LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
Seven and a Half Cents by Richard Bissell
[narrator Sid is on a date, and has brought Babe back to his house]
I was sitting on a kitchen chair and I pulled her down onto my lap and kissed her. The full treatment.
“All right,” she said. “Take it off. Might as well take it off now as later.”
“You know what?” I said.
“I like you,” I said.
If I was one of these Oriental potentates I’d just have the girls in the harem parading around in their slips instead of those filmy long trousers. With their silk stockings on and high-heel shoes — gee but I love to see a girl wandering around the house in her slip. I’d have those harem babies in black slips with pink rosebuds, and in white ones with blue ribbons and lace, and pale green ones with white satin straps, and I’d hire out Molyneux or one of those Paris designers to just think up new kinds of slips, chemises, whatever you want to call them.
I took her dress into the bedroom and hung it up next to the pin-stripe I got wholesale from Jack Stein at Rothstein and Schwartz.
This picture was added later: I forgot to put it in the post, and therefore failed entirely to show pajamas in a post about The Pajama Game. It is a page from a Sears Catalogue of the 1950s
commentary: Yet another recommendation from blogfriend and fellow clothes-fiend Lucy Fisher - she read my posts on Elizabeth Hawes’ Fashion is Spinach, and correctly divined that this book would intrigue me.
It is sharp, and unusual, and amusing, and weird. It’s about industrial relations, and lower management, and people who work on a production line – which at least makes a change, and although it is a comedy it does take people’s lives seriously. When you read it you try to imagine being an editor or publisher in 1953 and reading the MS (by a not-very-well-known author) and thinking ‘Yes! This is the one! Best seller status looms.’ But that sinks into insignificance when you try to imagine the Broadway types thinking ‘Yes! This will make a highly successful musical comedy, and then a film, packed with songs and dancing and appealing to everyone.’
But of course they were right and I would’ve been wrong, because Pajama Game is a standard Broadway show that ran for years and has been revived many times.
And - and I found this astonishing - the book was published in May 1953, and the musical opened in May 1954, which seems very fast to me.
Bissell was vice-president of his family’s pyjama (sorry, have to go with English spelling outside quotes) business, and it really shows – the details of the running of the factory have the ring of complete authenticity. The story centres on Sid, an ambitious young man, superintendent of the Sleep Tite Factory, who falls in love with Babe, who works on the line and is strong in the union. There are troubles in the factory, a strike seems imminent, and the crisis interferes with their love affair.
In the passage above Sid is about to sleep with Babe for the first time, something that is treated in a refreshingly matter-of-fact way as far as morals go, as are his adventures with another woman later.
What Bissell excelled in is dialogue, and that’s what’s most enjoyable in the book - whether it’s advancing the plot or just overheard scraps like this one:
“She took it into her head to go on this egg diet all the girls have been talking about so much, it was wrote up in the Sunday supplement of some Chicago paper and Josie Hughes you wouldn’t remember her she is over there with her sister now and working in the Reliance Plant, Josie sent this clipping in to one of the girls and they talked about it quite a bit so Mitzi decided to try it…”You don’t have to have lived in this small town in Iowa to recognize that this IS the way people talk. And no less a person than Elmore Leonard says that Bissell’s reporting of conversations was a huge influence on him.
And Sid is interesting because he wants to be a success in his own business, and he has a plan, and he has worked and studied and done different jobs within the industry, and his ultimate ambition includes a life where he will
play golf on Wednesday afternoons at the [Chicago] South Shore Country Club.This is fascinating not just because it is so different from today (‘Write an app! Get an Instagram following for Sleep Tite PJs! Chinese clothes are cheaper anyway!’) but also because most writers want to be writers, and can’t see the point of much else other than Bohemian pursuits such as acting or being an artist, so they do not write convincingly, or unpatronisingly, about the dreams of real workers. This is a generalization, but it is rare to find good novels about proper working lives (prove me wrong! Tell me the good ones below).
The picture is from the Ladies Home Journal via Flickr, and shows an advert for an inventive slip – the moonlight shadow dark and light slip, to be worn under an outfit where top and skirt contrast in colour.
There is more to come on the film of the book, and the book that followed.
ADDED LATER: One of the comments below reminded me that Bridget Jones and her friends had important thoughts on the subject of slips at times of intimacy - see the relevant blogpost here.