Dressing up for the big city: American Wife

the book:

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

published 2008    Part 1 - set at the end of 1962

[Alice Blackwell, 16, is accompanying her grandmother on a visit to Chicago. They are to meet up with the grandmother’s old friend, Dr Gladys Wycomb.]

“…They seemed to me an unlikely pair of friends, at least with regard to appearance. Dr Wycomb was a bit heavy in a way that suggested strength, and her handshake had almost hurt. She had short grey hair and wore white cat’s-eye glasses and a black gabardine coat over a grey tweed suit; her shoes were black patent-leather pumps with low heels and perfunctory bows. My grandmother, meanwhile, always proud of her style and slimness (her tiny wrists and ankles were a particular source of pleasure to her), was especially decked out for our city visit. We’d given ourselves manicures the day before, and she’d gone to Vera’s in downtown Riley to have her hair dyed and set. Under a tan cashmere coat, she wore a chocolate-brown wool suit – the collar was velvet, the skirt fell just below her knee – complemented by matching brown crocodile pumps and a brown crocodile handbag…. To meet Dr Wycomb I also was dressed up, outfitted in a kilt, green tights, saddle shoes, and a green wool sweater over a blouse; on the collar, I wore a circle pin, even though Dena had recently told me it was a sign of being a virgin…”


Curtis Sittenfeld is very specific about clothes in this book, and they are very much of their time. Poor Alice has her young single years during the 1970s, when a certain hideousness prevailed. “I was wearing my denim skirt and a maroon tunic with orange and pink flowers” – yes, people did dress like that in the 1970s. This is Alice’s wedding outfit: “white cotton, a blousy v-necked top with a cinched waist and a calf-length skirt that I wore with my white pumps. Priscilla Blackwell [groom’s mother]… exclaimed, ‘Isn’t that a sweet little frock! Why you look like a pioneer preparing to cross the Great Plains.’”

The visuals are great, men’s clothes too described in a few words. It’s a terrific book all round, a quite extraordinary achievement. Questions of taste and appropriateness can trip you up – yes, it’s hard to think what Laura Bush might think of it, and whether she deserved this…

A repeated motif throughout American Wife is the Shel Silverstein book
The Giving Tree - I had never come across it, but looked it up because it is mentioned so often. It is a story for children, and seems to divide its readers into those who love it and those who hate it (definitely in the second camp here). It is VERY interesting to try to think what Curtis Sittenfeld wanted readers to take from the repeated mentions.

The picture is from the
State Library of Queensland’s collection, and is featured on Flickr.


  1. Like your comment re Laura Bush - I always think similar thoughts when I'm reading the latest James Lee Burke, except of course it's Dubya who name checked him as his favourite author (although I think I recall reading that he said his favourite book was The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but checks quickly revealed that had been published well after he was a child!! - possibly in the 70s?? It was obviously a clumsy effort to endear himself to the American public, as perhaps the James Lee Burke namecheck was too!)

    1. Being cautiously political - I always thought Laura Bush was better than George deserved, but that perhaps she had raised his game... Oh dear, the books thing is always embarrassing when politicians try to say their favourites, they almost always get it wrong. If they loved books properly they wouldn't have time to go into politics....


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