Dress Down Sunday: Mother’s Bathing Dress


My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell



published 1956


LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES


My family


[The mid-1930s: Gerald Durrell and his family  - his widowed mother, 2 older brothers and a sister - have moved to Corfu]

For some time Mother had greatly envied us our swimming, both in the daytime and at night, but, as she pointed out when we suggested she join us, she was far too old for that sort of thing. Eventually, however, under constant pressure from us, Mother paid a visit into town and returned to the villa coyly bearing a mysterious parcel. Opening this she astonished us all by holding up an extraordinary shapeless garment of black cloth, covered from top to bottom with hundreds of frills and pleats and tucks.

'Well, what d'you think of it?' Mother asked.

We stared at the odd garment and wondered what it was for.

'What is it?' asked Larry at length.

'It's a bathing-costume, of course,' said Mother. 'What on earth did you think it was?’

'It looks to me like a badly-skinned whale,' said Larry, peering at it closely.

'You can't possibly wear that, Mother,' said Margo, horrified, 'why, it looks as though it was made in nineteen-twenty.'

'What are all those frills and things for?' asked Larry with interest.

'Decoration, of course,' said Mother indignantly.

'What a jolly idea! Don't forget to shake the fish out of them when you come out of the water.'

'Mother, it's awful; you can't wear it,' said Margo. 'Why on earth didn't you get something more up to date?'

'When you get to my age, dear, you can't go around in a two-piece bathing suit. . . you don't have the figure for it.'

'I'd love to know what sort of figure that was designed for,' remarked Larry…

Mother snorted indignantly and swept upstairs to try on her costume. Presently she called to us to come and see the effect, and we all trooped up to the bedroom. Roger [the dog] was the first to enter, and on being greeted by this strange apparition clad in its voluminous black costume rippling with frills, he retreated hurriedly through the door, backwards, barking ferociously. It was some time before we could persuade him that it really was Mother, and even then he kept giving her vaguely uncertain looks from the corner of his eye. However, in spite of all opposition, Mother stuck to her tent-like bathing-suit, and in the end we gave up.

 
My Family 2
 


commentary: The TV programme The Durrells delighted my Sunday evenings recently: a series freely adapted from this book and two others by Gerald Durrell. Although I haven’t seen this mentioned anywhere, the series was also closely connected with a previous BBC film-length version – one that featured in a blogpost I did a while back on best book-to-TV adaptations. The new one has the same writer, and concentrates on the same aspects of the book – I’m guessing Simon Nye has been trying to get the series made ever since the original in 2005.

I said then: It is always hard to remember that Gerald’s annoying and unconventional big brother Larry is actually the august author Lawrence Durrell of Alexandria Quartet fame. 

And I also said: This is one of the rare cases where I like the adaptation better than the original book.

Both films are incredible adverts for the isle of Corfu, which surely must have gained in tourist traffic from them – the island looks gorgeous.

Anyway, the book is always enjoyable, though as someone who is not interested in wildlife I find I can skip quite a lot of it. It is very funny, and full of great anecdotes – Gerald is a bit vague about the exact nature of the book, but the word is that it is very strongly fictionalized: he strung together his stories as it suited and made a fine tale out of them. He liked a big moment, a social event, and made the most of them.

And the family are excellent, a most unusual picture of young people for either 1956 or 1936.
‘It’s all your fault, Mother,’ said Larry austerely; ‘you shouldn’t have brought us up to be so selfish.’
‘I like that!’ exclaimed Mother. ‘I never did anything of the sort!’
‘Well we didn’t get as selfish as this without some guidance,’ said Larry.

Later, when he is drunk in bed and his mother comes in to help he says to her ‘You’re a horrible old woman… I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere before.’

Meanwhile Lesley goes around firing off guns, and Margo enjoys her mangled aphorisms, such as ‘ you only die once’ and ‘a change is as good as a feast’ while looking for romance.

The most startling thing about Gerald, to modern eyes, is that the great wildlife conservator is always keeping his finds in small cages, and at one point takes baby magpies (magenpies) from their nest - it is rather discomfiting.

I’m interested in the idea that Mrs Durrell implies that Margo wears a 2-piece bathing suit. That would be pretty advanced for the time – though they did exist, contrary to what some sources claim. The bikini, when described as such, is definitely a post-war phenomenon, but the picture above shows Jane Wyman, the movie actress, at the age of 18 in LA., in 1935 

The other picture is an advert from the NY Times – it’s from 1916. Much earlier than the date of the book, but the point seems to be that Mrs D’s swimsuit is terribly old-fashioned.


