Friday, 23 November 2012

Corsets and Sable Trim

If I can't find some food in a book, then a passage that is full of details about clothes is the next best thing. As
I mentioned before, (is this blog getting like a broken record?), I always liked Women in Love; even though Lawrence seems to be dreadfully out of fashion these days, no-one could deny he was good on frocks and stockings.

Now, I'm reading The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, and I'm grateful to him for supplying me with another nice piece of literary dress-ups, in the shape of his description of his Viennese relative, Emmy and her fashion routine. Reading it makes me realise how truly lazy I am - I sometimes decide not to go for a swim because it's too much trouble to change from jeans and a shirt into bathers and back again. Emmy would look at me with scorn:

"Putting on a hat to go to the races, with lots of little curls pinned one by one to the underside of the hat's wide brim, took forty minutes. To put on the long embroidered ballgown with a hussar's jacket, intricate with frogging, took for ever. There was dressing up for parties, for shopping, dinner, visiting, riding to the Prater and balls. Each hour in this dressing-room was a calibration of corset, dress, gloves and hat with the day, the shrugging-off of one self and the lacing into another. She has to be sewn into some dresses, Anna, kneeling at her feet, producing thread, needle, thimble from the pocket of her apron. Emmy has furs, sable trimming to a hem, an arctic fox around her neck in one photograph, a six-foot stole of bear looped over a gown in another. An hour could pass with Anna fetching different gloves.

Emmy dresses to go out. It is winter 1906 in a Viennese street and she is talking to an archduke. They are smiling as she hands him some primroses. She is wearing a pin-striped costume: an A-line skirt with a deep panel at the hem cut across the grain and a matching close-cut Zouave jacket. It is a walking costume. To dress for that walk down Herrengasse would have taken an hour and a half: pantalettes, chemise in fine batiste or crepe de Chine, corset to nip in the waist, stockings, garters, button boots, skirt with hooks up the plaquette, then either a blouse or a chemisette - so no bulk on her arms - with a high-stand collar and lace jabot, then the jacket done up with a false front, then her small purse - a reticule - hanging on a chain, jewellery, fur hat with striped taffeta bow to echo the costume, white gloves, flowers."

7 comments:

  1. Meanwhile, in another part of Vienna, Sigmund Freud is trying to figure out Women. "It's like something is making them hysterical," he says to himself. "It's as if something is driving them seriously nuts. But what? I can't put my finger on it. Tip of my tongue. Hmm." Chews cigar, tickles beard, ponders Ineffable Mystery.

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    1. My children used to go to the French Lycee in Vienna and when I'd pick them up we'd go and stand at the tram stop in the street where Freud had his consulting rooms. Below his rooms (now a museum) there is a cafe called the Freud Cafe. My husband thought it was very funny because each day, it said in the window, they had Happy Hour in the Freud Cafe, between 5 and 6 0'clock. Someone I know insists that all Freud's theories derive from the fact that he was a cocaine addict and utterly deranged, make of that what you will

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    2. I should add that we stood at the tram stop not out of a rather misguided sense of respect for Freud - or for that particular tram stop - but because it was the closest one to the school with a tram that took us home.

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  2. Terribly military, all these jackets of hers.

    It is said that the custom of the cinq-a-sept (Happier Hours?) occurred because such heavily dressed women were then in the dressing rooms, in between the afternoon clothes and the evening clothes.

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    1. She had a Marie Antoinette as shepherdess outfit too.

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  3. What the frog is frogging? It sounds obscene. I really hope it's this. A military jacket with such frogging would be useful, surely.

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    1. Frogging is a sort of ropey stuff that is sewn on the front of things and forms itself into buttonholes as well - at least I think that's what it is. I also believe it is seen on the front of Hussars' uniforms. Sorry to disappoint.

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