Sunday, 9 March 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Sheers, O You Mad Frivolous Sisters



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES


the book: 

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept by  Elizabeth Smart

published 1945


from regular guest blogger Colm Redmond





The typewriter typed holes in our foolproof games, and made the gap that nearly broke us as well as my fingernails. I see now how alien love is also to the clerical, and why girls can be so practical and still never fulfilled. It gnaws down to the scaffolding, which has never heard of the wish for a pink ruffled negligee nor the leisure to concoct new ways to indulge the languorous and voluptuous five senses. It drills nerves, and its sympathy is with the miser. It is not an instrument of love...




The bus conductor covers his ham sandwich with mustard, standing up, all in a hurry between cars. He has come and gone while I put three crosses on my grave. When will you have time for love, sweetheart?

It sits like his ham sandwich in a small knot in his stomach. ‘If you are in a hurry, try Tums for indigestion. Tums are tops for those on the run.’

Punctually, like his ticket-puncher, he goes in and out of the cave of revelation. One eye is full of dust from the street and the other is on the clock. Wife, open your legs. Five minutes and I go on duty.



I see her often, battling for bargain stockings in Macy’s basement. Who will untwist the petrified growth of her face? Who will cut this very Gordian knot?

Sheers, O you mad frivolous sisters, sheers.




observations: You could read this book in the time it takes to have a leisurely dinner, and summarise the plot - “young woman has an affair, under the nose of her lover’s wife” - in the space for optional gratuities on the bill. And if the plot matters little, it’s a good job, because nothing here makes you feel like the narrator is very nice. She obsesses about what other people might be thinking, but appears not to care much about their feelings. Despite all that, you keep on reading, hypnotised, because the delirious meandering flow of words is so beautiful.

You can forgive someone a lot when she writes something like the second extract above. It’s a very James Joyce kind of thing, to describe someone’s lunch and conjure up a whole person. Within seconds we seem to understand him and his marriage, and know his wife. The sleight of hand is so elegant that you almost don’t notice the callow arrogance - thinking she knows what other people’s (less privileged) lives and even their sex lives are like; dismissing people who look ordinary as being ordinary and assuming they have no Deep Feelings like hers.

Sheers (a big feature in Auntie Mame’s wardrobe) are flimsy, see thru clothes, often dresses. (They will generally but not always have more robust garments worn underneath them…) I guess Smart uses “sheers” as a microcosm of making an effort, particularly dressing up nice; the implication being that even if the purpose of all that may be to please men, one will therefore have one’s own life improved by some man or other, one way or another. Or at least: that you might have fun; I think “frivolous” here is an ambition - on behalf of the people she’s presuming to advise - not a criticism. And the “scaffolding” is one’s real self underneath the superficialities (the same ones by which she so readily judges other people.) But I can’t be sure: that’s prose poetry for you.

That “pink ruffled negligee” is likely to be sheer too, of course. The main pic is of Marilyn Monroe, early 1950s, in what is described as a red negligee. [The pic may have been colourised, I don’t know for sure.] The other is of someone not battling for stockings but giving them up for the war effort – to be made into gunpowder bags.




This pic is of Elizabeth Smart, looking terrifically cool in 1949 outside The George, a well-known pub still flourishing today in Soho, London. Elisabeth Moss – Peggy in Mad Men – would probably play her in a film.

 



A Shakespearean negligee featured in last week's Dress Down entry, and you can find that one and more by clicking on the label below.

For more from the guest blogger, click on his name below.

14 comments:

  1. Moira - Thanks for hosting Colm.

    Colm - I think you highlighted something really important here. A writing style that draws the reader in can make up for a lot of weaknesses in a book. I have to say the protagonist here doesn't sound like a very nice person, but those descriptions really are evocative. And that 'photo of Marilyn Monroe - so elegant!

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    1. I couldn't agree more, Margot - it's a real bugbear with me when people say they don't like a book *because* they don't like the people in it. Literature would be a thin broth indeed if it only had nice people in it.

      Today, all too late, I found an extraordinary pic of Joan Crawford in sheers. Don't worry, one of us will find an excuse to use it soon.

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  2. Surely sheer nylon stockings? The finest possible, and so NOT practical lisle, cotton or wool.

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    1. Lucy, you are not the first person to question my take on what is meant here by the word "sheers". Nylons were extremely new when this book was written, and I don't know if they were called sheers then or not. Auntie Mame flourished in the 30s, when there were no nylons, and it's clear she meant something else by the word; but then, the author of the Mame books (writing much later) was very hazy on chronology. So we can't take his word for it.

      A cursory glance around the internet will show as many references to sheers as net curtains (usually called silks, in the US, I believe) as anything else.

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    2. A bit late for this one, but I dug out a copy of a mail-order catalogue from 1945 and had a look at the stockings. With war rationing, neither silk nor nylon were anywhere to be seen, but the hosiery pages were led by "sheer" stockings made of rayon yarn. They must have been fragile because rayon is not a strong fiber. Following these were the usual heavier rayon and lisle stockings for ordinary wear. In the clothing section, there were many items referred to as being made of "rayon sheer" as if that was the common name of the fabric itself. Checking a 1927 catalogue, there is only one pair of silk stockings described as "sheer as gossamer" and they came in colours that would match dresses rather than skin. The fashion for sheer, skin-toned stockings was a definite trend of the 30's as was the development of rayon fabrics that suited the styles of the period. Sheer silk is light and floating, but sheer rayon fabric weighs more and will drape differently. A good choice for those clinging, bias cut dresses Mame was probably wearing.

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    3. Fascinating stuff again, thanks Ken. I've obviously made an error in claiming that sheer stockings did not exist before nylon but I remain *reasonably* sure Mame used the word sheers in the older sense referring to clothes in general. The usage here by Elizabeth Smart is certainly ambiguous but I'm inclined to shift my allegiance towards the stockings side of the fence. However, did people in the 40ws [or ever] say "sheers" to mean sheer stockings, or did they say "sheer stockings"...?

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  3. Nice post, nice photos, not a book for me though.

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    1. Well that's disappointing, Col. I felt sure you'd be the one to clear up the issue of what "sheers" meant in the extract. I don't think we're ever going to have a definitive answer. So everyone's correct, then.

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  4. Well, you are definitely educating me. I knew nothing about Elizabeth Smart. I may give this a try, although it may be over my head. Lovely images to go with the topic. And Elizabeth Moss would be good to play her... although I have not seen her in Mad Men, only in West Wing.

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    1. It is nice and short, Tracy... Elisabeth Moss does do the nervy but cool, shy but intense, distant but sexual thing perfectly, plus she looks like Elizabeth Smart which can't hurt, as the nameless narrator is basically her. ES had a truly extraordinary life - I didn't go into the real-life affair the book's about or any of the rest because it's all there on Wiki etc.

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  5. I read this many (too many) years ago, and was completely mesmerised by the writing... will have to pick it up again though and have another look through different eyes, now that you have shone the spotlight on this again - thanks for the memory!

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    1. It's got quotable lines on every page, Maggie.

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  6. For those who knew nothing about Elizabeth Smart, I can recommend reading a biography of her. She was one of those writers whose oeuvre can be considered to be not only her writing, but her passionate, deliberately created, and tragic life. Frida Kahlo and Sylvia Plath come to mind as comparable creators.

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    1. I agree, she had a fascinating and extraordinary life, as well as writing this beautiful book.

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