Week 104: Vain Trifles

‘Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us’ (Virginia Woolf, Orlando)2006AH5344_jpg_ds

What the world sees of me in my NorthernReader incarnation is a fairly unvarying uniform of what are known in this house, with grateful acknowledgements to Nancy and Peggy Blackett of Swallows and Amazons fame, as Comfortables. It has not always been thus and clothing freedom is not the least of my Reasons To Be Cheerful these days. An infancy of knitted things was subsumed into a school uniform of Byzantine complexity involving different hats for all seasons and summer frocks with buttons at the front and bows – large lumpy clumsily-tied bows that ground their fists into you just where spine met unrelenting chair – at the back. As a drama student, I spent three insouciant years in a fetching ensemble of black leotard and footless tights (what were we thinking) before becoming engulfed by the City of London. Think BIG: shoulders, hair – it was not a good time and I have burned the photos. I am still sufficiently prey to social mores to own a black coat, funerals for the use of; two pairs of heels (see Week 69 for why I will never need more), and a proper grown-up frock just in case the moment arises. But by and large we do not march to the tune of any ‘dress code’.

imagesYHGBE8FXHow unlike so many fictional worlds. Virginia Woolf, provider of this week’s title, had a keen eye for class difference demonstrated by clothes: Mrs Dalloway’s gorgeous ‘silver-green mermaid’s dress’, for example, serves not least to mark her out as spectacularly cocooned by wealth and privilege. But Woolf knew that we read clothes, in life and in books, to infer so much more than status. If you haven’t read Orlando, what a treat you have in store and I do not wish to spoil it for you by giving too much away, but clothes most definitely maketh the man. Or woman.

Realising the clothes the characters would be wearing can bring so much to our perception and enjoyment of a novel. To see Jane Austen’s world through her first readers’ eyes, I heartily recommend John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen?, not least for his thoughtful chapter on clothes. Her plots are surprisingly often jostled along by death, and many of her characters would therefore be wearing full mourning while going to balls and flirting: a jarring dissonance more obvious to those early-nineteenth-century readers than to us. Austen doesn’t tell us, because she wants us to be unsettled by our not-knowing: when Frank Churchill is flirting his socks off, is he wearing full mourning (shockingly inappropriate)? Or has he instantly ditched the black (equally gasp-making)? Either answer tells us volumes about Frank, and clever Jane leaves both in play, doubling our feeling that Frank is not ideal husband material for Emma.

7e87dba5a205e19ea7b9c591edf94559For worldly vanity, froth and the emptiness thereof, we cannot do better than turn to the wonderful Edith Wharton. I confess it took me half a lifetime (and that might be an optimistic calculation) to get round to reading her. I think I expected her to be heavy and dull (I fell into this trap with her friend Henry James as well and was wrong there too). The House of Mirth shows us an early-twentieth-century Jane Austen on acid. The juxtaposition is deliberate: if Austen’s genius lies in teetering along the edge of the precipice between comedy and tragedy but somehow achieving happy-ever-afterdom, Wharton is her dark twin, sparkling her way towards catastrophe. The heroine of The House of Mirth, Lily Bart, is the dazzlingly-arrayed victim of a ruthless society in which – ah, Austen again – a girl’s only chance of financial security lies in marrying well. Let’s have Wharton’s The Custom of the Country on this week’s bookshelf while we’re about it: when I tell you that Margaret Drabble, no less, describes this wickedly perceptive tale of social observation as ‘one of the most enjoyable great novels ever written’, how can you resist? And the clincher is that Wharton’s heroine is called Undine Spragg. Admit it; you simply have to read on.

If all these frocks and petticoats are a bit too much for you, we could always turn to the chaps for a sterner and more utilitarian approach to costume. Perhaps we should let Robinson Crusoe set the standard with his detailed instructions for making goatskin breeches (first catch your goat …). In no time at all, he has added a goatskin waistcoat and a goatskin umbrella to what must have been a jolly striking outfit. A far cry from theuntitled (8) Mayor of Gloucester’s fripperies, who, as you remember, is to be married in ‘a coat of cherry-coloured corded silk embroidered with pansies and roses, and a cream coloured satin waistcoat – trimmed with gauze and green worsted chenille.’ Like Miss Potter’s Flopsy Bunnies intoxicated with lettuce, I could drown in the heady poetics of all those fabric words and long (provided someone else was doing the ironing) for the days of paduasoy and taffeta.

But for the last word in gents’ outer wear we must turn, of course, to the Collected Works of PG Wodehouse. It’s hard to pick a definitive World of Wodehouse costume: from the dandified Psmith to the Earl of Emsworth forced into top hats and stiff collars, from Psmith’s friend Mike, a sort of walking rag-bag, to the unlovely Spode in his black shorts (all shirt colours having been bagged by other Fascists quicker off the sartorial mark), there is no character in the whole pantheon who is not deftly brought to life by his clothes.

untitled (7)Which brings us, of course, to Jeeves. Bertie Wooster’s man, minder, guardian angel , father figure and, untiringly, clothes editor. ‘”There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?’” “The mood will pass, sir.”’ I think we can safely conclude that Jeeves would not have been happy as valet to the Mayor of Gloucester.

PS   This month’s NorthernReader Book Club is on Friday February 19th and we will be sharing our favourite heroes, heroines and villains.  Pop across to the Book Club page for details and do come if you can.

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