Sunday, 24 September 2017

Dress Down Sunday: The Loved and Envied by Enid Bagnold


published 1951


LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES



Loved and Envied 1


According to the habits of the household he was sitting in Ruby’s bedroom while she dressed. Miranda was there too, and the little dog, now nine, was coiled up on the ragged silk of the old Empire chair. The maid, told to come into the room, stared at them astonished. The young master, in a dressing-gown, was in the window seat, and the young lady, looking very well, was fully dressed. But the lady… sat before her looking -glass painting her lashes with a brush. If the peasant’s yellow skin could have responded it would have reddened when Ruby turned to speak to her, for there she was in the room with a young man and wore a lace garment that hardly concealed her breasts.



Loved and Envied 2


commentary: Enid Bagnold has featured on the blog for her children’s classic, National Velvet, which I like but did not adore, and found completely unreadable when I was a child. She has a very strange style, one that keeps tripping the reader up – though this book was actually an easier read than National Velvet. I have also read a biography of Bagnold in which she came over as a truly horrible person.

The Loved and Envied was commissioned on the back of National Velvet (book, 1935, film 1945, both wildly successful) but wasn’t quite what was hoped for. It’s a novel based on the character of the celebrated beauty and socialite Lady Diana Cooper – another one who doesn’t seem half as charming to modern eyes as she was to her contemporaries. Lady DC was a great friend of two blog stalwarts: Evelyn Waugh (she is the original of Julia Stitch) and Nancy Mitford (she is the original of Lady Leone) and features endlessly in their letters. There is much from her life in the book, and also much from Bagnold’s own life.

The novel is about Ruby: a very rich and well-connected woman who lives outside Paris with her husband. She is in her 50s: is perhaps her beauty starting to fade? She has always been loved and adored, as in the book’s title, and men fell in love with her. Her relationship with her long-time husband, Gynt, is uneasy. She has failed in her relationship with her daughter Miranda. She has a circle of friends and admirers.

The book is following the story through in the 1950s - though it is sometimes very hard to remember that, the book seems set at least 20 years earlier. And although the clothes are good and interesting, would a young woman really be wearing ‘striped silk muslin, long and cloudy, a Renoir-thought of a summer girl on a beach’ in 1950? The New Look had been in place for several years by then… (Daniel, care to comment? You'll probably find me a young woman dressed in exactly that...)

As the main plot proceeds, the book repeatedly dives off into a long chapter telling the backstory of some character. This was plainly planned and a feature, but it annoyed me, and I found several of the stories dull, empty and finally irrelevant. Much of it was quite unpleasant, and no-one was very happy.

There is a lot of heavy-handed advice to the daughter from her mother as she tries to mend their relationship: advice on how to get men.
‘The way you look, Miranda, is hungry, is fatal. You must have a secret life! Then they want to share it; then they want to rob you of it. Smile – as though you had a lover already! Pride. It makes them envious to see you proud!’
Miranda also has a makeover session with a charming gay dress designer, who also gives her advice on men:
‘Keep quiet. Look right: keep quiet. Look like a packet of mystery done up for a birthday and don’t spoil it by being silly.’
And then is pushed into a very odd plot turn. Usually I love makeover scenes – poor plain Miranda is having her life changed – but this one rather left me cold. As did the whole book.

I liked the fact that it was about older people and their lives loves and passions – that is still unusual, although I didn’t take to being told that 53 was absolutely ancient. But it was snobbish, and tiresome, and jumped around too much for me.

However, I may be unfair and uncharitable – for a quite different view go to visit Barb over at Leaves and Pages - she really liked this book, and I read it on her recommendation. And the book contains many features that I often enjoy, perhaps it caught me on an off day….

Misia at her dressing table - Felix Valotton from Google Art Project.

A Young Woman Undressing in an Interior by Delphin Enjolras – from the Athenaeum site.


















Friday, 22 September 2017

More from NY: The So Blue Marble by Dorothy B Hughes


published 1940



So Blue Marble 7




[Clothes descriptions from throughout the book]


…For his sake she undressed in the bathroom, and put on her white satin pyjamas and her white tweed man-like dressing gown.



