Nowadays, most people seem to despise DH Lawrence’s Women in Love, but a lingering memory of the Brangwen sisters' brightly coloured stockings has left me with a soft spot for the book. No author could be all bad, I thought, if he let his female characters get about with legs clothed in scarlet and emerald-green.
Looking through the book again the other day though – when I was trying to see if Lawrence described food at all - I discovered that stockings weren’t the half of it. The book is actually a disguised fashion parade more than it is anything else. Ken Russell made us think the Graeco-Roman wrestling between Rupert Birkin and Gerald on the Crich family hearth rug was the focal point of the novel, but he was wrong, I’ve realised – it was really just a ploy Lawrence used to distract us from his true, shameful obsession.
The first hint of the novel’s secret world comes with Gudrun’ s first appearance. ‘She wore a dress of dark-blue silky stuff, with ruches of blue and green linen lace in the neck and sleeves; and she had emerald-green stockings,’ Lawrence tells us, adding that she teamed these items with a ‘large grass-green velour hat’ and a ‘full soft coat, of a strong blue colour’. Mrs Crich turns up next and is given a ‘sac coat of dark blue silk’ and a ‘blue silk hat’. Hermione Roddice follows, in ‘a dress of silky, frail velvet, of pale yellow colour’ and ‘shoes and stockings ...of brownish grey, like the feathers on her hat.’ Shortly afterwards, Hermione makes a quick change, returning in ‘a large, old cloak of greenish cloth,’ with ‘a raised pattern of dull gold. The high collar and the inside of the cloak’ is ‘lined with dark fur.’ Beneath the cloak she has ‘a dress of fine lavender-coloured cloth, trimmed with fur, and her hat was close-fitting, made of fur and of the dull, green-and-gold figured stuff.’
And really from here on in its open slather when it comes to frocks. Lawrence hurls outfits at us down the catwalk so fast and furiously that I had quite a hard time keeping up. I’ve done my best to list each of his haute couture creations. Here is a list of the ones I got:
Gudrun wears variously: 1) a dress ‘of green poplin, with a loose coat above it, of broad, dark-green and dark-brown stripes.’ Her hat for this outfit was ‘pale, greenish straw, the colour of new hay, and it had a plaited ribbon of black and orange, the stockings were dark green, the shoes black’; 2) a dress of white crepe and a hat of soft grass ‘with a sash of brilliant black and pink and yellow colour wound broadly round her waist, and she had pink silk stockings, and black and pink and yellow decoration on the brim of her hat, weighing it down a little. She carried also a yellow silk coat over her arm ’ ; 3) 'blue with woollen yellow stockings, like the Bluecoat boys.’ ; 4) ‘startling colours, like a macaw ... And her ankles were pale yellow, and her dress a deep blue’; 5) a ‘soft blue dress, and her stockings were of dark red’; 6) a ‘blue, bright dress [that] fluttered in the wind, her thick scarlet stockings were brilliant above the whiteness’; 7) she was ‘fashionably dressed in blackish-green and silver, her hat was brilliant green, like the sheen on an insect, but the brim was soft dark green, a falling edge with fine silver, her coat was dark green, lustrous, with a high collar of grey fur, and great fur cuffs, the edge of her dress showed silver and black velvet, her stockings and shoes were silver grey.’
As well as the outfits already mentioned, Hermione gets: 1) ‘a dress of prune-coloured silk, with coral beads and coral coloured stockings’; 2) ‘a handsome gown of white lace, trailing an enormous silk shawl blotched with great embroidered flowers, and balancing an enormous plain hat on her head.’
Ursula is not quite so richly provided for by Lawrence, but she still gets 1) a dress of ‘white crepe’ and a hat ‘of soft grass’; 2) a pink hat ‘entirely without trimming and her shoes were dark red, and she carried an orange-coloured coat'; 3) ‘a big soft coat with a collar of deep, soft, blond fur and a soft blond cap of fur. Best of all, she is allowed to show off the House of Lawrence jewellery range: ‘a round opal, red and fiery, set in a circle of tiny rubies ...a rose-shaped, beautiful sapphire, with small brilliants ... a squarish topaz set in a frame of steel, or some other similar mineral, finely wrought.’
Miss Darrington, aka Pussum, is first seen wearing no hat but a ‘loose simple jumper ... strung on a string round her neck ... it was made of rich peach-coloured crepe de chine that hung heavily and softly from her young throat and her slender wrists.’ Later, after she’s eaten some oysters, Lawrence strips her down to ‘a loose dressing-gown of purple silk, tied round her waist'. Finally she appears ‘wearing a curious dress of dark silk splashed and spattered with different colours, a curious motley effect.’
And, lest there be any jealousy from his gentlemen readers on the question of outfits, Lawrence provided a limited but equally exquisite range for them as well. Gerald is portrayed in: 1) ‘a gown of broad-barred, thick black-and-green silk, brilliant and striking ...silk socks ... silk underclothing and silk braces’; 2) ‘a silk wrap of a beautiful bluish colour, with an amethyst hem’; and 3) ‘white, with a black and brown blazer’
What is more, even quite minor characters get full outfits: Halliday wears ‘tweeds and a green flannel shirt, and a rag of a tie, which was just right for him’; Laura Crich wears ‘a stiff embroidered linen dress’; Winifred wears ‘a dress of silvery velvet’ and ‘a dress of black-and-white stripes’; Ursula and Gudrun’s mother is ‘dressed in a summer material of black and purple stripes and [was] wearing a hat of purple straw’ ; the completely incidental daughters of an almost incidental professor wear ‘plain-cut, dark blue blouses and loden skirts’.
What can all this mean? Lawrence is suspected by some to have been a suppressed homosexual and he does go on about loins a fair bit (what exactly are loins by the way – I thought they were the same as buttocks, yet in Lawrence’s mind they appear to be separate things). Could it be though that his interest was purely structural rather than homoerotic ? Was his preoccupation really with how lengths of suiting and swathes of linen would hang on all those limbs he describes in such detail? Perhaps the key to the mystery can be found in the scene in the book when Ursula returns to the family home and finds that there are ‘half-burnt covers of ‘Vogue’ – half-burnt representations of women in gowns –lying under the grate.’ Did something similar really happen – but to Lawrence? Did the real secret he kept from the world - the thing his working-class father could not abide about him – have nothing to do with who he might be attracted to? Was it simply his fascination with Vogue and his longing to work in haute couture?
A funny, sexy, novella in vignettes
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