LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[A young woman in the 1980s is looking at trunks of clothes in the attic of her family home]
Beneath the dresses were underclothes. Instead of the stays and flounced petticoats worn by the Floods, Enid had had wispy chemises and cobweb camiknickers.
Gabriel carried one of Enid’s chemises to the window to study it more closely. But it hardly needed more examining. It was just a brief silk tunic, with inset bands of embroidered net and narrow shoulder-straps. Compared with Iona’s and Lettice’s things it seemed absurdly, frivolously scanty, as if it came from a different world….
Gabriel stood by the rain-spattered window, frowning at Enid’s chemise. Previously the attic had seemed haunted by the romantic, tragic days of Iona and Lettice, when banners were sewn secretly and Miss Johnson hid treasonable papers under a mattress. Enid Ashwell’s clothes signalled a startling change of mood; even, it seemed to Gabriel, a devaluation of ideals. Did emancipation merely mean short skirts and flimsy chemises? Had Ida Johnson gone to prison and [another woman] died so that Enid could dance the Charleston?
commentary: It’s a perfectly good question, and one Bull isn’t going to ignore or shirk. I explained in Friday’s entry how I came to read this book (thanks again Daniel Milford Cottam) and how it is the perfect Clothes in Books book. Bull is clear on the importance of clothes, and the intertwining of clothes history and women’s history.
As well as all the other ways in which clothes are important, it is very nice that an interest in clothes is not seen as anti-feminist or frivolous or irrelevant – Bull makes it clear that the story of the women’s lives is tied up in the story of the clothes, and in the way the restrictive clothes of the early years give way to something more comfortable and free. Also, there is a slight but charming love affair for one of the students, which is given due importance.
My only complaint about the book is that the relationships among the women, and the ways their stories were told, were very complex, and I had a hard time keeping track of them – there are diaries and reports from the living and dead, and the point of view switches frequently and suddenly. Any regular readers of this blog will know that I NEVER wish that books were longer – but this one I think could easily have worked as a big fat family saga, told in a linear narrative and with more of the details and clothes that the author obviously had at her fingertips. (And with a couple of family trees at the beginning.)
Daniel reminded me of the story of a note hidden in a hat – the word ‘Liberty!’ a secret symbol for the Bolshy young milliner. It’s a lovely side issue, and you long to see the hat:
black lace with crimson satin roses heaped over the wired brim…At the time feminist publishers Virago were obviously trying to create a YA list: there are some very interesting-looking other books mentioned at the back, but the idea obviously didn’t take – you wonder if now there might be another chance for someone to launch something similar. My main thought on reading this was how much I would have loved this book as a teenager, how much my daughter would have liked it, and what a shame it isn’t available to young (and older!) women now.
The suffragette theme is important in the early part of the book, and I liked this:
The frothy petticoat had given her a new angle on the Crosthwaite suffragettes. She had thought of them as plainly dressed, in coats and skirts of brown or navy serge…
This picture of a suffragette was first used for this entry.
Top picture is an advert for stockings from the 1920s.
More suffragettes all over the blog – click on label below, and particularly see Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges here.