Women in Black by Madeleine St John
aka Ladies in Black
set in 1960
[excerpt:] At nine in the morning on the third Monday in December the great glass and mahogany doors of Goode’s Department Store were opened to a large bevy of early-rising housewives all determined upon the prosecution of their Christmas shopping campaigns. From the wooded slopes of the salubrious North Shore to the stuccoed charm of the Eastern Suburbs, from the passé gentility of the Western ditto to the terra incognita of the Southern, had they travelled by train, bus, tram and even taxi cab to this scene of final frantic activity.
There remained presents to be bought for sundry difficult relations, there remained clothes to be purchased for their gigantically-growing children, there remained even frocks to be found for themselves, and then shoes to match these frocks: there remained almost everything to play for, and they were resolved to win. Miss Jacobs stood at her post, ready for anything whatsoever, her tape-measure draped around her neck and her pins beside her. Let them come: she would be as a rock in the great storm...
What with Christmas and New Year and all the parties coming up, and consequently all the cocktail frocks vanishing off the rails and into the fitting rooms quicker than you could say knife, Miss Jacobs had her work cut out with pinning up the alterations… ‘Mind you tell them, Lisa,’ continued Miss Jacobs, ‘that if they want alterations doing before Christmas, we can only do hems by then, not seams, and we can’t do hems either after Wednesday, whatever they say. After Wednesday, with the holiday and everything, they can’t have their alterations until the New Year.’
‘Yes, I’ll tell them,’ said Lisa.
comments: And here we are on the third Monday of December.
For more about this book see earlier entry. I said then that I do love a book set in a department store, and such a shop at Christmas is even better. (This is Australia, so it is also the height of summer – no snow as there might be in a book set in the northern hemisphere.) See the entry on Bond Street Story in 2019, and an Ellery Queen story - I called the post ‘Is Santa guilty?’. There’s Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn. Emil Zola wrote a wonderful book about a department store back in 1883, Les Bonheurs de Dames – I had to do my own translation from the French in the excerpt for my blogpost.
I loved the book for its good-hearted but clear descriptions of the workers, the way it followed them into their personal lives, and of course for the clothes. Christmas is close to being the climax of the story – heroine Lisa is working her summer holidays while waiting for her exam results. She has her whole life ahead of her. And she does have some clothes envy in the book.
There is a 2018 film of the book which I enjoyed hugely, and strongly recommend for anyone in need of an entertaining few hours – very true to the story, and Julia Ormond is untouchably wonderful as Magda, the fabulous East European refugee who is glamorous and Bohemian.
The film is called Ladies in Black, and the book has also been relaunched under that name.
And, what an excuse to show some clothes that the women of Sydney might have been able to choose for their parties…
The fashion photos all came from a site which no longer exists, so I can't give links.
The top photo would seem to be New York, but it is from 1960 and seemed in the spirit of the description.
Pale lace cocktail suit.
‘Cocktail hat with a stiffened gauze visor’ (IKR? Seriously, I die), 1959
Dress with cream satin bodice.
Black cocktail suit with mink trimmings, Jacques Fath (one of the designers stocked by the store in the book).
Two women also in Fath dresses.
I remember Lisa's clothes envy having a happy ending. (Alternative view, she wasted a lot of the money she earned....)ReplyDelete
As the proprietor of Clothes in Books, I would always be taking the first view! IN this entry I had a go at showing the Lisette dress https://clothesinbooks.blogspot.com/2020/03/international-womens-daywomens-fiction.htmlDelete
There is nothing like a department store from the heyday of such places, and even more, nothing like one at holiday time! I can just imagine the rush of customers, the pressure to take and fill their orders, and so on. And when it comes to getting dresses chosen, altered and so on, that just adds to a story, I think. What an excellent context for a novel, Moira. Thanks for reminding us of it.ReplyDelete
You are so right - a department store gives so many opportunities for varied characters and storylines. Good for crime stories too - I will always read one set in a shop...Delete
I moved from Boston to San Francisco for a job in 1975, and knowing no one. I was pleased to be invited to a holiday party and dressed as I would have done for a party in Boston. To say I was overdressed would be an understatement. However, all I could do was raise my chin, straighten my back and remember Noel Coward who, in a similar situation, addressed the room with "Please, don't apologize for not dressing." I did not, you'll be pleased to know, say that aloud.ReplyDelete
Aargh! I know - I moved to Seattle, and had exactly the same experience. There is even a phrase about the 'Seattle tux' being a plaid flannel shirt and jeans. Not far from the truth. But I always dress up if I get the chance, so it happens that I feel over-dressed - but luckily I have a partner who is the opposite, so my happy claim is that on average we are about right, or at least one of us is... (though there were moments when we first knew each other, when I was anxious to make a good impression on his friends, and he completely failed to give me appropriate advice. There was the Little Black Dress and high heels at what turned out to be a barbecue party, and the stylish flying suit at the formal dinner party)Delete
I read this in the summer of 2021, and I enjoyed it a lot, for all the reasons you mentioned. It was your earlier post that inspired me to read it. The only complaint I had was that it was too light and feel good (for me, at the time). But afterwards I thought about it a lot, which is a good indicator of an excellent book.ReplyDelete
Oh great perception Tracy, I know just what you mean. I too think of this book often, so clever and funny and with a great view of life...Delete
Madeleine St John (astonishingly her real name) was a young shop assistant at David Jones in Sydney. There's a good biography of her by Helen Trinca.ReplyDelete
She definitely had inside knowledge you felt! Her biography must be fascinating, I read up a little about her life when I read the bookDelete
I want that lace suit. If Santa were to bring it, I would wear it to my youngest nephew's wedding next spring. Though I'm sure I'd be wildly overdressed by the standards of the people and place, I don't care: I am the Eccentric Aunt, and I have my own ideas of what is appropriate.ReplyDelete
Perfect! And yes, one shouldn't worry anyway, but a wedding is the perfect place to wear something stylish but different. At a wedding this summer I wore a black bowler hat that my grandfather used for funerals in the 1920s & 30s. It certainly attracted attention....Delete
Can I have the strapless evening outfit in picture #3 please? Not that I have party in sight which I might wear it for, but why wait for the party before ordering the dress? Much better to get the dress first to be on the safe side. I love this book, which I learnt about from CiB, and think I might re-read it for Christmas.Delete
We need to share out these outfits and then all go to a party together. I'll take the long-sleeved black dress in the bottom picture. And, of course, the cocktail hat.Delete
I love this book! It is much more charming than the author's other titles, and of course the department store setting is a big plus for me as well.ReplyDelete
I haven't read anything else by her. But this is one perfect book...Delete
As a woman "d'un certain age," I'm afraid for me dressing for a party means comfortable shoes and a pair of trousers with elastic in the waistband. I do remember fondly one New Year's Eve when I had made myself a black lace over satin cocktail dress (rather like the last Fath one, above), worn with a pair of black stilettos. My sciatica flares up just thinking about them.ReplyDelete
Ah yes, I do take your point. I remember reading a magazine article when I was young and wild, which said the ideal party outfit FOR PRACTICALITY was actually a loose pajama style suit in a silky fabric, button-up top, with pockets and an elastic waistband, and flat shoes. I was quite shocked by the idea, but have still always hankered after it. Something similar comes down the catwalk now and again and I think about it again...Delete