Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Orange and royal blue: Laurels are Poison

the book:

Laurels are Poison by Gladys Mitchell

published 1942     chapter 11

“…Mrs Bradley, who had something to talk over with Miss Topas, dressed early, in an orange and royal blue evening frock which was then in its fourth season, and encountered Kitty, who was on her way to the bathroom, as she herself was about to descend the stairs.
Kitty’s jaw dropped; her eyes opened wide. She made odd gurgling  noises. Mrs Bradley halted. ‘Goodness me, Miss Trevelyan!’ she said. ‘Are you ill, child?’
‘Well you might call it that, Warden,’ replied the sufferer.
‘But what is the matter, my poor dear?’
‘Warden’ said Kitty, with the desperate honesty of the artist, ‘you can’t go over to College looking like that.’
It was a statement which many of Mrs Bradley’s relatives, notably her sister-in-law, Lady Selina, and her nephew’s wife, Jenny Lestrange, would have given much for the courage to make.
‘Why what’s the matter with it?’ asked the head of house, genuinely surprised by the passionate outburst.
‘Well nothing of course, Warden. It’s like my cheek….only, haven’t you got something…?’
‘Come and rummage’ said Mrs Bradley, grinning…
Kitty accepted the invitation with alacrity, but, confronting the contents of Mrs Bradley’s wardrobe, her face fell.
‘No?’ said the Warden…”

the picture:


Mrs Bradley is Gladys Mitchell’s regular detective, and in this book she is acting Warden at a women’s teacher training college, though really there to investigate a crime of course. Kitty is a student who would much rather be a hairdresser, and so is in charge of makeovers in the book. They are all preparing for a Christmas end-of-term dance.
Diana Rigg starred in a short TV series (1998) made from the books – she was marvellous, but the stories bore little resemblance to the originals, and Ms Rigg was neither ugly enough nor badly-dressed enough to be Mrs Bradley. The designers obviously seized the opportunity to show off fabulous and no-doubt authentically-reproduced 1920s outfits, but the whole point of Mrs B was her ‘saurian’ appearance and her dreadful taste in clothes.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Red coat. Don't go there. And don't look now.

the book:

Don't Look Now by Daphne du Maurier

published 1970      short story

“…John hesitated, his eye caught by a small figure which suddenly crept from a cellar entrance below one of the opposite houses, and then jumped into a narrow boat below. It was a child, a little girl – she couldn’t have been more than five or six – wearing a short coat over her minute skirt, a pixie hood covering her head. There were four boats moored, line upon line, and she proceeded to jump one to the other with surprising agility, intent, it would seem, upon escape. Once her foot slipped and he caught his breath, for she was within a few feet of the water, losing balance; then she recovered, and hopped on to the furthest boat… [the child] vanished into the house, the boat swinging back into mid-canal behind her. The whole episode could not have taken more than four minutes. Then he heard the quick patter of feet. Laura had returned. She had seen none of it, for which he felt unspeakably thankful. The sight of a child, a little girl, in what must have been near danger, her fear that the scene he had just witnessed was in some way a sequel to the alarming cry, might have had a disastrous effect on her overwrought nerves…
[A day later] He had almost reached the end of the alley, and the bridge was in sight, when he saw the child. It was the same little girl with the pixie-hood who had leapt between the tethered boats the previous night and vanished up the cellar steps of one of the houses. This time she was running from the direction of the church the other side, making for the bridge. She was running as if her life depended on it, and in a moment he saw why…”

the picture:


John and Laura are visiting Venice to try to recover from the accidental death of their young daughter, Christine: this is why the glimpses of the small child are so disturbing. Not as disturbing as other things that are going to happen…
People my age know this story from the 1973 Nicholas Roeg film of the same name, which starred Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. It was unanimously revered by us for two reasons – the child in the red coat, and a startling and wonderful sex scene. Actually it is surprising that any of us grew to middle-age unscathed by this experience: one film, two hours long (well, less when censored by the BBC, as happened during the 1970s) which combines one of the most gorgeous (and in those days very unusually graphic) sex scenes with one of the most shocking endings. We surely were traumatized - most of us certainly never saw red coats in the same light ever again.
So it was a surprise to go back to the original story, and find that the colour of the child’s coat is not specified – a red coat does feature, but in another context. The story is still chilling and shocking, and highly atmospheric. It’s never a light-hearted comedy in Venice, is it?

