Draped in despair but keeping up appearances
There’s no shame in being interested in fashion; clothes define us to others, writes Linda Grant
THE last complete sentence my mother uttered before her death was said in a whisper, her hand shakily pointing towards my sister’s neck: ‘‘ I like your necklace.’’ Following this utterance her speech centre failed, then everything else failed, and she died.
I grew up in a family where appearances mattered. My grandparents on both sides were Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, decanted from a remote area of Polish farmland into the English class system, and they believed in a series of maxims, such as, ‘‘ The only thing worse than being skint is looking as if you’re skint’’, and most significantly, ‘‘ Only the rich can afford cheap shoes’’.
So I have never taken to the idea that clothes, shoes, handbags, hairdressing, manicures are part of the realm of the superficial, the trivial. That the high- minded woman should care little for what she wears. For we are clothed almost 24 hours of the day and, like it or not, we are looked at and judged. It came to me a few years ago that you cannot have depths without surfaces, it’s a physical impossibility, and how the two cohere is what makes life interesting. There shouldn’t be shame in being interested in fashion.
Clothes define us to others. A woman perennially in a tracksuit and a bulky coat, with unwashed hair and a face only touched by soap and water, sends a signal whether she means to or not. It says, don’t look at me. She may not want to be looked at because she is depressed, or she may hate her own body or be just too hardpressed with family responsibilities to put herself first. In some cultures such behaviour is unimaginable and unforgivable. My cousin, coming round from a mastectomy in a hospital in France, was handed a compact and lipstick by the nurse. ‘‘ Courage, madame,’’ the nurse ordered. For in France, knowing how to dress, not just knowing how to be fashionable, is taught to girls by their mothers, as necessary a piece of growing up as learning how to cook.
Sitting writing this, I am wearing my habitual writing clothes: black jeans and a cashmere sweater. I have four pairs of identical black jeans and three cashmere sweaters in different colours. They allow me to operate in a neutral zone. I don’t have to think about what to wear when I get up in the morning before sitting down to write. But already I know what I will wear later, when I go out to meet some friends on a cold, sunny, blue, winter’s day in London. A new black dress and a new purple jacket. How do I know what to wear? Because there is something in that colour purple ( which goes with my red hair) which gives me confidence.
I set out two years ago to write a novel, The Clothes on Their Backs, in which clothes mattered; not merely fashion, but the clothes that a wartime slave labourer wears when he is marched off from his home, the tattered remnants of those suits when he returns four years later, and the flashy garments he purchases years later when, unscrupulously, he has become rich. And the way expensive clothes give to a woman who has been beaten and racially abused a means to hold her head high again.
There are novelists who never describe what a character is wearing; their fiction might as well be populated by members of a nudist colony or, as if in some avant- garde stage production, identical bleached linen shifts. Other writers struggle to express something about clothing, reaching wildly for the same metaphors they would use to describe the landscape: ‘‘ She came towards me in a garment the colour of the underside of a heron’s wing.’’
Writers of great literature have been surprisingly generous with their accounts of what their characters are wearing. The Wife of Bath riding to Canterbury, depicted by Chaucer, is in red stockings and new shoes. Hamlet, the first existentialist, wears black, of course. The 18thcentury novelist Samuel Richardson goes to great lengths to describe the outfits of his eponymous heroine, Clarissa: a pale primrose morning gown with a recurring silver and gold pattern of violets, accessorised with diamond earrings, blue satin buckled shoes and black velvet gloves.
Marcel Proust, who terrifies many with his 12- volume novel of French introspection, turns out to be full of descriptions of frocks. Only Jane Austen, in a literary career spent documenting the marriage prospects of Regency young ladies, says hardly a word about what they wear to the ball and in general disparages any undue interest in dress. It’s a shame because, as the children’s author Noel Streatfeild writes: ‘‘ A new dress is a great help under all circumstances.’’
My father’s eldest brother, always a natty dresser, paid extra to have his initials blocked in gold in the sweatband of his homburg hats. He knew no one other than him could see them. But with that hat on his head, he gave himself selfrespect, and was respected by others. So what that he was born in a village with one muddy main street? So what that English was not his first language? He walked forth like a prince, his step confident on the Manchester pavements. He knew that clothes indeed maketh the man. Linda Grant is the author of The Clothes on Their Backs, published this month by Virago. She will be speaking at Adelaide Writers Week and at events in Melbourne, March 3- 7. See Review next Saturday for Stella Clarke’s review of Linda Grant’s book.