Sunday, 15 October 2017

Fashion and Fiction: The Sublime Marian Keyes

Just before the Clothes in Books Italian holiday, I was lucky enough to attend one of the marvellous Fashion and Fiction events at the V&A Museum in London. Organizer Rosie Goldsmith interviewed Irish author Marian Keyes about her books, about fashion, about clothes in books – and about the TV programme Strictly Come Dancing. It was a great and joyous evening: Marian is obviously just as funny and nice in real life as she comes over in her books. For more on the Fashion and Fiction series, see their Facebook page or follow Rosie on Twitter.

These are my very bad pics of Marian Keyes signing books after the event:

The Break 1The Break 3

Her books Mystery of Mercy Close and Making it Up as I go Along have featured on the blog in the past.

The new book is excellent… and full of wonderful clothes descriptions. And, as it is Dress Down Sunday on the blog, of underwear.

The Break by Marian Keyes

The Break 8
published 2017

‘Get my Finery dress!’

Kiara pulls out an ivy-dark, high-necked, ruffle-bodiced midi, as sexy as a sack. Hugh has never minded me shunning slinky body-con. He’s actively steered me towards shin-length dresses with statement sleeves.

The Break 6The Break 7

[Later] My suitcase is mostly lingerie sets. In a reversal of most relationships, I’m only bringing out the big guns now. Asos were doing these fasbulous 50s-style knicker, a homage to the Dolce & Gabbana delights, all high-waisted lace-and-silk with built-in suspender belts and matching bras, the type you put on just so they’ll be removed quickly.

commentary: I found a very interesting review (recommended by Rosie Goldsmith) of a much earlier Keyes novel, Angels, here:
Keyes is a writer of romantic comedy who specialises in catastrophe and damaged lives… Indeed, Keyes is a kind of Chekhov of the abandoned woman, eloquent and inventive about women's feelings of rejection, loss and desperation, and their ceremonies of recovery.
And if that makes you think the books are just chicklit, or gloomy and depressing, then that is your loss. Keyes is a very funny writer, and she is a mistress of the recognizable detail – the make of the dress above, the family life described with such joy throughout, the passing comments:
It’s simply human nature – we mistakenly think there are only so many disasters to be allocated, and if it’s happening to someone else, we’ll be spared.
And she has some interesting and serious things to say in her so-very-readable books, and she has flatout great opinions about everything.

In this book, Amy thinks she had a good marriage with Hugh: but it turns out he wants a break, a six-month timeout during which he will travel and find himself – and perhaps sleep with other women. Amy is left at home with her job, her approximately three daughters, and her close, loving and maddening family. During the course of the book she curses her husband, deals with all kinds of problems, thinks hard about what led up to the current situation, and wonders who she might meet during the break. She works hard at her job in PR (and we find out a lot about the secrets of the business). And of course she wears wonderful clothes:

The Break 9
I was hurrying through Soho, dressed in a pair of dark blue clam-diggers, pointy pink stilettos and a button-through, candy-striped blouse…

I loved every minute of this book: it was funny, thought-provoking and informative by turns. I genuinely didn’t know how it was going to end up, whether Hugh would come back, whether their marriage was going to survive. And although I knew a lot about the abortion situation in Ireland, I learned more through a plot strand which I hope will be widely-read and discussed.

The underwear is by ASOS and the green dress is Finery – though sexier than the one Amy actually has I think. It is a very distinctive fashion label, and I have an admission to make: While searching their pages for a picture for this blogpost, I found a dress I rather like for myself, and it is winging its way to me now….

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

A Short Break

Clothes in Books

is taking a short break.
[I know. Another holiday. Lucky me.]

I'll be back in a week or so: in the meantime there are plenty of old books and posts to look at - please do investigate the tabs above. 

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Wasted On Children?

from Guest Blogger Colm Redmond

the book:

Heidi, by Johanna Spyri

published  1881 [translator from the German unknown, public domain]

[Heidi, aged 5 and wearing all her clothes at once on a warm day, is being hurried up a mountain by her aunt Dete, to live with her grandfather in the Swiss alps.]


