Sunday, 22 June 2014

Dress Down Sunday: The Marble Foot by Peter Quennell

published 1976





LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES










[Quennell goes to work for an advertising agency in the 1930s]

The client, too, will sometimes demand an exasperating alteration; such-and-such a point has been neglected, or a cherished phrase omitted. These set-backs, however, were all a part of the elaborate game we played – a cynical game perhaps, but odd and difficult enough to amuse an expert player. Although I could not immediately grasp its rules, I soon acquired some basic training, and found that my prose style could be employed with advantage upon a special range of subjects. I could be as ‘literary’ and decorative as I pleased, writing about products that appealed to women; and in that important field, before my career ended, I had become a virtuoso.

Corsets were my first theme; the type of corset we advertised had been designed by a crippled middle-aged lady; and my weekly task was to immortalize her conception of ‘the body beautiful’, emphasizing the fact that, if it were to remain beautiful, ‘adequate support’ was needed. Miss J liked my style, appreciated my interest in her sex, and from her invalid chair would thank me for the euphonious tributes she once called my ‘ripping write-ups’. She headed a bizarre procession of female clients that eventually led to Miss Elizabeth Arden.




observations: This memoir has featured before on the blog, and we said then that Quennell was somewhat Pooter-ish. My favourite line in the book comes when he, a young and inexperienced Oxford undergraduate, has met a rather racy older women ‘a remarkable night-bird’ and a kept-women. He makes advances to her, he is ‘neither repulsed nor reproved’ and then:

That night I was carried off to Maidenhead.
Quennell was working in London, but ended up visiting the
Elizabeth Arden
USA regularly to see Elizabeth Arden when she became a client of the agency. She was one of the grand dames of beauty products in the USA, along with Helena Rubenstein and Estee Lauder, and Quennell’s dealings with her are quite entertaining. He describes the horror of a weekend party in the country – saying that such an event in the UK would have been very restful and relaxing, but the US version was non-stop and exhausting, ‘not a moment’s rest’.

This picture of Elizabeth Arden is from the Library of Congress. Quennell explains that Arden was very keen on horses and racing, and it looks as though this picture was taken at the races – you can just see someone looking through binoculars at the left-hand side.

Advertising offices in the 1930s have featured on the blog twice before – here and here – and this entry deals with reactions to lingerie adverts. Selling corsets in the 1930s is also a feature of blog favourite Miss Pettigrew Lives for A day.


The corset drawing from the 1930s comes from Wikimedia Commons.

12 comments:

  1. Not strictly related, but your passage brought it to mind: I couldn't see Agatha Christie's The Secret of Chimneys on your author list, but am sure you are familiar with it -- there's the most wonderful scene towards the beginning with a rubber "hip band" which the heroine describes to a disapproving young man: "But, Bill dear, there's nothing indelicate about hips. We've all got hips - although we poor women are trying awful hard to pretend we haven't... [etc] followed by a moderately agonizing description of said hip band.

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    1. Oh that's brilliant thanks Vicki - I have read that one, but in pre-blog days so didn't remember that, but shall look it up immediately. You are such a faithful blog-friend....

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    2. I probably wouldn't notice the clothes so much if I wasn't reading your posts here, so it works out nicely. ;-)

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  2. Moira - Oh, I do remember your other post about this memoir. I think it's fascinating that Quennell shows the differences between US and UK culture. To me those cultural products, values and so on are really interesting. And the snippets that you've shared here and in the other post suggest that Quennell isn't overly self-serving in this memoir, as is all too often the case.

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    1. [I answered you and it disappeared Margot: Blogger really is getting very unreliable these days.] I always enjoy reading about cultural differences and sociological details, and I think that's a taste we share. So this book did have enough in it to hold my interest, even though I did not completely take to it.

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  3. The first time around, I said I would pass. This time, it sounds more interesting. I probably still won't get to it. But you never know.

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    1. If you find a cheap copy at the book sale, buy it Tracy!

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  4. Moira: As I look at and read about corsets I thank the good Lord that men do not wear them.

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    1. Growing up in a later generation, I think I'm in agreement, I'm grateful my cohort of women didn't have to. But then it entertains me that young women choose to wear a form of them as party-wear...

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  5. Not one for me, Moira - so thanks!

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    1. I'm being so helpful to you this Monday morning!

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