Dressing down, dressing up, dressing in Seattle: Waxwings

the book:

Waxwings by Jonathan Raban

published 2003   chapter 3

“… ‘We should see more of each other’ he said. ‘Socially’. And then he was gone. What could that mean? Surely not…Whatever this was about, Beth felt half flattered, half disturbed…
Socially. What Steve Litvinof meant by that was made plain when, at 6.45 am Beth found waiting for her on her keyboard a stiff cream-coloured envelope. Inside was a card headed Northwest Festival of Early Music, and, inside the card, an invitation, printed on opaque rice-paper, to a dinner at The Juergensen Home and ‘featuring’ the Madrona Dowland Consort. [On it was scrawled] Hope you can make it! – Steve.
At nine, she broke off work to call the RSVP number. ‘This is Soraya?’ Mrs Juergensen said, and then, when Beth told her that she and her husband – whose full name she had to spell twice – would love to come, she issued driving instructions from I-5, adding that ‘You can give whatever you like of course, but most people are sending a thousand dollars each. You can send the cheque here, made out to the Northwest Festival of Early Music. See you both on the twentieth!’ For several minutes, Beth sat nauseated at her workstation. And she’d thought he meant sex…

[At the party] Beth was wearing her new strapless, floor-length, black silk-rayon dress by Calvin Klein… [her partner Tom] was the only man in the room who was wearing a tie…[Steve introduced] his wife Joyce, who filled every available inch of her sky-blue jersey pantsuit and might have passed, at a distance, for Steve’s mother…

[On the way home] Beth was in a fume. Livitinof had suckered her twice: first with the invite, then with the fraught hour at Barney’s, where she’d bought the embarrassingly over-formal Calvin Klein thing. Someone really might have mentioned to her that Steve and his cronies were in the habit of undressing for dinner...."

the picture:


Jonathan Raban is a fabulous writer, and his novels set in Seattle (Waxwings and Surveillance) have particular resonance for anyone who lived there at the turn of the millennium. This is a Seattle social event c 2000 in its full satirical glory: the pleasure that you have been invited out, followed by the realization that it is a fund-raiser (the only thing missing is a charity auction), the attempt to dress up followed by the realization that every single other guest is in ‘Seattle formal’ - casual clothes, quite possibly bought at Eddie Bauer or REI. The party chapter contains - as well as the early music concert - a wonderful description of a rich person’s house on the lake (“he used to be a VP at Microsoft”) -  the brand new lawns, the gigantic rooms and the artwork. The book captures the whole atmosphere of a great city caught up in the dotcom boom. And then there’s the mysteriously philanthropic Shiva Ray…
The picture is of the little-remembered British glamour model and starlet, Sabrina, doing the twist in Sydney in 1962. The photo is from the New South Wales State Library and is featured on Flickr.