Sunday, 29 January 2012

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.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

New ideas in hat-trimming: What Katy did at School

the book:

What Katy Did At School by Susan Coolidge

published 1873   chapter 5

“… ‘I don’t understand about the bath-house’ said Katy.
“On Saturday it is reserved for us… [replied Rose] We go across the green, and down by Professor Sercomb’s, and we are in plain sight from the college all the way; and of course those abominable boys sit there with spy-glasses and stare as hard as ever they can.  It’s perfectly horrid. [Having to carry] ‘A bath towel, a sponge and soap’, indeed! I wish I could make Miss Jane eat the pieces of soap which she has forced me to carry across this village… And bath towels afterwards by way of a dessert… Never mind! Just wait! A bright idea strikes me.’…
The bathing party consisted of eight girls, with Miss Jane for escort. They were half way across the common before Miss Jane noticed that everybody was shaking with stifled laughter, except Rose, who walked along demurely, apparently unconscious that there was anything to laugh at. Miss Jane looked sharply from one to another for a moment, then stopped short and exclaimed ‘Rosamund Redding! How dare you?’
‘What is it Ma’am?’ asked Rose, with the face of a lamb.
‘Your bath towel! Your sponge!’ gasped Miss Jane.
‘Yes, ma’am, I have them all,’ replied the audacious Rose, putting her hand to her hat. There, to be sure, was the long towel, hanging down behind like a veil, while the sponge was fastened on one side like a great cockade; and in front appeared a cake of pink soap, neatly pinned into the middle of a black velvet bow...”

the picture:


The girls attend a boarding-school positioned next to a college for boys -  a topic which, quite surprisingly, features a lot in the book. Boys and girls are very flirtatious and although the author clearly disapproves – forcing the girls to start a Society for the Suppression of Unladylike Conduct – there is no notion that these girls are innocent or unaware. The details of their washing arrangements are in general illuminating – Katy and her father insist on a washstand in her study-bedroom, though up till that point no-one has such a thing. And the boys staring at the girls with their towels is an image to resonate down the ages: you can't blame Rose Red for being furious.
What Katy Did and What Katy Did at School were very popular in England during most of the 20th century, despite many of the details of Katy’s life and setting being fairly incomprehensible to a modern girl. Still popular now? Who knows. There is a Philip Larkin poem called ‘Forget What Did’ – I have always wondered if this is connected in any way with Dorry’s diary in the first book, in which it is a repeated phrase, spelt ‘Forgit what did.’ Dorry and Johnnie are intriguingly role-reversed to modern eyes: ‘Dorry seemed like a girl who had got into boy’s clothes by mistake, and Johnnie like like a boy who, in a fit of fun, had borrowed his sister’s frock.’

Friday, 27 January 2012

Green and white length: Possession

the book:
Possession by A.S.Byatt
Published 1990   Chapter 4

“At first he did not identify Maud Bailey, and he himself was not any way remarkable, so that they were almost the last pair at the wicket gate. She would be hard to miss, if not to recognise. She was tall, tall enough to meet Fergus Wolff’s eyes on the level, much taller than Roland. She was dressed with unusual coherence for an academic, Roland thought, rejecting several other ways of describing her green and white length, a long pine-green tunic over a pine-green skirt, a white silk shirt inside the tunic and long softly white stockings inside long shining green shoes. Through the stockings veiled flesh diffused a pink gold, almost. He could not see her hair, which was wound tightly into a turban of peacock-feathered painted silk, low on her brow. Her brows and lashes were blond; he observed so much. She had a clean, milky skin, unpainted lips, clearcut features, largely composed. She did not smile. She acknowledged him and tried to take his bag, which he refused to allow. She drove an immaculately glossy green Beetle… Her voice was deliberately blurred patrician; a kind of flattened Sloane. She smelled of something ferny and sharp. Roland didn’t like her voice…”

the picture:


