Yesterday I did a post on Alibi Innings by Barbara Worsley-Gough, an enjoyable 1954 village mystery revolving round a cricket match.
Early in the book, the hideous hostess, Elizabeth Elliot, talks to a young woman who has come to be part of the houseparty for the cricket weekend. There was much to discuss in the social interactions and murder plot, but this was one of the most striking moments for me:
‘Rosebay,’ said Mrs Elliot, who never said ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good night,’ which was one of the reasons for her unpopularity in the village, ‘it’s time you dressed for this tiresome party. Go and change. You can’t appear in that thing.’
‘Oh Aunt Elizabeth, won’t it do?’ Rosebay had made her frilled gingham dress, with infinite pains, for this occasion. She had another dress upstairs, but she was saving that for Sunday.
‘It’s ridiculous – all bunchy, like a child’s pinafore. Haven’t you brought something more presentable?’You don’t have to have been a young woman ever – let alone one who goes to houseparties – to realize the absolute terror of this moment, the panic-stricken thoughts that would be going through anyone’s head. It is not a spoiler to say that the foul Mrs Elliot deserves her fate.
I haven’t done a good clothes panics entry in a long time – they used to be quite the feature on the blog. They tend to involve a young woman’s absolute agony and horror at finding she is wearing the wrong thing, or just doesn’t have the right thing.
Noel Streatfeild is the queen of clothes panics and how to solve them – one of my all-time favourites of hers is here in the book known both as Curtain Up and Theatre Shoes. Sorrel has to dress up for a theatrical first night, and has nothing nice. The otherwise kindly Alice, looking at her only available frock, says
‘Well there’s a war on and you’re at least covered and I suppose we mustn’t expect more.’ Which the more you thought about it, became the less encouraging.-a moment which has lived with me forever, more than far worse (theoretically) things happening to various people in many more serious books. I remembered Alice’s words - not meant as cruel just observational – over 30 years, though I didn’t remember the details of the dress that eventually saved Sorrel’s night. I gave her this one on the blog, and was jolly pleased with it:
The whole of Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes is one long clothes panic, and in another of her masterpieces, Wintle’s Wonders, the scene where Rachel is mocked and laughed at for her awful baby-frilled audition dress is still a killer. Her sister Hilary (they are unloved and unwanted orphans) had tried to make her ‘look as if more trouble had been taken over her than any of the others’ which makes for even more of a dreadful, painful moment. So, when Hilary slaps the mean mocking girl, readers everywhere cheer loudly.
In Jane Gardam’s A Long Way From Verona, teenage Jessica has brought her gold Three Kings costume with turban to a party (‘you thought it was fancy dress…?’),
but ends up in Viyella like everyone else, after a scene of exquisite awkwardness. The kindly hostess mother tries to save the situation by suggesting they all wear costumes, but the other girls are grumpy and want to wear their nice frocks. Not helped by Jessica being annoyingly unfriendly: the book is YA, and when I re-read it as an adult I was surprised to see how un-endearing she was.
One of my favourite characters in all children’s lit is Antonia Forest’s Nicola Marlow, and in this entry on Peter’s Room she realizes that she is not a white net-and-frills person, but there is no choice of dress and she ends up being the only sister who looks dreadful at an important party. She gets her revenge, but it is a whole year coming (this is an annual Twelfth Night party), though I got my revenge for her by finding the most horrible party dresses I could find for the sisters for the blogpost. Look:
Nancy Mitford is, of course, very good on young women and clothes. Think of Fanny in Love in a Cold Climate, and the planning with Aunt Emily for a country house weekend: ‘Now we shall have to think about your clothes Fanny. Sonia’s parties are always so dreadfully smart. I suppose they’ll be sure to change for tea? Perhaps if we dyed your Ascot dress a nice dark shade of red that would do?’
And when Fanny is a young-married in Pursuit of Love, she sadly compares herself with other women when she comes up to London from Oxford for the day:
My clothes, so nice and suitable for the George, so much admired by the other dons’ wives (‘My dear, where did you get that lovely tweed?’) were, I now realized, almost bizarre in their dowdiness… I passionately longed to have a tiny fur hat, or a tiny ostrich hat, like the two ladies at the next table. I longed for a neat black dress, diamond clips and a dark mink coat, shoes like surgical boots, long crinkly black suede gloves, and smoothly polished hair.I think this is how she wanted to look:
Incidentally, in case you were worried, Rosebay from the opening story does eventually get some validation for her bunchy gingham dress:
He smiled at Rosebay approvingly. ‘What a pretty dress, if an old man may be allowed to say so’, he remarked. Rosebay blushed, partly at the compliment and partly because she remembered that this was the bunchy dress which her aunt had told her not to wear, and she felt a pang of remorse which added to her usual state of emotional confusion.
Now, I am sure that some of my readers have even better examples of clothes panics from favourite books – I have barely skimmed the surface. And men must have clothes panics too. Please tell me your best ones…. I’d love to do another post on readers’ suggestions.
Drawing of gingham dress from the Ladies Home Journal.