Dress Down Sunday: Wise Children by Angela Carter

published 1991   chapter 1 & chapter 4


Even the railway stations, changed out of recognition, turned into souks. Waterloo. Victoria. Nowhere you can get a decent cup of tea, all they give you is Harvey Wallbangers, filthy cappuccino. Stocking shops and knicker outlets everywhere you look. I said to Nora: ‘Remember Brief Encounter, how I cried buckets? Nowhere for them to meet on a station, nowadays, except in a bloody knicker shop. Their hands would have to shyly touch under cover of a pair of Union Jack boxer shorts.’

‘Come off it, you sentimental sod,’ said Nora. ‘The only brief encounter you had during the war was a fling with a Yank behind the public convenience on Liverpool Street Station.’

‘I was only doing my bit for the war effort,’ I replied sedately, but she wasn’t listening, she started to giggle. ‘’ ere, Dor’, smashing name for a lingerie shop – Brief Encounter.’ She doubled up. Sometimes I think, if I look hard enough, I can see back into the past. There goes the wind, again. Crash…

As we opened up the wardrobe, we saw ourselves swimming in the mirrored door as if in a pool of dust and, for a split second, in soft focus, we truly looked like girls, again. And going through those cast-offs was a trip down Memory Lane and a half, I can tell you. First, there was the lingerie – silk, satin, lace, eau de nil, blush rose, flesh, black and red ribbons, straight up and down things from the twenties, slithering things from the thirties, curvy things from the forties, waspies, merry widows, uplift bras.

observations: Carter is SO full of ideas – she flings them around wildly and it’s a surprise to realize that this is not a particularly long book. So much happens in it, there are so many references, it covers such a long period of time, that it feels it should be a major saga. But it’s a standard length, and works out at a short urgent read because you tend to race through it, matching the pace of the writing. To take just one scene: heroine Nora attends her own wedding dressed as Bottom from Midsummer’s Night Dream, complete with ass’s head, having put someone else forward in her place as the bride.

The book is very funny, full of good jokes:
‘Out with it,’ she said. He was quite taken aback to find the chorus girl so forward, so earthy; ‘out with it’ is not a US idiom. She hastily translated: ‘Say what you’ve got to say and get it over with.’

And there are excellent clothes descriptions, Carter is precise about what people wear:
The girls clung to their mother’s skirts (she was wearing a lovely mid-calf pink floral crepe de Chine with fichu plus a wide-brimmed straw with an old rose ribbon)
Though we cannot agree with this: ‘The third Lady Hazard, wearing a Vivienne Westwood somewhat too witty for her years’ – no-one is too old for Westwood.

Links on the blog: There are  references to Noel Streatfeild and Midsummer’s Night Dream in the book. Nora and Dora wear kimonos like the sisters in Yeats’ Lissadell poem. 

Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus popped up in March (Mother's Day and International Women's Day - an all-purpose writer.)
Picture is of a New York branch of the lingerie chain Agent Provocateur (which was co-founded by Vivienne Westwood’s son) by WestportWiki.


  1. Great post. And suddenly I'm looking for a kimono.

  2. Is she perhaps too young for the Westwood? Because that is quite different.

  3. Good point Sara - perhaps that is what what was meant. And yes, I think we're all hoping that one day we'll find the perfect kimono. I saw one othe other day at Toast, but as it was £245 or thereabouts I resisted it....

  4. Moira - Oh, now I want a perfect Kimono too! But not at that price. The book does sound like great fun. :-)


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