Great Dresses of Mediocre Literature, Meta-Discussion


Heart of Rachel frontispiece

Reader Lynn is looking for fiction that describes twentieth-century older women and their clothes, which reminded me of the wonderful descriptions of clothes (on women of all ages) in the novels of Kathleen Norris, like this one:

Only the wearers and their dress-makers knew what hours had been spent upon these costumes, what discouraged debates attended their making, what muscular agonies their fitting. Only they could have estimated, and they never did estimate — the time lost over pattern books, the nervous strain of placing this bit of spangled net or that square inch of lace, the hurried trips downtown for samples and linings, for fringes and embroideries and braids and ribbons. The gown that she wore to her own dinner, Mrs. White had fitted in the Maison Dernier Mot, in Paris; — it was an enchanting frock of embroidered white illusion, over pink illusion, over black illusion, under a short heavy tunic of silver spangles and threads. The yoke was of wonderful old lace, and there was a girdle of heavy pink cords, and silver clasps, to match the aigrette that was held by pink and silver cords in Mrs. White's beautifully arranged hair.

Mrs. Burgoyne's gowns, or rather gown, for she wore exactly the same costume to ever dinner, could hardly have been more startling than Santa Paloma found it, had it gone to any unbecoming extreme. Yet it was the simplest of black summer silks, soft and full in the skirt, short-sleeved, and with a touch of lace at the square-cut neck. She arranged her hair in a becoming loose knot, and somehow managed to look noticeably lovely and distinguished, in the gay assemblies. To brighten the black gown she wore a rope of pearls, looped twice about her white throat, and hanging far below her waist; pearls, as Mrs. Adams remarked in discouragement later, that "just made you feel what's the use! She could wear a kitchen apron with those pearls if she wanted to, everyone would know she could afford cloth of gold and ermine!"

From The Rich Mrs. Burgoyne (review here; For a contemporary account of Kathleen Norris, look here).

Do you have a favorite author for descriptions of dress, especially descriptions of twentieth-century dress? (Georgette Heyer is great for Regency dress, at least to read — I have no idea how accurate her depictions are, but I'm sure someone will tell me!) Please leave your recommendations in the comments …

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48 thoughts on “Great Dresses of Mediocre Literature, Meta-Discussion

  1. I don’t have any recommendations, but I can certainly relate to misplacing square inches of (in my case, stretch) lace. I’m loathe to toss any of that stretch lace, especially the hard-to-find scalloped variety.

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  2. Mommy Dressing: A love story, after a fashion . . . . details the torrid life of designer Jo Copeland and her obsession with perfection in dress and life. It was written by her daughter, Lois Gould, and describes Jo’s impeccible fashion taste, but more how she failed as a wife and mother.To quote from the publishers note:Exquisitely written and painfully observant, MOMMY DRESSING tells the story of self-made fashion star Jo Copeland, and the daughter who struggled to please her. Lois Gould paints a mesmerizing picture of the kingdom of movie stars, fashion shows, and steamer trunks her mother ruled, from the viewpoint of an isolated girl acutely conscious that she would never enter that glittering domain.I read this a couple of years ago and it is a great read as well as full of fashion history!

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  3. It is indeed a fascinating book (MOMMY DRESSING). I posted a review of it a few years ago at Amazon. Not sure how much actual detail it has about the way ordinary women dressed, though. It’s about a pretty glam world.

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  4. “Valley of the Dolls” springs to mind, not least because, although clothes are often very important to the plot, there is rarely a detail that dates the book to a specific fashion period. It’s most odd.There is also a very fun blog called “What Claudia Wore” in which the blogger combs old copies of the Baby Sitters Club to find descriptions of the clothes.

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  5. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the clothing specifically in Heyer’s work, but she knows her history.I think it might be more fun to skim books for the clothing descriptions than for the ‘torrid’ scenes!

