Thursday, 26 September 2013

Elnora's dress and other stories

Three scenes involving clothes from (old) favourite books.

1) Elnora finds herself without the requisite white dress for graduation so a friend, known as the Bird Woman, helps her out:

She snatched up a creamy lace yoke with long sleeves … Elnora slipped into it, and the Bird Woman began smoothing out wrinkles and sewing in pins. Next … she caught up a white silk waist with low neck and elbow sleeves, and Elnora put it on … the Bird Woman loosened the sleeves and pushed them to a puff on the shoulders … Next came a soft white silk dress skirt of her own. By pinning the waist-band quite four inches above Elnora’s, the Bird Woman could secure a perfect Empire sweep …

This all sounds lovely, but completely baffling. I know what an Empire line dress looks like but there seem to be several dresses and at least two sets of sleeves here; how does it all fit together?
The words are so evocative though that it doesn’t matter. I get the picture.
From A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter

2) Seventeen-year-old Olivia is given a bolt of glorious flame-coloured silk to be made into her first evening dress, for her first dance. The local dressmaker, genteel spinster Miss Robinson, suggests:

‘Have the draiping on one side only and caught here’ – she prodded Olivia’s left hip – ‘in a graiceful bow. That ’ud take off from your hips.’
‘And a flower. A big silver rose – or something.’ Olivia woke up, clearly seeing a silver spray on flame-colour silk.’

Sadly, the dress fails to live up Olivia’s hopes and dreams:

Uneven hem; armholes too tight; and the draping – when Olivia looked at the clumsy lumpish pointless draping a terrible boiling-up, a painful constriction from chest to forehead started to scorch and suffocate her.
‘It simply doesn’t fit anywhere … ’

What woman could read that and not feel Olivia’s pain?
From Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

3) The Provincial Lady is on holiday in France with her husband and two children.

Discover that Robin is wearing last available pair of shorts and that these are badly torn, which necessitates visit to Dinard to take white shorts to cleaners and buy material with which to patch grey ones.

Spare a thought for her as you fill the washing-machine with your children’s brightly coloured disposable clothing.
From The Provincial Lady Goes Further by E M Delafield

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

'In those days'

I write fiction, short stories usually. These have been contemporary, but of late I’ve been drawn to write some set in the decades of the twentieth century. It’s partly because I’ve been thinking of all those anniversaries of events that shaped the century, and partly because I get story inspirations from programmes like Long Lost Families and Who Do You Think You Are. Mostly, though, I think it’s a wish to explore the times my parents lived through; and the years I lived in myself, beyond the edge of memory.
I went with work colleagues once on a Mystery Bus Tour around the streets of Edinburgh and then out to the Hawes Inn at South Queensferry for chicken-in-the-basket. The only ‘mystery’ as far as I could see was how had the bus driver got the job as our guide, because he had no grasp of history whatsoever. Everything, from Mary, Queen of Scots to the Second World War, was lumped together as ‘in those days’ and the expression has become a jokey byword in my house for anything historical.
But such flannel will not do in fiction, not if you hope to have it published. Social etiquettes and morals, clothes, food, films, music, domestic arrangements, transport – all the details of ‘those days’ have to be checked out. Thank goodness then for Google, for Facebook friends and for the social history books on my shelves. And since my husband works from home I use him as an information point as well.
To give a flavour of what I’ve been writing recently, here are some questions I’ve thrown at the poor man when he’s come through to the kitchen for lunch.
What kind of car would a well-to-do young man drive in the late 1960s?
Do you know anything about naval ranks? Naval uniforms?
Have you ever heard of deck golf?
What sort of hat would a spivvy type wear in 1932?
How much do you think dolly mixtures were in 1955?
Were Cadbury wrappers always purple?
Did you ever pick up pennies thrown by a bride’s father?
How would you put out a chimney fire?
He hardly ever has the answer but it makes for interesting discussions over a cheese sandwich.