The history of swimwear has been a frequent feature on the blog,with some awesome illsustrations - click on the labels below for more. 

























Comments

  1. A girl in a GA mystery poses for an artist in a bathing suit which she refers to as a "kestos and pants affair". A "kestos" was a bra - brand name?

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    1. Apparently the first bra with separated cups, and briefly became so popular it became the generic name for a bra - cf hoover in the UK. Which mystery?

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    2. Could it be Murder at the Vicarage? Sorry, it's gone.

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    3. Oh it could be - there was certainly a lot of outraged discussion by the parish ladies as to what his models wear. I will check it out!

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    4. The Crooked Wreath by Christianna Brand, according to Google Books, which also tells me the wearer couldn't have concealed a "hipper-dromic syringe" in her "kestos-and-pants affair"


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    5. Oh well done Daniel! A little extra research has informed why I'd never heard of it: I know it as Suddenly at His Residence. And must re-read...

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  2. I have to admit my ignorance, Moira; I didn't know that there was an adaptation of this novel. But I can certainly see why with that lovely setting. You picked a great snippet to share, too; the wit comes right through. And what a swimsuit!! Hard to believe people actually wore them, isn't it?

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    1. It's a funny, charming book made into funny charming TV programmes - sometimes that's what we all need isn't it?

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  3. We saw the earlier tv film and loved it, my husband liked the book as well as Lawrence's Alexandria Quartet too. Hope to see the new series as well.

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    1. Oh it sounds like you will definitely enjoy the new series - I hope it turns up soon...

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  4. I loved the Durrell books as a child, & enjoyed the TV series. What bizarre language in that NY ad: 'The specially shop of originations'.

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    1. One thing I find as I look through old illustrations and adverts - mangling language is by no means the new thing we think it is!

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  5. Saw some of the recent TV series as my wife was watching it. Not a massive fan I'm afraid. I do like Keeley Hawes though.

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    1. I will take that at face value - she is a great actress! I wouldn't have thought of her for the role (too young?) but she is excellent in it.

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  6. I'm always facinated when TV/Movies do adaptions of stuff that has already been 'fictionalised' to a certain extent. It's one layer of fiction on top of another layer of fiction, and you're left wondering which is real and which is invention. On top of this, what do the real people who have been fictionalised feel about their fictional avatars? When the James Herriot books came out, and all the subsequent adaptions, I understand that the real life original of Siegfried Farnon became quite annoyed at his portrayal as a wild eccentric (even though his friends and family felt it was an accurate picture!)

    I saw the previous TV version of the Durrell book way, way back in the mid-80s (it featured Brian Blessed), and that steered me towards reading the original books. The current series looks very good, but somehow I can't muster up the time and energy to watch it. I didn't know which version you were talking about when you mentioned the 2005 film, so I looked it up and was shocked to discover that I had completely forgotten that one! It's a bit unnnerving that I can remember the one from 1987 and not the one from 2005!

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    1. I know -it's weird isn't it? Adapters must feel more free in this case, where it's clear that Durrell has changed things to suit already. (I think of this with the current TV adaptation of Love Nina - where one character from the 80s set book, now grown-up, has a role as an actor in the series.)
      I'm the opposite - I don't remember the Blessed version at all. I think I wasn't keen on what I thought of as animal books/films - but then had a child who loved animals and discovered Durrell with him, and saw there was more to them...

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  7. Margo actually wrote her autobiography - "Whatever Happened to Margo?" - but I haven't read that in a LONG time.


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    1. So what DID become of her? It must be weird for her and Lesley to be the unknown siblings. I'm not surprised she wanted to tell her story.

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    2. I was curious too. Here's a nice thing about her: http://www.bournemouthecho.co.uk/news/features/snapshotsofthepast/1205051.last_of_the_originals/
      Was interested to read that this adaptation shared a writer with the film...it felt tonally so much the same, although slightly prettied up somehow. Plan to go back and re-watch the film sometime soon. And did pick up a copy of My Family and Other Animals. My son looked at it and then asked somewhat dubiously: "so did Larry ever publish any books?"

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    3. Oh that's a nice article - Bournemouth is just down the road from me, which adds to the joy. She sounds lovely doesn't she? We keep the DVD of the film-length version in the house for comfort watching...

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  8. This sounds like an interesting book, although I would probably never read it, just because of my current backlog. The family dynamics in that extract are fun.

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    1. It's a funny enjoyable book - but not really in any of your areas of interest. But if you see it at the sale...

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