Friday, 2 June 2017

An Oxford Education


Party Girls Die in Pearls by Plum Sykes



published 2017



Party Girls 6


Ursula was curious about the twenty or so girls she did see. They glittered like exotic birds among the sea of white tie and tails. Their party dresses, each one pouffier, shinier and more extravagant than the last, were made of brightly coloured taffeta, silk, velvet or lace, underpinned by generous sticky-out net underskirts. A few of the most glamourous girls even had thigh-high mini ballgowns that looked like they might be from Christian Lacroix or Bruce Oldfield, famous designers whose dresses Ursula had seen in Vogue. The young women were lavishly bedecked with diamante bracelets, heavy paste earrings and reams of pearls at the neck. Gone were the swishy pony-tails – in their place was the curled, waved and crimped ‘Big Hair’ that was so fashionable now. Their eyes were circled with heavy eyeliner and their mouths painted with gleaming lip-gloss.




Party girls 2Party Girls Die in Pearls



commentary: I am going to start with the positive aspects of this book. It has a truly wonderful cover:



Party girls 4


And the descriptions of clothes are hilarious and actually spot on – they sound unreal and exaggerated but I don’t think so:
A teensy-weensy, skin tight mini dress made of ruched, neon-yellow Lycra, fuchsia pink suede Maud Frizon stilettos and an enormous silver down jacket. 
She was dressed in a green bat-wing sweater, bubble-gum-pink pedal pushers, a trilby hat and white trainers. 
[She wore] a scarlet taffeta strapless mini dress printed with huge black polka dots… a fake-fur crimson stole… glitzy faux-ruby and diamond earrings… silver fishnet tights… red suede shoes. 
…gold pedal pushers, a sparkly green boob tube and lilac suede stilettos.




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My friend Chrissie Poulson was inspired to discuss terrible clothes over at her blog recently - there’s a new book out where people show off their worst fashion choices – and the 1980s will always come up in any such listing. ***

Sadly the rest of the book doesn’t live up to this: Party Girls  is set at Oxford University in 1985, and deals with murder and mayhem among students, while apparently explaining the strange customs and morals of the university, and the British upper-classes, along the way. As a slapstick, unreal comedy it may work for some people. As a crime story it isn’t very good (when I first guessed who she was going to pin it on, I hoped I was wrong, for several reasons) and as a picture of life…. Well, one of my notes read ‘like Harry Potter only not so realistic, less rooted in fact.’  It's a complete fantasy world. 

And it’s just strange. Undergraduate Ursula wants to be a student journalist, and is also the person who discovered the body of a murdered woman. She is told by the editor of the top student paper, Cherwell, that she can only publish an article if she solves the murder. I personally am in a position (research) to tell you that the editor of Cherwell would not say this. Any editor would be grabbing Ursula with both hands because she has an eye-witness report. There were pound coins, not notes, at the time. The book has weird footnotes in an attempt root it in reality: but anyone who says Zuleika Dobson is the Edwardian Gone Girl, for example, gives the impression that she hasn’t read either of them.

I worry about the American reviews coming in that imply that you can actually learn what Oxford and the UK were like from this book…

But I did enjoy the fashion. And Plum Sykes is well-connected and will sell a shed-load of product and not care what I say about her book. (There is a blogpost on her earlier book, Bergdorf Blondes, here.)






I can recommend some other books about Oxford and Cambridge. (Cambridge was always less glittery, but it is the matching uni to Oxford. I was living in Cambridge in the mid-1980s, with wide-ranging university connections, which is one reason I feel able to criticize the picture this book presents.)

Antonia Fraser’s Oxford Blood (two blog entries!) is a terrific book: a murder story set exactly in 1985 Oxford, and a far more authentic picture of the time. ***

The above-mentioned Christine Poulson wrote a tremendous series of academic books set in Cambridge and featuring sleuth Cassandra James.

… And Chrissie and I also made lists of our favourite books with an academic setting.

This is a blogpost on Oxbridge-set books.