So Blue Marble 2


…Ann, lovely, correct, masseused, in Mainbocher because of Her Royal Highness, sherry satin with something white shocking it. Arthur, knife-pleated in tails. The twins, uniform of tails. Missy in pale lemon chiffon, Alix of course, color of her hair. You wouldn't think it becoming but it was; everyone in the room looking at her. Griselda in black sheer, daring cut, startling, her own model.


So Blue Marble 1


…She undressed, showered, put on pyjamas with green tadpoles cavorting in pattern, tied back her hair with an old pink ribbon and daubed an icy cream on her face.

…She found pajamas, dark paisley, blueish, greenish. She undressed in the bathroom, rolled up sleeves and legs, came back to the bed and leaned on it. The men ignored her.


So Blue Marble 5So Blue Marble 6


…Ann was so perfect, in black as was always most of smart New York, her gloves white as April orchards. Ann always wore white gloves. She had height and the right face. [...] She was perfection. There was art in the removing of her gloves, lifting the menu. There was art in everything Ann did with her hands. It was too bad she was irritating.

…[Missy’s] hair was the colour of the lemon ice Ann had spooned at lunch, maybe a shade darker, but not much. It was cut off square as a Dutch doll's banged over dark arrow brows, square against pink cheeks. She wore a dark skullcap, like a Cardinal, on the back of her head. It was so far back, she looked hatless. Her mink coat was the darkest, the finest, Griselda had ever seen, even in movie star land. It was long and shawled, and beneath it you could see the exquisite frock, black with a touch of lemon ice at the throat.


So Blue Marble 3

…He was looking towards the entrance. She raised her eyes. Missy was there, Missy in white satin fringed from the waist in shining crystal leaves, nothing above the waist but a wisp, a strap, crystal leaves wreathing her pale lemon hair.

…She looked like a little boy in the half light, a dark cap on her head, dark knickerbockers and shirt, even long dark stockings, boys' oxfords. She was smoking one of her little cigarettes.

…[Movie heartthrob] Jasper was taste embellished with elegance. White pajamas of such heavy satin they hung like velvet, black rough wool lounging coat lined in rosy fur. His black curly hair was brushed to sheen. There were Russian boots of soft white kidskin on his feet. But this wasn't to allure his guest. He had to maintain his glamour to hotel servitors, more, he had had nothing to do since eight o'clock but make himself beautiful.


So Blue Marble 4


commentary: One more book set (mostly) in New York.

The review phrase that kept forming itself in my head was ‘bonkers but with fabulous clothes and quite an atmosphere’, so I was very glad when I checked back to the email of blogfriend Nathalie Morris, who recommended the book to me ages ago, to find that that is exactly what she thought too.

The So Blue Marble has some of the best clothes descriptions I’ve come across, and also one of the weirdest plots. Our heroine Griselda – filmstar turned designer – is visiting New York, living the high life and meeting up with both her strange sisters. One is a desperate housewife – rich, judgemental and unhappy. The other should be a teenage schoolgirl, but has turned into something much more grownup: she provokes thoughts of the little sister Carmen in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, published the year before.

There are the cold, vicious twins, Danny and David, identical except that one is dark and one is blond. They are plainly up to no good though some find them superficially charming. There is Griselda’s absent ex-husband - she is staying in his apartment, and making friends with the guy next-door. And there is the mythical marble: it has ‘left a trail of bloodshed and violence across continents and through centuries’ and is the key to great riches, in some mysterious and not-really-explained way. It is the most complete McGuffin.

There is New York society life, a trip out to a country cottage, yet more filmstars, and a lot of death and destruction. It is a very noir book in a very upmarket setting, with some very worthless people.

Naturally, I loved every dynamite moment.

And am very grateful to Natalie for pointing me in the right direction - the list above is actually the one she sent me: she had me at ‘sherry satin with something white shocking it’.