All at once she sat herself down on the ground, and as fast as her little fingers could move, began pulling off her shoes and stockings. This done she rose, unwound the hot red shawl and threw it away, and then proceeded to undo her frock. It was off in a second, but there was still another to unfasten, for Dete had put the Sunday frock on over the everyday one, to save the trouble of carrying it. Quick as lightning the everyday frock followed the other, and now the child stood up, clad only in her light short-sleeved under garment, stretching out her little bare arms with glee. She put all her clothes together in a tidy little heap, and then went jumping and climbing up after Peter and the goats as nimbly as any one of the party…

The child, able now to move at her ease, began to enter into conversation with [the goatherd] Peter, who had many questions to answer, for his companion wanted to know how many goats he had, where he was going to with them, and what he had to do when he arrived there. At last, after some time, they and the goats approached the hut and came within view of Cousin Dete. Hardly had the latter caught sight of the little company climbing up towards her when she shrieked out: "Heidi, what have you been doing! What a sight you have made of yourself! And where are your two frocks and the red wrapper? And the new shoes I bought, and the new stockings I knitted for you—everything gone! not a thing left! What can you have been thinking of, Heidi; where are all your clothes?" The child quietly pointed to a spot below on the mountain side and answered, "Down there."

commentary: If ever a book was too good for children, surely Heidi is it. It is funny and sly, full of vivid characters (solid clichés rather than stereotypes) and bursting with juicy scenes. It’s quite light and inhabits a very safe universe – the nearest anybody really comes to being a baddie is being a bit grumpy; and admittedly you’d grow up pretty naïve if you thought all your problems would be solved as easily as Heidi’s.

But what a joyful read it is. It was published nearly 50 years before Shirley Temple was born (and possibly borrowed its plot from a book 50 years older again) but might as well have been created with her in mind. Heidi is full of energy, optimism and wayward resourcefulness, like many a child protagonist – but she is not one of those who charms on one page and irritates on the next. And when anyone doesn’t take to her we know for sure that they are at fault. (She is also a staunch Christian and so is everyone else – there is a strong Christian message in the book, that might be hammered home a little too often for some tastes.)


The grown ups are mostly stock characters and not exactly full of surprises. But the servants at the grand house in Frankfurt, Sebastian and Tinette, have a little more life in them than most. Heidi goes there to be a companion for a sickly child, Clara, and several lives are transformed as a result. In the second picture, from the 1937 film, Shirley Temple as Heidi stands between Clara and the stern housekeeper Fräulein Rottenmeier, whose outfit is a pale shadow of the one described earlier in the book, at their first meeting.
This lady was sitting very upright at a small work-table, busy with her embroidery. She had on a mysterious-looking loose garment, a large collar or shoulder-cape that gave a certain solemnity to her appearance, which was enhanced by a very lofty dome-shaped head dress. … Heidi was dressed in her plain little woollen frock, and her hat was an old straw one bent out of shape. The child looked innocently out from beneath it, gazing with unconcealed astonishment at the lady's towering head dress.
The main picture was too good to resist but is a cheat: it’s not from Heidi but from the set of the later film Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm. The internet can not agree on whether the photo should be this way around or flipped horizontally, but anyway, in this version: Temple is on the right and her long-time stand-in Mary Lou Isleib is on the left. The chap in between whose socks deserve their own article is presumably the director, Allan Dwan. There are masses of pictures of Shirley with Mary Lou over several years, growing up together, and they are strangely fascinating. Well worth a look.

Heidi is available free on Kindle. There are five other Heidi books, but Johanna Spyri didn’t write them.

Shirley Temple has her own entry on the blog here.

With thanks to the Guest Blogger: you can see his other contributions by clicking on the labels below. 

Friday, 29 September 2017

Hit Man by Lawrence Block

collection of linked short stories first published in book form 1998

this story:

Keller on Horseback

Hit Man

Keller ordered a Coors at the bar. On the jukebox, Barbara Mandrell sang a song about cheating. When she was done, a duo he didn’t recognize sang a song about cheating. Then came Hank Williams’s oldie, “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” A subtle pattern was beginning to emerge.

