Vintage reading: Nancy Mitford and Schiaparelli

I remember that my mother, during one of her rare visits to England, brought me a little jacket in scarlet cloth from Schiaparelli. It seemed to me quite plain and uninteresting except for the label in its lining, and I longed to put this on the outside so that people would know where it came from. I was wearing it, instead of a cardigan, in my house when Cedric happened to call, and the first thing he said was,
‘Aha! So now we dress at Schiaparelli, I see! Whatever next?’
‘Cedric! How can you tell?’
‘My dear, one can always tell. Things have a signature, if you use your eyes, and mine seem to be trained over a greater range of objects than yours, Schiaparelli – Reboux – Fabergé – Viollet-le-Duc – I can tell at a glance, literally a glance. So your wicked mother the Bolter has been here since last I saw you?’
‘Might I not have bought it for myself?’
‘No, no my love, you are saving up to educate your twelve brilliant sons, how could you possibly afford twenty-five pounds for a little jacket?’
‘Don’t tell me!’ I said. ‘Twenty-five pounds for this?’
‘Quite that, I should guess.’
‘Simply silly. Why, I could have made it myself.’
‘But could you? And if you had would I have come into the room and said Schiaparelli?’

That’s Nancy Mitford, in the partly autobiographical Love in a Cold Climate, published in 1945. I plowed through six and a half of her seven novels on vacation in February this year and enjoyed them very much. Cedric Hampton arrives as the lost heir at the estate of friends of the family, the conservative Montdores, after their daughter has made a scandalous marriage and been disinherited. Based at least in part on bright young thing Stephen Tennant, Cedric is beautiful, outrageous, unapologetically flamboyant and, of course, flaming gay; an “awful effeminate pansy”, in the words of narrator Fanny’s Uncle Matthew, Lord Alconleigh. The Montdores are conservative, and it all seems set up for an ugly, homophobic disaster of a meeting. Instead, Cedric talks knowledgeably about art with Lord Montdore, takes the overbearing, unpleasant Lady Montdore by storm and transforms her. They have a huge, lovely fag-and-faghag sort of romance. They sit on her bed together, smearing their faces with expensive, scented face cream Cedric has brought from Paris, and throw lavish parties.

As for Lady Montdore, she became transformed with happiness during the months that followed, transformed, too, in other ways, Cedric taking her appearance in hand with extraordinary results. Just as Boy (it was the hold he had over her) had filled her days with society and painting, Cedric filled them with the pursuit of her own beauty, and to such an egotist this was a more satisfactory hobby. Facial operations, slimming cures, exercises, massage, diet, make-up, new clothes, jewels reset, a blue rinse for her grey hair, pink bows and diamond daisies in the blue curls; it kept her very busy. I saw her less and less, but each time I did she looked more unnaturally modish. Her movements, formerly so ponderous, became smart, spry, and bird-like; she never sat now with her two legs planted on the ground, but threw one over the other, legs which, daily massaged and steamed, gradually lost their flesh and became little more than bone. Her face was lifted, plucked and trimmed, and looked as tidy as Mrs Chaddesley Corbett’s, and she learnt to flash a smile as brilliant as Cedric’s own.
‘I make her say “brush” before she comes into a room,’ he told me. ‘It’s a thing I got out of an old book on deportment and it fixes at once this very gay smile one’s face. Somebody ought to tell Lord Alconleigh about it.’

It’s a sad, funny, touching and absurd story. Nancy Mitford is a sharp observer and a very sharp writer of jokes, too; papercut sharp. As always, I enjoy the references to clothes, cosmetics and the like very much, not least along with an actual discussion of the crass financial side of it – that is interesting, clothes and cosmetics not just as markers of status and glamour but also as things you pay for, markers of economical means, class and the gap between the two. That a Schiaparelli jacket is said to cost 25 pounds in the late 1930’s says something about how much money 25 pounds was at the time. Just before the Schiaparelli jacket appears, Fanny writes:

Later on, when I had got my figure back after the baby, I began to dress and make myself up with a view to gaining Cedric’s approbation, but I soon found that, with the means at my disposal, it was not much use. He knew too much about women and their accessories to be impressed by anything I could manage. For instance, if with a great effort I changed into silk stockings when I expected him, he could see at once that they were Elliston, 5s. 11d., all I could afford, and it really seemed more sensible to stick to lisle.

