great loss to woman's fashion that hats are so little worn. They add a dash and flair to outfits.

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    1. Thanks Bill - how wonderful that Sharon enjoys wearing them. I too think it's a pity we don't wear them so much - not even for weddings these days, which used to be hat heaven too.

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  14. https://www.google.com/search?q=hat+with+birds&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiU9I7l_5nUAhXB6iYKHcrFBvwQ7AkITg&biw=1600&bih=655

    Check out this link. I hope it works. Not only are their women wearing hats with birds on them, but there are a few of birds wearing hats. One woman is wearing a bird cage with live birds in it. I have been hooting and hollering at these photos.

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    1. Yes it works and Oh My Goodness. They are extraordinary pictures, and yes they made me laugh a lot.

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  15. Priceless - and a bit disturbing in some cases!

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    1. Such a strange fashion to have such huge hats with so much on them. I think WW1 put an end to all that - in came the close-fitting cloches with less material and little trimming.

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  16. Save material, use more for uniforms and other military needs.

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    1. Yes I'm sure you are right. A patriotic duty to tone them down...

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