Friday, 13 January 2012
Reading and writing remembering in the New Year
I've been re-reading Nancy Mitford (you'll see why, in the Closet Thinker that I've posted, below), along with Alice Munroe's brilliant short story collection, The Love of a Good Woman, which is even better than I remembered it, and Five Sisters by James Fox (equally absorbing, and with some overlap of subject matter -- the lives and loves of women -- but also satisfyingly different, as a narrative non-fiction history of a dynasty that was almost too odd to invent).
More sisters on my mind -- you'll see I've been thinking about the Bronte corsets at the Parsonage in Haworth -- and my own sister, as always. The story about Ruth's misdiagnosis and death of breast cancer is more complicated than its reporting; but then isn't that generally the case in the messiness of real life? If I have learnt anything from Ruth's death, it is that life is precious, and all the more so for the randomness that can shape our journeys. Ruth cherished the little pleasures, as well as her great loves (and she had a huge capacity to love, and be loved), yet was also forced into confronting the worst of all losses -- to leave those who she loved, when she was far too young to die. Many years have passed since her death, but still, she seems so close; to me, at least, as if the apparent distance between us (that of the dead and the living) is not impossible to navigate. Whenever I write, she is somewhere in my mind -- as the writer whose courage and openness I admire and applaud, as well a beloved friend and sister, and the reader who understands where we both came from, even though she has traveled far ahead of me. Ruth knew the power of tiny details, as well as big ideas; of how our daily lives (what we wear, eat, read, discuss) forms a tapestry that continues to be threaded and sewn over many years. I once believed that death put an end to that weaving; yet it seems not to now. Here, then, are some small patches of an unfinished tapestry...
Closet Thinker: January 1st
We all know that Marilyn Monroe declared she wore nothing but Chanel No.5 to bed, but perhaps she might have been happier the morning after the night before in soft cotton pyjamas? In my experience, they are a welcome consolation against the harsh realities of January, as long as they are not made of nylon; for I still remember those sudden shocks of static electricity from childhood, induced by the synthetic peach nightgowns that my maternal grandmother bought as Christmas presents for all the female members of the family.
My mother generally donated these flounced nighties to the dressing-up-box – my sister and I wore them to Narnia and back again – and like her, I would rather sleep in plain cotton than frilly acrylic. As a look, however, this can need fine-tuning; even the grandest of Nancy Mitford’s aristocrats loses her dignity appearing thus in Love in a Cold Climate: ‘Lady Montdore cut rather a comic figure drinking strong tea in bed among masses of lace pillows, her coarse grey hair frizzed out and wearing what appeared to be a man’s striped flannel pyjama top under a feathered wrap.’
Mitford always had a sharp eye for these details, perhaps because she came of age in an era when pyjama parties were the milieu of the fashionable Bright Young People. (‘Dearest Old Bottom,’ she wrote to her brother Tom in 1928, upon escaping from the conventional formalities of English family life in the countryside, ‘My dear this visit is being a perfect orgy, if only you were here you don’t know what you’ve missed We haven’t once been to bed before 2, pyjama parties every night…’). Hence the parade of nightwear in Mitford’s first novel, ‘Highland Fling’: ‘Sally looked lovely in crepe-de-chine pyjamas, over which she wore a tweed coat lined with fur. Lady Prague was also wrapped in a tweed coat over a linen nightdress and a Shetland wool cardigan.’
Mitford’s scene was set in a draughty Scottish castle, but her world was not entirely removed from that of Coco Chanel in silk pyjamas, entertaining the Duke of Westminster and Winston Churchill at her Riviera villa, the epitome of apparently easy chic. ‘Coco dines at home in printed pyjamas,’ ran the Vogue caption to Christian Berard’s illustration of Chanel in 1937, ‘[with] jewels, striped linen, flannel jacket…’ Perhaps the closest we can get to that fantasy landscape nowadays is within the pages of the Toast catalogue, inhabited by tousled beauties in velvet dressing gowns; either that, or escape to bed to read the glorious stories of Nancy Mitford herself.
Closet Thinker: January 8th
Within the archives of the Bronte Parsonage Museum are several tiny corsets, belonging to the sisters, and when you see them on a winter’s day, as I have done, it seems believable that Anne, Emily and Charlotte died young because of a combination of cold, consumption and constriction. It is the memory of these corsets that prompts me to suggest that January might not be the best month to squeeze oneself into the modern equivalent – now known as ‘shapewear’ – given that we are already tortured by dismal weather, indigestion, and winter viruses. Breathing freely is therefore the only sensible option…
Not that I’m averse to a new set of underwear at this time of year, as long as it’s not too tight; anything that provides a small pleasure in these, the most depressing weeks. Having recently interviewed two very chic women – L’Wren Scott and Carine Roitfeld – I was struck by how practical they were on the subject of underpinnings. Scott (who designs for the voluptuous Christina Hendricks, amongst others) remarked that big knickers were unnecessary with a properly fitted dress – ‘you don’t need control underwear to do the work of a zip, that’s what the dress is for’ – although she also recommended an excellent bra from John Lewis. And Roitfeld, the former editor in chief of French Vogue, proclaimed the cheering effect of black tights (hers are from Fogal, sheer and seamed at the back): ‘something that makes me happy now is a pair of new tights – it’s not so expensive, not like buying a Dolce & Gabbana dress or a Dior bag – this is nearer to yourself, nearer to your skin, something that makes you more sensuous, more voluptuous, more woman…’
There’s nothing like a conversation with Carine Roitfeld to make you want to rush out and buy French lingerie – she wears the highly desirable Carine Gilson (stocked at net-a-porter, though a trip to the Paris boutique in Rue de Grenelle would be a delight). Simone Perele is also good for quintessentially Parisian pieces, at slightly more affordable prices; I’ve got my eye on the charmingly named Invisi’bulles control briefs, that look less dominatrix than gossamer.
Meanwhile, I remain a fan, like everyone else, of stalwart M&S underwear, particularly the Ultimate Magic Secret Support Tights (not such a secret after all, given that quarter of a million pieces were sold in the run-up to Christmas). True, they’re not quite as glamorous as Fogal seamed stockings, but they do the trick for me, gently smoothing over a full stomach. Here’s to a comfortably happy new year…