Pre-decimal British currency is confusing, but that’s a pair of silk stockings for 5 shillings 11 pennies. Let’s break it down: one pound was 20 shillings, one shilling 12 pennies. Rounding those 5s. 11d. up to 6s., the Schiaparelli jacket costs about as much as 83 pairs of those silk stockings, the very best ones Fanny, at this point married to a respectable, but not wealthy Oxford don, can afford. What would you consider paying for a very nice pair of stockings or hose, for special occasions? Stockings were more important in those days than they are today, that’s worth considering; they were not optional, the way they are to many people today, and they were also much less cheap to buy and produce. Fanny’s class background plays into it, as well; she may not be personally wealthy, but all those titles are part of her background. She is surrounded by wealthy people, and people who are not wealthy, but come from a sort of upper-class background where the relative poverty looks very different from actual working-class poverty. Silk stockings may not be the sort of luxury item that type of genteel poverty splurges on, but they are necessary for certain occasions in this time, place and class. Nancy Mitford herself grew up in that very specific kind of genteel, extremely privileged upper-class poverty and knew a lot about it.

As for the Schiaparelli jacket itself, it may well have been something along the lines of the wonderful jackets above, from the mid- to late 1930’s. It’s easy to miss that Schiaparelli was known not just for surrealist fashions, she also had a solid reputation for making elegant, well-cut and smartly tailored jackets and suits, for both day and evening. Schiaparelli jackets were a thing in and of themselves; the eccentric buttons, embroideries and accessories that were part of her signature are just the icing on the cake. I imagine that Fanny’s scarlet Schiaparelli jacket, gifted by her wayward mother, was every bit as gorgeous as those, perhaps something like the white one she made as “flight clothes” for aviatrix Amy Johnson in 1936 – a sharp, well-constructed little jacket with nice details, deceptively simple.

Well, what do you know.

1910's suitI bought a late 1910’s suit this week. I KNOW! It fits me, too, and I am not tiny. It has a few moth bites, so I have to learn how to mend them properly by weaving self-fabric fibres into the holes. The skirt is too large at the waist, which also calls for some adjustments. In fact, I think the skirt is a later addition to an older jacket, perhaps a replacement for a worn-out older skirt. The fabrics match closely, but are not the same, and while both jacket and skirt are constructed in a way that is very typical of pre-1920’s garments, the skirt strikes me as a little on the short side even for the very late 1910’s. I’m 163 cm tall; that would not really have been taller than average for a Swedish woman even around WWI, and the hem looks like the original one to me. Perhaps the jacket was made in the early or mid-1910’s with a longer skirt, and a new skirt, matched to the jacket as well as possible, added five or ten years later with the new shorter length of the early 1920’s.

Who knows? It’s a fantastic suit, regardless. Quite sharp, very plain and rather masculine-looking in cut and details, without any embellishment. The jacket has a lapel buttonhole, that’s it, no other details that are not functional. Even the buttons are plain self-fabric covered ones, and this level of stark utilitarianism in a suit clearly made for a woman is a little out of the common way – even very plain ladies’ suits of the era tend to have a little bit of something somewhere. It makes me think of Tatlin’s constructivist suit, which differs from ordinary suits of the era mainly through its radical simplicity; it makes away with all the vestigial and decorative details of a traditional suit.

This one isn’t that radical or different, but it is very androgynous. I’m blown away by how good the straight silhouette actually looks on me. I am one of those women who tend to feel that I need a defined waist to look good, but this suit forces me to re-evaluate that idea. It has no defined waist, but I think it looks great on me. I’m trying to avoid the dreaded F-word here, flattering is nearly always shorthand for slimming, and I don’t subscribe to the idea that looking good equals looking as thin as possible. But, you know, it’s a straight silhouette that doesn’t read as boxy or shapeless, which they very easily do on a body like mine, and I don’t think I have looked as physically androgynous as I do in this thing since before I hit puberty. I like that. That’s some sorcery-level cutting, too, and I will most certainly try to take a pattern from the jacket.

Close-ups, interior photos and nerdy discussion of construction details another day.


Vintage reading: Stella Gibbons and Nightingale Wood

I’m on vacation in roadless country and spend a fair bit of time reading. Light reading, for preference. Right now I’m alternating between Heinrich Böll’s wonderful short stories in Murke’s Collected Silences and Stella Gibbons’ Nightingale Wood, published in 1938.