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  6. There is a deeply moving short story called “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair” in a book by the same name by Jancis M. Andrews. It’s about a terribly lonely young woman who works as a cook in the home of a kindly female employer. The young woman, Ruby, has suffered since childhood from a condition that has made her “grossly obese” (in her mother’s words). In a crucial scene, the story describes in detail so honest and painful as to take your breath away the way Ruby dresses and makes herself up to spend an evening out (her first ever) with a decent man who has made her this generous gesture on her birthday. Also, the story is practically built upon magnificent descriptions of Ruby’s artistry in cooking. These serve as more than colourful detail since through them the author reveals much of who Ruby is. In fact, Jancis Andrews’ use of description to show much about the depth of the characters is phenomenal. I read the story many years ago, yet it remains unforgettably vivid in my mind. I highly recommend this story and its author.

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  7. How about Angela Thirkell? I haven’t read anything recently, but I seem to recall some nice clothing descriptions, and some of her memorable characters are women who are no longer young.

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  8. Yeah Georgette Heyer – she seems to go into more detail on the dandies. Don’t know how accurate, I would bet she is though.Margot

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  9. Am ashamed to report I am QUITE familiar with the oeuvre of trash queen Judith Krantz (not sure if that classifies as “literature”), and that I know for a fact she lovingly and meticulously describes all her characters’ wardrobes. I think Princess Daisy is my favorite, for that. A Schiaparelli evening gown plays a central role in The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark, which is a very entertaining novella set in WWII London. Will try to think of others.

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  10. Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, by Paul Gallico, has lovely descriptions of a British char (cleaning lady) taking care of her clients’ homes, their clothes, and her aspiration to go to Paris for a couture gown. There are terrific descriptions of haute couture–going to the salon, going for fittings, the women and men who work there.

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  11. Lynn, you’ve probably already checked these out, but both Edith Wharton and Henry James included detailed descriptions of dress in their novels. I think James in particular went into rapture over the Worth gowns the women were wearing at a ball, but of course that was a late 19th century ball. I don’t know when he wrote his last novel. Since Wharton was younger, she was still writing novels and stories up until 1937, so she might be a better bet.

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  12. Older woman buys all new clothes for fancy hotel/beach holiday in early 20th century–Aunt Crete’s Emancipation by Grace Livingston Hill. Terribly detailed description of entire wardrobe!!!

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  13. my fabric and women’s-dress-vocabulary grew so much when I started reading Georgette Heyer! “Mom, what is a pelisse? And a cravat? And what exactly is Sprig Muslin??” Her books are so much fun.

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  14. Patrick O’Brian has lovely details of his characters costumes. Sophie’s, Diana’s and Clarissa’s gowns are lovingly evoked, with jewelry! Dresses feature largely in the plots of several books. He also describes the details of the men’s clothing as well; so well you can vividly imagine them. Little Women has many scenes with clothing as plot devices as well.

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  15. Ahhh, what a truly lovely commentary you started Erin! Books and clothes two of my favorite subjects and folks are naming some of my favorites and suggesting some intriguing new ones.I always check romance shelves in bookstores in the hopes that Ms. Heyer has risen from her grave and written another book. So far no luck. I have to content myself with re-reading passages such as:”When Serena presently entered the room, she had changed her walking-dress for a robe of clinging black crape, made high to the throat, and relieved only by a little ruff of goffered lawn. The sombre hue seemed to enhance the whiteness of her skin. ..” (what the heck is goffered lawn anyhow)I tried to read Kathleen Norris on the suggestion of Erin but couldn’t swallow the mediocre story. Maybe I will try again.An interesting early 20th century read somewhat about clothes is “Rose: My Life in Service”. It is the memoirs of Lady Astor’s Lady’s maid and has some details on clothes.

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  16. OMG! I was just going to post here that Judith Krantz’s first book Scruples is a better novel than her follow-up, Princess Daisy…it’s just that the later book discusses vintage clothes more! Wow. Thanks for the link. I’ll have to write a whole book review over at that other blog space now!