Murder at Cambridge by Q Patrick. Proving that I am not always that fussy, this is what I wrote about it:
It is a chirpy high-spirited book, with not much concern for the victims, a lot of old-fashioned detecting, and some excruciating dialogue. Most of the actions, discussions and motivations are totally unconvincing. The attitudes to women can easily be guessed.
NB: Those last three sentences are a test. Normal people read them as the anti-recommendation, while fans of Golden Age detective stories find them, inexplicably, a come-on, and are off looking the book up on Amazon.
All Souls by the marvellous Javer Marias.

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers.

--- and many more: click on the labels below if you are interested.

*** Talking of 80s fashion moments – when posting on clothes in Fraser’s Oxford Blood, I did say this:
Jemima’s assistant, Cherry, wears for work:
a pink cotton boiler-suit, many top buttons left untouched and a tight belt to clinch [should this be cinch?] her figure at the waist.
Nothing can be proved about how I know that this is not as unlikely as it sounds in a sensible, career-minded and professional person working in the media at that time.

Of course there was a huge difference – mine was jade green. I think Chrissie was pretty impressed (maybe jealous) when I told her about stomping through the 80s in this item with a shocking pink fun fur jacket slung over the top.

Pictures (need you ask?) from fashion magazines of the era…



























43 comments:

  1. One thing that immediately struck me amongst the rather good clothes descriptions - and they ARE good, if a bit stereotype - I kind of can't really remember seeing anything like that in real life, I know they existed and were worn, but I kind of feel like, growing up in the 1980s, that it was all a bit from another world, something that people wore in films and magazines and in TV programmes, not in real life. To be fair, I wasn't exactly in a very fashionable world - although my mum did have a green cotton boiler suit too, that she says she never really wore, except for doing the decorating in (and I think she still wears it to do decorating in!) But for me, looking back at the 80s, I don't really remember seeing women walking around dressed like Barbie dolls (which is what a lot of these looks sound like).

    But I digress. It's set in 1985. And the mention of Bruce Oldfield is spot on. But Christian Lacroix didn't go solo until 1987, so while he may well have been name-checked in Vogue as a designer for Patou at the time, all I have to say is, bless Plum's little lace-trimmed cotton ankle socks.

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    1. Although to tell truth, I don't really associate Bruce Oldfield with cut-short ballgowns either. I think of him as tight, glamorous, glitzy, quite form-fitting when he did short dresses, perhaps with a mermaid or fishtail flare around the hips/knees but probably not from the waist.

      Looking back as someone who wasn't really there, I find myself thinking Oxford students in 1985 would be more likely to be wearing Laura Ashley party dresses (which did come in strapless and puffbally styles), or quite Sloaney stuff from Droopy & Brown or the Oxford boutique AnnaBelinda. Or maybe the more on-trend ones would go to Hyper-Hyper in London and buy something like a Sarah Whitworth corset-bodice dress, either sheath-like, or with a pouffy layered tutu-like skirt. And if you had the money you'd probably go to someone who Princess Diana wore at the time, like Oldfield, or Murray Arbeid, or buy Catherine Walker stuff from the Chelsea Design Co.

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    2. Good catch on Lacroix - the book has quite a few 'minor' mistakes. She is wrong about what night Dallas was shown on TV (I'd bet she looked it up on Wiki, which tells you the US broadcast day), although this is an important clue.
      AT this time I was no longer a student (thank goodness) but I was living close to that world and saw a lot of university life, and I think there was a massive range: the top set of students were very rich and did designer. The vast majority were off to Laura Ashley and Monsoon. But the big dresses were there, and the tuxedos worn by women etc. A student event is the one place (outside the real toffs' parties in stately homes, which I did not grace) where you would see that range. Oh this is such a great topic isn't it?
      I loved Droopy and Brown when I was a bit older - I still have a tweed suit and an almost-corset-like waistcoat and a red military jacket: I rarely wear them but will never get rid. I really wish I'd bought one of their long-tailed riding jackets.
      And.... I got my wedding dress from AnnaBelinda at Liberty: Belinda herself did it for me. (Well, measured fitted etc.)

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  2. Your review is fantastic as always, Moira. But I don't think this is my sort of book. Too bad, too, because I do like the setting. And, for your sake, I'm glad there are so many great clothes described in it. But, no, I don't think this one's for me.