“I love this song,” the blonde said. A different blonde, not the perky young thing from the front desk. This woman was taller, older, and fuller-figured. She wore a skirt and a sort of cowgirl blouse with piping and embroidery on it.

“Old Hank,” Keller said, to say something.

“I’m June.”

“Call me Tex.”

“Tex!” Her laughter came in a sort of yelp. “When did anybody ever call you Tex, tell me that?”

“Well, nobody has,” he admitted, “but that’s not to say they never will.”

commentary: This might be the perfect short story. It is certainly the only one I have ever read that seems to be composed of equal parts Country & Western song and Greek tragedy: it embodies both of those genres.
Everything had happened exactly the way it had had to happen. Encountering June in the Meet ’n’ Cheat, running into Hobie at the Burnout Bar. He could no more have avoided those meetings than he could have kept himself from buying the paperback western novel that had set the tone for everything that followed.
Lawrence Block is a giant of crime-writing, he seems incapable of writing a bad book. I’m not usually a fan of short stories but this book could almost convert me. Keller, the protagonist, is a hit man: a paid professional killer who commits murders to order. By the end of the book I was half in love with him, and entirely forgiving of his minor sins, and  I was rooting for him throughout. That is quite an achievement…

The stories are also very funny:
There was a tavern across the street, a perfect vantage point, but one look inside made it clear to Keller that he couldn’t spend time there without calling attention to himself, not unless he first got rid of his tie and jacket and spent twenty minutes rolling around in the gutter.

“Keller, I’ve been keeping your secrets just about as long as you’ve had secrets to keep. And you’re asking me—”  
“I wasn’t exactly asking you. What do they call it when you don’t really expect an answer?"   
“Prayer,” she said.  
“Rhetorical,” he said.

The individual stories, which do definitely have an overall arc, appeared separately in magazines such as Playboy. The whole effect is of something much longer ago than 1998, partly because of the revolution in communications since they were first published: information is hard to come by, phone calls and messages are problematic, but on the other hand Keller can be off-grid, travelling around in the USA leaving no fingerprints (metaphoric or real) and paying cash while giving a false name.

But none of that matters. You can never tell where the stories are going: there might be a long disquisition on stamp-collecting (most informative), a quote from Dr Johnson, or a joke about corsets from Corsica. The stories enthralled me. Lawrence Block completely removed the disapproval I would certainly have for a contract killer in real life…

The Western shirts are from a Sears catalogue.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Murder in the Atlantic by John Dickson Carr

Also published as:

Nine – and Death Makes Ten

& Murder in the Submarine Zone

Originally published as a  Carter Dickson book – on the blog I always combine all this author’s works under the name John Dickson Carr

published 1940

Murder in the Atlantic 3

[First night at sea: a transatlantic voyage in the early days of WW2, from New York to England]

Mr George A Hooper said… “Look at the Queen Murder in the Atlanticof Sheba!”

This marked the entrance of Estelle Zia Bey.

She had committed the blunder of dressing for dinner on the first night out, But no doubt she had done it deliberately. Mr Hooper’s whisper had been one of awe.

Mrs Zia Bey (confound that name, thought Max) wore an evening-gown cut so low in front as to make the modest Mr Hooper mutter under his breath. It reflected back in the innumerable mosaic mirrors in the dining-saloon. It showed off her superb shoulders, of the same soft golden-brown colour as her face. No wrinkles were visible now. She swung a black handbag from a wrist-strap. The ship rolled sharply as she came into the room, and a less steady-pinned woman would have gone skidding and scuttling into a pillar, clutching without dignity at her skirts.

But she only laughed at the steward who hurried to assist her.