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  17. Elizabeth Peters devotes quite a bit of time in her Amelia Peabody mystery/thrillers describing first the highly conventional traveling clothes of a Victorian spinster and then the increasingly practical (and occasionally outlandish), clothing of a female archeologist as the 19th Century begins.Peabody’s clothes are carefully chosen for practicality and decency, but there is ALWAYS a crimson gown.”And in the process I somehow acquired half a dozen new frocks of my own, which I had had no intention of buying. They were not the kind of frocks I would have chosen for myself. One evening dress, which I certainly did not need, was of the most astonishing shade of crimson, with a square neckline cut several inches lower than anything I had ever worn. The skirts were draped back over a bustle, displaying a sequined underskirt. Evelyn chose the fabric and bullied the dressmaker quite as effectively, and much more quietly, then I would have done. I thought the gown quite absurd; it squeezed my waist down to nothing and made my bosom look even more ample than it unfortunately is.”Elizabeth Peters, “Crocodile on the Sandbank”

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  18. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf has a long passage about mending her favorite gown before a party, describing the dress, the designer and the process of fixing it. It contrasts her as an older woman in dark green silk with her youthful self in pink gauze. Clothing plays a major role in that novel.

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  19. D.V., the memoir of Diana Vreeland, is full of asides about fabulous clothes– and how, before the war, she would have three fittings just for a nightgown. Ah, if only we could all be so fabulous!

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  20. Although no-one reads her any more, the early twentieth-century novelist Berta Ruck does lovely frocks: “So I travelled down in expensive seclusion, wearing for the first time one of my new costumes, a real success in thick tobacco-brown silk, with a duck of a little brown hat to match . . . . with a smoky-cream underlining and the trimming–a cream-coloured feathery mount and a knot of dull-pink buds . . . A dream of mine on the way to the office has come true at last; it’s a thick, clover-pink linen suit, with touches of heavy creamy lace in just the right places.” (His Official Fiancee, 1918)”The Disgrace had been her husband’s name for that frock . . . that skimpy scarlet bodice, that unskimped ivory breast . . .the fluttering petal skirts.”She does some bad dresses, too: “Jack confronted a bizarre figure which happened, just then to be passing Miss Robertshaw’s door. Its meagre frame was wrapped in a flannel dressing gown of the type sold at church bazaars in colliery districts. Its grey head was muffled in a saxe-blue chiffon motor-veil. On its feet were mocassins of crimson wool, and under one arm it clutched a pop-eyed Pekingese.” (Both from Money for One, 1928).Of course, she also does food very well:”A piece of rump-steak, as carefully chosen as quotations for chapter-headings in a nineteeth century romance; steak tender as mother’s love, cut three fingers-thick, and by no means well-done; just rosy as an Alpine dawn. Potatoes–to begin with Kitten had planned a bank of snowy, piping-hot potatoes mashed with unstinted butter and a generous tilt of cream. In time she had realized that this might not do full justice to the gravy. Lots of gravy, powerful, rich, and mahogany colored! for this it were better that the potatoes should be plain boiled, floury, blandly absorbent of the delicious sanguine juice.”Harriet Vane’s gold lame wedding dress sticks in my mind, too–square neck and long sleeves, cut rather medievally.Wonderful thread!

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  21. JUST HAD A HORRIBLE THOUGHT. For her project, what is Miss Lynn’s definition of an “older woman”? Brace yourselves, everyone!

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  22. Adriana Trigiani’s novel “Lucia, Lucia” has a wonderful account of a career-minded woman in the 50s who works in the custom dress dept. at B. Altman’s in NY. Fabulous insider account of the end of an era in American fashion.

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  23. Yes, Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night has considerable detail of the dress of female dons at Oxford in the early 20th century, not to mention a great story.