The woman in satin pajamas is blog favourite Louise Brooks, and is from 1929, but having found the picture I couldn’t not use it…

Other pics from Kristine’s photostream and the NYPL collection of fashion for the 1940s Worlds Fair





























Thursday, 21 September 2017

NY Days: Survival Instincts by Marissa Piesman


published 1997



Survival Instincts 1


[Nina is discussing the murder victim’s widow with an old friend]


“How long have you known her?”

“About 15 years. We both used to live on the Lower East Side. I was working in a shop on St Survival Instincts 2Mark’s Place when we met. She used to keep her hair very black, in a china-doll’s cut, with white face makeup and a lot of kohl around the eyes.”

“Oh yeah. I remember kohl. Everyone was using it after they got back from Morocco. I tried it for a while, but I was never fully convinced that it wasn’t blinding me.”…

“Roz was so dramatic back then, especially when it came to her secrets. She’d always flaunt them… It was a time of great sexual drama. For all of us. But particularly for Roz…. Really, these kids on college campuses think that they invented bisexuality. But back then you couldn’t even have tried to chart of the comings and going that went on between Avenues A and D.”

Survival Instincts 3

[Much later, when Nina and Ida are about to solve the crime

Nina and Ida had dressed in the most threatening manner they could manage. Perhaps Nina was subconsciously aping the juvenile delinquents of her youth, because in addition to dressing in black, she stopped on the corner and bought a pack of Dentyne. Chewing gum made her feel tougher, even though Dentyne was not a particularly tough brand. Ida donned her usual New Balance running shoes, worn for comfort, not for swiftness. She also wore a smocky navy blue top that could possibly trigger memories of [X’s] kindergarten teacher and therefore serve to infantilize and intimidate [them].

commentary: Another New York book, to mark my recent trip there…

Very sad to say this is the last of the Nina Fischman mysteries to date: Marissa Piesman is an Assistant Attorney General at New York State Department of Law, which is quite the dayjob, and is presumably her excuse for not writing more crime books. Shame, though.

I re-read my piece on the penultimate mystery, Alternate Sides, and found that almost everything I would like to say about this series has already featured in that blogpost, so please do go and read it, and find out why I enjoy these books so much.

This individual book: Nina is back in New York (there was a fear she might end up on the West Coast, not her natural habitat at all), has no job and has to live with her mother. But that’s OK. She gets involved in investigating the death of her brother-in-law’s colleague. There are issues of animal rights and lab practices, and a very interesting discussion on the possibility of finding a clinical hormone treatment that would work to combat obesity. And Nina ambles around New York meeting people, commenting internally on their clothes and hair and manners. And making me laugh about three times a page. I love Nina, love her wonderful mother Ida (her feature is that she is a Jewish mother, and has been in therapy longer than anyone else), love her over-perfect sister and the completely real and convincing relationship that the siblings have.

Ida has a big role in this one, and the picture of her and Nina going off investigating together is marvellous: this would make such a great TV series or film with a wise-cracking mother and daughter solving crimes and discussing their lives. It’s not too late.

I wish the books were longer. There, I never say that. And now I think I am going to read all six of them again.

The top black and white photos are by James Jowers, and were taken in and around St Marks Place in the 1960s: they are from the George Eastman Museum. They are an amazing set of photos, which I use as often as I can find an excuse.

The third picture is an arty double portrait of archetypal 90s woman Jodie Foster – I thought Nina could look that smart.

My friend Kathy Durkin would like these books if she’s never read them – she’s a New York lady with an interest in crime and a passion for left-wing politics. And that’s a description of heroine Nina and author Marissa Piesman as well as of Kathy…




















Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Dance of Death by Helen McCloy


published 1938



dance of death 2



Things this Mystery is about

A black COAT from Paris…  
Two engraved MENU cards…    
A red chalk DRAWING …
A diamond RING ….
A smelling-salts PHIAL …
An old khaki RAINCOAT …
An ADVERTISEMENT for a reducing treatment …
A sapphire-studded CIGARETTE CASE …
A signed CHECK … 
A Bronx COCKTAIL

commentary:  I normally use an excerpt from the book in my blogpost, not the blurb, but this excellent summing-up of the key moments in Dance with Death was too appealing to miss. I have just been in New York and, as with Sunday’s  Live Alone and Like It, a book about the city in the 1930s is sheer joy for me (even more so than it normally would be). It tells certain kinds of reader, not just me I think, that this is exactly the kind of crime story they will like. 

