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 Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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