Murder in the Atlantic 2

commentary: This ship, The Edwardic, is in extreme danger: it is travelling across the North Atlantic in January 1940, carrying munitions for the beleaguered British forces – ‘half a million pounds’ worth of high explosive, with four Lockheed bombers on the top deck.’ There is a constant threat from German sumbarines. Only a handful of very important passengers has been allowed onto the ship - and as this is a John Dickson Carr book, there will be at least one victim and one murderer among them, and the crime will be impossible. In this particular case, the murderer has left fingerprints behind – yet they do not match with those of anyone on the ship…

The crime plot is immensely gripping, and completely fooled me. With that small number of characters (the hundreds of crew on board can happily be eliminated, as in all the best murder stories) you wouldn’t think it was possible to come up with something quite as astonishing yet satisfying as his solution. The experienced reader is clocking up ideas and possibilities, but the true story came out of nowhere, and yet had been perfectly fairly clued in retrospect. A tour de force.

I had some questions about the later revelations, but I am prepared to accept Carr’s (referenced and footnoted) assertions, though I understood the point of one of them a good chapter or so before others did: that’s the best I can say for myself.

I was interested and surprised to read that everyone had to have a gasmask on board the ship.

The world off the ship is in a parlous state, and the constant threat from the enemy adds a curious and eerie atmosphere to the book, and it is most convincingly done - Carr made a very similar voyage himself (without the murder) so he knew whereof he wrote – but the question of what you wear to dinner is still very important, and everyone on board is far too busy snubbing, offending and criticizing each other to worry too much about the war…

My friend Sergio over at Tipping my Fedora said:
Go out and get this one – it’s an absolute classic.
So I did, and he was not wrong.

I was somewhat wary because one of my least favourite books by JDC is the dreadful Blind Barber, also involving murder on a transatlantic voyage, but this one (under whatever name) truly is top rank.

There are many other John Dickson Carr books all over the blog. 

The white dress is from 1938, Kristine’s photostream.

The black gown is the Ladies’ Home Journal recommendation for an evening dress for your travel wardrobe.

The young woman in more casual shipboard wear is from the National Library of Australia.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Party by Elizabeth Day

published 2017

The Party 1

[Narrator Martin has won a scholarship to a public school]

My mother ignored the approved outfitters and uniform suppliers, seeking out instead the cheaper bargains in charity shops. As a result, my school jumpers were always faded and my PE shorts were never white enough and the Aertex shirts The Party2had immoveable off-yellow stains under each armpit. The smell of other people’s sadness lingered in the threads.

To this day I have a profound aversion to second-hand clothes. I can’t abide the new trend for ‘vintage’ outfits, the nipped-in 50s dresses sported by overweight ladies who live in east London running Scandinavian coffee shops and the rolled-up chinos favoured by bearded hipsters who work in digital marketing. I have a minimal wardrobed but I invest in key, tailored pieces that last. Although I can’t really afford it, I have my suits made to measure by Ben’s tailor, purely for the pleasure of knowing no-one else has ever shrugged their shoulders into my jacket.

commentary: A highly enjoyable book: the perfect holiday read. It has a lot of features that you recognize – an unreliable narrator (I loved the amazon reviewer who called him ‘a psychopathic Adrian Mole’), an unequal friendship between a golden boy and someone much less attractive, the framing device where we know something terrible happened at the Party of the title, a sour look at the class system and the powerful glitterati in modern Britain. The timeframe jumps about, and you have to check each chapter to see when and where it takes place, and who is the narrator.

All this was very familiar, but for me that meant I just settled in to enjoy it. Of course you don’t warm to the main character, and you know that the aristocratic Ben (how did he get to stand for Parliament with his title?) is shallow and worthless, you can even guess what Martin’s hold is on the family. But it was great fun to watch it all unfold with many a wince-and cringe-making moment. Lucy – really the only major female character – was very intriguing, and I thought deserved more of her own story. The scene where she interrupts a discussion of modern American literature was the most biting bit of social satire in the book.

The two main men meet at school, where effortlessly successful Ben helps out the unpopular scholarship boy Martin. Their friendship continues on through the rest of their lives until, in middle age, the party of the title brings its own showdown. There are homoerotic undertones in their relationship, though it is never clear that Martin has any good points. Initially I thought Ben was just good-natured enough to be kind to another boy, but nothing in the rest of his portrayal makes that seem likely. Was Martin in fact terribly sexy? Perhaps.