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    1. Thanks Margot - and it isn't a book for crime lovers: the crime plot really isn't up to much. This is one of those times where I read it so my crime fiction friends don't have to!

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  3. Oh, yes, Droopy and Brown, I had some fabulous clothes from there from the late 1970s on and later I bought my wedding dress there - it was emerald green with a fitted bodice and full length circular skirt (I had a net petticoat under it) and a bolero jacket.
    I'd find the mistakes in this novel very annoying, Moira!

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    1. That dress sounds fabulous - a green wedding dress! Admirable. I miss Droopy and Brown very much.
      I do think you would find this book infuriating, for several reasons.

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    2. I will put up a photo on my blog sometime soon. Actually more sea-green than emerald, now I come to think of it. I miss Droopy and Brown too. Have you found anywhere comparable? I haven't.

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    3. No I haven't. It seemed like other places but it wasn't. In older books there is always that trope of 'well-cut' clothes, of high-quality outfits that may not be new but last well. I have had fancy, plain, expensive and cheap clothes over the years, but only the D&B ones ever made me feel that - that they were truly made to last, high quality, good material and good seams.
      I think there was a sad story that it was a family business, with the designer the force behind it. And she died young of cancer and they couldn't continue. Too sad.

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  4. And of course, those clothes you wore in the 80s - madly jealous! I have to say that nothing my daughters have worn as teenagers could compete with the kind of stuff we wore then

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    1. Not everybody could have my level of taste, Chrissie, don't beat yourself up! And no, I don't think subsequent fashions matched us, thinking of my own daughter.

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  5. I went stomping through the 80's in battledress, but heck....

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    1. And you were really stomping, not like me in my fashion shoes. Were you wearing a blouse, as we were discussing a few weeks back?

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    2. Only for inspections. Most days I was in the fatigue uniform.

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    3. Me in 1982. This is what I was wearing when I met my husband.

      http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-mUjBm1LDusA/TZZ9ABoHfPI/AAAAAAAADww/fXucsANrq2c/s1600/Shaila%2BKorea%2B1982.jpg

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    4. Thank you! That is one splendid outfit. I was going to say 'cool' but it looks lovely and warm.

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  6. I lusted after Maude Frizon shoes, but couldn't afford them. I did have a Laura Ashley party dress (still have it!) with a tight black velvet bodice and puffy sleeves and skirt of a metallic-looking almost-royal blue. A built-in crinoline (not TOO poofy), and I was set to go!

    Is a boiler suit a jump suit? I had a few, but gave up on them. Having to use a public restroom in a jump suit was dire.

    Oh, and is "a T-Model Ford" a Britishism or an old-fashioned term? I've never heard that phrase; it was always "a Model-T Ford." But I've seen that term twice now in 1930s era English novels.

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    1. I'm guessing it's the same thing as a Model T Ford, and perhaps people not realising that they had it not entirely correct.

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    2. I think Daniel is right, it's just a mistake!
      Love the sound of your clothes - the dresses of our youth are always so nostalgic. And yes - boiler suit, jump suit, flying suit - all the same. Mine actually had a zip rather than buttons.

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    3. I had a couple of other Laura Ashley's that I wish I still had. One was kind of a sleeveless romper (but with full length legs) small blue and white stripes. So cute! And one of Doctor Who's companions had one very like it so I felt very special in it. The other was a sailor collared dress in black pin wale corduroy with purple accents. I got so many compliments when I wore it. Sigh.

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    4. You have just reminded me a dress I adored: it was a blue and white sprigged cotton Laura Ashley frock (that is the right word) with buttons down the front and a full skirt. I used to starch it (does anyone do that these days?)

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    5. I LOVE the way we all can remember our favourite clothes so clearly, and describe them in detail.
      I can't imagine anyone starches. When I was at school I envied the girls who had starched summer dresses - my own mother was far too busy and sensible to waste time on that, when I was a real tomboy and would have messed up the dress in two minutes flat. She worked fulltime (at a time when that wasn't so common), and I was very proud of that in fact, I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

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    6. My mom worked fulltime after my little brother started school fulltime, so I was about 10. But before that she made most of our clothes. She used patterns, but always modified them to give them a little personality. After she retired, she took up quilting and designed gorgeous, original designs. I like to think I inherited a tiny bit of that talent.