This is the first of McCloy’s books featuring sleuth Dr Basil Willing: he is a psychiatrist and brings his Freudian notions to bear on the crime – he is forever looking out for blunders and comments from the subconscious, and uses them to find out what people are really thinking. And he has helpful remarks such as
Poisoning, like kleptomania, arson and cruelty to animals, is often associated with sexual repression.
The crime involves a rich girl and a poor girl: one of them is found dead in the snow, although the body is unnaturally warm. One of the girls is supposed to be starting her debutante season, coming out to New York society, and there are some good clothes:
Like all women in advertisements, she was Dance of Death 1inhumanly sleek and slim. She had been photographed in evening dress—a deep, cream color that seemed to be satin. Her only ornament was a long rope of pearls—fabulous had they been real. But of course they couldn’t be real—in an advertisement... 
Kitty had an evening dress that was a very startling shade of clear vermilion.
(I have to admit that I can never quite remember what shade vermilion is, I always have to look it up. Brilliant red or scarlet is the answer.)

There is an impersonation – something that seems to occur in books much more often than in real life, honestly – and I was interested to see that the French maid (Victorine, what a very crime-novel-French-maid name) uses what is now the huge trend of ‘contouring’ to bring out the similarities between the two women:
The upper part of the face is the only part that matters—eyes and eyebrows, nose and upper lip. Change that and you change everything…. By removing entirely the part of the brows near the nose and extending them to the temple with a pencil, she made my eyes look as wide apart as [the other woman’s]. She used two shades of face powder and this modeling with light and dark tones made my nose seem as long as hers. She made my eyes greenish gray by putting a greenish yellow ‘eye-shado’ on the lids beside them. Finally she used two shades of lipstick, one over the other to make my lips seem the same shade as hers.
(The spelling of ‘eye-shado’ is new to me – it may be a typo.)

The book is full of moments of its time – from the Nansen passport (a way to help displaced and stateless persons) to the claim that ‘moderns don’t write love letters. They telegraph or telephone.’ Kitty’s education consisted of
Looking out for her complexion and her figure and learning just enough French and dancing and music to make her civilized without the taint of intellect.
When a woman faints all-too-conveniently, Basil steps forward:
He knew the modern woman’s vulnerable point. “Ring for some water,” he said to Pasquale, “and throw it over her head. Never mind the finger wave.” Rhoda opened her eyes and moaned.
And look at the snobbery and classism here - it is of the kind associated with English books of the era, and Basil isn’t having it:
“You know as well as I do that people of—er—well, wealth and standing and education don’t get mixed up in murder cases!”  

“Don’t they?” Basil’s slow smile was charged with meaning. “Ever hear of Prince Youssoupoff, Madame Caillaux, Count Bocarmé, Lord Ferrers or the Marquise de Brinvilliers?”  

“All foreigners,” muttered Archer.

I can’t say too much about the plot for fear of spoilering, but it is remarkably modern in a very specific way, and a thread of the plot, and aspects of the motive, are as relevant now as ever: they could easily fit into a 2017 book.

Altogether a most enjoyable read.

Three other Helen McCloy books have featured on the blog: Through a Glass Darkly, Cue for Murder, and Two-Thirds of a Ghost. 

My friend Noah Stewart recommended this book - he described it as a 'brownstone mystery'. I think he invented the term, and it's a good,useful one - read his post to find out exactly what it means. One thing's for sure: brownstone mysteries are meat and drink to Clothes in Books.

And I was also interested to find that yet again John at Pretty Sinister Books was here before me – he looked at the book in 2011, and his post is highly recommended.

Cream dress from Kristine’s photostream, from Vogue of 1938.

The vermilion dress (and friends) is from a McCall’s pattern of the mid-1930s.




















Sunday, 17 September 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Clothes in Books is Back....



After a very enjoyable holiday/vacation, Clothes in Books is back on the  beat. One of the places I visited was New York, so another post on this book seemed appropriate - although the advice applies to all women everywhere, the picture painted is very much one of New York life...