The scenario has echoes of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, Charles & Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, the works of Alan Hollinghurst, even The Great Gatsby, but has its own intricacies and plot turns. And as with Highsmith, how very interesting to get a female take on this storyline.

The picture of the schoolboys is from the New South Wales archives.

The suit poster is from Next, a very fine retailer but probably not where Martin or Ben get their clothes from.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Dress Down Sunday: The Loved and Envied by Enid Bagnold

published 1951


Loved and Envied 1

According to the habits of the household he was sitting in Ruby’s bedroom while she dressed. Miranda was there too, and the little dog, now nine, was coiled up on the ragged silk of the old Empire chair. The maid, told to come into the room, stared at them astonished. The young master, in a dressing-gown, was in the window seat, and the young lady, looking very well, was fully dressed. But the lady… sat before her looking -glass painting her lashes with a brush. If the peasant’s yellow skin could have responded it would have reddened when Ruby turned to speak to her, for there she was in the room with a young man and wore a lace garment that hardly concealed her breasts.

Loved and Envied 2

commentary: Enid Bagnold has featured on the blog for her children’s classic, National Velvet, which I like but did not adore, and found completely unreadable when I was a child. She has a very strange style, one that keeps tripping the reader up – though this book was actually an easier read than National Velvet. I have also read a biography of Bagnold in which she came over as a truly horrible person.

The Loved and Envied was commissioned on the back of National Velvet (book, 1935, film 1945, both wildly successful) but wasn’t quite what was hoped for. It’s a novel based on the character of the celebrated beauty and socialite Lady Diana Cooper – another one who doesn’t seem half as charming to modern eyes as she was to her contemporaries. Lady DC was a great friend of two blog stalwarts: Evelyn Waugh (she is the original of Julia Stitch) and Nancy Mitford (she is the original of Lady Leone) and features endlessly in their letters. There is much from her life in the book, and also much from Bagnold’s own life.

The novel is about Ruby: a very rich and well-connected woman who lives outside Paris with her husband. She is in her 50s: is perhaps her beauty starting to fade? She has always been loved and adored, as in the book’s title, and men fell in love with her. Her relationship with her long-time husband, Gynt, is uneasy. She has failed in her relationship with her daughter Miranda. She has a circle of friends and admirers.

The book is following the story through in the 1950s - though it is sometimes very hard to remember that, the book seems set at least 20 years earlier. And although the clothes are good and interesting, would a young woman really be wearing ‘striped silk muslin, long and cloudy, a Renoir-thought of a summer girl on a beach’ in 1950? The New Look had been in place for several years by then… (Daniel, care to comment? You'll probably find me a young woman dressed in exactly that...)

As the main plot proceeds, the book repeatedly dives off into a long chapter telling the backstory of some character. This was plainly planned and a feature, but it annoyed me, and I found several of the stories dull, empty and finally irrelevant. Much of it was quite unpleasant, and no-one was very happy.

There is a lot of heavy-handed advice to the daughter from her mother as she tries to mend their relationship: advice on how to get men.
‘The way you look, Miranda, is hungry, is fatal. You must have a secret life! Then they want to share it; then they want to rob you of it. Smile – as though you had a lover already! Pride. It makes them envious to see you proud!’
Miranda also has a makeover session with a charming gay dress designer, who also gives her advice on men:
‘Keep quiet. Look right: keep quiet. Look like a packet of mystery done up for a birthday and don’t spoil it by being silly.’
And then is pushed into a very odd plot turn. Usually I love makeover scenes – poor plain Miranda is having her life changed – but this one rather left me cold. As did the whole book.

I liked the fact that it was about older people and their lives loves and passions – that is still unusual, although I didn’t take to being told that 53 was absolutely ancient. But it was snobbish, and tiresome, and jumped around too much for me.

However, I may be unfair and uncharitable – for a quite different view go to visit Barb over at Leaves and Pages - she really liked this book, and I read it on her recommendation. And the book contains many features that I often enjoy, perhaps it caught me on an off day….

Misia at her dressing table - Felix Valotton from Google Art Project.

A Young Woman Undressing in an Interior by Delphin Enjolras – from the Athenaeum site.