Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Clothes in Christie



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 …



clothes 4

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.

Agatha Christie is one of my all-time favourite authors, and she fits right in with my specialist area, although she is not given to great detail in her descriptions - you could almost describe her as slapdash, very casual.

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of red and green poppies, with a draped cross-over front, deep hip-yoke and flared skirt and sleeves about three years out of date?’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.

 
clothes 1


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.”
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.”




--- and all this is very much relevant to the plot.

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.
 
clothes 2

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].
[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.


clothes 3But it isn’t just funny – again, it is relevant.

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.




















18 comments:

  1. What a wonderful post, Moira! It really shows how Christie could use clothes to add to character depth, give a clue, and a lot more. She does that very well in Third Girl, too, both to comment on the younger generation, and to give clues as to what some of the characters are like. And there are so many other places where what someone wears and how that person wears it become important to the story. And I think that's what sets Christie's clothes descriptions apart; they are used to further the story. They're not just there to add description.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the kind words Margot, and you sum it up exactly - she doesn't waste your time, and what she has to say is relevant to her characters and plot. And yes, you are so right about Third Girl and those 60s ways...

      Delete
  2. I agree with Margot: Christie could provide a common, logical reason why someone might wear a bizarre kimono to the beach in order to lull us away from the realization that this outfit is just too bizarre to allow for a "common" explanation. I'm deeply appreciative of Christie's economy of description. Nowadays, a writer like Elizabeth George will take a page to describe a room or a person where Christie could have achieved the same effect in a couple of sentences. (Reminds me of that old game show "Name That Tune!")

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, Brad, she is good at that, she lures you into a false assumption, very cleverly. And fits so much into her short number of pages!

      Delete
  3. You highlighted that wonderful bit about the appeal of cloche hats earlier.

    And there's a great line about assuming Poirot made women's dressing-gowns in, I think,Orient Express.

    In one of the early Miss Marples I recall a great bit about old ladies remembering bishop sleeves in their youth.... (the 1860s)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. thanks for great additions Daniel. the mind boggles at the thought of the 1860s, but I suppose it must have been - she was quite old when she appeared in 1930....

      Delete
  4. OH YES, Dumb Witness!

    "But I always looked well in Bishops."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Actually, it could be 1890s, the bishop sleeves did make a comeback then...

      Delete
    2. She probably wore them every time they came into fashion...

      Delete
  5. Another lovely post, Moira! Again highlighting how Christie could draw attention or deflect it with very few words and brief descriptions.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Bev - working out this piece made me respect her even more, there were so many examples I could have used...

      Delete
  6. I love that history of women wearing trousers in Christie's books. It also illustrates why I like authors who span several decades. You get to see the changes in society over time as you read through the books, in a natural unforced way.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Exactly Tracy, couldn't agree more. I'm sure an academic could do a great thesis on changes reflected in series of books...

      Delete
  7. Moira, this is a wonderful post, I agree! Thanks for opening a new world of Christie for me. I like the "fashion statement" in each of her novels you highlighted.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Prashant, glad you enjoyed it. I keep thinking of more examples now.

      Delete
  8. Catch-up time....and I kind of feel like I'm traipsing through a desert......

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. One day you will realize the magic of Christie....

      Delete