This is the first meeting of the two academics at the centre of the modern part of the novel. It takes place in 1986, but really it is hard to imagine this outfit at any period; a vaguely 20s setting is the best we can do. There is a hint that Roland’s mind boggles, is the reader’s meant to as well? It’s an awkward description: the green and white length, ‘brow’ and ‘brows’ within three words, and in UK English it should be ‘blonde’. Her being taller than Roland is a welcome surprise.
Another character in the book has her clothes described several times:  For her ‘menial’ job she wears a black suit over a pink silk shirt with high heels and a black beret. Later ‘[he saw her legs] in powder-blue stockings and saxe blue shoes, under the limp hem of a crepey mustard-coloured dress, printed with blue moony flowers.’ When life starts to get better (mainly by ditching Roland) she is ‘shining in a putty-coloured glossy suit over a plum-coloured shirt’. Strangely specific yet still hard to imagine. But it’s a rollicking yarn if you ignore the fake poetry and long Victorian letters, and just read the bits in between. And then there’s the pinning down of another female academic – her life, work and strange appearance are carefully described early in the book. The next time she turns up she is neatly summarized thus: ‘…Beatrice like an incoherent bale of knitting wool...’

The final scene of the book is beautifully done, perfectly judged. It is discussed in detail by John Sutherland in his first book of 'curiosities and conundrums', Where was Rebecca Shot?

The photograph was taken during the Scopes ‘monkey’ trial in Dayton Tennessee in 1925. It shows Ova Corvin Rappleyea, who was the wife of George Rapppleyea, one of the architects of the court case. The photograph is in the Smithsonian Institute Archives, and is featured on Flickr.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Clothes to be murdered in: The Body in the Library

the book:
The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie
(published 1942) ch 13

“…Why” demanded Miss Marple “was she wearing an old dress?... I think she’d wear her best dress. Girls do.”
Sir Henry interposed. “Yes, but look here Miss Marple. Suppose she was going outside to this rendezvous. Going in an open car, perhaps, or walking in some rough going. Then she’d not want to risk messing a new frock and she’d put on an old one.”
“That would be the sensible thing to do” agreed the Superintendent.
Miss Marple turned on him. She spoke with animation. “The sensible thing to do would be to change into trousers and pullover, or into tweeds. That, of course (I don’t want to be snobbish, but I’m afraid it’s unavoidable), that’s what a girl of - of our class would do. A well-bred girl” continued Miss Marple, warming to her subject, “is always very particular to wear the right clothes for the right occasion. I mean, however hot the day was, a well-bred girl would never turn up at a point-to-point in a silk flowered frock.”
“And the correct wear to meet a lover?” demanded Sir Henry.
“If she were meeting him inside the hotel or somewhere where evening dress were worn, she’d wear her best evening frock, of course – but outside she’d feel she’d look ridiculous in evening dress, and she’d wear her most attractive sports wear…Ruby, of course, wasn’t – well to put it bluntly – Ruby wasn’t a lady. She belonged to a class that wear their best clothes however unsuitable to the occasion…I think she’d have kept on the frock she was wearing – her best pink one. She’d only have changed if she’d had something newer still.”

the picture:


Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s aged supersleuth, full of good advice about what to wear if you are going to meet your murderer for a date. Very helpful. Miss Marple is investigating the murder of Ruby Keene, and the dress does turn out to be relevant. Miss M says she doesn’t want to be snobbish, but there’s no evidence (and we know how she likes evidence) that she has any objection at all to snobbery. She would, presumably, understand why Harriet Vane dressed as she did to go on a picnic with the suspect. The picture shows some girls in their best dresses. Who knows what class they are, if they are ladies or not.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The tartan fashion police in action: Wives and Daughters

the book:

Wives and Daughters by Mrs Gaskell

(pub between 1864 and 1866)  chapter 5

“… For high days and holidays – by which was understood afternoons and Sundays – Miss Rose persuaded her to order a gay-coloured, flimsy plaid silk, which she assured her was quite the latest fashion in London, and which Molly thought would please her father’s Scotch blood. But when he saw the scrap which she had brought home as a pattern, he cried out that the plaid belonged to no clan in existence, and that Molly ought to have known this by instinct.  It was too late to change it, however, for Miss Rose had promised to cut the dress out as soon as Molly had left her shop.
[Molly needs her new frock to go visiting, and worries ‘that her silk was not a true clan-tartan’ and that it won’t turn up on time. And it doesn’t. Dinner on the first night:]
‘I am afraid they expect me to be very smart’ she kept thinking to herself. ‘If they do, they’ll be disappointed; that’s all. But I wish my plaid silk gown had been ready.’
[It finally arrives, described by Mrs Gaskell as ‘the terrible, over-smart plaid gown.’ Later Molly is going to meet her new stepmother.]
Mrs Hamley wanted Molly to make a favourable impression, and she sent for her to come and show herself before she set out.
‘Don’t put on your silk gown – your white muslin will look the nicest my dear.’
‘Not my silk? It is quite new! I had it to come here.’
‘Still, I think your white muslin suits you the best.’ ‘Anything but that horrid plaid silk’ was the thought in Mrs Hamley’s mind; and, thanks to her, Molly set off for the Towers, looking a little quaint, it is true, but thoroughly ladylike, if she was old-fashioned."

the picture:


The tartan theme – however inauthentic – is to mark 25th January as Burns’ Night. Wives and Daughters is one of the finest of 19th Century English novels, much under-rated, and has some very modern ideas in it. How bad is the dress meant to be? Well, Mrs Hamley we might trust, but Dr Gibson (Molly’s father) is shown throughout the book to be a kindly, well-meaning, clever man, a wonderful doctor – but to have very bad judgement. One of the themes of the book is that parents may well not know what is good for their children, and that that is just the way it is. The theme is pursued in a most un-Victorian manner, particularly in the relationship between Cynthia (Molly’s new stepsister) and her mother.  And in fact a tartan/plaid dress, as the child above knows, is a splendid addition to anyone’s wardrobe.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Vamping the suspect: a suitable outfit

the book:
Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers
(pub 1932)  chapter 18

"...Miss Harriet Vane went out on a shopping expedition. This was her second venture of the kind since her arrival in Wilvercombe, and on both occasions her purchases were dictated by the desire of pleasing a man. On this occasion she wanted an afternoon frock. And why? She was going out for a picnic.
She had picnicked before, with Lord Peter; and for him the old tweed skirt and well-worn jumper had been good enough. But today these garments would not do…
She now selected a slinky garment, composed of what male writers call ‘some soft, clinging material’, with a corsage which outlined the figure and a skirt which waved tempestuously about her ankles. She enhanced its appeal with an oversized hat of which one side obscured her face and tickled her shoulder, while the other was turned back to reveal a bunch of black ringlets, skilfully curled into position by the head hairdresser at the [Hotel] Resplendent. High-heeled beige shoes and sheer silk stockings, with embroidered gloves and a hand-bag, completed this alluring toilette, so eminently unsuitable for picknicking. In addition, she made up her face with just so much artful restraint as to suggest enormous experience aping an impossible innocence, and, thus embellished, presently took her place beside Henry in the driving-seat of [his mother’s] large saloon..."

the pictures:

Harriet Vane is a detective story writer and part-time sleuth, beloved of Lord Peter Wimsey. She is setting out to vamp a suspect.
A corsage today usually means an arrangement of flowers attached to an outfit, or wrist, as decoration; but when the book was written, and earlier, was a common term for a woman’s bodice or jacket.
The pictures are of Madeleine Kahn playing Miss Trixie Delight in the film Paper Moon, made in 1973 and set in the 1930s. She is setting out to vamp Ryan O'Neil's character, Moses Pray, and then to try to get the child Addie on her side. In the book Addie Pray by Joe David Brown (1971), this is how she is described (by Addie, the narrator):
"Trixie  had a good figure, a little on the heavy side, but I don't guess most people looked past her bosom... She liked to wear tight sweaters... You could see that her nose was a little too thin and pointed and her eyes were too close together... But when Trixie walked in somewhere, women would nudge each other and men would pop their eyes and sit up straight." Trixie is no match for Addie, who soon separates her from Moses (Long Boy in the book). The old fool.