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.

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