Live Alone and Like It Marjorie Hillis

published 1936


LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES



Live Alone CC


Question: Is it permissible for a youngish unchaperoned woman living alone to wear pajamas when a gentleman calls?

Answer: Assuming that she knows one pajama from another, it is entirely permissible. There are, however, sleeping pajamas, beach pajamas, lounging pajamas, and hostess pajamas. The first two are not designed to wear when receiving anybody, masculine or feminine. The last type is correct for wear when your most conservative beau calls, even though he belongs to the old school and winces when a lady smokes. The third variety comes in all sorts of shadings, from an almost-sleeping type to a practically hostess pajama. Those with a leaning towards the bed are suitable only for feminine guests, while the others would not shock Bishop Manning.



Live Alone 2 Pajamas 3


commentary: I’ve already done a post on this book, but there was just too much material in it for one visit. Blogfriend Birgitta put me on to this book (some time ago), and again I owe her my grateful thanks. 

Hillis is talking about the single life for women in the USA in the 1930s, and the attitudes to men, sex and affairs are particularly interesting and worth reading. She asks and answers questions about how much of a sexlife her theoretical single woman might have. She says firmly
Certainly, affairs should not even be thought of before you are 30. Once you have reached this age, if you will not hurt any third person and can take all that you will have to take – take it silently with dignity, with a little humour, and without any weeping or wailing or gnashing of teeth – perhaps the experience will be worth it to you. Or perhaps it won’t. The sad truth is that whatever you decide, you’ll think you regret it.
I found that interesting and surprising, though I suspect that her Bishop Manning - Episcopal bishop of New York City, 1921–1946, and strong supporter of marriage and of his morals - would not have agreed with her. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such ideas laid out in a straightforward way in the 1930s: whatever people were doing in private, it is unusual to read something so generous-minded and with a real aim to be helpful. Especially given that she is extremely judgemental about all kinds of other things, things that you might think less important: eating at the kitchen table and not having enough bedjackets, for example. (See earlier post. The correct minimum number is 4, by the way.)

I mentioned before the ‘case studies’ at the end of each chapter. Via poor Miss D she warns against not having a nice enough apartment:


Since she cannot ask her men friends to her house, she is getting to be a little too ready to go to their apartments. We fear that Miss D will come to no good end.Live Alone 2 Pajamas
Her views on drinking are also interesting – this is a couple of years after Prohibition ended. She is busy telling the single ladies what a great idea it is to have a cocktail party, and then stressing that there is no need to offer a huge range of drinks, a well-thought-out offering is quite good enough. I was nodding away at this, as it reflects my own ideas of drinks for parties, when she revealed that this modest drink list requires only seven different kinds of alcohol. I didn’t think anyone but cocktail bars had quite so much on offer… sherry, gin, Scotch, rye, French and Italian vermouth, bitters. And not a drop of wine mentioned…

Marjorie is keen on ladies filling their time with self-improvement and hobbies, and has one quite splendid idea: she says if you learn some form of fortune-telling, you will always be popular and invited to parties to show off your astrology, numerology, or reading the cards. In addition you will have to be one-to-one with men as you fascinatingly discover wonderful things to happen to them. Any fortune-teller is a real asset, she points out.

By the end of the book you can imagine just what Marjorie (as I said before, I feel on first-name terms with her) is like: bossy, opinionated, forever saying ‘My dear!’, but good-hearted and warm. I like her stressing that women should make themselves happy, treat themselves well. Still applies, even though 80 years have passed.


















Sunday, 3 September 2017

Clothes in Books Takes a Break



Clothes in Books is taking a short holiday





So there will be no blogposts, blog visiting, email or replying to comments.
 Normal service will resume in around 2 weeks' time. In the meantime, please take a look at some old posts if you would care to - there's more than 1700 books featured here, and the tabs above should make them easy to find.

While I am away, the blog will have its 1,000,000th visitor. A particularly warm welcome to you, mystery guest.

When I get back, the library and the wardrobe will have been replenished.