The Tuesday Night Bloggers is an international blogging club consisting of The Passing Tramp, Bev Hankins, Brad Friedman, Helen Szamuely, Jeffrey Marks Moira Redmond [that’s me, Clothes in Books] and Noah Stewart.
We are named after an Agatha Christie collection, and our first project is to do a Christie-related post every Tuesday night for six weeks. Curt at Passing Tramp is masterminding this, and providing a clearing house for links to the pieces at his blog, here.
This is our last week dealing with Christie - we intend to carry on the club by moving onto other detective story writers – so today I am taking a very specific overview …
The theme of my blog is fairly obvious (the clue is in the name): although I drift off into other areas when I feel like it, the vast majority of entries are inspired by a description of clothes in a book, which I then use as a way to (I hope) illuminate the book or find some point of interest.
This description is from Dorothy L Sayers Gaudy Night:
‘Who, by the way, owns a black semi-evening crêpe-de-chine [dress], figured with bunches of red and green poppies, with a draped cross-over front, deep hip-yoke and flared skirt and sleeves about three years out of date?’ She looked round the dining-room, which was by now fairly well filled with dons. ‘Miss Shaw – you have a very good eye for a frock. Can you identify it?’-- and you can’t imagine Christie ever writing that: it has the Sayers eye for pointless detail, and you wonder why Harriet doesn’t just show them the dress.
But this is typical Christie:
He did not fail to note the shabbiness of her little black coat and skirt, the cheap quality of her fabric gloves, the flimsy shoes and the defiant note of a flame-red handbag.-- miminal words, but I think this summons up a perfect picture of the young Spanish woman in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.
Or this from Death on the Nile:
Linnet was wearing a white dress and pearls.
"It looks frightfully simple to me," said Tim. "Just a length of stuff with a kind of cord round the middle."
"Yes, darling," said his mother. "A very nice manly description of an eighty-guinea model."
Elsewhere – as I pointed out in my Christie tropes list – clothes are a means of disguise: why is someone wearing that hat, those wide-legged trousers?
And one of my very earliest blog entries looked at Miss Marple and the Body in the Library, a wonderful bit of detection, worth quoting at length:
“…Why” demanded Miss Marple “was she wearing an old dress?... I think she’d wear her best dress. Girls do.”--- and all this is very much relevant to the plot.
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.”
When I started Clothes in Books, I made an initial list of favourite clothes scenes in books that I hoped to illustrate, and Sparkling Cyanide was one of them:
an old dressing gown that had belonged to Rosemary… a mannish affair of spotted silk with big pockets.
This picture, with its spotted robe, the couple kissing, the cigarettes, isn’t what I originally had in mind, but seemed to have the right louche atmosphere for the adulterous pair.
In Cat Among the Pigeons, set in a girls’ boarding school, there is a hilarious scene regarding a pupil’s ‘bust bodice’.
‘What is wrong with her brassière?’[the headmistress asks].But it isn’t just funny – again, it is relevant.
[Matron replies] ‘Well—it isn’t an ordinary kind—I mean it doesn’t hold her in, exactly. It—er—well it pushes her up—really quite unnecessarily.’
A kind of inquest was then held with the offending contraption held up to display by Miss Johnson, whilst Shaista looked on with lively interest.
‘It’s this sort of wire and—er—boning arrangement,’ said Miss Johnson with disapprobation.
A while back I did a piece for the Guardian about women in trousers in literature: Christie is the perfect barometer for this, writing her books over such a long period of time and always reflecting what was current. In the 1920s, trousers would show a woman as quite racy - the brazen Elsa, in Five Little Pigs (set in the 20s), wears them on her country-house stay to have her picture painted. By the 1930s, it was more that a situation was very informal, as shown in the extract from the Body in the Library above (published 1942, but set pre-war).
In the 1940s women started wearing them for practicality during WW2 – by the time we reach A Murder is Announced in 1950, Miss Hinchcliffe (the presumed Lesbian) is wearing them regularly. From then on, young people (particularly) can wear them freely without any conclusions being drawn. I could have written the whole article using only examples from Christie…She gives the perfect sociological history of the short 20th century.
Christie could see the importance of clothes: they tell us what to think about each other – they can be an advertisement or a disguise. Christie was the mistress of tucking that away in her books, neatly and perfectly, or showily and distractingly.