Stella Gibbons is practically only known for her first novel Cold Comfort Farm today, and I hunted down this one and a few other novels by Gibbons mainly because Cold Comfort Farm is the most comforting book I know, a favourite novel that holds the distinction of being the book I have bought the most copies of by far. I’ve worn it out, given it as a gift and given my own worn copy away to someone who needed it twice. Last year I finally bought myself a nice, illustrated folio edition, brought my worn-out Penguin Classics paperback up here and left it in the communal cabin library, stocked with fly fishing literature, books on arctic flora and fauna, Kar de Mumma, Fritiof Nilsson Piraten, Georges Simenon, Leslie Charteris, Agatha Christie and Aunt Mame.

Stella Gibbons’ other novels are different, though. She described Cold Comfort Farm as

…some unignorable old uncle, to whom you have to be grateful because he makes you a handsome allowance, but is often an embarrassment and a bore.

Which is understandable, as the success of that first novel completely eclipsed the 20-odd novels she published later in life. But I still love it the most. I’m sorry, Stella Gibbons.

Her later novels are much subtler in their satire, and often have a wistful quality that I like, but don’t always feel up to. I’ve heard Westwood described as depressing, and in a way it is, perhaps. Her female protagonists are sometimes hard to like. Not because they are horrible, Flora Poste is rather horrible but also likable, after all, unlike Westwood’s Margaret Steggles, who is not horrible, but at least initially hard to like. The beauty of that is that I think I find her hard to like because I see so much of the most awkward, boring and unsympathetic sides of my own younger self in Margaret Steggles. That’s deeply uncomfortable, but also makes the character’s development throughout the novel emotional and ultimately rather satisfying.

But now I’m reading Nightingale Wood, which is a Cinderella story, an unsentimental and slightly uncomfortable one, since it is Gibbons, after all. Cinderella is a former shopgirl, no lady and no Mary Sue, the prince isn’t all that, the role of the stepmother is filled by a mean father-in-law making everyone miserable, and the stepsisters are quietly tragic figures. Spinsters, stuck in an unhappy home with their highly respectable parents, who invite their recently widowed daughter-in-law to live with them, even though she is not quite quite.

‘Shirley Davis? I think I have heard you mention her before, have I not?’
‘Oh, hundreds of times, I sh’d think. She’s my best friend, you know. She was at my wedding.’
‘I remember her perfectly. A very striking-looking girl.’
With dyed hair, thought Mrs Wither, for that shade of red could never be real.

People did dye their hair in the 1930’s, of course, far more frequently than before WWI, but it was not uncontroversial. My grandmother once told this story about dyeing her hair around the same time, when she went to school in Stockholm in her late teens and lived in a rented room. She had her brown hair dyed darker with two bleached streaks on either side of the face at the temples. It’s visible in a short 8mm clip, I’ll upload it when I get home. She wasn’t allowed to do that, of course, and worried about what her parents would say when she went back home to Sundsvall. But it wasn’t even mentioned until they were having coffee on the veranda and great-grandmother calmly said ‘I understand that you think you look very fancy now,’ barely even looking up. Having seen great-grandmother in those films and read her entries in the guestbook here, I don’t think she found it particularly shocking. She had an odd sense of humour, too.

Kesudalen, around 1950

It’s weird how surprising it is that things sometimes look almost exactly the same 70 years later. This is the first time Kesudalen shows up in the 8mm films, and for some reason it felt very surreal that it hasn’t changed more than that when I saw it the first time.

It’s rather wonderful too. And, of course, the potty makes an appearance. Some day I’ll make a complete collection of all the potty jokes on these 14 rolls of film.

Dress clips!

I’ve been looking for a good pair of vintage dress clips for a while. These are a good start; 1930’s, silver and marcasite, a fairly conservative, but elegant Art Deco design. Dress clips really are the quintessential 1930’s accessory, infinitely adaptable, easy to wear in different ways on different types of garments, often cheap and cheerful in paste, bakelite, wood and pot metal, although there are expensive dress clips in gold and platinum with real stones as well, of course. They are an oddly sensible bit of frivolousness, which makes perfect sense in the hard economic times of the decade. This pair made me long for some playful plastic, wood and pot metal ones, too.

I mean, Elsa Schiaparelli wore them. Tamara de Lempicka wore them. Diana Vreeland wore them, fabulously, in a turban. Those are three of the most stylish women of the 20th century right there. What better endorsement could you wish for?