      P.S. I was pleased, but not surprised, to read in Sergio's blog that you love the movie "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" as much as I do. It's one of those movies I can always re-watch and enjoy just as much each time.

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    7. I know! It was such fun to come across your post there, but somehow I wasn't a bit surprised. I'm always surprised that the film isn't better known, isn't an accepted cult classic. It's a great family favourite in our house.
      And - lucky you to have such a talented Mom.

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    8. Yes, I know. It's funny which films catch on and which ones don't. All I can think is that maybe because Downey was either still having or just over his drug issues it turned some people off. But that would explain why it wasn't a hit THEN; not why it isn't big NOW.

      Reminds me of another film I enjoyed that wasn't and isn't popular -- "The Ref." A friend said it's a Christmas Eve tradition for her family. I know we still yell out "Slipper Socks. Medium." when someone gets a bad gift. If you haven't seen it, I recommend it.

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    9. Oh my goodness, I've never met anyone else who has seen The Ref! It is such a funny film, so clever, and Kevin Spacey is amazing in it. I love it when they have their Lucy headdresses on. I think the title was to blame, no-one knew what it was about, or what kind of film it was...

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    10. It WAS an odd title. And Glynnis Johns was such a wonderfully toxic mother.

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    11. SO, SO going to have to watch this again now!

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  7. Think I'll be giving this one a miss, though I agree, academic mysteries are great fun. Are there any from my old alma mater, LSE, do you know?

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    1. Now that's a challenge for me Sergio, I will have to try to find one! I do use pictures from the LSE archives, which are available under Creative Commons on Flickr - it is a wonderful collection which I think shows how students and academics actually lived and studied over the past 100 years. I love leafing through them, and often find some great picture for any academic item on the blog.

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  8. I was at the end of my second year in Oxford in 1985 and like most of my friends had a real jumbled mix of clothes - some ok, some pretty awful (including quite a few, horrifyingly, that I'd made myself). We definitely wore more bright colours than today's intake and I had plenty of jade green too! I was so thrilled when I finally bought a puffy red Monsoon ballgown (as a rockbottom sale bargain) but actually spent more time at parties in my mother's full-length 70s multicoloured patchwork dress or a gooseberry-green 50s prom gown I bought in London. These glamorous groomed students of today don't know what they're missing.

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    1. Yes! We had FUN with our clothes!

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    2. Thanks Mrs Ford for those lovely descriptions. If it did nothing else this book pulled out all these wonderful old clothes. I remember going to a very smart do in the early 90s, and being terribly surprised that just about every woman (this was a young, rich, high-tech-workers' event) was wearing black. I came from a different generation to whom black was old and boring: we wore colours! And as Paula says, had fun...

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    1. No favourite party outfit to describe to us Col?

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  10. All I can say is that I've never heard of Droopy and Brown, and my mother never starched anything! She made shift dresses out of 60s furnishing fabric (and wore them). In the 80s I wore a home made broderie anglaise petticoat underneath a dress I made out of a YHA sleeping bag. With a trilby on the back of my head, I hope.

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    1. Droopy and Brown had a handful of shops - the one in St Martins Lane is the one I used: they never sold the clothes anywhere else. They were lovely, see if you can find some pictures online.
      Ah the petticoats, I remember them well. Impressed with the sleeping bag...

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    2. Just googled. Gorgeous! I've snagged a bunch of images for my Pinterest Fashion board.

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    3. There are a couple of pictures around of their shop windows - they had a very distinctive shopfront and then the clothes in the window looked so glamorous and tempting and unusual - it took me right back.

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    4. Droopy and Brown is a rather unusual name for a fashion label, isn't it? Perhaps that was the idea, to come up with a name that was so unlike the clothes that it was memorable.

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    5. Do you know, Daniel, it had never occurred to me in many years of buying their clothes, and then yesterday, when mulling over this thread, and looking things up, I suddenly thought: that is bizarre, what a strange name, but it really must be deliberate.

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  11. I love the image at the top. Otherwise, I would give this a miss.

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    1. Yes, I think you can safely avoid it as a crime book. And we all had terrific fun discussing our 80s clothes, so there was some benefit.

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