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  24. Wonder if any of you have read Doris Langley Moore? This from ‘Not At Home’ (1948):”On the step was a woman laden with flowers, a wonderfully smart woman with a white cloth coat, a yellow taffeta turban draped in the newest style, and white wedge-heeled shoes as complex as a Chinese puzzle. Her hair was pale gold and her ivory-coloured face suggested rather than achieved the most extraordinary beauty. With a smile of such radiance as lies only in the consciousness of flawless teeth, she extended from amongst the flowers a lemon-coloured suede glove.”Doris was a noted Byron scholar, plus (more pertinently for our purposes) the founder of the Fashion Museum here in the UK, and you can see the facility of the costume curator in her effortless yet perspicacious clothing descriptions. Funny too that the Fashion Museum has a particularly celebrated glove collection, even to this day!

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  25. I don’t have any author suggestions, but the first half of the excerpt’s first paragraph perfectly describes the week before an anime convention… last minute cosplays, for the win! x_x;;

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  26. I enjoyed reading this thread so much this morning that I had to come back after checking out “High Rising” by Angela Thirkell suggested by another of Erin’s anonymous commenters.You All have mentioned so many of my old favorites like Heyer and Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (That lovely early chapter where she stands in her pantaletts and corsets and contemplates her choice of dresses in great detail.The Laura Ingalls Wilder books also describe dresses in great detail as she is usually telling the story of sewing them.Now I have to look into Doris Langley Moore and Berta Ruck. Melynda, thanks for putting in the excerpt. It is a most satisfying description.Thanks Erin and all

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  27. What wonderful descriptions! What springs to my mind is a list of items from a Katherine Anne Porter short novel, Pale Horse, Pale Rider. The character, Miranda, has recovered from a near-fatal bout of influena during WWI. She is writing a list of items she needs: “One lipstick, medium, one ounce flask Bois d’Hiver perfume, one pair of gray suede gauntlets without straps, two pair gray sheer stockings without clocks–” for some reason I have never forgotten those gloves and stockings. I suppose these items represent a return to living.

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  28. Georgette Heyer’s clothing descriptions were as accurate as her historical ones. She truly researched everything about the Regency period. She also wrote an authoritative history on John of Lancaster, though it was never finished before she died. Jane Aiken Hodge, who also writes great descriptive novels, wrote a wonderful book about her. For those who are interested her are some websites–http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgette_Heyerhttp://www.georgette-heyer.com/who.html

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  29. Wonderful thread, indeed! I have some treats in store after reading the above.I am very fond of the role of clothing in Laurie King’s A Monstrous Regiment of Women, the 2nd in her series of Russell-Holmes mysteries. Mary Russell, an orphaned teenager, meets the retired Sherlock Holmes early in the last century, becomes his apprentice, and marries him between novels #2 and #3. In the first novel she rarely wears a dress, but in the 2nd, as she reaches her majority and attains control over her very large inheritance, she decides it’s time for adult clothing. She purchases one fairly extensive, somewhat glam RTW wardrobe to disguise herself in an attempt to catch the bad guys, but she also orders a bespoke wardrobe from her mother’s cousins (who happen to have one of the best dressmaking establishments in London), though she can hardly stand to be measured or to stand still for fittings.She has a nasty scar on one shoulder where she was shot in the 1st novel, so she can only marvel at the clever evening gown they design for her:”This dress, though–as a piece of pure engineering, it was fascinating; as a piece of evening wear, even in its present incomplete state, it transformed the padded torso on which it hung. High on the right shoulder, it dropped down to expose the left and continued down and yet farther down, the fabric barely meeting at the waist before it began a slit up the left side, where the hem angled down in a mirror image of the bodice line. The ice blue silk made it aloof–in any warmer colour, it would have been an incitement to riot.I gulped, smiled feebly at Mrs. Elf, declined her eager invitation for me to try it on, and turned to the other two half-formed outfits.”Clothing is an important metaphor throughout the novel as she adjusts in fits and starts to this new clothing, as well as to adulthood. Simultaneously, she begins to recognize her new and very grownup feelings for Holmes.It’s all quite delicious. Of course clothing and costume descriptions always provide great detail and colour in any Russell-Holmes mystery because of the frequent need for disguise. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  30. I’m a regular reader, and this is my first ever comment, hi! First off, my Amazon wishlist has gained quite a few additions as a result of this thread, so thank you everyone! I’m wondering if Lynn wants descriptive passages of ‘older’ women’s clothing for research reasons, or simply for pleasure. You’ve got to be cautious about any works set in previous periods, no matter how well informed the author claims to be. My university tutor, a renowned dress historian, used to make us laugh by telling us about one of her former students who cited Georgette Heyer’s work as evidence. The clear message was – don’t! Authors addressing their own period/era are likely to be much more reliable and authentic in their descriptions. I suppose I’m stating the obvious, sorry! Most of the books I am thinking of seem to focus on young women and their dress (Beverley Nichols’ Self, published in 1922, has plenty) but I’ve recently read Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day by Winifred Watson, first published in 1938. The principal character is a dowdy middle aged governess whose encounter with a flamboyant and beautiful actress transforms her life. There’s plenty of clothing descriptions, although I can’t check right now because I’ve passed it on to Mum. You can get it from Persephone Books online. There’s a recent film of it, which I really must seek out.

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  31. L. M. Montgomory (of Anne of Green Gables fame) was fond of describing the clothing of her female characters of all ages. Who can forget puffed sleeves and skimpy wincey? ๐Ÿ˜‰ The last book of the Anne series takes place in the twentieth century (WWI era) and she wrote several others based in the early decades of the century as well, Mistress Pat, A Tangled Web, etc. If you want women of the latter half of the century, female Suspense writers also loved to describe clothing. Isabelle Holland, Victoria Holt (some are 20th century, but not all of them), and others of that genre.

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  32. Laurie Colwin’s always described her characters’ style beautifully. Plus her books are a delight to read.Here’s an excerpt from her novel “Family Happiness”:”Her silvery-gold hair was cut into an Eton crop, and the clothes she favored were a stylish edition of what a girl who went to a French convent school might wear: a black cape, a gray jumper, and a starched white blouse. There were diamond earrings in her ears, and on her feet she wore a pair of sude brogues.”

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  33. How about Philip K Dick’s Ubik? Yes, it’s science fiction, but the descriptions of clothing definitely add to the atmosphere.

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  34. Mistress of Mellyan – Victoria Holt. The main character is on the young side, but there are a number of older helper/rivals

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  35. Check out Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and The Blind Assassin. I just finished reading Cat’s Eye, and there are some hilarious, in-depth passages regarding the main character, an “older” artist, and her search for what to wear to the opening of a retrospective of her work.

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  36. Has anyone read “The Clothes on their Backs” by Linda Grant? She’s the Brit who writes The Thoughtful Dresser blog.FYI: an article that mentions Liberty plans to reinvigorate their textile presentation:www.livingcreatively.com.au/current_issue/issue_6/creative_uncovered/circle_of_friendsCheers!

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  37. They are not great descriptions and the writing is generally bad too but my earliest memories of clothing descriptions came from the 1930 versions of the Nancy Drew books. We had about 20 of them that had belonged to my mother and her sisters as they were growing up and I read them as a small child. Nancy always wore frocks and pumps and cloche hats. Sometimes she wore “stout boots” when hiking. I think the clothes were described just enough that I could fill in the rest with imagination. I loved that plucky, titan haired sleuth. And her dresses.

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  38. Ah, the best part of the Nancy Drew movie starring Emma Roberts was her dresses! (I hated that they made Nancy such a caricature though.)The novel Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day had lovely descriptions of 1930s evening gowns.

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